Released on: Generation Terrorists (Album #1) Columbia Records, 10 February 1992
Also on: Motorcycle Emptiness (Single #8) Columbia Records, 1 June 1992
Peak UK Chart Position: #17
Band Ranking: #4
When discussing their early years, the Manics have said that they were able to cope with some of the difficulties and disappointments because they knew that they still had ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ ready to present to the world. This was the song, they felt, that would justify them, demonstrate what they were really capable of.
It is difficult to overstate the centrality that this song has maintained in the band’s discography since it eventually saw release on Generation Terrorists in February 1992. At over six minutes (the longest Manics song then yet released) it is arguably the centrepiece of its parent album; its video is one of the most memorable and distinctive the band have made; and from its origins in early demos to its status as live staple it has remained one of the band’s signature works. Ironically, Wire and Edwards initially “didn’t bother to learn it” and it was not played live for the first six months.
The roots of what would become ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ lie in not one but two early demos made by the band in the pre-‘Suicide Alley’ period, when Miles “Flicker” Woodward was still in the band and Richey Edwards was not. ‘Go, Buzz Baby, Go’ employs the same chord progression and a few lyrics that would later be used in ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ and the song also carries some elements over from ‘Behave Yourself Baby’. While not the most lyrically impressive effort on the album – that is probably [A26] ‘Little Baby Nothing’ – there is enormous bittersweet, mournful power in Bradfield’s delivery of the best lines, especially his final cry of “everlasting nothingness”. Although the song is purportedly inspired by S.E. Hinton’s novel Rumble Fish (the successor to her more famous The Outsiders, published when she was just 18), the lyrics are more immediately related to the band’s common theme of the dehumanising, deceptive and crushing nature of capitalism. Especially taken in the context of other songs of the period, the lines “from feudal serf to spender / this wonderful world of purchase power” really sum up the song’s message. The common man’s journey from feudal serf to spender is a long one in historical terms, but in real terms he is as imprisoned by the powers-that-be as ever; he has “purchase power”, but political power and the right to choose his own life is still outside his grasp.
The phrase “neon loneliness” is lifted from the poem of the same title by Patrick Jones, Wire’s older brother. On Generation Terrorists his poetry is recited by him on [A17] ‘Love’s Sweet Exile’. Jones would increasingly become a source of support and inspiration for the band.
The music for ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ is primarily known for the beautifully memorable ascending guitar figure provided by Bradfield. As becomes clear from a close listening, this is very heavily inspired by the string section in ABBA’s 1976 pop single ‘Dancing Queen’. This has been acknowledged by Bradfield and has been described by one YouTube user as “another example of the Manics’ delightfully subversive cultural anthropophagy”. It is hard to find a better description. What is less clear is why the drum machine seems to actually add to, rather than take away from, the sense of grandeur in ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Finally, the appearance of piano is one of many on Generation Terrorists, (the instrument being surprisingly common given the album’s glam punk reputation) but there are few, if any, more tasteful or effective.
The song’s video was shot in Tokyo, Japan presumably around the time of the band’s tour date in Kawasaki in May 1992. The film’s direction is credited to the band’s co-manager Martin Hall (of Hall Or Nothing Management), but in the Culture, Alienation, Boredom and Despair film he played down his involvement. The opening shots of the band surrounded by umbrella-wielding commuters and the distinctive band style of the time have made this video a Manics classic over the years, with some justification.
Choice Lyric (Full Lyrics)
“drive away and it’s the same / everywhere death row, everyone’s a victim”
Ghetto – part of a city where people of a particular minority are concentrated, often in poor conditions.
Feudal serf – under the feudal system of organisation in the European Middle Ages, a serf was a peasant in a situation of modified slavery or bondage that typically worked the land from which upper classes profited.
Death row – the part of a prison (typically in the US) where inmates scheduled for eventual execution are housed, often for years or decades.