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The True Meaning of the Lyrics to “Motorcycle Emptiness” by Manic Street Preachers

The True Meaning of the Lyrics to "Motorcycle Emptiness" by Manic Street Preachers

The Manic Street Preachers courted attention from the word “go.” They fashioned themselves as brainy musical terrorists and used shock tactics to draw attention to themselves. They promised to break off after their debut album but didn’t, and in a few years, they had devastating songs like “Motorcycle Emptiness” under their belt.

“Motorcycle Emptiness” is a powerful song, but its lyrics are just as mysterious and oblique as Richey Edwards and his Welsh bandmates. Today I look at the song’s history, its incredible legacy, and try to decipher its meaning once and for all.

The True Meaning of the Lyrics to "Motorcycle Emptiness" by Manic Street Preachers

The Manic Street Preachers’s Journey to Making “Motorcycle Emptiness”

Richey Edwards had two dreams early on – being a rockstar and earning a reputation as a bonafide intellectual. He achieved both those things early on. Sadly, they failed to make the musician very happy. In many ways, this is the starting point for “Motorcycle Emptiness.”

It hadn’t always been that way. Manic Street Preachers’ public persona may have been one of the musical extremists. But they were nice boys. They had little to do, and so dreamed of becoming rock stars. They hung out and talked about records and books. Few in their Welsh town of Blackwood thought it would happen for them. Fewer still thought it’d happen so quickly.

James Dean Bradfield and his cousin Sean Moore formed a band called Betty Blue in 1986. By 1988, Richey James Edwards joined on rhythm guitar. They were unimpressed with where British indie-rock was heading. They were, however, impressed with confrontational punk-rock and with arena-rockers like Guns n’ Roses.

Manic Street Preachers Became Darlings of Music Magazines

It took some time for their sound to develop. But they knew exactly how they wanted to present themselves. They shot pictures mimicking The Clash and declared that they were the antithesis of all the music going on in the ’80s.

They designed a striking image for themselves. This, more than anything else, earned them mentions in the hip New Musical Express before they even had an album out. Early singles like “You Love Us” and their accompanying videos were provocative.

Richey Edwards answered a music critic by slicing “4Real” with a razor blade in his arm. And, if the press was slow to pick up their message, they just wrote political slogans on their clothing to make sure it wouldn’t be missed.

The True Meaning of the Lyrics to "Motorcycle Emptiness" by Manic Street Preachers

It took them a while to release a proper debut album. By the time “Generation Terrorists,” with its attention-seeking music and words, the British music press was ready to hail them as the New Sex Pistols.

The Manics made outrageous claims. They stated that the album would sell more copies than “Appetite for Destruction” and that they’d break up afterwards. Neither of these things happened. Neither of these happened.

But, Manic Street Preachers finally had an album to back up their claims. While songs like “Slash and Burn” and “Little Baby Nothing” showed them to be glam-punks with a message, it was the poppy lament of “Motorcycle Emptiness” that sounded like a potential global hit.

The True Meaning of the Lyrics to "Motorcycle Emptiness" by Manic Street Preachers

The Meaning of the Lyrics to “Motorcycle Emptiness”

“Motorcycle Emptiness” was written by all four members of the band. From early on, the group’s talent was carefully and cleverly distributed. Bradfield and Moore were responsible for the music. They were the most competent players. Wire and Edwards were responsible for the image, the political rhetoric and the lyrics.

Both Edwards and Wire were big readers, former college students who took classes seriously and were passionate about writing lyrics. “Motorcycle Emptiness” was inspired by “Rumble Fish,” a novel by S.E. Hinton that was later adapted into the movie “The Outsiders” directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

The story of “Rumble Fish” is one of bike gangs and reformatory schools. Edwards and Wire, however, pepper the image of the rebel with their own thoughts on British society. “Motorcycle Emptiness” is an attack on capitalism and on society’s desire to make young people conform to its rules.

Lyrics about Anarchy and Disobediance

The lyrics are delivered like anarchist slogans. While this is a pop song with a chorus and bridge, the words talk about slavery, religious oppression, and mental torture. It’s a pop song conceived as a testament to nihilism philosophy.

The memorable “neon loneliness” line is taken from a poem by Wire’s brother, Patrick Jones. “Survival’s natural as sorrow” became another of the band’s most oft-quoted lyrics.

Wire and Edwards’ lyrics are in tone with their previous work. They write “Organise your safe tribal war/Hurt, main, kill and enslave the ghetto.” The young songwriters want it to be known that they see modern capitalist society as an oppressive rule that pits ordinary people against each other in order to see that they don’t rebel.

In 1992, when the song was released, there weren’t many pop-rock songs as broad in both verbiage and meaning as “Motorcycle Emptiness.” Did it go over the heads of most listeners? Perhaps the song’s catchy chorus helped it to be embraced by audiences that otherwise wouldn’t have cared.

Still, while the Manic Street Preachers’ debut did not sell more copies than “Appetite for Destruction,” as initially advertised it would, made the quartet into a cult success in and outside of Britain.

“Motorcycle Emptiness” climbed as high as number 17 in the U.K. charts. It received strong reviews. It was the most successful single from the album, helping “Generation Terrorists” sell around 250.000 copies and briefly become a Top 20 hit.

The True Meaning of the Lyrics to "Motorcycle Emptiness" by Manic Street Preachers

The Meaning of the “Motorcycle Emptiness” Music Video 

Manic Street Preachers were as much about the image as they were about the music. This was especially true in the very early days of the band, and Richey Edwards was the architect of this.

“Motorcycle Emptiness,” in many ways, best captures the band’s early punk-glam image, their enthusiasm and, sadly, their bleak attitude toward the world that they’d walked into.

The memorable music video for “Motorcycle Emptiness,” was shot in Japan, a country where the group were cult heroes. Famous landmarks like Shibuya Crossing and Cosmo Clock 21 appear in the video. But it’s the shared melancholy of the band that is most poignant.

In one of the most famous shots in the video, the four group members are standing still, looking rather bored, while gigantic crowds of people walk by them. In another, Edwards tries to rise a turtle out of its slumber.

Enthusiastic about taking over the airwaves, or just plain sad and dejected, there was an intensity about early Manic Street Preachers that is undeniable.

The Legacy of “Motorcycle Emptiness”

Manic Street Preachers promised to sell millions with their debut “Generation Terrorists.” They did not, but their stock kept going up. By the time of their mournful 1996 album, “Everything Must Go,” they were finally one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

But a new source of sadness affected the songs. Richey Edwards, the troubled but brilliant band member, disappeared, never to be seen again. Previous years had been tough on Edwards as he dealt with increasing mental illness.

For a while, the group’s popularity only increased. Still, “Motorcycle Emptiness” remains, arguably, their most famous early song. It is today, somewhat unbelievably, the band’s second most streamed song on Spotify, just behind “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.”

It was included by Q Magazine among their 100 Best Songs of All-Time back in 2006. NME, always a supportive magazine turned site, named “Motorcycle Emptiness” as the band’s fourth-best song ever.

A remix from Apollo 440, the hot electro band of the 1990s, was released in 1996. However, for the most part, the song hasn’t been widely covered. It is indeed difficult to reinterpret an early song by The Manics both for practical and ideological reasons.

“Motorcycle Emptiness” proved that the band’s bravado was no mere gimmick. It exposed the world to the Welsh quartet’s highest aspirations and most troubling doubts.

About author

Eduard Banulescu is a writer, blogger, and musician. As a content writer, Eduard has contributed to numerous websites and publications, including FootballCoin, Play2Earn, BeIN Crypto, Business2Community, NapoliSerieA, Extra Time Talk, Nitrogen Sports, Bavarian FootballWorks, etc. He has written a book about Nirvana, hosts a music podcasts, and writes weekly content about some of the best, new and old, alternative musicians. Eduard also runs and acts as editor-in-chief of the alternative rock music website Mr. Banulescu is also a musician, having played and recorded in various bands and as a solo artist.
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