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Shirley Manson: The Garbage girl who came up trumps

From a fledgling post-punk group to singing a Bond theme, Shirley Manson has had quite the career trajectory. Born in Scotland, she got her foot in the door as a backup singer to Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, a burgeoning indie rock outfit that instilled discipline and decision making in the young artist. 

“Well, I have to say, I was in Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie for 10 years,” Manson revealed. “And I received the most spectacular education that I could possibly have ever hoped for in the world of rock and roll. I mean, it was a very rebellious, decadent unit. We really lived the life. And I wouldn’t swap it out for anything, I loved it. I was a very dedicated member to the band. It was my first forays out into the world, out of Edinburgh. For the first time I got to go to Paris, and I got to go to Copenhagen and Amsterdam and Hamburg and Munich and just all these incredible cities for the first time. We typically misbehaved and just lived the cliched rock and roll life. It was the greatest education I could have ever hoped for.”

Won over by this experience, Manson instilled a universal philosophy into her work, pivoting from the Scottish seas to the American streets that have served as her home for decades. And bolstered by a desire to improve the world for everyone, regardless of race or gender, Manson was a natural advocate for change in a world that would rather stick to tradition. 

“These are problems that exist everywhere, and they have existed for centuries,” Manson exclaimed in a blinding moment of vulnerability, much of it stemming from the ghostly backing vocals she committed to Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. From obscure backing vocals, she took the plunge into songwriting by issuing Angelfish, her first album. The incendiary ‘Suffocate Me’ was popular with college students, largely due to its jagged nature, and fiery vocal performance. 

The song, coloured with rage and fire, was a popular hit in America, a country that famously never fell to the more doe-eyed charm of Blur and Suede. Impressed by her vocal range, not forgetting the passion that exuded from her belly, Steve Marker invited Manson to form Garbage, a piercing alternative rock band that typified the anger felt across the continent. 

Issued from the back of their self-titled record, 1995 single ‘Stupid Girl’ fused the sultriness of 1970s rock, with a more techno-focused backdrop that made for one of the decade’s more intriguing hybrid numbers. It was met with almost rapturous acclaim from the trendy US presses, who sensed that America now had a female voice to counter Kurt Cobain’s— and she just happened to be Scottish. Her voice serves as the artistic love-child of Pattie Smith and Siouxsie Sioux, two women who served as a formative influence on the Garbage frontwoman. 

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Garbage accrued 17 million album sales, although they are probably best known for their theme to Pierce Brosnan‘s The World is Not Enough. Their tune, coated in angst and ennui, captured the moribund tone of the script, and although it was disliked upon release, The World is Not Enough now stands as the prototype for the Daniel Craig era. Better still, The World is Not Enough celebrated the many women who were involved with the process, awarding Judi Dench her most significant performance as M before SkyFall, and crafted Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King an emotional arc that cemented her role. Producer Barbara Broccoli was growing more confident in her role, so it was only natural that a female singer should sing the central theme, dotting James Bond’s family motto with an added pathos. 

Manson made the move into television when she appeared as a killer robot in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. No, it wasn’t a great show, but it kept her profile afloat as the noughties wore on, before nostalgia brought Garbage back into focus. Incredibly, Garbage has maintained the same lineup since the 1990s, and features Nirvana producer Butch Vig on percussion. 

With their angular performances and raw, rollicking production design, No Gods No Masters was an impressive return to form for a band now in the throes of middle-age. Better still, the band began to embrace their past and re-issued Beautiful Garbage in 2021. This release held a new single, ‘Androgy’, a pounding number every bit as powerful as the tunes that it sat beside. 

What the band hold isn’t elegance, but unvarnished truth, telling the world the answers it needs, but don’t necessarily wish to hear. And with Shirley Manson, they have a strong-willed vocalist, committed to the crusade she set herself on. It takes a lot to drag someone from the cobble-stones of Edinburgh, but Garbage managed it by allowing her to express her guttural, idiosyncratic view of the world around her. 

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