If Antichrist Superstar found Marilyn Manson taking the shtick of Alice Cooper and pushing it to diabolical extremes, Mechanical Animals saw its author embracing the fleetness of foot of shape-shifter nonpareil David Bowie. “I have great admiration for David Bowie,” he told Kerrang!’s Paul Elliott 20 years ago. But while the Thin White Duke drifted through alter egos such as Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, Manson adopted a look of atonal androgyny that still managed to cause offence. Released on September 15, 1998, Mechanical Animals’ cover artwork, designed by the New York photographer Joseph Cultice, presented the performer with breasts, six fingers on each hand and airbrushed genitalia. Despite Cultice claiming that, “I said more in one of his covers than any novel could – it made people think and cringe,” such artistry alone was not enough to prevent America’s three largest retail chains, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Target, from refusing to stock Marilyn Manson’s third album. Despite this censorship, Mechanical Animals still managed to sell 223,000 copies in the U.S. in its first seven days of public exposure.
“My main goal with the new record was to put life back into rock’n’roll,” Manson told Kerrang! at the time of the album’s release. “Right now, the only thing that can save rock’n’roll is this album. Without it, rock will disappear like it did in the disco era of the ‘70s and dance music dominated. That’s where we’re at right now.”
Marilyn Manson’s propensity for uttering such quotable nonsense – The Clash, AC/DC and the Sex Pistols all rose to prominence in the age of disco, after all – highlights that when it came to grabbing the world by its ear his technique owed as much to P.T. Barnum as it did to David Bowie. But while Manson’s arrival in the public eye coincided with the emergence of Korn, Deftones and Limp Bizkit, it is a testament to Brian Warner’s presentational moxie that his music was almost never mentioned in relation to nu-metal. As he rather deftly put it on The Dope Show, one of Mechanical Animals’ standout tracks, ‘They love you when you’re on all the covers/When you’re not, then they love another.’
“I reinvent myself before I can get bored of myself,” Manson said at the time. “Anyone who remains static is not only being unimaginative, but is being safe.”
Out on the road in support of his box-fresh new album, the Marilyn Manson show was once more a circus of incident and misfortune. An entire three months of roadwork was lost after drummer Ginger Fish contracted glandular fever. Familiar external problems also presented themselves. In Upstate New York, Mayor Roy Bernardi cited an unspecified “moral obligation to the people of Syracuse” as a reason for attempting to prevent a concert in the city from taking place. But amid the by-now-routine hoopla, concerts were taking place, and the effect on a generation of young music fans can not be understated.