When a peculiar, unresolved tragedy struck the Manic Street Preachers it looked like they might fade to a premature finish. But their return to the fray has been more triumphant than anyone could have imagined.
Cambridge Corn Exchange, October 11, 1996
The seismic three-chord detonation is under way, the melodies have wormed their way through the collective membrane, and the air is thick with rock's pheromone potency when the screaming begins.
Upstairs on the balcony, three flaming little buds, long black dresses, alabaster cheeks, great headlamp eyes inked in with mascara, and cascading manes of hair, are about to do it again for Jamie. They wait for the last clanging chords of the song 'Kevin Carter' to die away then, in perfect unison, start squealing bloody blue murder.
"Jaaaaammmmes. Jaaaames, little Welsh Bull. Niiiiicckkky; awwweoooo, Niiiicky, give us a quickie, Nicky Sean, you're not tall but you are a-dor-a-ball."
Singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield, momentarily distracted, looks up into the lights as the fans dissolve into a giggling girlie heap and begins the frail intro to 'Motorcycle Emptiness'.
The audience is stilled. Even the trio in the balcony stand in rapt attention. For the generation who fell between baggy and Britpop this is their 'Wonderwall', and as the forlorn chorus rises the mosh-pit starts swaying and chanting along. Eyes shut tight, fingers blindly fretting the chords on his Les Paul, great sinewy cords bulging the length of his neck, James wears the face of a passionate blues shouter.
"It's not like any of them are particularly attractive or anything," shouts the blonde-haired bud over the noise. "They've just made a drop-dead brilliant record."
"James is gorgeous," squeals the auburn bud. "I get all hot and bothered when he does his little pirouettes. Tasty bum."
"I think they look like desperate little animals in the zoo." Cue more hysteria.
To Cantabrigian students out on the razz tonight, the Manic Street Preachers mean little more than a good night out and tunes they can sing along to when they come over the radio or onto the Union jukebox. The band's turbulent past, their recent struggles, and the events that led up to their extraordinary album Everything Must Go are of little or no concern. This is the Manics' new audience, people for whom the whole damn caboodle begins with the single 'A Design For Life'. It seems as if the Manic Street Preachers, like Oasis before them, have finally crossed the great divide.
Upstairs, another post-gig ding-dong. It's like a scene from a Mike Leigh version of Spinal Tap. People cling to the walls, old friends, an ex-producer, PRs, local journos from the Cambridge Bugle-Gazette-Times-student rag sup nervously on beers waiting for the band to come. A sorry picnic-cooler holds cans of Red Stripe and a few bottles of wine. No spirits, exotic substances or dishes of Smarties with the blue ones taken out. There's not even a cheese straw in sight. But that's the Manics, 1996: older, wiser and way beyond the need to display bogus rock credentials or bountiful hospitality. Freshly showered and changed, James ambles in, grabs a beer and embarks on a good-natured meet and greet.
Drummer Sean Moore stands in the far corner, immaculate in Adidas, sipping on a lemonade, quietly observing. Nicky Wire, gangling and other-worldly, wanders into the room blinking like some subterranean creature who's inadvertently just snouted into the daylight after years underground.
"I thought MOJO was an old farts magazine. Does this mean we're past it?" he quips to your correspondent before wandering distractedly about the room for a minute or two, kissing his librarian wife and mysteriously evaporating.
Through the crack in the door to the bar, two Japanese girls stand gazing into the inner sanctum. They're what you might call obsessive fans. They check in at the same hotels and attend the same functions. Every day one of them, Oki, sends Nicky Wire a postcard telling him about her day and her thoughts. "What I think about Nicky Wire is very secret," she says in faltering English. "He has power not like any other man. I not put into words how I feel. I not tell you."
Just lately things have been getting a little intense on the postcard front and Wire has dealt with the situation by retreating from the circus as far as is humanly possible. "Yeah, well, that's Nick all over. He's deliberately made his life simple," sniffs Bradfield with an obvious admiration. "The way he conducts his life is almost monastic." Quite how this reclusive bass-playing homebody, a man who spends most of his time at his Blackwood home in the Welsh valleys watching Sky Sport and mowing his lawn, came to write some of rock's most intriguing lyrics is a bit of a mystery.
"He doesn't feel he has to experience everything directly in order to write about it," says James, pondering this conundrum. "It's what I call 'homestead lyricism'. It's about admitting that you still feel wonder at the very basic things in life." Bradfield studies his drink. "See, when I used to get pissed out of my mind every night, I lost that wonder. I began to realise that perhaps Nicky had it right after all. Two years ago I couldn't have sung a lyric like 'Enola/Alone' because I thought it was too namby-pamby. Maybe we've mellowed a little – we're not lads anymore, we've grown up.
A puppy dog, shaggy-haired thing comes bounding into the room and settles itself on the top of the bar with a beer and huge satisfied grin. "I Mitch, I very big wanker thank you," he says holding his crotch with one hand and shaking the other in the air. A Japanese Keith Moon and one of his country's top pop photographers, Mitch Ikeda has been the chronicler of all things Manic for many years.
"I tell you about this band: James, he is an old soul flying around the universe. Nicky Wire is genius, very clever. Many ideas but he is on another level, whoosh, high, high. Sean and me are soul brothers, think the same. Difference with Manic Street Preachers is other bands talk about peace like bad hippies. Manics speak only of truth, and truth is more powerful than peace."
From their unsophisticated beginings in the '80s, the Manic Street Preachers were trying to convey some kind of truth, a belief, something defiant and honest.
"We were a Welsh rock band, and in the eyes of some people then that was the very worst thing in the whole world," James admits. "We were totally a product of our environment but we had to prove we weren't The Alarm."
That environment was Blackwood, the Gwent Valley, Wales. The late '70s and a group of sports-mad lads kick a football round Gossard's field, the waste ground next to the well-known bra factory. The gang includes Nicky Jones [nicknamed the Wire on account of his gangly appearance], his best mate James Bradfield, Bradfield's cousin Sean Moore and Jones's new friend Richey Edwards.
Fast forward to the 1984 miners' strike – the real catalyst for the Manics. Working-class men and women fought for their livelihoods against economic change and Thatcherite policy. Neil Kinnock, then the local MP, lived in the same road as young James and the miners' protest marches would regularly pass by the front door. From this early experience came Bradfield's belief that the working-class let themselves down by allowing themselves to be cast as the losers. Defiance and the desire to escape that cycle fuelled the band's early ideas.
In the late '80s Wire and Richey went off to university to study English and political history respectively. Bradfield turned down the chance to read philosophy in favour of forming a band. The Clash, the Pistols, Guns N'Roses and Public Enemy provided the apparently disparate influences. Wire taught Bradfield the guitar and with Wire on bass, and multi-instrumentalist Sean (top trumpeter in the youth orchestra) on drums and a mate called Flicker on rhythm guitar, the Manic Street Preachers were born.
Devouring the easy sleazy romanticism of Ginsberg, Bukowski and Burroughs, Wire and Edwards devised a manifesto that attempted to express the fundamental inarticulacy at the core of the adolescent experience.
Once finals were over, Richey Edwards joined the Manics as rhythm guitarist, replacing Flicker (on account of being better looking). "We felt that we would change things. We called ourselves The Blue Generation for a while because we felt we were destined for collective greatness."
In 1990, frustrated at their lack of progress, the band wrote to Philip Hall, at the time London's top independent rock PR with The Pogues and Stone Roses among his high-profile clients, requesting help. The ultimatum was simple enough: if he didn't help them escape they'd die of boredom. Hall was strangely moved, went to see them, fell in love with their shambolic ambition and promptly lent them £45,000 and the run of his Shepherd's Bush home.
Once up and running, the Manics declared, through Hall, to anyone who would listen that they intended to live the rock myth to the full; they'd make just one epoch-shattering 10 million-selling album then ceremoniously explode. "The only positive thing we could do was to be nihilistic," states Bradfield. "It was a good avenue to take initially, but it didn't get us very far, did it?"
The reaction of most of the nation's pop media was that this bunch of crazed, uncool, over-eager Taffy hicks should take their pantomime histrionics back to the valleys, thank you.
"It was a cheap disdain because journalism comes from London, a place where people lose touch with the things that are important in other people's lives. The anger and the concerns of a young band from the Welsh valleys aren't going to make much sense to those people." Kids, however, understood, the carping of the press somehow only adding to the rebel appeal of the young Manics in their slogan-daubed clothes.
A screamingly defiant single, 'Motown Junk', on their own label was the first missive to the world. Then Hall secured a deal with Sony. We are now 17 Top 40 entries and four albums down the line. First came the ill-conceived but audacious debut Generation Terrorists, the grand glam gesture Gold Against The Soul, the bleak apocalyptic missive from the edge of despair, The Holy Bible, finally this year's chart-topping Everything Must Go.
"All our records are just collages of ideas, a reflection of our bedrooms," says James. "Our first album was an attempt to find answers from Public Enemy, Guns N'Roses, McCarthy and The Clash. I'm under no illusion that Everything Must Go is original either. Pick a song and I'll tell you exactly which records it came from. I don't think we're original but I think we're unique."
Recorded in Normandy with producer Mike Hedges – producer of McAlmont & Butler's lavishly-tooled single 'Yes', early Cure and the lush orchestral mid-period albums of Siouxsie And The Banshees among others – using equipment salvaged from Abbey Road, including the Redd 17 mixing console, the new album takes in everything from Spectoresque strings and cavernous reverbed drums through Motown, Bacharachian pastiche, to plain old rock'n'roll. "He [Hedges] uses old gear but we didn't go there for a full-on rustic valve experience," asserts Bradfield. "He's one of the last old school fellas who really knows what he's doing with a band. I'd written 'Design For Life' and I'd already worked out how the thing should sound because a song like that comes to you wholesale, ready formed. I played the thing to Nick and Sean and I'm trying to sing the parts to them; the strings and everything came to me all at once. Hedges heard it and said, 'I think it should sound like a jukebox record.' I hadn't a bloody clue what he was on about but I liked the sound of it so he got the gig."
'A Design For Life' eventually hit Number 2 in the charts, heralding what proved to be an extraordinary album. They refuse, however, to see their success as vindication. "I have to quote one of Richey's lyrics here when I say that ours was a Pyrrhic victory," says James. "It felt like a relief more than anything else. We had success without compromising or riding on the back of any movements like Britpop, grunge or baggy. We were always outsiders, always deeply unfashionable. That hasn't really changed."
"I wish in a way that it could have all started with this album. Things might have been very different." It's 1am, the bar of the Holiday Inn is closing and Sean Moore, drummer and dissident philosopher, cracks open another blackcurrant Hooch and reclines in his comfy throne. Rarely seen up and about after midnight on the present tour, he's dedicated to availing himself of at least eight hours sleep each night. "I'm trying not to drink either. You can't play the kind of shows we do if you're permanently hungover. This is the first drink I've had all tour, actually." On the subject of the Manics' output he offers detached and curiously objective criticism. "Our first three albums were a build-up to this one. They're all flawed, mind, occasionally naive records but they were important. Holy Bible was very dark, something we knew from the moment we started working on that wasn't going to be played at parties. But it has changed, definitely; without Richey we've become more optimistic on record, more positive. Saying that, I think some of the drama has gone now he's not around."
It's hard to avoid the Richey Edwards question, the remaining band members make constant reference to their errant guitarist, friend and lyricist, still missing presumed dead.
Yes, another romantic rock legend has been struck from one young man's very public mental confusion. For some, Richey Edwards will forever be a totem of doomed adolescent dysfunction. To the friends and family he has left behind, his unexplained disappearance has been a painful lesson in the reality of stardom. After years of self-mutilation with knives and razor-blades, anorexia and a severe drink and drugs problem, Richey Edwards simply vanished. At 7pm on February 1 1995, on the eve of the band's US tour, 28-year-old Edwards walked out of the Embassy Hotel in Bayswater. The band had spent the previous day demoing new songs, some of which appear on Everything Must Go, and there was little to suggest that Richey was any more unhappy than usual. Two weeks later, on St Valentine's Day his silver Vauxhall Cavalier was found abandoned at Aust service station close to the Severn Bridge – a notorious suicide spot. He'd left his passport, his Prozac prescription, credit cards, a folder of poems, rants, lyrics and papers in his Cardiff flat. None of the band have seen him since and no body has ever been recovered.
James is aware that the Manics have their own 24-carat legend to carry around with them from now on. "Richey's myth is up and running. What I now realise is you can make anyone seem like a complex character. The Danny Sugermanesque myth is important in rock, but you can mythologise anyone, can't you?"
But this is the mythic fame you once spoke of. Is it a case of be careful what you wish for? "I'm superstitious and it did feel like a very scary self-fulfilling prophecy. We made our own beds and we were always in love with rock myths. I mean, I still love Joy Division more than New Order."
The band were thrown into inevitable uncertainty, Wire and Moore retreated into domestic bliss, while Bradfield wasn't convinced the band could continue. "I was adrift. Suddenly the focus of my life for the last six years was gone. I'd get up, make some tea, walk around, go out, get pissed with my mates and then do it all again." Months of re-evaluation followed, then a first tentative live appearance as a three-piece. The decision to start recording an album salvaged the band and rekindled a curious optimism that had not existed since the early innocent days. In some indefinable way, as Nicky Wire freely acknowledges, Richey's disappearance has freed the Manics from their own past and the need to prove anything to anyone except themselves. According to James, even if Edwards is merely AWOL he could never again be a part of the Manic Street Preachers. "We were best mates, and while I couldn't bring myself to be friends with him anymore there's still a part of me that will always think of him as a best mate. But if something goes wrong, be it your work, your art, love or a friendship, immediately all the good memories become overshadowed by something else, something fraudulent."
Spurious TV documentaries and tabloid investigations have compounded things; the remaining Manics are now painfully aware that Richey no longer belongs to them but to the Rock Myth Machine. In turn they are trying to distance themselves from the exaggerated media presence that threatens to obscure their progress, opting to keep Richey's memory alive in other ways.
Everything Must Go is an all or nothing record – some of its lyrics taken from the papers Richey left behind – that, while not consciously an attempt to spring them free of the Richey mystery, has nevertheless fulfilled that role. 'Enola/Alone', a highlight, marks a new style of composition for the Manics. A Nicky Wire song, it grew from looking at one of his wedding photos and realising that the two people standing on either side of him, Richey Edwards and Philip Hall (who tragically lost his battle with cancer two years ago) were no longer around.
Aston Villa Leisure Centre, October 12,1996.
Three hours to showtime, 10 minutes to soundcheck. Outside the huge stage door, a group of suburban yoof are hanging out, trying to persuade the security ape to let them in. "I'm the sound man's brother. He's expecting me. Go and ask him," one brazen but transparent teen says in a woefully inadequate Welsh accent, clearly a graduate of the Dick Van Dyke Academy of Risible Regional Dialects. He gets short shrift from the golem. "I've had this crap since two-o-bloody-clock this afternoon. 'Have a fag, have my lager, can you get an autograph?' Do I look like the kind of bloke who can be bought off with a can of fucking Tango? Vermin!"
Inside, Deptford Andy and Deptford John, the Hale and Pace of the roadie fraternity are sorting amps and monitors for the soundcheck. "Thing about the Manics is that they've become total pros," says the long-serving Deptford Andy "There's no ego to deal with, no bullshit and none of the mayhem that normally goes with life on the road."
"Boring Welsh bastards," laughs Deptford John. "Strike that! Ask any roadie about how you tell a great band and they'll tell you it's all down to their professionalism. They've been through all the rebel-rousing stuff and now they get people around them who they trust and who trust them. It is very family with them. That's quite rare. I've worked with Dogs D'Amour but I don't remember half of it 'cos I was so drunk. The Manics just want to make sure their show is good entertainment. They're always on time and they know you have to do your job. It's all very cosy".
Handsome John the sound man, a veteran of almost six years, worked the mixing desk from the band's first London showcase when their set consisted of little more than a few howling rants and some thieved Guns N'Roses licks. "In the end it's easy not to believe in anything and just tell the world you're too cool or too bored to care. It may have been naive but they were the first band I could recall since the punk days who dared to publicly say they believed in anything at all. It reminded me that the Thatcher years hadn't completely killed off idealism. They were a fuckin' shambles to begin with, but they had ambition."
Two hours later the 3,000 sell-out crowd, ecumenical to a man, are heaving in unison. Sean's parents stand by the sound desk, beaming like lighthouses, hands over their ears. By the Manics' standards the set is a little lackiustre. James, suffering from laryngitis, croaks and strains to reach the high notes and seems to lose his confidence halfway in. Only at the finale do the band bring everything together again. 'You Love Us', once just an arrogant, anthemic single designed to irritate the writers of the torrent of negative press the band were receiving, has now become something altogether more personal and poignant. Even over the enormous scything noise radiating from the PA, sighs are audible as vintage images of Richey, James, Sean and Nicky – pouting, arrogant and full of the blissful, pogoing idealism of youth – dance across the huge back screen doing their best Clash/glam/trash/punk thang.
It's a very moving tribute to things past.
"People said the album title Everything Must Go was about catharsis and letting go of the past," says James after the show "For us that video is a way of showing that we're not proposing to forget. There are people who will knock us for using it, but that history is ours. Only trouble is that the others look OK but I look like one of the blokes from the Mini Pops!" James Bradfield cracks a rare smile then looks dead ahead and engages me eyeball to eyeball. "Tonight the gig was total shit, wasn't it? It's not that I need to bond with the audience at all but I want it to be a good show, a spectacle. If things go wrong then it's all a waste of time and you might as well be a bloody travelling salesman. But I suppose it feels good to be wanted. That wasn't always the case."
James Dean Bradfield – Manic Street Preacher, music press pariah turned music press darling, testament to determined self-belief, noted for both passion and professionalism – drains his glass, looks at his watch and announces that it's time for an early night.