As Manic Street Preachers prepare to premiere their new documentary ‘Escape From History’ this weekend, the band have spoken to NME about how the film sees them telling the story of classic album Everything Must Go ‘definitively for the last time’.
The new documentary has been made by the band’s long-time collaborator, the BAFTA-winning director Kieran Evans – who made all the music videos from the band’s past two albums ‘Rewind The Film‘ and ‘Futurology‘, as well as ‘Generation Terrorists’ documentary ‘Culture, Alienation Boredom And Despair’ and the recent ‘Holy Bible’ anniversary tour concert movie, ‘Be Pure, Be Vigilant Behave‘.
“Closure is just an American platitude, isn’t it?” laughed frontman James Dean Bradfield when we met him after the first screening of the film. While there’s no cathartic end in once again summarising the period between the disappearance of guitarist Richey Edwards and the overwhelming success that followed, the band have found respite in this project providing more of an ‘absolute’ full stop on the story.
“Well, it’s told definitively for the last time – that’s why we did it,” Bradfield told NME. “I’ve never gone into that thing of wanting to enjoy the success, because at the time it felt like it was the only escape route from all the questions and all the B-movie myths about what had happened with Richey.
“By the time ‘Everything Must Go’ had actually come out, we’d been asking ourselves a lot of questions, we’d been through a lot of other people asking us questions, we’d been through a lot of other people theorising about what had happened with Richey, and by the time that success came along, I was willing to embrace it. Sometimes you’ve got to allow a lot of space and time to actually have occurred between the memory and now.”
Not only is their classic ‘rise of the phoenix’ story now the stuff of rock legend, but it’s a tale the band have revisited countless times over the last 22 years; every anniversary, retrospective tour or release, and magazine cover feature. This time however, ‘Escape From History’ explores the true human impact of Edwards’ disappearance and the landmark record that followed, by not only getting under the skin of the band from a much more personal angle, but by going in deep with those closest to the band at the time. From the extended family of their late and current manager, to those who helped them rise to fame and put the record together, this is a much more three-dimensional and beautifully human portrayal of a very conflicting period.
“We’ve told this story so many times, so it’s great to let it breathe with so many other voices,” revealed bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire. “Over that period we had quite the support network. We were pretty fucked up and odd, but a lot of people stood by us.
“It feels like there’s nothing else to say about ‘Everything Must Go’ any more. So this is a relief and a pleasure.”
Bradfield added: “To be honest, to be brutal, I’ll never have to talk about it again. I’ll never have to make a film about it again. I wouldn’t want to do it any more. It is nice to actually put a cap on it and nice to know that you have a definitive film, it’s there, it’s done.”
Its predecessor ‘The Holy Bible’ was a dark, claustrophobic, embittered tirade against the modern world – a spikey, bile-driven, post-punk onslaught, casting a horrified eye over subjects such as prostitution, depression, anorexia, capital punishment, the atrocities of the Holocaust and even orgies in the Kremlin – all within 56 white-knuckle minutes
But on 1 February 1995 when Edwards disappeared, the band were still reeling from the loss of their manager and mentor, Philip Hall. Now, a childhood friend and a cornerstone of their entire ethos and manifesto was gone too. They had, for want of a better phrase, to ‘keep it real’. They shed their military uniforms, and returned with their spirit intact, but nothing to hide behind – just the music.
“Richey was amazing at giving good copy in terms of soundbites,” smiles James. “If somebody took a picture of him he knew what to do. He knew what to do when somebody put a dictaphone in front of him. Suddenly I was being sent on those promotional tours around Europe by Sony and not Nick and Richey. I remember that being really scary, because there wasn’t so much of an image to talk about with ‘Everything Must Go’. There was a wholesale clearance of that tablet of truth that came with every album.
“With ‘Everything Must Go’, we were trying to breathe and fly and actually try and live through it and let it speak for us. So being sent to all those interviews on my own, I remember thinking ‘Fuck me, this is tough’.”
In many ways, ‘Escape From History’ is the perfect mirror of the record. It’s a portrait of a band fighting to start again; a celebration of life, re-birth and finding hope through despair – realising that each end is a new beginning. The band who once vowed to sell the biggest-selling album of all time and then implode were now defiantly battling to exist. The album sold two million copies, won them two BRIT Awards and made them a stadium act, a household name, and regular festival headliners.
“We wrote the myth, then lived it out,” admits Wire. “We wrote so many letters to journalists about our success in the early days, then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. We didn’t realise we were living it.”
Like the album’s content and aesthetic, ‘Escape From History’ plays with the motifs of clear landscapes, an archive of memories and an encyclopedia of cross-cultural references all interspersed and rooted in reality with personal accounts from journalists, producer Mike Hedges, and the Hall family – and surprisingly frank admissions from the band themselves. Artistically, the Manics have found their perfect partner in director Kieran Evans.
“Kieran was given an archive of stuff and he actually ingested it,” says Bradfield. “He took it all in and and just let it affect him. He let it set the tone of the questions he asked, he used a lot of the archive to unlock us because he found clues in there. He’s able to dance between so many things, be guided by the narrative of a script but also have the passion and patience to keep unlocking these things have never been said before.”
Wire even goes as far to admit that he is to them was Anton Corbijn was to Joy Division. Spiritually too, he boasts that same Welsh, working class ethic; going to great lengths to get the true story from the band, and even going as far to follow the famously quiet and introvert drummer Sean Moore up a mountain on a trek around Patagonia.
“The person that gave the most was Sean – he revealed an incredible amount of information that he never talked about before,” Evans tells NME. “Some of it was just about patience and waiting for the right time and some of it was just about digging around.
“So many rock n’ roll stories are so sensationalised that the power of the human story is lost. When we were talking about ‘Everything Must Go’, I was much more interested in their personal thoughts. I kept bugging them on the tour in hotel rooms and the studio. I tried to find the common thread of what they were really saying. There’s a public version of it, then there’s a private version of it. That’s what I was after.”