Twenty years on from Everything Must Go, Wales' glam-punk demagogues tell GQ why coming of age in Gwent geared them up for a life of provocation and how the tragic disappearance of bandmate Richey Edwards inspired Britpop's most powerful record.
It's the morning after the Brit awards the night before, and James Dean Bradfield is feeling drained. The lead singer and guitarist of the Manic Street Preachers is refuelling at the café opposite the band's studio when I arrive, and just before I leave, four hours later, he's curled up, snoozing cat-like on a sofa in front of a cabinet that proudly holds a row of four Brit statuettes.
Not that the gongs, or the fuzzy head, were collected at the previous night's industry shindig; the last of the band's wins came 17 years ago. And as for the unshakable tiredness? Well, that comes with the territory when you have a newborn in the house.
"When I watched the Brits on TV last night I thought, 'That doesn't bear much resemblance to what I was involved with.' Everything is about high production values and loads of dancers," says Bradfield. "And I just do not care about music being interpreted by dance. Ever." We're sitting down to talk in the control room on the ground floor of the band's two-storey space, in which they have created a glorious man-cave, or "youth club for the over-forties", as Bradfield puts it. This floor houses the studio where they have recorded since 2008, complete with mixing desk from Rockfield Studios ("Rush, The Teardrop Explodes, Queen's Night At The Opera..." Bradfield proudly reels off the big names who have availed themselves of it).
Upstairs is where the Manics' magic really happens. It's part sixth-form common room, part potting shed and part gang hut, complete with sofas and a sizeable television, a variety of guitars, a punch bag, signed Gareth Bale and British and Irish Lions shirts and a wall on which images of the band's own icons have been cut and pasted - all sitting alongside further pop-cultural paraphernalia accrued over a quarter of a century.
"It does seem like a different kind of language," Nicky Wire, the band's bassist, lyricist and mouthpiece says when asked how the previous night's event compares with the 1997 Brit awards, at which they won their first Best Group and Best Album double (they went on to pull off a second dual-trophy heist in 1999). "It's so sleek and slick. It was just chaos when we won. I made a speech about comprehensives! You had people lying on the floor smashed out of their heads, genuinely. It was completely different." It was Cool Britannia's high noon, a night that produced some of the most enduring images of that decade, thanks largely to a Spice Girl and a Union Jack dress. But scooping the main prizes were the Manic Street Preachers, a Welsh rock band already four albums in, Britpop outsiders still smarting from a couple of highly traumatic years. The loss of their bandmate and childhood friend Richey Edwards had left them staring into the abyss - but somehow they had managed to turn away and make the sublime Everything Must Go.
A classic, perfectly constructed rock album, it would go on to sell millions, with a stand-out single - "Design For Life" - that would become "a kind of alternative national anthem", as Wire now puts it. And while this triumph marked one of the most unexpected comebacks in rock history, it was, for this band, just one of many unlikely chapters in an extraordinarily painful, romantic and fascinating back story.
It's one thing to have wide-eyed, grand designs for your band, but quite another to proclaim that you'll release a debut double album, sell 16 million copies "from Bangkok to Senegal" and then split up. That, however, was precisely the Manic Street Preachers' oft-stated aim (to anyone who'd listen) before they'd recorded barely a note. Quite where the scale of this ambition had come from is not immediately apparent; the former mining town of Blackwood, Gwent (pop: 8,496), was not the most auspicious of surroundings for an embryonic rock band in the late Eighties. Or now, for that matter. But for childhood friends Nick Jones, Richey Edwards, James Dean Bradfield and his cousin Sean Moore, teenage boredom - sparking against fierce intellects and the desire for a life beyond their immediate geography - combined to fire an insatiable interest in everything. Art, film, literature, political theory, philosophy, pop culture and, in particular, music; anything, basically, that could be absorbed, discussed and dissected by the quartet as they whiled away the hours at each other's houses.
"In our brand of icons, Marilyn Monroe and Stan Bowles weren't that different from each other, or Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins," says Wire of their interests. "We've always had that love of high art and low art, I don't think there's any difference for us." Fierce debates would rage in their bedrooms when, by their own admission, they should have been out necking jars and girls instead. "We were massively rejected by girls at that point, we were complete f***ing oddballs," admits Wire, who is now 47, like the rest of the band. "We were chronically shy. Me and James in particular were really bad around girls, I mean really bad. Really bad."
By 1988 they'd settled on the idea of forming a band, with Bradfield busy learning the guitar parts for Guns 'N' Roses 'Appetite For Destruction from start to finish and his cousin - a classically trained trumpeter who'd played on National Union Of Miners marches - drafted in on drums. Jones, by now adopting his nickname Wire, and Edwards (who was yet to join the band in any official capacity until his return from university a year or so later) set about putting their obsessions into lyrics and using everything they'd learnt about pop culture to sculpt the band's image in great detail. They knew that if they wanted to get noticed in the Valleys - in an era when the only time they'd ever seen their hometown on TV was during the miners' strikes - it would take something special.
"There was a kind of intellectual process which basically went: bombard the right journalists with the right letters and the music will come," says Wire of their strategy. "We could tell really quickly that James was something special on the guitar. Insanely, we thought that we could literally change the cultural tide of baggy and dance music." It paid off, with their self-financed debut, "Suicide Alley", reaching legendary NME writer Stephen Wells, who made it single of the week. With no record deal and just a handful of songs to their name, the Manic Street Preachers had become a DIY, cut'n'paste punk rock hype machine with a crystal-clear vision of where they wanted to go, what was wrong with the music industry and how they were going to fix it.
It was while outlining this vision to then-NME journalist Steve Lamacq after a gig at Norwich Arts Centre in 1991 that Edwards would do something that would result in one of the most infamous photographs in rock history. As Lamacq, now a BBC 6 Music DJ, challenged him on the authenticity of his band's statements of intent, Edwards' response was to take out a razor blade and, slowly and calmly, while still holding Lamacq's conversational gaze, slice the characters "4REAL" into his forearm. Photographer Ed Sirrs was there to capture the moment: Edwards, pale in his faded, purple Clash-esque shirt and neckerchief, holding out his arm almost apologetically but with hauntingly determined doe eyes. That image made it onto the pages of NME, and from then on anyone who knew about music knew who the Manic Street Preachers were. As for Edwards: however painfully, he'd made his point.
Their bombast, not to mention the quotes which Wire and Edwards would happily fire off to journalists ("The only good thing about America is that you killed John Lennon" - Wire; "We will always hate [the band] Slowdive more than Hitler" - Edwards) meant that in the early days their press profile far outweighed their music sales. "The band made us ultra confident," says Wire. "Indestructibly confident, and it did get hairy in those early days. We didn't realise how much some people hated us being like we were." Not that spouting off didn't bring its own perils. "The first time we played Reading, I walked on stage and the crowd loved us, which was amazing. And then I just said something like, 'You lot f***ing stink and look disgusting,'" laughs Wire. "I could see James thinking, 'We've just come on and people really like us - what have you got to say that for?' I smashed my guitar up at the end and chucked it in the audience, but it didn't reach them - it hit a security guard and smashed his collarbone. So I ran off site with my brother, got on the train at Reading station and was back in my mum and dad's house to watch Match Of The Day at half past ten."
The air of antagonism and anarchy at early Manics gigs is something to which Rob Stringer can attest. Now chairman of Columbia Records and a long-time friend of the band, he was instrumental in signing them to the label in 1991. "I remember taking people to see them at the Cambridge University Ball and James punching out a student for shouting insults," he tells me. "There were three or four people from the label there and they were horrified. They were like, 'What have we signed here?'"
Another aspect of the nascent Manic Street Preachers that raised eyebrows was their wardrobe, which defied the muted, monochromatic indie uniform of the era. Essentially it was a charity-shop mash-up of New York Dolls, Hanoi Rocks, Bet Lynch and early Clash - challenging enough without having to hone the look in a hometown with dress codes as conservative as the politics are socialist, where the concept of "outré" clothes usually centres around wearing the wrong rugby shirt.
"I remember walking up the high street when we were 17 or 18," says Bradfield. "There were some boys from the rugby club and there was a bit of an atmosphere because they'd just played and there'd been a fight. It was like, 'Who are those poofs?' Nick and Richey were completely Hanoi Rocks - hair everywhere, Kylie T-shirts, purple denim, necklaces... I was thinking, 'It's going to kick off.' I knew they sensed it as well but they never, ever swerved from their sense of purpose and of looking beautiful. Quite a gutsy thing to do." Bradfield, whose short but neatly muscular frame is scrum half to Wire's tall and broad-shouldered second-row lock, admits that the band were never going to sing from the same hymn sheet on some of the finer details of the aesthetic: "I remember once trying to put a bit of eyeliner on and Richey was like, 'You look like one of my uncles who used to go down the pits and couldn't get rid of the coal dust in their eyes.' I knew exactly what he was on about."
(I can empathise greatly here. One of the more regrettable episodes of my own Manics obsession was a brief attempt to rock their style at a university Christmas ball. In addition to constantly fielding questions that night as to whether I'd come dressed as Eddie Izzard, I learned the girl I thought I'd been dating had also been sleeping with a meathead, one who even now I regard as one of the most disagreeable people I've ever met. Draped in a faux fur coat and leopard print blouse, with kohl ringed around your watering eyes, is no condition in which to discover you've been two-timed.)
When the Manic Street Preachers' debut album finally arrived in 1992 it didn't, ultimately, sell the 16 million they'd promised - but it should be pointed out that the actual sales (1.56 per cent of the original prediction) were still enough to be certified as gold. Generation Terroristsmight well be musically raw and limited, somewhere between straightforward rock and Guns N' Roses hair metal, but the one standout track, "Motorcycle Emptiness", is an anthemic, radio-friendly belter. Easily the best anticonsumerism song ever written, it provides a firm clue to Bradfield's ability to write the catchiest of melodies to the most cerebral subject matter. Lyrically, both their intellect and their ambition had been laid out elsewhere on the album in anticapitalism anthems ("Nat West - Barclays - Midlands - Lloyds"), antimonarchical rants ("Repeat") and a duet with porn star Traci Lords about female sexual exploitation ("Little Baby Nothing"). It's peppered with words like "suicide", "alienation", "boredom", "culture", "democracy" and layers of cultural reference from Rimbaud, Larkin and Plath to Orwell, Nietzsche and Marilyn Monroe (but not, sadly, Stan Bowles). In short, it's the ultimate reading list for angst-ridden, outsider-status teenagers the world over, all wrapped up in leopard-print and eyeliner. What's not to like?
This mix of white-hot intellect, unashamed pretension and nonconformist sex appeal was a potent one, earning them a devoted following, which for the most part stays unchanged to this day. As their biographer Simon Price put it: "The Manic Street Preachers are the only British band since The Smiths who - and this is rather old-fashioned - mean something. And for the people to whom they mean anything, they mean everything."
I can vouch for this. I only really got hooked after a Glastonbury Festival at the turn of the century, years after I'd first heard "Motorcycle Emptiness". My epiphany was not to be found in the Saturday-night headlining show (however good it actually turned out to be), but rather in the interviews I'd read in the run-up: Nicky Wire being asked why he'd once said he wished REM's Michael Stipe would "go the same way as Freddie Mercury" (the two bands were topping the bill that year) and whether he regretted expressing, on their last appearance at the nation's premier New Age gathering, a hope that they'd "build a bypass over this shithole"; the acres of attitude accompanied by artfully sleazy rock'n'roll poses; then on top of this, the brains to go with it.
At the tail-end of A-level study, on my own desperate quest to consume as much information and culture as I could and with a deep yearning to be a rock star (or at the very least look good in tight jeans), this was the band for me. There was just so much to get into; that for me, then and now, is what a band should provide - a world beyond the music.
In a short space of time, the Manic Street Preachers had gone from Valley misfits to global rock stars - an achievement confirmed upon their arrival for an eye-opening tour of Japan. "We turned up at the airport and there were hundreds of fans there. We literally looked behind us because we really thought the Black Crowes must be coming through First Class," says Wire. "It was just bedlam. Every hotel that you went to there were 200 people in the lobby, thousands chasing you on the bullet train..."
Within a year the Manics had started work on Gold Against The Soul, a polished, seemingly commercial-sounding second album that turned out to be just as problematic as music industry convention dictates. However, their next album was a lurch away from anything that could be considered mass-market.
The Holy Bible is intense, dark, introverted and something of a masterpiece. Musically, it's an accomplished work, incorporating jagged punk, industrial goth and distorted grunge, with Bradfield's guitar standing out over a rhythm section that's tight to the point of claustrophobia. It is, however, the lyrics that set the album apart: anorexia, the Holocaust, prostitution, self-harm, serial killers... no subject was too bleak to tackle. Edwards, who wrote around three-quarters of the lyrics, had always been open about the severe bouts of depression, anorexia and self-harm he'd suffered all his adult life, but had never been quite so unrestrained in his writing before. Critically lauded at the time, The Holy Bible is a perennial fan favourite and remains a regular in "all-time greatest" lists. But, however futile and often misleading as it may be to do so, it's hard to listen to the record and not scan for clues as to what would take place just after its release.
On the morning of 1 February 1995, James Dean Bradfield waited for Richey Edwards in the lobby of London's Embassy Hotel; the pair were due to travel to Heathrow and begin another crack at America. His friend didn't show up, and never would again. By the following day, the band's management had contacted the police about Edwards' disappearance; his car was found two weeks later, parked at a motorway service station on the M48 by the Severn Bridge. It appeared to have been lived in for some time. He'd been withdrawing the maximum daily cash machine allowance for the fortnight prior to his disappearance; he'd shaved all his hair off; he'd been acting strange for weeks. There was a raft of supposed clues and hints to his motivations up to that point, but guesswork and supposition is all they are.
Even though Edwards had been battling demons for some time, his mental health had become increasingly fragile around the time of The Holy Bible's release, no doubt exacerbated by his increasing use of alcohol. As a student he'd started using vodka as a sleep aid and this had escalated over the years, with Edwards later claiming, variously, he needed drink to sleep, stabilise or forget. During the summer of 1994 he'd been admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Cardiff and then to the Priory in Roehampton, where he received six weeks' treatment before rejoining the band on tour that autumn - culminating in their last ever appearance as a four-piece at the London Astoria a few days before Christmas.
Following the news of his disappearance there came the morbidly excitable tabloid tales of the "wild rebel of rock" and "cult pop guitarist", most of which couldn't have been more wrong in terms of their character assessment; then the fan "sightings" across the world, from Goa to Fuerteventura, reports of which continued for years. His disappearance was a fascination to many but remained heartbreaking for his family and the band. Even now, 21 years on, no one knows exactly what happened to Edwards - although after 13 torturous years for his loved ones he was officially presumed dead in 2008.
When I interviewed Bradfield more than a decade ago, while Edwards was officially still missing, the singer was frank in saying that he could completely understand why people saw a mythical appeal in his bandmate's disappearance. It's fair to say that the Manics have shown admirable patience with inquisitive fans and journalists nursing an obsession with something that happened more than 20 years ago.
If anything, though, he feels the band were probably too open in talking about Edwards' disappearance. "I do look back at some interviews and I regret them because you could view it like we were trapped in that situation but we were almost too willing to talk about it. I was still quite a young 26 or 27, still suspended by the experience of being in a band and that makes you a tiny bit younger. We made mistakes. You read some of it and sometimes I think it's that Spinal Tap cod psychology, interpreting somebody else's supposed motivation."
Bradfield, Wire and Moore spent the subsequent months waiting for news, before gradually facing up to the possibility - however remote or certain - that answers might never come. For most observers at the time, the most likely expectation was that the Manic Street Preachers would split up. "Every day stretched out, like the shittest nightmare ever," is Wire's succinct memory of that period.
"In the end we just said let's just try to be with each other and write a song and see what it feels like," says Bradfield. The first song out of the blocks was "Design For Life", a record that Bradfield describes as "like a lifeline". He sang it down the phone to Wire and said, "I think we've cracked it."
As well as the release and relief provided by the band working together again, Sean Moore believes that their dedication served another purpose, however far in the back of their minds. "'Design For Life' came together so quickly and seemed so complete that it gave us that impetus to carry on in the blind hope that maybe it would be a call to arms to Richey," he admits. "Even if he just said, 'Great, I like what you're doing but it's not for me.' That went on for many years, until only recently, I think."
Released 14 months after Edwards' disappearance, the single was a critical and commercial juggernaut, selling more than 200,000 copies and dominating the airwaves during a long, hot Britpop summer. Not bad for a song with a title inspired by Joy Division and which starts with the words "Libraries gave us power". As Moore says of the musical landscape at the time: "There was a resurgence of working-class culture and reflecting about circumstance and where you came from, whether that was through Oasis and Manchester and Blur and London. We were like Wales' representative." The album Everything Must Go went on to yield three more top ten singles and would itself go triple platinum in the UK, selling more than two million worldwide.
"For once, we could just fall into the fantasy of just being a successful band where things were going right," says Wire of the time. "To have a record where every week something good happened... it's the one time that I can honestly say it was really enjoyable being in a band."
Not that the success wasn't tinged with regret. "Those still moments [post-gig] when you get back to your room, have a shower and order a BLT or whatever; it was always then. It was very bittersweet," says Bradfield. "The dust would settle and you'd be left with your own thoughts. And for a long time it always came down to, 'I wonder whether Richey would have hated that or liked it?' I can't know."
Two years after the considerable sales, critical acclaim and awards for Everything Must Go, the band went one better with This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. It earned two Brit Awards again, for Best Album and Best Group, but a further double in their first No1 album and No1 single with "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next". The title is taken from a Spanish Civil War poster - testament again to their ability to write a damn catchy tune with the unlikeliest of subjects. This achievement remains a source of immense pride to Wire and, in this respect, their next No1 "Masses Against The Classes" was even more impressive. A socialist anthem inspired by a William Gladstone statement, the song starts with a Noam Chomsky quote and ends with one by Albert Camus. Somehow, this managed to be the first newly released No1 single of the Millennium, knocking Westlife off the top spot. It was, alas, replaced by Britney Spears.
That first month of 2000 may have been the last time the Manic Street Preachers had a No1 song, but since then they've released a total of 12 albums, including Send Away The Tigers, with their anthemic duet with The Cardigans' Nina Persson, "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough"; Journal For Plague Lovers, with all lyrics by Edwards and a Jenny Saville cover banned by supermarkets; and Futurology and Rewind The Film, which were, impressively, released within six months of one other.
As the world has long since come to expect from the Manics, they've been far from quiet away from the studio. Not that Fidel Castro would concur. Controversially - and, regrettably, according to Wire, in terms of cost and future immigration problems from America to Eastern Europe (especially when The Rolling Stones have inexplicably laid claim to the same breakthrough this year) - the band played Havana's Karl Marx Theatre arena in 2001, the first Western act to play there for 20 years. Meeting Cuba's Communist leader backstage, the Manic Street Preachers apologised in advance if the show was going to be too loud for him. "Will it be louder than war?" was the gently withering retort that was later used, in tribute, as their live DVD title.
The Manics also look comfortable with their place as an arena - and, on occasion, stadium - act; this summer's Everything Must Go 20th anniversary tour will include a date at Swansea City's Liberty Stadium and two shows at the Royal Albert Hall. "We're one of those bands where people are always quite shocked at the scale of venues we're doing," says Wire. "We exist in a weird kind of hinterland of that never-been-in-that-superband bracket."
As Wire admits, the band never really went away, remaining culturally relevant while those acts whose longevity you'd have put money on have long since disappeared - "They've weathered beautifully," as Rob Stringer puts it. The Manics, incidentally, are now the band of choice for their homeland, with their official Welsh team anthem for Euro 2016 poignantly titled "Stronger Together (C'mon Wales)".
No one has ever wanted them to go away, and why would we when they still offer so much in terms of not just music but personality; fascination; everything. It's great that Coldplay and Adele win Brit awards, but seriously, when did anyone want to dress like them, quote them, consume books, films and politics like they do?
Wire, of course, has a more modest assessment: "I think the band is underrated because we've never stopped. Everyone has watched us grow old. We've outworked everyone."