TV Guide claims that "'7th Heaven' is the best show you're not watching." To the same effect, The Manic Street Preachers are the best band you're not listening to. The group which formed some eight years ago in their hometown of Blackwood, Wales, is on their fifth full-length, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. In recent years they've won virtually every award possible in their native country, including numerous Brits (sort of like a UK Grammy), and kudos from such publications as The Independent, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, Melody Maker, NME, Select, Vox, Kerrang!, Music Week and Hot Press; they were even given Q magazine's Best Band In The World Today award, about which Manics' lead singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield said he didn't see how that could be possible, considering no one in America knew who they were.
Three years ago, Bradfield shrewdly observed "If a British band comes to America and they're really gung-ho and they go 'We are British and we're going to break America' people just switch off. We can understand that America has got its own culture, so why should they take us onboard? We come here to do our stuff, [if] something happens, it happens and if it doesn't we're not going to be insulted. Of course we'd like to sell records, but we're not going to push ourselves on people. It either happens or it doesn't, and we're not going to say, 'You should like us because we are fucking amazing.' We're not going to say that anymore."
Now, in 1999, after leaving their home of almost a decade at Sony and moving to Virgin, Bradfield's attitude hasn't changed much. With his ideas about America still based firmly in reality, he admits, "Truthfully, it doesn't matter nearly as much as it used to. When you're very young you feel indestructible. You have this image in your head landing at Kennedy Airport. You want to be a phenomenon. On our first experience, we got rebuffed by the industry in such a grand manner we didn't have that need any more. With America, you've either got to be mentally in love with conquering it or just go and not care. I think we're like that. We're too old to play in front of 20 people. We are experienced enough to know what things can destroy you and avoid them."
Starting as a foursome with all the enthusiasm and immortality of youth, the Manic Street Preachers as a group are an extension of a tight friendship between Bradfield and his cousin, drummer Sean Moore, who took over the music side of the young band, while bassist Nicky Wire and rhythm guitarist Richey James (born Richey Edwards) took over the lyrical side. Obsessively listening to The Clash was the first musical love affair for the group, particularly Bradfield. "There were so many thing Joe Strummer was saying - I didn't have a clue what was going on, it was a complete and utter garbled mess. It was the music that took possession of me first; then, after that, I realised the music was informed by something really vital and really articulate - then I started to find out what the lyrics were."
Guns 'N' Roses and Public Enemy followed suit as the object of the Manics' teenage obsessions. "I don't try and intellectualise why I like those groups. I like the fact they they were such extreme opposites. Public Enemy, for me, was the only time I listened to a record and went and got the lyric sheet," remembers Bradfield. "It was strange I liked something that came from such an alien world, just connected - it was magical . I'd listened to rap before, but no one sang like Chuck D. He had so many characters. It sounded like his voice was trying to get down your throat off the record."
The Manic Street Preachers' first album, Generation Terrorists (1992), tried to be a combination of everything they loved, musically, but instead fell into a void which Bradfield feels is his fault for being idealistically naive. Still, the fucked-up sound of the record, one that isn't palatable to any kind of audience, has its place in his mind. Their follow-up, Gold Against The Soul (1993), was even more confusing due to the group's disillusionment in themselves, their belief that they could be focussed and universal fell on deaf ears. Their third work, The Holy Bible (1994), turned on itself. Not knowing what to believe anymore, they desperately wanted to find something and didn't come up with anything.
1995 was the year of the widely publicised disappearance of Manics guitarist Richey James. As co-lyricist (with Wire), James expressed his dark emotions most profoundly on The Holy Bible, for which he wrote the majority of the lyrics. Clinically depressed, anorexic and armed with a penchant for self-mutilation, James was the glamorous and mysterious member of the Manics. Since his disappearance there have been reported sightings, however, he hasn't made contact with anyone who knew him, and no body has been found.
"For us it's not mysterious - for us it's deep and personal. We all grew up in the same town, we were all best friends before we formed the group, we've known each other since before the age of 10. When this thing happened with Richey, for me, I think of memories of my childhood. I don't think of things that happened with the group. He's not just a band-member, he's somebody that lived within a mile of me for nearly all my life; so is Nick, so is Sean. You get drawn into it because it's really mythological and iconoclastic," says Bradfield. "The first two years it was everywhere , I think people want to know more about that ongoing myth - and they can't know more about it until they leave it alone, until hearsay builds up and the image builds up. Everything that's there to be unearthed has been unearthed, so far that [the media] can't regurgitate it at the moment, which is quite nice. It didn't feel as if we had anything personal left, it was public domain, it's still omnipresent."
With lyrics to three songs left behind by James (as well as two others co-written with Wire), the Manics released their fourth full-length, Everything Must Go, in 1996. A work with a strange kind of twisted euphoria about it. Everything Must Go was an implosion that resulted in a release for the remaining members. With Everything Must Go, the Manics began to experience significant success, something that was frowned upon by hardcore followers who were with them from the beginning and who felt that the Manics had changed to sell out.
"Everything Must Go was natural," Bradfield responds to the accusations. "The Holy Bible was so different from the second one. If we'd gone on to make The New Testament or something, it would have been such a caricature - it was a natural state for us. We were living in a different world when we did [The Holy Bible]. We had nothing at that point. As a group we weren't doing that well. We went out on a limb to do the most personal record we could ever do. [We] indulged ourselves in every sense, and I don't think it's particularly healthy; we made the most suicidal record, in terms of career. That just proves we were living in a world of our own making. We couldn't go on and do that again; it would have been a completely empty gesture. What I find strange is that people find it bizarre to change rather than stay the same. We can see how we change, we've always known - except for The Holy Bible, that wasn't something we knew was going to happen - we've always seen how we're going to react to ourselves, we know what we want to do in the future."
With This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, the Manics have experienced at least three first; they feel like a threesome, they feel serene and the lyrics can almost be understood. With the noticeable absence of James' physical and lyrical presence, Wire and Bradfield wanted the record to be more of a religious effort, with certain lyrics that Bradfield imagines could be sung in a church. Bradfield credits Wire for being able to understand what he's singing. "Richey's lyrics were very much more stream-of-consciousness; he never made that many poetic concessions in terms of rhyme and meter, he did whatever," he explains. "Whereas Nick is different; he does like writing to form. That's why his writing stretches, and the end result is the words are easier. I'm not saying that's better or worse - it's just the way it is."
Bradfield has never taken on the lyric-writing duties, even though his impassioned and fervent delivery make them as much part of him as if he had written them himself. "My own lyrics have never even inspired me to write music. I grew up with Nicky and Richey, when they gave me their first lyrics ever, I wrote my first song. I don't sit around writing pieces of music I only ever write music when they give me lyrics. Their lyrics actually give me the inspiration to write music," he elaborates. "When you're best friends with somebody, there's no ego involved, so when we formed the band, we just said whoever can do what they can do to the best of their ability should do it. Richey and Nicky couldn't write at all, they could hardly play at that time; my lyrics were shit and Sean didn't write any lyrics. We all did for each other what we couldn't do for ourselves. Since we all grew up in the same town with each other, I'd read the lyrics and recognise shared experiences in the lyrics. It wasn't as if these people were giving me lyrics and I didn't know who they were."
He concludes, "I spend ages reading the lyrics before I write any music to it. I've always found when I try to write music without lyrics it's usually pretty dire. I've always found that I connect with the music first, but within the lyrics is the sole reason the music's connected with me."