Decades after their guitarist vanished, Manic Street Preachers have revised the midlife manual, reports Will Hodgkinson
In 2010, Nicky Wire faced a crisis. For the first time, he wondered just how much longer he could carry off being a star-jumping, cross-dressing, controversy-generating bassist and songwriter in one of the UK’s biggest bands.
“It was after a gig in Cambridge,” says Wire, a genial 44-year-old who, with his pink jacket, Aviator shades and rangy frame, still does a good impression of a rock star. “I came off stage. I had silver leggings from Top Shop, a school blazer, nothing on my feet, make-up everywhere and I could hardly walk. And I looked at myself in the mirror and thought: ‘I’m not quite sure about this. There’s only so long I can travel the world and make people clap their hands for the Manic Street Preachers before my arthritic knee collapses and my dislocated shoulder gives out.’”
We are in Wire’s hotel room in Waterloo, London. It’s pathologically neat, proving that rumours of his mania for cleanliness are not unfounded. We are talking before Wire, singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore, childhood friends from the former mining town of Blackwood in Wales, head off for rehearsals for their forthcoming tour. The Manic Street Preachers survived early ridicule, the death of their manager Philip Hall and the disappearance and probable suicide of their lyricist/guitarist Richey Edwards to become the only band in history to hit No 1 with a song about the Spanish Civil War (If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, in 1998). They have been huge ever since. Now something is wrong.
Rewind The Film, their new album, is a long way from the epic, commercial rock that they have played for everybody from Fidel Castro to Strictly Come Dancing. Melancholic, reflective and full of doubt, it begins with This Sullen Welsh Heart, in which Bradfield sings one of Wire’s most brutal lines: “I don’t want my children to grow up like me / it’s so soul-destroying, it’s a mocking disease.” That sets the tone for an album that squares up to the realities of disillusionment (Running Out of Fantasy), getting old (Rewind the Film, which features Richard Hawley) and the conclusion that things are only going to get worse (pretty much everything else).
“I feel a bit bad because I’ve dragged the band down into uncommercial territory,” Wire says, “but when you’re on Strictly Come Dancing in a leopardskin print and loads of make-up, and then you’re back at home in Wales the next morning doing the school run, you question things.”
Wire is even losing his taste for the well-timed insult. In the past, he has told a New York audience that killing John Lennon was the only good thing America ever did, used a set at Glastonbury to announce his wishes for a bypass to be built over the site and called Billy Bragg a “big-nosed twat”. Now he’s regretting a relatively mild comparison of Coldplay to Enya. “My armoury is not the same as it was,” he says. “Our interviews used to be full of bile, which we thought was funny — we had a good education in reading interviews with Morrissey and Ian McCulloch and we never had the desire to be loved — but for the last five years I’ve been aware of walking around festivals and seeing all the people I’ve offended.”
Wire claims he’s trying to learn how to avoid “becoming a rock star dick, with a house full of nannies”. Actually, Rewind the Film is filled with issues we all face as we get older: watching our power and energy fade, wondering what our place in the world will be. But Wire is only in his mid-forties. For the modern-day rock star, that’s adolescent.
“It’s a Welsh trait,” Wire says, of his tendency towards gloominess. “Richey and I were middle-aged at 22. I walk around Newport and people still call me a poof. I go to my mum’s for ham and eggs every other week. When you’re brought up on Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot you realise that the extraordinary is in the mundane. And we were always an organised band. Richey was never late for anything. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. I’ve never taken drugs and I don’t drink. Much as I enjoy reading about Pete Doherty’s crazy adventures, we were never like that.”
From the beginning, the Manics haven’t fitted in. After attending the same comprehensive in Blackwood, they formed with the idea of marrying socialist principles with heavy metal glamour, and escaping a town that was, according to Bradfield, “only ever in the news when it was described as a condemned, vacuous hellhole”. They were the one indie band in late-Eighties Britain to confess to a love of Guns N’ Roses.
“Now you’ll see Guns N’ Roses T-shirts everywhere you look, but I remember wearing one at a party for Heavenly [the band’s then label] and people were telling me I was disgusting,” Wire says. “That’s when it hit me: these people worshipped really timid indie bands. That was never going to get us out of Blackwood, or describe the rock solos James was about to unleash.”
They learned how to grab attention. They claimed they would release the biggest album in the world, and then split up (Generation Terrorists sold 250 ,000 copies and they are still with us). In 1992, responding to suggestions that they were little more than an extended publicity stunt, Edwards carved “4REAL” into his arm before a horrified Steve Lamacq, then of the NME .
Later events suggest it was an early sign of Edwards’s disintegration. As Holy as the Soil, one of the most affecting songs on Rewind the Film, is an ode to Edwards, who used The Holy Bible, the band’s masterpiece album from 1994, to articulate his problems with anorexia, self-harm and depression before disappearing in 1995. His car was found near the Severn Bridge, but he never was. He was declared dead in 2008.
“I miss him being a brilliant rock star,” Wire says of his old friend. “He was self-originated, as Francis Bacon once said about himself. If he were around today, Richey would be the insane male version of Lady Gaga. Sky News would be buzzing over him in the Skycopter and he would have the world’s biggest Twitter following. Or he might have gone down the J.D. Salinger route and become a recluse. In any case, he would be a star.”
On that note, Bradfield walks in. Wire looks like he was genetically engineered to be a rock star, as did Edwards, but Bradfield is cut from a different cloth. With his black quiff and short, stocky frame, he is a dead ringer for the 1960s bus driver-turned-crooner Matt Monro, or as he rather more cruelly puts it, “the Welsh Joe Pesci”.
Bradfield did try and wear make-up in the early days, but he says he ended up looking like a miner who hadn’t managed to wipe off all the coal dust from that day’s work. He tries to describe what it’s like being in a band with a man who finds housework a great way to unwind, and whose sense of the perverse means following a string of hits with an album as unrelenting as Rewind the Film.
“I’ve known Nick all my life and I have to say, this album is a window into his soul,” he says. Is Wire obsessive-compulsive? “Look around this room. But at the same time he loves it when everything falls apart. When he feels passionate about something, he’s unstoppable, and when his hatred kicks in he’s unreachable. Yet he has a pragmatic streak, too, and it’s that third element to his character that allows him to keep going. Richey didn’t have that pragmatism.”
I ask Bradfield what he thinks about Wire’s reflective mood. “Is it folly to be in a rock’n’roll band at 44?” Bradfield asks himself. “If you’re expecting to sell as many records as you used to, don’t be in this group. And you can’t still be pinpointing things that are going on in your times. We wrote NatWest-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds , with its line about the “black horse apocalypse”, in 1992. We’ve had two economic crashes since then. It’s about time some kids started worrying about this stuff, rather than us.”
On that note, Wire pops back into the room. “I forgot something,” he says, but he’s obviously earwigging. As Wire bustles about, just out of view, Bradfield muses on the future of the band. Despite the portentous mood of Rewind the Film, they have already recorded their next album, a jagged blast of post-punk called Futurology. Bradfield has plans after that, too: “I’d like to do a concept album, like our version of Bowie’s Pin Ups. Or maybe I just want to be like Ritchie Blackmore and play a few humongous riffs.”
“I’m not listening!” Wire claims from the other side of the cupboard.
“Nick’s a pessimistic bastard, but I always see hope,” Bradfield says, ignoring the not-so-secret surveillance. Both, however, conclude that there is too much at stake to let the Manic Street Preachers go. “Every time I’m about to go on stage, I think: ‘Why am I putting myself through this when I could be at home, watching Celebrity Masterchef?’” Bradfield says. “But then you get out there and it all makes sense. And it’s not just the music we would lose. It’s the friendships. It goes too deep.”