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'They Were Catnip For Music Writers': How Manic Street Preachers Blew Up The 1990s - GQ, 14th November 2020

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Title: 'They Were Catnip For Music Writers': How Manic Street Preachers Blew Up The 1990s
Publication: GQ
Date: Saturday 14th November 2020
Writer: Robin Turner, Martin Kelly

Manic Street Preachers were often furious, sometimes transcendent and always confrontational. And a new book on cult indie label Heavenly Recordings looks back at how they became the darlings of the music press almost overnight.

When Manic Street Preachers sauntered onto the Welsh music scene in the very late 1980s, insincere musicians – pop stars and poseurs – did well to look over their shoulders. Heralds of a nascent Cool Cymru movement, dripping with as much authenticity as disdain for many of their peers, the Manics burst out of South Wales and were soon signed to Jeff Barrett’s record label, Heavenly Recordings, itself only a year old. They would only release two singles on Heavenly, but the songs turned out to be among the band’s most important; already, they were outspoken in their music and in interviews. Promotion for “You Love Us”, released on Heavenly in May 1991, famously saw Richey Edwards carve “4Real” into his arm with a razor during an interview with the NME, resulting in 17 stitches. Naturally, the press couldn’t get enough of them. Here, in an exclusive extract from Believe In Magic: 30 Years Of Heavenly Recordings, author Robin Turner and Barrett’s longtime partner at Heavenly, Martin Kelly, look back on one of the most influential bands ever to blaze brightly on the label.

Robin Turner: Manic Street Preachers would have seemed like an anomaly wherever they came from. The band arrived from Blackwood, South Wales, fuelled by a fierce, uptight and righteous self-belief totally at odds with the loose-limbed and loved-up shrug of “baggy”, a sound very much the flavour of the month with the music press in 1990. Here were four kids in tight white jeans and spray-painted Miss Selfridge blouses citing Public Enemy and Guns N’ Roses while making a noise that sounded like the first Clash album joyriding the Welsh Valleys at pub kicking-out time. Here was a band completely out of step with the zeitgeist.

Image may contain: Richey Edwards, Musical Instrument, Guitar, Leisure Activities, Human, Person, Musician, and Music Band Yet, when they signed to Heavenly and released their first single, they drew a line in the sand. You’re either with us or against us. Interviews were wild and confrontational, kicking against anyone and everyone. In their world, they expected to sell 16 million copies of their debut album and split up, Slowdive were worse than Hitler and youth culture was just another invented product. They, and they alone, were 4 Real. It was addictive and intoxicating, catnip for music writers desperate for something quotable and also for a growing tribe of fans who quickly adopted aspects of the band’s look when manning the barriers at the front of the stage.

The Manics’ Heavenly output is minimal – two scorch-mark singles and a handful of B-sides. Those tracks propelled the band from bottom of the bill at the Camden Underworld to the cover of the NME, in the process becoming one of the UK’s most consistently brilliant and perpetually confrontational rock’n’roll bands.

Martin Kelly: We’d heard about the Manics through Bob Stanley and Kevin Pearce’s excitable testimonials but we hadn’t seen them play live. Philip [Hall, Manic Street Preachers’ manager] got in touch with Jeff saying, “I really want you to come and see my band.” Their next London gig was at the Rock Garden [in August 1990]. It wasn’t the kind of venue you usually saw up-and-coming bands in and was known as a pay-to-play gig. The bill on the night was really odd – four random bands that really didn’t fit together. We went in and it was pretty empty. We were at the back of the hall and there weren’t more than a few bodies dotted around the rest of the room. That didn’t stop the Manics walking on with the kind of confidence you’d expect from a band headlining Wembley Arena. And when they played, boy, did they mean it. They were burning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band that’s performed like that in such a tiny, sparsely populated venue.

My first reaction was to laugh. It wasn’t laughing at them, it was like a physical reaction to their sincerity, which seemed so mad and out of place. I think Jeff and I were just thrown by how on fire they were. Our laughter quickly turned to us saying, “Fuck, they’re amazing!” The gig ended with Nicky Wire completely trashing his bass on stage, which is no mean feat. It seemed like such a bold – some might say crazed – gesture in front of so few people. They really were for real.

We quickly started talking about how we had to sign them, but each of us questioned how that was possible. Heavenly was perceived as a dance label, each of the releases up to that point had been born out of this new club culture, whether it was Sly & Lovechild, Saint Etienne or Flowered Up. The lightbulb moment was the realisation that that was exactly why we should sign them. If acid house had done one thing, it had torn down barriers and made anything seem possible. Why not sign a Welsh punk rock band?

After the gig we headed backstage, although the venue didn’t really have a dressing room. There was just a corridor with bright, horrible strip-lighting and what looked like cupboard doors that you had to step up into to get onto the stage. That space just made their ferocity on stage all the more incredible. They were all back there, looking pretty dejected when Jeff uttered the immortal words, “We’d really like to put your records out.” Sean [Moore] turned to us and immediately responded, “Fuck off,” which was the prompt for us christening him Rude Kid after the Viz character. Nicky then said, “Who are you? Fucking EMI?” James just sat there with his head down, quietly watching what was going on. There was a lot of animosity firing back at us, which was a bit unexpected. When we said we were from Heavenly, the mood visibly lightened. They knew Saint Etienne, and James and Richey had seen Flowered Up in Newport a few weeks before. From there, everything started rolling.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a band that have polarised opinion in the way they did, and I don’t think I ever will again. People either loved them or detested them. It felt like there were more haters at the start and that we had our work cut out winning people over. A lot of people thought we were mad. I remember Alan McGee telling me as much, but people like Andrew Weatherall and Jon Savage got it and began spreading the word on our behalf. It felt like you were fighting the band’s corner. We got to love them as people very quickly, and it felt like we were on the same side, punching outwards.

When they went to Columbia, I felt really sad that they were leaving Heavenly. I knew it was part of their manifesto and I knew we didn’t have the money to fulfil their ambitions – Revolver were backing out financially, so there was no way we could fund the kind of record they were determined to make. I would love to have heard a Manics album made in the way that they were recording for us, on the limited funds we’d worked with up to that point, but we all knew from the start that wasn’t going to happen. Philip and the band were always really straight with us about their plans and, at the end of the day, they knew exactly what they were doing.