My memories of the Manics
It’s hard to imagine Richey being in The Manics now. Every time I think of the doe-eyed kid with the frantic burning mind and messed-up soul I just feel sad. His disappearance, like Cobain’s suicide, is one of the lowest pop moments of that decade...two sensitive souls who got burnt, not strong enough for the demanding and ultimately vapid regime of celebrity.
On 2 February 1995 the most troubled and poetic UK musician of his generation disappeared. The band rightly carried on cutting some of their best songs. Weighed down for ever by the disappearance of Edwards, who for the core fans was their totem, they survived and thrived, becoming one of the key British bands.
At some points they violently opposed the consensus and at others fitted in better than they ever dreamed.
The Manic Street Preachers’ story is a titanic story of rock ‘n’ roll dreams come true. A tale of heady idealism and sharp political suss countered with the nightmare of a young man who stared too hard into the dark heart of rock ‘n’ roll and got burned.
It’s a story of beautiful contradictions. A high IQ rock ‘n’ roll balanced with wilful self destruct. A pumped-up steroid-drenched metallic rock from a band that oozed a delicious femininity. A band had a desire to conquer the world and an inbuilt self-destruction, a streak of musical conservatism with a revolutionary soul.
Fuck, what a band!
The nineties saw them go from wild-hearted outsiders with an agenda so sharp that most people didn’t get it to the comfort of stadium rock. From gobshites with a stunning agenda; mascaraed Strummers with a glam Marxist manifesto, to chart regulars in baggy pants. They tapped into the underlying melancholia that stains the times. The misty valley melancholy that is inherent in the rusting Welsh industrial belt of proud people whose backs have been broken by vicious postwar governments.
They took the delicate minor key Welsh melodies and supercharged them with roaring fat Les Paul guitar rock n roll. It’s a formula that worked. Originally their punk-rooted music sailed over most people’s heads - arriving in the middle of baggy and their non-stop rhetoric and sky-high dreams left most mainstream pundits wondering if they were serious.
By the end of the decade they were the mainstream, singing their power ballads and rock ‘n’ roll missives in packed stadiums.They had come a million miles from their starting point but somehow managed to retain the emotional kick and confused idealism that had always made them such a great band.
The Manics are pop’s conscience, except that they are not sniping from the sidelines. They are right in there in the middle of the fray. They have the ability to be hilariously rude and disarmingly polite. They loved The Clash but were smart enough to use Guns n’ Roses as the chassis of their sound, adding the Clash’s swagger and soul and subtracting the Guns n’ Roses crass dumb rhetoric. It’s difficult to believe now that they are constantly feted and groaning under the weight of music-biz awards, that when The Manics burst onto the scene in 1990 they were treated with contempt and a thinly veiled near racism that sneered at their Welsh background.
In the middle of the baggy era they were out of time, they believed in skin-tight punk-rock songs, a vicious attack of socialist slogans and an outright contempt for their contemporaries. They were a long way from the stoned play-dumb of most bands at the time and a long, long way from the 1990 zeitgeist but for a few of us that believed in their dream they were a welcome godsend.
I’d already reviewed them, mentioned them in dispatches, but it was getting them on to the cover of Sounds with their third single the Heavenly released ‘Motown Junk’ that still gives me the biggest buzz from my journo days.
Interviewing The Manics for their first-ever front cover that was published on 26th January 1991 was a different affair than now. Cooped up with the penniless band in the back of a transit van grabbing quotes, we were round the corner from Jeff Barrett’s Heavenly record label who were frantically attempting to sell the band to a sceptical music business.
Perched on their amps were four wired Welsh kids in love with punk rock - especially the smeared mascara end of the glam punk fallout and the warm Les Paul riffing of Guns N’ Roses as well as the non-stop polemic of the crucial hip-hop guerrillas Public Enemy.
They were rock culture freaks with dog-eared volumes of r ‘n’ r history, fingers stained with the newsprint of the weekly music press, shelves of well-thumbed Orwells and related literature. They seemed to have read everything related to pop culture and would speak about it with the intense authority of true believers who have been cooped up for too long and are ready to tell the world what they feel - because they felt everything and that was the crucial twist.
They may have been ear-marking certain journalists to expound their mythology to, but we were not dupes. We wanted the band to make it almost as badly as they did. All we did was to add to their myth - after all there had to be some sort of romanticism in dead days for firebrand rock n roll.
Instead of having qualms about ‘selling out’ or cowering under the Indie Law, The Manics were already thinking big. They were also distancing themselves from the crippling indie thinking that was crushing most post-punk guitar hustlers of the time.
‘You’ve got to reach out on a massive level,’ claimed guitarist Richey James Edwards in the ice-cold shit-heap of a van. A typical tour bus piled with cheap amps and expensive rhetoric, adding ‘Once we’ve done that we will fade away. We want to make ourselves obsolete as fast as possible. It’s no good just inspiring groups. People go on about The Stones inspiring the Paris riots in ’68 which was fine but they just carried on. That’s so obscene...’
Richey spoke in a quiet, appalled voice. To him rock ‘n’ roll was art at its purest but it also stank. All the heroes had gone. A rock ‘n’ roll romantic he was sickened by the greed machine that the music scene was. The Manics were the last band on earth that believed in the power of rock ‘n’ roll. They really thought that it could bring change. And that’s why we loved them.
‘We can put out a song out like “Repeat”,’ intoned bassist Nicky Wire. ‘It’s like five lines repeated over and over like “repeat after me fuck queen and country” and if you’re in a position of power it will go straight in at number one. I think that it would cause a lot of problems because of the nature of the lyrics...’ The naivety if the band was touching.
The pre-fame rock ‘n’ roll loving Manics were, conversely, disdainful of the rock ‘n’ roll myth. They had a puritanical streak. A disavowing of the trad rock pastimes that Nicky still adheres to right up to this day. Speaking then he sneered at the myth.’Cheap hedonism. It’s always been exploited all the time. Every government must be happy with feeding people alcohol and drugs. It’s like people say I hate society so I’m going to be bombed out of my skull...’
These were sentiments that the band would return to for the monumental ‘Design For Life’. Nicky, a lanky bag of bones, had that sort of too tall frame perfect for cradling a bass and was huddled inside a blue padded anorak, hunched in the cold van. Wire was disarmingly polite as he spat out his anger and disgust at the music scene. He seemed to hate every band on the scene. He also broadened his disgust to the world at large. ‘It’s really frustrating - people can’t articulate their anger, they just attack each other. If they ran down the street and smashed up Tescos or the job centre that would be perfect. I’m not snobbish about these people though. These are the people that I hang around with when I’m back home...’
Unlike hipster London bands the Manics had roots. They were sneered at precisely because they came fro somewhere outside the elite. Even punk had been initially an luxury item, an expensive toy for the London party scene.
Whilst hating what they saw, the apathy and numbing boredom The Manics had high hopes for their pop generation - they sensed a revolutionary spirit. ‘The revolutionary class is every kid that’s pissed off. You’re just not going to get old people involved. They have too much to lose. Young people, though, have got no fear. They don’t care what happens to them. Like at football matches. When you’ve got no fear you can do anything.’
Having no fear in 1990 included wearing make-up and glamming it up. At the height of the baggy wars the very sight of The Manics was enough to trigger a very negative response in most people. For Wire their image was a deliberate statement of intent. ‘When we play everyone knows that we are pissed off. You know that. You can feel it. But we don’t want to reflect that by looking really grey. We put on stacks of eye liner, spike our hair, spray our clothes. We want to be the perfect mix between politics and beauty...’
Richey peered up, nodding his agreement with his bashful yet fierce eyes. Him and Nicky were glam on the dole. Dressed to the nines even their clothes spat polemic. Stencilled with slogans and snarling with pop art reference points. They were wardrobe with attitude. Such a stance was unheard of in the early nineties and it was a stance that made them feel very alienated.
Their contemporaries left them cold. If they didn’t fit into The Manics’ idea of perfect rock ‘n’ roll they were the enemy. ‘You look at other bands and think...it’s so obscene that fat people are allowed in groups. It’s like when I saw The Charlatans on TV and their audience had moustaches...’ they explained looking genuinely appalled.
To get a real picture of what The Manics were up against you have to have a swift look at the music scene at the time. The pop mainstream was, as ever,crap, while the so-called alternative scene was dominated by the loose-fit clobber and attitudes of baggy. The Manics, with all their Clash-inspired spray paint slogans and skin-tight white Levis and their super-sharp rhetoric, were clashing decisively with the playing-dumb indie rockers of the time. Instead of keeping schtum they slagged off rival bands. Inevitably they were hated. But they were taking their all-out pop war to the people. Having supported Flowered Up on a Heavenly Records package on 16 November 1990 they were ramming their new art riot right at the baggy kids.
Wire was pleased at the connections being made. ‘After those gigs the kids were coming up and saying they were really into us. They had never seem a band like us before, you know, jumping up and down. They don’t want to know about the past. They want to know about something that is happening in their lifetime. Bands like New Model Army are too wrapped up in a political manifesto. Their singer comes over just like a teacher.’
They were disgusted by everything but offered no solutions apart from themselves. This was a culture war and they were pop art suicide bombers. ‘It’s important that people don’t see us as a dogmatic band,’ worried Richey. ‘We’re just like them. We can’t write a thesis on reviving the world’s economy like The Redskins. We are a product of these times.’
Their shooting from the hip polemic and wired, intense pop socialism was at a direct contrast to the dope, shagging and football in the streets roots of the new laddism that was busting out all over Blighty. The Manics, it seemed, cared. They cared about everything. Clothes, politics, rock ‘n’ roll and life, whilst everyone else just got stoned.
It was a refreshing and thrilling contrast and made their first series of incendiary interviews the perfect launch pad for their career. They hated everything that was gross and flabby in the then current music scene. They talked with the incendiary fervour of rock ‘n’ roll zealots, lips unbuttoned and eyes burning with a righteous intensity. ‘We’re nihilistic,’ they lied. ‘It’s a really positive thing. We want to destroy the hierarchy in this country- the monarchy, the house of lords. Homophobia. Racism.’ Lofty aims for a showbiz troupe but noble aims for any man.
Richey, in his quiet voice, would zigzag through a whole heap of cultural targets. His kohled eyes shyly hidden below a bird’s nest of died jagged black hair, his post-teen fading pock-marked skin and handsome face - Richey was a kid blossoming into a pop star. That afternoon in the van the whole world was in front of him. he had the burning belief in the talents of his comrades his eyes were bright with that belief, his intelligence, all too rare in rock n roll, was inspiring.
The Manics knew that they didn’t fit but they were coming out fighting. They would spend the whole of 1991 gigging the fuck out of the UK in front of sceptical audiences who were denying their swagger and locked into the grey. Sometimes it was violent and sometimes it was ecstatic, but out of the debris of the UK music scene they were picking up a hardcore following.
I remember seeing shows at the Boardwalk in Manchester and the meagre audience just didn’t like the band’s eye liner more than anything.
The band itself was a classic mix between two almost earnestly talented musicians, James and Sean, and the two maverick souls of Richey and Nicky- the onstage wingers who wrote the words. Words that James would shoe-horn (occasionally there were just too many words resulting in a few slurred lines!) into his music and bring to life with his powerful rock ‘n’ roll voice.
It’s one of the key strands of The Manics, the way that James would make sense of Richey’s pain or Nicky’s anger and, along with criminally underrated Sean, makes the songs into classic slices of nineties rock n roll. A division of labour only possible in a band that knew each other inside out. All four were immersed in pop culture and very close. Some of them had shared the same bedroom back home in the Welsh mining town of Blackwood in Gwent.
Like kids everywhere they played football and Nicky excelled claiming to have gone on to captain the Welsh under 16s and getting trials for Arsenal.
While Nicky was thriving at football, Sean was the youngest trumpet player in the South Wales Jazz Orchestra and James was into drama. James and Nicky went to Swansea University to study history. The young Manics were winners; everything they touched seemed to turn to gold. They had known each other for years, Sean had even moved in with James, his cousin, after his parents had died. All four had the same music tastes and the same dreams when they were growing up. Dreams that could only result from a tight brotherhood forged from spending their intense youth cooped up together. They were a tight unit, endlessly debating rock ‘n’ roll, refining their tastes into a purist whole.
Grabbing what they needed from the indie scene, they were fired by the sharp-as-fuck polemic of bands like Big Flame which they crossed with the super cool punk rock of The Clash and the melodic metal of Guns N’Roses. They religiously read the rock press and Sean soon switched to drums from his trumpet.
They were smart.They were hip. They were angry and they had a plan. Rock ‘n’ roll, though, at first seemed a tough proposition. After leaving university Nicky put together Betty Blue with Sean and James and a mate of theirs called Flicker. Flicker soon left and the three-piece, complete with driver and master tactician Richey, put together their dole cheques recording their first single ‘Suicide Alley’ as the newly christened by James, Manic Street Preachers.
Already they had sent out demos of their fierce pop polemic to the right sort of heads on the press. The tape arrived complete with the song’s slash and burn lyrics and a biroed ranting letters slagging off the sorry state of the indie scene.
The seven inch was a short slice of razor-sharp punk rock and landed them in the no man’s land between the transit van punk of Mega City Four, the out and out hardcore of the US underground and the cranked guitar pop of the indie scene. Basically there was nowhere for the band to go.
The single was about the first thing they released as the Manic Street Preachers in late 1989. By now Richey was also out of university and was designing the band’s artwork and it wasn’t long before he would join as the band’s auxiliary guitarist. His sense of style and finely honed idea of what a band should be were the final pieces in the jigsaw. Richey started hustling the band in earnest - the usual round of sending out records to everyone who could possibly give them a break. I’ve still got my copy of the demo and the letter here.
Chasing a gig at the Horse and Groom in London, he sent a single to Kevin Pierce from Hungry beat fanzine. Pierce was fired by what he heard and gave the band their first London gig. Typically it was playing the capital that sparked the band’s next break. One of the punters at the gig that night, Ian Ballard was from the indie Damaged Goods label who offered them a one-off singles deal. They cut the ‘New Art Riot’ EP, another rush of punk-rock pop songs. This time they were getting a lot more attention, grabbing singles of the week and some press action. But the big break was their future manager Philip Hall who, on hearing the single, drove to Wales with his brother Martin to check the band rehearsing at a local school.
The Halls were hooked and were the important connection that would change the band’s lives. The band moved to London and into Phillip Halls’ tiny flat - an act of dedication by the managers beyond any other. Here they started breaking all the rock ‘n’roll rules by hoovering the place and tidying up to the nth degree.Here was a band that was quite definitely breaking the mould (as well as cleaning it up).
Even at this early stage they were looking to make a big impact. As Nicky related: "The eighties were really crap. Before we heard Public Enemy we had to go back in time before we found any inspiration. There was no contemporary stuff for us. I mean the fact that they’ve had to resurrect a band like the Velvet Underground is so pathetic..." He spat out ‘pathetic’ syllable by syllable,underlining his hatred. ‘When we started it was bands like Echo And The Bunnymen, Simple Minds and the Wedding Present...it was the most horrid time.’
After the Damaged Goods one-off single, they were signed by Heavenly Records.It was a perfect combination, Heavenly’s boss Jeff Barrett was a walking talking music maniac who loved The Clash. He was, alongside the Halls, the hippest press agent in London.
The band with the quotes were surrounded by the PRs with the influence. This whole thing was going to go.The press were beginning their intense love/hate affair with the group. Out on the circuit things weren’t so easy. At the early gigs the band would be met with a bemused silence. Their first shows in Manchester at the Boardwalk, in deathly dull colleges on the outskirts in London like on Friday, 11th January at Royal Holloway College at Egham in Surrey where they played one of the best gigs I have ever seen them deliver to a room of 10 bored students. The band were a blur of white denim and fierce self belief, they also sounded fantastic. A girl walked up to me and said I had the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen but I had to ignore her because the band were so amazing!
The next I saw them they were supporting Flowered Up at the now defunct International One in Manchester, the gigs were exercises in confusion and confrontation. Bemused pop kids would rant on about the band being a ‘hype’ and that they must be crap because ‘they wore make up’. The arguments I’d have on the band’s behalf in the Boardwalk bogs!
The Manics were hardly ingratiating themselves with the early nineties pop kid.They were too flash - always a cardinal sin in UK music scene - where genius is equated with ugliness. You would win no friends from the indie sector or the twilight world of John Peel where there were strict rules about what makes a valid group. A self-proclaimed broad-minded scene were men couldn’t wear make up, the indie underground could be defiantly conservative.
The band released two singles on Jeff Barrett’s Heavenly label to whom they signed in August 1990. There was the 1991 released fast shots of ‘Motown Junk’and the anthemic ‘You Love Us’, a response to the music media who felt that the band was cartoon punk. The Manics were meeting the massive wall of indifference head on.
So far, apart from their coterie of dedicated fans no-one seemed to be getting it. But ‘You Love Us’ was kicking up enough press fuss and gatecrashed the Top 75 grabbing No. 62. They toured the UK hard that winter. After the Manchester gig there was a party at the now defunct Brickhouse and The Manics were more like tired kids on the road than fire and brimstone dealing pop fanatics. Nicky moaned about having boils on his neck and started listing all his tour ailments. A full-on hypochondriac, Wire was about a million miles away from the rock ‘n’ roll archetype, just a tired lanky bassist loving and hating the rock ‘n’ roll on the road experience.
Their innate pop talent was already showing itself. James had one fuck of a great voice and was an effortlessly talented guitar player. His white Les Paul spat a superb fat melodic rock that was at once traditional, soaring and celebratory but tinged with an epic sadness. To many they were a joke band. Not the sort of rock ‘n’ roll that you could take seriously. They just weren’t drab enough to be dragged back into the great gutter of ‘real’ music.
Then the Richey arm incident put a different slant on things. You can see how the band. stung by accusations of not being ‘real’ by the anal ‘proper music’ Gestapo of the indie world, were driven to desperation. Being interviewed by Steve Lamacq backstage at Norwich Arts Centre on 15 May 1991 pushed the fragile guitar player over the edge. One of the few journalists who knew what he was talking about, Steve was a fan but was not hundred per cent convinced by them. He sniffed an element of the cartoon about them and pushed this line in an interview for the NME. Putting to the band the thought that some people thought they weren’t for real, Lamacq unintentionally opened up a hornet’s nest whilst the guitar player opened up his arm.
Richey produced a razor blade and carved ‘4 Real’ into forearm. He may have been committing a desperate gesture, but it makes for a powerful statement as the scarred guitar player holds up his ripped-up limb to the shocked NME photographer comma Ed Sirrs, minutes after carving one of the slogans of the decade into his forearm. His slashed arm and kohled eyes in the photo made him look like iconic - like a new decade Sid Vicious with a degree - a poster boy for every fucked up too sensitive teenager in the country.
It was a great rock ‘n’ roll gesture - irresponsible, sick and glorious, and loaded with meaning. It could also be the point that the soon to be icon started his descent into a mental hell. A week later they moved up from Heavenly to the big bucks Sony/Columbia organization. The Manics now had the machine behind them. Accusations of ‘sellout’ were laughable. It was the nineties. Time to get real. Time to get the music out to more people than the underground scene who were suspicious of them anyway.
Their first release on Sony was the July 1991 single ‘Stay Beautiful’ (No. 40 in the UK charts), followed by October 1991’s ‘Love’s Sweet Exile’ (No. 26);the major label backing saw them inching towards the mainstream. The re-release of ‘You Love Us’ (No. 16) early in 1992 finally saw the band in the top twenty. The Manics were on a slow upward curve. That March the crunching, stunning ‘Slash And Burn’ headbutted its way to No. 20. Their molotov missive stuffed debut album, Generation Terrorists, released in 1992, had scraped the teens of the album charts. This was fine but hardly the multi-million-selling missive that they had boasted they would release and then split up afterwards when their work was done!
The band were hit by the truth, rock n roll was a long, slow grind and their ecstatic fantasy of selling ten million records and then splitting was starting to look like a pipe dream. Real life is always tougher than the romantic vision. So they started to grind it out, if this was going to be a war of attrition the so be it. Throughout 1992 they were hammering home the mini hits. Their fan base was growing. For all their polemic and at odds defiance of the musical trends they could play great pop music. Track after track was being pulled from the Generation Terrorists album and hitting the Top 20...the powerful Slash And Burn (No. 20), the anthemic ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ (No. 17) and then that September they finally scored the big breakthrough with the cover of’Theme From M.A.S.H.’ (No. 7) putting them into the Top 10.
At last they had been accepted. Especially by their core fanbase...a coterie of leopard-skin-clad desperadoes who looked like the coolest pop kids on the circuit. The Manics’gigs were a flurry of flamboyance and feather boas. Their fans oozed sex and situationism. The Manics were attracting the same cabal of intense letter writing fanatics as The Smiths had in the eighties but somehow flasher in their intensity.
I interviewed them just before they hit the stage at Birmingham Aston University in the summer of 1993 and the band were as combative as ever. In the tiny motel room before the gig they were still gunning for the same targets as they piled on the pre-show make-up. Already there were signs of the sort of wear and tear that being on the road can etch onto the psyche. Richey was by now drinking and Nicky was relating tales of his partner’s post-gig back to the hotel love life...not hard to miss when your sharing a tiny room.
While Richey threw on his fake leopard print coat, Nicky related that his love of beat literature came from his elder brother Patrick Jones. They piled into the car outside the hotel in a blur of fake furs, make-up and teased hair. They had the star swagger - living out their rock ‘n’ roll dream as we got lost in the winding roads, crammed in their car, towards the gig.
The second album, Gold Against The Soul (June 1993, No. 8), had just been released. It was a record that seemed intent on putting the group on to trad rock trajectory. They were still spitting alienation and pain but the songs were now almost normal rock - a brilliant balance. Musically they could have passed for Queen (hardly an insult). For many it was too smooth, the sound of a band desperate to succeed at all costs. I remember banging on to one of the band about how they should cut a rawer album, not get lost in corporate rock world. Mind you,that road never worked for me!
The album contained some great singles (‘From Despair To Where’ (June 1993,No. 25), ‘La Tristesse Durera’ (July 1993, No. 22), ‘Roses In the Hospital'(September 1993, No. 15). The pop heart was still beating strong and Bradfield, the band’s principal tune-writer, was still banging out great melodies.
Just when the band seemed to be finding an even keel disaster struck. On 7 December 1993, their manager Phillip Hall died after a two-year battle against cancer. The band were devastated. Hall had held the band together throughout their frequent bouts of self doubt. His belief in the band had been tantamount. It was a fucking tragedy. Post Gold Against The Soul The Manics were locked into a dangerous journey. Nicky Wire seemed to retreat from rock ‘n’ roll as Richey went further out there. Richey’s obvious deterioration became the focal point of press attention on the band, adding to the intense pressure that the young guitar player was already under. They were becoming proper pop stars and the pain and pressure of the big time for a band that was as sensitive as this was beginning to hang heavily on their bony shoulders.
They started recording their new album The Holy Bible in a back-street Cardiff studio during 1994 against a backdrop of Richey’s descent into mental illness. You would read about the band’s tour of Thailand and shiver at the personal degradation. You would hear gossip, read snippets of stuff in the press, or just look at the guitarist who was looking more and more like a ghost.Against this backdrop it is hardly surprising that the album was the band’s bleakest and yet most genius work.
Working fast, they had the new album in the can. An intense and wired affair it was the logical culmination of the way the band were heading and one of the best ever UK albums. The first single off the album, ‘Faster’ was released in May 1994. Richey was finally admitted to a clinic that August. When Richey was released from the drying-out clinic, The Priory, near Northampton, they toured hard, culminating in a live performance at the London Astoria that December where they trashed all their gear. They were the last gigs that Richey ever played with the band. Before Richey’s disappearance in 1995 there were plans to go to the States - just like Ian Curtis and Joy Division. Richey and James were booked into a bunch of interviews over the water. America was (and still is) impervious to The Manics’ charms. Probably seen as an English ‘haircut band’ by tight-arsed lo-fi pundits or too plain weird for the rock heads, The Manics don’t stand a chance. I interviewed Richey and James in the hotel weeks around this time, Richey was pale and drawn and talked of drinking a bottle of vodka every night so he could go to sleep. It didn’t feel right then.
On 1 February, just before the scheduled trip to the USA Richey slipped away from the hotel. He left a shoe box full of artifacts and drove back to Cardiff where he left his passport. Two weeks later his car was found at the motorway services the battery was flat and there were cassettes lying on the floor. It was clear he had been living in his car but where he went after that and how long he was there is anybody’s guess.
Those desperate hours in the car are painful to think about. As he slipped away from his car he disappeared into thin air - some say suicide, some say he just got away. If your out there, Richey, hope your OK!
Ironically Richey’s disappearance put The Manics into the spotlight that they had once craved. They were in the mainstream. The story started to roll. But it was under the spotlight in a way that they had never wanted. hey were getting taken seriously and their dignified return to duty slipping back into the limelight supporting Oasis and The Stone Roses months later was handled with the respect that it deserved.
A low-key gig in the Gay Traitor bar underneath the Hacienda saw Nicky Wire break down, the emotional punch of playing without Richey had just struck him.The new Manics seemed a changed band. Gone was the glam guerrilla look, the extreme images. Live, they left an aching space on the stage where Richey had once played, a poignant vacuum.
The initial punk rock rushes or the skewered heart of darkness of Holy Bible was in the past, replaced with anthemic soundscapes. They were set for the big crossover. It was a similar scenario to Joy Division going into New Order after the suicide of vocalist Ian Curtis. The Manics were no longer in the business of alienating the average rock punter. They were now embracing them and the results would be spectacular. Just over a year after the disappearance of Richey, The Manics returned to the vinyl frey. In April 1996, they released their landmark single and one of the best ten singles of the decade, the monumental `A Design For Life’. A stunning anthem, it was a powerful summation of working-class Welsh culture, an attempt to reclaim the territory from the dumbed-down Britpop version of the British working class, the anti-intellectual grunt that is worn as a badge of pride by musicians far smarter than they dare to let on.
From its ‘Libraries gave us power...then work came and made us free’ opening lines to the ‘we don’t talk about love’ DUN NUH NU NUH ‘we only wanna get drunk’ chorus, the song was a lyrical masterpiece. Nicky Wire in the best set of lyrics he’d come up was touching so many nerves all at once. That ‘libraries’ line will always make me think of wandering around Newport, Gwent and the socialist murals inside the indoor market. Make something out of your life, knowledge is power! Don’t piss it all away...What a powerful statement...Perhaps the most revolutionary thing a rock ‘n’roll band can say and one of the key tenets of the most articulate musicians since the fallout of punk rock twenty years previously. Watch them play this at one of their enormodrome gigs or when they supported Oasis and listen to the crowd singing along. It sends a shiver up yer spine! Powerful stuff!
The single was the biggest hit yet. Boosted by the band’s unfortunate high profile, and powered by the fact that they had just released their most emotive and passionate song, the anthemic ‘A Design For Life’ crashed in at No. 2. It was easily their biggest hit. The song becoming a pub jukebox favourite, a karaoke classic and, like the Specials ‘Ghost Town’, a politically and sociology charged anthem played into the very heartlands of the UK.The Manics, who had spent their youth being sneered at by the beer monsters,were now soundtracking their lives. They had gone from being the outsiders to the mainstream. They had finally pulled off the pop plan that they had detailed in the back of that van in 1991.Swiftly following on the coat tails of their biggest hit was their fourth album, released on 20 May 1996, Everything Must Go, which is arguably their best. Whereas Holy Bible was an addictive and suffocating desolate descent into introspective hell, the ultimate Richey experience and an album that the band’s core fans will always love the most (and a great record to boot), the new album was an explosion of pop colour as Bradfield finally moved into the spotlight, not just handling more of the interviews, but putting his stamp on the record and finally copping some of the credit for his musical talent.
They had negotiated the emotional landscape and come back with an album that has been criticized for being too trad. Bullshit, what is this fear of pop? Even the Holy Bible was made up of great songs. It was one of The Manics’ key strengths, writing great traditional rock songs and then twisting them with fierce and powerful lyrics. This time they’d just upped the trad ante. The album was a massive seller, its dark soul may have been superficially disguised but it was still there. After all, there were five Richey songs on the record, from the anti-Americanization of the UK of the opening ‘Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier’ (lyrics finished by Nicky) to the harrowing tale of the American war photographer in the eponymous ‘Kevin Carter’ (Carter committed suicide, weighed down with a dreadful guilt after winning the Pulitzer prize for photographing a vulture preying on a dead baby in the vile hell of the mid nineties war in Rwanda). Some felt that the song was about Richey and it went on to be a Top Ten hit on its own in September 1996. The title track was a kiss-off, an apology to the core fans who hadn’t wanted the band to carry on, a cathartic release. ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’, a song title that sounded like a Yukio Mishima short story was about animals,desperate, trapped in their fearsomely small zoo cages - another analogy for its author’s condition? Who knows? You could look through the writer’s last few lyrics looking for clues or you could sit back and let the powerful rock’n’ roll make you feel good.The album, dripping a commercial edge, catapulted the Manics into mega-stadium success. The band that had once sneered at festivals seemed to be on at every summer bill and were starting to get comfortable with the stadia shows.
Their show at Manchester’s NYNEX was a triumph for the band, selling out the 17 000 capacity stadium. The original fiercely loyal coterie of fans were beginning to feel betrayed.The song had broken The Manics to a whole new audience of laddish beer monsters - the sort of people that gave the core fans hell in the small towns and suburbs that they strutted out from. The letter pages of the music press were filled with the same sort of vitriolic missives that had filled postbags when the eighties icon of sensitivity Morrissey had slid from the top of the greasy pole of credibility. For many it wasn’t just the music becoming more commercial, it was the band’s losing the look and the rock ‘n’ roll glam swagger that had complemented their music in the Richey days. Only Nicky ever seemed to make the effort, still camping it up in dresses, Elvis sunglasses or any other weird get-up that he could get his hands on. Maybe getting dressed up in your punk rock party frocks didn’t seem right anymore to the band’s muso core. With their fifth album, the No. 1 This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours,they completed their crossover process. The new stuff was touched by the hand of stadium rock.There were dark mutterings about the lyrics and the tunes.
But to dismiss the album is to do it a disservice. The album proves that The Manics can write great ballads and that they still pack the punch with stomping tunes like the Top 5 ‘You Stole The Sun’ single or the album’s first release the haunting ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’.The December 1998 return show at the Manchester NYNEX was a superb display of effortlessly great rock ‘n’ roll, the band as ever treading the fine line between trad and the ridiculous (Nicky Wire camping it up in a tiara and skipping). The politics and the situationism were still represented in a stark light show flashing up slogans and the leopard print army were still at the front huddling for shelter while the incurably square crowd (the sort of people who would have hated the band’s make-up and glam era if they had known that they had existed!) filled up the rest of the huge hall.For two hours the band ran through a whole slew of great songs. It may have been slick and it may have been a million miles away from their spiky roots.
The band’s glam style had been further binned.The musician wing were starting to dress designer casual, in effect looking like a normal nineties band.Merging in with the morass of baggy nothingness that was 1998/99 now the songs were doing the talking. On ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, The Manics have become what only a handful suspected at the start of the decade, a quintessential British rock band. One of those groups like The Who that everyone learns guitar along to or gets pissed in pubs to. Soundtracking the lives of the people that used to laugh at them, The Manics have quite definitely crossed over. In doing so they have become, quite possibly, the sort of group that they would have spat vitriol at back in the van all those years ago but having been allowed the dignity of growing up they escaped a far worse fate.