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3 Steps To Heaven - Select, January 1997

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Title: 3 Steps To Heaven
Publication: Select
Date: January 1997
Writer: Roy Wilkinson
Photos: Mick Hutson

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First, they made the album of the year. Next, they became Oasis' support band by appointment. Finally, Manic Street Preachers found inner serenity and went shopping. Presenting the first MSP interview that doesn't mention you-know-who (well not much)...

They've kept it quiet, of course, but it seems Manic Street preachers' triumphant 1996 comeback was inspired by Blair. The moment of revelation came to Nicky Wire and his wife Rachel one Saturday evening in their tidy home just outside Blackwood in Gwent.

Snug on their plush sofa, they had settled down to watch a televisual presentation of the great communicator's collected thoughts.

Beamed up on the small screen, the neat slogans had a certain beauty, particularly the one that had originated in the notebook of one Winston Smith. HOPE LIES WITH THE PROLES. Which, as admirers of totalitarian satire will have by now realised, means that the Blair in question was not Anthony 'Tony' Charles Lynton, but Eric - aka George Orwell.

Rachel and Nicky were, in fact, watching Michael Radford' s film of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The stuff about knowledge being power reminded Rachel of an inscription above the door on the one of the Newport book-loan centres in which she works: "Libraries gave us power."

"I remember it well," says Nicky, relaxing in an Exeter hotel room some months after that evening's viewing. "For 'A Design For Life' to sell 300,000 copies and start with the line 'Libraries gave us power' - I'm really proud. Because even Blur and Oasis...Well, 'Country House' is just Madness yob pop, and Oasis' lyrics are hardly the deepest. I do think that's something we can be really proud of."

Selling 93,000 copies in its week of release and taking the band to an unprecedented number two, 'A Design For Life' opened the door on the 'Everything Must Go' album and the Manics' wholesale post-Richey reinvention. It was as if Colonel Kurtz had suddenly swapped up-river madness tor an abrupt but entirely successful return to civilian life. Gone was the Boots No7 Phnom Penh Pink and glam-apocalyptic Stalinist chic, replaced by a sports casual look fit to warm the hearts of mothers everywhere.

As they swapped Philip Larkin for Ralph Lauren and Camus for Comme des Garçons, suddenly they weren't singing "Wherever you go I will be carcass", but "The happier am when I'm with you/The harder it gets when I am alone." But for all the smart attire, healing of old wounds and avoidance of controversy, this was hardly a band seeking re-election by any means. The Manics hadn't gone through a makeover analogous to, say, the Labour Party's.

"Right now," says Nicky, "It seems the hierarchy of British pop - Oasis, Damon - wants to be seen with Tony Blair. We're still the band who'd rather be seen with Arthur Scargill. It kinds of makes me feel good that we're still out of step. It's a good Manics trait."

"I always swore I would never become a jogger. I was a runner, not a jogger. Now I have to admit I've become more of a jogger. "Contrasting his heroic early-Manics running regime with the way he now fights the flab by weaving along the streets of West London, James Bradfield cracks a wide grin. As he sits among the guitars and novels in his hotel room, it seems the Manics frontman and his bandmates can smile at most things these days.

Obviously, the well-documented tragedy that has moved through the group has affected them deeply. Nonetheless, as the Manics see a momentous year come to a close, they seem to have found an enviable kind of repose. In songs like 'Enola/Alone' and 'Further Away' they've apparently resolved the past and the future in such a way that leaves them tranquil in the present. As they talk about the past 12 months in terms of anyone from Noam Chomsky to Bonehead, their demeanour verges on the serene. Episodes from the past would appear to hold few demons for the Manics - even James' one-time trial by steeplechase.

"At this time, Nick was sort of my coach," he recalls of his late-'80s athletics masterplan. "I was good at marathons, but I was the perennial bronze medallist in other events. So we decided to get clever and go for something I might be able to win."

"We had this dream that was going to glamorize the steeplechase. We hatched this plan where I was going to bring glamour to the steeplechase for the first time - I mean, no fucker's interested in the steeplechase. The angle was sort of the illustrious, industrious Welsh mountain goat."

"The thing was, down at the local sports ground, there was this 400m track, but it only had two steeplechase hurdles. Nicky would just stand there and sort of watch me. I don't know, perhaps he was taking the piss - I mean, 5ft 5, I was never going to win a steeplechase, was I?"

Even though he's still partial to the disciplinarian asceticism of Yukio Mishima, the 1996 James is clearly a lot more relaxed than the one who emerged from Wales at the start of the '90s. These days he spends his spare time producing Northern Uproar and taking in the power-pop ways of late-'60s Welsh band Badfinger. Similarly, the interview tenor of today's Manics is a longwayfrom their initial hysterical outpourings. Whereas they once detailed how they were going to sell 20 million copies of their debut LP, they now cut the hyperbole and quietly mull over the fact that 'Everything Must Go' has sold 350,000.

"It just feels very ironic," says James. "Before, we were very gung-ho and we made it clear that the scale in which the public bought what we did was very important to us. With the first album, we definitely did think we would sell a lot [It's sold 140,000 in the UK to date]. And we always fell well below the expectations of what we felt an important band should sell. With this album, in the way we talked about it, and the way we talked about it to each other, we were the most timid we'd ever been. Just because we were very nervous. It was Strange. because it was the most un-Manic we've been about an album and then it was the most successful."

Padding gently across his somewhat palatial hotel suite ("It's quite reasonable, actually. We get a really good group rate, you see"), Nicky inspects his latest cache of free promotional sportswear - this time from Adidas. And, with his commodious snowboard-esque pantaloons, Nicky is now the man to wear such finery. These days Manics have taken a tip from high-street retailers of American 'classic' leisure wear and morphed into the Generation Gap Terrorists.

"Well," sighs Nicky. "We looked at ourselves while we were recording the album and thought either we go for a Latino thing - put on as much weight as we can, grow beards and come back as Roberto Duran or Marlon Brando in fat phase, or go for Something more simple. The only thing that people got wrong was calling us the Littlewoods Manic Street Preachers. Sean was deeply offended by that, because everything he buys is Paul Smith or Katharine Harnnett."

The taciturn Manics drum man has had a good year. Encouraged by the way his band have adopted the Le Corbusier dictum "A house is a machine for living in," Sean now owns two of them. Nestled alongside his girlfriend in his twin Avon homes, he has listened long and hard to his albums of the year (Super Furry Animals and Smashing Pumpkins), and built up the cars, computers and clothes that make him the band's premier consumer.

"This phase of supposedly being The Band At C&A is fine by me," he says. "Except, I've got my Harvey Nics chargecard now. Pop down to the sales. Pick up Armani jeans for £40."

Indeed, such is the catholic style of the band these days, that they can play the odd Rush record before their shows and then project Dylan Thomas' poem See The Boys Of Summer on the backdrop during the gig. Who knows, maybe they considered coming back in 1996 as strangely-voiced Canadian prog-rockers or method-acting themselves into the part of alcoholic Welsh poets. Whatever, the idea of the Manics sitting down for periodic style seminars remains an interesting one.

"Actually, We did sit down and think about what look we'd have this time," says James. "In the past we would follow Nick on how the band looked. Like, the army stuff, that was just what Nick was wearing. The only time I felt uncomfortable was at the start, when there was all the androgyny. I just didn't have the bone structure, did I?"

"With this album, we just craved anonymity and the one-dimensional presentation gave us that. We just want to diffuse the chance of anybody reading anything symbolic into the artwork or the way we looked, put the wannabe rock mythologists off the trail. It's the biggest cliché in the world, but we knew the only way we could reaffirm ourselves as three people, as a band, was to stand behind the music."

Nicky: "I remember Sean used to feel a bit awkward with the glam look as well. The camouflage he didn't mind, cos he could buy a lot of it. We'd get a pin-on badge and Sean would come in with a £180 Russian medal.

"I think," he continues, "if we were as big as we are now then, the four of us in camouflage could have put on the most scary, fantastic live show ever. have this picture of us at Glastonbury in 1994 with balaclavas and Russian hats, thinking we were an army and we could take anyone on. We'll never feel like that again. The gig at Christmas in Cardiff sold out in a couple of weeks, 7,000 people, our biggest show of our own. It'll be great, but know it won't be as good as it could have been. I know if the four of us were doing gigs together now we'd be winning the war. "

"Hello, Mum. Yeah, it's going really well. Uh-huh, the T-shirts are selling fine. Yes, and the 'Hell Is Other People' souvenir mugs..." Wherever Nicky Wire is on tour, he makes sure he calls his mum every day. Obviously very close to his immediate family, right now he says he can't imagine living anywhere but his current home in the sombrely beautiful countryside outside Blackwood. There's something of this mix of the desolate and the poignant running through the 'Everything Must Go' album: if 'The Holy Bible' had a spiritual home in the brutally traumatised wastelands of 1940s Eastern Europe, this album surely resides in less hellish places.

"It's not exactly a feel-good album," considers Nicky. "But think it is an album that soothes. With 'Enola/Alone' and 'Australia', people can grab hold of them, because they're melancholic but also uplifting - everybody gets that kind of sad uplifting moment. You're sad, it's raining, or you're pissed, but you're still kind of OK. I think that's what those two songs translate to. I knew 'Enola/Alone' had to be la-la-la, it had to be a Noel Gallagher structure and then still had to have Manics traits in there. Same with 'Everything Must Go', which had to be a very simple structure, but still have more meaning than most bands."

It seems you've become much more pragmatic, lyrically speaking. "I think always was. think I was like the McCartney to Richey's Lennon. But even Richey's lyrics on this album are quite easy to understand. 'Black Flowers' is about something and 'Kevin Carter' is about something. With 'The Holy Bible' and songs like 'Revol', people didn't have a clue what it was about, Richey was so intelligent that he ended up trying to condense so much that it was unintelligible.

"'Of Walking Abortions' was one of the most extreme examples of that 'So wash your car in your X baseball shoes'. I just didn't know what the fuck he was on about. All the weight of reference to Eastern European or Nazi culture and figureheads. 'Revol'? I didn't have a clue what that was about. Even Richey said, afterwards, that he didn't know what it was about. It's lover spelt backwards, Or so he kind of tried to explain it. A decline in relationships. I don't fucking know!

"We thought 'Motorcycle Emptiness' was universal, and I still think it's fantastic. But 'Life lies a slow suicide' and Culture sucks down Words' - it doesn't translate lyrically. A song like 'Yes', which was a brilliant song, there were just so many words, there and so many difficult words, that it was impossible for James to sing it. And if James can't sing it, there's no way a crowd can sing it, and there's no way you can digest it from the radio."

Breaking into another of those substantial, teeth-baring grins, he considers the throng of parent-accompanied preteen fans at the previous night's show.

"It is nice to shed some of our skin, I think. We've had quite a few letters saying we're a band parents like, because we're quite moral and quite intelligent. I think they've gained that impression from the new album - they might not be so keen if they heard us do 'Repeat'.

"We are turning a corner now. I think some of the cult-of-Richey fans have either gone off us or gone somewhere else. Which is fair enough. A lot of them have gone off to be fans of Marion, apparently..." He cracks another giant smile.

On the Elysian greens of Augusta, Georgia, the archetypal hero emerges from fearsome existential crisis. Nick Faldo has just pulled back six strokes on Greg Norman in the final round of the US Masters. Nicky Wire is there, watching in disbelief.

"That was the ultimate magic moment this year," he enthuses. "It was just so exciting watching that on my own. Afterwards, I called Martin [Hall, Manics manager] and got through to him where he was in this bar in Birmingham. I just had to tell him about it. Absolute....just total brilliance. Amazing. I love golf."

Faldo's odds-defying performance wasn't the only Manics-putting interface in 1996. The other came with Wire 's coach-potato-themed autobiographical A-side 'Mr Carbohydrate'. As well as a fulsome tribute to England and Glamorgan batsman Matthew Maynard ("Matthew Maynard is my favourite cricketer/I would rather watch him play than pick up my guitar'), the song originally contained a paean to Welsh linksman Ian Woosnam.

Sitting amid the back issues of Boxing News that sit alongside the Noam Chomskys in his room, Nicky laughs at the memory of his thwarted golf-rock masterstroke.

"I was saying, if could be anyone in the world I'd be Ian Woosnam - the lyrics went on to describe his golf swing. James said I could have Matthew Maynard, but not Ian Woosnam."

He warms to the sporting conversational tilt.

"Those were the sporting moments of 1996 - Damon Hill, Nick Faldo and Robbie Regan the Welsh boxer from Blackwood, who won the world title at bantamweight. I love boxing. Not in that naff way Morrissey did, which was nearly as naff as Damon trying to make out he likes football. I mean, we always liked Chris Eubank. When we first released 'You Love Us' on Heavenly we wanted to have Chris Eubank on the sleeve, because everyone else hated him."

Alongside the lyrical tributes to Welsh sportsmen, the past year has also seen the Manics show a more general revelling in their Welshness. It's something symbolised by the ironic-yet-heartfelt way in which Nicky drapes a Welsh flag over his amps at gigs these days.

"Yeah," he says. "I have discovered my Welshness much more over the past few years. My greatest ambition is to do a film script on Owain Glyndwr, Who was kind Of Wales' William Wallace. He defeated the English and gave Wales self rule, Anthony Hopkins could play him in old age, but I'm not sure who would do him when he was young."

Sean: "When we started, the idea of Welsh music was like The Ivory Coast at the Olympics. One bloke carrying the flag and one walking behind. Now there's more of us and we can carry our banner With pride."

An extension of the Manics' new found love for the The Land Of Their Fathers was the way they dedicated 'Everything Must Go' to Tower Colliery in South Wales' Cyan Valley (bought out by redundant miners and returned to profitable operation). Judging the tone of the mine workers' response, the Manics' gesture was appreciated. "Thanks for the dedication," ran the pit's thank-you letter. "If you ever want to go underground (not like The Jam!), you're more than welcome."

So far the Manics haven't taken up the offer, but they are looking forward to the Hollywood version of the Tower Colliery story (to star Nick Nolte and Michelle Pfeiffer, apparently). And, furthering their connections with the mining industry, the band recently met their pithead hero.

Nicky: "Yeah, Arthur Scargill came to see us on this tour in Liverpool. He came back and had a chat, which was a bit of a magic moment. I still find him inspiring, because, despite all his faults, everything he said came true. The secret plans he saw - no one believed him, but they were there."

"We've helped him out a bit...We gave a donation to his Socialist Labour Party. Don't print that...We don't like to come across as Sting, you see..."

James: "Meeting Arthur Scargill was the most nervous I've been this year. I just found it scary that here was someone who had a lot in common with my uncles, but had found a way to articulate it all. But he was the worst strategist in the world. It made you realise what could be lost for the sake of a haircut. I just looked at him and immediately had a million questions in my head. You could talk to him all night and it would be as frustrating as it would be inspirational."

In contrast to this radicalism, however, the Manics are willing to offer qualified sponsorship of more conservative causes. Even in a year that has seen John Redmond declare Britpop a "brilliant thing", the Manics are prepared to back the New British Rock Classicism.

"I can't deny that British music is more healthy than it's ever been in my lifetime," says Nicky. "Even though there's a lot of bands that we don't like, the fact that we've rediscovered our own culture is healthy - The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones and The Who, which is probably the best music we've ever produced."

"Musically, I do genuinely love Oasis. They're so natural, I think it's above criticism. But I now know we're too difficult for that. They have something that hits you like an elemental force. In many ways Oasis are the band we wanted to be, but never could be."

"Even a band like Blur, who are good, have had to at it: changing their image and so on. But they could never write a song as pure as 'Wonderwall'. Not many bands can. I do envy that - Linford Christie being a natural sportsman, or Oasis being a natural band. I envy that so much."

"You see, the cutlery's neat and symmetrical and we don't get cigarette smoke or shouting." Backstage at Exeter university, Nicky Wire explains the benefits of his routine habit of dining à deux with Sean. Seated in their own room, removed from the cig-infused eating habits of James and the Crew, Sean and Nick can enjoy the delights of the precisely aligned serviette. It's an arrangement the pair have employed many times in 1996, as they've taken in nutrition before a series of historic shows - the majority of which have involved Oasis.

James: "When we supported Oasis at Maine Road, it just put everything in perspective. It made me realise that we were becoming a big band, but we were nowhere near becoming a phenomenon, and we never would. Maine Road showed us our allotted position. I knew what we never would be after that gig. people have taken Oasis so completely to their hearts, independent of anything like a marketing push. Anything at all. It just seemed uncontrollable. Totally inspiring.

When the Manics did step back in front of their own audience, it was with some trepidation.

James: "That was a bit strange for us. The warm-up show for Maine Road, at The Hacienda, was an awful thing. It was only the first gig of this tour [5 October at Livingstone] where I felt like we really had escaped our back catalogue of disaster. It just seemed we had a new audience - people who seemed ignorant of the subtext of what the Manics had been about. Which is something I have no problem with, obviously - you can't make an album like 'Everything Must Go' and not admit things like that. It's not a case of being happy, it's just relief."

"A really good ending. A little corny, but great television." As soon as the Manics leave the stage at Exeter, Nicky throws himself into that vaunted act of rock debauchery known as Dashing Back To The Hotel To Catch The Last Ten Minutes Of The Latest Prime Suspect.

He still has ambitions to write a Cracker-esque screen play - but over Christmas he'll be thinking more of his current favourite book, Orwell's Spanish Civil War memoir Homage To Catalonia. Indeed, Nicky has become so emersed in tales of Welsh miners defending socialist ways in Spain, that he's writing a song on the subject ("Our take on The Clash's 'Spanish Bombs'").

Sean, on the other hand. will spend the hols doing up his new home, and plotting what consumer goods to fill it with. James, for his part. will be hoping his mooted collaboration with Kylie Minogue comes to fruition. He's written the songs and twice had meetings with the woman the Manics originally wanted to do the vocals Traci Lords took on their 'Little Baby Nothing

And, while this battle-scarred trio contemplate these intimations of a great future over the Yuletide season, they'll pause and cast an eye over their shoulder. Forgive them their caution, but things haven't always been like this...