Handbags at dawn and feather boas at 15 paces! Time to line up for the Battle Of The Manic Street Preachers Fans - split between the 'weirdo' Cult Of Richey types, the new 'normal' pop kids and the sensitive, but saddened, old fans. Steven Wells follows the Manics' tour around the country and checks the mood in the moshpits.
Thus starts an article in the Manic Street Preachers fanzine, Young Pretty Fucked, entitled 'Manic Misery - A Fan Who's Pissed Off. It's a heartfelt rant against those Manics fans known collectively as The Cult Of Richey.
It coninues: "I'm sick of seeing fans with 4 REAL carved into their arms or hearing Of shaven-headed fans eating virtually nothing, wallowing in despair AND ENJOYING IT!"
We are in Blackpool. It's the first British date of the 1997 Manics tour. The Cult Of Richey are noticeably absent. There are a few old-school individuals in leopard print, feather boas and eyeliner. But the typical Manics fans, 1997-style, are bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked teenage girls in cheap and cheerful combat clobber, shining like pearls against a backdrop of chip-fed lads in sports gear. And there are thousands of them.
In the beginning there were no fans. The Manic Street Preachers Mark I - spiky, sullen and solidly rooted in the aesthetics of ultra-unfashionable punk rock - were hideously out Of Step with 1991's fixation with all things baggy, ravey and Madchester. "I'd see them when there were only seven people in the crowd," claims Gill Armstrong, editor of Cultural Apocalypse fanzine, "and six of them were journalists. And I'd be thinking — Why aren't there
loads of boys and girls just screaming at this band?'"
And here they are, the screaming boys and girls, just six years on. Richey, the Manic generally agreed to be the sexiest, has disappeared Gone too are the punky trappings, the snarling situationism and the gleeful boy-gurl blurrings. Everything that made the Manics stick out like sore thumbs. The Manics, '97-style, are far more Homebase than homoerotic.
"I wish they hadn't sold out," sighs Manics fan Sean. "Nowadays they look as if they're in control Of their vehicles - they used to look as if they weren't in control of anything!"
The band he worships aren't really around any more. The last album, 'Everything Must Go', had
none of the chunk and thunder of the early music. It was, everybody agrees, a 'mature' album. The tedious 30 and 40-something rock critics Of the broadsheet press and the Dad Rock mags loved it. And so, surprisingly, did the kids.
Sean, extremely intense and articulate, is wearing heavy eyeliner and a neat goatee. He's in an "Elastica/Sex Pistols" band called Bint Last year he endured a severe bout of depression, attempting suicide three times. "'The Holy Bible' saved me," he says. Sean knows the Manics' back catalogue by heart. He is passionate about the band. He's a Marxist, English student and he's head over heels in love With both the band's verbosity and their "communism" (or, as another, younger, fan put it, "Y'know, the Welsh thing, the socialist thing"). This is Sean's first ever Manics gig. He is totally atypical - a fan totally in love with the old Manics.
The gig in Blackpool ends with that most typical Of early Manics tracks — the cocky, arrogant, furious, Wilfully perverse and aggressively cynical 'You Love us' - a song written when almost nobody did. The back projection during this number features brilliant, high-definition footage of the early Manics at their sexiest, looking like the homiest girls in Christendom, attacking, spluttering, burning and crashing. No-one is looking at the three blokes onstage, everybody is transfixed by the image of the four sex gods on the video screen. And a quick look at the faces Of the Older, 20-something fans, huddled in groups of three or four towards the back, reveals a curious mix of nostalgia and a sense of loss. Not for Richey, but for the old Manics. For their Manic.
Elitism is almost the defining feature of the bands at the NME end of the pop spectrum. Almost every band that passes through these pages and into the lucrative domain Of Smash Hits, TOTP and mass popularity, leaves behind an embittered crust of pissed-off, whining 'original' fans. This is usually tinged with an unhealthy misogyny, leading to confused talk of stupid little girls 'muscling in' on a music that you apparently need a penis and a
shaving rash to fully appreciate. With the Manics, however, it is fundamentally a girl-on-girl thing. The old Manic Street Preachers were different. And so were their fans.
Somewhere between the first few sparking, spitting, snarling singles and the bleak introspection of 'The Holy Bible', Manics fandom was a weird and wonderful place. Eyelinered lads selling brilliantly written and provocatively titled fanzines like Kylie Pure As A Dolphin and Poki-Revolution stood next to blitz-haired women in fake leopard skin, hard-faced
groupies, second-coming punka kids and a general mishmash of seemingly permanently euphoric teens who knew they were witnessing the glory years of one Of the great bands.
Jacqui and Carrie, later to become the original 'girl-power' combo Shampoo, would invariably be slumped against a back wall, wrapped in furry white angora coats and staring at the passing circus like psychotic Cockernee bush babies. Fans spoke of how the band's lyrics had led them to read Proust or Kafka or Larkin or Plath or Marx. Straight boys walked around in "All Rock'N'Roll Is Homosexual" T-shirts. They argued, they posed, they wrote appalling poetry and brilliant gut-level polemic prose. Their 'scene' was that rare and wonderful thing - a stylistic statement With real substance.
"The Manics didn't just make lives bearable, like ordinary bands, " claims Colin, an unreconstructed old fan (who claims this will be his "last ever Manics gig'), changed them."
It Was, in short, a mushrooming Of punk style and punk empowerment before riot grrrl, before
Green Day, before the 'new wave of new wave' or Bis or Elastica, before every damn Britpop band started dressing like it was 1978 all over again. The Manics, single-handedly, changed the face of pop.
Coming from a Tory-wrecked mining town, burning With a genuine and furious class consciousness, they turned instinctively towards punk in much the same way that the kids in Russia turned towards thrash metal when the KGB were replaced by the Mafia. Punk was the only means of expression that made sense and punk, back then, more than unfashionable, it was commercial suicide. The Manics made it fashionable. Eventually. They and their fans mixed glam with socialism, foppishness With crude sloganeering. They got it exactly right, flying full tilt into the soporifically smiling face Of their E'd-up, baggily dressed peers. But, beyond the fans, nobody at the time was particularly impressed.
It is easy to forget how hostile most Of the music press was to the Manics Mark I. A stream of 'hatchet-job' hacks were sent out With hatred in their hearts, but they almost all came back stunned by the beautiful chaos, babbling hyperbolic praise, totally converted. But all this time the Manics themselves were changing. They started sounding less and less like the early Clash and started sounding more and more like the 'reconstructed rock' band they are today. The initial anger - lashing out at an unjust and corrupt - was replaced by a bleak mixture of nihilism and self-loathing.
In a way, the Manic Street Preachers' career has echoed the history of the year-long mid-'80s miners' strike that informed so much of the band's early attitude and politics. Midway through the strike, the mining towns and villages - some of the most small- 'C' conservative working-class communities in Britain - something of a cultural revolution. As in any long strike, many of the miners and their families felt empowered for the first time in their lives. They were their Own media. their own police force. own government - they had to be, the official versions had proven themselves to be totally venal and hostile. Support came in from by and lesbian groups, black and Asian groups - Old prejudices and attitudes took a battering.
Towards the end of the strike, the women in those communities were running things, learning more about their own power and potential in a few months middle—class feminism had managed to teach them in years. People fought, argued, read books that they would previously have dismissed as boring or irrelevant, horizons were expanded, minds set on fire.
The miners eventually lost the strike. Excitement and euphoria gave way to bitterness and disillusion. Marxists claim that a strike is a microcosm of a revolution. It might be stretching the point but so, surety, at its heart, is a cultural maelstrom like punk. Whether the scene surrounding the Manics Mark I was a revival. a continuation or merely a mutation
of punk is a moot point. In many ways it was a hyper-distillation of all that is, and Was, best in punk. It was special. It's no wonder the old fans are so bitter at passing.
There have been some truly sad letters from old fans printed in NME in the last year. Most Of the fans here tonight in Blackpool know this, they see the tape recorder and they sniff a stitching. "What are you doing this for? Are you going to drone On about The Cult Of Richey? Are trying to set the new fans against the old ones?"
But the truth is, sensation fans, that Of the 58 Manics fans we interviewed for this piece, only a handful had anything remotely spiteful to say (even if many of them expressed a heartfelt contempt for The Cult Of Richey).
"I think it's great. these new fans, actually." says Sarah Waddington, co-editor Of the Blackburn-based Manics=zine Terrible Beauty (it axiomatic of old Manics' fandom that they all seem to be fanzine editors). "I love all the new fans. most of them that I've met are dead nice. Some Of the old fans are a bit bitter and stuff. but you can understand their frustration because they've been here since '92 like I have and they've been going around
saying. There's this fantastic band and they're brilliant and their lyrics are great and they're fantastic and they look brilliant', and nobody's interested! And then, all of
a sudden, it's just like, Oh yeah, everybody's into them and you do feel a bit frustrated and you think, 'Oh well. Why didn't you recognise their genius back in '93,'94?'"
Niki, Clair and Vanessa are students who have been Manics fans "for years".
"It's very mainstream now," claims Nicki. "It's not like it used to be at all. When I first went to see them it was all the goths that went and now it's like a Mr Byrite convention, it's just fucking chart music."
We're at the second gig. Doncaster Dome. We're round the back, in 'Sad City', where a sprinkling of fans wait to glimpse the Manics arriving for the sound-check. When they arrive,
James has a distinctly hunted look - eyes nicking left to right, he scowls at the NME photographer. The last time the band played Cardiff. James was stared at throughout the gig by a Cult Of Richey devotee openly displaying her mutilated arms. Later that night, as he emerged from his hotel, the same woman threw herself at him, screaming, "Bastard!" and clawing at his clothes.
Nicky Wire, always to be relied on for a provocative quote, recently claimed that 'Everything Must Go' had been bought by both "normal people" and the usual "weirdos". The distasteful, breast-beating, Heathers-like, media-fuelled hysteria that followed the disappearance of Richey has obviously taken its toll on the Manics.
Nobody could possibly blame them for craving a bit of space, a sliver of dignity, a smidgen of sanity. Some of the old fans that remain, however, think that the band have tossed the baby out with the bath water.
"I wish they would show more appreciation of the fact that we've loved them from the word
go and we still love them," says Gill Armstrong. "We consider their feelings, we try to
understand what's going on for them and I don't think they do the same for us, and I really wish that they would. We know what they've been through but that doesn't give them the right to be so rude. I think Nicky is basically not a very happy bunny. I mean, he should just be understanding that we're all different, just accept us for what are, that's all we're asking. Not all the old fans are psychos..."
Lisa, Gail, Emma, Sarah and friends (all 16) are from Hull. They believe that Welsh accents
in general, and James Dean Bradfield's shy onstage mumblings particularly, are incredibly sexy. And they all get down the front and mosh at every gig.
At school they are despised by their peers ("the townies, the slags, the childish little
teenybopper trendies") and are abused as 'moshers' or 'sweats', taunts which they now wear with pride. This is a story repeated again and again by the new(er) fans. They may not be as well-versed in the cultural politics of eclectic wilful perversity as the old fans, but in their schools and sixth-form colleges, these women are a minority within a minority. Within a sea of Spice Girls and Boyzone fans are enclaves of NME=reading Britpop fans. These enclaves are further subdivided into Manics fans and the rest. The intensity of this new fandom, so
recently mushroomed, lack the dynamics of the old-fan scene but, for these girls, becoming Manics fans is probably the most daring, the most empowering and most political decision they
yet taken in their lives. They have chosen the Manics as the best possible intelligent
alternative to what they see as the conformist, fake, commercial pop alternative.
And they have chosen well. For them the Manics will never be 'just another band'. Nicky and
Richey's stark, guttural and bitter poetry might not be analysed in any great depth, but its brilliance and power is recognised and acknowledged and felt. This isn't just another 'indie' gig for these fans. The Manics are special. And so are the new fans.
"I think we should set up a school for Manics fandom," says Sarah Waddington. "and if you're
seen not wearing a Manics T-shirt or leopard print or eyeliner then you get 50 lashes." I think she's joking.
The Blackpool show started brilliantly. James in his best pitbull-with-piles-mode, Nicky bouncing around like a 12-year-old, all against a background of fast-cut riot footage, the front few rows a sea of heavily autographed and distinctly battered-looking blow-up sheep.
But it started to drag. It started to feel like a worthy, sweaty, plug-the-last-album rock gig, devoid of any inspiration or improvisation beyond Nicky Wire's rather lame. "Sharon Stone thinks Dylan Thomas was Irish. Well, what can you expect form a dumb Yank?" And it all
ends, as usual, with the entire audience transfixed by the image of Richey and Nicky on the video screen, made up like hookers, pouting and sneering a beautiful 'fuck you' at the entire world.
It's difficult not to contrast that image with the three, sensibly dressed, workmanlike musicians plodding along underneath. "Why do they have to be so boring?" moaned an old fan.
At the heart of the Manics lies a struggle between proletarian arrogance and flibberty-gibberty dandiness. Post-Richey, the former has all but replaced the latter. The Manics now seem to revel in their undoubtedly authentic plebeian ordinariness, deliberately dressing down in the clobber of yer average working-class 20-something geezer, publicly sneering at the shrill and sometimes hysterical awkwardness of their old fans. It Was an uncompromising
extremity that helped make the Manics so dangerous, so exciting and so vitally different, that made them so much more that 'just another band'. They ain't extreme any more.
"I remember in the early days that Sean was like a dynamo," says Colin, wistfully, "always
running furiously from club to club preaching how great the band was and how shit everybody else was. Then it Was Richey and Nicky who were the wild ones. And now it's James who's the spokesman and James, God bless him, is a sensible, down-to-earth, meat-and-potatoes sort Of bloke."
It was part Of original Manics game plan to burn out and not fade away. But that burn-out
looks likely to end with neither a bang nor a whimper - but with a long, hard workmanlike slog. In Blackpool the Manics sweated, strove, they paid their dues. In Doncaster I bump into Gill and her friends. They've had enough. They're going home rather than hang around for a repeat of a set they say hasn't changed for three tours now. I join them, giving my ticket to a lass who had her handbag nicked by 'lad' fans in Blackpool.
In the cab to the railway station, the driver has Radio 2 on. They're playing The Righteous
Brothers' You've Lost That Loving Feeling. It seems apt.