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A Design For Strife - NME, 25th September 1999

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Title: A Design For Strife
Publication: NME
Date: Saturday 25th September 1999
Writer: James Oldham
Photos: Andy Wilsher

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First Richey disappeared on the eve of a tour, then Oasis temporarily broke up in the Midwest when the Manics were supporting, then an illness forced cancellation...will the Manic Street Preachers ever get a decent shot at America? NME travelled to New York to celebrate their latest invasion, only to be embroiled in the usual cancellations and cacophony.

Amid all the chaos, here is a fact: the massive success that the Manic Street Preachers take for granted in Britain and parts of Europe - Brats, Brits, Mercury nominations, festival headline slots, chart-topping singles and albums - just hasn't happened in the States.

Their former US label, Epic, even refused to grant 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours' an American release because past Manics albums have sold so poorly there. 'Everything Must Go' shifted under 15,000 copies, a meagre amount compared with, say, the Beastie Boys, whose 'Hello Nasty' LP sold 660,000 copies in its first week of release, or Limp Bizkit, whose current album is shifting 150,000 copies every seven days. To date, 'This Is My Truth...' has only just made it over the 11,000 mark.

Part of the reason is that the band have never toured properly. That's why they're over here now, embarking on a 13-date trek which will finally take them beyond LA and New York Even then, it's worth bearing in mind the size of venues they'll be playing. In Seattle, for instance, they're booked in at the Troubadour, a club that'll shortly be playing host to gigs by Low and Godspeed You Black Emperor!.

Another problem is that the Manics come to the US and Canada bereft of context. Even their most ardent US fans have only a basic grasp of their history ("Richey who?") - they don't get the politics, and that absence of knowledge and affinity of attitude extends to the media as well. Although This Is My Truth...' received a positive review in Spin, America's second largest music monthly, where it was described as "the best Britpop has to offer" and of interest to "alternative, pop and even goth fans", far more common was the slightly dismissive tone adopted by America's number one music mag Rolling Stone. Reviewing the 'If You Tolerate This...' single on their website, they commented: "This turns out to be a mellow, mid-paced with the title forming a surprisingly buoyant chorus - a far cry from the neo-Guns'N'Roses squall of their more recent stuff."

And if you think that's bad, check out the description allotted them in The Village Voice, the influential New York listing mag. Previewing the Bowery Ballroom shows, they wrote: "Considered the greatest band in the world by a certain sort of Anglophile, this blowsy trio brings the noise like some misbegotten spawn of Iggy and Styx with just enough Bay City Rollers damage to keep things interesting. Yes, they'll make statements, create manifestos and batter you with bombast, but there's a mighty good chance you'll see a knicker-waving pratfall as well."

Miaow. Such a reaction, though is not uncommon. When NME spoke to one insider before the tour got under way, he was blunt in his appraisal of the group.

"No-one gives a rat's arse about them over here. You find the shows are full of expats or visiting Brits most of the time. They really are small cookies."

Having said that, the gigs are selling well. Larry Webman of the Little Big Man Organization (the Manics' tour agents in America) is extremely upbeat.

"It's going great. At a couple of places (Toronto and Vancouver in Canada) we moved to bigger venues, and second dates were added in New York and LA. The last time they were here it didn't go as well as they wanted, but this time there's been a tremendous buzz coming from your country, and over here there's a bunch of Anglophile kids who read NME and are really up with what all the British bands are doing."

Asked to compare the buzz on the Manics With the one that accompanied Oasis and The Verve, he replied: "I think those two bands have always been different. You can't compare them with the Manics because of the tremendous radio play they get. Unfortunately, in this country you can't break a new band without getting radio play."

It has long been argued that American radio cannot find a format for the Manics. Their titles are too long, their lyrics too obtuse, their rock not 'rawk enough'

Webman tries to put a shine on the picture: 'Having said that, the press buzz in England has really created a new awareness. "

This, of course, is just the sort of situation that gets the Manics going. Often splendid in adversity, the band have arrived in New York determined to gain credibility on their own flamboyant terms. So here they are, oblivious to the latest blow fate is about to deal them, onstage at New York's Bowery Ballroom.

Nicky Wire is on vintage form. You should see him, admonishing the crowd to watch out for NME, calling the band's former US record company "a bunch of fucking pricks", and adding, somewhat coyly: "I know what you're thinking, 'The band's great, but that bassist's such a wanker!'"

The Manics are playing a sharp, abridged version of their V99 set tonight, and they're in mischievous mood from the start. As Welsh flags appear during You Stole The Sun From My Heart', Wire - not wearing a dress but with a pink feather boa wrapped around his mic - announces, - "Careful with those flags, the NME Thought Police are in town."

After a wired version Of 'Faster', he rips into the US wing of Epic, before declaring to wild cheers, "I'm having a bad hair day today. I look like someone off Friends." Having negotiated 'Motown Junk' and The Clash's 'Train In Vain', the band depart to a joyous A Design For Life', Wire just stopping to add that he'd definitely be wearing a dress the following evening. Little does he know...

Afterwards, NME meets James Dean Bradfield backstage. He's tired, but happy in the belief that the band have finally put their US hoodoo to rest.

NME asks if it was weird to be back playing 500-capacity venues after a summer Of festivals?

James: "Yeah. It feels schizophrenic. I suppose it's a bit like starting again, but strange and liberating at the same time. I was scared at first. I remember all the gigs we've done here, the Limelight, CBGB's, Maxwells, and this gig was definitely the best one we've ever done. I'm just glad we didn't bottle it. A lot of bands come over here and say, 'What are we doing?' It just felt good to do it."

Does America matter to you?

"Number one, we haven't got any strange force behind us telling us to come here. If it didn't matter, we probably wouldn't be here, though, would we? It doesn't matter to us in a gung-ho sense, we don't think we're going to conquer the land of JFK. We're much more realistic and mature about it these days."

"In 19-fucking-94 everyone was asking us questions about whether it was important to break it. We're not trying to break it, we're just trying to make a connection."

America has always been bad for you, though, hasn't it? Richey's disappearance pre-US tour, Oasis cancelling...

"It's about time to break the voodoo then, isn't it?"

Nicky made an oblique reference to the Welsh nationalism issue onstage and called the NME 'Thought Police' How do you feel about it?

"It means what it means. I'm in New York now, I can say stuff like that. It is what it is. That's it on that one."

What next for the Manics?

"This is our last tour and then we shut up shop, we won't be playing again until the millennium gig and after that we're not going to be doing a gig for at least a year. Well over a year, I think. We just feel that we've got another stage of the Preachers to go for. We haven't got much material yet, but the stuff we have got is fucking brilliant."

Is it going to be like 'Masses Against The Classes'?

"No. that's much more flippant. Whenever we do an album, every track is affected by the preceding track, and we just want to do one song which isn't affected by a whole big agenda. We want to do something flippant and offhand for us, and not for anyone else."

NME criticised the Manics this summer for being bloated stadium rock, did that affect you and make you want to write a 'Masses Against The Classes'?

"We're not thick cunts! You'll never hear us saying, 'Journalists are just failed musicians. It doesn't matter what they say.' We're objective about it, if there's one valid criticism out of 100 points we'll always take it on board, but it definitely stung a bit.

"We worked like this when were younger too. Around the time of 'You Love Us' we had a load of bad press, and we did react against it. I don't think it's an unhealthy thing. Obviously I think a lot of it was just tinpot buffoonery, but one or two of the points made were valid...I'm not saying which ones, mind. OK?"

Such renewed confidence! The Manics on top form...24 hours later, their second New York gig is unceremoniously cancelled at the last minute. Something to do with "the singer's throat". It all seems so miserably familiar. With the prospect of more gigs being pulled (they were due to play Boston the following night), the plight Of the Manics in America seems worse than ever.

Many of their hardcore fans (some of whom have travelled from Wales) are angry that the decision to cancel the show has been taken at such a late stage. Rumours are even circulating that the whole band had been spotted entering the venue just a few minutes before the gig was officially called off. Whatever the truth Of that, it's certain that this latest setback will have a serious bearing on any future plans the band have for the States.

At the time Of writing, desperate attempts are being made to reschedule the show. No decision had yet been taken on the later dates. For the Manics it looks as if America is destined to remain as intangible and as unconquerable as ever.