From their beginnings as sloganeering glam punks, the Manic Street Preachers have reached the leading edge Of Brit-rock. Mark Ramshaw traces the fervent highs and desperate lows.
On May Bank Holiday, 15,000 fans will gather to see one of the most devotion-inspiring bands of recent times. It will be the biggest headline gig to date for the Manic Street Preachers, a band regarded as leaders of the current UK guitar band revival. They've travelled the rockiest Of roads in their short career and now enjoy huge critical and commercial success, most recently scooping trophies at the NME Brat awards for best album, best single and best live act, followed by another two at the prestigious BRITs.
With four top 10 singles and sales in excess of 400,000 for last year's album, Everything Must Go, it's little wonder that even the most critical and successful of rock bands treat the Manics With open reverence - a far cry from the shock, disdain
and derision which greeted the trashy, headline-grabbing boys from the Welsh village of Blackwood just a few years ago.
SPARKING A VISION
1986 marked the tenth anniversary of punk. For James Dean Bradfield, his cousin Sean Moore, Nicholas Jones and Richard James Edwards, coverage of the event sparked a desire to form a band. James load been a choir singer and Sean was the youngest cornet player in the South Wales Jazz Orchestra: "I've always wanted to be famous," says
James. "I wanted to be someone like Napoleon. Then I discovered music, or The Clash. to be precise... My destiny determined."
Bv 1988, they were playing under the name Betty Blue. James sang and played lead guitar while Sean was the drummer, This line-up was completed by Nicky and a guitarist called Flicker. Their driver was Richey. It was short-lived line-up and Richey replaced Flicker after their first, disastrous gig. This decision was based on the fact that he was a friend, had good cheekbones and a great guitar. He also had the idea for a new, more lasting name for the band.
"We found out who could do what, who couldn't, and then we did it. Richey couldn't play guitar to save his life, I couldn't write lyrics to save my life. I was the only one Who could sing so I had to do that," remembers James.
Pooling their dole cheques to record 300 copies of their first single Suicide Alley, they sold few through mail order and set about bombarding the music press with the rest. It didn't stand a chance against four hyper-literate, eyeliner wearing gobshites, who not only wow influences on their collective sleeves, but spray-painted
confrontational slogans on their blouses, too. Anti-homophobic, anti-racist, anti-institution, they rebelled pretty much against everything. NME made Suicide Alley single of the week.
"Every A&R man in London has come to see us and they totally hate us," Richey then railed. "They tell us to learn to play. Don't they realise that we don't care? We're really bored with all that. We don't want to live out their muso fantasies."
Playing support in London, they caught the attention of St Etienne's Bob Stanley, then a journalist at Melody Maker. He followed up a positive piece in the paper by putting out the freshly minted Repeat After Me on his own label, punk label Damaged Goods then agreed to release the New Art Riot EP, a copy of which was sent to press and management company Hall Or Nothing. Company founder Philip Hall was impressed enough to drive all the to South to watch rehearsals, Philip was to become their manager and friend, lending the band over He and his Wife Teri even let the foursome stay in their house for almost a year.
Richey was a master of the soundbite from day one. "We wanna be the biggest rock 'n' roll nightmare ever. We'll do whatever is required and give you the biggest posthumous
record sales... We are the scum that remind people Of misery. When we jump on stage it is not rock 'n' roll cliché, but the geometry of contempt... we are young, beautiful
scum, pissed off with the world."
Instead they were derided as nothing more than punk copyists; "They look like someone doing The Clash in a school play," recalled Steve Hanley Of The Fall
Looking back on the band's beginnings, bass player Nicky Wire (Jones) remembers, "One band whose music we loved was Guns 'N' Roses... and then Public Enemy was saying things we couldn't identify but at least they sounded pissed off. And that's what we tried to cross. And all you'd hear on our record players was, like, the Rolling Stones
and the Who. That was the only music that we would play."
The 'Welsh Clash' tag was to dog them for some time, but the Manics
simply responded with ever more outrageous behaviour. Influenced by the '70s Paris radical movement, Situationist Internationale, the band declared they would release one life-changing, million-selling album, achieve worldwide fame, then break-up. There were even threats Of suicide pacts. "We had this dream of performing self-immolation on Top of The Pops, but we never got around to that either," says James.
They recorded Motown Junk for Heavenly in October 1990, again making NME's single of the week, followed a few months later by the classic Manic anthem You Love Us. James: "Motown Junk was the starting point for us. It was the first time we ever really felt like a band, the first time we created a record we could live with. We had people around us who understood exactly what we were trying to say and how we wanted to say it, then we signed to Sony."
But it was an event that took place shortly before the inking of the deal which has become the stuff of legend. DJ Steve Lamacq (then an NME writer) went backstage after a gig for an interview with the band. Referring to the Manics' theatrics, Lamacq observed that some might not believe the band were 'for real'.
Richey's response was devastating: taking a razor-blade to his arm, he slowly carved the words 4 REAL into his flesh, then carried on the discussion. The wound required 17 stitches. Richey stated simply "I cut myself to show that we are no gimmick."
Manics' rage against the machinations of the music scene continued, as they dissed everybody from House Of Love to Morrissey in interviews, got into a shouting match with the audience when they played Cambridge University's ball. Scheduled to play Love's Sweet Exile on Channel 4's The Word, they took advantage of the live broadcast and played Repeat instead, complete with the line 'fuck queen and country'. By the time debut Generation Terrorists was released in February 1992, few people were left in the dark about the band.
"We were quite clinical," the band admitted, "we were like magpies, collecting information, keeping dossiers on journalists and learning how to manipulate them."
On the whole, their debut garnered ecstatic reviews, but sales were inevitably less spectacular than the Manics had promised. Even the threat to split immediately afterwards proved empty. Speaking about the decision to continue, Richey said, "'Course we'll do it, because our level of hypocrisy is on the same level as the media and the press."
"In the beginning, we wanted to sign to the biggest record label in the world, put out a debut album that would sell 20 million and then break up. Get massive and then just throw it all away," says Nicky. "By the time we were giving interviews and saying that to the press though, we didn't really believe it. We knew we couldn't quite do that. But if we had aimed any lower in the beginning, I don't think anyone would have paid as much attention to us.
Later that year the band finally hit the top ten, with Suicide Is Painless a cover of the theme song from M*A*S*H, recorded for just £80. "We chose it because it reminded us of a very gloomy time in our lives," said Richey. "It was number one when there was a Musician's Union strike and no Top Of The pops, which essentially meant there was no music on TV at all."
By 1993 the sight of Richey abusing his Telecaster and James furiously riffing on his White Gibson was a familiar one - the glam rags of the early days giving way to equally flamboyant modes of dress. By this time, the band were coming to terms with their position, focusing on actually playing the notes at gigs, appearing calmer and less vitriolic in interviews. Richey was even making a conscious effort to learn his instrument properly, although when playing live, his guitar would be turned down in the mix.
"This bloke out of The High came up and started talking to me about an interview he'd done just about his guitar and equipment," recalled Richey. "When I told him I just wasn't interested and that James plays my guitar parts on the record he went berserk. He was going 'There ought to be a union to stop people like you.'"
This new dedication could be heard on Gold Against The Soul, released in June of that year. Flying dangerously close to Guns 'N' Roses-esque stadium rock in places, it nevertheless contained a handful Of Manics anthems - La Tristesse Durera, From Despair To Where, Roses In The Hospital, and Life Becoming A
Landslide - and hinted at the successful fusion of a radio-friendly sound and intelligent, downbeat themes that would give the key to mainstream success three years on.
Nicky was to say later; "That was a time When we'd been working really hard for two years. We'd started reaping the rewards money-wise and we were working in a studio that cost two grand a day, with swimming pools and all the rest of it. We got sucked into MTV-land, all we did was sit on our arses. But we came out with even more to rail against - there's always something to be angry about."
During the recording Of the album, Richey's drinking worsened, and friend and manager Philip Hall lost his life to cancer. It was the beginning Of a terrible year. Richey moved out of his parent's home, but in his new flat, problems that had affected him at university became worse, reaching the point where he afraid to sleep. In April, the band set off for a tour of Bangkok, where a fan presented Richey with a set of knives. These were soon put to use on his chest. A disastrous time in Portugal followed, and the suicide of one of his few friends outside the band darkened his skies even further.
Few could have expected the stylistic changes these events would prompt. When The Holy Bible arrived in August, it was bleak even by Manics standards. Richey's lyrics provided painful insight into his tortured mind, documenting his anorexia, obsession with self-mutilation, and ruminations on the darker side of humanity. James and Sean's music proved almost as brittle, the punk rifling, hyper-distorted solos and vocals, and discordant structures all battering the listener's senses. It remains a modern classic, but even the band admit it makes for very un-easy listening. James: "I felt like we'd let ourselves down really badly with the last album, inhabited too many personae. The new album is lyrically far more potent, musically a lot more stripped down...we didn't want to get into decadent rock star rubbish, we wanted to communicate honestly...we sat down and gave ourselves headings and structures, so each song's like an essay."
Nicky described the album as "gothic with a small 'g'", explaining that American gloom merchants Alice In Chains were one of their favourite bands. "We've rejected our past in a lot of ways with this album," he said on the eve of the its release. "There's a bit of early Joy Division on it, and a few PiL basslines."
A week prior to the album's release, Richey had asked the management for psychiatric help. He'd always tat in control of his illness but not any more. Placed in a Cardiff hospital where they simply pumped him full of drugs, he was quickly moved to a private clinic. The other three had no choice but to carry on, playing the T In The Park festival without him. Three months later, Richey was back with the band, seemingly healthy. The live shows that followed suggested not only that the Manics were back on track, but that they were fiercer than ever. Playing the Astoria just before Christmas, they trashed £10,000 of equipment, marking in their own way the end of an era. "We'll never be that good again," said Nicky.
The new year began with rehearsals. Then Richey disappeared.
EVERYTHING GO ON
It was April before James, Sean and Nicky decided to continue, and August before they began practising again. Ending the year with a support slot for the Stone Roses, they departed for France in January 1996 to record their latest album, Everything Must Go. "We couldn't have made another Holy Bible," said Sean. "But it was also completely natural to do something else."
"It's more Spector-esque than rock a lot of the time," agrees Nicky, "We couldn't cope With going through the same misery again. But it's still a pretty dark album. In the position we were in, it was petty easy to write, a lot of emotions surfaced and we only needed to catch that." It proved a watershed album for the band, with first single, A Design For Life, selling over 90,000 copies in the first week. "It's a kind of heroic working class song. We always fight back and we
produce brilliant things," says James of the single. "People think we made some stylistic decision about it. But that's not how songs come about. I wrote it and was very surprised."
Just some inevitably questioned the band's decision to continue without Richey, so a few questioned their new epic style. James says, "When I was writing it I could hear strings. It would have been a complete denial of the song to make it sound small."
The remaining three Manics realise they're in a difficult situation. Some inevitably believe they've betrayed Richey, and that the confrontational, dark edge has gone. Certainly Nicky's lyrics are more upbeat and that's reflected in the music penned by James and Sean. But Nicky wrote half the lyrics on the first two albums anyway, and James has always been wholly responsible for the guitar-led sound of the band. The simple fact is they've evolved - something that was inevitable after the painful loss of not only a band member but a close friend. As James says, "How can I put myself in competition with Richey when he was one of my best mates? I'm, not gonna go 'We're gonna be better than ever'. You don't compete with friends."
THE FUTURE WITHOUT RICHEY
"This moment feels optimistic, but it's sweet and sour," says Nicky. "Everyone feels sorry for us right now. I think it might be a honeymoon period. I feel sorry that it took Richey to go missing before some people would accept us."
James: "I can't help thinking... Richey, if you could just have held on a little longer, things might have been a lot different. Maybe then you could have had all these things you wanted. You might have been happy."
As for the future, Nicky likes the REM working model, recording albums without touring. "I enjoy gigs when we're on stage, but I wouldn't miss it - especially without Richey. We're still incredibly arrogant and know we write the best songs, but without the iconoclastic weight Of Richey, as well as missing him, it's not right."
Having lived the rock 'n' lifestyle, added wild new tales to music folklore, and survived the loss of Richey, the three remaining Manics are world away from the Blackwood upstarts Who launched their attack on an unsuspecting world at the turn of the decade:
James: "When we started we wanted to conquer the world, but that was just a young boy's dream. The myth Of complete arrogance, thinking you're the greatest - which you usually only get one time in your life - before you realise just what it takes."