A Heavenly Body Of Work - The Quietus, 14th September 2008
A Heavenly Body Of Work
Simon Price , September 14th, 2008 21:12
You lucky, lucky people. In, what is certainly the most in depth interview the band have given in recent years, Manic Street Preachers discuss with their biographer Simon Price the brief but explosive period that they were signed to the Heavenly label.
This weekend (12th-14th September), Heavenly Recordings celebrated its eighteenth anniversary with a special series of concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. On Friday night, as support to Doves, Manic Street Preachers - one of Heavenly’s early star bands - played all six of the songs they released on the label including the song that first brought them to the attention of the record buying public: 'Motown Junk'. Casting their minds back are James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire. The rest of this interview will run tomorrow.
So, let’s begin with the chronology. Your first contact with anyone in the Heavenly circle was when Richey used to send polemics to Hungry Beat fanzine, which was written by Kevin Pearce (whose inspirational book of essays, Something Beginning With ‘O’, would later be published by Heavenly)…
Nicky Wire: “Kevin Pearce was the contact, yeah…”
James Dean Bradfield: “My memory may not be absolutely accurate these days, but I do remember Richey having correspondence with Kevin Pearce. He was kind of a mod English eccentric, and there was a kind of ‘fanzine mafia’ with Kevin Pearce and Sarah Records and Heavenly. For me, it was all very very English. Richey had been sending things off to Sarah Records, and he sent things to Kevin Pearce and that’s how we got our first London gig, at the Horse And Groom at Great Portland St.” NW: “Which Bob Stanley (Melody Maker journalist, and founder of Heavenly band Saint Etienne) came to.”
What can you remember of the gig itself?
JDB: “We tipped up to the gig, and thought ‘Fucking hell, that’s Oxford Street there!’ It was just so cataclysmically, imponderably off-the-scale for me. In terms of me being a Valley boy, and seeing the big HMV for the first time, I couldn’t quite believe it. I’m not overstating that fact. I was like ‘Jesus Christ, the Big Smoke, the metropolis!’. Then I remember us meeting Kevin at the Horse And Groom, and either me or Richey saying to him ‘This gig is like a footnote from a Kingsley Amis novel’, and Kevin Pearce nodding at us appreciatively and saying ‘Yes, yes, that’s exactly what I was aiming for!’ So that’s how that all panned out. We got that gig through Richey’s shotgun-prose letters to these people.”
So, Bob reviewed the show…
NW:“He wrote a brilliant review in Melody Maker the following week. It was everything we wanted from a review. We knew he was in Saint Etienne, obviously…”
JDB: “We were just so shocked when we got a live review in the Melody Maker.”
Bob once told me that he was actually laughing as he watched you.
NW: “That’s true! But he was laughing at the insanity of four people from Wales in the tightest white jeans you’ve ever seen, covered in spraypaint… and even then, we were fairly abusive. It wasn’t as though we thought the crowd was going to just fall in love with us. But we won them over. They hadn’t seen a band like that for such a long time. It was a warm feeling. It wasn’t scrutiny of the music. It was ‘Which planet have this band come from?’”
JDB: “We did feel out of place there. Cos the Manics back then was like a military drill! All your kit had to be folded neatly by your bed, and you had to wear what was right and what fitted in with that ethos. I can’t remember which shirt I wore, but I had two to choose from and one got turned-down by the rest of the band for that gig so I had to wear the other one! We were playing with a band called The Claim whose single had been produced by Vic Coppersmith-Heaven who did The Jam’s stuff, so that English thing was very strong running through all this. The Claim were very preppy. Tank tops and knitted sweaters, and smart. And we looked kind of… dummy, and you had to kind of… scrunch up your eyes to look at us, ‘Is this working?’ And I’m sure that’s what Bob was thinking. He probably thought ‘I read this boy’s letters, but I never expected his band to actually be like this!’ That’s the sort of band we were. You’d read our correspondence, then you’d see us as a band, and you didn’t quite know if it made sense.”
He must have liked you, because not long afterwards he interviewed you.
NW: “Yeah, within four or five weeks he’d invited us up to his place. We slept in the car…”
JDB: “As I remember it, a couple of us slept in his flat and a couple of us slept in our van round the corner, I think. I remember thinking he was quite benevolent towards us. Because we weren’t the kind of band who would normally be on his radar, and we thought ‘He’s taking a punt on us here’. He was trusting his instincts rather than the fierce pop sensibility charter that he had.”
By this time, you had your second single, the 'New Art Riot' EP on Damaged Goods, on the way.
NW: “The title track of that is great, but it’s terribly produced. We weren’t pushing that as our vision of the future really. We weren’t hawking it around. The interview with Bob was more about what we were going to do. To be honest ‘Motown Junk’ is the start.”
Bob would later put out a Manics seven inch, ‘Feminine Is Beautiful’, on his own Caff label...
NW: “That’s the demo of ‘New Art Riot’, and ‘Repeat’ which is really good. Bob Stanley was quite important for us. He was such a sweetheart, championing us in a really sort of quiet, diligent way, and in his writing he really got the essence of us really quick. Which surprised us from a softly-spoken indie kid. But then, we’ve all been softly-spoken indie kids…”
JDB: “We were so much more indie then than a lot of people ever realise. I mean, a lot of people think we started at ‘A Design For Life’. We were more indie than you could ever imagine, at the start. We were entrenched in indie, but fighting to get out of it. I think Bob just admired how much into the indie ethic we were. And how much we were into fanzines. I remember Bob asking me what my favourite fanzine was, and I said Attack On Bzag (by James Brown) and another called Bullfrog. I remember him going ‘Hmmm’. Like, not impressed, but thinking ‘At least they’re into real fanzines’…”
Presumably, Bob would have been talking about you, informally, to Heavenly people.
JDB: “I don’t really know, to be honest. Our biggest connection would have been Philip (Hall, Manics manager). We had a review from Steven Wells in the NME for ‘Suicide Alley’, our DIY single, and then we had a Melody Maker review from Bob… we had a press kit! And from all those things, we got Philip.”
NW: “Yeah… obviously Philip knew Jeff (Barrett, Heavenly supremo) as well. He definitely saw Heavenly as the one we should go for.”
What, if any, was your perception of Heavenly at that point?
NW: “Oh, we used to study labels! And we knew that certain ones were out of reach. But something innately chaotic and insane about the bands that Heavenly had, the nature of East Village, Saint Etienne, Flowered Up, then us coming in as well. It was a very fucking odd roster. And just cos of Jeff’s press background (Barrett was PR man for Happy Mondays among others), me and Richey thought that even if he wasn’t overwhelmed by us as a band, he could surely see the point of everything. Heavenly was a really exciting label. ‘It’s On’ by Flowered Up, I still love that to this day. ‘Weekender’ was really overproduced, but ‘It’s On’ is just euphoric. (He starts singing it). I remember going to see them in Shoreditch Town Hall, and I was fucking scared - this is before Shoreditch was nice - and I think it was to meet (artist) Paul Cannell. We were all dressed up, me and Richey… It seemed like a strange meeting of bedfellows but somehow it held together. If you look at it, there was a period where they released ‘It’s On’ by Flowered Up, ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ by Saint Etienne and ‘Motown Junk’ by us. And that is just a fucking ambitious twelve months. There’s nothing connecting those three bands together. Not one thing. So they were just being really fiercely ambitious. For me, that was a glorious time for us to look back on, that we were involved in. It takes a particular vision to take three bands like that within the space of twelve months and say ‘This is our vision’. The only way you can describe it is ‘Heavenly’.”
JDB: “We kind of knew of Heavenly Records from East Village, and then became more aware of it from Saint Etienne and Flowered Up. I remember Philip talking about Jeff a lot, in reverent tones, but also wry tones. He had a very strange respect for Jeff. Philip, for me, was the ultimate butterfly collector. He collected quintessentially English eccentric people. He liked surrounding himself with people like that. I don’t think he and Jeff were that socially close, but whenever Phil saw Jeff, he loved having a talk with him.”
So, in the hope of getting Heavenly interested, Philip set up a gig at the Rock Garden (unloved pay-to-play venue), which you’d already played once…
NW: “Yeah. Jeff was there, Martin (Kelly, Barrett’s sidekick) was there, I even think Jon Savage (legendary rock critic) was there. He was hovering around, bizarrely, back then. We hated the Rock Garden, we’d already done pay-to-play…”
JDB: “An absolutely diabolically soulless place. We felt as if the fates were stacked against us. Here we were, about to meet Martin and Jeff and Martin from Heavenly, and the thing with Heavenly was, it had a sense of itself. There was no clear manifesto as to what would go out on Heavenly, it was just ‘We are Heavenly and we know what’s good’. The other record labels, like Creation, had more of an identity because you knew it was gonna be very Byrds/Velvet Underground-inspired jangly indie-pop. Whereas with Heavenly it was much more of a confused message. With Heavenly, it was something that was much more imbued in itself: you knew it when you saw it, that was a Heavenly record. So, when we realised we were going to be playing in front of them… they weren’t even ‘cool’. They just are. They are themselves. And here we are, playing in front of them at the Rock Garden. We’re fucked. Because playing at the Rock Garden back then, you were off everybody’s radar. You were just one of those stupid bands who come to London in search of fame…”
With all your mates in a minivan.
JDB: “Exactly. You’d sell all those tickets the Rock Garden gave you to all your mates in two minivans. We never did that kind of stuff. So I remember thinking ‘We’re up against it already’. And that it was up to Nick and Richey to talk the talk to Jeff and Martin, because there was no way we could convince them with this performance in this soulless vacuum of a place.”
NW: “It was a good gig though. I think a load of people from our uni had turned up, which never happened. Philip was brilliant. Fucking amazing. He was a total svengali around that time. He totally understood, and had faith in us that we’d come up with the musical goods but for the time being that wasn‘t our raison d‘etre. He saw that. We saw him and Jeff standing in the corner and hatching plans…”
One version of the story has it that when Jeff and Martin approached you and said they were from a record label, you told them to fuck off.
JDB: “Oh god, Jesus, I’d have been way too shy to tell them to fuck off! That might have been Sean, I dunno.”
NW: “I don’t remember this! But Jeff did look particularly odd. He looked fucking insane, with his long ginger curls. He looked like Vitas Gerulaitas. But with a huge nose.”
JDB: “He looked like an absolutely cooler version of Robert Plant. His hair was fucking long at that point, and I was absolutely shocked, because he was indie colossus man at that point. Whereas Martin was much more the sort of preppy, silver-tongued, brogues-wearing English character. I remember thinking they just went together, like (uber-successful Nottingham Forest and Derby County managerial duo) Peter Taylor and Brian Clough went together.”
Was a contract ever signed, or was it all done on a handshake?
NW: “It was totally on a handshake.”
JDB: “I just remember, Philip Hall, for all his preciseness of what he wanted to do as a press officer and a manager, indulged in a little bit of chaos theory sometimes. I could never quite figure out whether we were signed to Heavenly or not!”
Was it like one of those football contracts where there’s an understanding that if someone really big comes in with a bid, you’re free to walk?
NW: “You’d have to ask their side of it. I thought it was that…”
JDB: “I think there was a tacit understanding from Jeff that because Philip was involved, there was probably an ambition to get the band on a major label. But I was never quite clear on the technicalities of the deal. Which is very Heavenly. I remember going into their Clerkenwell office and it was exactly as you’d expect it: The Gaffer’s office, paper piled everywhere against the wall, curled browned antique posters on the wall . . ."
It took a lot of balls for Heavenly to put out a Manics record at a time when most people thought you were a joke band.
JDB: “I can’t overstate Philip’s drive to have ‘Motown Junk’ out on Heavenly. He made it very clear to us that we needed Heavenly much more than Heavenly needed us. And the bottom line is that because that record was on Heavenly, people who were in two minds about us were prepared to give us a second look, ‘They might have something’.”
Is it true that Heavenly actually lost a few grand on the Manics, but as soon as you got the Sony money you repaid every penny?
JDB: “Yeah. Absolutely.”
NW: “The thing is, ‘Motown Junk’ came out on 12 inch and CD, and it sold out every week. It stayed at 92 for four weeks, ha ha. And I remember thinking ‘It should be in the fucking charts!’ Already, I was getting slightly impatient. It looked classy, it felt important.”
The whole social and cultural circle around Heavenly was as important as the label itself…
NW: “Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the Beat Generation was the guy who introduced everyone to everyone, and Jeff was like that for us. We were introduced to people like Bobby Gillespie, (photographer) Paul Slattery, Dennis Morris, the photographer who did lots of pictures with the Sex Pistols, (NME journalist) Dele Fadele was always round, (NME journalist) Terry Staunton was always pissed out of his mind…”
JDB: “That whole period made you feel kinda special. All the cliches of being around creative people and all that… I remember meeting Jon Savage in Oxford St HMV, he’d started a magazine, and me and Richey bumped into him. And the Pennie Smiths of the world (Clash photographer), it did feel like there was something going on.”
So, from a position of being locked away in your bedrooms in Wales writing letters…
NW: “Suddenly, doors were opened. It was really exciting for six months. I remember feeling it was the closest I’d ever been to any kind of rock’n’roll dream. It genuinely was. I remember Jeff had a mad party in Aylesbury. Primal Scream played. I don’t know if it was his birthday. I went down on the train. And it really was young, good-looking, sort of drug-infested… it was like Britpop before it even happened.”
You played a number of Heavenly package gigs, didn’t you. Paris, Birmingham, Camden…
NW: “The maddest one was the Heavenly night at the Locomotive in Paris. That was one of the longest journeys I’ve ever done.“
JDB: “It was actually the first time I had ever been abroad. I remember we all - this was very un-Manics-like - we were stuck on a bus with a load of other people.”
NW: “There was a lot of… chemical substances around. And you know how we disapproved of all that.”
They were all totally going for it, except you?
NW: “Well, apart from Bob and Pete (Wiggs, Saint Etienne). Although Pete indulged in a cheeky bit of naughtiness... And I think Alex Nightingale (Primal Scream hanger-on and son of Radio 1’s Annie) was there. And the really, really gorgeous singer from Saint Etienne, the one before Sarah Cracknell. And Spence (Saint Etienne drummer), the gayest man in pop. There was East Village, us and… it wasn’t Flowered Up, thank god. And us, all together. It was a fucking splitter bus. I said then ‘We’ve got to fucking get off this label‘, ha ha.”
JDB: “And it was a long drive, so there were a lot of compilation tapes. And I remember everybody else’s compilations had been played twice, these knowledgeable Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan, Byrds fans turned round to the back of the bus, and saw us sat there looking grumpy, and said ‘Have you got a tape we can play?’. And Nick got his tape out, and I remember a couple of scrunched-up faces down the front. Cos it started off with The Clash, which is good… then it started descending into The Skids, and I remember the heads at the front of the bus going ‘The Skids, they were okay’… then it got to Transvision Vamp, and the whole bus went ‘This is not acceptable!’”
NW: “It was a brilliant gig, we trashed everything, and when we got back to the hotel, Flowered Up had started a fire in the lobby. They were insane. Liam the singer was really lovely, though. And guitarist and the keyboard player was sensible. Liam got too badly into drugs but his lyrics were really interesting. That classic Shaun Ryder thing of a really lovable intelligent working class person who could, but was one step away from fucking disaster.”
What were the British gigs like?
NW: “Birmingham was weird. It was a fucking disco, and we turned up and I can’t remember anyone being there. Anyone at all. It wasn’t exactly a roadshow. Saint Etienne went down better cos it was a club thing. The Camden Underworld (where Richey famously lost his virginity) was fucking debauched. We drove home that night. I think we were on first. We were on early. That’s where we found our sound man Rob Allen actually, first time he did our sound. Me being me, I thought we were fucking better than all these bands, or at least we would be soon. So there was always an edge. Cos I wanted to be on a fucking major label. I was prone to ‘Your band’s shit!’”
JDB: “I don’t wanna sound over-earnest here, but they were all open to us as people. We were punk-loving, Situationist-reading, white trash Valleys kids, and we were slightly tacky but also highbrow, and they were open to that.”
Let’s talk about the actual recordings. You went into The Power Plant with Robin Evans…
NW: “Fair play to Heavenly. They put us in a really good studio. They funded us, they looked after us, they believed in us.”
JDB: “It was the studio that ‘Maggie May’ was recorded in. The exact same room. Which kind of impressed us straight away. It’s one of those old studios you’d see in Rock Follies, where there was a galley with the control room behind a window, and the producer would look down… which was very 70s. Robin Evans, the producer, was brilliant, he was mega, and I’m still in touch with him. I just remember that session being amazing. We did it in two days. Jeff didn’t come down and say ‘You’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that’. My other encounters with record company people since have been that you send something to them, or they come down and listen, and they very specifically tell you what they like and what they don’t like. But Jeff just said ‘It’s really good. Brilliant. Let’s put it out.’ And I said ‘Do you want us to put the guitar solo up, or the little harmony up?’ and he just said ‘No no, it’s just really good. That’s a Heavenly record‘. And I thought that was really cool, that he just let us get on with it and we had complete freedom.”
NW: “Those four days were magical. You can hear every bit of frustration, all the ideas, our crude attempts at sampling…”
Were all six tracks recorded in one go?
JDB: “’You Love Us’ was recorded in a different session, and I felt like Jeff and Martin were a bit underwhelmed by ‘You Love Us‘. Already, we had these ambitions, and you could hear our ambitions straining. Whereas on ‘Motown Junk’ our ambition is just to explode. On ‘You Love Us’ we’re already failing to articulate what’s in our heads. I remember Jeff and Martin being less enthusiastic, and I was thinking ‘Is this going to work?’. I remember Jeff saying ‘Um, it kind of reminds me of Thin Lizzy’. And we were thinking ‘Yeah, so?! What’s wrong with that? Thin Lizzy with our lyrics! Cool!’ But at least they were honest and didn’t bullshit us, and there was no flannel.”
And this was when you first met Dave Eringa (producer and engineer), with whom you’ve worked closely throughout your career.
NW: “Dave Eringa was just the tape op, making the tea. Sometimes you just warm to someone. Idiotic, with such a love of metal. Guns N’Roses…”
JDB: “Dave was just 19, 18 years old. He had a Kiss T-shirt on, hair like Sebastian Bach… and he was just so enthusiastic.”
NW: “That was one thing we were finding tough. Our Public Enemy/Guns N’Roses thing wasn’t going down well with anyone. I was at a Heavenly party once wearing a Guns N’Roses patch, and someone just came up to me and called me a racist! Fuck’s sake. Ten years later they’re all wearing Motorhead t-shirts.”
OK, let’s do a track-by-track
Nicky Wire: “'Motown Junk' was just the best. You can hear our environment on it, our frustration…”
Presumably you don’t literally consider Motown to be junk?
James Dean Bradfield: “No, I don’t. I was very aware of the benchmark of Motown being the acceptable face of soul music to a white population who bought it up by the junkload. And there was the rubicon moment of What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, and the perception by critics that this was the black population voicing its concerns, and the irony of What’s Going On not actually selling that well. The irony that this was nowhere near the bitterest pill, this sweet soul music.”
NW: “It’s the classic idea of pop music as vacuous. We loved Motown, the basslines… (he beats out the rhythm to ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’) …but we felt pop had become redundant and didn’t mean anything.”
This wasn’t long after the Rockist vs. Soulboy wars at the NME, so it was a fresh wound.
JDB: “Yeah it was. But the greatest bands have always been able to straddle a pop sensibility with a sense of social action in their music. So many bands have managed and learned to bridge that gap. The Clash certainly did, Public Enemy certainly did. It was pop, but there was something seriously boiling inside of it. And if I listen to Motown music… I remember taking slight umbrage at ‘Motown Junk’ as a title, cos I fucking love ‘The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game’, and songs like ‘Baby Love’, but when I saw Richey and Nick’s lyric I totally understood what they were getting at.”
Was there a particular Motown song you were thinking of with “Stops your brain thinking for 168 seconds”?
NW: “Good question. I can’t remember. What’s that, 2 minutes 48?”
JDB: “This might be myth, but is it ‘Baby Love’ or ‘Where Did Your Love Go’? (It’s neither, but ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ is one second out).”
NW: “I think Richey thought that might have been the perfect length for a pop single. It was my title. We’d written the song. It had been knocking around for a bit, before Richey was in the band, but he transformed the lyrics into something better.”
Was this an era when the songwriting was closely collaborative?
NW: “It was really collaborative. James and Sean did the music in their front room, with ‘Tennessee (I Get Low)’. Those were the two they did together. This was the period just before Generation Terrorists… We didn’t go into full collaboration until just after this. Quite a lot of the lyrics I’d already written before Richey joined, but when Richey came along, and we started writing together, I was always happy for him to add. Because there was always a depth and a desperation I was never gonna have.”
'Do you remember who came up with the notorious line “I laughed when Lennon got shot”?
JDB: “(mock-wearily) No!”
NW: “Him! (meaning Richey)”
JDB: “I always skip it when we sing it live.”
It was such a ‘you’ thing to do. Burning your bridges with everyone before you’ve even…
NW: “‘Burning your bridges before you’ve even built them!’ That’s fucking brilliant. That’s a chapter in itself.
JDB: “I remember when I got that lyric, it felt like that Bill Hicks notion: why is it that the good people always get assassinated? Bill Hicks always had a list of people who survived assassination attempts, and ‘John Lennon? Dead.’ I always thought it was in that spirit, but I might be wrong.”
NW: “I remember feeling that ‘Motown Junk’ was a realisation of everything we thought we could do. I don’t think we’ve ever done a gig where we haven’t played it. Even supporting the Foo Fighters the other day, we put ‘Motown Junk’ in there and played it so fucking fast. It’s a real sense of purpose and pride.”
Of course, the line “All you slut heroes offer is a fear of the future” was deeply ironic, coming from a band who were playing old-style punk rock.
JDB: “Yeah. But you get double-negative echoes of it down the line: 'The future teaches us to be alone, the present to be afraid and cold' (‘If You Tolerate This’)“
NW: “I mean, that’s the genius of Richey. Somehow moulding everything we were about into a vision of the future, when we were obviously… different to that! The start, with the Public Enemy sample going "Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!", and the end, the sample of ‘Charles’ by The Skids, little things like that we thought were really important touches.”
Every time I listen to it, I still sense that desperation and urgency of a band who realise they might not get a chance to make another record, as though the plug might get pulled at any minute.
JDB: “I have to admit I never had the feeling that it would all be over soon. I always thought ‘This is going somewhere’. I always had absolute confidence in us as a band, that we were going to go where we needed to go to. Not in terms of selling 18 million records, but I always knew we were going to be a great band. I never felt ‘This is my last chance’.”
And yet, you can’t imagine “Motown Junk” coming out on Sony…
NW: “…and ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ couldn’t have been made on Heavenly. Oh yeah, Generation Terrorists feels like a different beast. If there’s one regret I have about the band - apart from me saying huge amounts of rubbish! - is, if only we could have done a mini-album on Heavenly. Cos you don’t get that desperation on Generation Terrorists. It’s a lot more cultured. You said it sounded like fucking Dexys Midnight Runners!”
I said it felt like Dexys Midnight Runners. And I know what I meant.
JDB: “That is weird, though. Sometimes I try to imagine a slightly different reality: What if there had still been a bit of Heavenly influence on us when we recorded Generation Terrorists? It really is between the devil and the deep blue sea when you think of things like that. If Heavenly had still exerted an influence on our first album it would probably have been a great rock’n’roll stroke Situationist stroke punk album. If we still had a devil-may-care, fuck-it attitude, the first album would probably have stood the test of time a bit more. But we wouldn’t have had ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. It’s hard to choose between alternate realities sometimes.
NW: 'Sorrow 16' was an older song I’d written most of.”
I remember it was always really exciting live.
NW: “Yeah… (starts humming the riff) We had a little practice of it the other day, and it’s still great.”
The line “Cut your hair in front of businessmen” is comical, but brilliant at the same time. It’s got the Sixties spirit of a flower in the barrel of a gun…
NW: “The Athena poster! And, when you get into songs like that and NatWest Barclays Midlands Lloyds there is a lot of naivete involved. We were 18, 19... and we were aware of that: if there’s a cartoon element to us, it’s not a bad thing. We can’t compete with The Stone Roses or whatever. We don’t want to compete with that. We’re a different entity.”
JDB: “We had this strange thing going on in the Valleys where heavy industry was disappearing, and what was coming out of the ground in a Christine-esque kind of way was these business parks in Wales. And we had this horrible dislike of this new reality, where people were on Restart schemes, and people who were bred for heavy industry and had a sort of fucked-up dignity were turning up in white shirts and ties to Cross Keys college and being told how to use a computer for the first time. It was just fucking mental. It was a very real thing for us. It might seem naïve when people read that lyric, but we were seeing literally the pick-axe being replaced by the clipped pen in the shirt pocket. It was a massive culture shock to us all.
The episode of Britain From Above about South Wales showed starkly how the former coal valleys have been ripped to pieces and become almost ghost towns…
JDB: “The population slump in the Rhondda is absolutely amazing. Certain towns were like newly-founded Klondike-style American gold rush towns. There was a massive population surge at first. In Sir Ivor’s Road (Pontllanfraith) where I lived, and where my dad lived, and where I was brought up, right along the street there was a massive slagheap which was left over from some open-cast mining. A mountain, basically, but made out of slag and coal. And we used to play on it when we were young. And I went away with the band, and when I came back, it had all been stripped away. This massive playground of post-apocalyptic waste. I turned my back and suddenly it was just an industrial park! We had the romance of a fucked-up industry, but it was replaced by this new strychnine reality which was just anathema.”
Nick, for the record, was it you singing that backing vocal, “I feel like falling… in hate!”?
NW: “Yeah it was. It is me. And on ‘We Her Majesty’s Prisoners’, I go ‘bow down!’.”
'WE HER MAJESTY’S PRISONERS'
NW: “It was originally called ‘Ceremonial Rape Machine’, but Heavenly wouldn’t have it.”
JDB: “Ha ha, yeah, there was umbrage taken at the word ‘rape’…”
Your first taste of compromise?
NW: “I can’t remember us being that bothered. It was very much Richey’s lyric… "We Her Majesty’s Prisoners" was virtually all Richey.”
The line about “butterflies trapped in frost” would become a familiar Manics theme. You presented yourselves as these beautiful young creatures who were brutalised by the adult world and by capitalism, etc…
NW: “And I do think most of those themes can be attributed to Richey, because, much more than the rest of us, he felt like that. We couldn’t wait to sign to Sony and get brutalised by capitalism!”
JDB: “We were young and there were a couple of books and films we were obsessed with, which had that idea of the promise of youth that is brutalised and trapped and kept in stasis forever. Rumblefish, Kes, even old black & white stuff like Billy Liar. Richey was obsessed with stuff like that. It was a popular thematic haunting, which was reprised throughout early Manics stuff.”
NW: “It’s like that poem 'Lament For Moths' by Tennessee Williams, about how moths are drawn to the light that ultimately kills them, there’s that delicacy in moths… It had a big impact on us all, but particularly Richey. Sometimes you don’t realise how much it means to him.”
It also has echoes of the Sex Pistols line about being flowers in the dustbin of history.
NW: “The thing is, you’ve been around us from the start. You know there was also always a massive element of bravado. Richey wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet…”
Speaking of bravado…
'YOU LOVE US'
JDB: “The template for it, of course, was a double-reverse-negative of ‘We Love You’ by the Stones. And yeah, I had a wry chuckle when I first got the lyrics from Nick and Richey: ‘Yeah, they’re not kidding, these people, they really are going down that road, they‘re not gonna stop.’”
NW: “That’s just the absolute genius of Richey. We were searching around for a title. ‘We Love You’ by The Rolling Stones was the inspiration, and we’d been writing and writing, on and on and on… and he just came up with that title.”
You were looking for one song with the power of “fuck you”?
NW: “We had millions of titles. We love titles. We love writing ‘em. But it had been dragging on and dragging on… then he came up with it. Brilliant moment. And we were writing together by this point, but the lyric is, I’d say, a good 70% Richey.”
This is probably a good time to talk about the hip hop influence on what you do, what with the lyrical steal from “911 Is A Joke”, the ‘rap’ at the end, and the uncleared samples…
NW: “Yeah, the end is literally the intro of ‘Lust For Life’, sampled. And Penderecki at the start. We didn’t get clearance. We didn’t get fucking clearance for loads of stuff. Back then we could get away with it. 'Stay Beautiful' was originally called ‘Generation Terrorists’ and it was supposed to start with the intro from ‘Rock & Roll’ by Led Zeppelin (sings the drumbeat) but by then we couldn’t get away with it.”
JDB: “But Martin and Jeff just didn’t give a fuck.”
A lot of bands around that time were literally fusing rock and hip hop, whereas with you it was more about the spirit.
NW: “I take your point about bands mixing hip hop and rock, but as a rule those bands were fucking terrible. It put us off. We knew our limitations. When you’ve grown up so much on The Clash and the Pistols… There’s nothing worse than some shit band from Camden thinking they can play reggae. The Holloways? For fuck’s sake. I was watching Get Cape Wear Cape Fly last night, that measly little cunt doing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, reggae style… There needs to be an amnesty where musicians give their instruments in to the police! A fucking cull. A seal cull.”
JDB: “We always said we wanted to combine politics with the deathly, fatal beauty and glamour of the Pistols etc. And I remember we once did a rehearsal tape of us trying to do ‘Fight The Power’ by Public Enemy, and Philip saying ‘Er, I don’t quite get that,’ ha ha. What we were obsessed by, with Public Enemy, more than anything was the division of labour. Regardless of Professor Griff’s ultimate idiosyncrasies and foibles - being an anti-semite, etc - just the idea of having a Minister Of Information we loved. And as well as obviously Chuck D himself, you had Flavor Flav as almost this theatrical horror-clown. We loved the idea of all these different jobs in the band. And you never saw the face of the people who really did the music! Terminator X wasn’t that involved in the music. And if you look at the Manics, the two people who were making the actual music - myself and Sean - we weren’t prominent in Manics press. The first NME cover was just Nick and Richey. That had a big influence on us: the idea that this is about more than just the music. Everything, from the ground up, informs the music. It’s not the other way round.”
NW: “I’d say the Generation Terrorists version of ‘You Love Us’ probably has the edge. It’s a bit pub-rock, the Heavenly one. Still, I remember Simon Dudfield - he of Fabulous - reviewing ‘You Love Us’ in the NME and his line was ‘Every band in Britain secretly wants to be in the Manic Street Preachers’. Which was a brilliant line.”
'SPECTATORS OF SUICIDE'
NW: “‘Spectators Of Suicide was a song we’d already done, called ‘Colt 45 Rusty James’, a reference to Rumblefish. And that was another case of Richey coming along, thinking of a better title and adding some lyrics.”
There’s a sample from a Black Panther speech at the start, and the title alludes to French Situationism. Were you consciously placing yourselves in that tradition?
JDB: “I don’t know if we were placing ourselves in their tradition, but we were stealing their power, basically. That’s always been a slightly misunderstood thing with the Manics. We’ve never used these quotes or taken these samples and said ‘Yes, we are these people, we have a right to stand next to them’. We’ve always used them to inform what we’re doing, or to illustrate something that we found ourselves coming up short in. If it’s the last ten seconds of the race, and we decided we weren’t sufficiently articulate or intelligent to ram the point across, we’ve used somebody else. Whether it be a quote from a book, or a sample from a speech. I don’t think you can overstate how - oh god, I can’t believe I’m going to use the word ‘dispossessed’ - how dispossessed we felt back then. We felt as if we’d been under the centralised contract of a Thatcher government from afar, we’d been destroyed by that government, but we felt dispossessed from a Welsh identity at that point as well, so we were in no man’s land. As four teenagers, we felt ‘Where’s the pride in being Welsh any more?’ I don’t want to sound as though I’m trivialising, but sport was in a really bad state in Wales at that time, in rugby or any sport, music was in a really bad state, we didn’t have any discernible literary giants coming out, and the feeling of community that had been bred in our country was absolutely gone. So we felt as if we were trapped between the Thatcher government destroying us from afar, and this vacuum at home. So we were picking parts of other people’s culture, and saying ‘This is who we want to be’. We were lost, as people…”
Musically, it’s the first Manics song which is as much about elegance as energy.
NW: “Absolutely. ‘Spectators’ is an amazingly mature piece of music. Musically it didn’t change that much from when it was called ‘Colt 45 Rusty James‘. It’s the first track I genuinely think all the people at Heavenly really loved. Because it’s much more… classic. When they heard that, you could tell they were thinking…”
It’s a proper band?
NW: “Yeah, a proper band. The version on Generation Terrorists is a fucking abomination. It sounds like the fucking ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight’! (starts singing ‘ee-oo-ee-oo…‘).”
JDB: “The album version is the worst thing we’ve ever recorded, nearly. Just awful. There’s some good stuff on the album, but that’s an utter abortion. I still love the Heavenly version except my vocal performance. I hadn’t learned how to sing like that. It’s one of my worst vocals. It’s fragile. I don’t like that.”
NW: “I remember meeting Andy MacDonald from Go! Discs - cos we were choosing between Go! Discs and Columbia for a while - and he really loved ‘Spectators Of Suicide’ and they offered us a deal. But there was a bit more money with Columbia. Brutalised!”
JDB: “We had at least two demos of it floating around for a long time. Jeff and Martin absolutely loved that track. I think they’d have preferred it to be the A-side. They didn’t say so out loud, but they did laud some praise upon that track. They were surprised that we came out with it, I think. That song was finding romance in certain defeat, and trying to create something in the face of that. We were saying ‘We are defeated, we are absolutely and utterly voiceless, and we’re going to find some sort of fucked-up beauty in that, and we’re going to go forward from it.’”
NW: “I think it’s the weaker song of the six. I can’t remember what it’s about.”
NW: "I don’t think it is about groupies. I don’t think we’d had much groupie action by then! It would have had to be a bit of wishful thinking…”
There’s another Public Enemy sample, from “She Watch Channel Zero”, a song widely held to be misogynist. And presumably there’s a reference to the Rolling Stones’ 'Starfucker'…
NW: “What’s the line, ‘Hate all records’… (sings it to himself). I really don’t know. I remember a gig at the Falcon in Camden where I dedicated it ‘This is for Ian Brown and Shaun Ryder’, but I can’t remember why I said that, and if it was good or bad. We did admire those two. But lyrically… I dunno, it was more of a Richey one.”
JDB: “I always thought it was about us, as people, wanting and struggling to be the visions of the things we’d admired, and live up to the roll-call of our heroes. Out of all the tracks, it’s the one that doesn’t have much going for it.”
“STRIP IT DOWN” (live at Bath Moles)
NW: “We’re not doing that at the gig…”
Sure, but for the sake of completism… Again, it has an echo of the Pistols: “Decaying flowers in the playground of the rich…”
JDB: “It’s a very ‘young’ lyric, that one.”
But the line “smother my life in interest accounts” connects to, in another song, the line “hospital closures kill more than car bombs ever will”, and in another song again, “death sanitised by credit”. That realisation that mundane political decisions can have more catastrophic effects than any violent act…
NW: “Yeah, interest rates, house repossessions, blah di blah. Richey was always really good at dissecting that. I was always more of the fucking Marx-Engels expert, but he could write it slightly better than me. The tawdry mundane shit. The ‘Hospital closures’ line was fucking brilliant.”
JDB: “Yeah, the pot-boiling issues of interest rates etc. Also, when they were writing these lyrics, Nick and Richey were just coming out of university and they were getting trapped in what they call the ‘milk round’ where they’d be told to go to interviews in various industries, and Nick was trying to pay off this massive gambling debt he had, so they were finding themselves in the offices of bank managers the whole time… And I remember my parents having crippling debts, and I remember thinking ‘How have they got these debts, when they’ve never taken a day off work in their lives?’ And they still didn’t own their own house, and they still had to take obscene loans off local loan sharks. You know, what the fuck? They are the work ethic, my parents, and they’re not getting anything for their work. It turns people into 1984-esque automatons. It’s like that Clash lyric: ‘The weekend approaches like jail on wheels’. There was no enjoyment to be had on weekends, because my mum and dad always had to work on weekends, and we never had any money to fucking do anything. So there was always a good core of social realist truth in Nick and Richey’s lyrics, even if it was diffused in some sort of metaphor. It wasn’t empty rhetoric.”
Was the inclusion of that track intended to show the world that you could, you know, ‘kick it live’?
NW: “I dunno. We did a gig in Bath Moles… We sound pretty good, I think. It sounds raw. It’s the one song from ‘New Art Riot’ we kept in the set for quite a long time.”
JDB: “I think it was just that we didn’t have any other songs! Have I ever told you the thing about Richey’s guitar on that track?”
No, I don’t think so…
JDB: “I just remember when we mixed it in the studio, Robin Evans mixed it, he was getting all the channels up - cos it had been recorded properly, separate channels - and he tried to feed it out to another amp so he could re-record Richey’s performance and somehow make it sound better. Cos Richey had been absolutely hammered for that Bath Moles gig, and he wasn’t the greatest guitar player anyway, so his performance from that concert was particularly bad. And I remember trying to go into the live room when Robin was mixing it, and I remember trying to stop Richey, going ‘No, don’t go in there, don’t go in there!!!’ But Richey went in to listen, and he heard the shocking reality of his live guitar all on his own. Me and Nick went into the room, and we couldn’t see where Richey was. Then we saw he’d slid down the wall onto the floor, just laughing and laughing. He was literally just apoplectic with uncontrollable laughter at the sound of his own drunken live guitar, in a studio. I’ve never seen him laugh so much, it was amazing. It was like a postcard of writhing laughter! It was amazing.”
Lastly, let’s talk about the artwork on those two singles, by Paul Cannell. It seemed to match perfectly with the spirit of the band…
JDB: “He was someone Jeff knew. We started off with a piece of artwork by Dennis Morris, the Sex Pistols’ official photographer, but we didn’t really like it. So Jeff just said ‘I know this guy. He’s crazy, but he’s brilliant.’ He was someone in Jeff’s collection. They had this Beat Generation sense of having loads of people round who were really creative. But at the same time, you knew that half of those people were fucking… mental.”
NW: “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the original artwork for ‘Motown Junk’…”
No, tell me…
JDB: “It’s very chilling. A Paul Cannell collage of Yoko holding a gun towards John’s head. It was… yeah, a bit too much. Even for us, at that point, even though we felt indestructible. I think somebody in the band thought it was good, but he got vetoed by the rest of the band.”
NW: “I desperately wanted to use it, but Heavenly wouldn’t let us. It tied in with the line ‘I laughed when Lennon got shot’.”
So you went with the stopped watch from the ashes of Hiroshima instead.
JDB: “Ha ha ha! Yeah, ‘Which one shall we have? John Lennon getting shot by Yoko, or the Hiroshima watch?’”
NW: “Paul Cannell was really important early on. He made us a load of clothes for a photo session with Martyn Goodacre. He was a brilliant artist, not just a designer. He did the one for ‘Stay Beautiful’ as well, which was on Columbia but still has the Heavenly logo on there.”
JDB: “The artwork for ‘You Love Us’, out of the blocks, was perfect, exactly what we wanted. I can’t remember if Nick or Richey directed him in any sense, but I’m pretty sure there was a list given to him of names that were wanted on the collage.”
You mean the collage with Betty Blue, Marilyn Monroe etc? I’ve got an 8ft poster version of that on my wall, with the words ‘OVER DO$E’ across it…
NW: “For the Marquee gig? Fucking fantastic. We sold out the Marquee and… we’d already played there supporting the American glam rock band The Throbs, and we loved The Marquee. It seemed like our territory. And we sold it out, and it was the only time we’d ever played an encore in Britain. Only cos it was so good. We didn’t wanna come on, but by the time we came on we left it so late that everyone had fucked off home! Fucking horrible. And we’ve never ever done another one.”
JDB: “With everything we did, even the artwork, Heavenly didn’t think it was too adolescent. They were willing to go with that certain… naivete.”