How can the Manic street Preachers be important if they don’t even know who they are themselves? The trouble with talking points is that they refer to everything but themselves. Jon Selzer asks: Were the Manic Street Preachers born to fail?
Narcissism rarely gets more succinct, or more problematic than this. In rock terms, when we call someone a narcissist, what we really mean is an ego-centric, someone with a self-identity strong enough to be able to brag about it. The true narcissist, however - the man who falls in love with his own reflection - has no such composure. He displaces himself, mistaking his own identity for a representation that’s no longer self-contained, yet idealised, offering to satisfy the thing it lacks. For the real narcissist, the 'I' becomes 'Other'. Manic Street Preachers have always been narcissists, they've always had an inseparable yet unrequited relationship between the things they say and the things they are. If they were one and the same, then they'd no longer exist. 'Generation Terrorists' would have been one of the biggest selling albums of all time, and it would also have been their epitaph. There would never have been a second album. If the Manics failed to live up to their plan, that's because it's failure was their plan. Richey: 'We knew the hypocritical nature of that statement as soon as we made it, and any decent journalist knew it as well. We knew that there'd be all these precious people going round saying 'But you said you'd never make another record!' No band would ever ever sell 16 million copies of their first record. It never happens, does it? It was the only way we could possibly exist when we started off. Coming to London, doing the most horrible fucking gigs, where there's nobody there to watch you at all, and most provincial bands do that once or twice, and they just split up. We never ever felt like that once. We'd drive back thinking, 'Well, never mind, we'll go back next time, somebody will see us, we'll sign a record deal, and we'll it make a record so fucking good that the whole world will buy it . We never questioned that, really.' Nicky: 'The more you achieve, the more blase most bands, get. If we still restrict ourselves to thinking we haven't achieved anything, then it will always make us a better band. 'Generation Terrorists' went gold in Britain, sold 100,000, but that wasn't an achievement to us, because we said we were going to sell 16 million. It does make a better band putting that continual pressure on yourselves. We're always striving for something more.'
But statements like that are what we, the press thrive on ' the allure of the impossible. The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and The Scene That Celebrates Itself were grand failures that managed to answer the need for untenable heroes, as if the drama of creation and destruction articulated the power at our disposal. If the Manics have survived this far, it's because they had the inevitability of failure built in, and by recognising it, took hold of that power themselves. Their death wish both upheld and subverted the fantasies that keeps you buying papers, taking it upon themselves to reveal that belief is no more than wilful gullibility. For them, the only measure of idealism was its capacity t6 be corrupted. I think we always did realise that,' says Richey. 'For one brief summer we had a really naive view of a band, and then as soon as you realise you can't even get a gig in London without paying to walk on stage, we were really shocked.' . Nicky: ‘When we started with Heavenly, we realised that they shared press officers with Happy Mondays, and then they started doing press, for The Stone Roses. You realise that everybody knows each other, and then how many journalists like a band just because they get a free trip.' Richey: 'Even when we went to the Camden Falcon, we'd grown up with this idea of a seminal venue, this brilliant place where all these really interesting people go. You go there, and it's worse than any pub gig in our own town. There are bands playing at home that are twice as good as anything that goes on in the Falcon, and they never get noticed.' Nicky: 'As far as saying things to get noticed go, I always think we abused the press more than used them. We had the right ideas, but we could have made it even more perfect. We could have said the right things every time. We were much more abusive in that respect.'
Richey: ‘it's really easy when you start off to know how ta. gain an audience, and I think we did it badly in that we alienated a massive record buying public before we even had a record in the fucking shops. There's a certain type of indie fan who was going, 'I'm not buying their records, they're cunts'. We can really understand that.' It’s very understandable. The Manics had accepted the mechanics of stardom, but refused to behave accordingly, attacking other bands and upsetting the cosy support system that keeps everything ticking along. They should have served their time quietly and lain dormant, but what stung the most wasn't that they were betraying their position, but that they were the only ones who had the balls to articulate it. Nicky: "The most subversive thing about us when we were first getting all the attention was that we were just talking about rock'n'roll, which we knew would wind people up, and also make them think about the state of music at the time." Richey: 'That's all people have ever wanted to hear from us anyway. In interviews we tried to talk about Marxist/Leninist theory, but no-one was interested in it. We were going 'We're a Stalinist, revisionist r'n'r band' and they were going 'Oh, don't really want to hear about that. Within the discourse of a conversation, things would come up, like other bands, and that's what would get into print.' It’s the Michael Heseltine effect - get them to do everyone else's dirty work, and then ostracise them for it.
Richey: 'I think the thing is that most bands are quite bitter people. They would slag off bands all day long, and then the minute a tape recorder goes on, they say 'I think they’re quite good, they write great songs, I like them as people'. They won't say it on tape." In typically paradoxical fashion, the Manics haven't been diametrically opposed to the things they've subverted, they've been central to them.
When the Manics speak out, it doesn't make their position any clearer, it effectively undermines it. They've always been most valuable as a talking point, a nemesis, but the trouble with being a talking point is that you end up referring to everything but yourself. For a band who make such outspoken statements against the state of rock, what they themselves stand for has never been fully clear. Nicky: 'I don't think we like talking about ourselves that much. It's a very working class trait where we keep an awful lot of things inside, and sometimes we do talk about what we're not.' Have you felt as if you've been used as a mouthpiece? Richey: 'We'd always felt used all our lives anyway, and especially when you're in a band.The very first interview that we did, we'd be talking about where we came from, and that me and Nick went to University, and it was four to six months before I saw that in print. Even people that liked us wanted to say 'You're a working class band playing rock music', but they all chose to ignore the fact that we were quite educated. They thought that we were angry little working class yobs, shouting abuse and running down the street, that we weren't allowed access to books.' Nicky: 'We were always proud of the fact that we wanted to learn, because at the time with Happy Mondays, it was almost a denial of any possibility that you could educate yourself. It was all a form of Thatcherism.' Richey: 'At the same time, some of Shaun Ryder's lyrics are really good, and he's obviously not a stupid boy, but it was made out that he was stupid and a class hooligan, and he's not. He's a bright boy, and he was never allowed to say that. When the time came to bring him down, it was so easy to do so.'
As is always the case, the greatest threat to any myth is the reality it's grounded in. Myths such as 'Madchester' are narcissistic in that they need to reconcile two opposing attractions, the articulation of an identity (in this case working class), and the desire to idealise it, to make it transcend the conditions in which it thrives-real life. Bring real life back into the equation, and the myth is exposed as nothing more than a shoddy seduction, an invitation to a party that never existed. Richey: "I think it's definitely true that you can say that most forms of youth rebellion are completely dead, or swallowed up by the media fashion It's not threatening, and it's not frightening to anyone.' Nicky: "it's like with Richey's arm, everyone made such a fuss over it and thought it was such a big deal, but unless you're on the front cover of the Sun or the Daily Mirror, it's not in all honesty important. Richey did it and proved a point, but it's only people who read the NME who were shocked by it, so it can never be that controversial unless you break out of the confines of the music press discourse. I think when we started, our ambition was much more aimed at the tabloid press. L7, she got her vagina out on TV, and that was probably the most outrageous thing that ever happened on TV. If that had been ten years ago, that would have been on the front cover of the Sun, but everything is so blase these days. Toe sucking is more subversive. 'I think that most people's lives now become so violent or numb to everything that nobody does care a great deal about anything. Whatever you do, say when I went back home after I cut my arm, I would bump into people in the street, and they'd say, 'Yeah, I did that as well', and they did it because they were so fucking bored. It's not something that's out of the ordinary, because everybody recognises it, everybody sees it in their own lives. If you see people walking down the street now with their whole body pierced, or tattooed, it's not a shock, because you see it so often that people with such self-loathing they're just walking mathematicians of their own misery, and it's not a big deal anymore. "A big thing in the media at the moment is it's very fashionable to have a drug habit, and it's just like where we come from it's so patronising. Most people back home would do anything to get off their skulls as fast as they can, as cheap as they can, and they're not interested in doing anything for effect. It's never for public display, it's always just go down to the field, and get off their skull. There was a thing in one of the newspapers about really close to where we come from they were getting syringes from the NHS, clinics and injecting cider in their veins. That was just so perfect. When people make a big thing about having a really expensive habit, that's so not the real world. It's so detached, such a Thatcherite early 80's thing, the working class ascending into the glamorous realms of the middle class, and it doesn't exist anywhere."
So why have we courted the Manics so much when they've attacked everything we hold dear? Why did the NME focus their article on the band's 'hatred' of the crusties when the paper carries such a torch for the latter? In every issue of the new-tech zippie magazine Mondo 2000, a persistent, ultra-paranoid letter writer called Xandor Korbinsky 'exposes' an extensive conspiracy (the presidency as a front for an alien lizard race who wants to sell us off as food, and beyond), and yet he 'knows' he's part of the very conspiracy he's out to reveal. He believes that the CIA have passed him information so that it will be discredited as the paranoid ravings of a madman. There are two parallel between Xandor's plight and the Manics'. Firstly, the paranoid who's privy to special information (i.e.: someone who 'sees' his image on a magazine cover, and realises he's been secretly surveyed) holds a paradoxical position-he's both an outsider to the conspiracy and absolutely central to it. His independence is the key to his coercion. The Manics are outsiders in that they’re from a small town in Wales, and yet they only exist within the parameters of the music press. Secondly, the paranoid's status renders him effective by his own standards, and ineffective by everyone else's. In order to control him, you must recognise the validity of each of these perspectives. The Manics' status is working class.
Nicky: "Richey wrote that line, and I think it's one of the best lines he's ever written. Not only does it apply to us, it seemed to apply to the whole working class democratic trade union, from a direct line from Scargill to us. Self-education didn't mean anything, you couldn't better yourself anymore.' Richey: 'All the working class movement can do these days is moan at a situation, and the moment you get someone like Arthur Scargill, who's very justified in everything he said, the minute he opens his mouth, it's like 'Tell that cunt to shut up'. That's pretty universal across the media in all forms. It's very dismissive. All we really do is moan and complain. We're not pretending to go around saying 'Here are economic solutions to Britain and Europe', this is the nature of the generation we were brought up in. Even older people when they say 'Why don't we do this, this is a solution', nobody gives a fuck. Those voices are just dead. They do not exist in the media anymore. There's nobody coming forward and saying 'This is the way forward'. It's gone. I think it's gone forever.' Nicky: "Someone like Dennis Skinner even, who I think is a really brilliant person, and he just gets chucked out of the House of Commons all the time. He's almost like a figure of fun, when he's saying really valid, personal things, and he's become a joke, the mad working class man. Everyone's lost their voice, I think." Did you feel that was happening with you? Nicky: "Yeah, totally. It just applies to every aspect of our thought, I suppose." Richey: "it was always like 'Here they come, rent-a-quote'.'
Just as telling is the track, Sympathy For Tourette from the wonderful new 'Gold Against The Soul' LP (harder, more self-assured, far less prone to pathos that its predecessor). Nicky: "I just read an article and thought that we should write an song about it, in the sense that I act as if I've got Tourette's syndrome sometimes. I've got so much bile in me that pours out. I sometimes feel as if its like that. I then I give the lyrics to Richey and he changed it to more of an angle that Tourette's is a 20th Century disease. It was never discovered in the the Century. It just shows how pathetic human beings and their lack of control have become in the 20th Century." Richey: "I think that at the start of working class culture, everybody would always say what they wanted, and now that's completely eroded. Everybody keeps their mouth shut. They never say what they think, they keep a lot of things inside of them, and someone with Tourette's Syndrome just goes around expressing a deep seated hatred all day long. They can't stop themselves. In the middle of the supermarket they just go 'You cunt'. The family have to eat food in plastic Tupperware, because the child is spitting in everybody's meal. There's no reason for it, there's no medical explanation for why it happens, the only way they can control it is by basically bombing you out of your head on drugs. It’s the only way they can control those emotions. Why that has never existed before, nobody knows." Want the truth? Go ask a freak.