Manic Street Preachers are back with an LP with lyrics written entirely by the long disappeared Richey James, Bassist and fellow 'glamour twin' Nicky Wire dishes on drag, Kylie and 20 years in pop.
"We were the ultimate bedroom band," smiles Nicky Wire, bassist and intellectual and aesthetic heart of the Manic Street Preachers. "Basically we thought our mission was to attract every lonely, fucked up person of any race, of any colour, of any creed, to be as inclusive as possible. We knew there were a lot of people just waiting for a band like us because that's what we had been waiting for."
Manic Street Preachers arrived on the British music scene in 1989, a self-proclaimed mess of eyeliner and spray paint. Mouthy Welsh punk rock upstarts, the band stood deliberately apart from their indie counterparts by dint of their political fierceness, D.I.Y. glamour and their marriage of intellectual weightiness (they quoted Karl Marx to Tennessee Williams) and pop culture iconography (they loved Public Enemy and asked Kylie to duet on their prostitution themed Little Baby Nothing. She declined). If you were young and an outsider in the early 1990s, the Manics had come to save your soul.
A fervent fanbase including fledging gays aped their fake furs, eyeliner, slogan tees and tight white jeans look and devoured the highbrow literature referred to in lyrics - all of which was devised by Nicky and his 'glamour twin' guitarist Richey James. Disbelievers accused the band of not walking like they talked it; famously, Richey carved '4 Real' into his arm when accused of this by then NME journalist Steve Lamacq. Real horror followed. In 1994 the band released the dark, nihilistic The Holy Bible, a creative high but one that exposed the turmoil of Richey's mind. He wrote 70 per cent of the lyrics for songs like The Intense Humming of Evil to 4st 7lbs, which referred to the lowest possible weight a fully-grown woman could survive at. Then on the eve of the band's American tour, on 1 February 1995, Richey went missing and has not been seen since.
In 1996, the band returned as a threesome with the ode to working class ideals, A Design for Life - a life-affirming piece of orchestral rock that gained them mainstream appeal and set them on course to become one of Britain's biggest rock bands. Understandably, the band strove to move away from its own historical baggage. Since then there's been songwriting for Kylie's Impossible Princess, a No.1 about the Spanish Civil War and most recently a commercial revival on the Your Love is Not Enough Alone with Nina Persson of The Cardigans. Simultaneously, the band have been gradually embracing the past, as The Holy Bible songs crept into the set lists and Nicky Wire re-emerged in floral dresses and heavy-duty eyeliner, relishing his anti-rock-n-roll status by coming out as a proud house husband and hooverer.
Last November, following a request by his parents, Richey James was declared presumed dead. In December, the Manics announced they were working on a new record, a companion piece to The Holy Bible, with lyrics left behind by Richey. Journal for Plague Lovers is an incredible record, reminding the listener of the Manics greatness now as in 1994. On the eve of the new album's release, we spoke to Nicky for the lowdown on a Manic past, present and future.
You famously love a spot of hoovering and tidying up. Do you watch Kim and Aggy's How Clean is Your House? - Jonathan Curran, Belfast
Yes, I have had phases. I'm just so baffled and bemused that people can get to that state. I think it's so rewarding to keep the house tidy and clean; it's a simple task that gives a great sense of achievement. That's how I see it. If we're on the tour bus and James is slightly slobbering around, I'm quite happy to tidy up around him. For me I can't be creative in chaos, a lot of people obviously thrive on that. If a sense of order descends, then I feel I am ready to do something. I have still quite a few Dysons round my house even though they're shit now and the build quality is fucking disastrous. It's a bit like buying a Rover car, you just stick with it because you feel you should. The original DC1 which I've still got is just the bollocks.
Why were you called Shirley as a kid? - Ronan McCluskey, Swansea
Because I looked like Shirley Temple. It stayed with me for a long time. I was lucky enough to be really good at sport, cricket and football especially but I straddled this difficult path of obviously looking completely like a girl, liking The Smiths and Goth bands but being - I wasn't a jock or anything - but I was captain of the football and cricket teams. Even when I would go to play football down the valleys everyone would go, "Here's that fucking Shirley again. Is it a girl, is it a boy blah de blah..." It was a bit like walking round like the New York Dolls when we got older. I liked the isolationism that that brought; I never really felt picked on or embittered by that stuff.
Do fans still send you makeup? And do you have any recommendations slap wise? - Richard Matthews, Southend-on-Sea
I absolutely love Urban Decay makeup, it's brilliant. I get tonnes of it [from fans]. The great deceit of the century is Mac makeup. Unless you're a model it just doesn't work for you kids, it's just rubbish. Urban Decay is much more Mardi Gras, it's thick; it's just beautiful stuff. If you want a good old-fashioned eyeliner you cannot beat Rimmel, Soft Kohl Black. People shouldn't sell you any other; it's just the best for panda eyes. And for foundation, because obviously onstage you need something more theatrical, there's Face which I think is Swedish. On the last tour unfortunately I forgot my makeup going to the gig and we were stuck in horrendous traffic outside Birmingham and the only thing I had on me was toothpaste which I used as foundation to make me look really pale. A few people thought it looked good but it was fucking burning my skin like you wouldn't believe. Absolutely burning it. I do feel naked onstage without makeup.
Can we expect the war paint on the next tour? You keep threatening to stop using it. - Nicola Leonard, Barking
It's always going to be there no matter what I say. I deceive myself. I convinced myself especially around Everything Must Go for six months because things were selling well. I thought, "this is all right, put the makeup away." But then you do a TV show with Ocean Colour Scene or someone and you think, "Fucking hell, I cannot bear this any longer. I will not be lumped in with these kind of people."
I remember being captivated by the You Love Us video in which Richey and you - the 'Glamour Twins' - pretend to fuck your own image, suck lollipops and dressed in a single shirt, feed each other oysters. The early days were full of homoerotic intent. Was the impetus behind it - as four straight blokes - to antagonise or titillate? - David Corrigan, Devon
There's two sides to it. For me it was a genuine love of femininity, probably from my mum. Literally, messing with her makeup, hairspray. With Richey, there was something almost political but in an androgynous way, in a homoerotic way. He found that really interesting, really stimulating. Those times were just wonderful. You can't help but see the glory and the humour and the fact it pissed so many people off back then. There's that last scene (in You Love Us) where this huge black wrestler is massaging me and he wasn't actually a masseur, he was a wrestler and he was fucking really hurting me and the director is going [adopts seductive voice), "Pretend you love it, you love it". Wiz, the director, in those two videos (You Love Us and Love's Sweet Exile) really caught us. Especially coming to London, we were really laughed at. It was a different era: the tightest jeans, the makeup, the glam New York Dolls side, that feeling of splendid isolation and subversion we thrived on. We definitely enjoyed it. James was, in his own way, if anyone was, a gay icon. The blonde cropped hair and the amazing body... he was worth his weight in gold.
James used to say - "if there are any pretty boys who want to fuck me then I'll see you in the dressing room after the show". Was he serious or was this another case of the legendary Manics inability to walk it like they talked it? - Jack, via email
Yeah! At the Marquee, I remember it. Even I was a bit like "Fuck!" [Attitude asks if there were any takers] Not to my knowledge. The strange thing is he was so incredibly shy; none of us even had girlfriends apart from [the drummer] Sean who ended up marrying the same girl. He's had kids with her and is still married now. We struggled so badly and then all of a sudden we became these kind of sexual beasts but with no experience. It was just the idea of provocation and inclusion. We felt so lonely, in a good way, as young people growing up, isolated in a very macho Valleys' environment. And people just related to us straight away in so many different ways. There was a serious side and a provocative side. Richey's t-shirt - 'All Rock n Roll is Homosexual' - was just fucking genius. I think Richey was more serious - I don't mean practising it - but the politics of it and the idea of sticking up for minorities. I know it all seems a bit do-gooder but at the time I think he was imbued with confused androgyny, sexuality. Richey was like that and wanted to explore every facet. There was an earnest, good side to us...especially to him.
So who was your inspiration for the floral dresses and headscarves look? Hilda Ogden? Dot Cotton? - Adrian Homes, Argyle
Ha! I always like to think it was slightly more glamorous. The headscarf, I thought, was more Marilyn Monroe with the big shades. But when I looked at the pictures I could completely understand. The one dress that really suited me and the one which I probably looked better as a woman than any rock star that's ever been was this Cuban white cotton dress. I had a bit of a fucking mental moment in Cuba when - how can I say it? - I felt oppressed. I didn't want to go over there and just...dress like a boring Communist. And I was in the hotel lobby and there were these fantastic dresses. Everything felt right...kinetic...serendipity. I never believe, when you're buying clothes, in trying them on. I bought it, went upstairs and just felt utterly liberated in one dress. I started putting loads of makeup on and Mitch, our photographer, came in. All these photographs have never really been seen, I've got them all locked up. There was this mad half-day in the hotel prancing wound my room like a Cuban whore. My legs look amazing there.
Did you get trannies writing to you? - Jamie Kennedy, Islington
I think I probably have but there was a lot of boys who used to write to me just thinking I looked fucking great. As in, it was a serious proposition. A lot of men look utterly embarrassing when they dress as women. I think I looked fucking great. I think it suited me, my pelvic girdle of child rearing. Even when I weighed eight stone, I still had huge hips. My dad always said, "Son, you should have been born a woman."
Your announcement that you were making a new record with lyrics by Richey coincided with the court order declaring him presumed dead. Was that coincidence? - Ron Taylor, Aberdeen
Yeah, we made the decision [to do the album] a long time ago, we reckon over a year ago. James and me were talking about it. The court decision...I feel Richey's parents just had a lot of shit to deal with. I'd back them in anything they had to do. They have got legal stuff, emotional stuff...[for] his family, in a lot of ways it's much harder for them than it is for us. So I support them in anything they do and all that legal stuff had no bearing on it. There's no sense of closure for us, we don't need any of that. We have found some middle way for the last 10 -15 years where we just exist.
Send Away the Tigers reaffirmed us as a band; it has been a commercial comeback. It's not the most inventive album we have ever done or pushed any barriers. It's just reminded people we are a glorious rock band with a slight intellectual edge. If we had done it after the album Lifeblood, which was a bit of a commercial failure, people would just have said we were just trying to resurrect our career through Richey. This way is probably more likely to fuck up our career [laughs].
For a long time we felt protective and maybe damaged and sensitive about Richey. Looking back on it we absolutely felt a really deep-rooted desire to prove ourselves as a three piece and not rely (on him]. I think from Design for Life through to...Tolerate...it was our biggest period. We didn't even play a lot of songs off The Holy Bible which I guess is an understandable way to react. But the last three or four years, I've just felt like I'm just a fart of Richey as a person, as a friend, as an icon, definitely as a lyricist - I absolutely love his words. I never really looked at these words in detail. Perhaps I felt a bit scared and, I dunno, I didn't want to unearth anything. We were in the back of the car and James just said, "It's time to get off the treadmill and do something as an art project" and he mentioned Richey's lyrics. And when I read them I realised I could never go to those places he does, or the depths or the fierce intellect and rage. It made me realise how much we have missed him as a writer, as an intellectual force. That symmetry we had as four people, you are never going to replace that. We have written great songs, done great gigs [as a three piece] but perhaps this album gives us a unique chance to be that band again.
What is the significance of that particular Jenny Saville image you used to illustrate this album? - Kerr Franics, Hartlepoole
I've kind of been a bit soul destroyed by this to be honest. The image seemed to fit everything, the sense of innocence. The painting is called Stare so it's the idea of Richey surveying the landscape, and of reaching, of doubt. And yet Sainsbury's and Tesco have banned it because they say it's a disturbing image. You can have Pussycat Dolls pole dancing and selling to children - there are millions of examples - but they seem to say it's just a disturbing image of a child. When I look at it, I see a really beautiful painting, rich with colours and oils. The last thing I want is some big fake controversy because there's no need for that - do you know what I mean? There's absolutely no need.
I've read the lyrics for Williams Last Words, which you sing. You are aware that people will read it as a goodbye message from Richey? - Allen Morecambe, Bath
We treated the album like The Holy Bible, which was very much an academic discipline. When Richey's writing lyrics that obtuse and that oblique you don't pile in with emotion if you are doing the music. I actually wrote the music for William's Last Words and that's why I sung it because James thought he'd turn it into a ballad and sing it too well. He probably would. When I listened to the lyrics back, I'm obviously aware of the loaded nature of the work. But it's a piece of prose, probably a page and a half of A4. When you read the prose it doesn't necessarily apply to all of Richey's situation. When I was writing the song, I dunno why, if it's just natural, the words that fit do seem much more of a final solution or a goodbye note I guess. When we listened back, that's when the emotion came and I had a Bill Drummond moment when I turned to James and said, 'Let's go dig a hole in the fields and bury everything as the greatest art statement of all time." That we'd made this amazing thing and only we shall ever hear it; we can't give it away. He replied: "I fucking worked too hard on this!"
I read there'll be no singles from this album and you plan to turn around another new record pretty fast. True? - Joanna, via email
It has been a joy using Richey's lyrics. He's given me a massive opportunity to have a break. You get tired of your own voice; people get tired of your voice in terms of writing lyrics. I've written tonnes of words and a few tunes and I'm really happy. We're listening to lots of ABBA, lots of Queen, lots of soul. We want to start writing a new album this year. We want a kind of celebration of the tiny things in life that give you joy. Working with Nina Persson on Your Love Alone is Not Enough was just working with a Swedish goddess. It's nice to write for a female voice. We have just written a song for Shirley Bassey called The Girl from Tiger Bay.
You have always been outspoken but is there anything you truly regret saying? Matt Hobbes, Isle of Wight
Look, I know what you're angling at! [In 1992, Nicky told a audience "here's hoping Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury". At the time the R.E.M. singer was wrongly rumoured to have AIDS. The statement was explained by the Manics as "highlighting the reverence held up to rock stars" or "the emptiness of liberal arguments about AIDS" but should be seen in light of the fact Nicky had just got news his manager had cancer and was lashing out]. I made a huge mistake. I'm not one of these people who say they never regret anything. We all know the Michael Stipe thing was a tragic, fucking stupid, insane, pathetic, maddening thing to say. My brain is the only thing that keeps me a good human being. And sometimes it malfunctions. I've always deeply regretted those malfunctions. But I don't believe in that idea of everything you do puts on you some [whispers it] kind of journey. I just think I make huge mistakes.
It must have been brilliant to have Kylie come knocking on your door for Impossible Princess after she wouldn't sing on Little Baby Nothing? - Chris Waker, Kent
I think she picked the wrong horse by doing the Select cover with Primal Scream! When she came onstage with us [to perform LBN in December 1996] we'd had this brilliant week where at a gig in Liverpool Arthur Scargill came backstage and gave this great speech. Then we came down and played Shepherd's Bush and Kylie came onstage for LBN and it really did seem like, is there any greater manifestation of Manics world than these three days? Everything Must Go was number one in the charts...all these things...it just felt like fuck me; through all the gloom and tragedy that's just an amazing kind of couple of weeks.
Were you beaten up for wearing a Kylie t-shirt? - Scott Tamsworth, Edinburgh
I was, yes. It wasn't a full beating, it was just a slap, and we have no persecution complex about those days because we were kind of asking it. Which kind of made you feel "fuck, I'll show 'em". It is another thing we were derided for, being on the cover of the NME With a Kylie t-shirt. It was pretty baffling for people. They couldn't get that idea of pop, politics and the whole thing. Two of my favourite people that I've met have been Fidel Castro and Kylie Minogue.