They promised to break up after their first album. Now, just after their sixth, James Dean Bradfield takes Keith Cameron through the gore and glory of 12 years of Manics records.
James Dean Bradfield is three sips into his pint when an eager young man called Marlon breezes over. He's got some friends, he explains, they're in a band, just starting out, looking to go all the way. What would a Manic Street Preacher recommend they do? On paper, James would seem eminently qualified to dispense advice. A week ago he was serenading Fidel Castro. In a few days, simultaneously released Manics singles will enter the Top 10. His group has topped the charts, played stadiums and survived tragic adversity when visionary founder member Richey Edwards disappeared. But James is frowning. He's just spent the past couple of hours in his Maida Vale pad talking MOJO Collections through every record in the Manics canon. Apart from making him feel old - the band vowed to break up on the release of their first album, so a career plan arcing into its 12th year feels a little confounding - it's made him realise the haphazard nature of Manic existence.
"Do your homework on the press," he tells Marlon. "Pick out a few sympathetic journalists and send them some stuff. That's what we did. Marlon looks puzzled but is too polite to question the rock star's advice. As he retreats to his excited posse of mates, James looks a little guilty. "Well, it worked for us," he chuckles, "but that was 12 fucking years ago! There were three weekly music papers when we started out..."
Times may change, but the Manics remain a constant force for disturbance, contention and surprise. And that's just their interviews. Musically, they've been all over the shop, from punkoid Sturm und Drang to orchestral splendour, as adept with acoustic melancholy as with amped-up euphoria, but always with a daunting streak of intelligence. Twelve years on from their scrawny Blackwood beginnings, the Manic Street Preachers are still the same, still different.
"Suicide Alley was about going to the rugby disco in Newbridge - there would be a running battle between metal kids and weirdos, and the rugby boys would beat the shit out of all of 'em. At that time there was myself, Sean and Nick in the band. We copied the cover of the first Clash album, and Richey took the photo of the three of us on the sleeve."
New Art Riot EP
"We put it out on Damaged Goods, run by Ian Ballard. He paid for the recording and pressed it. We recorded it in Redditch, Dave Morris' Workshop. That was our first experience in a proper studio. There was this tired old rocker of an engineer. He had cowboy boots, skin-tight leggings and frizzy hair. He saw us and thought, 'Bunch of c**ts', and made us rush it down. We actually only liked Strip It Down."
"We had the demo of Motown Junk and everyone said it was the best song we had. We recorded it in Power Plant studios in Willesden. We were excited because it was the same room Rod Stewart had recorded Maggie May in. It was really cool that Heavenly had faith in us to put it out. I remember Liam from Flowered up coming to see us at the Bull & Gate and he said, 'What the fuck have you signed this bunch of Welsh c**ts for?
You Love Us
"I remember Nick and Richey giving myself and Sean the lyric, saying it's meant to be a sarcastic valentine, à la 'we love you'. We were looking to be a huge phenomenon. To surge forward and start burning people at will. We thought that we were gonna be this ungovernable force. Then we realised it was actually a bit more of a slog than we'd originally envisaged."
"It was our first time in a massive residential studio. We were with Steve Brown, suddenly hearing tales about George Michael and Elton John, all the people he'd worked with, and we were thinking, 'This can't be happening!' I remember thinking if we'd done it in a punky style à la Motown Junk it would have made a great kiss-off for Heavenly."
Love's Sweet Exile
"It's an abomination of a record. (Laughs) It was an Old song originally called Faceless Sense Of Void, which you can find on bootlegs. It used to be a brilliant song, used to be mega - and we just tore it apart and fucked it up. It's an absolute pile Of shit. Richey was pissed, 'Go on play the fastest guitar solo you've ever played, play millions of notes'. And I just did it. I'm ashamed Of myself."
You Love Us
"The proto-metal version. We thought we could have a massive hit with that song, we had faith in it. We were never entirely happy with the Heavenly version. It was sludgy. We thought we could update it. It was the closest thing we had to a Pistols ethic, so we decided to go for it."
Slash 'N' Burn
"Haha! I don't mind it so much. I don't hate it as much as I hate Love's Sweet Exile. That's enough to say about Slash 'N' Burn. Haha!"
"It's a bit of a dead teen, no-generation classic. One of the first songs that had that resigned melancholia
to it, And obviously the words had a completely different agenda to anything we'd done before. For us it was like, we're from a shot generation and we're all losers - enjoy the ride. It was the first time the music reflected the lyrics intelligently."
Theme From M*A*S*H
"It was recorded for an NME charity album where everybody had to play their favourite Number 1s. We picked it because it had the most depressing lyrics. Also because we remembered that when it was Number 1 there were strikes and electricity blackouts. We associated it with depressing times and turned it into a classic!"
Little Baby Nothing
"The music's influenced by my early Springsteen obsession. It was obviously sung from someone else's perspective. I remember thinking. 'Have we the right to sing from a woman's perspective? Then I thought,
'Fuck it, we might as well be pompous about it'."
From Despair To Where
"Richey was listening to [Rod Stewart's] Every Picture Tells A Story at the time. We recorded it in Hook End Manor, a massive residential studio. I was knackered because I was convinced my room was haunted. I wouldn't
go to bed until 5am because I was scared."
La Tristesse Durera
"I wrote the music for it in Dublin. I'd gone there with my girlfriend for New Year's Eve, 1992, and I'd taken a couple Of lyrics that Richey had given me. It was a really cool lyric. That pure leftist stance that says all war is evil was beginning to stick in Nick and Richey's crow. It's a weird song."
Roses In The Hospital
"What a plagiaristic bastard. It's a David Bowie rip-off. I think the music turned out like that 'cos it was quite a soppy lyric. I don't mind listening to Roses...There's a great guitar solo on it!"
Life Becoming A Landslide
"Uhhh. Our chart average plummets. They'd changed some chart ruling the week before we released it, but even if it hadn't been for that, it still would have only made twenty-fucking-six or something. Our stock was
plummeting at that point, you can safely say."
"Richey's been given a lot Of credit, lyrically, for that album, but Nick had an unseen hand too. He would give Richey just titles and then Richey wrote under the title. I thought that was impressive. It was the first time I'd rewritten a song about 20 times. I just couldn't get my head around it. I'd been back at home staying at my mam and dad's, still was when we recorded that, and I'd dusted out a lot of my old records. Which saved me."
"I think it sounded terrible. There's an American version of it that sounds fucking brilliant though. This guy Torn Hidalgi mixed it and it's mega. When we do the Greatest Hits we'll definitely put the US version on it. It's much tighter, molten, really powerful."
She Is Suffering
"My second least favourite song on The Holy Bible. That thing of using 'she' and 'beauty' as a metaphor never really sat that well with me. I thought we were a bit out of our depth. I didn't think it was one of Richey's best lyrics. I wanted Ifwhiteamerica...to be the single."
A Design For Life
Mike Hedges came to see us in Cardiff. At that point, taking stock after the Richey thing, we realised that the bottom line was we had to be more musical, we had to get our point across better and we had to write a brilliant song to give ourselves confidence. I know it sounds like an Oliver Stone rock biopic, but the first song we did right after Richey went missing was A Design For Life. It's the most timely thing that's ever happened to us. I remember being strangely confident. The first song we played was A Design For Life and Mike was like, 'K'ching!' There's not many albums when you do one song at the start and everybody knows it's the first single, but we knew that was the first single. Kept off the Number 1 spot by Mark Morrison!"
Everything Must Go
"It was played on the radio, and a friend of Ian Grimble the engineer called him up and said, 'What the fuck are you doing, it sounds terrible!' I like the fact that it sounds like it's imploding. I was up for a Nutbush City Limits/Spector homage. I loved that song."
"That was a song on the House In The Woods demo session. I played it to Richey on acoustic guitar, and it was a bit more salsa, a bit more chintzy. I remember him looking at me, going, 'I don't want my lyrics to sound like that!' I thought the trumpet solo was amazing and thought it should be a single for that reason alone."
"I remember giving a demo to Nick, saying it's gonna be one of those riffs you hear all the goals playing over on the Nationwide League review. And it did end up being that. One of those beautiful moments. I had no great agenda with the song. I wanted it to sound like a shiny Grandstand. And it did."
If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next
"Our first Number 1. We were in the Clarence Hotel in Dublin when we found out about it, we were just about to drive up to Belfast to do a gig. I remember Nick and Sean drinking champagne and getting drunk before they got on the bus. I thought, 'Fucking hell they're drunk at two in the afternoon, this is bizarre!'"
"It's a song that doesn't sit well with us. The lyric doesn't sit well with Nicky. The music wasn't us. We liked it at the time, but it's just not what we're into now. Perhaps the lyrics might have been better if they hadn't been draped in that music. We're making it our mission never to play that song live ever again."
You Stole The Sun From My Heart
"I like it. I wanted to mix New Order and Nirvana but it didn't quite work! It's a case of me liking that song and Nick not liking it. Bit of a tug of love going on there."
"I like the song, 'cos it's got a cool lyric. I can't imagine anyone else writing it, but the first version of Tsunami is much faster, much more of an explosion. It's one of the first things we did on the This Is My Truth...sessions, and it sent a shiver down my spine. In the choruses we had these big gongs, it was brilliant. And for some reason we fucking slowed it down! It ended up a pale shadow of its former self."
Masses Against The Classes
"We were rehearsing for Glastonbury and we started messing around in the studio. Unusual for us. It was a spontaneous song in the way it was written. I wanted a song where I could get a Steve Jones guitar sound. When we recorded it, it wasn't that great because my mother was really ill. I had a terrible time recording it. What was supposed to be an exercise in fun turned out to be a complete nightmare. But I think we got a brilliant little single out of it."
"It's good to look back and see that you were naive and made mistakes, because it proves you had some kind of vague pop ideology behind it all. The fact that we made so many mistakes on that album just proves we were trying so hard and we were naive, and all our naivety was born out of some sort of idealism. You can laugh at bits of it. There's a song called Condemned To Rock 'N' Roll, which if you don't laugh at then there's something wrong with you."
Gold Against The Soul
"It's one of the only times when I can compare ourselves to The Clash convincingly. It's the second album, we rocked out a bit...It's like Give 'Em Enough Rope was produced by Sandy Pearlman from Blue Oyster Cult and everyone was going, 'You're punks, you can't do this!' And I think a lot of people were disappointed with that album when it come out. It's the same with Gold Against The Soul. We've obviously got rock pretensions going on, we've stopped listening to the records that inspired us when we were 15"
The Holy Bible
"Brilliant memories. All the dark humour around that time makes it seem happier in retrospect than maybe it actually was. Regardless of the lyrics, I remember Richey as being quite cuddly at that point. He didn't seem in the perpetual motions of darkness as the lyrics might imply. It was a happy period, recording that album, even though it was done in bleak surroundings. It felt like we were all pulling in the same direction. Except for Revol, I loved everything on it. I remember thinking if this is our last album it's a fucking brilliant album to finish on. We felt it was our final riposte."
Everything Must Go
"It's a brilliant record. It's loose and yet there's a production ethic over the top of it as well. We knew that we wanted to do the American Trilogy thing at the end of Elvis Impersonator. I knew I'd do that in the key Of C so it would lead into A Design For Life. As we were recording it we had all the sequencing in mind. And thank God that we all had our heads about us at that time. We had a natural symmetry back."
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours
"There's certain stuff on it I love, like Tolerate...South Yorkshire, Black Dog On My Shoulder and You Stole The Sun...But others like The Everlasting and I'm Not Working are too introspective. Part of it's my fault. I kept saying that some songs should be slowed down, 'Gotta let them breathe, man', all that rubbish. It's as simple as this: if there'd been a few faster songs on there to tie it all together it would have been much better."
Know Your Enemy
"We started doing demos in November '99 and January 2000. By then we had six demos, and we realised that four of them were going to be the masters. We hadn't rehearsed them, we just went straight in. We realised that's how we should do the album. Don't do any rehearsals and - even if it's a demo - if it sounds good put it on the album. There are six songs which were demos: Let Robeson Sing, Intravenous Agnostic, Dead Martyrs, His Last Painting, Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children and Ocean Spray. The last album was so overwrought it was an opportunity to go in a different direction."