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Blackwood Calling? - Select, October 1991

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Title: Blackwood Calling?
Publication: Select
Date: October 1991
Writer: Richard Lowe

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You inhabit a depressed Welsh backwater untouched by the dance explosion. You see no future. So you resurrect the tattered banner of punk rock and embark on a star-struck mascara'd mission "to be something real and valuable". You're the Manic Street Preachers. People either love you or they hate you.

Mo oh my, what a hullabaloo. From the almighty fuss there's been about Manic Street Preachers these last few months you'd think they were famous.

So far, they've released three properly distributed singles but only one, the latest `Stay Beautiful', has gone anywhere near the Top 40. Their concerts mostly attract audiences of between 100 and 200 people. Their records have had measly airplay. Fact is, most people have never heard the Manic Street Preachers, they're a phenomenon that only really exists on the pages of the music press, where they've caused one hell of a stink with their blatantly sensation-seeking interviews, and divided critical opinion more starkly than any group in years.

People either love them or hate them, and it's been enormous fun watching the fur fly between those who make their living telling us which groups we should and shouldn't like. Even if they end up an almighty flop they'll long be memorable for that alone. It sure beats reading about The High.

I've just spent two days on the road with Manic Street Preachers. From various interviews, I'd expected a group of snarling psychopaths who'd forcibly inject me with heroin before letting me on their tour bus, and who'd slash my face to ribbons with a razor blade if they found out I'd never heard one Big Flame record. The reality is somewhat different. If you had to pick four nice, polite young men to visit your grandmother for tea you'd hit the jackpot with Manic Street Preachers. They are:

James Dean Bradfield. Lead singer and guitarist. Writes the tunes. Quiet, shy, but articulate in his own peculiar jittery way when you pin him down. Is trying to run a four-minute mile, but has so far only managed four minutes 36 seconds. Wears a salmon pink ladies pyjama top when onstage (which once belonged to Nicky's auntie) with 'I Am A Slut' spray stencilled on it.

Nicky Wire. Bassist. Real name Nicky Jones. Tall, gangly youth with endearing sloppy grin. Cracks jokes. Addicted to fruit machines (part of the band's advance from Sony paid off his gambling debts) and threatening to start bet-ting on horses. Drinks Babycham onstage. Former captain of Wales under-16 football team.

Richie Edwards. Pretty boy guitarist. Doesn't play on the records because he isn't good enough - James does it all. Terrific pin-up rock god potential. Will be the `love interest' if the Preachers get famous. Writes lyrics with Nick. Friendliest and most instantly charming member of the group and is used as the diplomat. Got three As in his A-levels and studied Political History at University Of Wales. Famous for gouging '4 REAL' in his left arm with a razor blade.

Sean Moore. Short, baby-faced drummer. Probably has problems getting served in bars. Earnest, amiable cousin of James (with whom he's lived and shared a bunk bed since his parents split when he was four). Doesn't dress much like a Preacher. Studied music up to A-level and was the youngest trumpet player ever in the South Wales Jazz Orchestra. He's the only Preacher with a childhood sweetheart of eight years standing.

And here we all are on a drizzly day, driving from Bristol to Brighton. This is `the road', where legendary antics of rock 'n' roll excess are purported to take place Hmmmmpphhh. James is busy reading a play, The Warehouse Donkey by John Arden. Nicky is engaged in a verbal joust with Barry, who sells their T-shirts, about who is best at table tennis. Talk turns to computer games and Nicky and Sean discuss the relative merits of a billiards one they've discovered and one based on The Simpson.

Barry works part-time for The Rolling Stones. He once flew to Atlanta to personally deliver a shirt and pair of trousers to Mick Jagger. He's responsible for making sure there's an air humidifier in all the rooms Mick has to go in and that Keith Richards' room is furnished with scarves draped over all the lamps a bottle of Jack Daniels. All the Preachers love stories like this.

Richie, who smells of cheap perfume, chats freely about various topics like...Guns 'N' Roses. He loves the bit in the new video where Arnie the Terminator is scared of Axl, but thinks it'd have been cooler if they'd never made the second album, if they'd just let the legend linger indefinitely. This is what the Preachers plan to do: one block-buster album and disappear.

Dolphins. Richie has a thing about dolphins. For him they're a shining example of how to live and behave: beautiful, free, no sense of territory or regulation, as opposed to corrupted modern man who goes round polluting, exploiting, building walls and inventing rules.

Situationism. According to a letter in today's Guardian, "a politically extreme movement. The Paris-based group had a wide influence in artistic and avant garde circles before disbanding in 1972...their ideas first fed into the mainstream through punk". This situationism business is a big part of the Preachers' whole schtick and Richie patiently talks it through, recommending books by Guy Debord and Greil Marcus.

Drugs. The Preachers don't appear to take drugs in any significant way, if at all. And although they love Guns 'N' Roses, as much for the seedy glamour as anything else, Richie talks with contempt of Sid Vicious' sordid demise and the drug boasting that's fashionable with baggy' bands. He reckons if you're going to go on about taking drugs you might as well go the whole hog and die from it, like The Stooges did.

The Gulf War. Northern Ireland. The decline of Trade Unionism. Peter Beardsley getting transferred to Everton. And so on...

So far it's going swimmingly, all very matey, belying the shenanigans that went on to set up this interview. Select is not the Preachers' favourite magazine. They've been written about twice: a live review by Mike Noon and an introductory piece by Andrew Perry. Both writers took the popular line that the Preachers are a foolish, laughable, cartoon punk band, a worthless imitation of The Clash and the Sex Pistols.

When Select journalist David Cavanagh contacted Phillip Hall, their manager and press agent, about a big feature, a handwritten fax from the group arrived. It read, word for word, as follows: 'Dear Dave, Thanks for the time and consideration you've shown in your fax to Phillip. As you know we love caustic interviews (Studs/James Brown) but every appearance in Select has been trivial. Even down to using pictures ofThe Clash and putting 'Manic Street Preachers' in the caption under-neath. We are judged by other people's memories. It's so boring that old Dylan fans will hate us, old Clash fans love us.
"A big part of our ideals is that we-come- from-nowhere-and-were-forced-to-live-through-other-people's-icons. For us, no one could ever fuck as good as Marilyn. Our dead lifeline - the beautiful musk papers - fed us C86. We didn't need love songs. We adored Big Flame but their music approach never sold records. Rock 'n' roll should be political. Like Public Enemy. How most people are forced to cope until their loveless slavery is made exciting. Love your masks and adore your chains. How our generation's most significance cultural event is a dis-ease. God-Star Aids. Clinging to our own sense of waste.

"It's not that we couldn't find worth in anything, it's just that we couldn't find worth in enough. We wrote letters 24 hours a day. No one ever called. Now people can't believe us. They've found a way of making sense out of life and we still feel sick. People need our influence to steal, fuck and destroy. Maybe they think it's funny that we hurt ourselves. Remember - our lips kiss empty, we fuck futility. We are happy to be used. We are pure. We are the useless sluts that you mould.

"Coming from such a destroyed decayed town obviously affected us. Dead pits bore-bore-bore. So traditional some of us went to chapel for 13 years. Please find enclosed a lyric - 'Crucifix Kiss. The quote from the Luke Sermon 6 is genuine. Nothing has changed. Political parties change but the hierarchical machinery is still intact. This country pisses debris. From 3rd World to 1st we're now chained to economy and not famine. The trooping of the colour just another auto-da-fe."

"Anyway, we've all read your fax and realise that you are a decent journalist and want to maybe understand us. We now all want to meet you but would like to see how Select changes now that Mark Ellen has taken over. Andrew Perry and Mike Noon were so nice, friendly, enthusiastic. They go away and write something completely different NO OTHER PAPER HAS DONE THIS. But hopefully Mark Ellen can change this. And we want you to do our next piece. Sony are going to be spending a lot of money on the album. It's obviously going to be our important statement. So maybe we could do a feature then. We're going on tour pretty soon so we could meet you at one of thegigs or go out for a drink after we get back from rehearsals."

This is the Preachers all over: the garbled, con-fused 'blank generation' manifesto; the dumb, sensational slogans with which they've littered their interviews (we fuck futility"!) the polite, almost sweet, touches ("thanks for the time and consideration...maybe we could go out one night for a drink after rehearsal?). And most of all their desperation to be understood, for people to know their back-ground, their story, how they got to be what they are, to think what they think...

The four Preachers Grew up in Blackwood, a drea-ry pit town in South Wales, and have known each other since primary school. Cousins Sean and James lived together; Sean was in Richie's year at school, James in Nick's. They'd hang around, kicking a foot-ball about, etc, a close, pretty self-enclosed gang.

In their mid-teens their lives were transformed by seeing the local mining industry decimated by the pit strike. It was the last gasp of trade unionism in a place like Blackwood. Now people work for Japanese companies like Aiwa or the Pot Noodle factory. People are employed on three-month con-tracts, laid off then re-hired, to avoid proper employment obliga-tions. A boring, depressing place where the only fun is to get drunk and fight, where the only future is three-month stints at the Pot Noodle factory.

But there was always music. The four devoured the pop press, pop music, going through all the trends...2-Tone, Dexys, the Bunnymen, The Smiths, for a while. They'd see any band who bothered to play the nearest decent venue, TJs in Newport, but found the groups raved about by the press disappointing. Holed up in James' bedroom they'd listen to records, write to all the groups (only Big Flame wrote back), read and read. Then came 1986, the year of punk's tenth anniversary (they were about seven when punk first happened), the whole TV special, 58-page retrospective nostalgia trip and suddenly there was...The Clash! The Sex Pistols!

They fell hook, line and sinker for the whole thing: all that literature about cultural alienation, etc - big, glamorous, exciting rock 'n' roll. Hunter S Thompson and Hanoi Rocks. William Burroughs and The Who, 1965. Aleister Crowley. Guy Debor. The Stones. Allen Ginsberg...

"Neil Kinnock is our MP," says Richie. "His constituency house is in the same street as James' - and he's such a tosser, Party politics always seemed irrelevant to us. We got obsessed with cultural politics - it seemed more relevant, the real issues like how futile life is, how fucked up modern society is. In terms of music, we just went back and rediscovered the great bands. Everything else seemed boring and worthless. Dance music passed us by. The clubs in Newport are just about drinking and fighting - there's no 'One Love' vibe there."

Inevitably, the four formed a band. They'd released two self-financed singles, 'Suicide Alley' and the 'New Art Riot' EP, written hundreds of letters to groups, journalists, etc, by the time they caught the atten-tion of St Etienne's Bob Stanley, who gave them their first live review in Melody Maker. Jeff Barrett, the music publicist then putting together Heavenly records (St Etienne, Flowered Up), loved them and released 'Motown Junk' and 'You Love Us' before they signed their major label deal with Sony.

Aside from all the press rumpus, there've been two major events - Cambridge and Richie's arm. Someone had the crazed notion of booking the Preachers for The Downing College Summer Ball. Their reputation preceded them and a ring of heavies (there to protect the expensive PA) surrounded the stage when they came on. Four songs in, with an audience of two people, Nicky put his foot on the monitor. PA staff pulled the plugs, thinking an equipment smashing session was afoot. All hell broke loose. Sean smashed up his drums, the group were chased off stage. James punched a student.The local constabulary was alerted and they were hounded off the premises through the main gate (only opened once a year for ceremonial purposes). Two pages in the Daily Star.

Then there was Richie's arm. Backstage after a gig in Norwich, after a half hour 'exchange of views' with NME reporter Steve Lamacq, Richie gouged '4 REAL' into his arm with a razor blade. He's sheepish about it now, says he did it out of frustration that he couldn't get through "what we were about". He needed 17 stitches. At the hospital he felt guilty for wasting the staffs time with a self-inflicted wound, and waited till all the proper injuries had been treated first The young nurse knew him from the music papers and was "really nice about it". To have the stitches removed, he arranged to go in when there were no real emergencies. The wound has now healed to a nice, neat scar. It reads clearly, like it was written with a pink felt tip.

In between all the 'controversial' interviews and 'incidents' they've squeezed in the recording of their first major label single, 'Stay Beautiful', which, to their disap-pointment (and surprise), has only made 44 in the charts. The Top 40 would have meant Top Of Th ePops, real stardom, the first big step to their stated goal: to be the biggest pop group in the world.

After this mini-tour they'll go back to the swanky £1,000-a-day country house studio in Surrey to work on their LP with producer Steve Brown. They never did work with Public Enemy's producers, their original aim, but they've got the bloke who did Wham's 'Fantastic' and The Cult's 'Love'.

Backstage in the dank, dingy dressing room of Brighton's Zap Club Nick's eyes light up when he spots the three bottles of Babycham stacked in the corner next to the lager and Perrier. They always ask for it on their rider but most venues ignore it, think it's a joke. He's wearing his obligatory girl's blouse, adorned with two sew-on patches: Guns N'Roses and Kylie ("the per-fect combination"). Richie's girls blouse has 'Sensitive' sprayed on it. James is wearing his 'I Am A Slut' blouse for the second night running. Sean doesn't seem to wear girls' blouses.

Tonight's show is a bit more like it. Bristol the night before had been a damp squib. Just cynical curious onlookers - no one really into it. Tonight at least 50 people are here to support the Preachers, who pogo, chuck beer about and stagedive, etc. It's a feast of foolish rock 'n' roll entertainment.

Their stage show was described by The Fall's Steve Hanley as "like someone doing The Clash in a school play". He has a point. If you see the Preachers hoping to confirm your sus-picions that they merely ape the sounds, styles and mannerisms of old punk groups you won't be disap-pointed. If, however, you think a wild, raucous, colourful punk rack-et is a refreshing live proposition these days, and are giddy about the notion that the next big teen sensation could be a group of sexually ambiguous mascara'd anarchists whose only decipherable lyrics are "fuck queenandcountry", you could come away convinced that Manic Street Preachers are the year's most exciting pop phenomenon.

The Manics want to be a teen phenomenon, a trash icon like Kylie, Babycham and Marilyn. Yet they want to be as important as Public Enemy, as outrageous as Guns N'Roses. It's essential that they're both. They've no interest in appealing to "worthy music fans". They like Kylie, Guns N'Roses, Public Enemy and The Black Crowes, and want to be "as big as Kylie, as radical as Big Flame". They want to be pin-ups and they want to change peo-ple's lives.

"Children want to change their lives and do some-thing positive," says Richie. "When you're young you're bored and pissed off. You want some-thing but you never really know what it is. Life seems futile. It does to us, even now. We know it's a pointless existence being in a band. It's not a worthwhile job, like being a doctor or a nurse. There are peo-ple who work for nothing saving badgers or otters, like Nicky's brother who looks after terminal cancer patients for the last few months of their lives.

"Our songs are about cultural alienation, boredom and despair. For us, Public Enemy are the ulti-mate rock 'n' roll band at the moment because they've got style and rage, which is what it's all about. So many bands are just worthless. We adore people like Kylie because she doesn't pretend to be anything except someone who makes brilliant pop records. I don't understand how people can take a band like The Milltown Brothers seriously when they don't say any-thing less trivial than Kylie."

Manic Street Preachers are such a tangled mess of contradic-tions that to unravel it all would take all night. They talk a lot of crap. One week Nicky's saying his mum won't talk to him since he announced he's had herpes since the age of 15, the next he's talking about his happy home life with "my mum and dad and my dog". They're still trying to make out they'll record one double LP then split up.

"It's the ideal prototype," says James. "Do one brilliant album then disappear, gain everything then give it away, create this fran-chise then scrap it"

If that happens I'll eat my hat. And every one of their paint-splat-tered girls blouses.

But the idea that they're dumb revivalists who've heard one Clash album and borrowed a few snappy slogans is simplistic. Whatever the merits of their rather garbled `Situationist' manifesto they're intelligent, well-read people. And their knowledge and appreciation of pop music is broader than you'd think.

In a brief conversation on music James talks of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Goin' On' as an important record for the group, particularly in terms of "the lyrical theme"; of the Bobby Byrd record that John Squire obviously copped the lick to 'Fool's Gold' from; of the Beach Boys 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times' off 'Pet Sounds', a Preacher-esque song in its teen-angst introspection but about as far away from punk as you get this side of JS Bach.

Whatever, their aspirations are nothing if not noble.

Richie: "Whatever anyone thinks of us, whatever happens to us, at least we'll know that we always tried to be a brilliant band. We've set ourselves up to be com-pared with the greatest rock bands ever. We've always set out to be something worthwhile that meant something real and valuable; to make records about ideas and attitudes that are important and real, and that no one else is doing; to be the band that we never had when we were growing up.

"Even the bands from the past that we love - The Who, the Stones, the Pistols, The Clash - the way all of them turned out in the end was disillusioning, a let down. We'll never let that happen."