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Blackwood Calling - Vox, June 1991

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Title: Blackwood Calling
Publication: Vox
Date: June 1991
Writer: Bruce Dessau
Photos: Kevin Cummins, Valerie Phillips

Vox0691 (1).jpg Vox0691 (2).jpg

Today Blackwood...tomorrow the world: Or whenever our passports arrive. Bruce Dessau meets tight-tousered terriers the Manic Street Preachers in London and Paris to find out if they can talk it like they walk it.

The Manic Street Preachers are a band on a mission. You too could grab a part of their bloody-nosed cocktail of salvation, revolution, and rather good punk rock 'n' roll. But it's a limited offer. In a year's time, they promise, they'll have made their 30 track album which will be their platinum legacy, or they'll have retired gracefully, opting for office jobs rather than global domination.

"Nothing" - in lead singer James Dean Bradfield's words - could be worse than "rock music turning into a career." Big words indeed from a band who have been together less than two years and who hail, not from some urban sprawl, but from the quiet South Wales backwater of Blackwood.

Then again The Manic Street Preachers are a band whose ambition lacks boundaries while their existence oozes contradictions. In print they sound violent, on stage they are positively raging, mashing together leviathan power-chords and fruity anti-establishment exhortations. Yet sit down with rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards and bassist Nick Jones and calls for the abolition of the monarchy and the destruction of the House of Lords are not so much spat out, as spooned out, with a luxuriating Welsh lilt. Not a little odd for a band who combine the rhetoric of the Clash with the militancy of Public Enemy. In the same way that Country & Western bands have to sound Nashville-born even if they come from Cirencester, rock mythology demands that the self-proclaimed "last white rock 'n' roll band" have to sound as if they come from some seething metropolitan hot-bed of corruption. Accordingly their new single 'You Love Us' might not make Number One but it still makes the listener feel like number one, a Molotov cocktail compared to the flat beer of current pop product.

The role of The Manic Street Preachers are as well defined as Nick's cheekbones. Nick (the campest Preacher with thickest mascara) and Richey (mascara and soccer trials for Arsenal) are lyricists and pin-ups, vocalist/guitarist James (son of a James Dean fan) and Sean Moore (baby-faced PJ Proby lookalike and ex-youngest trumpet player in the South Wales Jazz Band) are the music-makers. James and Sean are cousins who have shared a bunk bed since the age of four and now spend most of their time together in the studio. Nick doesn't even play on the records, James lays down all his guitar parts while he sits outside drinking Babycham. The band are all around twenty except for Nick who is 23. Until two years ago, they had floundered around looking for a comfortable identity. All they knew was that Blackwood was so boring they would have to form a band or they'd end up turning to drugs or into zombies, and possibly all three.

Living within a mile of each other they'd all been at the same schools, Pontypridd Junior and Oakdale Comprehensive. In their early teens they were weaned on Echo and the Bunnymen and Simple Minds but when the the circa '86 shambling scene graduated that was their cut to go out prove they could do it better than The Wedding Present. James approached Nick and Richey "because they were the first good-looking people I bumped into."

Nick has not evolved into the Richard-Butler's-head-meets-Paul=Simonon's-legs clone of today. "In those days I was known as Shirley as in Shirley Temple. I used to wear loads of make-up and glam clothes and follow Hanoi Rocks." Glam was and still is very big in Blackwood. The baggy brigade has yet to make in-roads into the industrial valleys because dandyism was a way of life.

As Nick explains: "Everyone used to dress up because they'd come home from work filthy and need a change. Most people used to be in Bon Jovi, Poison and Guns 'N' Roses. Provincial towns everywhere are the same; people need to escape and dream they are on an LA beach. I'll never put them down for it. Where I live they don't want to dress like Shaun Ryder because they dress like that for work."

If the Clash were fuelled by the rumble of Westway and the blues parties of Ladbroke Grove, things were rather less active in nocturnal Blackwood. There was the local Bierkeller club where teenagers went cruising for a bruising, but the band preferred Babychams down the Red Lion. Sean: "It's better than a pint of Websters and doesn't make you feel fat.

They only ever played once gig in Blackwood and that ended in a riot and a rain of beer bottles. Hardly the most inspirational of locations, Blackwood was a prosperous mining town, but as the pits closed, Aiwa, Toshiba and Sony moved in, hiring ex-miners on three month contracts then re-hiring them so they never had to pay redundancy money.

According to Nick, currently wearing a rather fetching black blouse with the slogan "DESTROY WORK" pinned to it, "If you built a museum to represent Blackwood all you could put in it would be shit. Rubble and shit."

There was one other historical landmark in Blackwood which might one day be the recipient of a rock 'n' roll heritage industry blue plaque.

We used to meet by this pond called Pen-Y-Fan. It was built when the mines closed but now the water has turned green and slimy. They put 2000 fish in it but they died. There's a whirlpool in the middle where two people drown every year."

As the band gradually lost touch with their school friends, who ended up working the night shift at the local Pot Noodle factory, they took their bags of chips down to Pen-Y-Fan and hatched their master-plan.

The Locomotive Club in Paris is about as far as you can get from Blackwood. So far in fact that the band had to go out and get their first passports the day before they left. Their set is part of a Heavenly Records Night which also features label mates Flowered Up and St Etienne. The groups and entourage all had to travel on the same coach going over, and there is a certain amount of - only partially playful - animosity between Flowered Up and the Manics. The unknown Sex Pistols once had prestigious set of gigs lined up with pub rockers Eddie And The Hot Rods but got thrown off the bill: you can imagine the same thing happening here.

Backstage Flowered Up's baggy guttersnipes besiege the Manics on a fruitless search for Rizlas and you get the impression they are quietly mocking the Welsh foursome's puritan expressions and tight trousers. The mild mannered Manics, for their part, resist the urge to indulge in a sport of ad hoc topiary as Barry Mooncult and his unfeasibly large foam flower rustles into view.

The Manics don't have to make their points offstage - they do their talking when they do the gig. Coming on way past midnight, the group are all knackered, but having seemed dejected and demoralised earlier they seem to have had something pumped into them just before appearing. It's a short set with Nick leaping around the stage when he isn't flying across it, James bursting his lungs and ripping off his shirt, Richey swaggering in Keith Richards mode while drummer Sean Moore is subdued tonight.

The lyrics are completely indecipherable but the titles - 'Motown Junk' (the last single), 'You Love Us, 'Repeat' (which Richey informs me is five lines of anti-royalist venom, culminating in the proclamation, "Fuck Queen and Country") and 'Generation Terrorists', - speak volumes about the band.

The group are pissed off about the gig, saying the sound was bad, but from the audience there are few complaints, except that 30 minutes seemed on the mean side. The Manic Street Preachers are probably the mouthiest most militant band since the Clash but they aren't going to waster their breath tearing into other bands when there are society's establishment figures to jab in the jugular.

They walk it like the Clash, they talk it like the Clash, and on stage they almost jump as high in the air as the Clash. Despite Nick's protests - "Of course we've seem the videos and heard the records, but that's about it. We're a different generation" - they thankfully bear a closer resemblance completely to the Clash than they do to the last white rock 'n' roll band, Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

One of the few factors that might stymie the gameplan is if the Clash are tempted by the billion buck offers to reform. But there will always be parts for the Manics as the young crop tops when Hollywood makes The Clash Story. Every which way, the Manic Street Preachers can't lose.

Despite outward appearances, they aren't totally retro. While they'd rather wear cardigans and comfortable shoes than make dance records, they aren't averse to a spot of sampling. 'Motown Junk', their first single for Heavenly after two hard-to-find self-financed projects, started with Public Enemy chant of 'Revolution, Revolution' and they harbour plans to work in the future with Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee.

The band are totally set on making it in the States. Richey is looking forward to signing their record deal outside Los Angeles' Whiskey A Go Go while Nick is looking forward to meeting his unlikely hero, Guns 'N' Roses' Slash.

The Manic Street Preachers (probably) won't blow up the government, but they are going to chuck a bomb into the currently moribund rock scene. Who knows, the Manic Street Preachers may renounce their 12-month-pla and decide to stick around a lot longer. The thing is, if they keep making records as stroppy as 'Motown Junk' and 'You Love Us' their continuing presence will not just be welcome, it will be obligatory. The Pot Noodle factory's loss is rock 'n' roll's gain.