They once proclaimed that if they ever won a Brit award "we'd get our dicks out and piss on it." Now they might have to prove it. Manic Street Preachers on becoming Britain's biggest band... their way.
There you are, despondently hoovering the lounge somewhere in south Wales. Your music career looks like it's on the ropes and you're left gazing into the an empty vacuum. When suddenly... BAM! Your band grows wings and soars off into rock supernova-land, where only the likes of Blur and Oasis can touch you and you're up for every award in the biz. You perform at the biggest gigs the country's ever seen. You sell 100,000 albums in two weeks. Kylie Minouge sings on stage with you. You're on kissing terms with Liam Gallagher. Yet none of the tabloids are on your case. Not once.
Manic Street Preachers: what went right? This time last year, their career seemingly wrecked, these rock refugees were bobbing aimlessly on a tide of public emotion, with their unfinished album as their only lifeline. Despite the best wishes of followers and new-found sympathisers, few believed - or could even have been imagined - their recovery would be quite so emphatic... London, February 1997. The Manics - tall, mouthy Nicky Wire; small, quiet Sean Moore; and small, mouthy James Dean Bradfield - are sat sprawled on the couch, armchair and floor in the front of James' shared house in Shepherd's Bush. As the rush-hour traffic outside beeps its way home, the trio recall their angst. And this Manic Street Preachers interview begins in the way every Manics interview must...
Was there ever any thought of giving up completely when Richey disappeared?
Nicky: "I never actually thought, 'This is the end of the band.' I just thought it was going to drift and drift, and I couldn't be bothered to do anything."
James: "I was stunned for six months. I waited for something to happen, but nothing did and I definitely thought about giving up. I got pissed out of my head for a while, Nicky did his normal domestic stuff [now married, Nicky is well-known as a couch potato] and Sean became a DIY specialist. There was a spectre hanging over us and there were a lot of scary options to consider. Eventually we began writing some songs, just to see if we could carry it off."
As well as your own songs, you took some of Richey's into the studio. How did that work?
James: "Making that first foray into the rehearsal rooms with those songs was the most difficult thing. But after that initial upset, the studio became our refuge - getting into the pattern of recording took our mind off a lot of things. I conned myself into thinking that making the album was just unfinished work, because we'd already written seven songs for the album and they'd been set to music before Richey went missing. For me, he was still there."
The comeback was on. Sonically slapped back to life by producer Martin Hedges, the Manics supported the Stone Roses at Wembley Arena, flew off to France to record the album, returned to play a hyper-charged gig in Leeds (broadcast by Radio One) and released A Design For Life in April. The single went straight into the charts at No 2.
You're used to being one of music's best-kept secrets: respectable chart positions, hardcore fanbase... Were you worried at that point that it was all getting to big?
Nicky: "Well, there could never be a conception of a sell-out, because we always wanted to be huge, to reach as many people as possible."
But A Design For Life - a song dealing with class struggle - clearly wasn't the usual lightweight Britpop posing...
Nicky: "No. I wanted to portray the working-class culture that I grew up with. With the likes of Blur and Pulp, we thought it was all very caricatured. So we were trying to put the record straight, tell it like it really is..."
The subsequent LP, Everything Must Go. rocketed into the charts in May. Its position? Erm, No 2...
Nicky: "We're like The fucking Who, we are. We'll never have a No 1."
So did the album ride on a wave of Richey-fuelled emotion?
Nicky: "We had both our hardcore weirdo fans and normal people buying the record. It got great reviews , so it was just the record, really, standing on its own. When it first came out, it didn't go ballistic, it just hung around, so I suppose it had a long shelf-line."
In the spring/summer of last year, while the album continued to pick up sales, you went gigging with Oasis - an addition to playing your own sell-out tours... What was that Maine Road experience like?
James: "The crowd were just completely and utterly taken over by the event. It made us realise that we couldn’t compete with Blur and Oasis on those terms, or try to be a phenomenon. It gave us a sense of perspective: 'This is what we do and let's nor chase them,' basically."
And you’ve succeeded without having to jump through those rock-star hoops?
James: "Erm, I skimmed them for a short period, but not so much nowadays."
Nicky: "The strange thing is that when we started we were obsessed with glamour and being huge. If we had what we've got now, I think we would have fallen for it and would have been big casualties within a year."
Are you worried about the tabloids chasing you and being pushed into being packaged?
James: "Pulp, Blur and Oasis have all got people who could be packaged pretty early on, but I wouldn't know where to start packaging myself. I'm too short. And if the tabloids went for us, they'd get bored pretty quickly. We don't do anything."
So how did Knebworth compare with Maine Road?
James: "That just seemed like a bunch of southern tossers in comparison. It made us think the south of England was just a fucking shithole. There was no magic to it."
And Loch Lomond?
Nicky: "That was shit too, although the Loch was nice. I just felt the life was being sucked out of me during all the summer gigs - there was just no spontaneity about them. They were just entertainment."
James: "Nick's idea of an ideal gig is him being linked by a live satellite from his front room. He could play bass and watch Sky Sports at the same time. Then, when the show was over, he'd be in his living room."
At the end of the summer, the Manics were off again with Oasis, this time to America for the media-circus tour which saw Liam and co back home house-hunting before it had really got going. The nation's media was camped out at the airport, looking for clues in Liam and Noel's sullen appearances as they arrived back. They didn't even notice the on-the-up Welsh renegades skulking in the shadows.
So exactly how fucked off were you that Oasis had ruined your chances of breaking the States by calling off the tour?
Nicky: "Not at all. It was great they did that, because I fucking hate the place anyway and I couldn’t wait to get home. We were stood around most of the time while they were cancelling gigs. I loved all of that."
James: "It wasn't working out anyway. We played to loads of people and sold shit, nothing. I remember going downstairs on the last day and seeing Liam going out the door. He went: 'See ya. Have a good flight - I know I will.' It was that kind of tour.”
Sean: "I just stayed in my room watching films and playing Nintendo."
October was the Manics' second headlining tour of the year, followed by a sell-out, all-Welsh show - with the Super Furry Animals and Catatonia - at Cardiff Arena. It was the first time, they say, that they felt comfortable all year. Meanwhile, their singles were still settling in the Top 10 and they were nominated for the mercury Music Prize. Then came the two high-profile gigs in London. At the first one, Kylie Minouge came on stage and sang Little Baby Nothing, the song was always intended for her, sporting what Nicky calls a "post-Björk" mohican haircut. And at the second, Liam Gallagher joined in, snogging Nicky and dancing on stage. Most music-press reports on the event describe their apparent annoyance at Gallagher's display. Far from it, says Nicky... "It was incredibly chaotic and I loved every second of it. He enjoyed it, too - the last I saw of him that night was laying face-down on a kebab shop floor."
The year ended with the Manics staring mega-stardom in the face. Well, nearly... "At the end of the year we started feeling more confident, more glamorous and bigger," says Nicky. "Things were just happening naturally. Five years ago, we would have begged for that kind of attention." And now the Manics are being tipped for the those most prestigious of industry-sponsored trinkets, the Brit Awards. For the band with principles, the irony is plain to see. "I always said that if we won a Brit Award, I'd get my dick out, piss on it and say: 'This is what it means to me... you can shove it up your arse," grins Nicky. "But whether I'd do that now, I don't know."
"When does this come out?" laughs James. "Before? Ha ha ha." Nicky continues: "If we'd have got one when I was young, I probably would have done it. I felt so superhuman back then that nothing could hurt me. We were so strong and young and politicised that nothing mattered. Unfortunately, I don't feel like that now. If I did do that, I'd probably be thrown in prison and get done under the obscenity act, my mother would have a nervous breakdown and my wife would leave me." Whatever happens, it will be a fitting end to an incredible year. Set your videos, the good guys have just gone and won.