From glammed-up Valley punks to mature and thoughtful tunesmiths, the Manic Street Preachers have always understood the power of a good song. Here they talk us through their finest moments
In an age where bands are considered to have had a career if they manage to make a third album, the Manic Street Preachers still matter. From the snotty punk roots of debut to the unforgiving white noise and din of The Holy Bible and the loss of totemic guitarist Richey Edwards, they've endured. Because they've always had the songs, taking giant steps across genres while remaining enthrallingly Manic. This year they follow in the footsteps of Queen. Ian Hunter and Roy Wood in scooping the Classic Songwriter Award. James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore talk about some of the reasons why.
You Love Us (1991)
The Heavenly single that later reappeared on the band’s major-label debut.
Sean Moore: We’d done Motown Junk and wanted to step up a level. We got some proper amps and equipment in, and then we got it mixed down. And it felt like we’d missed the mark a little bit. We didn’t quite transfer that live energy we had. This was when we’d been punk and were trying to go rock.
Nicky Wire: At the time, we were still in our bedrooms, spray-painting our shirts; we had no sign of a deal or anything. It gave us strength to go on stage every night. I remember supporting the Levellers, and I said: “Fuck off and walk your greyhounds on your pieces of string,” and we launched into that, you will love us whether you want to or not.
James Dean Bradfield: That was when Nick and Richey were really coming together with the lyrics, and suddenly there was this task put before you as a songwriter very, very purposefully. I listen back to it and that version is the one time we actually do sound like a proper Stiff Records band.
Stay Beautiful (1991)
The band crashes the UK Top 40 for the first time.
SM: It used to be called Generation Terrorists, but we thought it was too provocative a title for the first single, that’s where Stay Beautiful came in. I think that was Richey’s idea. Steve Brown [producer] took hold of it, hence that middle section, which wasn’t there; we were verse, chorus, verse, thank you, goodnight.
NW: That’s a naïve and charming song. It still makes me smile. But when you play it live in your 40s and everyone’s shouting: “Why don’t you just fuck off”, it does give you pause. But it’s well constructed and one of our signature tunes at the time, and our first Top 40 tune, which was a massive deal for us back then.
JDB: It was the first time that I saw Nick and Richey cannibalising lyrics from rock classics and putting them into a song - there’s a few lines from Born To Run that have been bastardised. That song still makes me feel young. It’s nice that your own song can do that for you.
Motorcycle Emptiness (1991)
Where James has his first real ‘Slash moment’.
SM: It’s something like four songs put together. The main guitar part was the producer, Steve Brown, telling James that we needed a riff going through the song.
NW: A real amalgam. Part of a song called Go Buzz Baby Go, and before that was a song called Behave Yourself Baby which was the bridge. The lyric took a long time. We crammed so many words in there, and it is bizarre, so busy. It was the first time we looked at each other as a band and thought perhaps we can actually do something.
JDB: We’d had the demo for that since we were about 17, but played in more of a New Order style then. Steve Brown said it needed a solo, and he just left me in the studio and gave me an hour. He came back and went: “You’re a guitar god now!” It sounds corny, but he made this white-trash Taff feel good. He told me I had to find my Slash moment. That’s good production, as far as I’m concerned.
La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh) (1993)
Belatedly joining the baggy party
SM: It’s a bit of a hangover from the late 80s - it’s got a groove; we tried to copy an Arrested Development track. I remember programming something similar to what they’d done on a computer and doing the live drum thing and kicking it in. We were trying to mix it up a bit. Even before the deal I’d been listening to Public Enemy, especially Fear Of A Black Planet, which really blew me away.
NW: My instigation. I’d written a lot of it. I came up with the title, then Richey had the ‘Scream to a sigh’ refrain. I wanted to do something non-trendy, and that was to write about war heroes in a sympathetic way. The title comes from Van Gogh’s suicide note. Great guitar solo on there, too, one of James’s best. It felt like a leap for us. And James’s voice is massive.
JDB: Select magazine called it the last great baggy single, which we didn’t expect. That lyric felt head and shoulders above everything else Nick and Rich had given us for Gold. It was a bit based on [the Clash’s] Car Jamming and from Arrested Development, and then it became something else.
Do or die for the Manic Street Preachers.
SM: It’s me trying to be Topper Headon, in a strange sort of way. I remember the quote at the beginning - I did all the samples. Richey would source it and I’d be the one dragging it off old VHS tapes. It’s one of those songs where it just happened, The ideas were there, the little fast tom. I was thinking all the time of London Calling. For us it was the end - third album, everything’s bombing, fuck it, let’s do what we want. Three weeks and the album [The Holy Bible] was out of the charts after peaking at 75.
NW: I think it’s a true classic album track: inspiring drums, great guitar riff, it’s ferocious too. It’s one of those songs that you can only play it live if you feel it. You can’t fake it in front of an audience.
JDB: When I first saw it I was like: “How the fuck do you expect me to write any music to this?!” Then I saw the challenge, and just how great it was - the jump from character to character, the pace of the editing was amazing. It had touches of West Side Story, for me. I’ve no idea how Richey felt when he finished a lyric like that, if he was happy or empty. I’d love to have known.
4st 7lb (1994)
Feel the pain.
SM: It’s got that little extra section at the end, about the footsteps in the snow, trying to make it delicate as if you’ve become so light that you’re almost floating. That’s why it goes off at the end and lifts away, and you get all the anguish and the anger at the beginning of it. That’s a really good song.
NW: I think it’s incredible. The almost Eton Rifles start, that turns into that brilliant coda which floats on that line: ‘I’ve long since reached the higher plateau’. A stunning lyric than can only come from someone who feels that kind of pain. It’s actually profound.
JDB: The one song that I didn’t enjoy writing the music to. There are moments of The Bible where I felt as if I was being really precarious about singing the thoughts of other people channelled through Richey, but I felt slightly uneasy doing that song. I was glad when I finished. I felt like I was prying when I wrote it. It was a weird feeling.
The band’s manifesto writ large.
SM: The template for that song was Faith No More’s From Out Of Nowhere. The lyrics weren’t in the form that they ended up in, but just that bit ‘stronger than Mensa’ was enough for us.
NW: All written before the digital age - no mobile, no computer. But Richey just conveyed this feeling of the acceleration of culture - it just speeds up and speeds up. It was a defining moment for us. That song laid it all out. It was like a band manifesto.
JDB: It was the hardest one to write music to by a million miles. I was worried, as I knew it was the key to everything on the record. So I stomped around, and then put Never Mind The Bollocks on and that was it. Sometimes the way Johnny Rotten’s voice goes down the middle of a song and barely changes, it’s about the twists and phrases and the commitment to the words. And that’s exactly what it needed, that straight line through the middle.
A Design For Life (1996)
After Richey’s disappearance, the Manics create an unexpected anthem.
SM: We all came back after about six months thinking, do we carry on with this? We have got the rest of our lives here. I was only 28. Then James said he had this idea for a waltz type thing, and he strummed away and I just joined in, and by the time we got to the end of the song it was done, just about. It had a momentum all its own. McAlmont and Butler had that song Yes, that big sound, the strings. We found out it was Mike Hedges, and he had that connection to bands like the Banshees. We thought we’d call him, and he came straight to Cardiff. James got him drunk, though we still ended up working with him. That song became the first single with a mid-week of No.1. She Is Suffering went in at 36 and that’s how we followed it.
NW: It’s as defining as Faster, in many ways, because I’m not sure many people thought we could come up with something like that lyrically - that we could change but still have that intelligence and bite and critique. I was sick to death with the patronisation of the working class. We’re not just Jeremy Kyle - we did build libraries. My dad was a miner, not a middle-class teacher like all of you lot.
JDB: I was living in Shepherd’s Bush and watching Some Might Say on TOTP and Noel lifting up his Union Jack guitar, and I just got up and walked out and went around London for four or five hours totally bewildered. ‘How the fuck did this happen to us? We’ve lost our best mate and we don’t know what we are or what we’re going to do. How did it come to this?’ Nick had sent me some lyrics and he said to me: “Let’s see if we’ve got anything.” And the song came out in about five minutes. I was scared, as I’d done the verse and I was so pleased, but then didn’t know if I could do the rest of it. It was do or die, forcing myself to keep the rest simple, and then I took a deep breath and dug down inside myself and there it was on tape. I called up Nick and knew we had it, that we could carry on. It was like finding the final piece.
No Surface All Feeling (1996)
A song for Richey.
SM: I wrote it on the bus while we were doing the Therapy? tour. Richey was always trying to get me to teach him Come As You Are. But in the meantime that song came about. At the time, we were listening to the Smashing Pumpkins, we were big Hüsker Dü fans too - Candy Apple Grey, all that stuff.
NW: Absolute beauty, I think. I wrote the lyrics before Richey disappeared. I think he thought it was a tad sentimental. I think we needed a bit of that at the time. It’s a pouring out of emotion, and that cascading drum roll and the great guitar outro.
JDB: They were the last two band demos Richey ever heard. He quite liked Surface because he loved Siamese Dream and it reminded him of that. I was quite hurt by that, as I felt that song was more of a human moment for us and that he would see the humanity in it, but it wasn’t his bag.
If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next (1998)
The Manics reach No.1 across Europe.
SM: Our first No.1 - we’d beaten Steps, of all people. We recorded it in Rockfield and just thought it was a B-side. It was one of the last things we recorded. I can remember our producer, Dave Eringa, fucking around in the studio, and I said: “I’ll do three takes. I’m going to leave my car running, and when I’m finished I’m going to get in my car and fuck off.” And I did.
NW: It sounds quite odd and futuristic for us. The guitar is very restrained; a really complicated lyric to shoehorn in, too. It’s Welsh social history, the Spanish Civil War, and to try and get all of that into a song is not easy. I love how it just glides and drifts, too. And it’s one of the slowest songs we’ve ever done.
JDB: The title pricked my interest, and I went off on my own on this blustery autumn day and came up with it really quickly. And then Sean added to it and we just thought it could make a great B-side. We did a mop-up session in Rockfield with Eringa, and he said that he thought it was a better song that we did. The label came down and they were like: “That’s the first single!” It took a while to bed in that it was any good, to me.
Baby Elian (2001)
The band’s own Cuban missile crisis.
SM: We always like being up against it, and we love the David and Goliath thing. And we’ve always had little snipes against the US, the devil’s playground thing in the lyric. That’s what I used to call America, though Nick might not admit to that. The tom intro on it is nicked from Red Sleeping Beauty - a McCarthy song.
NW: There’s a track on the album called His Last Painting, and the music for this was originally written for that. This was all before we’d gone to Cuba, but it was in the air. I love the way it builds. When we went to Cuba we hadn’t rehearsed it, and then the call came from the Cuban Cultural Minister, asking us to play it, so we made James do it acoustically.
JDB: We were asked to sing it in Cuba, and I freely admit I bricked it. I drew the line at going to meet baby Elian [Gonzalez], as I didn’t know what I’d say if a BBC journalist sidled up to me and started asking questions. I was scared, to be honest. The crux of the song asks: the DNA of a person - can you reduce it to sovereignty? And I don’t know.
From the free God Save The Manics EP.
SM: It could have been on an album, but it was caught between Truth and Lifeblood. It reminded us of Keane in a way, and that wasn’t quite where we wanted to be.
NW: I thought Firefight could be this weird mixture of ABBA, Coldplay and Manics. I thought it was a sparkling record. I don’t think we ever nailed it. We recorded it about five times. We’d read that ABBA had tracked their piano 22 times, and we did that and it just still sounded like one. I used to love playing it live.
JDB: I still go up to my dad’s a lot, and I was walking along the Towy River and there are lots of burnt out cars and litter, and the water had been turned orange by the closed-down pit. It was nothing like I remember when I was 12 years old, the torn and frayed edges of this dereliction of the valley as I walked through it. So I wrote a lyric about it - it was shocking.
The Second Great Depression (2007)
A song that should have been a single.
SM: Nicky gave me the lyric in the studio, and I went to work on it and came back with a rough idea, a vocal line, and then James fleshed it out.
NW: It started off with this idea of the economic crash mixed with human depression; the idea of a collision of forces, comparing them, really. How someone with everything can still be depressed beyond belief, as can an economy become depressed and spread its virus everywhere. I think it should have been the third single from the album [Send Away The Tigers]. It’s a really good lyric. It’s full of energy, too.
JDB: I was shocked by the lyric, that Nick still felt this much angry melancholia. I sat down with Sean - and he has an amazing voice - and I knew he could do the verse, and he did. It was just lovely, and I grabbed it off him and went at the chorus. He and I work really well like that. It made me feel like things were finishing. I felt terrible for a while. It’s good when a lyric can do that.
Your Love Alone Is Not Enough (2007)
The one with the singer from the Cardigans.
SM: Nick had this idea for this man/woman kind of thing, and he wanted Nina Persson from the Cardigans to do it from day one. We’ve always loved them as a band. We never thought she’d do it. The first time me and Nick met her was for the video.
NW: That was an utter moment of magic. That was my conception. I remember writing that in my house on my lucky white guitar and it felt sprightly and energised. There’s quite a lot of Richey in that lyric. I was thinking about him a lot at that time, they just flooded out.
JDB: Nick was in London and he gave me a tape of that song. It wasn’t finished but there was a lot to it. I went home, and I loved it. Nick was going back to Wales that same day and I had to get the song back to him before he got the train. It was different for us, him handing me half the music. We’d suddenly found another way to write. I was pleased. And a little bit jealous, to be honest.
Me And Stephen Hawking (2009)
From the last of Richey’s lyrics.
SM: That’s my tribute to Dinosaur Jr - the looseness of it. It’s a whirlwind song, written quickly, too. The lyrics make me chuckle, and so beyond its time. That was all before A Brief History Of Time was a big seller or Hawking was on The Simpsons.
NW: It’s Richey at his best - the pathos in that song. People see him as a tortured soul. And he struggled, but his sense of humour was in there too. That Hawking lyric, the whole album, it was a dangerous album to do. James was pushing it, but I was conflicted that we might lose momentum by doing that, that people might have thought we’d run out of ideas.
JDB: I saw these lyrics and I knew I wanted it to be like Rush and the Minutemen mashed together. It was great to have that juvenile, magpie feeling back again.
A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun (2010)
Duff McKagan plays his part.
SM: The Duff McKagan cameo was done remotely. We sent it off to him. I did the clattering tom thing - that was my Steven Adler moment. I remember the JG Ballard nod, the idea that in a world of Facebook and YouTube we’re all superstars now.
NW: It’s one of James’s greatest guitar solos. I love it. There are touchstones, and Ballard is one of them. There are certain parts of our culture that are soon going to be gone for good. There’s no Philip Larkin coming along. It’s not just about winning a Costa Award. I think our generation had to face boredom all the time and you embraced it, there was nothing else to do. I think that was healthy, it let our imaginations run wild.
JDB: That lyric was burning out of Nick. We wanted it to be old-school, rock’n’roll punk. I knew I was going to do a Lindsey Buckingham solo on it. I knew that as soon as I saw the lyric.
(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love (2010)
Sadness dressed in glad rags.
SM: That’s me trying to be [Rush drummer] Neil Peart, in my pathetic way. It’s very hard to be Neil Peart. It came together very quickly, like a lot of our first singles. They just happen. Then everything comes off the back of it. Great lyric, recorded in the first session for the album in Cardiff.
NW: That song felt like almost a Blue Öyster Cult riff that James had. We might not be as angry as we once were, but it’s certainly not love.
JDB: I was faintly depressed when he gave me this, as I felt it was an admittance of defeat, in a way. We’re saying that there’s no ideology we can ever hang our hats off again. Water, steel and coal will never be brought back for the people - the idea of privatising minerals and water and the air we breathe is here to stay. I just thought we’re admitting defeat, in a way, so I made the song shining and happy.
Nicky Wire's Choice
Prologue To History (2003)
A rare gem unearthed on the Lipstick Traces compilation.
Nicky Wire: That should have been on an album, that was a big mistake. It's probably my favourite ever lyric that I've written, that and Tolerate... perhaps. It references Phil Bennett and Neil Kinnock, you know. If that song had been on This Is My Truth instead of I'm Not Working or Be Natural then that album could have elevated itself to a neo-classic album instead of a great collection of singles that tails off a bit. It's not like us, either - that driving piano. I used this awful Baldwin bass, as we were trying something different and we were just pushing ourselves. I think we were saying that even though Richey had done we were still a vital three-piece.
Sean Moore's Choice
Bag Lady (2009)
The hidden extra from Journal For Plague Lovers.
Sean Moore: I remember the lyrics being handed to me by Richey. I've still got them. He gave them to me the last weekend we saw him, believe it or not. It was the closest I could get to Dave Grohl in my playing. I went to visit Richey in hospital in Cardiff when he was ill, and he was going on about this mad corporate lawyer who was there at the same time who was ranting and talking constantly through the night and kept Richey awake. And he just wrote these ramblings all down and that became that song. So that's why I like it so much - and the fact that I nailed it in one brilliant take. But our engineer fucked it up so we had to do it all again.
James Dean Bradfield's Choice
Send Away The Tigers/Archives Of Pain (2007/1994)
The title track from the band's eight album and an unrepentant call to arms from The Holy Bible.
James Dean Bradfield: Send Away The Tigers because I absolutely love that lyric - the tragedy of Tony Hancock and Tony Blair together. And it's not incongruous, it does work, and I saw it instantly as soon as Nick gave it to me. It was a bit of a Who moment for us - slightly mechanical and then suddenly flowing, a push and an ebb and flow.
The flip-side of that coin would be Archives, from The Holy Bible. We did overcome, we did manage to find a way to carry on after Richey. But when you look back at those two lyrics and see the ambition in the words of Nick and Richey, you get that thunderbolt sometimes. Apart from the obvious human tragedy that went on, it's such a shame they don't get to write lyrics together anymore. With Archives, that's when I knew that album was going somewhere where I thought no one else had gone before. I was excited by his bravery, so the song had to be this idea of lurching into battle.