Combat Rock - Digging A Hole, 3rd October 2010
Manic Street Preachers could've been willfully obscure as their often confronting topics are on Postcards From A Young Man – their tenth album in 24 years. Yet their cold-hard tales of degenerative diseases, sold-out Britain and virtual-world obsession are instead served up with some sweet cock-rock riffing, big choruses and an orchestra. Initially these Welsh communist glam-punks were a reaction to mindless stadium rock – and not much has changed in that regard – but what better way to mock your enemy than to become them - with a knowing wink? Their strength has always lied in their understanding of the importance art plays in critiquing humanity, yet they are also a rock band and nowhere near as "Preachy" as the name might suggest. Instead these childhood friends, James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore, now in their 40s, continue forging a quiet battle against accepting the status quo.
Another minor change within the band's ranks is the promotion of their latest album, which has been unusually high for the Manics - as their loyal fanbase like to call them. Much of their post-millennium output has suffered largely from a growing indifference towards the Socialist rockers, but it seems they are determined that Postcards From A Young Man won't suffer the same fate. It's been 11 years since the trio toured Australia, but providing further evidence of a Manics resurgence, a long over-due reconnection with the anitpodes was planned. Anticipation for both band and fans is naturaloly high, but as I chat to drummer/trumpet/player-cum-co-writer Sean Moore pre-tour, it soon becomes clear that anticipation for him can be a killer. Backstage at BBC studios, pre-warm up for the Manic Street Preachers' appearance on Later With Jools Holland, Moore sounds worried, "It's Holland's 250th show, so it's supposedly going to be a big one." He begins, while drawing a sharp breath, "I just saw Phil Collins in the hall and Klaxons are here…" He pauses as there's a knock on his dressing room door. "I better get that… It's okay, it's only my breakfast!" Moore doesn't like doing live TV, and the arrival of his first meal of the day is of greater relief than usual. "Sorry, I was expecting to be hauled out to do rehearsal then," he says with a nervous laugh. "I do find live television extremely nerve-racking. I've never been able to just slip into 'performer-Sean' mode. I'm always teetering on edge, and it either goes one way or the other. Hopefully we won't fall off on this occasion though.
As it's a landmark show for Jools Holland, he's pulled out all the stops and employed a full choir and string section to back the Manics umpteenth showcase. The new album is after all a heavily layered set, bursting with anthemic numbers, largely devoid of introspection. It has been described by the group's bassist and writer Nicky Wire as "their last shot at getting on the radio" following the quite modest reactions to the group's previous three albums. However, the Manics have never really sat very easily on radio playlists; If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next was as close to radio-friendly as they came, and so a battle plan was drawn up to get their message out to as many listeners as possible by dressing up their already solid tunes, and calling in some help from their peers. "We asked Ian McCulloch, John Cale and Duff McKagan to play on the album because we're fulfilling a lot of our boyhood dreams this time around," Sean states. "Echo & The Bunnymen was the first gig we all went to see, and my first album I ever bought was actually Porcupine." He says, brightening up. Arguably, the antithesis of the Manics on their angsty debut was misogynistic himbos, Guns 'N' Roses, which makes the appearance of ex-Gunner's bassist Duff McKagan on A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun seem all the more strange. Sean responds.
"In a way, you're right, but at the same time Guns 'N' Roses introduced James and Richey to rock music," he reasons, "Whereas Nick was more into Rush, for me AC/DC was about as heavy as it got." He laughs. "We met Duff when he presented us with an award and we reciprocated our appreciation by asking him to play bass on one of our songs. Turns out he's right into what we do as well, surprisingly." Ian McCulloch duet-ing, John Cale playing piano and a Gunner could all easily be seen as unduly ambitious, but the album was designed to be a sharp turn away from 2009's Journal For Plague Lovers and its bleak outpourings. Comparing the recording of Postcards… with Journal For Plague Lovers, Sean is very clear. "This album and Journal... are basically Jekyll and Hyde," he confirms. "Recording Postcards… was quite easy by comparison. We had our objective and we stayed put until that was seen through, whereas Plague Lovers was a collection of Richey's final lyrics that we painstakingly built music around and it became a kind of Holy Bible part 2." In 2008, an official verdict of 'deceased' was finally reached after the 1995 disappearance of Richey Edwards - the Manic's troubled guitarist/songwriter. His wise but often gut-wrenching lyrics were always the starting point of every one of the band's albums, making him a kind of thematic guide which the band then followed. 1994's The Holy Bible - The last album Edwards made with the band before vanishing - was also their most disturbing and most successful. 2009's Journal For Plague Lovers being an actual sequal to Holy Bible, meant that the latest album would have the task of following the last words of Richey Edwards - a man who for many fans was the true genius in the band. Sean discusses.
"We were quite aware of following up that album with something much brighter, as we did when we released Everything Must Go." (in 1996 - their first non-Richey album - and a total career-saver). We did two or three albums of that nature – heavy, Richey albums - but you just can't do that every time. If we did, I don't think I'd be speaking to you now," Sean says ominously. "The record-buying public don't want to hear that, and we have always said that we want to be heard by as many people as possible because we feel we have something worthwhile to say." Reactions to Manic Street Preachers entire canon of work are, in many ways, typical. There are those who yell 'sell-out' at anything but the band's purest angst period – Generation Terrorists, The Holy Bible – however the post-Richey following still see the band's passion as firmly intact. Sean considers the widely varying perceptions.
"I agree that we have a divided audience, but I don't believe we have released anything we didn't wholly believe in," he continues. "We always need something to react against to even begin to get our creative juices flowing and if we ain't got that, we don't do anything particularly well." All Manics albums are angry at something; their debut, Generation Terrorists (1991), was the truest example of a punk record released in many years. The band, dressed head-to-toe in glam-rock regalia, dug their heels deep into their own generation's apathy (all while resembling a bad '80s metal group). So began the wild ride of album upon album spiked with wake-up calls or ripping in to the cold truths on all manner of subjects, with a particular lean towards human rights injustices in and outside of the developed world. A few mis-fires and failed attempts were clocked up along the way, yet, unlike U2 for example, the Manics never made the mistake of patronising their fans; they have always presumed the listener to be curious, informed, or wishing to be challenged. However, Sean understands, the songs don't always translate. "You know, I wouldn't want to be in a band making music that meant nothing to people, and I get that people don't always see the meaning in our songs, but when they do it feels like we've achieved something." Moore explains, "I don't make any apology if that's not the case, but it would be quite boring for us if we made it too easy or over simplified it." He adds, "We were criticised for being too flamboyant in the past, and for having overly wordy songs, but sometimes I think you need music that goes that bit further than just rocking out."
The beauty of the Manics is you can invest in the often intricate song meanings as many fans would want, but engaging with the well-defined passion of their delivery is a rich enough reward in itself. James Dean Bradfield has one of the strongest voices in music, plus the trio have never allowed a gigantic, memorable hook pass them by. Sean explains, "The way we see it, you have to make the music as accessible as possible especially with this album (Postcards…) because Journal… was a lot more edgy, or less musically direct." Sean adds, "We are guilty of being a bit obscure at times, but we wanted this album to rise up out of that." Postcard From A Young Man is nothing if not direct. It takes hold from the very first listen with all the strength of a greatest hits CD. Yet within is a loose, but prevalent theme of longing for simpler times, or at least criticism of the crap-tastic 'world of purchase power' we find ourselves in. Sean discusses.
"The title refers to more tactile forms of communication which have all but been replaced by things like e-mail. It's very easy to gain information about a person, but any kind of personal touch is fading away rapidly." The cover image features actor Tim Roth (Lie To Me, Reservoir Dogs) shirtless, his face mostly obscured as he takes a Polaroid picture. The dated photo summarises beautifully the tactile world to which Sean refers - Roth as he was 20-odd years ago embracing a long-lost artefact. Moore continues, "It's just something that harks back to when we were young, I suppose, when you had to sort of maintain and care for the condition of a record or a photo. Now digital images and mp3s are forever frozen in a kind of stable perfection, and none of these things have a chance to wear." He sighs, "But we still like the strange beauty of seeing tangible objects gradually fray at the edges."
Manic Street Preachers can claim a roaring return with Postcards From A Young Man. If their wish to 'get back on the radio' comes true, the album's first single (It's Not War) Just The End Of Love - a commentary on Russia and America's forever damaged ties despite the Cold War ending years ago – would be a delicious prospect. Yes, they are willingly living in the past on this album, and their paranoia of an Orwellian future seems as dated as the idea of 'infiltrating the mainstream'. But the Manics' greatest drive is that there's still room in popular music for renegades, and share their fan's hope that that's something which will never fall out of fashion.