Courage Against The Machine - Vox, July 1996
Manic Street Preachers are back, and emotions are running high. But the band renowned for shock tactics are taking it all in their stride, determined not to make a drama out of crisis since the mysterious disappearance of Richey Edwards. VOX salutes the return of the regenerated terrorists...
In a tiny, white-walled dressing room, the one-time generation terrorists are launching the most intense comeback of the year. There's mineral water on the table, clothes are tidily racked against the far wall, and there's much anxiety in the air. Given the scarred history of the band, it seems odd to hear Rod Stewart singing 'The First Cut Is The Deepest' over their portable stereo. James doesn't care, though; he's stalking out the room; bull-necked, smoking, monosyllabic. Sean, dressed in a white shirt, is looking fresh and clean-shaven, dealing with the pressure in a quiet manner. But Nicky is the band memeber who reminds you most of the flavour of the old days. He's wearing a lavender blouse with a matching choker, and there's a smear of rouge on his face. He looks well, apart from the eyes, which are a little shot. "I couldn't sleep last night, could I?" he explains. "Worrying about this here..."
The Manics have reason to fret. Their first headline show in 16 months starts here - at Leeds' Town & Country Club - in a quarter of an hour. There's been a few successful warm-up gigs in recent months, supporting The Stone Roses and Oasis. But tonight, there's no one else to deflect the attention - no chance of them playing to uninterested punters, to an audience biding its time until the main act arrives. This is a critical event in front of a partisan crowd. And it's running live on Radio 1.
The main hall is rammed. The fans wear old Manics T-shirts - recalling fierce memories and flashbacks of the band's spiky posturing over the years. A couple of Japanese girls, overcome by the situation, are weeping by the doors of the backstage area. On a small viewing gallery close to the dressing rooms, support act Cast have already lined up to witness the main event.
There hasn't been so much intense interest in a rock'n'roll survival story since New Order hauled themselves out of the messy wreckage of Joy Division in 1980. Both these acts chose to continue after the loss of a focal member.
New Order were haunted for many years by the suicide of their friend and former singer, Ian Curtis. The Manics, of course, have spent the past year waiting for news of Richey Edwards, still absent, possibly still alive.
So how do you continue under such circumstances? Do you stand by your old agenda, and piss people off with your contrary views and liberal-baiting gestures? Do you let your music roar and slam with the same grandeur you once excelled at? Do you savage the complacent attitudes of Britpop and spoil the party? Or do you simply acknowledge the distress you've suffered and leave the business of shaking things up to a fresher, undamaged band?
We're thinking about all these things as showtime approaches. The emotional sweep of 'A Design For Life', the recent single, would suggest that the Manics are as vulnerable as the rest of us. Visually, too, they've toned down; swapping the tiger-stripe combat fatigues and terrorist masks for more casual attire. Even the artwork for the record is straight and solemn (and, weirdly, not unlike New Order's comeback single, 'Ceremony'). Yet, if they won't shock tonight, the Manics still have an occasion to mark, emotions to share.
Everyone trusts that it won't be a painful occasion. When the band played Wembley with The Stone Roses on December 29 last year, idiot punters hollered: "How's Richey?" between songs. Then when they supported Oasis at Cardiff, there was even more hassle. Maybe it was something to do with the laddish ambience of the Manc headliners, but some of the crowd were nasty and unsympathetic. At one stage, they broke into a footy-style chant: "Where the fuck is Richey?" they chorused.
Nicky keeps cheerful now by recounting his experiences at the hotel in Leeds yesterday. When he got to his room, Nicky found that the last guest had been a smoker, and the air was stale. For a while, he was just going to make do with his lot. But he eventually decided to be "arsey" and go down to reception and get a change of room.
Half-way down, the hotel lift jammed. As if there wasn't already enough stress to deal with, Nicky was obliged to stall between floors for five minutes, until help arrived. He then had a further ten minutes to endure before they could extract him...
"I felt just like Richard Bunton in The Medusa Touch," Nicky deadpan, his voice still rich with mocking possibilities.
It's this brand of humour that keeps the band steady. The only communique from the Manics last year was their contribution to the 'Help' album. They could have played the tragic card then, making money for charity while giving us all a harrowing snapshot into their own lives.
Instead, we heard Sean tootling on his trumpet, and James scraping out the chords to one of Burt Bacharach's best tunes, 'Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head'. Listening to the sentiments in those lyrics - you should just let bad times wash over you, complaining won't get you anywhere, hang loose instead - was the strangest experience. "Nothing's worrying me," James crooned, and you knew he was lying.
'From Despair To Where' is still the unanswered question from the Manics' songbook. The band, particularly Richey, took us to the brink with 'Gold Against The Soul' and 'The Holy Bible'. We were urged to examine all the ugly aspects of the human psyche. Everywhere, there was obscenity and deceit. Adulthood was portrayed as a relentless cop-out, and the only hint of light spirits on the record was in the terminal euphoria of the anorexic girl in '4st 7lb'.
Yet when the remaining band members decided to continue without Richey, they were already making a positive statement. They might simply have broken up, and nobody would have blamed them. But in their new resolution, they were obliged to move on, to accentuate a few brighter themes.
Hence, the name of the new album, 'Everything Must Go'. It's a reference to High Street bankruptcy and liquidation sales - a country still blackened by the omnipresent feel-bad factor. However, you can choose to regard that title another way. You might hear some of the more strident songs they've just written, and decide that the band also leaves a little space for hope now - a hint of furtherance in the face of absurd times.
To quote Samuel Beckett, a man who spent a fair bit of his life staring into the void: "I can't go on. But I will go on."
It's a mighty show. The Leeds crowd is overwhelmed at having this lot back again. The Manics respond in kind, lashing through 'From Despair...' onwards to their new single. James is spiralling madly, his right leg high in the air. Nick executes his famous scissor-kick; he's so big and gangling that he seems to move in slow motion.
Keyboard player John Green is moonlighting between stints with Sleeper. He does a reasonable job, layering the sound, adding bits of string effects on recent songs, and providing enough background so that when James cuts from power chords to those squalling solos, the vehemence is undiminished.
The thing is, the Manics' sound never really relied on Richey's playing anyway. He used to jerk out out the rythm of the songs with his Telecaster, his efforts normally kept low in the mix. When the band played at Reading '94, while Richey was hospitalised, James Dean Bradfield closed the set all on his own - a charismatic player and a brilliant technician, filling the entire site with his music.
But what's missing in Leeds though, is Richey's presence. At least when the band played Reading as a three-piece, you knew the final member was being well cared for. Now, it's an uncertain deal, and the stage seems awfully big for the rest of the band. You miss Richey's aesthetics and his emotional significance (he represented, if you like, the insecurity of the First World). He was an average musician, but a monumental force in rock'n'roll.
The closest reference we get to Richey tonight is in a new song, 'Australia'. Later on, Nicky will call this his 'flight to freedom' lyric, describing the awful experience of being a Manic in '95. It was a situation that nobody could really improve on, and sometimes Nicky just wished he was out of it all, in some place far away. "I want to fly and run 'til it hurts," the new lyric goes. "Sleep for a while and speak no words..."
Maybe that counts as melodrama, but in this particular situation it's deeply affecting.
And, of course, there's no real escape until the Richey situation reaches some kind of conclusion. While most fans can appreciate the band's decision to carry on without any fresh development in the story, there's a certain Richey obsessive fan who won't forgive the trio for starting again.
Around the same time that Nicky was being prised out of the hotel elevator, James was walking through Leeds city centre when someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was a young girl who clearly identified with Richey. She accused James of treachery and betrayal. There was nothing he could say to persuade her otherwise. Even Richey's parents were far more forward-looking than this. They felt that the band should play on.
And the Mancis still have plenty to offer. Who else could give us 'A Design For Life' with the sociological pan: "Library gave us power/Then work came and made us free/What price now for a shallow piece of dignity?" It's a discourse on the working class and the expectations placed on them to conform and knuckle down. It's easily the equal of Jarvis Cocker's 'Mis-shapes', which naturally makes it one of the best lyrical ideas in years.
Just prior to 'La Tristesse Durera' Nicky starts gibbering to the audience. All we can hear is the word "Terrorvision", but people cheer anyhow. It's a good sign. "E's off again," laughs James.
And you know when that when the confidence builds up, Nicky will have any amount of subjects sliding off his razor tongue. Later, he even chides the audience for being too accepting. This band won't accept a sympathy vote.
"Everyone's got a bit lazy since we've been away," the bassman sneers.
Nevertheless, after closing on a soul-twisting 'Motorcycle Emptiness', the band return for an encore. This is historical in itself, the first encore they've done in the UK since the Marquee show around the release of 'You Love Us', many years back. They finally leave us with 'Motown Junk', their first classic song and a complete blinder tonight. To the side of us, members of Cast are spasmodic with excitement.
On the train back to London, it seems the entire aspect of the band has changed. James reckons the show was "empowering". Nicky feels it was a "very emotional release". He even smiles when their manager ribs him about his 'male-voice choir' harmonies.
"But how am I gonna manage to play for an hour-and-a-half?" Nicky ponders, holding the small of his back and pulling faces. All the blokes in the Wire family are tall fellas with dodgy backs. Some of them have even been in traction. But they don't choose to scissor-kick with a bass guitar slung around their necks. "I was even in agony at the video shoot!" Wire bleats.
As the band discuss their upcoming Top Of The Pops appearance and the busy intinerary of the following weeks, the subject of the Sex Pistols' reunion arises. Nicky is sad because "a perfect memory" will be trashed. James, though, is more amused, talking admiringly about Steve Jones' guitar playing and making cryptic jibes about his 'beauty' regime.
The Manics have always been great at up-ending lazy opinions. And since they're on the same label as Michael Jackson, it's worth hearing their opinions on him.
"What did you expect him to do, then?" James asks. "He was never gonna turn up at the Brits and do an acoustic number, was he?"
"Sure," says a pal, "but he could hae done something useful. Jacko could have danced. That's what he's good at."
James isn't buying that. "Dancing's old-fashioned, man," he snorts. "Nobody does the Moonwak any more..."
As Sean get engrossed in a card game on his Mac powerbook, Nicky talks about the album's closing song, 'No Surface, All Feeling'. It seems to be a statement about the band's need for involvement, but it also carries an admission of the pain that a thin-skinned soul endures. The song ends in a fearsome pummelling - all the more disturbing because the cacophony splits over the stereo channels, leaving you lost in the mix.
Nicky reveals that the song was built around the last song Richey played with the band, just days before he disappeared. They recorded it at Cardiff's Big Noise studios, the small, almost claustrophobic location where they'd worked out so much of 'The Holy Bible'. Nicky suggests that it's this song, more than any of the other new tracks, which pays tribute to their absent friend.
And as the train rattles on, the conversation starts to lift, riffing around the subjects of ice hockey, Shaun Ryder and the inevitable return of The Clash. Nicky is buzzing about Welsh bands, especially his near neighbours, Super Furry Animals. The alcohol intake of Cerys, the singer with Catatonia, is also singled out for admiration. Nobody says as much, but we realise that without the Manics and their iconoclastic pop crash over the past five years, there might not be any decent Welsh - or maybe British - bands out there at the moment. We love them, still.
They can go on. They will go on.