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.
Track By Track of 'Everything Must Go'
'ELVIS IMPERSONATOR / BLACKPOOL PIER
Lyrics by Nicky Wire and Richey James
"American Trilogy in Lancashire pottery
Is so fu--ng funny, don't you know?"
A track detailing the clash between the romantic perception of America and the sad reality. The marketing imagery of beer and fast cars ends up parodied by an overweight Presley wannabe.
Nicky: "Richey wrote a draft, and it sounded a bit like the group Wire. Me and Sean hated it. There weren't many lyrics anyway Then I added a verse. I never spoke to Richey about what the original idea was. I suppose it's about kids wearing American basketball tops and stuff."
James: "As far as Elvis goes, that live version 'American Trilogy' is amazing."
Nicky: "We're doing each part of the Trilogy on B sides as well . On this single is 'Dixie'. On another we've done 'Glory, Glory Hallelulia' and on a third B side, the bit that goes, "Hush little baby, don't you cry."
A DESIGN FOR LIFE
Lyrics by Nicky Wire
"We don't talk about love
We only want to get drunk
We are not alowed to spend
And we are told that this is the end."
In which the Manics kick out against class snobbery and the scary concept of social engineering.
Nicky: "A lot of people have taken that song in a negative way - that it's about the end of the world. But it's kind of heroic, working class song. We always fight back and we produce brilliant things. There's so much misery and scorn poured on the working class these days. But they still like going to a rugby match and having a sing song it just makes them really happy. and who's to say that it's not better than caviare?" The simple things in life.
"Even with something like Oasis, it's obvious to me that they are the best band in the world. Liam is not very eloquent or anything, but you've just got to look at him and you know, he's the business. He could have only come from where he came from."
James: "Whenever you look at Liam Gallagher, it's like he's got Tourette's Syndrome - there's too much happening in his head and a lot of things he wants to say. He's got the rage. It's just that the rage manifests itself in different ways."
Nicky: "Lyndford Christie - he could only be like what he is from his background. Sometimes you think he's a wanker, sometimes not. Boxers and footballers and most of the people I like in life have that rage.
Some of the song is also inspired by the attitude that says the working class people can't do anything because they're thick. But when George Orwell said, all hope lies in the proles - he didn't mean it lies in geeky students who are just gonna stay in listening to The Smiths, did he?
"He meant that real working people are the only ones who achieve anything; through trade union movements. those are the people who are gonna be on the picket lines - you need physical force. Have you ever seen GBH with Robert Lindsay? That bit in there when all the old working class people are in the meeting, and all the young twats come in and they start clicking their fingers. And then they turn around and beat the fuck out of them. There's a kind of goodness in that.
But even John Prescott is middle class now. Tony Blair is so desperate he will do anything for power. It's the acceptable face of... I don't think you can call it socialism any more."
Lyrics by Richey James
"Hi, Time magazine
Hi, Pulitzer Prize
Tribal scars in technicolour."
The tale of a warzone photographer who became famous for documenting the extremes of human suffering. But he couldn't deal with the prestige his pictures brought him, and he died in tragic circumstances.
James: This is a Richey song. Kevin Carter was a photographer who won a Pulitzer prize. The lyric in the song about the elephant is a metaphor for Kevin Carters' kind of shell-shock. When he was in Rwanda, he came back with his nerves all shot to pieces and stuff. In his memoirs the elephant represented the fear that came upon him whenever he thought about Rwanda again.
Nicky: I think Kevin Carter was there before the recent trouble in Rwanda in '94 - with all the massacres. Richey knew more about his life story than anybody. He blew his head of, you know. He was down to be the next Don McCullen, or whatever.
Sean: "On the last UK tour, Richey started wearing cameras round his neck like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Even down to the exact make of camera. He was obsessed with that film..."
Lyrics by Nicky Wire
"I'll take a picture of you
To remember how good you looked."
In memory of better times. 'Enola', of course, is 'alone' spelt backwards.
Nicky: That song actually was just written when I was looking at my wedding photographs and there's Phillip Hall (the band's first manager, who died of cancer in December '93) on one side, and Richey on the other. Then there's us three and Martin Hall (Phillip's brother, the band's current manager). And we've all got our suits on ....and we look fresh and happy, and I just thought, fucking hell, Philip's gone, fuck knows where Richey is. With the line, "all I want to do is live, no matter how miserable it is" - I realised how precious life had become. With Phillip especially. Wherever Richey is, at least he's made his own choice. But with Phillip it was so arbitrary. It's our Manics melancholia song, really.
EVERYTHING MUST GO
Lyrics by Nicky Wire
"Freed from the memory
Escape from our history."
So what does the title mean? That we live in bankrupt times? Or that the band is preparing to push on, despite the awful misfortunes they've experienced?
Nicky: We're saying a bit of both in the song. We're not saying that we've got to forget our past. Things like that will always be with you. But obviously, it is a new start in some ways.
"We did feel a bit free doing the album - it is such a reaction against 'The Holy Bible', musically. We weren't afraid to write a tune this time."
James: "'The Holy Bible' was the most natural thing that we ever done until now. But we've always reacted against ourselves."
Nicky: "Whether Richey had gone missing or not, we wouldn't have done 'The Holy Bible', part two. We hardly go around being super-happy anyway. It's not our natural demeanour, but obviously we've reached all the lows, touch wood. There's a line in the chorus - "I hope you can forgive us" - it's a plea for understanding. We've got all this music to make and words to write - it's a shame just to bottle all those up."
SMALL BLACK FLOWERS THAT GROW IN THE SKY
Lyrics by Richey James
"Here, chewing your tail is joy."
Life behind bars, animal style.
Nicky: "Richey phoned me up one night, around Christmas '94. We'd been watching the same TV programme. It was like a QED show. He said, I've just seen this brilliant programme. It was about animals going mad in their cages. They end up shitting all over the walls and eating their shit. Just because they're so bored. These gorillas ended up just smearing themselves in shit.
"The leopards walk exactly the same line a thousand times a day. Up and down their little path. Obviously, people will say that Richey was gonna use this image to represent his mental 'cage', but I dunno. Maybe he just wrote it about that programme. There's that terrible line, 'Harvest your ovaries, dead mothers crawl' - they'd be taking the eggs of this leopard before it could have babies. It was just horrendous."
THE GIRL WHO WANTED TO BE GOD
Lyrics by Nicky Wire and Richey James
"She told the truth, told the truth and then she lied."
One of the most oblique songs on the album. Possibly to do with American poet Sylvia Plath, the wife of writer Ted Hughes, who committed suicide on February11, 1963.
Nicky: "Richey's original lines had to change because they didn't really fit in. I don't really know what it's about. The title of one of Sylvia Plath's biographies is called The Girl Who Wanted To Be God'. So maybe Richey got it from there. I don't know if Richey wrote it about himself or someone he knew. I've added a lot to it. It's meant to be uplifting - more about the music than the lyrics."
Lyrics by Richey James
"Aimless rut of my own perception
Numbly waiting for voices to tell me."
An especially grim lyric that almost seems at odds with the positive impulses of the new songs.
Nicky: "That was written about three years ago. It's the oldest song on there. It was written before 'The Holy Bible', and we finally knocked it into shape. We'd forgotten about it - and then we did find a bit of a Nirvana / MTV Unplugged vibe to it, being honest. It was completely done live in the studio. We've had to wait six years but we finally played live together in the studio. And it's still got our trademark melancholia."
James: "I find melancholia uplifiting."
Nicky: "That's what I mean. I still find 'Motorcycle Emptiness' an uplifting song. But some punter is listening to it on the radio and he hears, "life lies a slow suicide" - they're obviously not gonna think it's happy."
James: "But you're giving my diction a bit too much credit ... "
Lyrics by Nicky Wire
"I don't know if I'm tired
And I don't know if I'm ill."
An insight into the anxious mindset of the Manics in '95.
Nicky: "The song is a split between my wanting to be somewhere else - a flight to freedom song - and also, I was paraniod about being ill on top of everything else. I had the Howard Hughes ethic. I was going around my house, dusting constantly and hoovering. Any bacteria had to be destroyed. I knew the only way to get out of this was to piss off somewhere. I ended up going to Torquay. Which is hardly Australia.
I went to see a doctor in London, who offered me Tiazipam. His other advice to me was; you've gotta wash the fruit in foreign lands, it's not like being in Britain. This is advice from a Harley Street doctor..."
INTERIORS (SONG FOR WILLEM DE KOONING)
Lyrics by Nicky Wire
"Your beautiful triangle of distortion
Now you seem to forget it so much."
The painter Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, 1904. He moved to America in 1926 and became a leading name in the school known as abstract expressionism. He has been ill for many years now, although he continues to paint.
Nicky: "He has Altzheimer's Disease. I've always loved Jackson Pollock and all the abstract expressionists. Now they're saying that de Kooning's art is the best treatment he can have for Altzheimer's. They actually think that his memory's coming back. It's an elegy to Willem de Kooning. A lot of people say that he's been exploited and stuff. I don't think that his later paintings are that good. But he's been through hell and he's still painting. People say that it's actually theraputic for him."
Sean: "His work did dip, and it was reverting back though his earlier years, and then it picked up . Now it's gone forward a bit now. In the middle period, his work was very simplified."
Nicky: "I saw this Omnibus documentary on him, and he seemed like a lovely chap. Obviously now, he can hardly speak. But he can still paint. The other thing is, we've always had a song about disease on every one of our albums.It's not a very good tradition to follow, really. And yes, the bassline is totally designed on New Order - a conscious decision."
Lyrics by Nicky Wire
"The stiller the oxygen the harder you breathe
The draining away just like an old man's dream"
The Manics always swore that they'd never write a love song, but here it is.
Nicky: "I'm afraid it's the nearest we've ever got to a love song. It's a bit soppy. I know we swore we'd never write one, but..."
James: "We felt like we were able to break all of those rules now. I thought after all we've gone through, that we could start redressing ourselves as human beings."
Nicky: "And we've made everything up as we've gone along, anyway. We were gonna sell 30 million copies of our debut album and then split up, weren't we?
"It's not specifically about love though. It's about childhood and growing apart as well. But it's near enough. I think I wrote that on the Suede tour (in Europe, November '94) when I decided that I wanted to go home. It wasn't the most pleasant of situations."
James: "And it's pretty obvious that you're a married bloke."
Nicky: "That line, 'just like an old man's dream' - refers to when you see old people ageing gracefully. They're proud, unstanding men, hankering back to their youth. There's a bit of that in there."
NO SURFACE, ALL FEELING
Lyrics by Nicky Wire
"Just one thing before I get to sleep
Nothing here but the stains on my teeth."
In January 1995, the four Manics rehearsed a set of new songs at a studio in Surrey, The House In The Woods, recording demos of this fresh material. On February 1, Richey disappeared from the Embassy hotel in London. By way of a gesture to their errant friend, the album version of 'No Surface, All Feeling' is based on the demo recording that Richey played on.
Nicky: "It was just before he left. We'd done 'Small Black Flowers...', 'Further Away' and 'No Surface, All Feeling'. In addition, 'Elvis Impersonator' had been conceived. 'Kevin Carter' was done and James had played it to Richey in the bedroom - but I don't think Richey ever heard it properly."
James: "There were a few songs I'd only played on an acoustic. They were 'Kevin Carter' and 'The Girl Who Wanted To Be God' and 'Elvis Impersonator'. So when we were putting the album together, and we came to 'No Surface, All Feeling', we decided to use the demo. Only the vocals and the end bit were redone.
"Generally, as far as the music goes, I was definitely obsessed with lifting people for once. Especially after 'The Holy Bible' - I felt that we deserved to give ourselves a bit of a favour, and actually be able to look back - and think that any sense of fun or happiness wasn't gonna be compromised by the music. We deserved to try and uplift ourselves by the music. That was my only agenda."
Nicky: "Yeah, you might say that was our 'tribute' to Richey."