From South Wales to 'Top of the Pops' via alcoholism and self-mutilation, Manic Street Preachers have lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle with a vengeance. As they prepare to play in London, Peter Paphides picks the scabs of their past.
"What you need to remember about things like self harm..." Richey James, guitarist with Manic Street Preachers refers to 'things like self harm' a lot. To the point that you could get quite blasé about it. It's a vague term, a euphemism even. He doesn't mean 'things' like self harm though. He specifically means self harm. He's referring to the process of dragging the sharp end of a blade into his flesh. It's important that we remember this because it's an act that's easy to romanticise. It's also important to remember that self-abuse isn't uncommon. Since Richey famously carved '4 REAL' into his arm in a bid to prove his intentions to a doubting journalist, many people have called him stupid, publicity seeking and irresponsible. Richey though, sees it as a statement of self-determination. "I've never hurt anyone," he says. "I might smash a guitar on stage, but I only ever damage myself."
In a year that's seen the death of the band's manager, the culmination of a drink problem, numerous eating disorders, relationship problems and a nervous breakdown, it's the one 'indulgence' that Richey will still defend his right to practice. The right to mutilate his body.
Self-determination is the one constant that's characterised the rise of Manic Street Preachers. In the mining town of Blackwood, south Wales, where they grew up, they were a band long before they could play their instruments. "Even when we formed properly ten years ago," claims Richey, now 26, "there was no question that I wasn't in the group, even though I couldn't play a note."
The fatalistic, sometimes nihilistic mood that has come to characterise Manic Street Preachers' records was already implanted in them by adolescence. "Blackwood is scarred - industrially, economically and politically," he says, surveying the sparse dressing room of the Paris radio station where they're performing tonight. "Everything about Blackwood stands as a reminder of 15 years of decay. That affects your world view for the rest of your life, wherever you go . All the big buildings in Blackwood used to be miners' institutes. Now they've been turned into leisure centres and cinemas - and no amount of posters for 'The Mask' can alter the fact. The whole landscape too, they try and put grass over all the slag heaps and every time it rains, they turn into huge muddy slides - the landscape is swallowed by a huge slab of blackness."
Given the desolation that hung over their upbringing, Manic Street Preachers have willed themselves a lot further than they ever dared guess, initially hurling situationist slogans on to the pages of an inquisitive music press in 1990, then into a contract with Sony for whom they've recorded 'Generation Terrorists' and their ensuing two albums, It all seemed very appropriate at the time. The group who already pronounced themselves as sluts, putty in the hands of corporate pimps, were using the same multinational machinery to globalise their message. The lyrics were occasionally clumsy - 'Nat West, Barclays, Midlands, Lloyds/Black horse apocalypse!' The music occasionally evinced a little too much reverence for The Clash and no other band. But there were plenty of grounds for hope. 'You Love Us' was a master-stroke, deftly summing up the fan-band relationship with more post-modern relish than the KLF's entire career. 'Motorcycle Emptiness' was absurdly ambitious - a cinematic paean to innocence lost in the aftermath of Thatcherism. More slogans: 'Regard all art critics as useless and dangerous'; 'All rock 'n' roll is homosexual'.
Of course they were right. They were also beautiful as fuck. Imagine if you staged a military coup on the Boot's make-up counter in Swansea: Nicky Wire - the bassist - Henna'd and pouting, a picture of blank nihilism; Richey's panda eyes, framed inch-thick in Max Factor; Sean Moore, the tiny dynamite drummer; and the rugged car mechanic looks of singer James Dean Bradfield, the one reminder that Manic Street Preachers - despite spewing quotes from Rimbaud, Camus and Ibsen to anyone who'd listen - had no time for the parochial middle-class values that characterised the indie scene. They wanted to be Guns 'N' Roses. So they made their second album, 'Gold Against The Soul', and pulled it off, only to realise that perhaps they didn't want to sound like that after all.
"Most bands are faced with a dilemma when they sign to a corporation," says Bradfield reflectively. "They think they've sold out, but we jettisoned that dilemma at the first opportunity. However on 'Gold Against The Soul' we paid for it. We were blasé to think we were so in control of the situation. People from Sony would come to gigs and say thinks like 'There isn't a song in this album you could play on the radio' and so you have at the back of your mind that there ought to be one. Ultimately, though, it's self-indulgent to label your albums as ripostes to your own mistakes."
And so, ashamed of having become the corporate slaves they'd so ardently wanted to be, Manic Street Preachers retreated to Blackwood at the beginning of this year and locked themselves away. Much had been made of Richey's increasing alcoholism and 'things like self harm'. But when the first tapes of 'The Holy Bible' started emerging this summer, it became clear that something was awry. The same air of deep trouble that haunts Nirvana's 'In Utero' saturates every note of 'The Holy Bible'. The lyrics, almost exclusively by Richey, didn't leave a lot to the imagination. His obsession with self-determination had now taken him towards anorexia. Yet he was still fiercely protective of his pride: 'Puking, shaking, sinking, I still stand for old ladies'; 'Such beautiful dignity in self abuse.'
By August, Richey was in a private clinic being treated for a nervous breakdown. Rumours were rife: he'd discovered religion; he'd attempted suicide; he'd left the band; he'd turned into a giant yellow chipmunk who only answered to the name of Susan.
"Apart from the band an a few people close to me, no one knows what happened. That's because I choose not to talk about it," reasons a relatively cheerful Richey. If you look into his dark brown eyes rather than his hastily applied eyeliner, he looks a lot healthier than he has done for a long time. "There has to be some kind of privacy. Inevitably, I'm bound to be misrepresented, but that's something that everybody has to deal with, whatever job they do. Often meet people and their preconception of you is so different because they think you're violent when you've done things that look aggressive. I've never raised my voice to anybody, but most my interviews read like a Scorsese script. It's like there's tables flying, bottles broken and you're going 'Fuck you! Fuck you!'"
No one's voices are being raised raised here. James has now fallen asleep on the floor, still recovering from last night's drinking session. Sean isn't here - he despises interviews. And Nicky's trying to find a place where Richey's cigarette smoke won't find him: "Fucking smokers. I hate it when they start coughing, going on about their health, craving sympathy when they're killing everybody."
"I don't crave sympathy," corrects Richey with dry pedantry. "I crave pity." Eventually Nicky walks out of the room in mock disgust, not at Richey's smoking, but at the piss-awful sound of The Christians who appear to have gone Unplugged in next door's dressing room.
Richey hasn't touched a drop of drink since he left the clinic. He's had plenty of opportunity to, having toured Europe with the Manics since September. In fact he's been eyeing the six pack on the dressing-room table ever since we started talking. When unpopular indie band Dub War cast doubt on Richey's alcoholism, claiming that whenever they'd supported the Manics they'd never seem Richey drunk, they touched a nerve with all the Manics. For Richey especially, it was just another example of the bizarre set of value that people attribute to boozing. "I just think it's really annoying that just because the next day you don't choose to go up to someone and say 'I got pissed last night, I drank a bottle of vodka and I was really of my fuckin' 'head'...I find it really odd, that mentality that says you have to fall over in a bar to be a drinker, you know? If I fall over and piss myself, I wanna do it in my own flat. Not where people can see me."
In any case, Richey's alcoholism came about for more medicinal reason. "I'd never taken anything until I went to university, and I was going to drop out at the end of my first term, simply because I couldn't sleep. I've got a big problem with sleep. The few people I'd gotten to know said 'Look just have a few pints and then you'll get to sleep.' That's something that I did not want to know. But I'd always wanted to go to university, and so I decided that either I drop out or find a way of staying here. Alcohol would put me to sleep. I drank functionally." He's now fixing his glare on me without respite. "And now I don't drink at all. The last thing I wanted to do was end up a fucking junkie alcoholic mess like Shane MacGowan. I don't want to be like that. The whole thing about things like self harm is that you are aware of what you're doing. That's how you justify it. But it's just pathetic if you're a drunken mess. I was never like Shane MacGowan."
He's also kept the 'self harm' down to a minimum. You'd think that for someone who persistently extols the values of 'self-discipline', Richey might be gleaning some perverse joy out of all this. "It's hard to say," he ponders. "The people that seem to test their body the most are people that are so aware of it, every ounce of flesh. I do believe that if I'd been born with blue eyes, my life would be completely different. I wouldn't have ended up going to university, I'd be married and I'd be a bank manager.
That's a bit like the time Julian Cope changed his name to Kevin Stapleton, because that sounded like the kind of name that the cool kids had at school.
"That's right. It's the arbitrary factors that determine your life. There's a certain kind of beauty in taking complete control of every aspect of your life. Purifying or hurting your body to achieve a balance in your mind is tremendously disciplined. I've been hit lots of times for no reason, but I've never thrown a punch back. If I refuse to do that then I might get beaten up badly, but I would feel still feel better than the person who's doing it to me. There's a Latin quote which I can't remember - it's actually in 'Green River Rising' - that strength is restored through wounding.
What a lot of people don't understand though is how you suppress the actual physical pain that comes with cutting yourself up.
"It's not something that you train yourself to do," explains Richey matter-of-factly, "like walking on hot coals or something. You just get to a point where if you don't do it to yourself, you get a feeling that something really terrible is going to happen, and when that moment comes, it's the logical thing to do. It doesn't hurt. You're not screaming and shouting. A couple of days later you feel like a sad fuck, but that's part of the healing process; after that you feel really good. People that harm themselves, be it through anorexia or razors, know what they're doing. Which is why I get annoyed when Lord Justice Templeman, presiding over the Spanner trial, says that 'cruelty is uncivilised'. How can any member of the ruling classes say that when you consider the backgrounds they come from?"
It's this unerring commitment to self-determination that's led Manic Street Preachers to upset numerous feminists, despite their explicit admiration for commentators like Andrea Dworkin and Valerie Solanas. '4st 7lbs', ostensibly a frightening love song to anorexia is possibly the most disturbing track on 'The Holy Bible'. Set against an off-kilter staccato riff and extruded through James Bradfield's pained delivery, like like 'I want to walk in the snow/And not soil its purity' seemed a little too evocative to dismiss as casual guesswork. The Manics' detractors failed to realise that the anorexia one falls prey to in trying to become a supermodel is symptom of the same urge; the urge to reclaim what little control you have. Bother are symptoms of the same thing. You can't condemn supermodels yet defend people who fuck up in the attempt to become one.
"Political correctness is more sinister than anything anyone can ever accuse us of," counters Richey. "It's all about language. It's all aimed at the working class. I read The Guardian and The Times. I also read The Sun - it uses language which is accessible. Lenny Bruce said being scared of words is also what gives them their power. The word 'nigger' is not frightening. You know, his famous quote where he just says, 'Nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger'? PC just builds more walls."
'PCP', the first single taken from 'The Holy Bible', deals exactly with this. It's the last song that Manic Street Preachers perform on tonight's radio session, and it sets the place alight. Bradfield doesn't so much sing it as detonates it. Sean punctuates lines like 'PC caresses bigots and big brother' with an unholy tantrum of percussive thunder. And Nicky ominously removing his bass from his person, hesitates for just a moment before deciding not to destroy his second guitar in two consecutive nights.
"That's an important song in understanding what we do," sighs Richey between sips of Coke. "It could be construed as quite a right-wing point of view, but then at the same time, every left-wing party seems to be advocating censorship of some kind. Which I can really agree with. Like that Ken Loach film 'Hidden Agenda'. That got pulled off Channel 4, after the Warrington bombing but then it gets shown a month later! Now I don't think that's even being sensitive."
James stirs into action, his head slowly emerging from beneath his leather jacket, just as a congenial French floor manager enters to tell him that he's on in five minutes. His eyes meet Richey's but they don't speak. The implicit trust between Richey and James is possibly the strongest bond in the group. It's Richey, after all, who entrusts the anxieties of his convoluted mind to James's voice.
This month Manic Street Preachers return to London at the end of their most traumatic year. Somewhere along the line, though, they also made on of the greatest rock 'n' roll albums of recent years. For a band who set out to be rock 'n' roll's epiphany, they're just about the only thing keeping it alive. When James Dean Bradfield walks onto the stage at the Astoria and starts his unlikely solo version of 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head', watch his face when he sings 'I'm never gonna stop the rain by complaining/Because I'm free/Nothing's worrying me'. He has more cause to mean it than most.