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Did Someone Order Gloom Service? - The Face, September 1998

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They vowed to make one album, split up and be remembered as the lost great rock'n'roll band. Now they've made five albums, taken up Hovering and created some of the world's most sophisticated pop music. Where did it all go wrong for the Manic Street Preachers?


Sean Moore is explaining the role the three Manic Street Preachers play in the video to their fairly glorious new single, 'if You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next', when the conversation takes a strange turn. In the video, the group are trapped in some kind of totalitarian scientific experiment, playing the same song over and over until it makes them sick and faceless. "Basically we're an experiment gone wrong," Sean says. "Which, I suppose in a way, we are. We were going to do one album and split up, and as time's gone on we've become this five-album thirtysomething everything-that-we-didn't-want-to-be." You've spoiled it all by carrying on, I goad. "We know that,' he says. "That's the thing. We feel, personally, to ourselves, that we have spoiled it. However much we still enjoy what we do, and people still enjoy listening to us, there's always that thing in the back of your mind that you think, "it didn't quite go right, did it?

What do people get wrong about you? James: That I'm going to be six-foot-two. They go, 'God, you look like the Terminator on TV - you're so short.' I'm five-five and a bit, I think. I'm fucking tiny. Sean: They always try to break us down into individuals, and I think Manic Street Preachers is more of a collective thing. Though Richey is lost to us, it's the loss of a limb of Manic Street Preachers, part of the machine is missing. It's still Manic Street Preachers. Nicky: That I've got a big mouth, I'm not very clever, and I'm gay.

Nicky Wire, the lanky, floppy-haired man who these clays writes all of the Manic Street Preachers lyrics, is talking to a Japanese journalist. She perceives some kinship between his group and Radiohead. (She has already observed that, while she considers their new single too "dark and depressive", it might do all right following the recent success of The Verve and Radiohead.) Sensibly, Nicky sidesteps the comparison. He quite likes Radiohead, but he does not consider himself to exist in the same world as theirs, or any other pop group's. He lives in a terraced house in the Welsh valleys, where he writes, watches TV, walks the dog, paints on the walls, slouches around, and thinks. "I could never write something like 'I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo'," he explains. "I could write something like 'I'm a cricketer, I'm boring, I'm a gardener, I'm a Hoovering housewife."' There is a new Manic Street Preachers album out soon. Though it is their fifth, it is only the second since their other lyricist and conceptualist, Richey Edwards, disappeared, and it is the first which was conceived from the start without his input. 'Lyrically it's just my world - the world I exist in and the things that make me sad and make me happy, that make me get up in the morning and make me go to bed," says Wire. "As much as I admire someone like Thorn Yorke, I cannot relate to his lyrics. I just hear someone who I can't recognise in myself. Some of his pre- occupations are the same as mine - like flying, and oxygen, and death, and all the rest of it \endash it just seems to come from a different angle."

By the middle of 1995 it was far from clear that the Manic Street Preachers even existed any more. The circumstances of Richey's disappearance have been endlessly revisited. He had been in an especially bad way for the previous year, and had been in and out of institutions. He disappeared from the London hotel from which he and James were to fly to America to promote their third album, the marvellous but deeply macabre and intense "The Holy Bible", and his car was found abandoned two weeks later at the Motorway services next to the Severn bridge. Anyone who cares will know that there are a few tantalising hints to feed the hope that he is alive, and that there are plenty more sensible reasons to believe that he is dead.

The remaining Manic Street Preachers eventually decided to carry on. They handled a difficult return with tact. They made themselves deliberately anonymous. "We felt we had to try and hide behind the music," James says. "We were bearing the cross of so much symbolism at that point anyway that to actually be anonymous was a big relief."

Do you think the Manic Street Preachers are sexy enough? James: Obviously we're not as sexy without Richey. I'm not quite sure. I think Nick is. That's enough. I think what we were at the start was very sexy, just boys prepared to dress up in tight white jeans and show their little bump 'n' grinds, and be political in the most obtuse senses and be little rascals was very sexy. But we can't be that now, can we? Sean: No, not at all. lust because we've become old and bloated. Maybe to the record company it's a problem; myself I don't care. It's just marketing, isn't it? I suppose it's like cars - people tend to go for the more sleek, shiny, daring-looking cars. As you get older you start moving towards the Volvos; practical boring greyish sorts of cars. Nicky: I think we were, and we can be. I'm not sure we are at the moment.

Hoovering housewife Nicky Wire has three Dyson vacuum cleaners. One for upstairs. One for downstairs. One spare. (He nonchalantly dismisses my suggestion that no one on earth needs a spare vacuum cleaner. As for the logically-problematic stairs themselves, he cleans them with the downstairs vacuum's stretchy arm.) "I love Dysons," he says. "They are a work of art."

When he vacuums, he gets this feeling of cleanliness. He was really into Howard Hughes when he was young. 'All his Kleenex protocols and all that," Wire says, as though everyone knows about such matters. "There have been times when I've switched lights off 50 times," he acids, matter-of-factly.

What do you mean: "...switched lights off 50 times." Nicky shrugs. "it's just an OCD thing. When, say, you go to bed at night I'd make sure I locked the door about 20 times." OCD? "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Which is what they reckon Howard Hughes had. He also had syphilis of the brain." Quite. How do you feel if stuff isn't Hoovered? "I get a bit tetchy. When I come home and Rachel [his wifeI obviously hasn't Hoovered for the past four days -because she's not as into it as I am - I'm straight out with the Hoover. She goes out, takes the dog up the mountain, and I have a big clean."

Manic Street Preachers fans who are aware of his predilections show their affection by sending him spare filters for his Dysons. He was given about twenty on their last tour, and he is working his way through them. He was sent a T-shirt by a Swedish girl, with words on it somewhat in the style of the Manic Street Preachers' early home-made clothes. Then, their shirts would blare slogans like KILL YOURSELF, SPECTATORS OF SUICIDE , ANTI-LOVE, and SCARS DEAD HATE VOID. The Swedish girl had, instead, painstakingly lettered the words I LOVE HOOVERING. Last year, when the Manic Street Preachers won a Brit Award, Nicky wore it to collect the trophy.

Sean, incidentally, has two Dysons. James has none, but he lives in London. He has a cleaner. "He has succumbed," mutters Sean, darkly "to those London ways. Everything - cleaners, gardeners, interior designers." Ironically, the widespread popular success which had always evaded the Manic Street Preachers came with the trio's first single, "A Design For Life". "it's about a hundred years of social working class struggle," says Nicky. "But you can't get that across to everyone." Some people liked it because there was something wonderful about a record at number two in the charts beginning "libraries give us power"; some people liked it because of its sweeping faux-Spector grandeur and beautiful tune; some people liked it because when it swelled into the chorus you could holler along, "We only want to get drunk..." Before, Nicky and Richey had shared the lyric-writing between them. 'I knew, especially with 'A Design For Life', we had to kind of redefine ourselves lyrically," Nicky says, "because there was just no way I could write like that." A few months ago, Nicky attended a celebration of the National Health Service's 50th anniversary on Treclegar mountain. It was pissing clown on a winter Friday night. "I was just thinking,' he says, "there's no way anybody else in a band would be doing this in the whole of the world." The voice of Aneurin Bevan, the late Labour MP and architect of the National Health Service, was booming out through the downpour, on the same mountain in his constituency where he would speak to crowds of ten or twelve thousand. "This is my truth," he said, then and now. "Tell me yours." And that, consequently, is the title of the new Manic Street Preachers album: 'This Is My Truth - Tell Me Yours". But it used to be vitally important to you to be sexy and reckless, and probably now you're less interested in either. "Yeah. Especially the recklessness. This is our fifth album. We're 29 now. It sucks that real urgency out of you. And with Philip [their manager, who was dying of cancerI and Richey as well, it's just impossible to keep that sense of recklessness, because you just think, round the corner something disastrous is going to happen. You just can't throw caution to the wind."

Tell me some things that are true. James: I984 to I985. The Miners' strike and everything. Truth before your eyes. Easy. Sean: The sky is blue. The world is round. It goes round the sun. I could go on for days. Nicky: Sport. The best people always win. It's different in music.

The first lyric Nicky ever wrote was called "Aftermath '84". It was about the miner's strike, and about betrayal. It included the line "this woman that fatefully sowed this seed", which, naturally, was about Margaret Thatcher. They were always obsessed by the idea of having one of their lyrics printed in Smash Hits, which is why, when James gave Nicky those lyrics back, he'd written on them something like "these deserve to be next to Morrissey/Marr".

They were not cool kids. One of Nicky's nicknames at school was Joey Deacon, after a disabled man who appeared on Blue Peter. When I chaperone a discussion about these teenage years, Nick and James talk about how Sean and Richey used to get into trouble for wearing their hair sticking up - they'd put Coke in it - as though such wonders were beyond their reach.

What they did have was each other. They all went to school together, while Sean, James' cousin, lived in James' house after his parents divorced. Earlier, alone, Sean had described the magical days when they would spend afternoons in the bedroom where he and James shared bunkbeds, drinking cups of tea, listening to the Clash and reading out poetry. "We've been lucky to find ourselves, me, James and Sean - and Richey, when he was around," says Nick. "if you're lucky in life you can find someone to build your life round. It doesn't happen for everyone. It wasn't even enough for Richey at the end of the day."

They saw the Clash on a tenth-anniversary punk programme, playing 'Garageland" and "What's My Name?"; by comparison, all the bands around seemed drab. They resolved to become the kind of band they wish had been around as they were growing up. Richey was only brought in to the band later. Their first anarcho-punk bass player didn't work out, a dalliance with a female singer didn't work out, and - ironically, as things would turn out - they didn't want to be a three-piece because it seemed too much like The Jam. Richey couldn't play guitar properly, and he couldn't sing, but that simply left more time for the things that really mattered. They began designing their own clothes, and dressing in ways which weren't normal for a Welsh valley town. James was the one who looked tough, who found himself in a protective role. "Richey and Nicky used to get the piss taken out of them all the time - 'Look at those fags over there! Go and suck each other's clicks in the corner, you faggots!'," he says. "That's the kind of thing that got my back up a bit." James Dean Bradfield is in a weird position - the voice of a band, but not the author of its lyrics; the first face you see, but not the first mind you explore. He used to worry that it held them back: successful groups have proper front men, and he was never a proper front man. People often used to think Richey was the singer - he was the one most often on the magazine covers, after all - and James used to think that it might have been better that way. But Richey simply couldn't sing. James did try to write a few lyrics when they started. There was one called "Jackboot Johnny", about local Oi bands. He swears that he's never tried since, not even privately. He prides himself for his knowledge of film and Clash trivia. He used to run seriously. About a hundred miles a week. 'When I was young it was a Nietzsche thing - you can only beat yourself; the mountain's not going to beat you."' Now he jogs. He worries that, even recently, people have got the wrong idea about him. "The image I always gave off was a bit of a staid blue-collar Springsteen vibe," he says. "My neck was bulging passionate veins. I think that's what came across." And you didn't think that was a good thing? "No. Because I don't like the word 'passionate'. I've never liked it. I don't like the word 'brave'. I don't like any of those words. it's heroism. What we did was always completely and utterly reflex, but I don't think I ever gave that off. I think I gave more of a stoic pugnaciousness, and I never felt like that."

It takes me a long time to realise that James is much shyer and more uncertain than he seems. Talking to him, things get interesting when you get past the gruff, assured exterior and find the shy man inside. With most interviewes, the challenge is to get them to open up,. with him, it's to get him to close in on himself while you're still watching.

Towards the end of comprehensive school, James had quite an erratic attendance record. He turned up for the last day, and no one was there. He had got the day wrong. The gates were locked, and he was outside. He makes light of it, but when he talks about it, you can hear in his cracking voice the sadness and the anger chasing each other's tails. "it was really fucking depressing," he says.

When The Manic Street Preachers started, the odds against them seemed insurmountable. "We were four dickheads from Wales," James says. "No other dickheads from Wales were making music at that point. And we were kind of pretentious beyond belief. We looked like complete and utter fucking pricks..." "People did assume that because we were from Wales we'd be like The Alarm," Nicky says, "and we'd be shit and thick." Instead, the Manic Street Preachers made lots of big, proud unfeasible statements about their intentions. They were the Last Group, and they were going to show up pop stardom for what it was. They wouldmake one album. It would sell I6 million copies. They would then split up. I met them when they were recording that album, "Generation Terrorists". They were charming and over-eager to explain themselves.

'No one has ever sacrificed themselves," Richey said. "if we become huge and just throw it away, that is a bigstatement. Then maybe people will see that it's all shit. No bands will be seen as worthwhile and nobody will putany hopes on bands at all." "if we don't do what we say we're going to do,' James said, 'we'll be destroyed anyway."

Meanwhile they had signed to CBS records for a ten-album deal.

The music press were deeply suspicious of these strange men, half fey and half threatening, from Wales; who were brazen in an era where mopey was still in fashion; who rattled off so many intellectual references that they must either be too smart for their own good or too dumb to know what they were saying; who boasted about drinking Babycham; who wore daft make-up and women's blouses.

Their battle to be taken seriously took an ugly turn when, after being interviewed backstage in Norwich by sceptical Steve Lamacq, then a journalist for the NME, Richey famously carved "4 REAL' into his left forearm with a razorblade. The NME's photographer took a notorious photo of Richey, eyes meeting the camera,brandishing the wound. It is, of course, a horrible image, but, of the I6 cuts Richey inflicted upon himself, anyone who is hard of heart, and callous enough to enjoy the usual pop culture madness might be able to bear I5 of them. It is the other cut - the first one; the one which makes the diagonal of the '4' - which is so horrible. It gapes open, like a mouth, its raw walls glistening. So wide and so deep that you could lose a man in there. "I wish Richey hadn't felt he needed to do that," Sean tells me one afternoon. "I regret that it was the start, I feel, of a downward spiral in his life, personally."

But if this was the beginning of the bad times, it was also the best time. The saddest, and quite possibly the best song on their new album looks back to those days. It seems to be about doing something worthwhile - in particular, for instance, creating a band like the Manic Street Preachers - and then carrying on afterwards. The chorus goes: "in the beginning/When we were winning/When our smiles were genuine/Now unforgiven/The everlasting/The everlasting." "The first six months of signing to Heavenly and everything else," Wire says, 'life was a ball. Richey carving '4 Real' into his arm was just...' - he cheers - "'Yes! There's not a problem here! This is fucking rock'n'roll' I'm not saying when we smile now we're just putting it on - it's a bit of artistic license - but those were the times when we were just four Nietzschean strong men: we are the young men and we shall conquer the world with our socialist rhetoric." So what happened? "Half of it's down to us just not making as good a record as we could have, and half of it's just down to deterioration. Generally deterioration of the group, mind-wise. Mentally. I'm sure it's the same for a lot of bands. They all have golden eras, don't they? It's just...' Nicky laughs, ,,ours didn't last very long, did it? That initial burst of, 'We can do anything.' I think it only comes with youth, to be honest with you, that feeling of total abandonment. That you're made of metal. You're impenetrable." You were better then than you are now? "We were more exciting then,' he clarifies. Then he laughs. 'But no one liked us."

Sean's role in the Manic Street Preachers is the most oblique. He is the least likely to join in their visual excesses. For years, even if he attended interviews, he would sit there reading or drinking a cup of tea: it was always the same stupid questions. (After Richey was gone, he at least felt people genuinely wanted to know what he had to say about it.) His role in the songwriting is somewhat oblique, but he is not just a drummer; he played trumpet in the South Wales Jazz Orchestra. When he and James work together at the music, James describes them as .complete pottering housewives".

He lives on the outskirts of Bristol with his girlfriend. Neither James nor Nicky have ever been to his house. Late at night, on the tour bus, when he's having trouble sleeping, he likes to do the washing up. He is obsessed with shopping and newness. "I want everything to look like it's just come out of the wrapper. I love the smell of, say, a Walkman when you first unwrap it. If it gets a scratch on it, that's it. That's the way I am. And I've always got to get hold of the next best thing. I don't care about money.'

Sean and I have tea one afternoon in a London hotel. I ask him, purely making conversation, what he has been enjoying in his life recently. He raises his eyebrows. "Nothing really. I don't enjoy anything. I just exist. To be truthful. Because you know it's got to come to an end. We despise hedonists who do everything regardless of what people think." Doing nothing and not enjoying life has its consequences too. "Only to yourself. It's personal." He does not have children, and he has no plans to have children. "Probably because this world is such a horrible place. Put it this way - if the world ended tomorrow, if the human race ended tomorrow, I wouldn't have any regrets about it whatsoever, because I don't think we've contributed anything whatsoever, in the entire history of this planet, that's worthwhile. At the end of the day, everything'sdust, and that is it."

The First Manic Street Preachers album did not sell I6 million copies, and they did not split up. Telling themselves that they had only failed by their own self-imposed standards, they rushed into their second and worst album, 'Gold Against The Soul", which had a few good songs, no cogent direction and an unappealing soft-metal sheen. Around this time, they supported Bon Jovi. "it was probably the first time I felt we were nevergoing to be what we wanted to be, and it all might get a bit messy," says James. They all also share one specific regret: one moment when it all slipped from their control. At a London concert over Christmas I992, Nicky Wire said to the audience, "in the season of goodwill, let's hope that Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury pretty soon" "it was just a huge indestructible urge in me to vent something which came out horrendously," Nicky remembers. "it was supposed to be a comment on rock martyrdom, and David Bowie saying the Lord's Prayer and stuff like that, after he'd lived the most decadent life. Philip was incredibly ill at the time and it was just a disastrous thing." (This is, mind you, only p specific regret. Everything else, he stands by. "Like when I said, quite a flippant thing, at Glastonbury, I said, 'I wish they'd build a by-pass over this shithole.' And I think that's funny, and that's valid.")

"The Holy Bible" followed. On the first two records, Nicky and Richey had shared responsibilities for the lyrics more or less equally, but "The Holy Bible"'s grim torrent of ugliness was mostly Richey's. Their lyrics, particularly Richey's, had often been fascinatingly unmusical. "Basically," says Sean, "Richey had no concept of music in terms of metre and bars and beats. A line could go on and on and on." Previously, they had attempted to edit and shoehorn the lyrics into the kind of shapes which pop songs demand. For this, their masterpiece of extremity, they resolved that there would be no editing whatsoever. Everything would be included, and the songs would have to cope.

How does Richey appear in your dreams? Nicky: I very rarely dream. It's one of the things I'm glad about. I did when he went missing, I must admit. For the first two or four months it was pretty nonsensical Really abstract. The only frightening ones, he'd pop up at my door and I'd be petrified. It's almost as scary him turning up as not. You think, .'Fucking hell, my whole life is going to turn over again...'lf I dream it's about Wales winning the rugby World Cup. We're sponsoring the side, we've got 'Manic Street Preachers' on the jersey. Sean: I don't dream. James: Just really in the most macabre disturbing ways possible. I suppose for round about six months after just had recurring dreams all the time, and it didn't stop for ages. Now I have about two or three a week. They're just really uncharacteristic - he was the most unintimidating, sweet person to be around and all the dreams are very scary. I wouldn't want to go into the details. Very dark and very hard. Physically very intimidating. I wake up extremely unhappy. But I've always had mad dreams anyway. I used to have mad dreams about my father, and my father is one of my biggest heroes, one of the nicest people I've ever fucking known in my entire life. I had a dream about chopping his head off when I was young, and a dream about him having a big devil's tail. And I knew there was no rational explanation for any of that."

Many of the stories they tell about Richey are strangely funny. He would drink to knock himself out every night, and he would drink to peak in his Richey-ness onstage. Once they had to play two concerts in one day, which presented him with a logistical conundrum. He had to peak twice. He got pissed for the first concert and then tried to sober up by eating kiwi fruit. "He actually thought kiwi fruit would make him sober,' Wire reflects, lovingly, 'so he'd just be piling in kiwi fruits...'

There is an argument that, as many of Richey's impulses were unfriendly and uncommercial, his absence has eased their rise. "in a way he was very indulgent to his impulses," Sean says. "Nicky has the same impulses but then he manipulates them in a much more universal and user-friendly way than Richey ever did. Richey was more... I'd say honest. Truthful about it. He'd actually say, 'this is it', and push it right in your face. Whereas Nicky will sort of sidestep, dress it up. People sometimes can't digest things in its raw form." Do you think you'd be less successful if he was still in the group? "I doubt if we'd still be a group," James says. "if he'd been like he was before he left, then the group wouldn't still be going," Nicky says "I just think of a million different answers, so it's hard to answer," says James, quietly. "He might have learned to play guitar," Nicky says, and they all laugh. They explain how he bought a Nirvana songbook and got Sean to teach him 'Come As You Are". "I had to explain what these dots were," Sean says. "He's the least..." begins James. "He's just not a music person.' "He's one of the least musical people," Nicky says. "I mean, I'm not musical at all, and he's ten times worse than me." "it's strange how he could remember those quotes..." Sean reflects. "...and the history of the fucking Czech partition..." Nicky adds. "...and you show him just a little snippet of music that probably doesn't last more than ten seconds," Sean says, 'and within about two or three minutes he'd forget it..." What do you think Richey would think of this record? "I find it very hard to answer," James says. "I don't think he would have liked a lot of it." "To be honest," Nicky says, "in 1993 he would have absolutely loved it. But in 1995, at the height of his..." He doesn't finish, but he continues, "...there was a note he sent me with a lyric: 'Ideas for next album - Pantera meets Nine Inch Nails meets 'Screamadelica'.

They tried not to write about Richey, but he sneaked in here and there. The first song, "Ready For Drowning", begins with a conversation Nicky had with a taxi driver. He didn't know who Nicky was, and began talking about that local boy he'd read about in the paper, and whether he'd jumped into the river or not. "I played along," Wire remembers. "I couldn't be arsed to put my two pennyworth in." The song, which Nicky considers his most complicated, is ultimately "kind of about the mythology of not just Richey,' says Nicky, "but of the Welsh famous people who seem to end up drinking themselves to death: Richard Burton, Dylan Thomas, Rachel Roberts... I wouldn't like to categorise Richey specifically amongst them because I could be doing him a disservice. He could still be alive, not drinking. But his mythology is part of our mythology which is part of Welsh mythology."

Afterwards, they employed a private investigator until he told them that he was long out of leads. They were wasting time, money and hope.

We arrange to meet in James' basement flat in a smart, calm area of London. I wait with James in the kitchen. "Guess what Sean gave me in here," he says. I point at the Philippe Starck lemon squeezer and he nods. In his front room, he has two framed photographs leaning against the wall besides the television. One is of Jeff Buckley, whose 'Grace" has kept him going over the last couple of years in the same way that Yukio Mishima's novels have. The other is of Robert De Niro backstage at a Clash concert with Joe Strummer. The others arrive. James lights a cigarette. 'Smoking in the flat?" says Nicky, surprised. "I'm nervous now," he mutters. We talk about their fans. They seem to have drawn as active and unusual followers as it is possible to have as a modern pop group. An exhibition of their fans' artwork has been put together, curated by artist Jeremy Deller. (Nicky particularly likes the pre-Raphaelite painting in which he is morphine into Jesus.) They deliberately don't have a fan club, and are proud of the fact. But, with their history, not all of the responses they draw are going to be comfortable. When Richey's anorexia became public, he was deluged with amateur anorexic poetry. "Richey would just say, 'I just can't read any more of this - it's just so crap,"' Nicky says.

There is a song which was taken off the Manic Street Preachers album shortly before it was cut called "Blackholes For The Young' in which Nicky Wire expresses his feelings about the nation's capital. "in a lot ofways I think London is a complete parasite," he says. "I just don't think it produces anything. It doesn't produce any bands. I think when bands come here a lot of times it can lead to their downfall. I don't think thelast Oasis album is a bad album, but I think it'd be a lot better if Noel had written the lyrics in Burnage, rather than in London, or in Montserrat with Johnny Depp. The song goes ,cappuccinos amongst the smog' - I always find it amazing that people say, 'It's great because you can just go around the corner and have a cappuccino in a cafe.' And you see people sitting with 50 cars going past every three minutes and exhaust fumes piling out, and that seems to be a signal that it's a better quality of life. And I just sit in the garden with a flask of coffee.' When he first gave the lyric to James, James was a bit miffed. "He was, 'Is this about me?"' Nicky says. "I felt as if Nick was saying, 'You silly boy - get rid of your noncey flat and come back and be a proper Welsh boy,"' James says.

What is the Manic Street Preacher's contribution to modern culture? James: It's simple. Just making lyrics a vital organ in pop music again. And reintroducing the guitar solo. Sean: Absolutely nothing whatsoever, probably. Will people know who the Manic Street Preachers are 50 yearsfrom now? Probably not. Nicky: I think we've made honesty cool. For ages, Nicky wanted to call the new album, "The Everlasting". "Because I wanted people to go to the shops and go, 'Can I have the Everlasting Manic Street Preachers?"' Wire says. His favourite word of all is 'forever'. "There's a line in 'Roses In The Hospital' - 'forever delayed' - and that's what I want to call the greatest hits: 'Manic Street Preachers - Forever Delayed'. It's just so beautiful. So much depth in it." I point out to him that, while forever is a slightly sad but fundamentally optimistic word, 'forever delayed' is a crushing concept. "Yeah," he grins. "it is."

One of the new Manic Street Preachers songs is called "Born A Girl". Its chorus goes: "And I wish I had been born a girl instead of what I am/ Yes I wish I had been born a girl/And not this mess of a man." "There's no doubt about it," Nicky says, "I have, in my time, loved dressing up in women's clothes and that. I can't say I'm desperate to be a woman, but sometimes I feel it would have been a bit easier if I'd been born one. My body shape is quite a lot like a woman. I've got extremely big hips. I've got a very small waist, but a really odd pelvic girdle."

Nicky has only worn dresses as part of being in the band, though as a teenager he wore make-up, spent hours on his hair, and wore blouses. "You can be blase about it now," he says, "but when you're 16 in a pretty hard Valleys mining town, it takes a bit more guts than you actually think it does at the time." At school he was sometimes called Gaylord, and he was sometimes called Shirley. He used to spend hours on his mother's bed, watching her do her hair and all that: "I was fascinated with that kind of stuff. I've always seen my mother as the most gentle, fantastic human being." He never thought he was gay; it's never been about that. It wasn't about sexuality, it's about comfort. After they performed "Born A Girl" live for the first time, he got a letter from a girl asking him how dare he assume that life was easier as a woman. For a while he didn't want the song on the album. But the point was that it was true for him. Not for anyone else. And for him, sometimes it seems as though life would be easier as a girl. Less confusing.

Of course, on the record, these are his sentiments but not his voice. "I feel a bit sorry for James - Mr Marlon Brando - having to sing it," he sniggers. James felt awkward at first, putting music to it, because as he did so he could imagine playing it live, "and all these boys going 'poof- tah! poof-tah! poof-tah!"' But he did it anyway. "it's pleading for some female symmetry on his tired male body," says James, who has himself worn a dress just once - a girlfriend's dress, in the bedroom.

"Everybody's done that, haven't they?" he says. "it was nice. A pink dress with flowers on. I was thinner then. I looked much better than any of Chumbawamba." Sean, incidentally, would like it known that, though it said in the Daily Star that he used to walk down Blackwood high street in his mother's sun dress wearing make-up, this happens not to be true. "If I had," he reflects, "I wouldn't be here now".