With Everything Must Go, Manic Street Preachers overcame tragedy to find mainstream acceptance. Gareth James reflects on the circumstances that resulted in the Welsh trio's finest album to date.
Three hundred and sixty-nine days after releasing one of the greatest rock records of the Nineties, James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore find themselves on stage in front of seventeen thousand people at Manchester’s Nynex Arena at what is their band’s biggest headline gig to date.
Cameras film their slightly nervous performance for release, while the whole set is broadcast live on national radio. In the midst of a thriving British music scene, three friends from the former mining town of Blackwood in the South Wales valleys have made it.
As is customary, the midpoint of the night’s set sees bassist and lyricist Wire and drummer Moore departing the stage ahead of a short solo acoustic performance by guitarist and vocalist Bradfield. A little awkwardly, fidgeting with his forehead, he introduces the first of these songs by saying “this one’s dedicated to Graham and Sherry and if Rachel’s in the crowd, this one’s for you too.” The comment is met with cheers from a reasonable proportion of the crowd, but plenty nod along oblivious.
That moment, that reaction to a dedication to the parents and sister of Richard James Edwards, the absent fourth member of the band who went missing more than two years previous, encapsulates the events surrounding the release of Everything Must Go. The hardcore fans for whom this band are a matter of life and death are rubbing shoulders with a new breed, drawn in by chart-scaling anthems and an inoffensive, determinedly pragmatic image that has parked the sloganeering iconoclasticism of old and put the sole focus on the music.
This gathering of new and old marks the logical conclusion of a rather less neat three years in the band’s history. It is the notional end of our story. And every good story needs a reason to spark it into life.
As 1994 breathed its last, Bradfield, Wire and Moore had also found themselves on stage, this time accompanied by Edwards, across three ferocious nights at London’s Astoria venue. Instead of celebrating the runaway success of a recent release, as they would be in Manchester two and a half years later, they were at the end of a gruesome period of touring in support of their third album ‘The Holy Bible’. It was a record wilfully out of step with the nascent, proudly vacuous Britpop scene around it, with barely respectable sales and, as a result, the threat of being dropped from their major label deal hung over them.
The third and final show would come to be known as Edwards’ last performance with the band, but at the time received coverage as a result of a clumsy but cathartic destruction of their instruments and lighting rig at its close. It’s tempting, through the vividly opportunistic lens of hindsight, to talk grandly of something ending that night, but that would be to ignore the genuine relief at finishing a string of dates that had taken four friends to the edge, as concerns over one person’s drastically deteriorating mental health escalated.
That summer, Edwards had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital citing nervous exhaustion and the band had completed a string of commitments as a three piece. Rumours flew around about an imminent split, including suggestions that Bradfield would quit. Speaking at the time, Wire said “if it ever comes to the point where Richey’s not coming back, we won’t continue.” The three piece, it was clear, was a temporary arrangement and the conspicuous space on stage where their visually striking co-lyricist and barely proficient guitarist would have stood would soon be filled again.
"After The Holy Bible, I worried that I couldn’t write any music that would please Richey." - James Dean Bradfield
A period of relative calm was precipitated by his return but, once the band set out on a UK tour in October, things began to unravel again, building towards extreme moments of self-harm during a miserable European jaunt with Suede a month later. Edwards’ time in The Priory hospital had left him with new problems to solve, abstaining from the alcohol that had helped him sleep and, as Bradfield put it, he had “come back a completely different person.” As tensions built, only the London dates remained as the final commitments of the year and, once satisfied, a quiet Christmas lay ahead.
Everything Must Go began its curious gestation in January 1995, when the band spent five industrious days in the House In The Woods studio near Surrey, in the south east of England. They had recorded demos for their debut record there some four years previous and it offered a comforting sense of familiarity. Their time together was fruitful, with early versions of "Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier" and "Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky" emerging and Edwards in good spirits. The claustrophobic intensity of the music eased a little, especially pleasing Bradfield, who would later recall, “after The Holy Bible, I worried that I couldn’t write any music that would please Richey and therefore this would have been an impasse in the band, for the first time born out of taste.”
As the brief sessions came to an end, Edwards distributed gifts to his three accomplices. James received a CD, Sean an unspecified personal item and Nicky was presented with a Daily Telegraph and a Mars bar. They were signs of gentle affection that have since taken on totemic significance, much like every little detail that is known about the days between that point and the discovery of the band’s silver Vauxhall Cavalier at the Aust motorway services just across the Severn Bridge from Wales on 14 February, 1995.
In advance of a string of small American dates, designed to generate interest in a turbo-charged remix of The Holy Bible crafted for international audiences, Bradfield and Edwards were to head out early to undertake a round of interviews. An overnight stop at the Embassy Hotel in London on the final day of January provided whatever tipping point, opportunity or impulsive scenario the latter needed and, in withdrawing £200 of cash each day for the previous two weeks, had clearly been anticipating. At 7am the following morning, Richey Edwards exited reception and vanished. For months thereafter, generating bizarre sightings the length and breadth of the globe was a veritable cottage industry and the tabloid newspapers seized upon the chance to churn out some sensationalist headlines.
This is not the story of his disappearance though. It is the story of the aftermath and how three people used music to make sense of the most ambiguous grief imaginable. He still has a sizeable part to play in events, not least because five of the songs on Everything Must Go feature his lyrics, but idle speculation about his whereabouts shall be left to others.
What would, fifteen months later, be released as Everything Must Go was fairly improbable prior to that day in February, but seemed utterly impossible thereafter. Left with so many questions, Bradfield, Moore and Wire found a shared focus in crafting a remarkably accomplished record. The Manics were not known for conjuring meticulously sculpted music. They’d blustered onto the scene at the start of the decade making forever-quoted claims about selling sixteen million copies of their debut and then splitting up, unfortunately forgetting to then actually record an album worthy of such grand figures. The shambling Guns N’ Roses-light reverb-laced polish that was applied to the majority of the sixteen songs neutered much of their early punk energy, only for the follow up, Gold Against The Soul, to head even further down the hard rock route. By the time The Holy Bible arrived, with its raw inertia and uncompromising intensity, people were losing interest and failed to notice the change.
The space is what stands out the most. It’s there on the album cover, with the band’s portraits neatly arranged in the middle of so much unassuming pastel blue. It’s there in the parentheses below the album’s title, hinting at what is missing. It’s there in James Dean Bradfield’s audible breath at the start of Interiors (Song For Willem De Kooning) which offers a very literal manifestation of the fact he “wanted [the music] to breathe a bit.”
Such a pause was rare in the band’s catalogue to date, lyrics normally dominating their songs to such an extent that they necessitated a machine-gun fire delivery from their beleaguered frontman. And yet, Everything Must Go is an album that is delicately arranged. Revered British poet Simon Armitage recently observed rather beautifully that “prose fills a space, like a liquid poured from the top, but poetry occupies it, arrays itself in formation, sets up camp and refuses to budge.” This description perfectly captures the transition that occurs between the songs of The Holy Bible and its successor.
The record’s first single, the song with which the band chose to step out into the public gaze once again, "A Design For Life", is built around only ten lines. That’s ‘only’ in the sense of size alone, for their impact is not to be underestimated. The boozy culture of Britpop had birthed an asinine notion that the working classes were stupid and driven by simple desires. The reclaiming of their status as those capable of intellectual insurgency resulted in the subsequently slightly misappropriated rallying cry of “we only want to get drunk.” Originally intended to highlight the media’s characterising of that section of society, even the band themselves later admitted that the quest for oblivion when eloquence alludes was a feeling with which they were all too familiar of late. It remains the final song in the band’s live sets, twenty years later.
"I don’t think we’d ever been comfortable being loved before, but for those twelve months we were.” - Nicky Wire
Even if most of their new audience missed the irony of bawling their way through what they perceived to be a paean to alcoholic obliteration, it provided a fortuitous foothold in the world of laddish indie that was dominating the UK music scene at the time. Bradfield remains defiant that “we were not Britpop”, but this rare period, during which the acts who adorned the pages of the weekly music press were somehow also dominating the charts, provided the perfect platform for this oft-overlooked Welsh band to gain purchase in the nation’s affections.
Such elevation was soon to be formally confirmed. Taking to the stage in a t-shirt stenciled with the phrase ‘I Love Hoovering’ to collect two BRIT Awards in February 1997, Nicky Wire, with Bradfield and Moore alongside him, looked in his element. Everything Must Go had just been named album of the year and the Manic Street Preachers had gone from being perilously close to having no record deal to occupying the position of Best British Band.
After Bradfield had delivered conventional awards show thank yous, Wire grabbed hold of the microphone and proclaimed “this is also for every comprehensive school in Britain which the government is trying to eradicate. They produce the best bands, the best art and the best everything. The best boxers too.” It was delightfully incoherent and typically out of step with everything else that happened that evening, but the warmth with which it was greeted neatly highlighted the scale of their acceptance in the mainstream. Ten months on from their return, they were heralded by the public and their peers alike, revered in a way to which they were entirely unaccustomed.
The evolution was complete but at what price? Manics diehards were not used to sharing standing room with the beer-swilling Oasis fans, the meticulous anti-image had produced the strange sight of Bradfield on Saturday night television in double denim and even he still wasn’t happy, recalling “there was never a moment where it felt like we won.” Greater triumphs lay ahead, but those twelve songs taken together formed a truly classic album. In an age where endless promotional schedules necessitate insincere hyperbolic proclamations about each new release, it’s heartening to hear Wire stating emphatically that he’s “not afraid to say that I think it’s our best record.” He’s right.
Following on from the deluxe treatment awarded its predecessor a little over a year ago, Everything Must Go is reissued twenty years to the day after its original release in several extended formats. For the casual purchaser, a two CD set collects the crisp but subtle remaster of the main record and the audio of the night at the Manchester Nynex that marked the end of a quite remarkable twelve months in the band’s history. Far more appealing is the box set edition, swapping the concert audio for a DVD of the full performance alongside the album on both CD and vinyl, all of that period’s b sides and a second DVD featuring an excellent documentary, Freed From Memories. Renowned writers John Niven, Jon Savage and Simon Price share screen time with the band as the full story of their ascension to the top end of the charts is told.
"I know it’s a terrible cliché, but it did seem for the first time that music was some kind of salvation." - Nicky Wire
From the updated Farrow Design take on the original artwork, to the timely restoring of the previously trimmed full version of that momentous gig, this is an anniversary release that treats its subject with respect. The twelve songs remain a joy; the bossa nova trumpet rock of "Kevin Carter" is utterly timeless, "The Girl Who Wanted To Be God" is a lost pop gem, benefitting from bucolic producer Mike Hedges’ masterful touches after an early attempt had fallen flat. "Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky" emerges from that scratchy early acoustic demo from House In The Woods to be the stately centrepiece of an album that was always going to have to carry quite the burden.
Its title track remains one of the most grandiose and beautiful ways to tell people to fuck off politely, Nicky Wire conveying the band’s feelings that there was nothing more they could say to those who felt Manics mark 2 represented a betrayal. As for "A Design For Life", “everything had always been really theoretical with the Manics,” explains Wire, “there had always been an idea behind it, which had been great but could hold you back as well. I know it’s a terrible cliché, but it did seem for the first time that music was some kind of salvation.” The moment when Bradfield played it down the phone to Wire, they knew they had their starting point. It had emerged fully formed but now they had to do it justice in the studio and they surely couldn't have imagined what longevity it would possess. Listening back now, their elevation makes perfect sense. In the guitar fetishising Nineties, how could they fail? Even so, it came as something of a surprise. As Nicky Wire put it ten years later, “I don’t think we’d ever been comfortable being loved before, but for those twelve months we were.”
What is hard to imagine, listening to all of this stately, majestic music is the backlash that dominated the letters pages of the music weeklies. “I’m trying not to be elitist in this Manics debate,” wrote one fan at the time, before demonstrating that they weren’t trying all that hard, while another simply proclaimed that “the Manics are dead.” The aforementioned casual crowds may have altered the dynamic a little at the gigs but the transformation was not absolute. History doesn't record whether those irate scribblers returned to the fold, but it's hard to imagine those fans couldn't have found something to love even as recently as 2014’s Futurology.
While a few of the obligatory remixes haven't dated well, the wealth of b sides included in the box set also reinforce that the Manics’ musical DNA hadn't been wiped over night. "No One Knows What It’s Like To Be Me" bristles ferociously, while "First Republic" was hardly likely to please your average Cast fan at the time. This collection highlights the rich vein of form in which the band found themselves as they struggled to make sense of recent events. It provides an immersive and deeply enjoyable nostalgic wallow in one of the great albums by one of the great bands of our time.