"We Sanctified The Single As A Holy Phenomenon"
The Manics are bowing out after releasing some of the most incendiary singles ever - but which is best? Dan Martin forced the band to rank all 40.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered on a Cardiff industrial estate to mourn the passing of Manic Street Preachers as we know them. At Faster Studios, the band's HQ , posters adorn the walls. The telly flicks between NME TV and the Lib Dem conference. James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore are contemplating their status as the UK's ultimate singles band. "We always sanctified the single as a very holy phenomenon of our youth and it entranced us," says Nicky. "It felt like the easiest way of infiltrating the mainstream. The idea of getting on Top Of The Pops doing 'Faster' looking like extras from Apocalypse Now was satisfying to us." He looks forlorn. "It was a much clearer world then."
So Manic Street Preachers have declared the passing of the rock hit and are marking it with a bumper, 38-song compendium of every one of their singles (well, almost) then going away for "at least two years". So NME has travelled to Cardiff to force the band to face the music and rank their singles into an ultimate Top 40. To make up the numbers we've added their self-released seven-inch 'Suicide Alley', and 'Strip It Down' from the 'New Art Riot' EP.
What follows is a rock'n'roll summit carried out with the gravitas of a cabinet war room. James sits on a sofa, plucking an acoustic, shouting ideas. Nicky shuffles around the cue cards of their history like he's on The Cube. Then Sean will switch round significant entries like the general everyone fears.
So 'You Love Us' misses the Top 10 in favour of 'Suicide Alley' ("It gives us something new to talk about," deadpans Nicky). Hearts sink at the thought of Number 40, 'There By The Grace Of God'. Finally, the band come up with the rundown. "It's hard, as there's a difference between significance and actually liking something," admits Nicky. "'You Stole The Sun From My Heart' might not be people's favourite but then when you play it live and you realise what it did for us you've got to give it its dues. That's the dilemma, my rampant commercialism versus James and Sean's artistic desires."
So, start reading their countdown below, then for the sharp end of the Manics' career in singles, turn over...
40. THERE BY THE GRACE OF GOD (2002)
Nicky: "Grey. Dour. And a mistake because we had a track called 'Forever Delayed' which would have been an amazing single."
39. REVOL (1994)
Nicky: "Bizarre, utter mess. Great lyric but bad song."
38. SHE IS SUFFERING (1994)
Nicky: "Puppets, the worst video we ever did. But I did say to James, 'This could be our 'Every Breath You Take'.'"
37. SO WHY SO SAD (2001)
James: "The Avalanches remix should've been the single."
36. EMPTY SOULS (2005)
Sean: "It's a nice, shiny, sparkly, lovely video. But that was it really."
35. LITTLE BABY NOTHING (1992)
James: "I tried to write something that The E Street Band would play."
34. STRIP IT DOWN (1990)
Nicky: "A Clash rip-off. Live it's brilliant, though."
33. AUTUMNSONG (2007)
James: "'Autumnsong' is the women's workout song for the noughties."
32. LIFE BECOMING A LANDSLIDE (1994)
James: "I was trying to mix Iron Maiden and The Clash's version of 'Armagideon Time'."
31. SLASH 'N' BURN (1992)
James: "Sean didn't really like it because he thought I sang 'decadence' too Welsh."
30. THE EVERLASTING (1998)
Nicky: "The title just about sums that song up."
29. FROM DESPAIR TO WHERE (1993)
James: "Martin [Hall], our manager, said it would be our first international Number One, like 'Maggie May' for Rod Stewart."
28. THIS IS THE DAY (2011)
Nicky: "We're really happy with it, but time hasn't quite settled in yet."
27. THEME FROM MASH (SUICIDE IS PAINLESS) (1992)
Nicky: "I've got fond memories of this; it's got some great drums, great artwork and all for the NME [compilation]. What more could you really want?"
26. INDIAN SUMMER (2007)
James: "It had a sense of redemption to it. It feels like it's a signpost to the future."
25. TSUNAMI (1999)
Nicky: "To have the line 'disco dancing with the rapists' playlisted on Radio 1, that is subversion."
24. EVERYTHING MUST GO (1996)
Sean: "In Drummer magazine it's down as my best ever drum part."
23. POSTCARDS FROM A YOUNG MAN (2011)
Nicky: "This is really deep and resonant and important and sad, because we know that we'll never do a record like that again."
22. STAY BEAUTIFUL (1991)
James: "The middle of the chorus where it goes 'wa wa' it should've gone 'fuck off. Cop out."
21. AUSTRALIA (1996)
Nicky: "'Tsunami' and 'Australia' were both fourth singles [off their respective albums], that's fucking impressive."
20. YOU STOLE THE SUN FROM MY HEART (1999)
Nicky: "This was the first time we dipped into a bit of Buzzcocks."
19. LET ROBESON SING (2001)
Sean: "It has potential, but it wasn't fully realised."
18. LOVE'S SWEET EXILE (1991)
Nicky: "James used to be so fast!"
James: "I'll play it right fucking now if you want!"
17. ROSES IN THE HOSPITAL (1993)
James: "Love the lyric, love the choruses, but the verses are just (Bowie's) 'Sound And Vision'."
16. SOME KIND OF NOTHINGNESS (2010)
Nicky: "Just the glory of having Ian McCulloch sing one of our songs..."
15. OCEAN SPRAY (2001)
James: "Inspired by my mum's passing. You have doubts over whether you should convert those emotions."
14. KEVIN CARTER (1996)
Nicky: "It was more like a Wire song at first. Great Richey lyric."
13. FOUND THAT SOUL (2001)
Nicky: "When we released this and 'So Why So Sad' we were a bit sad they weren't One and Two!"
12. LA TRISTESSE DURERA (SCREAM TO A SIGH) (1993)
Nicky: "The last great baggy record with The Chemical Brothers doing the remix."
11. YOU LOVE US (1991)
Nicky: "The lyric was a mission statement, of our genuine attitude towards life."
10. SUICIDE ALLEY (1988)
The very first release, the scratchy punk fireball before the 'proper' first single
Nicky: "It was the first time we got anywhere near to realising what we could be. Richey wasn't in at that point, but he took the picture on the cover. We did 300 copies, was there with his Pritt Stick doing the covers, and we got an NME review from Swells [late NME legend Stephen Wells]. Without it I don't think we'd have quite got started."
James: "We were just trying to follow the rules, the old Clash thing that [manager] Bernie Rhodes told them, to write about what was happening outside their window or on their doorstep."
Nicky: "I hadn't started writing lyrics with Richey. It was just about spilling out of the pubs in Blackwood. Ultraviolence!"
9. THE LOVE OF RICHARD NIXON (2001)
Much-maligned lead single front 'Lifeblood', styled as 'Depeche Mode plays bossa nova'
James: "It sometimes feels like a cabinet reshuffle [changing styles], and this one feels like taking Mandelson into the cabinet. You know, it's slightly fraught with danger but you might need him. I can't imagine another band actually writing those lyrics."
Sean: "And getting it to Number Two! That's even more bizarre."
Nicky: "There's that sample at the end where Nixon says, 'I am not a quitter.' We thought that applied to us as a band. I just find him really interesting and kind of like myself."
8. (IT'S NOT WAR) JUST THE END OF LOVE (2010)
Glorious first single from 'Postcards From A Young Man', their "one last shot at mass communication"
Nicky: "It's so full of freshness for a band in their forties and on their 10th record. We love the title and the words and the video with Michael Sheen. It's one of those moments when everything comes together. Like I said, our one last shot at mass communication."
James: "It was the first time Nicky had followed his own muse and wrote his own music to his lyrics."
Nicky: "You're thinking of the wrong fucking song! That was 'Your Love Alone..."'
James: "Oh yeah, right. Because he did try to do the music for '(It's Not War)...' as well. And it was fucking awful!"
7. THE MASSES AGAINST THE CLASSES (2000)
Their biggest ever single, and the first brand new UK Number One single of the third millennium
Nicky: "The first Number One of the millennium, and coming just after we'd sold out Millennium Stadium [for millennium night]. It was a reaction to the supposed bigness and blandness of 'This Is My Truth...', coming back with something that starts with a Chomsky sample. It's not such a political song, it's a song about us. That idea that 10 years on, we'd become one of the biggest hands in Britain. But nobody really wanted to do it except me."
James: "It was one of his Blair moments - 'We need a new policy initiative! What's the policy initiative for next week?'"
6. MOTOWN JUNK (1991)
The proper first single for Heavenly, a punk rhapsody with a scattergun outpouring of hate.
James: "To [manager] Martin and [publicist] Philip Hall's great credit they spotted this as our first ever indie single, really. Martin liked it because it went 'Wooo-ooh!' We recorded it at Power Plant in north London where 'Maggie May' was recorded. And we've actually never managed to get a lot of those sounds back."
Nicky: "They're not the most sophisticated sounds, but it's the closest we've ever got to The Clash. It's the perfect manifestation of the four of us. Richey was fully integrated by this point. Getting NME Single Of The week gave us a genuine sense of excitement. There haven't been many times we haven't played it over the years."
5. IF YOU TOLERATE THIS YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE NEXT (1998)
The band's first Number One solidified their big-league place.
James: "That lyric, 'The future teaches you to be alone, the present to be afraid and cold, so if I can shoot rabbits then I can shoot fascists', it's not that easy to actually say as a rhyme, but it's beautiful to sing."
Nicky: "It was amazing to get a Number One. We'd been neck and neck with Steps all week, and we ended up doing 152,000 physical singles in the first week. It went Number One all around Europe, to do that with a song of musical and lyrical complexity was bizarre. The video is our greatest ever. People might think the album becomes a bit mid-paced, but '...Tolerate...', there's not a thing any of us would change."
4. MOTORCYCLE EMPTINESS (1992)
This monolith marked them out as big boys for the first time.
Nicky: "Our first worldwide-recognised song. But we didn't even play it for the first six months. Me and Richey didn't bother to learn it."
James: "It shows how out of step with the rest of the world we were. The first line, 'Culture sucks down words, itemise loathing and feed yourself smiles' - it never occurred to us that that was not the stuff that hit singles were made of."
Nicky: "Then we all saw Nirvana on Top Of The Pops and there was a collective sigh of, 'Oh my god. this is the new thing.' We thought it could be the Pistols and the New York Dolls, and it's just people with terrible clothes and beards and long hair."
3. YOUR LOVE ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH (2007)
Nina Persson from The Cardigans turned up on vocals; the 'Lifeblood' period slump was over.
Nicky: "That's the reason we're here now. Working with Nina was just a moment of true perfection, her and James' voices just gel."
James: "Watching Nina nail a track in two takes was humbling. I feel fate was on our side for this. We've had a lot of bad luck, but we've also a lot of good luck."
Nicky: "Much as we've had a lot more success post-Richey, it's always an awkward and depressing feeling not having this superstar-looking person just there. Richey's presence was just so beguiling for me. Now you look over and it's just a bunch of fucking session musicians."
2. A DESIGN FOR LIFE (1996)
After Richey's disappearance, the band returned with an epic, string-drenched polemic on working class culture.
James: "After that terrible experience, luck did turn our way again. We dig for victories sometimes but this came easily."
Sean: "Always better on the back foot."
Nicky: "It was important we weren't aping 'The Holy Bible'. It would have been so fake if we'd come back with something like that. The fact that it was this glorious death waltz, having working-class culture patronised by Britpop, to actually have a moment where we could say 'This is what it really is, we've actually grown up in it.' I remember getting the midweeks, only Mark Morrison's 'Return Of The Mack' was gonna beat us, great pop single as it was."
1. FASTER (1994)
The most incendiary tour de force of their career, the on the point of glorious combustion
It is the dark heart of 'The Holy Bible' that emerges as Manic Street Preachers' Number One of their own Top 40 hit parade. What else? A Molotov cocktail of post-punk guitars powers along one of Richey's most freeform and barbed lyrical displays. The result of one of the most intense compositions of all time - and one of the most exhilarating pop songs of all time.
Nicky: "Sean's choice!"
Sean: "It's us at out most visceral best, spitting bile and we just looked good, good video, good song."
Nicky: "It's my title. I think the outro 'man kills everything' is mine. 'If you stand up like a nail...' is a Chinese proverb. So it's a perfect synthesis of everything really."
James: "It's one of Richey's soothsaying lyrics. There's a lot of prophesy, in terms of the acceleration of everything - joy, pain, death, consumerism."
Nicky: "I think 'I know I believe in nothing but it is my, nothing' is the great catchphrase of the '90s. And for him to actually write 'I am stronger than Mew, Miller and Mailer', it shows an almost heroic self-indulgence, really. But it makes you great. Because at the time Blur's 'Girls & Boys' went Top Five and I remember thinking, 'What the fuck arc we doing?', just completely ostracised. But then I remember having a moment thinking, 'This is brilliant? We'd never felt so alone and we really were totally distanced from everything else. And that's why we were the biggest cult band in Britain. It was one of those moments when you're never gonna do something that good again. You might do something more commercial, more uplifting, which we have done. But the cultdom of it - I think it was once described as 'a heady mix of 'Ace Of Spades' by Motorhead, and 'Anarchy In The UK'."
James: "It's something that connected with the darker parts of all our selves. And it's hard to get a career out of those moments."