It's the small hours of the morning on the 16th May 1991 and Manic Street Preachers should be on their way to the next gig of their UK tour. Instead, three quarters of the band are sat in the waiting room at the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital. They're waiting for their fourth man to be stitched back up. Earlier that night, the With four piece played their first performance in Norwich at the Arts Centre on St. Benedicts Street. By most accounts, the gig was a blast, testament to the band's self-proclaimed promise of a New At Riot that they'd heralded with the title of their debut EP. Steve Lamacq of the NME, however, was not convinced. In an argument with the band backstage, he'd questioned their motives, accusing them of abusing punk ethics. Richey Edwards, the Manics' lyricist and rhythm guitarist, had decided to respond with a move that would prove his authentic credentials. He took a razor blade out of his pocket and carved the words "4 Rear into his own arm. It was a move that would push the band into notoriety and define their uncompromising, no holds barred approach for the next four years.
If you're reading this as a casual Manics listener, chances are that you've been taken aback. With good reason, too. The band that played at the Arts Centre back in '91 was a very different beast to the group responsible for slew of late '90s alt rock anthems that they would become most famous for. That difference had a lot to do with the absence of a key member. Richey Edwards, the troubled soul that had slashed himself up in front of Steve Lamacq was the lyrical lynchpin of Manics Mk I. On February 1st 1995, after bouts of depression, addiction and anorexia, he disappeared off the face of the earth. His car was found by the Severn bridge in Wales two weeks later. His band mates, changed by the experience of losing their best friend, respond by releasing Everything Must Go in 1996. it's an album that sounds like mourning, stripped away of the visceral and confrontational sound of 1994's opus The Holy Bible. EMG would produce their signature single, A Design For Life. It's a brilliant condemnation of the destructive drinking culture of the South Welsh Valleys. It would also signal the end of the glam-punk-cum-militia anti-heroics that had characterised the heady days of the band's youth. Manics Mk II was a cleaner and leaner version, altogether more accessible, and altogether more radio friendly.
Bands change, it's a fact of life. If you're trying to be an angry young man when you're 35, it just isn't going to work. You channel your emotions and act your age. You age as gracefully as a rock 'n' roll star can. The Manics did just that, and rightly received the due attention for it. When the band became the NME's 'Golden Gods' in zoo, it was an award befitting of their beckoning elder statesmen status. It's a path down which they could have comfortably continued, unquestioned by the press and welcomed by their fans. Instead, they went and did something rather rash. They started recording a sequel to The Holy Bible, writing songs with the unused lyrics of their missing member. Surprisingly, it wasn't crap. In fact, Journal For Plague Lovers was probably their best album since its 1994 predecessor. It also caused a bit of problem. The Manics, after 14 years of courting the charts, had pulled their skeletons (and army rags) back out of the closet and returned to being brutal. How could that side of the band coexist alongside their other, altogether more polished aesthetic?
It couldn't. While the band might have tried to get around it by dividing the track list on their 2008 dates into separate JFPL and greatest hits sets, they'd inadvertently created a Jekyll and Hyde situation. There were two different bands called Manic Street Preachers, a fact that the group had suddenly drawn attention to. Would they pin their colours back onto the pop mast, or mutiny once again as a militia of discontent? This year's comeback single It's Not War (It, Just The End Of Love) left anyone hoping for the latter sorely disappointed, this writer included. It's the reason he'd approached their 5th Norwich performance (this time at the LCR) on October 17th with some trepidation. He was wrong to do so. He'd quickly realise that (not for the first time in his life), In initial condemnation, he'd missed the point.
The house lights dim in the LCR and a collective breath is held. Tonight's show is sold out. It's also a very diverse crowd. A ragtag assemblage of 16 - 50 year olds in getups that range from leopard-print glam to smart-casual via mismatched army threads have gathered for the Manic Street Preachers' return to East Anglia. This writer is in the photo pit, palms sweating, and suffering from a severe case of lens en, (he consoles himself by thinking that the other photographers' massive cameras are probably substitutes for their small dicks). There's an anxious air as the band takes to the stage, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore in black military getup, Nicky Wire a lanky Adonis of fur coats and sailor hats. They run with it. 1992's You Love Us slams into Motorcycle Emptiness by way of 2006's Your Love Alone Is Not Enough. Left hook, right hook, left. Tonight, they're elder statesmen in name only, playing like a band half their age. The transition between the snot nosed nihilism of their earlier material and the accessible anthemics of their latter day chart successes is seamless. It's also completely sincere.
It was the sincerity that the writer had missed with his initial observation. He'd become so occupied with what the band's "find your truth, face your truth, speak your truth, be your truth" mantra had meant when it was birthed in 1995 (the lyrics are from Judge Yr'self, the band's final track with Richey) that he hadn't realised they'd been doing it ever since. The band was speaking their truth on the stage at the LCR that night and for the first time he really listened. Boy, did it sound good. In fact, it sounded better than good, it sounded honest. Whether a late 90's chart smash or a slab of jarring, Orwellian discontent, every song that the Manics threw down was so devoid of bullshit, that it hit you right between the eyes, a light bulb moment of unmitigated inspiration. In two hours, they didn't fatter, waver or shy away from that honesty. What's more, as he realised in that moment, they never had.