The disappearance of Richey Edwards cast a long shadow over the Manic Street Preachers. But the impact of his vibrancy on the band has been far more extensive, says Ian Walker
On February 1, 1995, Richey Edwards, guitarist with the Manic Street Preachers, left his hotel in Bayswater. That day he was supposed to be flying to the USA for promotional work but instead he drove to his apartment in Cardiff.
After that, his movements are unknown.
Over the next two weeks there were rumoured sightings, but none has ever been confirmed. Then, on Valentine’s Day, Edwards’ Vauxhall Cavalier was found abandoned at a service station near the Severn Bridge. In the 24 years since, there has been no trace of Edwards and in 2008 he was declared legally dead so his estate could be administered.
This month, a new portrait of Richey Edwards by the artist Will Teather is being displayed at London’s Truman Brewery, as part of Unmissable, an exhibition featuring artworks of missing people. Sales of the portraits on display will raise funds for Missing People, a charity which provides support for the families of those who have disappeared.
The painting of Edwards - along with all the other portraits on show - is an insistent reminder of how present the missing are in the lives of those that know them and love them. For those left behind, the missing are both absent and present at the same time. The exhibition’s curator Ben Moore - whose brother Tom has been missing since 2003 - says that this means he sees crowds not as places of anonymity but of possibility, that maybe a brief glance of a face in that crowd will be that moment he has dared to long for.
It is this dual status of the subjects being both there and not there that gives the portraits in this exhibition such extraordinary dramatic and emotional weight. These people appear as unanswered questions, and what is left are unresolved lives. But the portraits also, because of the very nature of portraiture, breathe life into the missing. As Rachel Edwards, the sister of Richey, says of the artwork: “It captures Richard as the bold and vivid performer, yet at the same time the artist captures a sense of his vulnerability.”
Bold and vivid was exactly what the Manic Street Preachers - Richey Edwards, Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore - were when they arrived, seemingly out of nowhere, in the British music scene of the early 1990s.
‘Madchester’, headed by the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, was just starting to fizzle out as both those bands imploded. In its wake came a slew of second rate, loved-up, drugged-up indie acts, moping shoegaze bands and middle- class kids slumming it as crusties and travellers. (“You could go to any Levellers concert, shout ‘Jeremy’ and 75% of the audience would turn round,”
Nicky Wire once supposedly quipped.) The swagger and confidence of Britpop was not yet a glimmer in Damon Albarn’s or Noel Gallagher’s eye. There were some exceptions to the dross (insert your favourite band here) but the Manics’ belief that much in British pop and rock around the start of that decade was a bit gormless, scruffy and dull wasn’t entirely misplaced.
But the Manics weren’t from nowhere, though it may have seemed like that to a British music industry fixated on London and Manchester at a time when it was the common habit of the English to sneer at the Welsh.
The band were from the Gwent mining town of Blackwood. In the 1980s, the community had been economically devastated by the collapse of the mining industry and Thatcherism and the place was now defined by defeat. This defeat was the first thing that the band members kicked against. In a documentary made in 1998, Bradfield stated the position of the four young men, who were all friends from childhood (Bradfield and Moore were cousins), which was that they “wanted to be so intelligent that we are never going to be beaten”. The Manics set out to be smarter than everyone else and this rebellion began in their home town.
Edwards would claim that books were as exciting as records for these four teenagers. They were of a generation who could cobble together a decent radical education in the humanities with bands that came with reading lists (The Smiths, The Cure), by pointers from a literate music press and by the off-peak schedules of C4, BBC2 and Radio 1.
Libraries and video libraries provided the course materials. The four of them would meet up in Bradfield and Moore’s bedroom (Moore had lived with Bradfield’s family since he was 10 – they shared bunk beds). They would argue about Sartre, the Beat writers, Guns N’ Roses, The Clash, Karl Marx, Sylvia Plath and The Situationist International.
On Friday nights, Bradfield would hear the click-clack of stilettos on the pavement outside, as young women made their way to and from the pub, and he wondered whether there might be something a bit unhealthy about the four of them, crammed onto bunk beds, arguing about existentialism, heavy metal and poetry. What was definitely unhealthy was the habit of Richey and Nicky dressing in frocks and wearing make-up. This was an invite to be beaten up by the Welsh valley lads, who obliged.
But this intelligence (and dress sense) needed an outlet that went beyond Blackwood and in 1986 Bradfield, Moore and Wire formed a band. Richey, who had no musical ability at all, was originally the driver and roadie. But he was too charismatic, pretty, intelligent and articulate to play such mundane supporting roles and he soon became not only a (non-musical) band member but also the spokesman and designer.
He also gained a reputation for headline-grabbing quotes, “We will always hate Slowdive more than Adolf Hitler” being one of his best known.
(Edwards had some serious competition from Wire in providing journalists with headline-grabbing quotations. Wire once said from the stage at Glastonbury “Someone ought to build a bypass over this s**thole” – which is probably among the least offensive of all his provocative statements.) What Edwards lacked in musical ability he made up for in vision and ambition and he could turn a phrase.
He, along with Wire, knew how to take all that Blackwood reading and bunk bed arguing and turn it into the sort of lyrics where the personal and political tore into each other and which belied the kind of imagination that wasn’t quite there in the songs of, say, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin.
The Manics were angry, articulate and ambitious (they wanted to record one LP that would sell 26 million copies and then split up). Their songs were a mixture of political rage (“Repeat after me, f**k Queen and country”) and existential despair (“I know I believe in nothing, but it is my nothing”).
The nation’s music press lapped them up to the point where the coverage outstripped their sales. Their first LP, Generation Terrorists, albeit a thrilling debut, did not sell 26 million copies, and instead of becoming arena-filling superstars they became a successful, but essentially a cult, band with a fanatical following. But as this was happening, Edwards’ behaviour was becoming more erratic. The despair in the songs was not a pose. Edwards was struggling with alcoholism, anorexia and self-harm.
After a gig at the Norwich Arts Centre in 1991, he carved ‘4 REAL’ deep in his arm with a razor blade, as he tried to convince the music journalist and DJ Steve Lamacq of his band’s sincerity. It was shocking, powerful stuff - it was also a scream for help.
The Manic’s second LP, 1993’s Gold Against the Soul, failed to elevate them beyond their devoted fanbase. What followed with their next album, 1994’s The Holy Bible, was a product of Richey Edwards’ hopelessness. It also caught a moment, not just in rock music but in the wider culture.
The Holy Bible is an LP about political despair, about imperialism and the Holocaust, and also personal despair, anorexia, depression and isolation. It was as if all the horrors of the last century found expression in the private despair of a young man.
It is an extraordinary and troubling record where the individual seems to be both the desperate subject and object of a morally bankrupt history - and this LP arrived at a time when mental health was becoming a political issue. Edwards was clinging on with this record and in these songs. He was already physically disappearing, his weight plummeted and he was often unable to perform with the band as he received medical help. And then, on a dull February morning, he vanished. But then something extraordinary happened. The other three band members decided to continue, and the next LP they recorded, 1996’s Everything Must Go, was a moral, political and intellectual counterpoint to The Holy Bible.
The title was a statement of intent, it was about making a break with the past and it was an acknowledgement that Edwards had gone. But he also never left the band. His absence is now a permanent presence in the Manic Street Preachers and the continued existence of the band has always been an expression of how the missing work on the imaginations of those that remain - and that process started with this remarkable LP.
The first single from the LP, A Design For Life, opened with the line “Libraries gave us power” and that one lyric set the tone for so much of the record. It was an assertion of intelligence, dignity and ambition, the stuff they had all learnt in Blackwood as kids. It was the band, in the face of real despair - someone they loved had gone - finding a way to carry on. With this record, the three of them proved that they were smarter and more talented than their circumstances. It was heroic stuff, which, coincidentally - with its anthemic choruses and strident message - caught that Wonderwall-indie anthems, mid-1990s mood. The LP turned the Manics into the stadium band they had dreamed of being.
The Manic Street Preachers were working class autodidacts from a place that no-one in London had ever heard of and which had been written off by history. From this most unlikely of starts the band members gambled - successfully, it turned out - that rock music would allow them to exist in the world on their own terms. But they also learnt that this kind of invention and freedom can come at an almost unbearable price. The band still set up Richey’s microphone on stage when they play live. It is an insistent reminder of how present the missing are in the lives of those that knew them and loved them.