He says he can't play, but we think he's a role model. Nicky Wire's journey from punk to Proper Artist...
A couple of years ago, Smash Hits magazine asked Nicky Wire to rate his talent on a scale of one to five. "As a lyricist, five", said Nicky. "As a bass player, zero." He was being modest (and playing his punk image to the hilt), of course. Not only do the Manics' songs feature impressive and imaginative bass lines, but Nicky plays an important part in the band's live show, is in many respects the figurehead of the band, and has broken many preconceptions of the bass player's role in a band. (How many bassists can you think of who write all or most of the lyrics, do most of the band's interviews, and are as well-known and loved as the lead singer?) Zero talent, my arse: the guys a bloody role model.
The Manics' and Nicky's disdain for all things "muso" is well-documented and easy to understand. the band itself was borne out of boredom and frustration, not only with life in the small Welsh town of Blackwood, but also with the music scene at the time.In 1986, indie pop ruled, with fey Byrds-influenced pop, and sparkly three-minute Buzzcocks rip-offs by the likes of the Soup Dragons, Wedding Present, and the Pastels. The Manics, young and intense and in love with the rock'n'roll woah, wanted a lot more than that.
"We came together around Nick," said singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield later. "He talked about being great, being legends. Nick reckoned he would be a great sportsman, a great musician, a great politician. We started on the basis of those delusions of grandeur." Inspired by the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of punk, and a year later by the release of Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction and Public Enemy's debut Yo! Bum Rush The Show, the Manics realised what the music scene at the time was lacking. Later, in an ealry NME interview, they listed their favourite albums as including Never Mind the Bollocks, The Clash's debut and London Calling, True Blue by The Faces, and What's Goin' On by Marvin Gaye, with The Black Crowes, Aerosmith, Hanoi Rocks and Led Zep's Misty Mountain Hop also getting a namecheck. This was a band who liked attitude and glamour. "Hanoi Rocks gave us Guns N' Roses," they said in defense of their glam heroes. "The Byrds gave us critically acclaimed clumps of static shit."
To the Manics, attitude was more important than ability. Nicky, who played rhythm guitar initally, moved onto bass, enabling them to find space for hanger-on Richey Edwards. "We were a band before we even picked up guitars," said Nicky. "And we didn't even know how, but we knew that Richey had to be part of it". Neither Richey or Nicky could play very well, but they had the "fuck you" attitude that they saw in their idols. They became the band's lyricists and publicists, and set about writing to journalists, record companies and fanzines with letters full of vitriol, self-belief and fierce intelligence. One letter ended up on the desk of Heavenly Records boss Jeff Barrett. "I was handed this letter," said Barrett. "It was passionate, it wanted to change the world and it really excited me. Unfortunately their demo tape didn't do as much for me."
Blagging their way into the music industry through sheer self-belief, the Manics earned NME Singles of the Week, finally convinced Barrett to release a single on Heavenly, and were soon signed to a long term deal by Columbia records. Soon after their first Top of the Pops appearance, Richey recounted a meeting with one of their contemporaries. "This bloke out of (dull indie rockers) The High came up and started talking to me about an interview he'd done just about his guitar and equipment," he said. "When I told him I wasn't interested and that James plays my guitars on the record he went mad. He was going, 'There ought to be a union to stop people like you!'"
While Richey was perversely proud of his inability to play, Nicky - and James and Sean in particular - were developing into good musicians and brrilliant songwriters. James and Sean would write all the music, cramming Nicky and Richey's lyrics into the songs. Their first album, Generation Terrorists, had a straightforward punk/glam edge to it (with the exception of the more majestic Motorcycle Emptiness), maturing into something a bit darker and more reflective by the time of their next album, Gold Against the Soul, with the dark funk of La Tristesse Durera, and the anthemic From Despair To Where and Life Becoming A Landslide.
As usual, however, the press focused on everything but the music. Richey made the headlines after trying to convince a sceptical Steve Lamacq of their sincerity. "I know that you don't like us, but we are for real," he told Lamacq, casually carving the legend "4 Real" onto his arm. "When I was a teenager I never had a band who said anything about my life, that's why we are doing this." His subsequent battle with alcoholism, anorexia and depression - and the band's reaction to it - gave their next album, The Holy Bible, the intensity, focus and rage that they had always aspired to.
Nicky described the album as "gothic with a small 'g,'" but it was obvious that the stakes had been raised considerably. Suddenly, the Manics could no longer be considered a pantomime version of the rebel outsiders they so admired. Lyrically and musically, the album was streets ahead of their Britpoppy rivals, and Wire's bass playing had improved too. "There's a bit of early Joy Division on it, and a few PiL basslines," said Nicky at the time. But he hadn't just copied Peter Hook and Jah Wobble: the basslines - like the rest of the music on the album - sound unlike anything else. Intense, uncomprimising and a little bit ugly, Nicky's basslines drive the album that may well become known as their masterpiece.
The rest of the story is well-known. Richey disappeared (and has been missing for the past three and a half years), and the band continued as a three-piece. Everything Must Go won Brit Awards, Mercury Prize nominations, and Album of the Year awards, with a more considered, less chaotic sound (as though losing Richey meant losing the chaos of the past). Wire came more to the fore: taking over the lyric writing duties, becoming the band's figurehead, famously berating the government's education policy at The Brits (whilst wearing a T-shirt that said "I Love Hoovering").
And this is why the guy's a role model. Here's a bassist who doesn't just follow the chords, bow his head and take a backseat, but a guy who's helped shape the band's direction and sound, a guy who looks cool, talks sense, and doesn't compromise. More than all of the faceless indie rock bassists, and even all of the incredibly gifted session guys we cover from time to time, Nicky Wire is the kinda guy who inspires people to pick up the bass in the first place.
"We didn't achieve much of our original manifesto," admitted Nicky to the NME recently. "But we always said we wanted to be the most important rock band of the decade - and I think that's the one thing we probably have achieved." Who could argue with that?
Mr Wire we salute you.