Have the Manic Street Preachers gone from despair to caring? Having ditched the Max Factor, it now seems rock's infamous rent-a-quoters are facing up to their encroaching old age - 24! and, dare we say it, making up with everybody from Happy Monday and The Stone Roses to Jeff Beck and The Beatles. Everyone, that is, apart from the travellers. John Harris hears the voice of the anti-crust.
"You've got to re-invent yourself. Constantly. Some people stick in the mud, they're satisfied with the way they are. How can toy do that?" - Joe Strummer
Somewhere, in the pre-industrial expanse of South Wales, there is a dustbin. In it are a collection of blouses, a box of cheap make-up and a collection of dog eared notebooks containing lines like: "We blur into images of state coercion".
The Manic Street Preachers are growing up. They're no longer a mess of eye-liner and spray paint, no longer late-adolescent psychos who want to seize 95 per cent of their peers and murder them. They're now consigning whole swathes of their legend to history, talking about being a "traditional rock band" and changing their habits accordingly. And how.
They've come back talking about the worth of Suede, Riot Grrrl, Rage Against The Machine, Dinosaur Jr, Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, The Beatles. They've abandoned their dalliance with androgyny because they say they're 24 years of age and that's a bit old to be doing all that. And having commenced a new soul-baring phase with 'From Despair To Where', they're about to release an album called 'Gold Against The Soul': a stripped-down, exhilarating rock record on which there is no 'Repeat', no 'Nat West-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds', no 'Slash 'N' Burn', replaced by an array of startling, slogan-free songs that - like 'Motorcycle Emptiness' - have a real air of solitary dejection and miserable despondency.
Manic Street Preachers, it seems, want to stop being mouthy upstarts; but the last traces of the virus that make them the outrageous little punks they've always been can't be expunged. For most of our time together, they seem to be people whose need to shock has been displaced by a new enlightenment. But, as happened when Nicky Wire got himself in trouble before Christmas by wishing death on Michael Stipe, their gob-shite instinct can still get the upper-hand. It's just that now they're above berating Slowdive or Blur and seize on bigger targets, fleetingly sounding like grubby little Tories in the process. As we shall soon see.
It is February 9, 1990. A crowd of 50 or 60 is standing in a freezing social club in Oxford. Outside, the snow on the roads is an inch thick. Because of either idle curiosity or wide-eyed enthusiasm, people have trudged to the shabby end of town to see a group who've been both zealously cracked up to be a snarling family of vengeful iconoclasts, and lazily put down as hopeless no-marks who do the young revolutionaries act with all the hammy lack of authenticity of people in a school play.
No-one is sure if they're even going to show up: they're driving here from South Wales in a beaten-up van and you'd probably need chains on your wheels to make it through the snow. They're already pretty late; but at about half ten, they lurch onto the stage with the arrogance of a real gang, holler something incomprehensible and start making this hysterical, lunatic racket with words you can't understand and music that's all over the place.
And the crowd love them.
They look brilliant; and in among all the half-cocked riffs and shouted backing vocals there are hulking great songs with marvellous titles: things like 'Methadone Pretty' and 'New Art Riot' and, hell, this bare-faced chunk of megalomania called 'You Love Us'. They play for about 25 minutes, put their guitars through the stage and leave us standing, speechless.
Back then, it felt like the first stirrings of the teenage revolution. The old punks harped on about how they'd seen it all before, and the massed followers of straight-laced indie boredom decried their naïvety and ineptitude - but to some of us, the Manic Street Preachers were the most head-spinningly angry, fucked up, downright brilliant band we'd ever seen. Wooomph.
The feeling only continued; a year on, they'd coated their music in radio-friendly sparkle, had hit records and repeatedly talked about being hypocritical sluts. 'Generation Terrorists' retained a real sense of scatter-shot anger, the Manics were still coming over like sneering, articulate little shits, and we carried on leaping up and down to a bunch of insanely apoplectic revolutionary boy soldiers.
Now, though, after 18 months of bankrolling by the Sony corporation, going to America and practising their art until even Richey - who used to jump around while playing cack-handed guitar that no-one could hear - has started to talk about mastering chord progressions, they've irrevocably changed.
The four Manics are sitting in a Notting Hill hotel. The stereo is playing 'Dazed And Confused' and on the dressing table is his box of cassettes, his Cacharel scent and a half-bottle of vodka. He chatters while making the tea as Nicky sits facing the bed and fidgets. James says virtually nothing until about an hour into the interview, and Sean sits in a far-flung corner of the room making quiet, considered interjections.
Right now, Richey and Nicky are talking about the mental state that's made them fill this record full of tortured, self-pitying lyrics: words, Nicky says, that embody misery, unfocused bitterness, anger and self-loathing. He seems to be implying, I tell him, that life in hotels and tour buses and TV dressing rooms has been even more wretched than the existence of aspiring nobodies.
Only Sean will go along with that, saying that the hours he spends sitting around in alien places and meeting people who he has no liking for has made the last year and a half a real trial. The others simply think that they're neither more content nor more unhappy: just quietly resigned to the fact that being in the Manic Street Preachers can often be an empty chore.
There's been talk lately of Richey's retreat into drink; claims that the crushing routine has added to the existential angst from which he's always apparently suffered, and left him unable to get through a day without drinking at least half a bottle of vodka. "Yes," says Nicky, laughing. "That's true."
"But..." Richey protests, "it's only on the same level as most people. Say if we were back home, working: everybody I know would come home from work, go down the pub, drink five or six pints, forget about everything and go to bed. I don't think it's a big thing."
"I mean, someone like Shane MacGowan is an alcoholic; someone who gets up, drinks first thing in the morning, and drinks all day. I'm not interested in that. I just want... I want to get... I want to forget about things when it starts getting dark. It's pretty impossible to sleep unless you've taken something; otherwise you just lie in your bed and think about everything, and it just goes on and on and on."
Poor little fucked up pop star. There are a lot of people stuck in places like the town you're from who'll be deeply offended by all this: who'll see you sitting in this hotel room, talking about your new album and touring America, be dazzled by it all - and then find the fact that you're moaning absolutely repulsive.
"But we really haven't changed since we started the band all that time ago," Nicky says. "We've always complained - not just moaned, but really complained - about very important things. And now, just because we've got a degree of success, there's no point in pretending it's all great and that everything, as far as we're concerned, is OK now, it isn't."
Besides, say the Manics, they're not cartoon stars. They don't stumble out of invite-only nightclubs with white snot hanging from their noses, talking bullshit to people who are so sycophantic that they treat them as leathered-trousered soothsayers. Far from it: they still live on South Wales, they still keep themselves to themselves to the point that they're almost recluses, and they're still bored.
Of course we are," agrees Richey. I mean, I can't believe how quickly we got bored with Sega: we'd go out and buy every new little invention, every game, play it - and now I haven't played Sega since November. I can't be bothered. I just don't enjoy it any more."
"And it's strange," says Nicky, "but the one thing that does excite us all more than ever is music. Right now, I can't wait to play live. Honestly. The best part of this year has been recording the album and rehearsing it."
And this from a band who painted their faces and smashed their guitars and passed death sentences on every hell-spawn muso shit-head who valued art over passion and hatred. Strange isn't it?
Is anyone out there angry? Do you feel cheated by the fact that a band who once said that their music would make 15-year-olds want to burn down banks are now dealing in existential introspection and power ballads? You shouldn't be.
All our expectations of the Manics were bound to be dashed, because they were built on the flurry of myth-making that occurred during their first burst of interviews; when between them, the band and the journalists they seduced created an alluring legend. It went like this: the Manic Street Preachers were four working-class desperados who'd never left their home town, preferring to sit in James's bedroom, devouring books and records and planning their ascent.
Rock 'n' roll was the only alternative to working in the local Pot Noodle factory, so they would steer their way to a major label contract, release one album, and split up, returning to South Wales as self-created missing persons. What a story.
You can obviously forget about the latter part of the myth - having failed to sell 16 million copies of 'Generation Terrorists' ("Our fault," says James. "If you make an album as good as 'Appetite For Destruction', it sells. If you don't, it doesn't"), the Manics felt they ought to persevere.
As for the romantic story of their lives before all this happened - well, let's qualify it, shall we? Yeah, they stuck together like brothers, and did spend whole days formulating their career plan - but, as proved by the odd quote in articles written after the myth-making had ceased, the Manics were far from being self-educated box room insurrectionists. Some facts: all of the Manics have A-levels: Sean has one in music, James has three, as does Nicky (two As and a B, preceded by eight As at O-level), and Richey (all A grades). And Nicky and Richey are both Cardiff graduates who had been put forward by their school for entry to Oxford and Cambridge. It was not rock 'n' roll or the Pot Noodle factory.
But we always said that," spits Nicky. "Straight away, we said that we were proud of the fact that we're educated, that we're as intelligent as anyone we meet. And no-one mentioned that it was a real Happy Mondays thing, like they wanted to make out that we were really thick working-class lads, so when the time came, they could really put us down.
I think in a lot of cases, the journalist was afraid that he was encountering a band who were more intelligent that he was. At the time, most journalists seemed to be public school drop-outs. You could pick them off one by one: they'd been put in public school, and they'd f***ed up because they weren't very intelligent. And we'd come along; we were very bright, we'd stress the fact that we were educated, and they didn't want to know. They wanted to make us their playthings."
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But you were spinning stories with as much disregard for the truth; sticking your degree certificates under the bed and sending letters to the NME that said you had the 'scum factor' of Happy Mondays...
"We have got the scum factor of Happy Mondays," says Richey. "What I meant by that was that people we met in London would never like the idea of meeting a girl in the pub and having a bag of chips and a f*** in the bus stop on the way home. That's something ordinary working-class people do all the time. We'd do that; we wouldn't check into a hotel - it'd be 'stop here a minute, I want my dick sucked'. That's the scum factor."
We talk about the other parts of the myth: about how the Manics made themselves out to be leftist revolutionaries, saying that big political targets were the only ones worth shooting at, shouting "f*** Queen and country", but have now crafted a second album with very little political content at all. They're now more interested in self-pity and self-loathing, says Richey; in the indulgent despair of the Western white man. Others can take up the political slack.
"There are so many bands now that are reflecting those issues anyway," says Nicky. "When we came out, there were no political bands around at all. We always said that we wanted to clear things away, to tear things apart so something positive could come after us and we could get on with being more of a traditional rock band. Perhaps that's happened with Rage Against The Machine, even something like Riot Grrrl -which has a direct descendency from us, no matter what people think. However many faults they have, they are something positive."
At which point the last part of the myth - that the Manics are blinkered firebrands who see no worth in anything other than Public Enemy, Guns N' Roses and their beautiful selves -begins to look rather fragile. Repeat after them: Riot Grrrl and Rage Against The Machine represent something positive. This is not the only heresy uttered this afternoon.
The Manics are talking about other groups. The voices are as warm and hushed as ever. The sentiments, this time, are more suited to them. This is going to shock you. Strap yourselves in. Ready?
"I think we're now more open to admitting what music we like," muses Richey. "When we begun, it would be very difficult for us to play a Beatles record, just because we thought, ‘We don't need another icon, we don't need to listen to their records.' And we now know that they made brilliant records’. “
"The same goes for the Mondays. Everybody knows that the Mondays made some f***ing great records, but we could never say that. because it was our blinkered Pol Pot period, and we didn't like what they were supposed to represent. But we all know that 'Kuff Dam' or 'Tart Tart' or '24 Hour Party People' were good songs, and everything that came after them was good."
You are reading this, you really are. Richey is saluting the magic of Happy Mondays. He is about to be joined by Nicky Wire.
"Well, now I think that The Stones Roses and Happy Mondays were brilliant. I get offended now when Brett Anderson says that Ian Brown wasn't a star. Ian Brown played to 30,000 people on Spike Island and sold a million records worldwide. That's a star. Suede have got a long way to go before they do that. So have we."
And yes, that was humility. The Manics then talk about covering 'Wrote For Luck' on their soon-come tour; about listening to Jeff Beck; about how much of a great song they thought The Drowners' was; and about how Dinosaur Jr have finally made a brilliant record. Sean even goes as far as to say that he has a great deal of empathy with J Mascis' lethargic love of hanging out. It is all very shocking indeed.
Still, there must be something to rouse them out of their current enlightenment; something that incenses them so much that they have to revert to being petty-minded snipers and once again propel themselves into minor infamy.
They found it last year, as they slowly buried their 'Generation Terrorists' persona, and it came in the shape of the music industry's worries about rumours (which proved to be untrue) that Michael Stipe had AIDS. To Nicky, this reeked of the self-interest of people who could blithely watch thousands of people dying of cancer, only to suddenly start quaking as one of their stars threatened to die of a disease that was often the result of wilful decadence.
So he stood on stage at Kilburn National Ballroom and said "In the season of goodwill, let's hope Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury pretty soon". A handful of Nazis saw it as a laudable anti-gay outburst and wrote illiterate letters of support to the NME; every musician with a telephone made statements of opposition; and journalists - like me - who'd sat at the feet of the Manics and swooned suddenly started thinking about how far all this 'go on, be outrageous' business could go.
Nicky - supported by the others - stands by what he said, which isn't much of a shock; even their new, wiser outlook won't allow for something as repugnant as regret. That's not all, either: like the Machiavellian that he's often appeared to be, he thinks that the whole furore served them well.
"It was at a time when I think we'd become too close to the press," he says. "There were too many people in love with us. It was too pally: we needed to distance ourselves again, to be treated objectively." So now you know. The same sentiments may well lie behind this afternoon's verbal grenade, aimed at the latest liberal hobby horse: the subculture that surrounds the travellers. "Most working class people don't see the worth in dirt," says Richey. "They don't like being dirty. Whatever you think about most dance bands, most Essex-type techno bands. all post-Happy Mondays bands, they're all quite clean. They've got a big thing about being well-dressed, clean-shaven, clean hair. And just because little Cecil has been well scrubbed and sent to public school, he suddenly says 'I'm not going to wash my hair, I'm going to be really dirty and I just don't care'. I find it patronising."
So I then suggest that none of what he's just said justifies the state treating them like cattle: that the Manics must feel some sympathy with any victims of police violence. And, like one of those gnarled old blokes in the pub who professes undying loyalty to the law and the institutions of British democracy, Nicky suddenly says this:
"I think they should be treated more harshly, actually. As far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't care if they were rounded up and put on an island. I don't think they do any good. I don't think they perform any worthwhile role in society.”
"You know, this idea that the land is ours – that's a very obscure, pathetic notion. We live in a 20th Century democracy, where people buy land: farmer's land is their own land, and you can't accept New Age travellers reclaiming it. What the f*** have they done to earn it? I think they deserve total hatred and contempt. They are against everything we believe in as a group."
Surely, I say, you must have felt a degree of outrage about that Battle Of The Beanfield picture; about a woman carrying a baby being hounded across the fields by 15-stone apes wearing riot gear?
"I feel a degree of outrage that she should put her baby in the frontline," says James, regrettably ignorant of the fact that the police just showed up where the travellers were sleeping and started going insane. "My father would never have put me on a picket line."
"What's the point in putting a child where there are riots going on?" asks Richey. "You should go down there with the hardest f***ing bastards you can find. Don't send babies."
It’s ill-informed bumwipe, of course. Listening to it makes you genuinely angry. But it'll get the Manics in the news pages, and oil the machine they're so adept at manipulating. In truth, It's probably not even worth getting flustered about. Think about it this way: are the Manics sincere sponsors of anti-crust genocide or, as usual, press-minded Machiavellian quote machines with facetious tendencies? Whichever, it gets to you. Here, you think, is the band who are usually a truly moral force, behaving like nasty, stiff-shined authoritarians.
Thankfully, this sorry conversational episode concludes with the sharpest sentences the Manics have uttered all day. We are talking about Back To The Planet.
"They don't like people who wear suits, do they?" says James. "Aneurin Bevan wore a suit and he invented the NHS," says Nicky. "Don't they think that's a good thing?"
"No," Richey laughs. "'Cos Aneurin Bevan worked with The Man, didn't he?"
Ha ha ha. That wit, insight. incisive ridicule, an unrivalled bullshit detector – is more like it. Think about the lion's share of their pronouncements, look at them, play 'Gold Against The Soul' after you've listened to Ned's Atomic Dustbin or the Cranes or Jamiroquai and you'll know: Manic Street Preachers still manage to be the most head-spinningly angry, f***ed up, downright brilliant band. But right now, there's a rather horrible taste in my mouth.