It's all gone right for the Manic Street Preachers. Their finest album. Across-the-board critical nods. Sales. Mercury nomination. A "brief" US tour with Oasis. But are they happy? Are they buggery. Phil Sutcliffe traces their humpity-bumpity career, and discovers, "There's always something eating away at our minds."
Manic Street Preachers have been through the worst of times. In December, 1993, their manager and mentor Philip Hall died of cancer. Last year, Richey James, who co-wrote the lyrics with bassist Nicky Wire, played a bit of guitar and was somehow, irresistibly, the band's star, vanished and was never seen again - his fate unknown, whether suicide or some fathomed plan to lose himself and take on a new identity.
Especially for a group founded on indivisible childhood friendship it was all but unbearable. Assailed by more pain, grief and uncertainty than any three young men in their mid-twenties could have reason to expect, by right the band ought to have been in bits, finished. Instead, over the past 12 months they've made a new start. An album, Everything Must Go, has already sold more than any of its predecessors in the UK (300,000) and was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. A single, Design For Life, peaked at Number 2 - "A proper hit", in the estimation of singer, guitarist and tunesmith James Dean Bradfield, because "blokes in my mum's betting shop were whistling it".
New fans congratulated them on a great "debut". The Manics found the misconception "liberating". Plainly thinking longer term again, in early September they flew out for a what turned out to be a
foreshortened American tour, their own club headliners plus a dozen or more arena dates supporting Oasis. With reservations. With a certain caution, they began to look forward again.
And here's Bradfield in full spate, preaching it up. "To be universal you've got to stain the consciousness of the people," he says, fervent Welsh vowels to the fore, "You've got to dig out a truth that everybody knows , but they don't want to hear, then tell it in a manner that's so articulate and so aesthetically indignant, so beautiful, that they've got to accept it back in their lives again. That's what I want to do. Touch something universal with your own language."
Perched on the sofa in Q's hotel room, he's bobbing about like a bantamweight, still electric with energy although it's after midnight and the Manics have played two gigs during the day: a show-case at Virgin Megastore in New York and a third-on-the-bill spot with Oasis and Screaming Trees at the Centrum arena, Worcester, Massachusetts. Despite a denunciation of his own evening performance as "fucked, couldn't get into it", Bradfield avers that the Oasis support deal is proving "a good experience. You can't help but be proud when you hear Oasis crowd sounding like they're at a schoolboy international, except there's lots of girls there too." He pauses, magnanimity giving way to less welcome sensations. "It's humbling, all the same. It puts you in your place."
Manic Street Preachers are four albums down the line, Oasis only two, when the Manics released their early singles around the turn of the decade with dance music in the ascendant, they stood alone, arguable the first of the new British guitar bands, pre-dating Suede and Blur. But the upshot was, while they attracted attention, they didn't leave that "stain". They were not Britpop.
So, when Liam Gallagher stands at the side of the stage throughout their set at the Centrum, offering conspicuous public endorsement to back up offstage matiness and encouragement, there's an
ambivalent twist to the Manics' pleasure. While a gratifying few hundred of the several thousand early comers holler and punch the air at the end of each song, they' can't help comparing it with the oceanic rear that will greet Wonderwall or Champagne Supernova a couple of hours later.
It drives them back to old thoughts and theories about how they couldn't, and probably shouldn't "bond" with their fans. Wire, the long streak bouncing around to Bradfield's left in a successfully "anti style" French Foreign Lesion cap, thinks he can explain. Sitting in the hotel coffee shop that night, he agitatedly works his shoulders for some reason (he's a famous hypochondriac, forever in a lather about his knees or his blood or his liver; in the New York heat he donned a damp flannel beneath that kepi to cool his brain).
Finally, he holds forth, his eyes aglow with a peculiar mixture of enthusiasm, hilarity and suspicion. "Oasis have made me a fan again," he says. "They've completely revitalised British music. But, yeah, we do like to think it could have been us. Perhaps we didn't have the guile.
"We were too nasty and confrontational. We waged war on the punters, the music press, everyone - on the concept of gigs: there was that idea that it's all communal joy and stadium bollocks whereas for us it was auto-destruction and trying to 'change people's perceptions'. We used to walk on to a reading of Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Not many bands did that in 1990. Not many band do it now. I'm glad we did those things. They made us different. Most people thought we were pretentious wankers, which undoubtedly we were."
Manic Street Preachers were very much the product of a particular time and place. They come from Blackwood in the South Wales valleys. It gave them what Wire calls "glorious childhoods", playing out from dawn to dusk with never a moment's parental worry about their safety.
Their lives were intertwined. Bradfield and Wire (ne Jones) were classmates from the age of five. James (Edwards) lived on the same street as Wire. Drummer Sean Moore is Bradfield's cousin
and, when he was 10, went to live with his family. Moore and James were in the same form at secondary school. Their parents were working-class: builders, carpenters and so on.
Bradfield, who purports to be a curmudgeonly foe of sentimentality and nostalgia, can see every detail of the town in his mind's eye: "A long terraced street. Steps down into the valley. Football field. Swimming pool. The to the left was a big disused slag heap with trees growing on it. We played there, everything happened there - Bonfire Night, Halloween, a lot of people lost their virginity there. If there was a fight between Pontllanfraith (his district) and Springfield it happened on that slag heap. It's gone now, levelled. When I go back what strikes me is there's less places for people to hide. Hide and just be innocent. Lose their innocence too."
Wire reckons the four first came together on the football field, owned by the neighbouring Gossard corset factory: "The major league was Woodfield Side, where me and Richey grew up, against Pont.
We used to play for a trophy my dad found on a rubbish tip. It was a crown-green bowls cup, but we ran down the street with it when we won anyway. Richey was on my team and one day James brought
Sean along to play for Pont."
If the quartet met outdoors, before long it found it's more natural habitat, "We were bedroom boys," says Wire. Their imagination was fired up by the Pistols, The Bunnymen and The Jesus & Mary Chain, but Rumblefish, Betty Blue and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (an early song was named R.P.McMurphy, after the Jack Nicholson character), by Camus, Sartre and Derrida, and by whole cohorts of sporting heroes (Wire singles out '50s Welsh football giant John Charles, of whom he boasts "and extensive video collection"). In pairs or as a unit, outside school they withdrew from view to conduct the important business of their lives: listening, watching, talking and playing.
"We came together around Nicky," says Bradfield. "I was Baldrick to his Blackadder. More than anything 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." "A big moment was on the tenth anniversary of punk," says Wire. "The Clash were on a compilation of
that Tony Wilson programme So It Goes, doing garageland and What's My Name. That was the catalyst to us forming a band. We thought we could look like that, walk it like that. Although we couldn't
One day Moore, who'd shown a gift for classical trumpet and played in local brass bands for several years, walked into the kitchen and was asked if he could learn drums. Some time later, their first bassist, known as Flicker, invited to upgrade from a two-stringed instrument to the more sophisticated four, "refused on principle". Wire switched to bass and James, by then at university was enlisted because "he looked handsome".
The Manic Street Preachers spirit grew from their surroundings. The miners' strike of 1983-4, which dominated their early teens with its bitter conflict and grievous failure, had inspired Wire and Bradfield's first song long before the four friends became the band.
"Streets divided," recalls Wire. "If a man went back to work his house would be covered in paint. Fair enough. I'm proud that the Welsh were the last miners to go back to work. Quite cool."
"Nick's first lyric was called Aftermath, a real doggerel diatribe against Margaret Thatcher," says Bradfield, "The strike was all around us and it was on TV every day for a year. When the Yorkshire miners started turn-coating I'd find myself shouting at the telly, 'Scab! Scab!' But when it was over we didn't want to be these Welsh working-class rock gangsters singing, 'We lost, we lost, but we're still standing.' We didn't believe in glorious losers, the 'you can take my life but you can never take my pride' like. (Sings again) 'We're going to march to the Houses of Parliament and smash it down.' We felt the working class had let themselves down just as much as the Government had.
"So we came to feel we were part of a culture that didn't exist any more. We wanted to believe in something and couldn't find anything to believe in. Definitely not that Citizen Smith demeanour, 'the struggle is all'. We wanted to attach some new-found intelligence or some new-found theory to the place and the class we came from. But we were always confused, always contradictory, always very suspicious. Suspicious of the smell of the burning martyr."
In should be noted that Moore distances himself from these political cross-currents. The smallest, calmest, stillest Manic, he dutifully tootled his trumpet on strikers' marches but denies much influence from the local "culture" even venturing to suggest that Gwent never seemed "truly Welsh" to him. "I didn't tend to look around me," he says, apologetically, "From the age of 10 I was very much isolated as an individual, entirely self-sufficient. I live from day to day." Still, the others emerged from the glorious innocence of their childhood and their experience of
industrial war, trying, through their band, to create a future to match their overheated dreams. In defiance of rock'n'roll regulations they pursued their education. Wire and James passed their A-levels with brilliant grades and went to Swansea University to study politics and political history.
There's one simple and endearing account of their diligence. "It's very working class to want to better yourself," says Wire, "The first line of Design for Life, 'Libraries gave us power', comes from an inscription on the library in Pwll."
"It sounds so earnest and po-faced, but it's true," Bradfield adds. "Our father were ordinary, decent fellows. They didn't impose their will and that inspired in us the liberty to actually realise that we wanted to do."
There again, the putative proletarian heroes were entering a phase when their idealistic tendencies took a twist. "Me and Richey especially were attracted to being clever to prove that we were better than the other... (he hovers over the next word, then takes the plunge)...plebs, to be nasty about it," says Wire. "We looked down on anyone outside the circle of the four of us," admits Bradfield, "We didn't feel a generation gap with people who were older than us, we felt one with people of the same age. I think that's why we used sloganeering language a lot. We thought that was all they understood and deserved."
Bradfield qualified for university and Moore for music college, but when their friends came down from Swansea they sacrificed their places to dedicate themselves to the band full-time.
"It was absolutely everything to me," says the drummer, "My idea was about true, natural talent, something you're born with. We always knew the band was going to work, and that it was just down to us to make it happen."
Enclosed withing those bedroom walls, they evolved a strictly disciplined division of labour with Wire and Edwards - "the political wingers" at either side of the stage - writing the lyrics, Bradfield and Moore "interpreting" them musically. They also promulgated a set of unwritten rules to govern the future of Manic Street Preachers. A lot of them were negatives: no love songs, no marriages, no drugs.
"We had this evangelical desire to start the revolution and be absolutely fuckin' massive," says Wire. "It didn't just mean getting a record deal. It was all-conquering, psycho, egotistical. Drugs are the biggest get-out clause in the world. Dope enhances your creativity? Bollocks! It destroys your brand cells. When we came to London it was, Hey chill out, spliff up, man. But our calling-card was, Anxiety is freedom."
Moore concurs: "I don't know if it's some Nietzschean thing, but art, expression, is a strength within
"Nicky was the touchstone and directional force for everything from the start," Bradfield insists. "But one of our best abilities is to arrive at the same realm of consciousness at the same time. The same mood. That's the way it's got to be. I've got to justify what I do. Just being an entertainer or a singer guitarist isn't enough. We've got to be a band that has a collective consciousness."
The moment they could grab a media buttonhole they said, "We'll sell 26 million copies of our first album and then split up," and, "We're going to set fire to ourselves on Top Of The Pops."
They were a publicist's waking dream, which may be one reason why PR man Philip Hall, and his younger brother Martin (who manages them now), took a shine to them.
Seven gigs and two singles into their public career, they got the Halls' address from then music press scribe Steve Lamacq and wrote to them. The Halls came down to see them rehearse in a classroom at Newbridge comprehensive. They found the Manics clad in spray-painted T-shirts and eyeliner.
Grotesquely, blood rand down Wire's face because he's clonked himself with the bass. Pretty soon the Halls had signed them, lent them £45,000, and they had a 10-album deal with Columbia. Major label life was no problem, just what they'd expected. "I walked through it and I felt like a king," says Bradfield, swaggering in his seat, "Righteous indignation. Rather saintly." They felt even
better when they released Motorcycle Emptiness, a track from their first album with an epic chorus and a challenging lyric which began, "Culture suck down words/Itemise loathing and feed yourselves smiles". None of the band would argue with Wire's verdict that it remains "one of the best singles of the '90s".
"Who'd have thought it, eh? Four valley boys: look what we created," says Bradfield, ladling on the faux naif." Our language had crystallised into something lovely and we'd transcended our influences with a song that was completely natural - it felt that we were meant to be."
In fact, Motorcycle Emptiness was one of 15 modest hits through to the end of '94 -only their cover of Theme From M.A.S.H. (Suicide is Painless) went Top 10. For all their passion and self-belief, they proved more controversial than commercial. While they moaned about anti-Welsh media racism, exemplified, they argues, by headlines like "Sexy Merthyrfuchers", "Meat leek manifesto" and "To live and Dai in LA", tolerant moderation was hardly their own characteristic tone.
"At the start, I was personally on a mission to separate ourselves from everyone, even music that I liked," says Wire, "It's my bad trait." They fed on ourtrage, specialising in abuse of their peers, While Wire's farcical "I hate Slowdive more than I hate Hitler" and "We're banning Charlatans fans from our gigs because they all have moustaches" were shareable jokes, his gratuitous onstage remark that "We hope Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury" - at a time when Stipe AIDS rumours were rife - upset even their best friends. Suddenly lots of people hated them. Their ideals seemed to have mutated into base publicity-seeking.
"The Stipe comment is the one I could be pushed into showing a morsel of regret about." Bradfield concedes, "Otherwise, we have a Murder On The Orient Express mentality. We all willingly step
forward to stab the corpse. "
Back then, we had very strict parameters on how we wanted to be perceived. More than anything, reading the NME, we would think, How would we react if we read what we were just about to say (laughs at this convolution). The scoffability factor. Trying not to give in to your emotions. The no, harshness of our analysis was always very important to us. You couldn't give in to
being just a staunch humanitarian. Though that's changed to a certain degree."
It's impossible to say how much their more obnoxious eruptions during this period were provoked by Richey James's erratic behaviour. The Manics trace this back to the ghastly occasion on May 15, 1991, when, his sincerity challenged by Steve Lamacq, he took a razor blade and carved the words "4 REAL" into his left forearm, down to the bone.
"It shook us all up," says Moore. "We stood in disbelief. I think that was the beginning. Richey had always been very straight and normal through school and university. He was no-one you'd point a finger at and say, He's strange."
James's slide from that unhinged moment into alcoholism, depression and anorexia accelerated after the death of Philip Hall and the suicide of one of his own university friends. Further self-mutilations and spells in psychiatric clinics ensued. Nothing helped, it seemed.
The Manics' third album, The Holy Bible, exposed his state of mind through agonising lyrics, both personal (4st 7lb, an anorexic's manifesto: "I wanna e so skinny that I rot from view"), and
philosophical (The Intense Humming of Evil, Weltschmerz in a Nazi concentration camp: "Funeral march for agony's last edge/6 million screaming souls").
On February 1, 1995, James left the Embassy Hotel, Bayswater, without saying a word to Bradfield, who was in an adjacent room. It's known that James drove back to Cardiff and stopped at his flat
there. The next given is that his Vauxhall Cavalier was reported abandoned at Auste service station, near the Severn Bridge, 17 days later.
Beyond these bare facts there's only endless speculation. "The reality of Richey's life is blurred by the way he disappeared," says Wire. "He might've known what was going on deep down, but what he gave our...you'd just wonder why small things would bother him immensely. When we were rehearsing he'd phone me 50 times to check the time.
"When he was 16, I think he realised that responsibility and growing up was beckoning. I mean, that's what he always said to me, that he loved his childhood, then it hit him. I suppose it hit me too, but I had a bit more self-belief than him. I never needed people to love me, I revel in being hated. I just do.
Well, not so much any more, but if people dislike me it gives me strength, whereas perhaps for Richey it didn't. As Sartre said, Heel is other people. There hasn't been anyone like Richey for the last ten years, with those intellectual demons inside him."
The mystery settled, unsolved. Wire went home. He lives with his wife Rachel, two miles from his parents. He mowed the lawn, did the ironing. Moore went home to Bristol and his girlfriend, Rhian.
He built a new room in the attic. Bradfield rented a room at Philip Halls' widow Terri's house (where the band all lived when they first moved away from Wales) and partied with pop stars around London until his double chin started "snapping around his ankles" and he took to running again (he'd been a good athlete in his teens).
By April last year they were back in a rehearsal studio. During that summer they recorded Everything Must Go (dedicated to Tower Colliery, Cyon Valley, where the miners bought the pit from the NCB and turned in a £4 million profit in their first 12 months). On December 29 they played their first comeback gig, supporting The Stone Roses at Wembley Arena.
A few months later, gigging at the Hacienda, Wire stumbled into Bradfield centre stage, laughed and looked across at where James had always stood. He ran off in flood of tears that lasted three hours. The band think they may, gradually, have "developed some kind of immunity". Nevertheless, unedifying notions gnaw away at the remaining band members: their boyhood blood brother ran
off because he'd stopped liking them; if he "comes back", they won't want him as a friend again because of all the hurt he's caused. And on and on.
"This ones called From Despair To Where," Bradfield informs the pre-Oasis throng at Jones Beach amphitheatre, by the sea on Long Island. The real title is From Despair to Where, but the
audience is too unfamiliar with Manics material to even wonder if their ears are playing tricks. After all the band has played only six American gigs before this tour. They were "an unmitigated disaster"- in 1991, before the blithe Manics took the precaution of learning the songs from their first album - and James went missing a few days before their scheduled second attempt last year.
Still, this is going very well, the shortish set jammed with their best songs: Motorcycle Emptiness, You Love Us, A Design For Life.
The last means a lot to Manic Street Preachers. A song of working class pain after 17 years of Thatcherism, it's neither triumphant nor defeatist, but complex, though it sings comfortably enough. It connects their past and present.
"It reminds me of Motown Junk, one of our first singles," says Wire. "But that was the most claustrophobic angry record, a once in a lifetime for us. The difference is we got more ambitious and
we changed. There are only certain moments when you can look into the abyss and dive in. Now we kind of look and step away."
Wire's lyric so moved Bradfield that he "actually felt part of where I came from, for once". He started talking of a more back to Wales. On reflection, though, he's decided otherwise: "I do want to get a place in Cardiff, I want to be the Two-House Bradfield, but I feel I've got to live in London - for the band. It's the only way I can stay detached. If I went home I'd become obsessed with my own history. (Does De Niro) 'Too many fuckin' ghosts, man!' I remember so many things, good things that don't exist any more. I get maudlin and lose all my energy. Whereas there's a transience in London that keeps me ticking over."
Another Everything Must Go track, Further Away, is their first love song. One broken rule follows another. Wire married three years ago, despite the understanding that they were all "wedded to the band", and now his lyrics turn to mush. "It's definitely about Nicky being away from the person he loves," says Bradfield. "When I saw it there was a big (groaning sigh), Oooooah, we can't put that on the album. From me, that was. No love songs!
Then I realised I was trying to win Brownie points, holding the party line when I knew I'd be coerced into writing for it and I actually thought it was good enough anyway. "In the band at the moment, it's a matter of giving ourselves some human grace, the chance to show emotion other than disdain or hat and not be ashamed of it. Breathe a bit more. I think we've survived under a heavy load of self-censorship."
But, according to the author, there's more to Further Away than old-fashioned loneliness on the road. "It's half a love song and half me thinking I'm finally growing apart from these people in the band," says Wire. "It's about, For the first time in my life I don't want to be with you two. Not, I hate you, but, It's not like it used to be. I'd say everything's changed because of Richey going. Apart from onstage and in the studio, although we're still best friends, we've got different lives."
As an act, Manic Street Preachers are settling into the new dispensation. Performing. Delivering. Consistent and professional. But everything else is in flux. "I don't think there'll be a
'resolution' for us," says Moore. "As individuals we're totally uncontent. Maybe from our earliest days in school we've been striving to make people understand us. They still don't."
"People see us on stage, see me smiling, see us selling albums and having hits and they think we've forgotten," says Wire. "We haven't. We keep it to ourselves. We're willing to talking about Richey in interviews. But it's only between ourselves and with my wife that the real emotion comes out. That's when we really talk."
Live, we know we haven't reached the heights of excitement we had with Richey. The sound and the playing are good, but in terms of us looking at one another and knowing we could take on the
world,change people's lives...we haven't regained that and without Richey, without the aura, perhaps we never will."