They were a gang of four punk polemicists against the world. Now they're a grown-up threesome who chart at Number One and have just been voted your Band Of The Year. So, where did it all go wrong? Story: Iestyn George
Three old friends meet up in a Sydney hotel foyer. Nicky and Sean have just arrived from London, the former having celebrated his 30th birthday in a pharmaceutical fug as a result of his pathalogical fear of flying. James, meanwhile, has taken the scenic route, flying from New Zealand earlier in the day having spent the week working in America.
Nicky walks over to James and makes to shake his hand. James recoils, more in astonishment than horror. "Fuck off!" he exclaims at his lanky partner, pulling his arm away. Nicky just smiles with slight embarrassment, shoulders hunched, centre-parted fringe bobbing around his chin. Cousins James and Sean, who spent most of their teenage years sharing bunk beds, exchange vague nods in each other's general direction and no further words are spoken as they check in and wander off to their respective rooms.
This peculiar initiation signals the arrival of the Manic Street Preachers in Australia. If there's a less impressive rock'n'roll entrance, you'd be hard pressed to witness it.
It takes a while to get used to spending time in the company of the Manic Street Preachers. Dressed in their understated, autumn colours, it is hard to believe these are the people who daubed their clothes with situationist graffiti, sand the words: "Fuck Queen and country," on live TV and generally went about their business like post-punk evangelists. They behave like aliens who, as a kind of intergalactic prank, have been programmed to speak in Welsh accents. When they're all in the same room, they appear to communicate by thought transference alone, in half-uttered words, shrugs and glances.
"We've gone beyond normality," says singer James Dean Bradfield. "That handshake was almost an insult. We're so close, we don't need those rituals. We'll hardly ever raise our voices at each other.
"When we argue, it's usually about crap like football and rugby. Tiny things, like we've always done."
And as the band got bigger, so the individuals have become, in James' words, "exaggerated forms of our former selves".
This manifests itself in a variety of ways. Drummer Sean Moore for instance, has turned the offhand remark into an art form. Everybody's favourite Sean story recalls the time he bought a fax machine and sent his first message to the band's manager. It read: 'This is my fax number, don't fax me.'
At six-foot four, and with a fondness for dresses and skipping routines while on-stage, bass-player and lyricist Nicky Wire's eccentricities are easier to spot. He's the sports jock squeezed into the broken-down body of the village nerd, "who never even kissed a girl 'til I got to sixth-form college". When the rest of the party gather to see the Australia vs England one-day cricket matches, Nicky chooses to watch them alone in his room. "He just gets too tense," one of the road crew tells us.
After one sound check in Melbourne, we wander down the road for a sandwich. A young female fan tails us and gives Nicky a feather boa, a couple of spangly hairclips and some eye-shadow as a late birthday present. She then asks if it wouldn't bee too great an invasion of the rock star's privacy to sit at the opposite end of the room - presumably in the hope of hearing some snippet of lyrical genius. What she gets instead, however, is a frank exchange of opinions between Nick and the band's security man, Steve Head, on whether Welsh-Italian boxer Joe Calzaghe has the punching power to move up the light-heavyweight division. Oddly, she seems no less thrilled by the experience.
Compared to the other two, James is like a caged animal. On stage, he's perpetual-motion, whirling around on one leg like a demented stork. Behind the scenes, he's either asleep with a copy of a well-thumbed Yukio Mishima book open across his chest ("A great writer, even though he was a right-wing son of a bitch"), or striding about with the bewildered look of a man who was sure he left his car keys on the kitchen table.
This is the first time the Manics have visited Australia. One day they hitch onto the 50,000-capacity travelling rock show, Big Day Out, supporting novelty bearded and multiply pierced rock pigs Korn, followed by drama queens Marilyn Manson and Hole. The next, they headline more modest 1,000-capacity club nights, where Nicky's tall frame scrapes the ceiling and James gets lost amid the stage gear. Put most bands in the relatively unfamiliar surroundings and they close ranks, reverting to tried and tested comedy routines, social habits... anything to rid themselves of the latent sense of insecurity that comes with a relatively low roll call and, on alternate nights, a nowhere-to-hide billing. Nicky Wire, however, prefers to take a more pragmatic stance.
"It's nice being on early," he says of the Big Day Out. "It means I can back to the hotel and have a swim and a bite to eat. It's a relief not to be in the spotlight, for once."
Australia could quite easily be a humbling experience for a band who have sold over one million copies of their latest album in Britain alone. The Manics, of course, are no strangers to the uphill struggle. Nicky, James, Sean and their fellow childhood friend Richey Edwards dreamt the big dream throughout their teenage years. They dressed like the New York Dolls on a budget, immersed themselves in popular culture and political theory. They were different - one of the reasons they were showered with pint pots and bottles during their 1989 live debut at the Crumlin Railway hotel in Newbridge, a short drive from their hometown of Blackwood, South Wales. Four years on, things hadn't changed all that much, with Nicky being hospitalised after being struck with a bottle of plonk at Swansea's Heineken Music Festival.
It's fitting that James describes his favourite Manics period as 1991, a period when they cast themselves as wilful outsiders determined to make the grandest rock statements on the biggest stages. It was the year they released "Motown Junk" to the collective astonishment of the music press and to the general public disinterest. "We felt completely and utterly indestructible. We were so completely different to everything that was around us. I loved that."
It was a fallow period for British rock music, which was caught between the last days of "Madchester" and the music press' celebration of the hugely unsuccessful Thames Valley scene, dubbed "shoegazing" because of its uncommunicative nature. The Manics found it easy to make headlines - just as Oasis would five years later - and sold themselves as a fusion of Guns N'Roses, the Clash and Public Enemy. They also had a charter long before they had a chart hit.
"They were just points of principle," explains Nick. "There was Never Do An Encore, which we've stuck to; Never Do Drugs, which I've kept to - dunno about James and Sean. The first time Richey had a spliff, it was a shattering moment for the band. It was on the tour bus and one of the crew was smoking then Richey goes, 'Can I have one of them?' Meanwhile, I'm tearing my hair out, going, 'Right, that's it, we're going to have to split up now.' Then there was Never Write A Love Song, which we've broken; Never Grow Facial Hair, which we've all had a go at..."
While it didn't always work on a musical level, the confrontational nature of the Manics was never less than hugely entertaining. And how they loved being hated.
But gradually their popularity in Britain grew. They had hits and James became the mighty linchpin of the band's increasingly focused live shows, while Richey and Nicky maintained the polemic. By the end of 1993, however, real-life issues intervened in the rock'n'roll dream. Richey had started to show serious signs of mental and physical frailty, but the lyricist's problems were temporarily overshadowed by the death of their co-manager, Philip Hall, from lung cancer. He was 34.
The band released their third and most extreme album, The Holy Bible, eight months later, by which time they had occasionally performed as a three-piece while Richey struggled with his demons, spending time under sedation in a Cardiff Hospital as well as a spell at The Priory in Roehampton.
Next February will be the fifth anniversary of Richey's disappearance: he left London's Embassy Hotel on the eve of an US tour, drove down the M4, parked his car at the Aust Service Station and simply vanished. Ironically, the media coverage it received in newspapers increased the band's profile significantly. "He was a lovely, cuddly, soppy bugger," is James' fond description of the man who narrowly avoided the peculiar honour of becoming the only boy in Blackwood named Christmas.
After Richey disappeared, everybody assumed that would be that. But the former Welsh Under-14 football team captain (Nicky), the squaddie-in-waiting (James), and the youngest cornet player in the history of the South Wales Jazz Orchestra (Sean) carried on regardless. Releasing a triumphant comeback single, the Brit-winning Nineties classic "A Design For Life", they suddenly found themselves in the odd position of being hugely popular.
Since then, two more albums - 1996's Everything Must Go and 98's This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. More sales, more festivals headlined, more cash.
But for the Manics more than any other band, popularity and, more importantly, acceptance have presented their own problems. Not for them the time-honoured Aerosmith/Depeche Mode route to self-destruction. Nicky makes sure of that by keeping the other two on a surprisingly short leash, sometimes banning alcohol from the studio and chiding James for ordering anything stroner than shandy. What's more, James accepts all the mothering with surprising grace, privately confessing that he moved to London to escape the stringent rules drawn up by the band. "I've abdicated a lot of responsibility as I've got older," he confesses. "They think I'm a bit childish and frivolous. I've tried to stay away from them as much as possible so as not to infect them."
It may be refreshing for the Wire, but it's peculiar to see the Manics playing such a willing supporting role on the Big Day Out - despite the fact that they have done stints with the Stone Roses (in December 1995) and Oasis (throughout 1996). The Australian festival hordes are lapping up the pantomime acts of Marilyn and Courtney but the Manics keep their heads down and play, even at intimate club nights. A far cry from their previous onstage behaviour.
Nicky's outbursts are part of Manics folklore. The most dramatic include a London Christmas show in 1992 when he wished REM singer Michael Stipe would go the same way as the recently deceased Freddie Mercury, and the suggestion at the 1994 Glastonbury Festival that a bypass should destroy the rural idyll where the event is held.
"I'm too fragile to deal with the controversy nowadays," he concedes, matter-of-factly. "My mental and physical health just can't cope any more. It was easier when Richey was around... he was my body armour.
"Like when I said the Michael Stipe thing, which was pretty misdirected, Richey took that up and completely justified my actions to the media. Meanwhile, I was hiding in the corner and thinking, 'What the fuck have I done?'"
Of course, the fact that James posed for the cover of Q magazine with Stipe in December '98 and the Manics headlined Glastonbury in June hasn't gone unmentioned in the music press. "People accuse us of hypocrisy, saying we've become a cop-out," he says, "but I think that's because there are so few bands around prepared to say anything interesting or challenging. Everybody else has gone for the 'We let our music do the talking' option, so there's still pressure on us to provoke debate, wind up a few people, sell a few papers."
The most dramatic illustration of the band's ability to cause controversy occured when Richey confronted Radio I DJ Steve Lamacq, then an NME journalist, backstage after a live show in Norwich in 1991. Lamacq had expressed reservations about whether the group should be taken seriously, suggesting their hand-me-down punk postures lacked authenicity. Richey reacted in the most graphic way possible, carving the phrase "4 REAL" into his arm with a scalpel. He then asked NME photographer Ed Sirrs to take a picture of the wound, ensuring tha tit became one of the most enduring images of the musical decade.
Ever since, the challenge for the Manics has been to top that, or at least to match it with a couple of tasty asides during every concert and a spot of self-mutilation on the side. To counter Richey's periods of self-abuse, Sean's gallows humour came to the fore - he suggested that one day his rythm guitarist would cut his own head off as the ultimate encore. What rankles more than anything with Nicky is the suggestion that anything less than blood indicates some kind of cop-out.
"It's hard to take sometimes," he points out. "To deny a band happiness is a pretty rough thing to do. I can understand it to a degree - say what you like about Richey and that whole '4-REAL' thing, but it was such a multi-coloured widescreen Panavision sort of statement. Because of that, people still want us to be extreme..." The Manics' biggest subversive nature continues to flourish on the biggest stage. Not only was August '98's Number One hit, "If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next", one of the longest song titles to top the chart, but few other bands are capable of writing a singalong based on the Spanish Civil War and people taking up arms in support of another nation's ideologies.
"People's lives have been dramatically changed 'cos of us, just like our lives were dramatically changed when we saw the Clash on video. That can happen only if you feel confident that there is something of substance in your songs that eventually seeps through to people. And it does, there's no two ways about it. That's why I admire Paul Heaton [singer/lyricist with the Beautiful South] so much. The music... well, the music's not bad, but he's really spot on."
Home-loving, cross-dressing Nicky Wire and hard-drinking, former football hooligan Paul Heaton form an unlikely alliance. Even more so when you see just how reluctant Nicky is to spend time in the company of other bands.
"Why would I want to waste my time talking about bass-guitar strings?" he asks, incredulously. "I've always made an effort not to get to know any other musicians."
Ten years after being bottled offstage for the first time, nearly five years since they lost their guiding light in Richey, the Manic Street Preachers are more popular than ever. And their struggle to come to terms with that success will remain. Theirs is no longer the cause of the disenfranchised minority, but a search for the hearts and souls of everyman. And in doing so, they realise there's no room for complacency.
"Other bands enjoy what they've achieved," concludes James. "I always think there's enough self-doubt and self-hate present to spur us on to the next stage. I still feel like it could all be taken away. I don't mean the money, or the little bit of fame, but that some bizarre turn of events could rob us of our place in history."
Manic Street Preachers are one of very few bands to have survived the Nineties. Not to mention a body blow that would have destroyed most groups. That in itself should be cause for a small celebration, but don't hold your breath waiting for the pop of champagne corks just yet.