Glamorous anarchy of early Manic Street Preachers revealed in new photo exhibition.
Back in 1991, the British music scene was still riding on the baggy tails of Madchester while its natural successor, the emerging rave scene, was just starting to build momentum.
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In the ravaged aftermath of the Thatcher years, youth culture was seemingly responding by turning a blind eye and getting high - until, that is, four angry Welshmen came to London and tore a hole in the zeitgeist with an angst-fuelled pop grenade of make-up, sloganeering and glam-punk.
Considering the Manic Street Preachers only found true mainstream success from 1996 with the more accessible sounds of Everything Must Go and follow-up This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, it’s easy to forget that for the first half of the decade, they burned with the sort of vitriolic, politicised energy Britain hadn’t seen since The Clash and the Sex Pistols.
“With the Manics, they were looking at people who were just off their faces on E and it was like, ‘Well come on, do something because the world’s falling apart around you,’” says Kevin Cummins, whose new exhibition at Proud Galleries, Assassinated Beauty, offers a snapshot of the corresponding new book he has compiled of his years photographing lead singer James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, drummer Sean Moore and now-departed guitarist Richey Edwards.
“They were bright lads anyway and they weren’t content just screaming pop songs; they had to have a meaning. It’s almost like they were born in the wrong era, because by the time they were doing it, no-one else was, but maybe that was their strength. Maybe we needed someone to shake us out of being so complacent.”
During their early years, the foul-mouthed tirades against fellow bands by lyricists Wire and Edwards, alongside songs many deemed too reminiscent of The Clash, led to significant friction within the music scene.
For Cummins, however, by the time he came to meet the group in 1991, their androgynous, bombastic ethos proved irresistible.
“As a photographer, I thought the way they looked was interesting because you had Nicky and Richey, who had this absolute ‘glamour and slogans’ look, and then you had Shaun and James who hadn’t really worked out how they wanted to look yet. It was almost like they were two separate bands and when you look at the early photographs of them you can see that.”
Despite their attitude in interviews, in reality Cummins found the band to be refreshingly ego-free and enjoyed the chance to photograph a group from outside the Manchester scene with which he is most strongly associated.
He charted their progression on camera as they went from stylish upstarts to the minds behind dark, iconic third record The Holy Bible in 1994. It was after recording this album that Edwards - by now deeply depressed, self-harming and crippled by alcohol addiction - abandoned his car by the River Severn and disappeared. His body was never found, but he was officially declared dead in 2008.
“Nothing prepares you for it; it’s very difficult when young people die,” says Cummins, who had previously worked with Marc Bolan (who died in a car crash) and Ian Curtis (who committed suicide).
“When your friend disappears like that, there’s always a mixture of puzzlement and anger and upset because you don’t know what’s going on really. Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris (of Joy Division) have said that if they looked at his lyrics more when Ian was alive, they might have been able to do something but when you’re 22, 23, it’s not your main concern.
“You think you’re immortal when you’re in a band as well because everyone idolises you. You can see the torment, but you can see that with certain poets and writers - you don’t automatically associate it with suicide.”
While they have since gone on to greater commercial success, the impact of the band’s early years and of Edwards himself continues to draw the most emotive of responses from their fan base.
“Whether it’s naivety or confidence - I think it’s a bit of both - they were very raw and very honest,” says Cummins.
“When you’re in the sixth form, you love it if a musician you like references something literary or whatever and you can go out and research that. If you’re curious - and you should be at that age - then they opened a lot of doors for you visually and literarily.”