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Grave Architecture - Ray Gun, September 1996

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Title: Grave Architecture
Publication: Ray Gun
Date: September 1996
Writer: Michael Krugman
Photos: Colin Bell

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Unfortunately, you do need an explanation. For the Manic Street Preachers never really got their due here in the States, and the reasons are many. Since their first appearance in 1990, the Welsh band have consistently constrain and constantly confounding. With their nihilistic dialectic and dream of a New Art Riot, the 1992 double-length Generation Terrorists, blended Guns 'n' Roses metallic pop with Mekons-like intellectualism and insurrectionary politics. T-shirts and bare chests bore aggro-slogans like "I'm So Modern That Everything Is Pointless" and "All Rock 'n' Roll Is Homosexual"; they wore torn leopard skin and too much mascara, terrorist balaclavas and full-on Apocalypse Now! combat-rock gear. They swore they would be the biggest rock band in the world - and then break-up, which of course, they didn't. The '93 follow up, Gold Against The Soul, was even more unlikely amalgam of semiotics, self doubt and stadium rock.

The following year saw the release of The Holy Bible, a shocking, blood-stained shit-streaked monolith of desolation, agony and pain that may well have been their American breakthrough. Then things got ugly. With last year's disappearance of Richey James Edwards - in many ways the heart and mind of the Manics - the band's world collapsed. It appeared certain that we wouldn't have the Manic Street Preachers to kick around any longer. Now, with the brilliant new Everything Must Go, the Manics have the rare second chance, a new beginning, a fresh start. "We'd like if people didn't really mention our history in America," singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield says, "because we can't expect it to hold any relevance."

Sorry, James, but the Manics are too complex, their history too interesting to be swept under the rug. Back in the beginning, the glam politik punk pose needed to be proven, so Richey responded to a journalist's query about the band's bonafides by slashing 4 REAL into his arm with a razor blade, a deep gash that required 17 stitches. But the point was made. This was not schtik.

A beautiful boy Who worshiped at the altar of doomed icons like Marilyn Monroe and Jack Kerouac, Richey was violently political and ferociously intelligent ("I am stronger than Mensa/I spat out Plath and Pinter"). He didn't sing, he couldn't really play his rhythm guitar, but nevertheless the face and fire of the band, responsible for much of the imagery and content. But as their career progressed, Richey regressed. Following the 1994 death from cancer of Philip Hall, the Manics' manager/mentor, he grew increasingly depressed: he was anorexic and alcoholic, he suffered serious nervous exhaustion, he continued his habit of self-mutilation.

"He was a fucking nutter," bassist Nicky Wire, his best friend since childhood laughs wryly. "He was extremely eccentric in a nice way, but towards the end, he wasn't very nice. It just seems he was ill. For five years it seem like he could live with it, you know, be the lovable rogue. But I think towards the end he just seemed ill." The physical manifestation of Richey's sickness is The Holy Bible. Unquestionably one of the darkest, bleakest rock records ever, the album makes In Utero feel like a walk in the park on a sunny Sunday. Richey's increasing obsession with Holocaust imagery and his battle with a crumbling psyche led to this cathartic caterwaul of inner trauma that, even before the disappearance, carried the acrid stink of a suicide note. In its stark and affecting anguish, the Manics had at last nailed the greatness they had always promised. But at the same time as his artistic triumph, Richey was clearly getting worse. European tours with Suede and Therapy? saw his mental state deteriorating rapidly. He was hospitalised/institutionalised, got into Twelve Steps (though from all accounts, he only made Step Two) but he was plainly going mad. What was it like being around him?

"It was an absolute misery" Nicky remembers. "Even though there's always been some moments in the day where we'd all get on and just be like we were, but the majority of it was pretty uncomfortable. You know, waking up every morning wondering if he'd be there."

On the morning of February 1, 1995, just as James and Richey were to embark on a promotional reconnaissance jaunt in the US to precede their first significant Stateside tour, Richey went AWOL from their London hotel. It wasn't the first time he had gone missing, but this time he'd left a package containing lyrics, personal notes and his Prozac. The band soon found that this vanishing was indeed 4 real. A week or so later, Richey's silver Vauxhall was found near the England:Wales border, at a place known locally as "Suicide Bridge," but a body was never found.

"The first thing we did was cancel our American tour" Wire remembers, "we cancelled that without thinking about it. People wanted us to go as a three-piece but we had no intention of doing that that. That was the first day. From then on we were just kind of paralysed, really. Three or four months of just...nothingness."

"We just cease to have any kind of definite existence for a while," Bradfield adds. "It didn't feel as if we were in a band anymore." The US branch of Epic Records decided against releasing The Holy Bible in America because of their unavailability for touring and publicity - a move that, in effect kept the band invisible here. The first Manics sighting came in the fall with the Help benefit record, which featured a sparse cover of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head." Bradfield's raw plaintive, "Nothing's worrying me" rang out with ironic ache, but it was the first sign that the band would be able to move on.

Still, no one could have anticipated how successful they'd be . Everything Must Go is an extraordinary work, a triumph over demons and disaster, with stirring Spector-esque soundscapery turbulent with strings, clarion trumpets and blistering powerchords. The first single, “A Design For Life," is an Ennio Morricone epic assault on a working class in moral decline, while “Australia” and “Further Away" capture Nicky's big hurt through grand pop metal anthems. A handful of Richey's last songs are here as well. “Kevin Carter" tells the true-life tale of a photojournalist who killed himself after winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the gentle “Small Black Flowers That Grow in The Sky" finds its symbology in the plight of caged animals marked for experiments. Perhaps most unanticipated is the album's newfound vibe of stunning positivity.

“Not hard after The Holy Bible," Wire smiles. “It surprised me a bit," Bradfield says. “It must be a subconscious thing."

In the glare of Richey's dominant personality, it is often forgotten that the lyrical credits read Edwards/Wire. Everything Must Go shows Wire to be as powerful and emotive a songwriter as Richey, though without the virulent darkness that had permeated their earlier work. Though he freely attributes “at least 75 per cent" of The Holy Bible to Richey, Nicky has gotten short shrift as a lyricist, despite the fact that he has written any number at the Manics' best songs. "I'm not bitter about it," he says. “If I was a journalist, l would think Richey was a kind of genius icon of the '90s; felt it myself. But people need to know that a lot of those lyrics were mine. They weren't written by an anorexic mutilating nutter; they were written by someone with a clear mind. As Richey was for most of his life. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do. The Holy Bible is such a disciplined record. You couldn‘t write those lyrics it you were in a different stratosphere."

Richey and Nicky had always written dense and difficult words, which were more than matched by the multi-chord complexity of James and drummer Sean Moore's music. The difficulty for many Yank listeners has been the enormous dichotomy between the two: top brainy on one hand, big dumb rock on the other. “That’s been the biggest problem," Wire says, “not just in America, but in every country. Our lyrics have just made our songs way too difficult for people. We just don’t translate very well. We’re not easy to slot into certain genres."

To help fans along the Manics' shining path, all four albums have featured veritable encyclopaedias of quotations from cultural critics, historians, architects, poets and pop stars. Again, this ultimately proves baffling to even the more brainy wing of the alternative audience. How many stadium hard rock bands do you know that offer passages from Primo Levi or Le Corbusier on their packages?

“We were quite aware that sometimes the songs and lyrics were not enough to get the point across," Bradfield says. “That's what we didn't realize,“ Nicky says. “Well, it's not that we didn't realize, it's us that we were too clever for our own good.“

For Everything Must Go, the Manics were clever enough to hook up with producer Mike Hedges, best known for his work with the Cure, but recently hailed for the astonishing Sound of McAlmont and Butler. Hedges was able to create a cinematic quality that varies from the splendiferous bubblegum of “The Girl Who Wanted To Be God" to the Nirvana-Unplugged styling of “Removables” without sacrificing the edge of James‘ magnificent muscular vocals or the band's bracing post-punk intensity.

“We'd written 'A Design For Life,‘ says Bradfield, "and we had a pretty good idea of what kind of sound we wanted. And Mike had just worked with McAlmont and Butler, had already done kind of the sound we were after. We didn’t make a conscious decision. The songs were pretty much going in that direction.

“And he liked all the songs." he continues, “and producers never really seem to think we write good songs. For once in our life, we had some really good choices.“ C'mon, you must confuse the hell out of studio types.

“Oh yeah," Nicky laughs, “We did some stuff with (Pet Shop Boys/New Order producer) Stephen Hague, and the reason we used him was ‘cause we wanted to make a disco record. He was a brilliant bloke, but he couldn't get it out of his head that we were a guitar band. He’d go, ‘You've got to turn the guitars up,‘ and we'd go, ‘No! We want a disco record! Fuck your preconceptions!”

As the title implies, Everything Must Go is the Names clearance sale, a way of ridding themselves of the intense weight placed upon them by Richey's disappearance. The record also marks the band’s grand re-opening, the birth of a bigger and maybe better Manic Street Preachers. They‘ve stripped away much of the delicious bullshit of the past, the costumes, the cartoony hard rock iconography. The Manics are now just three regular guys, homebodies in golf shirts that just happen to make the most dramatic and yes, smart, rock music imaginable. The drastic changes beg the question, why did they remain the Manic Street Preachers?

“We'd already started working on the album before Richey went missing," Bradfield says. “We'd already written songs that would’ve been included, like “Small Black Flowers’ or ‘Kevin Carter‘; they were going to be on there. So it still felt like a Manic Street Preachers record."

“We're quite proud of our name," Wire says, “and we're quite proud of our history. Even before Richey joined the band, we were Manic Street Preachers," “People would always perceive us as being the Manic Street Preachers anyway," notes James.

There have been innumerable comparisons to New Order, who faced a similar situation when Ian Curtis hung himself on the eve of Joy Division's first US tour. “‘Yeah, even though it’s not the same situation," Bradfield says, “Because, to put it bluntly, at least they had a body."

“As Peter Hook said," Nicky points out. “So it's not really the same situation," James continues, “but we were aware how they managed to deflect a lot of questions by repackaging themselves.”

“We were just aware that New Order were the one band to kind of triumph," Wire says, “to come out of the ashes and still get to another level, a different dimension, and still retain a lot of their dignity."

The death cult that deifies sad young men like Ian, Kurt and Richey is constantly on the band's mind, not to mention in their face. Kids attend Manics gigs dressed like Richey, and the fanzine Archives of Pain (from the song on The Holy Bible) welcomes "self-harmers, depressives, etc.," which puts the Manics in a difficult spot. That is, how to support the fans pain at the same time as they are trying to forge ahead.

“It’s not a situation I want to be in. “ Wire says, “'cause it's really difficult. These people you've never ever met in your life who seem to think you're ruining their lives 'cause you’re carrying on without Richey. If you don't want to like us anymore, fine, but don't make out that we’re ruining your lives." Can you help them?

"No," Nicky says flatly. “If we couldn‘t help Richey, l don't think we could help the fans, We tried, God knows, but we couldn't help him."

But don't artists have any influence over the lives of their audience?

Wire is unconvinced. “They don't see us as artists, they just see us as Richey's backing band.”

And what of Richey? The fact that a body has never turned up leads to a lot more optimism than if he‘d been found over a garage with his head blown off. We want him to be alive, which the odds are against, but there's still the distinct possibility that he's pulled an Eddie and the Cruisers, a scenario that allows for a profound sense of hope.

“But it's also a sense of dread," Nicky says. “Because, to come back, it'd completely change our lives yet again. Eighteen months or fear and desperation. A big part of me wants to see him, but a big part of me is just shit scared of it. I mean, if he sent a postcard saying 'I’m alright,‘ then you can start to build the bridges in your mind, rather than if he turned up on my doorstep."

Would you tell us?

"No," Bradfield says flatly. “That’s private." “I thought about that a lot," Wire says, “if he sent a card saying 'Don't show this to my Mum and Dad,‘ or ‘Don't show this to the rest of the band,‘ what would you do? It would just be horrendous, terrifying."

The question of “From Despair to Where?" has been answered by Everything Must Go. At home, the Manic Street Preachers have finally become stars, Thing is, that's no longer important to them. Life became a landslide, and they have managed to stay beautiful with almost-celebratory high spirits and heroic good humor.

“I think that's the only way,“ Nicky Wire says thoughtfully, “We can‘t pretend that it hasn't caused a lot of pain, but we can't spend the rest of our lives acting out. It's just not the way we are. Never has been, Maybe it'll catch up with us in a couple of years. A lot of people seem to think we wanted to attract this myth. All the tragedy is not something we ever wanted."