The Manic Street Preachers' career, once described as the longest suicide note in rock 'n' roll history, may soon be signed off. The Welsh band's future has been in doubt ever since they first emerged in 1990 and vowed to make one 10 million-selling album, play three nights at Wembley and split.
Although they soon broke that promise, the self-destructive antics of Richey Edwards insured the Manics' notoriety. When he disappeared, after leaving his car parked close to a well-known suicide spot near the Severn Bridge in February 1995, it seemed unlikely that his bandmates would continue. But, ironically, it was without Richey that they went on to have their greatest success with the No 1 Brit Awards-winning Everything Must Go album.
But now, after two poorly performing albums - 1999's This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours and 2001's Know Your Enemy - the Manics' current Greatest Hits album and tour looks like an admission of defeat from the former cross-dressing punk rockers.
Bass player and lyricist Nicky Wire has admitted finding more fulfilment in gardening than in the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. He has long dreamt of an anonymous retirement. "I want to be like the writer JD Salinger and never be seen again," he says.
An unlikely scenario. Like every ageing rocker, Nicky will no doubt want to cash in his pension plan with a comeback tour in the distant future. But, in 2002, the Manics look an increasingly tired force, as a listen to Door To The River, a melancholic new song on their Forever Delayed Greatest Hits album, makes clear. It is the sound of a band looking for the exit door. To a young audience, their radical poses look awkward and out-of-date.
"Well, I do feel sorry for kids today," says Nicky. "When I was growing up I had Morrissey and John Lydon, awkward, mental-looking people, to aspire to. Today everybody is obsessed with beautiful teeth and bodies, and going out, kissing people, getting drunk. It all seems to be in a state of disrepair."
The Manics' problem was that they were a band born out of time. They emerged from university quoting revolutionary tracts, in awe of punk godfathers the Stooges and The Clash, but musically they couldn't match their idols. When they found their feet with 1992's Motorcycle Emptiness, the sound was more stadium rock than punk rebellion.
The Manics boasted of their intelligence but they were famous for making stupid public pronouncements. They complained about macho lad culture but then Nicky stated, "I hope Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury".
When Nirvana's Kurt Cobain committed suicide Nicky said he "found the idea frighteningly powerful. I've always been a sucker for that". Perhaps the Manics were also suckers for the disturbing antics that marked Richey's path of destruction before his disappearance. He regularly lacerated himself onstage, drank himself into oblivion and suffered from bulimia.
Richey's hospitalisation in the Priory Clinic came after he completed the harrowing, suicidal songs for 1995's The Holy Bible - a prime candidate for the bleakest album ever recorded - which set alarms bells ringing within the band camp. But it was too late. A spell in rehab and the concern of his colleagues weren't enough to prevent Richey's departure.
The group's progress since has been marked by his absence, and the Manics have tried to honour his memory with dignity. When singer James Dean Bradfield was presented with the Brit Award for Best Band in 1997, he dedicated it to the "coolness and intelligence of Mr Richey Edwards".
Audiences flocked to see them, and the group admitted that many new fans were there because of the mystique Richey's vanishing act gave them. But without him they became the sort of faceless workmanlike outfit they had always railed against. And they could not shake off the spectre of the missing man.
"He's still a presence in the group. We've never filled his gap onstage, even though James could do with another guitarist," says Nicky. "But it's as a friend that Richey's really lost. I played football with him in primary school way before the band started. Every day he's always there."
The band is tight-lipped about their next plans. The Greatest Hits album and tour may give them a boost of confidence, but the future is uncertain. On February 1 this year, Richey had been missing for seven years, long enough for him to be declared dead. Surely, it can't be long before the band he made famous joins him.