Is football hooliganism really the new rock ’n’ roll and should little boys be wearing Boot’s No.7 blusher? Stuart Clark fears for the moral wellbeing of the nation’s youth as Manic Street Preachers wage holy war against MTV, Take That, Kate Moss and poor old Gerry Ryan.
Flicking through a wodge of press clippings that make the New York telephone directory seem positively skimpy in comparison, you realise that few bands walk it quite as well as they talk it as Manic Street Preachers.
Granted, they sometimes overstep the mark – announcing from the stage that you hope Michael Stipe dies of AIDS is neither big nor clever – but generally the Manics can be relied on to locate a worthy target and rip it apart with the gusto of a psychotic Doberman.
Tonight, for instance, it takes the smirkingly-monikered James Dean Bradfield and the divinely-cheekboned Nicky Wire precisely 125 seconds to savage the Levellers, maul The Wonderstuff and gnaw off an extremely tender part of Gerry Ryan’s anatomy.
“What I can’t fucking stand is pretentious liberal wank,” thunders Bradfield who’s very much a rebel with a cause. “You get these middle-class kids called Nigel and Jeremy wittering on about how they’ve ‘opted out’ and getting a lift down in their Mum’s Fiat Panda to collect the dole. I mean there are people living in tents in Wales who are genuinely self-sufficient and don’t take a penny off the state but your average Levellers fan is just playing at being poor and cynically exploiting the system because they’re too lazy to do anything for themselves.
“That’s why they’ve got all those bloody dogs – in England, if you’ve got three or more, you get an allowance. So what your average crusty does is feed the dogs half-eaten burgers and other shit they find on the streets and spend the money on cider. I tell you, if I was a farmer and a bunch of new age travellers turned up on my land, I’d be straight out there with a shotgun.
“As for the Wonderstuff,” he continues, “they spent 10 years ‘doing it for the kids’ and now Miles Hunt’s gone and joined MTV, one of the most fascist organisations on the planet. Have you been there? Honestly, it’s Bimbo City. You’ve never seen a place where so many people are employed just for their looks – it’s like they’re trying to create some hip rock ‘n’ roll master race. What is it with Americans that they can’t leave anything in its raw state? They take a good idea, suck the life out and pump candyfloss into the corpse.”
“It might be an American disease,” proffers Wire in a cheery sing-song voice that sounds suspiciously like Dai the station master from Ivor The Engine, “but it’s spreading. Another journalist reminded us earlier today of that idiot we had a run in with at the IRMA Awards. What was his name?”
Er, let’s take a wild impetuous guess. Gerry Ryan?
“That’s right, what a smug complacent git!”
For those of you who spent the duration of the 1992 Milk Awards in a sensory-deprivation tank, I’d better explain that the Manics had to be forcibly ejected from The Point after an attempt to disembowel the popular broadcaster.
“We’d just spent four minutes on stage going fucking berserk,” reminisces Wire none too fondly, “and as we came off, this bloke made some smart-arsed comment about us ‘wanting to grow up’.
Looking back now it was fairly innocuous but, you know, the adrenaline was pumping, we were really wired and we thought, ‘you sad old tosser. You’ve obviously forgotten what it’s about’. That’s the trouble with deejays and veejays – any passion they once felt for music has been squeezed out. How else can you explain all those Billy Joel tour jackets.”
At this juncture, I suspect that a sizeable chunk of the Dublin 4 working community are squirming in their swivel-chairs and wondering if Napalm Death t-shirts come in executive paunch size.
Anyway, enough ancient history. The here and now finds Manic Street Preachers going through perhaps the most turbulent period of their six-and-a-half-year career. While Wire and Bradfield are holding court to the Irish press at Bloom’s Hotel and drummer Sean Moore is enjoying a rare rest day, guitarist Richey James is undergoing treatment in a London clinic for what to all intents and purposes is a complete nervous breakdown.
With the band’s predilection for self-promotion, some cynics are suggesting that the reports of anorexia and epic alcohol abuse have been engineered as a grotesque form of publicity stunt. I’m shame-faced to admit that the same unsavoury thought had crossed my mind but as soon as James’ name is mentioned, it’s obvious that his troubles are ‘4 Real’.
“When Richey slashed that on his arm and needed 17 stitches,” Wire confides, “none of us realised quite how symptomatic it was of the shit that was going on in his head. We’ve been friends since childhood, so I knew he wasn’t doing it for the attention, but I never appreciated the extent of his despair or how far he was prepared to go in trying to relieve it The drink, the drugs, the self-mutilation – they’re not so much a cry for help as a release.”
Trite as it may be to compare James to Kurt Cobain, there are similarities between the Manics’ new album, The Holy Bible, and In Utero which are frightening in their implication. When ‘Yes’ pronounces that “I hurt myself to let the pain out” or ‘4st. 7lb.’ alludes to the myth of “such beautiful dignity in self-abuse”, the alarm bells don’t so much ring as detonate.
“I’m not sure what the textbook definition of anorexia is,” Bradfield resumes, “but you don’t expect a 25-year-old man who’s 5’ 7” to weigh 6 1/2 stone. Anorexia is the ultimate negative vanity. It’s a schizophrenic disease whereby you don’t know whether to love or hate yourself which is Richey down to a tee. You can’t control what’s going on around you but you can control your own body by not eating.
“The song isn’t entirely autobiographical though,” he continues. “Having questioned his own identity in such strong terms, I think he’s able to relate to the pressure girls go through thinking they have to look a certain way to be accepted.”
“I’d hate to be 13 and female,” Wire interjects, “because they’re fed so much vacuous pap. What can a young girl get out of Take That apart from a wet vagina? There was a band called EYC who supported East 17 recently and their entire act consisted of simulating sex. They might not be fucking these girls’ bodies but they’re certainly fucking their minds and exploiting their sexuality.”
Doesn’t the real problem lie in the fact that instead of being encouraged to appreciate their own bodies, girls are force-fed images of people like Kate Moss who, minus the make-up and carefully coifed hair, wouldn’t appear out of place in a Serbian refugee camp?
“I don’t blame Kate Moss as much as I do the male publishers and designers who want little girls to look like little boys because they’re living out their paedophile fantasies. The fashion industry exists to manipulate and make money out of people’s insecurities, which isn’t right. They ought to be forced to go into hospitals and mental institutions and see the damage they’re doing.”
Wire admits that it did cross the Manics’ mind to drop out of sight when James was hospitalised but after a spot of Brian Lenihan-style mature reflection, they decided that going public with the story was far healthier than letting the Wapping rumour machine switch to overdrive.
“Yeah,” he nods, “we thought if we were honest and told the truth, they wouldn’t be able to manufacture their own stories. That’s where Nirvana went wrong – if they’d admitted that Kurt was taking heroin and had attempted suicide, there wouldn’t have been nearly as much dirt to dig up. They’d have got bored and picked on some other poor bastard.”
The band are understandably loathe to make rash predictions but are hopeful that their colleague will be fit enough by next month to join them for a full scale tour which kicks off at the Glasgow Barrowlands on October 5th and culminates on the 22nd with a long overdue return visit to Dublin. It’s an option they don’t like thinking about but, if necessary, they’re prepared to go out as a three-piece.
“It’d be an absolute last resort,” Bradfield maintains, “but, yeah, rather than letting everyone down we’d play as a trio. Although what he does on stage isn’t particularly structured, Richey makes a massive fucking noise and without him there’s a big gap which makes the rest of us extra-aware of our mistakes. He’s musical Polyfilla, plugging all the holes.”
The Manics are adamant that the press can crucify The Holy Bible and they won’t care. Despite encouragement from certain quarters to expand on the stadium rock pretentions of Gold Against The Soul, the band have opted to follow John Major’s lead and get back to basics. Unlike the Tories, this doesn’t involve corporate fraud or kinky sex practices but paring songs down to the bone and making sure the producer doesn’t run amok with the Mr. Sheen.
“The others mightn’t necessarily agree,” Bradfield stresses, “but I thought a lot of Gold Against The Soul was shit. We were under enormous pressure – both internally and externally – to produce a big hit album and allowed ourselves to become self-indulgent. Most the songs were based round the theme of lost innocence and as that’s precisely what we were experiencing at the time, we tended to look inwards rather than outwards.
“I don’t agree that we turned into Guns ‘N’ Roses but we were listening to too much classic rock and those influences didn’t sit comfortably with what we’d done before. The Holy Bible took four weeks as opposed to six months to record and the stuff that we were playing on the studio hi-fi was the Clash and Joy Division. That’s more where we’re coming from.”
Whereas Manic Street Preachers have been guilty in the past of borrowing a little too liberally from the Strummer/Jones songbook, The Holy Bible is an album that acknowledges its influences without being overwhelmed by them. It’s also enabled the group to resume the wholesale subversion of our youth, the BBC switchboard receiving a record number of complaints when Bradfield donned a balaclava to accompany the Top Of The Pops rendition of ‘PCP’.
“The terrorist connotation never crossed my mind,” he insists, “I just thought it looked a bit cool. Contrary to opinion, we don’t set out to deliberately shock but if something we do does piss off Conservative voters in Surrey, chances are they deserve to be pissed off.”
Does Nicky mourn those halcyon days when the mere mention of the words “Sex” and “Pistol” was guaranteed to send retired school-teachers from Purley into cardiac arrest?
“Definitely. There’s no tamer culture in the world today than British rock ‘n’ roll. That’s why I admire quite a lot of black rap because it is generally the language they speak and they’re not afraid of offending anyone, no matter how horrible it might seem. Rap is the only kind of music currently achieving a true empathy with its audience.”
An accusation regularly levelled at Britrock is that it’s too insular in its outlook, bands like Primal Scream, Blur, Suede and Stone Roses significantly failing in their attempts to turn domestic success into something more global. The Manics’ career prospects in America and mainland Europe look equally bleak but for reasons possibly pertaining to their use of Boot’s No. 7 blusher, find themselves not just big but huge in Japan.
“Yeah,” giggles Wire in a thoroughly adolescent fashion, “the girls there love boys with cheekbones and they also have this wonderfully naive sense of romanticism which is great because we’re wonderfully naive romantics! The Far East is one of the few places where genuine hysteria can still exist because they haven’t had 30 years of the press hyping up bands to make them cynical. Western journalists mistake that openness for a lack of discernment which is so condescending. A teenager in Tokyo or Bangkok is just as capable of deciding what they do or don’t like as some indie kid in London – maybe more so because they’re not obsessed with fashion.”
“Two of the highlights of the past year,” Bradfield enthuses, “have been playing in Hiroshima and visiting Thailand. The Thai culture, in particular, fascinated me. You’d expect there to be friction in a country where poverty and unbelievable riches sit side by side but there’s none of that. The King’s told them that in 10 or 15 years time they’re going to be the new Singapore and the patriotic fervour is such that they believe him completely.
"Nicky dedicated a song to the King and Queen in Bangkok and then spent two days worrying he was going to be arrested because, technically, he’d committed treason!”
Thankfully, the Manics made good their escape without becoming embroiled in a major diplomatic incident and plan on returning to Thailand in 1995 as part of their most comprehensive world tour yet. Somewhat lower on the list of priorities is the good old US of A.
“Apart from being a major factor in the Wonderstuff’s decision to split,” Wire observes, “I can’t think of anything to recommend America. To be successful there, you have to prostitute yourself and as we’re not prepared to do that, I can’t see us ever rising above cult status.”
They didn’t make a bad job of the World Cup though, did they?
“The stadiums and attendances were good,” he concedes, “but there wasn’t the same atmosphere you’d get in a traditional football playing country. What they needed was a couple of thousand English lager louts going on the rampage. You don’t want to be in the middle of it and you don’t want to see people getting hurt but a big barney at a soccer match is one of the most exciting things there is.
“England always had the best chant – ‘Two World Wars and one World Cup, fuck off!’ – but Wales leads the way when it comes to hooligans. The Wrexham Frontline, Cardiff City Soul Crew and Swansea City Jacks take the English firms on a regular basis. Cardiff went to Fulham a couple of seasons ago and the London boys just ran.”
The suggestion that anyone with family or friends at Heysel might fail to share the Manics’ enthusiasm for the ugly face of the beautiful game provokes an embarrassed silence which James finally breaks by murmuring, “yeah, that was a tragedy.”
A fucking stupid comment’s a fucking stupid comment but in this case, you feel that it’s born out of misguided bravado rather than a genuine sense of malice. A wine spritzer later and Nicky admits that if putting your foot in it was an Olympic event, Manic Street Preachers would rarely be off the winner’s rostrum.
“Some bands sit down with their press officers and plan out what they’re going to say in interviews beforehand but we treat them as everyday conversations. That’s why we’re always contradicting ourselves – one day you’re in a bad mood and complaining about everything and the next you’ve swallowed half-a-dozen happiness pills and want to tell the world you love it.”
“We don’t treat journalists as the enemy,” adds Bradfield reassuringly. “You’re here now talking to us and my attitude is, ‘tell him the truth’. You might go away and twist what we’ve said to suit your own needs but we haven’t got any control over that. To be honest, it’s got to the point now where nothing that’s written about us upsets me.”
Not even the Michael Stipe story?
“If you and a group of your mates go out on the piss tonight, I guarantee you there’ll be the odd sexist comment and the odd misogynist joke but that doesn’t mean you are a sexist or you are a misogynist. With us, though, throwaway remarks get turned into two inch banner headlines in the tabloids. If that’s the price we have to pay for being open and honest, fair enough.”
I risk expulsion from the National Union of Muckrakers for admitting it but he has a point. To redress the balance, perhaps James would like to choose his own headline for this potentially Pulitzer Prize winning piece of prose?
“How about, ‘Journalist Refuses To Buy Round Of Drinks’?”
No, the general public will never believe that!