After all the bluster, politics and loss, Hamish MacBain passionately argues the case for the Big Gig headliners' 18 years of generation terrorism
"I think that we are one of the quintessential NME bands. Of all time," Nicky Wire proclaims, towards the end of a day that he James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore have spent with NME in their tiny studio in the backstreets of Cardiff. It's their first interview together for more than five years and having spent hours going over the glorious (sometimes glittering, often grim) history of Manic Street Preachers, we've now broached the subject of their imminent Godlike Genius NME Award.
It was just a genuine, genuine, genuine thrill when we heard the news," he continues. "I mean. I remember saying to James last year - in one of my more hyperbolic moments - that I was gonna get in the fucking Cool List and we were going to win the Godlike Genius award. Just to be recognised in the magazine that - let's be honest - helped form us, was a great feeling. There's got to be kids who saw that Richey cover last week and thought, 'Where have this band been all my life?' That's what it's about."
And he's right. Of course he is. When each year at NME we're discussing - or, more accurately, incessantly bickering about - upon whom to bestow the honour of Godlike Genius, there are many factors to consider. There's nothing, nothing more frustrating for us than hearing an amazing band only to discover that the singer wears appallingly crap jeans they have shit-all to say about anything whatsoever in interviews and, fundamentally, don't get that being in a rock'n'roll band is about so much more than just making nice melodies for people to whistle on the way to work. Maybe these bands will brighten up a school run or two million but they will not be winning the Godlike Genius award, ever. And obviously they'll say that they don't care - because awards are 'bullshit" and "it's all about the music', right guys? (They are pretty much always guys, these people.)
Well, no. You're wrong, Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong. Sorry, but if you read NME, if you're a band in NME, if you work at NME, if you've ever moaned about who's on the cover of NME, you know that it isn't "all about the music" at all. You are hopeful/sad/naive enough to believe that a band can change things. You feel a shiver whenever you think of Elvis' hips, of Mick Jagger's lips, of David Bowie tonguing Mick Ronson's Les Paul, of the Pistols calling Bill Grundy a "fucking ratter' on daytime TV, of Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass' video, of Morrissey's quiff (and his stating in interviews that he "gets incredibly erotic
about blotting paper"), of Liam's endless succession of amazing coats (and equally amazing put-downs), of those first black and white photos of The Strokes, of "There are few more distressing sights than that of an Englishman In a baseball cap", of the Beth Ditto naked cover, of Klaxons Mercury Prize acceptance speech. If it's "all about the music"., we can do without all of the above, cant we?
Now go and look at some pictures of the Manic Street Preachers circa 'The Holy Bible'. Consider interview quotes like, "We are the decaying flowers in the playground of the rich", agreeing with Warhol that "The most beautiful thing in London is McDonalds" or "Smash Hits is more adept at poisoning young minds than Goebbels ever was" (and If you don't know who Goebbels is and have to look it up, that's exactly the point). Imagine how much more you'd like Foals if, Instead of rubbishing the notion of there being a saviour of rock'n'roll (like. duh!) and insisting all they listen to is minimal Belgian techno, they said they wanted to blend Guns N'Roses with Public Enemy, make one double-album that would sell 16 million copies and then split up. Or If they just called a song 'You Love Us'. Stop worrying about whether or not it was irresponsible and think about what an incredible gesture the '4 REAL' thing was - what better way could there possibly be to silence the cynics who don't believe you mean what you say? Try to find a better opening couplet than "Libraries gave us power/Then work came and made us free". Remember how good it was last year when Nicky Wire described The Killers as being "morally corrupt". And, if you must worry about tunes, go and play 'Motown Junk', Motorcycle Emptiness', 'La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh)', 'Faster', 'A Design for Life', 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next', 'The Masses Against The Classes', 'Your Love Alone Is Not Enough' or 'Autumnsong'. Loudly.
This is how Manic Street Preachers became Godlike Geniuses. Notebooks at the ready eh?
1.WRITE AMAZING LYRICS. OBVIOUSLY
Which other band refer to Norman Mailer, Mensa, Henry Miller, Harold Pinter and Sylvia Plath in the space of one couplet ('Faster')? Or Boris Yeltsin, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Hindley and Brady, Allitt. Sutcliffe, Dahmer, Nilsen, Yoshinori Ueda, Blanche and... OK, you get the idea. The Manics are famous for their lyrical references - take the briefest of looks at fansite The Manics Encyclopedia (http://home.arcor.de/starluver/manics/tme.htm) and you'll find...well, an encyclopedia. Those who call them pretentious ("It's always, 'He's swallowed a dictionary," Nicky sneers) overlook the courage of their convictions: on the release of The Holy Bible - from which all the above references are taken - their label took out a centre-spread advert in NME that reprinted the album's lyrics in their entirety. "I remember Just watching Richey producing those lyrics," adds Nicky, "and thinking, 'I can't really add to this I don't really feel like this."
Yet while this may be true of their masterpiece (Nicky telling NME that the lyric-writing credits on it were "80:20 in Richey's favour"), such eloquence has remained a constant throughout the Manics' career. "We've got some of the best opening lines of any band ever," adds James. "The opening couplet of [first Number One single., words penned solely by Wire] 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' - "The future teaches you to be alone/The present to be afraid and cold": 'A Design For Life'. Fucking amazing opening line."
2. DARE TO DO THINGS NO OTHER BAND WOULD
Examples? Getting a former porn star - Traci Lords - to sing the chorus of their single 'Little Baby Nothing' (a song about the sexual exploitation of women); hilariously, around the time they released Gold Against The Soul', supporting Bon Jovi on tour (James: I remember [Jon Bon Jovi] going, 'I'd like to say thank you to...the Maniac Street Preachers!"); or, most notably of all, launching their sixth album 'Know Your Enemy' with a gig in Havana - a gig that was witnessed by a man who for nearly half a century presided over a communist state that lies less than 100 miles from the US. "Other bands go to Number 10 and shake hands with Tony Blair," Nicky said at the time. "We come to Cuba and meet Castro."
"The Cuba gig was the biggest anomaly a band can have. It's the most folly-esque thing we've ever done," says James. "But, in terms of meeting him, we can't say that it was this glorious experience, because we can't stand by everything he stands for." Indeed, the NME letters page at the time was full of people questioning both the motives and the symbolism of the trip. "The press conferences were hardcore, just people wanting to crucify us for even being there," remembers Nicky. "I remember Sean getting really annoyed."
Sean: "It was just this guy from BBC News..."
James: "Dont get started again!"
Sean: "No, but he was saying he'd lived there for 10 years, and was asking what we were gonna do for the Cuban people...like, what have you done?"
James: "It just made me realise that we were people that were really fucking interested in politics but that doesn't mean you can be a politician."
Nicky: "I just think we looked so shit that's what ruins it for me."
3. LEARN TO BE A GREAT MUSICIAN, BUT DON'T LET ON THAT YOU CARE
Much has always been made of the fact that Richey was "never plugged in" at Manics gigs ("There ought to be a union to stop people like you," a member of '90s indie nobodies The High once spat at him on being informed by the Manics' mouthpiece that he had not played on his own bands records). Certainly he - and in the very early days, Nicky too - took pride in their lack of virtuosity, boasting to NME in '91, "A&R men come up to us and tell us to learn to play our instruments. Don't they realise we don't care?" This came to unfairly include the other two Manics who could, as Nicky puts it, "play any other band off the park". And still can. "Sean and James were rocks at that time," he smiles. "Plus, Richey not being plugged did get mythologised."
James is even more clear on this particular issue. "I don't want to be melodramatic, but I swear on my mother's agrve he was always plugged in and he was always in the PA. It's just that sometimes he was... very low. When we started playing as a three-piece I definitely missed the barrage of barre chords coming from his side of the stage. It wasn't just visual, he was still important"
Nicky: "However he did once ask James, 'Is there not one chord that I can play that just goes through everything?' A mythical Sonic Youth chord."
4. GIVE GLORIOUS INTERVIEWS
Here are five amazing Manic Street Preachers quotes:
1) "We wanna be the biggest rock'n'roll nightmare and take the monarchy and the House Of Lords with us."
2) "All we've ever wanted is the reality of oblivion - to get jackplugged to hell."
3) "There is more self-hate in this band than anyone can realise. We hate ourselves totally"
4) "We are the most original group. By denying ourselves a past we are trying to find a worthwhile present out of this junky wreckage of life."
5) "Wipe out aristocracy now. Kill kill kill. Queen and country dumb flag scum. We are drowning in manufactured ego-fuck. Boredom bred the thoughts of throwing bricks."
Now consider that these are all taken from the Manics' first NME interview which only contained about 400 words.
5. LIVE BY YOUR OWN (STRICT) RULES
"We were very militant," says James Dean Bradfield of the Manics' earliest days. The days of spray-painting their mums blouses with 'SPECTATORS OF SUICIDE' or 'KILL YOURSELF (James: "That one was a wee bit harsh"), of keeping files on music journalists so they knew who liked what, of an obsessive attention to detail. "You'd be told off by someone in the band for buying the wrong thing or wearing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing," he continues, "No excess. The clothes had to be tight and clean. We had to represent something that was ferocious and pure."
"You couldn't take drugs," adds Nicky "Except speed, because it makes you energetic and because The Clash did. Not that any of us took speed. When Richey first smoked a joint in the back of the bus - that was really serious."
James: "You couldn't like The Beatles - too bouncy. It used to piss Nick and Sean off that I'd listen to Jeff Buckley's 'Grace'. I just stopped fucking listening to it in the end. Like, 'OK! OK!"
Nicky: "And no girlfriends. No love songs."
James: "Sean always broke that one."
"Always kept it separate," Sean smiles. "Kept it hidden away."
6. RECOGNISE WHEN YOU'RE GOING WRONG
"There are two periods where we really lost our way," Nicky admits. "And that's around (second album) 'Gold Against The Soul' and (seventh album) 'Lifeblood'. They're just...lulls."
James: "With Gold Against The Soul we were trying to be an authentic young, punk rock'n'roll band, à la [The Clash's] 'Give 'Em Enough Rope'. We tried to find some sort of authenticity on that record that wasn't us. And then, on 'Lifeblood', we barely played in the same room. It was created in some kind of virtual studio space. We wanted something that sounded detached, we just didn't quite know what from. That was the problem."
The thing with the Manics is that where most bands would tail off into insignificance, they kick themselves up the arse.
Nicky: "The barometer of being fucked as a relevant band is: are you headlining Guilfest? And I think we were offered it the year of 'Lifeblood' but we went, 'No way are we doing that'. Nothing against Guilfest...but I Just felt mortally wounded. The attention on the band at that point was dead."
James: "There was a horrible moment, too, around 'Gold Against The Soul' when we were doing these awful indoor fucking festivals in Europe and then, as we got back to Britain, we were on the train going past Reading Festival and we could hear Blur playing. Just going back to Wales and thinking, 'Where the fuck did it all go wrong? Nobody's interested.' But without 'Gold Against The Soul' there wouldn't be 'The Holy Bible'. There Just wouldn't."
Nicky: "And with 'Lifeblood' we'd recorded about 30 songs or something, so for 'Send Away The Tigers we only did about 12, because we Just didn't want to forever prevaricate into the merits of loads of stuff that was just fucking B-sides."
7. BE CLOSER THAN FAMILY
Manic Street Preachers were born in James' parents' house, on bunk beds shared by Sean and James. Here, from an early age, they would play and discuss Public Enemy or Guns N'Roses, study NME and Melody Maker, formulate plans and ideas and develop a closeness that would get them through bad times which would have seen off a lesser band. There was and is love - a bond deeper than blood - and this is how they can speak so openly about Richey's disappearance.
Nicky: "I'm glad we lived in a pre-tabloid society when Richey went missing. I mean, there was door-stepping but if you transported our early incarnation to 2003, how scary would that have been? I dread to think..."
Sean: "Sky News: 'Where is he now?' With little flags all over the country?
Nicky: "Imagine all the mobile phone footage of Richey lookalikes now. When he was supposedly spotted in Goa"
Sean: "There'd be journalists going over taking endless photos of furlong vagabonds playing guitar: THERE HE IS!"
8. LOOK INCREDIBLE
From their earliest eyeliner and spray-paint days to 'The Holy Bible' period combat gear and Nicky Wire's glorious insistence on growing old disgracefully in lurid old ladies' dresses, Manic Street Preachers have always - well OK, by their own admission, not always - looked amazing. "No band has ever looked as good as us in 'The Holy Bible' military gear," Nicky Wire proclaims. And he is right.
9. RESPOND TO YOUR DARKEST DAY BY MAKING YOUR MOST SUCCESSFUL ALBUM
Nicky: "Everything Must Go is our greatest album because it's all the elements of the band. Its Sean's trumpet. James' fucking vision, strings, Spector, my social conscience and it's still got Richey's genius in 'Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky' and 'Kevin Carter'. It's the ultimate distillation of the four of us. And it was such an empowering time, to have all that weight of credibility, plus a mass audience. That Brits speech, where I'm saying: 'All the comprehensive schools produce the best artists!' I felt powerful that night"
James: "And the way we voiced our bittersweetness about Richey not being around was we'd say something like, 'Imagine if Richey was still here - he'd have copped off with Kate Moss easy!' And he fucking would have! It felt like vindication for everything that night."
Sean: "I was just pissed off I had to play in my Gucci loafers."
10. PLAY SOME OF THE GREATEST GIGS IN ROCK'N'ROLL HISTORY
The gig that turned out to be Richey Edwards' final live appearance with the Manics, at the London Astoria in December 1994, climaxed in an orgy of destruction, with the band smashing £8,000-worth of gear to pieces. At the time, we did think that was the final show," admits Sean. "That's why we smashed it all up."
More triumphant was Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on Millennium Eve, with return-to-roots single 'The Masses Against The Classes' primed to chart at Number One.
Nicky: "That was kind of our Knebworth - as close as we're ever gonna get to being that powerful. So from then on it has been a real struggle to follow. We'd kind of reached the apex of all our dreams. If there ever was a time to split up, it would have been then. That's retiring with your 100 per cent record intact."
James: "I know, but to do a Gary McAllister and win an FA Cup medal late in life is... sweet."
We'll see what the FA can do. lads. In the meantime take in the honour of Godlike Genius with our sincerest thanks.