From ridiculed Welsh windbags to revered untouchables - what a sad trip it's been for the Manics
Last week the Manic Street Preachers' fifth album, This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, went straight in at No1. In the same week, BBC2 screened a documentary on the band's career, with its main focus on Richey Edwards, the Manics' former frontman who went missing in 1995.
There was footage of them from 1992, when they were ridiculed "Generation Terrorists", wandering around their small Welsh town, all leopardskin and eyeliner and cheap pixie-boots in the snow. Edwards quoted his own lyrics, saying: "This is what we believe in: culture, alienation, boredom and despair." We relived the early gigs, with the whole audience boiling and rock rock rock, poppy punky rock, loud rock, gleeful rock with guitar solos and bits where there were shouts of: "You love us!" and "Slash and burn!"
Even in later years, when Edwards was desperately ill, the urgent, garbled sloganeering of Faster ("I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer/I spat out Plath and Pinter") was bedded in a dense, exhilarating fist of sound.
Then the documentary would cut to the present, where we found the remaining members of the band sitting, sober and quiet, soundtracked by their current single, If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next, which sounds pale and hollow. There is no push or crackle or flame; no power save that of repetition. And yet this album and single got to No1, as did their previous, similarly timid album, the much-garlanded Everything Must Go.
Their Edwards-era sturm und drang, on the other hand, was a distinctly cultish affair, with increasingly dismal sales. When the Manics were vital and thrilling, they were ridiculed; now they are broken and lulling, they are lionised. So what gives?
Well, since Edwards's disappearance and presumed suicide, the press and the remaining members of the Manics have been locked in a bizarre, mutually crippling relationship. Even three years after the disappearance, journalists seem unable to write about the Manics without a reflex action of pity: they are treated as widows or assault victims.
This reverence stems, in part, from guilt: the Manics, and Edwards in particular, were seen as a massive joke before his disappearance. Their Welshness was the punchline of endless jokes: it was made clear that however rock'n'roll they tried to be, they would not achieve it because of their "incomprehensible" accents.
The Manics were a complex band, always wearing the entirety of the knowledge on their sleeves. They believed that when you went up to "the City", you dressed up, talked up, thought up. They were a gabbling, jumbled mess; a sprawl of non-linear ideas; a binbag full to bursting with quotes, slogans, absolute drunken cobblers and frequent heart-nailing truths.
Edwards would cram so many ideas into a lyric that singer and lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield had to bark like a panicked Japanese general in order to fit them in. "Economic forecasts soothe our dereliction/Words of euthanasia, apathy of sick routine", simply doesn't scan in 4/4, 3/4 - or 7/8, come to that.
So, Neil Kinnock-style, they were lampooned as "Welsh windbags" - the journalist and broadcaster Steve Lamacq, then working for NME, was so disbelieving of their passion that Edwards, in the middle of an argument with him, carved "4 REAL" into his arm with a razor.
Although it was clear at this point that the stakes had been raised, and that Edwards was a very troubled man, the Manics were still seen as a rather over-earnest joke. Even a month before Edwards disappeared, Melody Maker ran an "amusing" article about his anorexic state.
Of course, journalists on the music press are just fans writing on poverty line wages - before the death of Kurt Cobain, nobody in that world had encountered mental illness, or ever suspected that an artist could become so desperate he could take his own life. Following Cobain's suicide and Edwards's disappearance, the press now treads carefully around bruises and wounds.
Alas, this back catalogue of guilt leaves what remains of the Manics in an emotionally complex situation. Fully aware that their popularity was spurred by the publicity around Edwards's disappearance, they seem unwilling to create anything with the old swagger; aware that it was this bravado that led to ridicule, which in turn led to Edwards's increasingly desperate measures to "prove" himself. Where once there was a torrent of imagery, now there is a humbled shrug: the promisingly titled SYMM - or South Yorkshire Mass Murderer - ostensibly about the Hillsborough disaster, offers nothing more than: "The ending for this song/Well, I haven't really thought of one."