Manic Street Preachers were set to break the US in 1995. Then Richey went missing. Now, they face their demons and take his lyrics over the pond.
Tonight we beg the question: if a band in their 19th year, having all but neglected the USA their entire career, suddenly decide to give it another go, will anybody give a shit?
You join us at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live, a bizarre combination of dinner theatre and rock venue. Upstairs there's a refined whiskey tasting. Downstairs, the Manic Street Preachers are playing to a room of little more than 500 fans. The stage isn't big enough for their 'Journal For Plague Lovers' banner, so the bloodied face is cut off at the nose. Philadelphia won't exactly die of devotion, but for the pockets of people here who have been waiting so years to see their heroes in action, it's like an occult benediction in eyeliner. There are calls for obscure B-sides such as 'Sculpture Of Man'.
One 16-year-old girl has driven the 12 hours from Kentucky to this, the nearest show. With her girlfriend. Wearing a Russian Communist Party T-shirt. The fact there are communist lesbians in Kentucky is more surprising than the fact they will be drawn to the Manic Street Preachers like flies to shit. After the show, the band - who play enormodomes and stay in plush hotels back home - stand outside signing things for almost every single member of the audience before trudging into the bus which has been their home for the past three weeks. It's most irregular.
JOURNAL FOR ROAD LOVERS...
Earlier today, sat on the bus, we asked the most obvious question: why after so years would three 40-year-old men willingly spend three weeks living on a bus playing to crowds a fraction of the size they're used to?
"I don't know if there was a greater bit of symbolism, but genuinely I think there's a bit of guilt involved," says Nicky Wire. "The small but loyal following we have are extremely dedicated, and it's really brought it horns how much people care. We've driven all the way from the west coast through Middle America, some nights have just been 300 or 400 people. We're just putting it on every night, you know, pretending we're young."
Nicky reckons that their absence for so long stems from a combination of economics and laziness. "We'd never have broken the country anyway, so we just didn't bother." And playing Cuba so pointedly in zoos didn't exactly help their visa situation. But this being Manic Street Preachers, nothing is ever quite that simple. Yes, they did return briefly during the 'This Is My Truth...' period, but as any fan will know, the United States is tangled up in the tragedy that has always defined them. Strange to think now, but 1994's 'The Holy Bible' was supposed to be the Manics' big American push.
"It was the one time our record company were like, 'We can do this, we know how you do this,'" says James. "They said, 'This is college radio and you're super-weird guys and there's a super-weird punkiness.'"
There was even a polished US mix of the album (later released on the deluxe edition) and they looked like having a real shot. On February 1, 1995, James and Richey were set to fly over for a promotional tour. This was the day Richey vanished.
James nods. "I think it was a tiny bit of a bad memory of America, me getting on the plane, Martin [Hall, the band's manager] saying, 'Just get on the plane and I'm sure when you get to the other side Richey will have called me. And of course he never did. It's there in the background, I suppose."
What's really going on here is the next stage in a process of redemption that began when they got their groove back with 'Send Away The Tigers, prompting us to give them the Godlike Genius Award, which then fuelled their confidence so they felt comfortable unearthing the cache of lyrics that Richey left behind to form 'Journal For Plague Lovers'. Wittingly or not, the Manics are on a mission to make peace with their past.
"Definitely," says James, "and there was a bittersweet irony of coming back to America with Richey's record. And that felt nice. It was nice to foist Richey upon people again in a different country. I didn't think about it like that, but for these last four years or so we've been happier as a band. So, maybe with that happiness we've disavowed ourselves of certain insecurities."
Nicky agrees. "'Send Away The Tigers' was the turning point. From 'Know Your Enemy' to 'Lifeblood' there was a stoic bitterness about us that didn't connect with people. I still think there's moments of brilliance on the records, but after that gig at the Millennium and then 'The Masses Against The Classes' going in at Number One, that was our Knebworth moment, 'This is as subversive as we're ever gonna be.' And we just struggled for five years. We were just wandering around trying to find our voice again." What changed? "I think us getting back in the studio in Cardiff and not listening to anyone else but ourselves, really. We reconnected with the people that we were in 1992; we reconnected with ourselves and everyone else followed."
And so, while the UK 'Journal For Plague Lovers' tour was an intense and draining experience (Nicky's prolapsed disc adding physical pain to the already painful memories) this could not be more different. The band are having a hoot, watching Larry Sanders DVDs, bitching about bands and, as Nicky announces with glee," listening to 'Gold Against The Soul' and marvelling at the sheer awfulness of it!"
"It's just made me realise we just get on so well. It's bizarre, we're 40 years old and we're still sitting on a bus together for fucking three weeks."
Shorn of the meathead element that came with their British enormity, these are perhaps the purest Manic Street Preachers gigs you could ever hope to see. Nicky explains, "There's everyone from the straightest of straight guys wearing shirts to the freakiest of the freaks. I was in Minneapolis, and I'm a big American football fan, and they were just really surprised that the guy in eye make-up and a dress likes [legendary quarterback] Brett Fevre!" In Los Angeles he spends hours walking invisibly down Sunset Strip, fantasising. "I still feel like I could actually go there and live in the hills for six months and try and write a script," he says. James was more moved by the dignity of Detroit. We do wonder, though, having reconnected with their essential fagginess, if they copped any shit in the more 'conservative' Midwestern towns. But not at all.
"The Midwest is notoriously accommodating," says the singer. "People will stare at you and ask you questions but wouldn't let you go without. I do see how artists become obsessed with American life because you realise you're not touring a country, you're touring a series of territories. The way people talk, the way they act, what they call a certain cut of steak, it's all fucking different Why didn't we come back for so years? It's one of the most insane things we ever did."
A VERY SERIOUS QUESTION...
To paraphrase an old Richey lyric: in the age of Obama, can whiteamericatellthetruthforonedaywithoutitsworldfallingapart?
James: "Only if Hillary helps him to stop being vainglorious in his 'I have a dream' speeches. His Olympic speech was really bad. It was terrible, it was hokey and it had nothing to do with the Olympics, and he's just got to cut down jutting his jawline out. If Hillary can balance him and say, 'We need nuts and bolts politics, we just need you to be a really good politician, we don't need you to be a posterboy any more,' then I think well be OK."
Nicky: "It's a really good question because I must admit, over here, I do think the humbling of America, economically over the last few years, the end of the superpower and obviously then electing Obama... I'm not expert enough because I haven't been here enough, but it does feel like a slightly nicer country. I don't know about the TRUTH! (laughs). I just think it seems slightly more at ease with itself, they realise that they're not the only country in the world. Whether it's China, whether it's Russia with gas and oil whether it's the European Union... I do think the humbling has been a good thing."
LAST, WE TAKE MANHATTAN...
A two-hour drive and we find ourselves at soundcheck at Webster Hall in Manhattan's East Village. The Manics could not look more nervous. See, New York has the worst memories of all. Their first show, Nicky told the stunned crowd "the only good thing about America is that you killed John Lennon". The second time went slightly better, with two shows at the Bowery Ballroom, until James got a bout of disco laryngitis and had to pull the second night. They returned to record 'Lifeblood' with Tony Visconti, a process Nicky describes as "fucking awful". "We stayed in the Soho Grand and wasted about £30,000 walking round SoHo having a brilliant time but not getting anything done. Tony's original mixes were really good, we just bastardised them and went mad. I think we just thought we were Depeche Mode!"
Visconti hasn't held it against them. He's here tonight, as is Rob Stringer, the man who first signed them, now ascended to the King Of All Sony Music. As are, arm, The Ting Tings. As are 1,500 people who never thought they would ever get to hear 'La Tristesse Durera' and 'Faster' and 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time' performed live. Dressed in blazer, badges and sailor hat, Nicky scissor kicks with all the gusto he did at the Millennium Stadium. The afternoon of nerves and the so years of troubles bum away with every re-energised powerchord.
James has to warn the audience that they're not being rude, it's just band policy to never do encores. And as they chime into 'A Design For Life', an emotional Bradfield bellows, "thank you New York, we love you from the bottom of our filthy Welsh hearts!" and promises they'll be back in two years. A strong Manic Street Preachers is essential to rock'n'roll's health. And here is a band energised, limbering up for a staggering fifth act of their career.
You love US. And the US loves them.