Veteran alternative rockers Manic Street Preachers are still battling against the establishment, writes Antony Lawes.
It’s no surprise the Manic Street Preachers still think they have something to say. Well into their third decade, the famously opinionated Welsh band that rose to prominence in the early 1990s with songs that were often unashamedly political and spoke of alienation and despair, have just released their 10th album, Postcards from a Young Man. And it seems they are at it again, taking a swipe at the cultural and political establishment.
In All We Make is Entertainment, for example, the previous British Labour government is in their sights for betraying the working class, while Don’t Be Evil talks of the sometimes-negative influence of technology and the internet.
Lead singer James Dean Bradfield says this connection between pop music and politics is something few other bands feel compelled to do any more.
"There’s a lot of this gap-year music where people are only ever going to do one or two albums and are going to get a job in accountancy after their second album," he says. "We’ve been through two world wars, one of the biggest recessions in living memory and no bands write songs about it, none. It’s truly bizarre."
But while their lyrics might still go to places few others do, and the band still strive for creativity to attract new fans, Bradfield admits their latest album harks back to the band’s heady days of Everything Must Go, rather than building on a new sound.
"I’m not going to pretend it’s a ground-breaking record, because it isn’t," he says.
"When you get to your 10th album you either reinvent yourself or you celebrate where the band has been and I think we did the latter. It is a classic rock album with our traditional themes-and-subjects edge to it."
The reviews for Postcards have been generally favourable but rarely gushing. British music paper NME called it a "fighting-strength" album that was "cheesier than a Red Hot Chili Peppers’ sock drawer", while a blog on The Guardian’s website ranged from those who thought it "pure pop perfection" to others who thought it sounded like "an OTT Welsh version of Big Country".
Bradfield isn’t sure that the early Manic Street Preachers would have liked the entire album either. "They definitely would have liked some [songs]," he says, while others would have been a "guilty pleasure". There are four songs with a politicalcultural edge but everything on it can be traced back to the band’s roots, he says.
Bradfield formed the Manic Street Preachers with Nicky Wire (bass), Sean Moore (drums) and Miles Woodward in 1986, in Blackwood. Woodward was later replaced by Richey Edwards, who went missing in 1995 after leaving a London hotel one morning. He was never found.
It took the band six years to release their first album, 1992’s Generation Terrorists, but after that success followed pretty quickly. During their career they have amassed eight top-10 albums and 15 top-10 singles, including several number ones, and twice won best British album and group of the year at the Brit Awards.
But chart success has been leaner in recent years. At the time Postcards was released last month, Bradfield was widely quoted as saying that it was the band’s "one last shot at mass communication", which many interpreted as meaning they were going their separate ways. But Bradfield dismisses such talk. He says the remark came from the band being constantly asked about everything except their music.
"I grew up thinking that God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols meant as much to me as Guernica by Picasso," he says. "Music used to be up there in the cultural landscape but now it’s not. Now it’s a super brand. We don’t want to be a marketing model, we don’t want to talk about our industry and what state of affairs it’s in. We actually want the music to be as important to people as it used to be."
This is why the band still love touring and playing live, Bradfield says. It’s the one thing about the industry they still feel they control.
"I still love the idea you can walk on stage for an hour and 45 minutes and just give it your all and there’s something vaguely quaint and oldfashioned about it," he says. "People still respond in the same way they ever did and I like that."