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It Was The Best Of Times... - Q Magazine, June 2016

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Title: It Was The Best Of Times...
Publication: Q Magazine
Date: June 2016
Writer: John Harris
Photos: Alex Lake



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...but in so many ways, it was also the worst. On the 20th anniversary of Everything Must Go, John Harris talks to James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire, and Sean Moore to hear how the trio built Manic Street Preachers' greatest triumph from the depths of their despair over missing comrade Richey Edwards.

In January 1991, Manic Street Preachers appeared on a BBC2 show titled Snub TV, a weekly half-hour digest of the latest news from indie-land that worked as a kind of televisual version of the weekly music press. They shared that week's 30 minutes with grunge pioneers Dinosaur Jr, as well as such long-lost sensations as Spirea X, the Darkside and - calm down at the back please - Frontline Assembly.

The Manics' slot was simple enough: footage of them miming to their new single Motown Junk - and interview clips, in which their guitarist and Minister of Propaganda Richey Edwards made most of the running, issuing his customary head-turning statements: "Youth is just the ultimate product", "We just want to mix politics and sex", "We're the most original band of the last 15 years".

Standing just behind Edwards, the Manics' bassist and co-lyric writer Nicky Wire had one contribution of his own, dispensed with all the certainty of youth: "We will never write a love song, ever. Full stop."

Around four years later, as the Manics prepared to work up material for their fourth album and rehearse for an American tour, Wire presented guitarist with James Dean Bradfield with lyrics for a new song titled Further Away.

He wrote them in late 1994, while the Manics were on a grim tour of Europe with Suede. Wire had married his wife Rachel in September 1993, and while pinballing around Italy, Spain, France and Scandinavia and staying in cut-price Ibis Hotels, he had been missing her like mad, as his words straightforwardly announced: "The further away I get from you/The harder it gets for everyone else...The happier I am when I'm with you/The harder it gets when I am alone."

"I remember Nick giving me that lyric," says Bradfield now, "and me going, 'Wow - I'm going to have to chase down that footage. Because you've gone and fucked yourself over man: you've written a love song." In fact, the two of them did not exchange a single word about this sudden about-turn, and two decades later, they still haven't - but as the Manics have been diligently rehearsing Further Away for the run of summer shows at which they celebrate their fourth album's 20th birthday and play it in its entirety, the significance of Further Away as turning-point has been revealed once again.

Playing it now, I've been thinking, 'This was the real start of something different: breaking the most hardcore rule we had," says Bradfield. "Maybe that was the real break from the past - just being more human about things. Not looking at this 10-point manifesto on the wall and saying 'Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir."

Further Away was among a handful of song the four Manics worked on in January 1995, when they gathered at a studio in rural Surrey called House In The Woods. Their last project had been The Holy Bible, that tangled treatise about failure, horror and dysfunction that had been released in August 1994, and encapsulated a phase of their history defined by the death from cancer in December 1993 of their mentor and co-manager Philip Hall (who was only 34) and Richey Edwards' mounting psychological problems. It had also won plenty of praise, although the band's financial position seemed more fragile than ever. "Off the back of The Holy Bible, we thought that was it," says drummer Sean Moore. "We were just waiting for the phone call saying the record company had finally let us go." It subsequently transpired that this dread turn of events had come dangerously close: around this time, the top brass at Sony Music had indeed suggested dropping the Manics, but they had been saved by the casting vote of their A&R man, Rob Stringer.

"Everything was just sounding simpler at that point, really," says Wire. When I listen to Further Away, it just sounds like a great Oasis track, really, doesn't it? And there's no shame in that at all." While in Surrey, the band also worked on No Surface All Feeling, Kevin Carter, Small black Flowers That Grow In The Sky and Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pie, and put various demo versions to tape.

Soon after, Bradfield and Richey Edwards drove to London, and the two of them listened to what had been recorded on the in-car stereo. They were on their way to the Embassy Hotel on Bayswater Road, and from there on a to a promotional trip in America that would blur into a proper US tour. In Bradfield's telling, as they pulled into the hotel's underground car park, he asked Edwards what he thought of the new music. "I said, 'Which one's your favourite?' And he said, 'The others are OK but Small Black Flowers...is the one I really like.' With a shrug of the shoulders, he was a bit ambivalent about No Surface All Feeling; he was a bit ambivalent about Further Away. But he was nailed on to his affection for Small Black Flowers...straight away."

At 21 years' distance, Bradfield looks back on that conversation, and recalls what he says is an "inkling...a feeling", about Edwards's possible sense of increasing creative distance from the other three. By this point, Edwards had suggested that the Manics' next album might somehow approximate a mixture of the US heavy metal band Pantera and Primal Scream's Screamadelica, as well as handing over a collection of characteristically unflinching lyrics, most of which the band would not work on for another 14 years. Though they still worked on each other's lyrics, whereas he and Wire had once been close collaborators, they were now coming up with their words separately, and the House In The Woods songs suggested that the two of them were now sounding very different voices.

Bradfield talks about this in slightly fractured sentences that highlight the delicacy and uncertainty of what might or might not have been in Edwards's mind. "Any process that Richey might have been going through, of thinking, 'I can't live this life' or, 'I can't connect to anybody or anything in the world' or, 'I can't do this' or, 'I can't do that'...If he'd had the internal dialogue of whether him and Nick had become slightly separated as lyricists, if he'd had any doubts that they could co-habit on the same record... If. He never said this out loud... I'm really doing guesswork here.... I'm taking the inference that he would have been thinking, 'I'm kind of going this way - how can I make that fit in with the boys?' He never said that sentence, but I'd been round him enough to perhaps know that might have been in him, a tiny bit."

Then comes his conclusion. "But if he ever had any doubts, then fucking hell, he got it wrong, didn't he? Because if you look at Everything Must Go, the balance between Nick's words and Richey's words make it work. It's brilliant in that sense."

Bradfield, Wire and Moore have arranged to meet Q at Faster, the band headquarters hidden away on a Cardiff backstreet. Upstairs, a TV blares out the latest news from the American presidential primaries; in the ground-floor bandroom, a mess of guitars, drums and wires attests to ongoing rehearsals for the Everything Must Go gigs, which will peak with a stadium show in Swansea on 28 May.

In turn, Wire, Bradfield and Moore take a seat in a darkened studio control room to recount their memories of Everything Must Go's story. Everything they say is informed by ambivalences, tensions and qualifications - not least when it comes to Edwards's role in what they created. Everything Must Go was the first "Mk II" Manics album in that they recorded it as a three-piece and then had the bittersweet experience of its huge success without Edwards. But work on it began while he was around, half its songs feature his lyrics, and some of the album's most affecting moments - most notably, Enola/Alone and Australia - are defined by their raw feelings about his absence.

The morning after he and Bradfield checked into the Embassy Hotel - 1 February, 1995, to be exact - Edwards went missing, and thus began a phase of the Manics' story that was both uneventful, and unimaginably awful. Wire stayed at home in Newport, "just painting, walking up the mountain with my dog... I did a vague bit of cooking, which I was truly awful at. And I played a bit of golf." Moore bought a new house in the suburbs of Bristol, and busied himself doing up its attic. Bradfield, meanwhile, was in London, locked into the same awful predicament as his two friends and colleagues. "The first month post-Richey, you still think something's going to happen," he says. "The second month, you're still thinking, 'We'll get there, we'll find him.' The third month, you start realising that it's the hope that kills you, kind of thing."

He was also conscious that with Britpop in full effect, his contemporaries were piling into the charts, and he could only watch from the margins: "Jealous" is his one-word encapsulation of how he felt about what was afoot. When he watched Oasis's triumphant Top Of The Pops appearance on the occasion that Some Might Say went to Number 1 in April 1995, he says he instantly left his house in Shepherd's Bush, and set out on a long, solitary walk to Marble Arch and back: "I just had to get up, and get out of that room, and just not be near anybody."

"That was beside all the personal stuff, beside losing a friend," he continues. "You've lost a friend, someone you can go out for a drink with...and you're embarrassed to meet his parents, because whatever you're feeling, [they] can times it by 20. But on the other side, I was also fucking really, really confused and jealous and disappointed that we'd lost the focal point of the band. I was like, 'This isn't fair."'

Back in Newport, Wire was trying to write, but he found himself repeatedly coming up with "shit phrases - a lot of shit lyrics, really. "Bradfield would sporadically pick up a guitar and come up with "awful stuff: just terrible, terrible riffing." Meanwhile, Moore - Bradfield's co-tunesmith, who has always been much more than just the band's drummer - shut himself off from music altogether. "I didn't even listen to anything," he says. "Nothing. I just wanted to completely break from it."

By the late summer, though, Wire had come up with two potential sets of lyrics, spread over 20 A4 pages, that suggested some kind of breakthrough. One was titled The Pure Motive, inspired by two episodes of the TV drama Cracker, in which Robert Carlyle played a character set on murderously avenging the 96 people killed in the Hillsborough Disaster (a theme that would resurface on the 1998 Manics song S.Y.M.M.); the other, A Design For Life, was a piece of what he calls "social history", opening with the head-turning line, "Libraries gave us power".

Wire sent them in the post to Bradfield, and the latter straight away surmised that in eloquently exploring the fate of the British working class, the two sets of words were expressions of the same thing. He took the best bits of each, and put them to music he played to Wire at 150 miles' distance. "James literally phoned me up and played it to me, on a guitar," says Wire. "And before he played it, he said, 'It's a bit of R.E.M., a bit of Ennio Morricone, with Phil Spector's sheen.' And I could tell down the phone: straight away, it was, 'Wooah'."

Wire, Moore and Bradfield then tentatively arranged to meet at Soundspace, a rehearsal studio in Cardiff. In Bradfield's recollection, once Moore had insisted on the song's time signature - 6/8, to use the correct terminology - everything fell into place; Moore says the essentials were all in place inside 10 minutes. "After one verse, I remember realising that he was right, and getting swept along. I was just like, 'Fuck - this is brilliant,'" says Bradfield. "It was exciting. It really was. I'd had it in my head for two weeks, I had it in my head on the train all the way down, trying to visualise the moment like a pathetic sportsman." He tells the next part ofthe story in the matter of a footballer recounting the perfect goal: "I've stood in front of Sean, he's done this - it's right. It's going to be amazing. I know this song is kind of going to save us."

The next people to hear A Design For Life were the band's manager Martin Hall (the brother of the aforementioned Philip), Rob Stringer and the producer Mike Hedges. Thanks to his work with such bands as The Cure and Siouxsie And The Banshees, the latter had long been on a list Bradfield kept of his 10 favourite producers, and had been approached to helm The Holy Bible; when he found out that Hedges had produced David McAlmont and Bernard Butler's 1995 hit Yes, released in May 1995, Bradfield was reminded of why. "That's a great record," he says. "And I was like, 'Fuck me - Mike Hedges produced it.' It was, 'Right - let's get him.'"

"Yes was probably the first thing I listened to that summer," says Sean Moore. "It was just so uplifting. And then everything seemed to fall into place."

In September 1995, the Manics duly arrived at Chateau de la Rouge Motte, the studio and country house that Hedges - who Moore describes as "a leviathan of a man" - owned in rural Normandy. When they arrived, he was waving to them from the front door, having doused the fingers of one hand in calvados, and set them alight.

"I absolutely loved it, because it was exactly what I needed," says Bradfield. "We'd never sold a fucking record in France, no one knew us there, I didn't have a mobile phone yet, I wasn't worried about buying the NME or the Melody Maker every fucking week, or Select Magazine - I wasn't worried about any of that. I wasn't worried about somebody wanting to talk about Richey, or somebody saying they'd seen him... to actually be insulated from all of that was just fucking brilliant."

"It had this Addams Family-esque look to it," says Moore. "We were out of the country. We were out of contact."

"It was just really dark and lovely," offers Wire. "Sometimes things would break down in that studio, and Mike would just look at you and say, 'Everything's alright.' And you just believed him. He never, ever panicked, ever. And he was quite loose as well: it's not a supremely tight album. He was funny, and lovely, and we just got loads done. I'd get the NME faxed, page by page [laughs]. And that was it."

In the nearby village of Domfront (population: 3900), Bradfield remembers nightly drinking with Hedges in the village's two bars, one of which had the inelegant name of Le Happy Hour. "I think it was a bit of a divorcees pick-up joint for the outlying farming community," he says.

Wire, by contrast, loved the local stationery shop. He and Moore also immersed themselves in their first extended experience of Sky Sports, and in particular, its coverage of the Ryder Cup. "And we all drank tons of wine," he says. "Just shitloads. I put on about two fucking stone there. Just drinking so much. But not to get pissed. Just...French."

Among the first songs they recorded was a cover of Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head, done in a day for the War Child charity album Help. As well as the material they had worked on at House In The Woods, Edwards's lyrics were used on Removables and The Girl Who Wanted To Be God - both taken by Bradfield from the lyrics later used on 2009's Journal For Plague Lovers.

Enola/Alone, Wire says, came to include two lines that captured his essential state of mind after all the band's travails: "But all I want to do is live/No matter how miserable it is." And Further Away eventually featured a Bradfield vocal done the morning after an endless session at Le Happy Hour: "Bizarrely, because I was so drunk, I was so free, and my voice was so clear...I don't know why. I was numb. And Mike pressed the talkback and said, 'That was very sensitive - you're done."

While all this was going on, Wire worked on successive drafts of the song that would give the album its title, taken from a play written by his brother, the poet and writer Patrick Jones. Everything Must Go up was a pretty direct statement that this a new phase of the Manics' history, and they had to leave behind the more pain-wracked elements of their recent history. He now translates it thus: "You just can't expect us to go through that pain any more. We just can't be that band, cos we'd be shit at it."

After the first tranche of work in France, there was a bizarre episode indeed: a solitary live date, supporting The Stone Roses at Wembley Arena, two days before New Year's Eve 1995. "We just wanted to creep in under the radar of someone else's greatness. Just to get our feet back onstage," says Bradfield; as far as Moore recalls, it was a matter of "let's try out A Design For Life and see what it sounds like - maybe the first and last time in a big room, pretending to be a big band."

As well as working with Hedges, the Manics also tried recording two songs - The Girl Who Wanted To Be God and Australia - with Stephen Hague, the producer who had recently worked on New Order's album, Republic. This ill-fated part of the story played out at Real World Studios, near Bath. "It made us realise that we hadn't really changed, cos there were communal dinners, with other bands," says Wire. "We just thought, 'We can't do that.' So they put our table under the stairs [laughs]. [West Country rock quartet] Reef were in."

"It was terrible, on every level. I can remember it vividly. I felt ill. And everything was fucking... falafel. Everything came with coriander. Or dill. I fucking despise dill."

A Design For Life was released on 15 April, 1996. In its first week, it sold 92,648 copies: in the mid-week charts, it briefly sat at Number 1, before it was overtaken by Mark Morrison's Return Of The Mack. News of its success, says Sean Moore, sparked a mess of feelings: "Relief, vindication - and there was the bizarreness of a song in 6/8 time, with a lyric about libraries. So there was a strange humour in it." There was also a sense of the Manics purposely reining themselves in: purposely blank artwork, anonymous-long casualwear, and a newly quiet Nicky Wire - who finally emerged from onstage purdah at the end of 1996, when he stepped from the shadows at Cardiff International Arena and calmly announced: "If any of you own an Ocean Colour Scene record, you can fuck off now."

Early the following year, the Manics enjoyed the obligatory triumphant evening at the Brit Awards. "That moment when you become the biggest cult band in Britain, and then you go overground - I think a band that doesn't experience that misses out," says Wire. "And it was still happy then. There was no, 'Oh my God, we've got too big.' That did come later. But we were just gliding. Gliding. The only ambivalence was that Richey wasn't there, cos he would have looked, and sounded, and been amazing."

For Bradfield, "everything was topped by bittersweetness. It came crashing down the morning that A Design For Life was Number 2. I remember thinking, 'Fuck - this is bittersweet. And it's going to be like this for a longtime. The rest of this album's going to be like this. And something tumultuous and earth-shattering might happen in the midst of it all. But if it doesn't, everything's going to be bittersweet anyway, so just man up and get on with it.'"

Such has been the basis of 20 more years of Manics history, leading up to the fact that having been together for the best part of 30 years, they are about to play Everything Must Go at a stadium, as much as anything to remind people of their singular achievements. "We've won four Brit Awards," says Moore. "We've won Ivor Novellos, but people forget so quickly these days."

There is one last twist to this story, centered on the long-overlooked song that quietly began the Everything Must Go era, and became the album's penultimate track. Further Away was the first and last Manics song of its kind: they have not written a love song since.