The Manic Street Preachers are no longer just famous for their missing guitarist. They're the most passionate, contradictory, radical cultural force around and as Welsh as their hero, Aneurin Bevan. Jon Savage reports
It is late August. The Manic Street Preachers have decided to unveil their new material at Cork's modern Opera House. The teeming, predominantly teenage audience seem unaware of the group's turbulent history, reserving their loudest cheers for the songs from last year's Everything Must Go and the rousing chorus of the new single, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. You can tell that the group find this liberating.
Despite their volume, the Manic Street Preachers do not display rock's routine machismo. They've done thrash and now understand the value of tension and release: the ebb and flow of sound and rhythm that mirrors the flux of barely controlled emotions. In their glorious early days, they would come on mascara'd up to the nines, but today their clothing is casual and downbeat. They are no longer boys but men in their late twenties: close enough to summon up adolescent demons, but now burdened with a mythic history that has forced them to find a necessary distance.
Singer James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore are the onstage constants: the one, almost dwarfed by his kit. pounding out the big beat with subtlety and an apparent ease, the other coiling and uncoiling at stage front. his passionate vocals propelling the often complex lyrics above the wall of sound. For all this energy, Bradfield projects nearness and warmth. Nicky Wire is the wild card: the chaos factor that every rock group needs to keep things interesting. Although tall. he projects an androgynous insolence. When, during the song about Hillsborough, S.Y.M.M. (for South Yorkshire Mass Murderer), he pulls his kagoule over his head, he resembles nothing so much as a death's head crossed with Kenny from South Park.
There is a passionate identification between group and audience. All around me, young women - who constitute at least a third of the crush by the stage - excitedly discuss the relative merits and stage behaviour of the three, before breaking into spasms of vertical movement - too clean to be a pogo - which are executed with an infectious abandon. It is clear that the Manic Street Preachers have a wider emotional range than most of their contemporaries: although often couched in historical allusions, their songs determinedly reflect the isolation which, if you can survive, will give you steel, and the loss that can, no, must change your life.
Two days after the Cork show, If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next entered the charts at number one: the forthcoming album, released next Monday. is confidently expected to do the same. The Manic Street Preachers have turned the personal disaster of guitarist Richey James Edwards's February 1995 disappearance into gold with last year's Everything Must Go. With a history so broken in half, the group's new guise has attracted criticism, but it seems to me that success has empowered the Manic Street Preachers to become what they always wanted to be - a passionate, contradictory, radical cultural force.
"I've got my theory of rage," says Nicky Wire in his Cork hotel room, "which is that you can be anywhere but London, which doesn't seem to produce anything. It just acts as a magnet for people to go there and produce useless records. That's why I think Jarvis , Noel and whoever, they lose their way a bit when they go there, because you can't get back to what you left behind. I'm scared of leaving that behind. Apart from that, there is a bitterness in the Welsh that is different from any other place in the world: it's tied with language and identity and all kinds of messy stuff."
The Manic Street Preachers began out of a complex series of childhood and family friendships in Blackwood, a small town halfway up the valley between Newport and Tredegar. "James has been my lifelong schoolfriend," says Nicky Wire: "Sean is his cousin. Richey lived 200 yards away. Slowly the four of us realised that we all liked the same things. It was lovely knowing that there were four of us: a gang of Morrisseys. We were isolated but I revelled in it; it wasn't a tortured isolation. It made me feel totally strong. We'd walk into a pub in Blackwood and we'd be called poofs, and I'd be there looking like one of the New York Dolls. and I'd be scared sometimes, but..."
Inspired by the Smiths, the Sex Pistols, Guns 'N' Roses and Public Enemy, the Manic Street Preachers, as spirited young groups will, took up all the messy stuff and threw it in people's faces. "People did not like us at all in Wales," sighs Nicky Wire. "We only ever did two concerts there with Richey, and no one turned up for them. We were trying to run away as fast as possible." Part of their armoury of irritation was Nicky and Richey's habit of wearing their sisters' blouses: "We were inspired by the Dolls and the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten had an androgynous quality: he was an alien, neither male or female."
In 1991, they hit a capital in thrall to Ecstasy culture. Playing in London dives with groups like St Etienne and Flowered Up, the Manic Street Preachers initially excited derision and incomprehension. But they were fantastic: a riot of mascara and kohl, stencilled slogans ('Useless Generation", 'Culture Slut" 'Picturesque Ruins"), and brief, precise manifestos like 'You Love Us", 'Motown Junk", 'Stay Beautiful". "This is a culture of self-destruction," they'd sing, and you wouldn't question their sincerity.
It was an odd partnership. Bradfield and Moore would take care of the music (which had the same guitar/drums lock as the Sex Pistols) leaving Wire and James to flounce, pout, and bait the audience in performance, and to take care of the lyrics in the studio. "It wasn't as though James would ever come up to us and say, 'you played shit'," says Wire.
Citing radical authors William Burroughs, Guy Debord and Valerie Solanas on their record sleeves, James and Wire constructed compulsive but lucid spews of radical rhetoric that, like the Sex Pistols, sought to critique every aspect of Britain - 'this country pisses debris' - including their own cultural production: 'There's nothing I want to see, there's nowhere I want to go, condemned to Rock 'n' Roll'. Their ideas would not stop: one minute they pronounced themselves a useless rock band, the next they announced that they would make the greatest debut rock album ever and crash in flames.
The Manic Street Preachers did their best to walk it like they talked it - 'We're a mess of eyeliner and spray paint' - but the mass market was slow to respond to such a complex, occasionally indigestible package. Moving from Heavenly to Sony meant top 20 places for songs like You Love Us and Motorcycle Emptiness, but the group's biggest hit came from a cover of the Theme From MASH, (Suicide Is Painless). Generation Terrorists, the album that was going to change the world, came out and didn't, despite its many virtues.
Transplanted to London, the Manics began to lose their way. Despite their puritan distaste for decadence, they simultaneously began to revel in the capital's sleazy rock underbelly, as if everything was so hopeless that they might as well succumb. "We were scared of being too earnest," says Wire today; "If we'd behaved how we felt, we would have been too grey. We wanted to be larger than life. And we enjoyed it." Their second album, Gold Against The Soul, was transitional; the group looked great in the cover shots and La Tristesse Durera was a club hit, but James's lyrics were becoming increasingly impenetrable and uncompromising. Nostalgic Pushead was an ugly tide cloaking a prescient critique of Britrock - 'Hard rock nostalgia the Stones on CD/ tranquilised icons for the sweet paralysed.' This intellectual Tourette's would reach its apogee on the group's next record, The Holy Bible - a relentlessly bleak tour de force, with songs about Auschwitz, abortion, and anorexia leavened with spare rock electronics.
"There's a song called Yes on that album," says Wire, "and it's unbelievable. We can't do it live, because James gets out of breath. Some of the lyrics, I don't know what the fuck they were about. It's not something I can do. I tried to get some clarity, and not so many references. Richey read so much; one of the greatest joys of my life was sitting down at a table and writing songs with him".
By this time, Richey was in trouble. Brilliant, obsessive, he drank to sleep. He stopped eating and watched the results - a process captured on 4st 7lb. When a music press journalist doubted his sincerity, he carved 4 REAL in his arm. "The Holy Bible and Nirvana's In Utero defined that year for me," says Nicky Wire. "There was an atmosphere of mental illness everywhere I went. It was a nasty time. Richey carved 4 REAL into his arm and it wasn't a little pencil thing. I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. Jesus, rock 'n' roll or what, but then you think: 'Well it is a bit extreme, isn't it?'"
"We were touring The Holy Bible and Richey was going mental. In Utero was the only thing that kept me sane. I played it three or four times a day. Richey had come back from Thailand with a bug. That was a terrible trip. I was hiding under the table thinking I was going to be taken away by the military police. I was just so paranoid - no drink or drugs or anything. Richey...something clicked, badly. Then when we came back, the leader of the Labour Party, John Smith died. I was in such a state. I could have left the band."
"Soon after that Richey had his breakdown and went into the Priory. Richey said he could have been doing anything, working in a bank or whatever. Being in a band might have escalated his breakdown, but I think that he was going that way anyway. There's a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in The Holy Bible, in songs like Die In The Summertime. Now you read the lyrics and think, 'How could he write these lyrics if he didn't mean it?"
Richey James Edwards disappeared on February 1, 1995. The only clue was a hire car found in Aust service station car park close to the Severn bridge 13 days later. Since then there has been no confirmation of his death or his continued existence. This is an absence without resolution, a death that can at any moment be restored to life. Nicky Wire: "Ever since Richey disappeared, I always wake up thinking: 'Today my life could completely change'. Every morning, I think 'He could turn up, for a start'. I don't know whether he's alive or not but I have an enormous amount of faith in him as a person."
This is a unique situation. Unlike the suicide of Kurt Cobain, there has been no closure. A Richey James Edwards cult began to grow, as young fans passionately identified with this contemporary poete maudit, pouring out their shared stories of anorexia and self-mutilation in an extraordinary dialogue. The three remaining Preachers were brought up short: from now on, things would have to be different. "I think the anger and nihilism has progressed to something slightly more constructive," says Nicky Wire; "In a way I wish I could still be that nasty. But I'm a much more contented person than Richey and it seemed that I should be more of a social historian."
"After Richey went missing, I began to realise more about where I grew up. I don't know why that was. Perhaps it was trying to understand Richey more. His was the most focused work ethic I've ever known. That had a big influence on us. There was a massive tradition in the coalfields that your parents never wanted you to do what they did. I grew up in a house with hundreds of books: histories, encyclopaedias. My dad was entirely self-taught. In every little town the miners set up institutions, a swimming pool, a cinema, a library: all of it took a hammering after the miners' strike."
The Manic Street Preachers poured these feelings into their first release since James's disappearance, Design For Life. With its explicitly rooted lyrics - "I regard myself as classic Labour" Wire sniffs - and rousing chorus, it became a huge, cathartic hit. At the same time, the group was seen as the spearhead of a new wave of nationally successful Welsh acts like Catatonia, Stereophonics, Super Furry Animals, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci.
"When we began, we weren't identified as Welsh and we never cared about it that much either, we just wanted to be the dominant rock'n'roll band, multinational. But we showed such confidence." From being outsiders in their motherland, the Manic Street Preachers are now national heroes: last Sunday's in-store signing in Cardiff attracted over 3,000 fans. Their new album, This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, is saturated in Welshness: title from Aneurin Bevan, a cover quote from RS Thomas ("I don't like his extremist nationalism, but his poetry is godlike"), a cover photo shot on Morfa Dyffryn, south of Harlech, and songs about Welsh rage (My Little Empire) and insecurity (Ready For Drowning, which also refers to the early sixties flooding of the Tryweryn valley in Merionydd as a reservoir for Liverpool).
While Moore lives in Bristol and Bradfield in London, Wire's home is still where his heart is - in the Valleys. "I live about two miles away from Blackwood and I love it. Everything's really tidy and you still see kids playing. Our background was subliminal until a few years ago, but our parents sacrificed a lot. They were so hard-working. It's not a very rock'n'roll thing to say, but I could not have asked for better parents. But then I don't live a rock'n'roll lifestyle. People don't believe that I can live like that: Richey could never get around that. He couldn't get it into his head that I'd got married. There is a sense that my normality is the scariest thing about me now."
The Manic Street Preachers' album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, is released on Monday. The band is the subject of Close Up this Wednesday on BBC2.