Photographer discusses new exhibition and book, Assassinated Beauty
No band has a history quite like Manic Street Preachers - three decades of tragedy, triumph, glamour, politics and controversy. With that colourful past, comes an incredible visual history. It stands to reason that she catch the eye of one of rock's greatest photographers.
Having helped turn the likes of The Smiths and Joy Division into icons with his legendary shots, Kevin Cummins met the wide, kohl-lined eyes of the Manics in the early 90s - shooting them again and again over the coming years as they evolved from 'a mess of eyeliner and spraypaint' to stadium-filling people's champions, from leopard print to leather to fragmented uniforms, from a four-piece to a trio.
Kevin Cummins has now compiled the best photos he took of the band from 1992 to 1995 in a new book and exhibition, Assassinated Beauty. To celebrate the launch at London's Proud Galleries this week, we spoke to Cummins about meeting the band, their visual power, similarities with Joy Division, their legacy and life after Richey
Obviously the sound and attitude of Manic Street Preachers had an immense impact in the early days, but what would you say made the Manics so visually powerful during that era?
Initially, I think they looked like two separate bands, to be honest. Nicky and Richey very much had their own look, and the other two weren't quite sure what they wanted to look like at the time. On stage they were very much a unit with their white jeans and so on. Obviously, it was slightly derivative and a bit like The Clash...but it was for a generation who hadn't seen The Clash. Then they grew in confidence and grew into their look, and they changed their look with every album or every tour. But it wasn't just a stage look - it was what they were. They always played the part and they believed in what they were doing.
Manic Street Preachers in Paris in 1992
When they arrived in 1991, they were a million miles from the prevailing baggy and 'Madchester' scene, then as time went on they stuck out like a sore thumb in the Britpop era. Did you get the sense that you were shooting 'a band apart' throughout this era?
Yes, always - and that's what I like about them. I liked the fact that they were very true to themselves and didn't feel as if they had to conform to anything. I think they've stayed true to that, to this day. They're still angry, they're still political and very opinionated. I also like the fact that they believed, even when they started, that they were the best band in the world. If you believe that, then you are.
Obviously, they had a very clear vision of their aesthetic. How was it directing them on photo shoots and did you feel as if you had to 'earn their trust' as it were?
I think I already had that. I was lucky in that I came to meet them as somebody who had photographed one of their favourite bands, so they were quite excited that I wanted to photograph them because they loved Joy Division. That was an icebreaker. I spent a lot of time with them, went on various tours with them and shot them in the photographic studio as well and on location. I actually probably did more studio shots with them than with any other band, because I always felt that the way they looked suited the studio and we could control what we were doing a little bit better. There was a mutual trust there all the time, and we got on well. When we went to Bangkok [in 1994], we did loads and loads of pictures. I remember later Nicky saying "I think Kevin should publish a book of his Bangkok photos, but he only took about 20, the lazy bugger."
I actually took about 20 rolls on that trip, and it looked great. Halfway through that cover shoot where they're stood by the river, I'm focussing on Richey and James in the foreground, because you can't look at all four at once, and I suddenly noticed that Nicky had disappeared and he was being sick in the canal next to us. It was so hot and humid and the water sank. The rest of the shoot he looked decidedly green, and that suited him actually.
Manic Street Preachers in Bangkok, 1994
From their transformation from the 'stadium rock Bon Jovi' look of Gold Against The Soul, to the stark, military dystopian image of The Holy Bible, what did you make of their new look in their uniforms?
I'd photographed them in their long hair and leather jackets and then suddenly there was another fashion change. I shot the two dates in Bangkok on the stage where you get a real sense of excitement because you almost feel like you're part of it. To this day I still feel like they're an incredible powerful live band. I've never gone to a Manics gig and thought 'oh my God, you're boring me'.
Manic Street Preachers on stage in 1994
How would you describe the band's temperament, shooting them in 1995 after Richey had left?
It was very odd for them. If he'd clearly died and been found then everybody could have moved on, however tragic that is, there's always a sense of closure. With a body having never been found, that always makes it difficult. There's always that 1% of you that thinks 'Is he somewhere else?' - still 20 years on. The first time that I photographed them as a three-piece, it was quite difficult. I was so used to shooting them as four, and shooting Nicky and Richey together. It was quite a mellow trip really, and knocked the stuffing out them a bit. They weren't as cocky as they were and their look was more casual - 'Here we are in street clothes'. They didn't have the confidence to go on another step. It was a sort of sideways step, I felt. We did pictures of them in LA, trying to crack America again without really putting their heart into it.
Do you think that sense of uncertainty comes across in the photos?
To me it did. There was always a swagger to them, but the pictures I took of them in LA were much more melancholic.
James Dean Bradfield in 1995
Of the images in the exhibition, which would you say are the most revealing?
I always think that individual portraits are stronger than a band shot. There are some lovely solo shots of Richey, and there's one of him clinging onto the body of a female statue - almost like he needs it for warmth and support. It looks like a shot taken in total isolation, but as I was doing that picture, James and Nicky walked past and Nicky shouted at him "Fucking hell, Edwards - you'd do anything to get on the cover of NME."
One thing the band often say is how they get frustrated with how Richey's story is often painted as a Hollywood legend, when Richey was actually very human and more Blackwood than Beverley Hills. He drove a Vauxhall and was quite self-deprecating. Do you think these photos help tap into that?
No, I think I think I helped to form the idea that he was a star, really. I think I did that with Ian Curtis as well. Not so long ago, I said to Hooky 'I've spent 30 years protecting the Joy Division legacy, and you've written a book about him pissing in ash trays'. I think with Richey, he looks like a star, and I wanted him to be one. There aren't too many pictures of him messing around, they're always sending up the idea of this rock icon - which was the idea behind the one with the Marilyn Monroe stamps. I want to propagate the mythology of rock n' roll - I don't want to show its arse. There's a lovely picture of Richey isolated on the street in Patpong and there's stuff going on all around him. He just stands there and zones out - looking like a mixture of a confused young boy, and a rock star. Ten minutes before that, we were in a pub for two hours watching the Manchester Derby on telly. I didn't want that, I wanted the rock star.
Richey, James and Nicky have their very personalities within the band, but to many drummer Sean Moore is somewhat of a closed book. What's it like working with him?
Initially, it was almost like they brought him along because they couldn't get a babysitter. Then he grew into his role and is very confident in himself. Sean was always the one who'd have the latest gadget, game, or be the first person in the world to have an iPod. He's very funny as well and has a great sense of humour. None of them take themselves too seriously. They have that arrogant swagger that you need to be in a band, but they haven't lost that humility. They also haven't lost that sense of why they started in the band and what they wanted from it. They still have a message, it's not a pose - it's what they are. A lot of musicians will talk forever about music and the process of it, but these guys are very well read, love film, love music and have a lot of things that filter into their work. That's why I find them interesting, because they're fully rounded as people as well.