When Richey Edwards, the driving force behind the Manic Street Preachers, disappeared a year ago it seemed to be the end for the band. But now they have a new hit single. Neil McCormick reports on rock's survivors.
Is there life after death in rock and roll? For the Manic Street Preachers the answer seems to be a resounding yes. A year ago, the passionate Welsh rockers' future looked decidedly bleak when guitarist, lyricist and, for most of their devotees, group figurehead Richey James Edwards went AWOL from existence, walking out of London's Embassy Hotel on February 1, 1995, never to be seen again.
The 28 year-old had previously been in hospital following a near-suicidal bout of self-mutilation and treated for alcoholism, anorexia, depression and nervous exhaustion. After he went missing his passport, credit cards and supply of Prozac were discovered at his Cardiff flat. On February 17, his car was found abandoned near the Severn Bridge, a notorious suicide spot. The river was dredged, to no avail. Police said that if he had jumped, his body might have been carried out to sea.
It looked like a suitably dramatic end for the band whose biggest hit had been a 1992 cover version of the M*A*S*H* theme tune, Suicide Is Painless.
As pioneers of the punk revival, there had always been a wilfully self-destructive streak to the Manics. In his first interview, Edwards exhorted his fans to kill themselves before they reached the age of 13. Their debut single, Motown Junk, included the line "I laughed when Lennon got shot", which did not exactly endear them to many rock traditionalists - a sin compounded when at a Christmas 1992 concert, bassist Nicky Wire sneered "In this season of good will, let's hope Michael Stipe (of R.E.M) goes the same way as Freddie Mercury". Accused by an NME journalist of being fake, Edwards carved '4 REAL' into his arm with a razor blade.
The Manics' stated manifesto was that bands should make one explosive record and break up, although they were already promoting their third when Edwards disappeared. In the face of an out-pouring of shock and grief from their dedicated following, Wire emotionally commented: "If it ever comes to the point where Richey's not coming back, we wouldn't continue." It was the least that could be expected from such outspoken nihilists.
But this week, the Manics returned to the charts with the optimistically titled A Design For Life. Leaping straight to number two, it is already their biggest hit to date. On Saturday, the band are special guests of Oasis at Manchester City's Maine Road football ground. In May they release their fourth album, Everything Must Go, and embark on a major tour. Ironically, for a group who once actually made the cliched threat to "die young and leave good corpses", the surviving three-piece seem set for their greatest commercial success.
Edwards may not have left behind a good looking corpses - or any corpse at all for that matter- but otherwise he perfectly fulfilled the kind of nihilistic destiny that fuels so many adolescent fantasies. As rock and roll reaches middle age, this self-destructive ethos has laid claim to a lot of victims. Kurt Cobain's mother called it "the Stupid Club", home to Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Marc Bolan, Sid Vicious, Ian Curtis and the many other dead rock stars who were architects of their own sorry fates.
But if, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out, the world's only certainties are death and taxes, it is the surviving members of a band who have to contemplate the continued attentions of the Inland Revenue. And few groups have ever let a visit from the Grim Reaper interrupt a successful career. When 33 year-old AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott expired after an evening of binge drinking in February 1980, the bereaved musicians barely even observed a period of mourning. "It's probably a lot better to keep working than just say 'stop'," commented lead-guitarist Angus Young. "As soon as [guitarist] Malcolm [Young] and I got back from the funeral, we got straight back to work on the songs we'd been writing at the time it happened." They had a new singer in place by April of that year, and were on tour by July.
The Average White Band, Badfinger, the band, The Beach Boys, Canned Heat, Chicago, Fairport Convention, Kiss, the New York Dolls, Metallica, the Pretenders, and Toto have all elected to carry on after the untimely demise of founding members. Jerry Garcia's passing last year may have finally brought to an end the long-running saga of the Grateful Dead, but - perhaps taking their name a little too literally - the liberally pro-drug group had buried no fewer than three keyboard playing vocalists (Ron 'Pigpen' Mckernan, Keith Godchaux and Brent Mydland) along the way.
Gregg Allman continued to lead the plurally titled Allman Brothers on and off for decades, although his guitar-playing brother Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971 (as was bass-player Berry Oakley a year later). And fellow Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd managed a lucrative reunion in 1987, despite the fact that the group had not so much broken up as been all but killed off in a tragic plane crash 10 years earlier.
On The Who's classic My Generation, Pete Townshend perfectly encapsulated rock's sneering attitude to life after adolescence with the line "Hope I die before I get old". Now with the revival if his rock opera Tommy going strong and another Who reunion planned for Hyde Park in the summer, it seems increasingly likely that we will all get extremely old before he dies. Putting their youthful nihilism behind them, The Who opted to carry on after the alcohol-related death of drummer Keith Moon in 1978. But could they have done so - and would the public have accepted it - if it had been Townshend, the principle philosophical and musical force behind the group, who died.
For some, that is what the Manic Street Preachers have done. It was Richey Edwards' harrowing lyrics, after all, that were the focus of 1994's The Holy Bible, the group's most acclaimed album so far. Interestingly, during the band's live comeback in December, they opted not to perform any songs from that album.
When, after repeatedly trying to reach Edwards and fearing the worst, singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield broke into hotel his hotel room on February 2 last year, he found 30 sheets of new lyrics wanting to be set to music. It was Edwards' final legacy to the band, enough songs to fill three albums. Yet only three of these songs are included on the forthcoming album. All four tracks of the new single feature lyrics by Nicky Wire.
With its sweeping strings and epic chorus, A Design For Life may be the most uplifting record the Manics have ever made, a bold declaration of a new start. There have been no interviews, no official statement, no attempts to cash in on the tragedy. After a period of consideration, the survivors appear simply to have decided to pick themselves up and go back to work.
For hardcore fans, this might be the most shocking thing of all: the former firebrands are behaving as if they have grown up. But then - apart from the Richey Edwardses and Kurt Cobains of this world - sooner or later everyone has to.