With the stunning 'A Design For Life', the Manic Street Preachers should be celebrating their biggest ever hit - but their guitarist Richey James is still missing. Paul Elliott charts the traumatic return of Britain's most remarkable rock band...
Fourteen months after guitarist Richey James vanished, the Manic Street Preachers are at number two in the UK singles charts with their first song released since his disappearance, "A Design For Life". It's an unprecedented high for the band, but this is no fairytale ending.
Richey is still missing. The head of the police investigation into his disappearance concluded several months ago that he is in all likelihood dead; but until a body is found there is always hope, and that, perhaps, is the hardest part of it. So let's not talk about the Manics fighting their way back to the top against all the odds. Richey himself would surely have laughed at such a cliché. Bassist Nicky Wire certainly would, the sarky bastard.
The Manic Street Preachers are simply doing what they can in the circumstances. They're carrying on as a three-piece, making great rock records like "A Design For Life" and the album to follow, "Everything Must Go". And in case you hadn't noticed amid all the new hysteria about Richey, the Manics are still the best rock band in the UK.
All Manics fans must have sensed Richey's absence when the trio performed "A Design For Life" on Top Of The Pops a fortnight ago. It was the same when the band played their first gig in a year, supporting the Stone Roses at Wembley Arena on December 29. Yes, the Manics had gigged as a three-piece before, when Richey was in hospital suffering from exhaustion and depression, but now there is a sense of finality. Richey is missed, but he's not coming back.
When Richey disappeared, nobody really believed what was happening. People around the band knew he was desperately unhappy, but you don't always allow yourself to think the worst. When news of Richey's disappearance reached the Kerrang! office, the mood was similar to when Kurt Cobain died. What was there to say? What had happened was not inexplicable. It was simply painful.
Ever since, the Manics have maintained a dignified silence, refusing to bring their grief, or anger, or confusion, into the public arena. When they walked on-stage at Wembley Arena last December, Wire's reaction to the heartfelt standing ovation they received was typically downbeat: "What's up? It's only us."
"One of the reasons the band haven't done any interviews before 'A Design For Life' came out is that they wanted to let the music do the talking," says Rob Stringer, managing director of the Manics' record company, Epic, and a confidant of the band for many years. "They didn't want to let any of the rhetoric about what's gone on over the past few months get in the way.
"'A Design For Life' isn't about Richey. But it's so dramatic and important that people will remember it for years, and that's the biggest compliment they could pay Richey."
I first met Richey in 1992, but had learned a little about him and the rest of the band during the previous year, when a friend of mine, Matt Ollivier, was working on the Manics' first album "Generation Terrorists" at Black Barn Studios in Surrey.
Intrigued by the band's cocky press image, I asked Matt what they were like, assuming that a band called the Manic Street Preachers would be pissed and drugged-up to the eyeballs. After all, Richey and Nicky's image at the time was rock and roll decadence personified - all sunken cheekbones, skeletal bodies and death mask eyes. And they'd seemingly laid out their own self-destructive agenda on a song called 'Methadone Pretty'. They were surely running riot in sleepy Surrey. Wrong.
"They're just really lovely people," Matt revealed. "As far as I can tell, they don't do any drugs. They read a lot, and they play computer games."
Matt also told me an amusing story about the time the Manics spent working on that first album. In September of '91, Guns N' Roses released two albums on the same day, 'Use Your Illusion I' and '...II'. They were, at that time, the biggest rock act on earth.
The Manics loved the first G'N'R album, "Appetite For Destruction", and they were so desperate to hear the new stuff they persuaded Matt to drive them up to Tower Records in London's Piccadilly, where the first copies of both 'Use Your Illusions' were being sold at midnight on the day of release. Richey couldn't drive, so Matt had to use his crappy old Mini. Richey was so sweet about it, Matt couldn't refuse.
I mentioned this story when I interviewed Richey and Nicky for Kerrang! in 1992.
"We stayed up all night playing those albums", said Nicky. "It was really bad, because the first side of 'Use Your Illusion I' is terrible, and we were like, 'Fucking hell, what's gone wrong?'."
Mention of the cover of G 'N' R's "It's So Easy" that the Manics were then playing live brought a smile to Richey's face. "It's just the easiest song to play. The band took me into consideration."
Richey would often joke about his guitar playing. Specifically, the lack of it. And he was right; you could barely hear him on-stage. Maybe it just proves another old cliché: you don't always notice what's there till it's gone.
Richey was always quietly spoken and polite, in my experience at least. The same is true of all the Manics, despite Nicky's habit of slagging off people like REM's Michael Stipe and, most recently, Terrorvision.
There's just no bullshit with the Manics. When frontman James Dean Bradfield, a Notts Forest fan, saw his team lose 1-0 to Arsenal last season, there was none of that 'best team won' shite. "I hate Arsenal," he said. "Now fuck off!" Richey also enjoyed winding people up. He wore a highly camp beret for the Manics' first Kerrang! cover shoot, knowing that it might piss off a few death metal fans.
Likewise, he was quietly mischievous the last time I saw him, two years ago. I was ranting about an article, wherein a writer had excused Snoop Doggy Dogg's sexism because he was craving acceptance as one of the rapper's "posse". Richey played devil's advocate, winding me up as he upheld Snoop's right to freedom of speech. That was Richey, always provoking and challenging.
In 1991, Richey's own beliefs and actions were challenged in a confrontational interview with NME writer turned Radio One DJ, Steve Lamacq. Richey chose to prove he wasn't a fraud by carving '4 Real' into his forearm with a razor blade. He made light of the incident when we spoke in 1992.
"If you'd spent a couple of hours talking to him, you'd have done the same," he joked. In retrospect, it doesn't seem at all funny. It seems to be the first open manifestation of Richey's deep despair.
When Richey vanished in February 1995, abandoning his car by a notorious suicide spot near the Severn Bridge, "The Holy Bible" LP took on the same significance as Nirvana's "In Utero". There is suffering at the heart of every song. "4st 7lb", the diary of an anorexic, is appallingly self-destructive: "I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint/Naked and lovely and 5 stone 2/Self-esteem's a bore/I long since moved to a higher plateau". This certainly was for real. Richey was undergoing treatment for anorexia and depression when he walked out on his life.
Last week, rumours were spread by the national press and radio that Richey was alive. One story even claimed that he was at home with his mother. All of these stories are as unfounded as they are tasteless, but the Manics could've expected nothing less when they decided to continue without Richey. If ever a band understood the nature of the media, it is the Manics.
So here they stand in 1996. Richey is gone, but the Manics' strength is intact. They've made possibly their best album ever, and "A Design For Life" is virtually at the top of the charts.
"They were ecstatic about how the single's been received," says Rob Stringer. "It's like a vindication that they did the right thing in carrying on."