Fake of 4 Real? Indie or Metal? Burning brief or marching on? In 1992, the only thing Manic Street Preachers knew for sure was their contempt for UK rock's supine greyness. Generation Terrorists was their heretical gospel: The double-edged double album that could have killed them before they'd begun. "Sixteen million records! Self-immolation! How the hell are we going to do this?" they ask Keith Cameron.
The photograph looks normal enough: four young men, grinning broadly, as any fledgling rock band surely would if sat in the London boardroom of Columbia, signing a six-figure deal with the world's oldest and most prestigious record company. Shaking hands with the quartet are Paul Russell and Rob Stringer, respectively the chairman and head of A&R at Columbia UK. The only odd detail is that one of the happy youths has a bandaged left forearm.
If the men from Columbia's smiles carried a trace of apprehension, you could hardly blame them. Six days before the photo was taken, the kid with the bandages had used a razor blade to gouge '4 REAL' in his flesh to prove a point to a doubting journalist.
They whys and wherefores of Richey Edwards' infamous act of self-mutilation before the NME's stunned Steve Lamacq at Norwich Arts Centre on May 15, 1991, were soon sucked into the ongoing vortex of hysteria which surrounded the Manic Street Preachers, a self-proclaimed "mess of eyeliner and spraypaint" who'd hurtled out of the mining communities of South Wales like a Minipops version of The Clash, spewing nihilist soundbites and glammy riffola. 'Kill Yourself'; 'Generation Terrorists'; 'Culture of Destruction': the slogans on their customised shirts announced a yearning to shock rock'n'roll back into life, to eviscerate the artform and, if all went well, themselves too. "The most important thing we can do is get massive and throw it all away," they'd declared to Melody Maker in January, before outlining a kamikaze career arc: the Manics would sign to a major label, make one double-album which would sell 16 million copies (or thereabouts) and go to Number 1 worldwide...and then split up.
"How cool was that photograph?" marvels Manics bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire today: "The suits at the label really liked us. Because if you have a plan, and are guided by that plan, it's a relief to them - they have to do less. They thought we were lovable loonies."
"This was beating the system from within," agrees Rob Stringer, now the New York-based chairman of Columbia. "Soon after, they played a ball in Cambridge and I took the sales director and marketing director. They played three songs, Nicky called the audience post twats, James punched someone, they smashed the place up, it was chaos - we were escorted off the site. The senior people from the company were horrified. This is just weeks after Richey carved his arm up. God knows how we got through that first month."
But Stringer was prepared to ride out the storm. Having seen The Clash as a 14-year old in 1976, he appreciated the Manics' last gang in town ethos, and had been desperate to sign them ever since hearing the iconoclastic throttle of Motown Junk, the band's third single, released in January 1991 on London indie Heavenly. Yet now he was confronted with the task of ushering the Manics' intense conceptual schemes into existence. No simple task, given that only 50 per cent of the band, singer-lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield and his cousin, drummer Sean Moore, were proficient musicians.
"I remember sagging under intense pressure," says Bradfield. "These monolithic edifices that had descended from the sky from Edwards and Wire. Sixteen million records! Split up! Self-immolation! And I thought: How the hell are we going to do this?"
Today, Manic Street Preachers are a trio of early fortysomething dads and one of the most consistently successful British rock bands of the past 20 years. Alone among their peers - and in direct contravention of their own edict - they never broke up, but navigated shifting tides of public taste and the shattering personal trauma of Richey Edwards, the band's co-lyricist and ideologue, who disappeared in 1995 and was legally declared dead in 2008. MOJO meets them at MSP HQ, Faster Studios in Cardiff, where they're writing songs for what will be their eleventh album, as well as finalising the 20th anniversary reissue of their debut, Generation Terrorists. Nicky Wire appreciates the irony.
"I think me and Richey especially believed in 'the plan'," he says. "It was a bit unfair to put it on James and Sean. Sixteen million?! Maybe not. But I felt James was a guitar genius, and we had the best talker, the best looker in Richey. I'm still the band's biggest fan."
Manics fans of any description were a scarce commodity in the summer of 1990, when Richey Edwards wrote an impassioned letter to respected music PR Philip Hall. Including a photograph of all four band members in leather jackets and smoking (none of them actually did at the time), plus a copy of New Art Riot, a four-track EP recorded for £186 and released by the Damaged Goods label, the gist of Edwards' missive was: "We are your future." Having built an impressive client roster, including The Stone Roses, and now looking to expand into band management, Hall was intrigued and asked his younger brother Martin to contact Edwards.
"Richey's mum answered," says Martin Hall. "'Richard! Phone for yoooou!' He was uber-polite and we arranged to see them rehearse."
When the Halls arrived at Newbridge School, in the neighbouring valley to the band's hometown of Blackwood, the scene resembled a two-bit rock'n'roll farce. Nervously practising his Paul Simonon bass moves, Wire had split his head open on a tuning peg, spattering blood all over his slogan-stencilled white blouse. As Edwards marched towards the Halls, immediately reeling off an essay, the painfully shy Bradfield blanked them, while Moore just stared silently. "Five minutes," Martin Hall muttered to his brother, "then back in the car."
But Philip Hall seemed unconcerned, smiling as the band ripped through a brief set, including Repeat ("Repeat after me! Fuck queen and country!") and Faceless Sense Of Void (later retitled Love's Sweet Exile). His smile broadened at the nearby Plas Hotel, where, fuelled by chicken curry and chips, Edwards and Wire laid out their agenda for world domination. "Martin said, 'I think you need to write more songs,' but I could tell Philip didn't care," says Bradfield. "He just thought the idea was brilliant, and the songs would come. His plan was, 'Play lots of gigs, and journalists have got to meet you two' - Nick and Richey - 'just talk to them like you talk to me, be honest.' He understood."
The UK music press eagerly accepted the challenge of the Manic Street Preachers' situationist blizzard, welcoming this articulate antidote to the intellectual tumble-weed of Madchester and the so-called shoegazing scene's acquiescent neo-psychedelia. Unleashed after years of pent-up bedroom scheming, Edwards and Wire dealt philosophical maxims while lambasting their peers in wilfully scandalous terms. "We will always hate Slowdive more than we hate Adolf Hitler," was just one of Edwards' ready-made headlines.
"They were bright, funny, opinionated - unlike most bands we'd met," says Martin Hall. "They'd come to the office in Fulham Broadway and make us tea. Then they'd go on stage and Wire's mouth would pour out vitriol..."
As James Dean Bradfield worried whether he was capable of making a record worthy of his bandmates' rhetoric, even he had to admit Motown Junk was a great start. Opening with a looped sample from Public Enemy's Countdown To Armageddon, it sprang forth like a badlands blitzkrieg, slaughtering sacred cultural cows at its Marxist altar: love songs were a symptom of "under-class betrayal" Amid the buzz stirred by the single and accompanying tour, where the band sped across the UK in a Transit, Richey at the wheel and Philip Hall writing cheque after cheque to replace trashed gear, Heavenly's Jeff Barrett and Martin Kelly realised they'd be unable to contain this phenomenon.
"I couldn't believe that a band so young could be so vehement," says Kelly. "'I laughed when Lennon got shot' is one of the greatest lyrics of all time. But they didn't want to be an indie band - they wanted to be huge. The '4 REAL' thing, obviously that was a shock. No band had ever done anything like that, it was really freaky. But it didn't surprise you, because they really did mean it."
After a second Heavenly 45 - a somewhat under-cooked version of the live favourite You Love Us - the Manics hitched their wagon to Columbia's juggernaut and set about soliciting producers for their magnum opus. No one got trampled in that particular stampede.
"We met with Andy Taylor from Duran Duran," recalls Bradfield. "He was producing Mark Shaw from Then Jericho's solo album at Trident Studios. It was 10am, he had espadrilles it and a big black suit on, a bit of blusher, and there was, shall we say, quintessential rock'n'roll detritus...He was distinctly unimpressed with us while I was secretly very impressed with him. We never heard from him again. Paul Schroeder, who engineered The Stone Roses, we sent him some demos, and he replied saying he couldn't hear any songs. We maybe enquired about Bob Ezrin. Nothing..."
The only 'capital P' producer who showed any interest was Steve Brown, whose CV included The Cult's She Sells Sanctuary - a clear prototype for the meld of wild-eyed arena rock that the Manics now deemed expedient for realising their masterplan, having eliminated virtually all traces of their UK indie pop roots. But the cultural purge was not without its dissidents. Back in 1990, Sean Moore, championing Marxist janglers McCarthy, had smashed Bradfield's copy of Guns N'Roses' Appetite For Destruction.
"I said, It's cock-rock shite and I don't want anything to do with it," says Moore. "It wasn't just James - Nick was always listening to dodgy heavy metal through his older brother, and Richey got into it too. I was the outsider." Wire sympathised with Moore's position. But he also eyed the bigger picture.
"McCarthy were my favourite band - they probably still are my favourite band of all time," he says. "But if we actually tried to be our favourite bands and came across as too serious and mournful and, let's face it, pretty grey, it just wasn't going to work. I always felt we had to be cartoon characters."
Edwards and Wire were particularly taken with the fact that Steve Brown had also produced Fantastic, the first Wham! album, with Club Tropicana, Wham! Rap et al; it was Brown's skill at finessing product, as much as his rock pedigree, that made him a perfect fit for the Manics, who at this point were willing supplicants in the pop process. Wire agreed to set aside his Rickenbacker and play a Steinberger - "even though I fucking detest them" - because the headless bass stayed perfectly in tune.
Beginning the recording sessions in August 1991, at Surrey's Black Barn Studios, by spending a week with Moore trying to find a hi-hat sound for the song Crucifix Kiss, Brown swiftly elected to use programmed drums. Faced with the prospect of not playing on his band's album, Moore duly educated himself to expert status on the Alesis SR 16 drum machine in a matter of days. Meanwhile, Richey Ed-wards, the Manics' non-musical guru, passed the time making collages, writing lyrics, playing Sega, taking taxis into London to research artwork, and drinking.
"Steve didn't care that Richey couldn't play guitar - he thought he was a fucking rock star," says Bradfield. "He was almost in awe of Nick and Richey: 'What do those boys have for breakfast?!' He realised that the lyrics were the life-force of the band, and that we were a smash-up of certain in-tendons and ambitions and ideals that didn't make sense on paper but did once you were m the midst of it with us."
Steve Brown particularly engaged I with Bradfield, encouraging the self-effacing but gifted guitarist to dream harder. "He said, 'Do you wanna be Slash? You gotta have a riff of your own.'" Plunging into the Manics' store of old demo recordings, Brown spliced a sub-Mary Chain road romance called Go Buzz Baby Go with the peppy June Brides homage Behave Yourself Baby. Bradfield transformed the hybrid with a lyrical guitar figure that really did come to him in a dream, and an elegiac Edwards/Wire lyric provided a new title: Motorcycle Emptiness. An archetypal rock anthem for doomed youth, it was destined to confound sceptics and define the Manics beyond the tabloid-baiting ephemera of their own mythology.
"Motorcycle Emptiness wouldn't have existed without Steve Brown," says Bradfield. "I would have given up on the song. It was a big Eureka moment. It backs up the rhetoric. It's undeniable." After five months' toil, Generation Terrorists was finally delivered to Columbia two days before Christmas, following a frantic final two weeks at The Hit Factory in central London, during which former porn actress Traci Lords was flown in to add vocals to Little Baby Nothing, a Springsteenesque hymn to the sacred feminine. The band's first choice to sing such lyrics as "Used, used, used by men" had been Kylie Minogue, at that point still the jewel in Stock Aitken Waterman's production-line pop crown. "SAW said, 'We're not gonna do that. She's a huge pop star and this lot are a bunch of scumbags'," recalls Rob Stringer.
Whether the 18-track double album represented value for its L250,000 cost depended on one's perspective. It's certainly too long, blatantly front-loaded and over-glossed in parts.
"Spectators Of Suicide sounds like Tight Fit's The Lion Sleeps Tonight," chuckles Bradfield. "But there's a grand tradition of strange architectural follies in this part of Wales, like Castel Coch - it's only there for fantasy, artifice. I think we carried on that tradition, where the folly is almost as entertaining as the substance."
Released on February 10, 1992, Generation Terrorists entered the UK album chart at 13. It never went any higher. The edicts were quietly shelved, as the Manics embarked upon the some-times painful process of reconciling the disparity of their dreams with reality. Yet despite its ludicrous aspects, it stands as credible witness to subsequent history. Had the band indeed broken up thereafter, Generation Terrorists would have represented a cogent artistic legacy: of skills and madness, from four young men who marched, as Lenin wrote, "in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand..."
"I remember we did the Motorcycle Emptiness video in Tokyo," says Nicky Wire. "The scene where we're driving the car - we're actually being towed! Richey was the only one who could drive but they wouldn't let him. So he's pretending - it's like a Rod Steiger movie from the '50s. Afterwards we sat down on the kerb and listened to the whole album on a ghetto blaster. All of us - even Sean, who isn't prone to these things- thought, Sounds pretty good. It was a really nice moment."
He laughs. "So there was always that mixture of the profound and the stupid." Wire turns his attention to the clutter of musical equipment at Faster Studios, where the 2012-model Manic Street Preachers pool their ideas and strive, as Sean Moore puts it, "to achieve the perfect song - that's the only thing that keeps us going".
Still pushing, still dreaming. Perhaps not so much has changed in 20 years after all.