The Manic Street Preachers have set themselves up as punk icons of the 90s. They flaunt tatty make-up, self-inflicted razor scars and brattish insolence. As they release their new album Generation Terrorists, Paul Lester discovers whether they really are the most notorious rock 'n' roll band on the planet or just new anarchists on the block.
Two of Manic Street Preachers, pop's new anarchists on the block, step out of a stretch limo and into their West London press office, draped in the kind or cheap 'n' tacky fashion items you wouldn't normally associate with aspiring global mega-stars. Gangling bassist Nicky Wire is wearing white, skintight market stall jeans, pointy black suede boots and a shirt with Kylie and Guns 'N' Roses across the front, while smaller guitarist, Richey Edwards, sports a crimson Miss Selfridge blouse and a shabby, fake leopard-skin jacket that was given to him by a girl fan. Très gauche.
Edwards and Wire, all cheap chic and hastily-applied maquillage, totter into the spartan interview room, smiling all the way, before recalling the kind of trouble their appearance can get them into. "We got beaten up last Christmas," says Richey, settling into a modern, metal chair and politely asking for a can of Diet Pepsi from his press officer. "We just went to into Newport for a burger. Trouble is, Newport is like the Miami of Britain, and there were about 50 blokes in this Wimpy bar, and all of a sudden they just turned on James, our singer. Basically, they just picked him up and smashed him in the jaw - he was all wired up over Christmas. I got karate-chopped in the neck, and these two girls on the table next to us got burgers smeared all over their faces. It happens all the time. We're used to it now."
Clearly, notwithstanding the occasional limo ride, there is a considerable gap between life as Manic Street Preachers experience it and life as they would like to experience it. Four young outsiders (all 21/22) from Blackwood, a tiny mining village in South Wales, they've enjoyed two modestly-placed Top 40 hits (Stay Beautiful and Love's Sweet Exile), dress in Oxfam hand-me-downs, yet they seriously intend to become the largest, loudest, most notorious rock 'n' roll band on the planet. The problem is they're not quite sure how to go about it. A year ago, they threatened to implode after one LP, yet here they are, still alive and kicking.
Their debut double album of radical sloganeering, glam-rock stomp and anthemic teen noise, Generation Terrorists, features mildly venomous bursts of energy, but hardly the cataclysmic metal assaults necessary to catapult them around the globe. And, while they want to inspire widespread fanatical devotion, they often generate either pity (they've been called kiddie-time cartoon punks) or sheer hatred from those angered by their arrogant line in self-promotion.
Contradictions abound with the Manics. One minute they're four chronically shy types who would rather have a nice cup of tea than a shag (Richey: "Sex just never seemed important"), the next Nicky says, "Sex is crucial to this group. Where we come from fucking just seems like the natural conclusion to everything else. When I walk onstage I feel like everybody wants to either kill me of fuck me." Similarly, when the group started in 1990 they sent a letter to a couple of journalists with the message, "Heroin supplied by Manic Street Preachers", tacked onto the end. Yet Wire, for one, claims never to have touched anything stronger than alcohol.
Finally, in spite of the leather-lined cars and the £600,000 reputedly forked out by Sony for the recording of Generation Terrorists, the four Manics are presently dossing down on the floor of their publicist's flat in Hammersmith. Talk about using you illusion.
"You know, we haven't been on public transport for over six months now," beams Richey. And Nicky cheekily adds: "Our record company has spent nearly ten grand chauffeuring us around since we got to London."
On paper they are self obsessed egomaniacs: from a distance they look like a bunch of preening narcissists, yet in person they're pussycats. Still despite their friendly demeanour and gentle Welsh accents, Manic Street Preachers are determined to bridge the gap between dreary reality (where they are now) and fantasy (the sexy, rich dreamscape they're headed for) as soon as possible. They want to conquer America, reach number one on both sides of the Atlantic, become the British Guns 'N' Roses, even if they do wear a lot more make-up than Axl, and generally be acknowledged as the major stadium rock draw of the age.
"We're going to spend most of this year in America," Richey says, his soft voice belying the thrust of his speech. "We'll tour our LP until it's completely exhausted, until every last hit single has been lifted from it."
"Yeah we're touring the States, but there'll be none of the usual on-the-road tedium, no hanging around and stuff," says Nicky. "It'll be: tour bus. Hotel bedroom. Reception. Limo. Gig. Bed. No messing around, no waiting, none of that usual rock 'n' roll bullshit."
As if to emphasise all this, just after a gig in Norwich last May, Richey took it upon himself to carve "4 REAL" in his left arm with a razorblade, so incensed was he with a journalist who was sceptical about the group's sincerity of intent. The guitarist had to be rushed to hospital as a result, requiring emergency service and 17 stitches. In this instance Manic Street Preachers reputation (for nihilism and dangerous behaviour) actually holds true.
“I didn’t intend to do any real harm to myself. I just wanted the bloke to get the message,” says the white rioter, rolling up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a jagged mini-mountain of fading pink scars Edwards isn't the only one hell-bent on self-mutilation, though as he explains, there were a slew of copycat incidents following this painful, even desperate attempt to be understood. “This girl came up to us after we'd played in London one night, and she showed me these huge scars where she'd written 'REJECTED’ with a razor blade down her arm. It wasn't very nice.”
Manic Street Preachers take themselves very seriously indeed. This can reveal itself in peculiar ways, the band regularly trashing their equipment on stage as a means of expressing their anger (at whom?) and frustration (with what?) Apparently they wasted £26,000 worth of gadgetry on one of their tours last year; hardnut singer James Dean Bradfield even took apart his prized Les Paul Gibson guitar bit by tiny bit.
“All he ever wanted was a Les Paul." Says Richey, a trifle forlorn, "and the actual day he finally managed to get one he smashed it to pieces- it cost 800 quid"
Their fans, especially the female ones (unlike many rock acts, the Manics eschew macho posturing. and have an androgynous quality that endears them to girls), are equally committed, as their fan mail shows. “We got a letter recently which said. “I’m going to commit suicide when you reach the Top 1." Says Richey, while Nicky recalls another, equally calamitous letter: '“The day your album is released I'll kill myself. I want to make a statement to the world the way you have.” But what would they do if one of these girls actually stuck to her word and took her life? "I dunno," says Richey, his concerned eyes concealed by a pair of shades “But I'd rather people killed themselves for us than for a group like Carter or Ned's Atomic Dustbin."
In spite of deliberately controversial would be banner headline utterances like the above, Edwards and Wire are not crass sensationalists or dumb punks. And, even though they can boast genuinely working-class credentials they don’t set themselves up as the authentic voice of working-class Britain two semi-literate spokes-yobbos for Yoof Kulchur. Both Richey and Nicky got good political history degrees from Swansea University, and both are keen to dismiss the long-outdated notion that stupidity or poverty are status symbols in rock.
"Education has always been massively important to us," says Richey. “We’ve never played that down. I went to university to learn. What really made me sick were all the middle-class kids who just went there to smoke dope and have a good laugh, because to them it was no big deal – daddy would just get them a job when they finished. That offended me, treating education as a joke and depriving people of a good education."
Nicky, the Manic who only recently paid off his gambling debts after a period of addiction to fruit machines, adds. “Everybody likes to think we're incredibly dull people, real yokels." But Manic Street Preachers are clearly more than just dim. post-adolescent twenty some-thing airheads on the razzle in “The Smoke" - Even though last June they did play a gig in front of several hundred posh types at the Downing College Summer Ball in Cambridge, during which baby-faced drummer. Sean Moore, smashed up his kit. James Dean Bradfield punched a student and the band purportedly screamed abuse at the audience and the royal family. However these weren't simply the antics of a bunch of overgrown delinquents; it was all rather more considered than that. Let‘s face it, you don't get signed to one of the world‘s biggest entertainment conglomerates by being pretty vacant.
Recently the head of Sony flew into London to see the band play live at The Marquee. They even had Traci Lords, one of Americas most famous (former) porn queens, on the phone, dying to meet them. "She really loves our records and videos” says Richey. “She called me from the States the other day. She said(adopts squeaky Valley Girl starlet voice): ‘You guys are so weird and fucked up!’ She's flying in in a couple of days, so hopefully we'll get to meet her."
“People always think we're going to smash their face in." grins a bemused Nicky Wire (real name: Nicky Jones), considerately mopping up some spilled tea with a paper towel from the glass table. “And promoters always think we‘re going to wreck their dressing rooms. or whatever. But we've got no interest in being nasty to people just for the sake of it. That’s just minor stuff. We're a lot more logical than that"
Manic Street Preachers say they save their scorn for unassailable organs of the establishment such as the royals and the government, although they do spend a lot of their marathon bitching sessions expressing their profound hatred for comparatively ineffectual targets - the Thames Valley nouveau hippies such as Slowdive or Chapterhouse, or scruffy oiks like Carter and Neds. This odd combination of the profound and the petty on their agenda of loathing is just another contradiction in the world awarding to Manic Street Preachers, and is summed up by their recent “We hate Slowdive more than we hate Hitler" remark. It is further compounded by Nicky when he says: “What we most want to attack and destroy are the foundations of society …oh, and other bands!"
Maybe all those years spent in James’s bedroom as teenagers accounts for their lack of proportion. The four sociopaths stayed indoors for most of the 80s, devouring the music papers, Hunter S Thompson, The Clash, William Burroughs, The Rolling Stones, Alastair Crowley, Dexys Midnight Runners, Allen Ginsberg, The Smiths and literature and philosophy in general (the gatefold sleeve of Generation Terrorists features quotations from, among others, Albert Camus and the Italian Futurists of the 20s). Richey swears none of them ventured further than Gloucester (to watch Echo And The Bunnymen in 1986 or thereabouts) until January 1991.
"We never went out." he insists "We just stayed in and became obsessed by culture. We’ve always been emotionally stunted because of it. Last January, when we first came to London we met people from the music business for the first time and it was so frightening. We'd never really met anyone before that, and we'd certainly never been interviewed." Edwards' words are absurdly at odds with the earlier quotations about fucking and fighting. But, looking down at his hand, still clutching his can of Diet Pepsi. I see that it is, indeed, shaking slightly.
Will the band, currently ensconced in the capital, make the most of its facilities, its ligs and gigs? “No.” Richey says, firmly. “We'll just keep watching videos and reading the music press just like we always have. Other people smell too much.”
“We always wanted to be hated by a lot of people. All great rock bands are apart from the rest, really clean and pure." adds Nicky. helpfully. "And we’re the purest band around.” The Manics don't waste time and effort on parties, so they say (Richey was actually seen at a World or Twist gig the night of this interview), afraid to socialise for fear they might find out that the objects of their derision-that is every other band in Christendom apart from themselves — are decent blokes after all,” keep away from those wankers in case we start liking them." says Richey, gently disgusted. “We want to keep hating them forever. We also hate all those kids you see everywhere in their Carter and Ned's T-shirts all those young rich kids with their matted hair having their two years of looking a bit grubby before they start working in banks or wherever. It's just the safest form of middle-class rebellion."
“If I had a kid,” says Nicky, summoning up some bile of his own, “and he started going about like that. I'd make him wear a dress! People think its glamorous to look unglamorous today, but it’s not. Bands should look glamorous, they should make an effort to dress up like Public Enemy. Hanoi Rocks (803 glam-merchants). Guns N' Roses or The Sex Pistols Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten were two of the most perfect creations of all time. This is why we always said we wanted to look like Duran Duran and sound like The Seat Pistols. We look brilliant in photos. If I saw a picture of us I'd want to buy our records straight away."