Though it may be hard to credit these days, during the early 90s the MANIC STREET PREACHERS were the United Kingdom's brightest pop hopes, the band most likely to swashbuckle their way to global fame and fortune. Springing from Blackwood in Wales, the Manics' OTT publicity stunts and the self destructive habits of band members initially brought them notoriety, but it was glorious guitar-drenched songs like 'Motown Junk' and 'Motorcycle Emptiness' that singled them out as a band who would glide effortlessly through pop trends, to endure and prosper. However, after three scorching albums and over a dozen charting singles, the bubble burst.
With little warning, the walls came crashing; down on the Manics on the first day of February 1995, when the band's troubled guitarist, Richey James, vanished without trace from his London hotel room on the eve of an American tour (his whereabouts are still unknown). The remaining members of the band. Nicky Wire. Sean Moore and James Dean Bradfield, all friends at James' since childhood, were left dumbfounded. and essentially in limbo until now.
In hindsight, it's clear the Manic Street Preachers arrived on the scene well before the music world was ready for them. But this month, with the release of the single 'Design for Life'. and their fourth album, Everything Must Go. bassist Wire says the time is right for the resurrection of the band, who are now fighting fit and looking forward.
When we started it was quite an awkward time. It was the end of Manchester and the Happy Mondays had just disintegrated, and in between then and now it was just American grunge, so we were caught on the outside really. During the time we disappeared. especially in the UK, guitar based pop music has become hugely popular again, when five years ago people weren't really interested in that kind of music. Now it's a bit easier for us to become accessible to people. I couldn't say we were totally confident about coming back, firstly because Richey was a shock to the system. but also when you've been away that long, people can tend to forget about you. But we did have complete faith in the songs we had written. and when we listened to them we thought this could be the one chance we've got, as the climate is now right."
It's nearly 18 months since James went missing, and while Moore, Bradfield and Wire are now operating with a newfound determination. Wire reveals that in the months immediately after James' disappearance, the realisation there would be no swift resolution to the mystery almost spelled the end of the Manics.
"There was a period of two or three months after Richey 'went missing when we couldn't be bothered to do anything, we were totally frozen. We just couldn't be assed lifting a finger, we couldn't see the point."
As the intense feelings of shock and disbelief dissipated. the decision was made to continue as a three-piece, and in May last year the trio reconvened in a studio in Cardiff to write and rehearse songs for the next album. Wire says it was soon obvious they'd chosen the best option.
"When we wrote 'Design for Life', we only had to look at each other, and we knew we had to carry on, because we had so many good songs in us that deserved to be heard."
Taking comfort and encouragement from the ease with which the sessions progressed, the band travelled to Normandy in France, during the tail end of the European summer, to make Everything Must Go. Wire says it was crucial the Manics removed themselves from the turbulent environment that surrounded the band, in order to bury their heads in the recording process.
"We had to get out of England, the media was going mad, and it was our first experience of the British tabloid mentality. Also we wanted to get away from the record company, who were starting to interfere. Everything fell into place; we were in a really small town and we couldn't speak French: so there were no diversions. The only thing we had to do was focus our minds on making the album."
It's a safe bet that if 'Motorcycle Emptiness' was released now. it would be a massive hit, though in 1992 it's brilliance and beauty was criminally overlooked. That said, Everything Must Go features the Manic Street Preachers' most ambitious songs to date. From the epic, orchestral arrangement of 'Design for Life', to the sparkling, swoonsome vibe of the title track, the Manics use of lush synthesiser grooves and sweeping strings within their ferocious guitar framework lifts their chaotic sound to another level entirely. While observers were predicting the band would produce a bleak and depressing album. reflecting the troubles of the past year-and-a-half. Wire says the band were adamant they didn't want to make a drama out of James' disappearance, their only agenda was to deliver a pop record that would prove their worth.
"As a band, we didn't want to come across as a therapy session. so we tried not to be too specific about certain things, like our own mental disintegration at the time. We didn't want to turn into some silly American band who talk about how they go to therapy all the time and go to psychologists, we just wanted to keep a bit of dignity. The driving force behind the whole album was for every song to have a melody... people have never really given us credit for our songs. even though we've always had complete confidence in the melody of our tunes. With Everything Must Go. every song had to stand up in it's own right."
In addition to James' vanishing act not playing a contributing part to the moods and themes of Everything Must Go. Wire notes it's the same album the Manics would have made whether he was present or not. adding that James' role in the band was forever overestimated and misunderstood.
"Musically, James is always the dictator, and it was his idea to make this new album more tuneful and uplifting. Richey, if he were around now. he'd be the first to admit he never had any musical ideas anyway. When Richey went missing, people thought we'd lost the spiritual leader. the figurehead of the band, when we didn't see it like that at all - we lost our best friend. The significance put upon him... Britain just wanted their own Kurt Cobain, they wanted an icon to trans-late all their depression and angst onto. For the first three years he was in the band, there was lots of moments when we all genuinely enjoyed ourselves, that's just totally forgotten now. Richey is always going to be seen as tortured, chopping himself up, and drinking too much."
Friends since they were five, Wire says the root of all James' problems was he wounded too easily, and possessed none of the defence mechanisms most people develop to withstand life's harsher moments. His emotional difficulties manifested themselves outwardly through sporadic bouts of self-mutilation. and also involved anorexia and severe alcohol abuse. Although these problems were of major concern to other members of the band, Wire says there were long periods of time when James appeared happy and content. It was only after he slashed his chest with a knife following a concert in Thailand during April 1994, and told the band, "I feel alright now", they realised things were heading seriously astray.
"There came a point where he seemed to go so dark, and that's when it all started to go wrong. In the last year before he disappeared, Richey stopped enjoying everything. he just cried all the time. We had a terrible time on those last tours, I mean... I suppose there were clues something was going to happen."
Upon the Manics' return to the UK, James admitted himself to Priory Hospital in South London (a treatment centre for people with acute psychiatric disorders), where he began a 12-step recovery program. According to Wire, the procedure at Priory provides a surface cure, ridding patients of their physical addictions, but fails to address underlying psychological problems.
"They heal your body through a process not unlike brainwashing, but ignore your mind. They just try to rip the soul out of you. they try to destroy the person you were. its a sad thing to see. It's almost like forcing a religion on some-one, in that they must adhere to and believe in these things they never would have believed in before. All the things they wanted Richey to believe in, he had openly ridiculed in the past. We could see Richey wasn't totally fooled by it. he just played along. Sometimes I think to myself, whatever he's done, I'm glad he's done it. because at least he realised he couldn't carry on being this person Priory wanted him to be. If he's alive somewhere just doing what he wants, then good. Whatever he's done, I'd rather he did it than carry on like he was."
The cruelest aspect of James' exit, says Wire. is the band remain in a state of 'suspension'. Until concrete news of his whereabouts, and whether he's alive or dead, is heard, the band can't contemplate any kind of proper grieving or healing process. Instead, Bradfield, Moore and Wire have once again found solace in their music. and on that level at least. life for the Manic Street Preachers goes on.
"We are starting to enjoy ourselves again, and the sense of achievement has come back, in that our songs are getting across to people, which is what we've always wanted. When the band started, we had plans for world domination and we were quite Malcolm McLarenesque in our ideas. But the way things have gone. we see things way more short term, all the rest is not quite so important as it once was. The last couple of years has shown me how precious life is. even if things are crap. there's usually something good that will happen during the day. It can be something really simple, whether it's hearing a record or watching a good programme on TV... I really appreciate those small things now."