Manic Stations! - Hot Press, 16th April 1997
From the pits to the pits no, hang on, that s the story of Welsh soccer. Or is it Welsh rugby? For the manic street preachers, by contrast, it s all onwards and upwards. james dean bradfield tells jonathan o brien about their unlikely climb to the top.
ThE stories were of a more tabloid nature, rather than a musical nature. Which is hardly surprising. I mean, we re dealing with The Sun and The Mirror here. I think if you were to expect some good press off those people, that would be incredibly fucking naive.
Another day, another stitch-up. James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers is relaying his feelings on the distasteful spate of Richey-spotted-in-India stories which recently clogged up the popular press, bringing all the old, unwanted shit back into the open once more for a totally unjustified airing in public.
The rash of exclusives , following a university lecturer s claim that he had seen someone who resembled Richey Edwards hanging out with a group of ravers in the resort of Goa, led to the Manics cancelling all their media engagements for several weeks. The result was that this interview was initially called off at the last minute, before being rescheduled the best part of a month later.
This round of interviews is ostensibly promotional work for the Manics latest tour, but on this side of the Irish Sea at least they needn t have bothered, for their two nights at the Olympia were sold out for weeks in advance. It s a mark of their staggeringly sudden success that their current album, Everything Must Go, has outstripped the sales figures of its three precursors.
In February, the Manic Street Preachers emerged victorious at the Brit Awards in London, and the occasion was marked by Nicky Wire s slightly bizarre acceptance speech, in which he exhorted TV viewers of the awards ceremony to support their local comprehensives, given that they were bastions of working-class culture and that all the best artists and musicians have come out of those places . I begin by asking James the precise reasoning which lay behind his bandmate s speech.
In terms of the people we knew when we were growing up, and the area we grew up in, the general little class divides became much more apparent and much more distinct, he explains of the band s origins in Blackwood in southern Wales. I know it sounds like an American thing, but it really was a case of coming from the other side of the tracks. We were always very aware of that when we were young. I think we were aware of our backgrounds and our educations.
It had more bearing on us because, y know, those were the years when the miners strike was going on. That lent us a very clear sense of perspective in terms of what our class was and what it stood for, and how we were brought up and what morals and values we were brought up with, and what our education stood for. All that was thrown into so much clearer relief, in terms of the time we grew up in it was the mid- 80s, the miners strike was taking place right on our doorsteps. I think you would have to be someone who was very numb to life in general not to take those kinds of things on board.
The act of wearing their class origins on their sleeves is not a new gambit on the part of the Manics. Their story is inextricably linked to their roots, and the tune has been repeated ad infinitum all through their careers, particularly in early interviews. Which is fair enough, because it s a good one: the foursome painted themselves as well-read layabouts, brushing up on their Plath and e e cummings in their spare time (of which they had plenty), dicking around in a band for want of something else to do, desperately waiting for the first opportunity to escape the stultifying tedium of the small town in which they lived.
But the Manic Street Preachers have certainly never been ones to forget where they came from, and their career has been riddled with small gestures and notations of nationalistic pride. For instance, the more observant of you may have noticed that Everything Must Go is dedicated to the Tower Colliery in Cyon Valley in southern Wales. Earlier this decade, under threat of closure, redundancy and unemployment, the pit workers there clubbed together to sink their own money into the colliery in order to keep it going. The result was an unexpected profit and the salvaging of hundreds of jobs.
That s a much more distinct dedication, really, says James, his voice rising as he gets more animated on this subject. Their story is just very inspiring, man, y know? The conspiracy theory is that loads of those pits in Wales had so much life and industry and product left in them, and for years that way of looking at it has just been battered down as a kind of cheap, paranoid left-wing conspiracy.
The Tower Colliery story proved everybody wrong. It wasn t some kind of pinko leftie new socialist thing. The workers turned that pit around in the first year and made a #3 million profit. They put their own redundancy money on the line to buy that pit. So they did all the right things and they got all the right results.
In any case, it is now as certain as it is possible to be, without actually being certain, that the Conservative Party will be given a fucking good hiding in next month s election. The pit closures and general economic hooliganism may or may not grind to a halt under Labour, but at least the climate of political viciousness and hammering of the common five-eighths will.
The problem for the British electorate is that the alternative doesn t appear all that appetising. The Labour Party, for all their user-friendly veneer, look like little more than a sartorially grey counterpart to the Tories perennial blue suit. James Dean Bradfield is predictably dismissive of Tony Blair s rather transparent attempts to court the youth vote, in particular.
Ah, that doesn t bother me whatsoever, he snorts. Someone of my age, who grew up during the mid- 80s and all that Red Wedge scenario, I ve been used to Labour going after the youth vote all my life. I ve been aware of that stuff since I first started buying records. It doesn t surprise me and it doesn t even disgust me any more. What shall be shall be.
So you won t be giving your X-in-the-box to your local New Labourite?
Well, I and the rest of the band find it hard to envisage any kind of socialism without a nationalised agenda in terms of industry and stuff, public amenities and public rights. In this election there s been no focus on nationalising industries, et cetera. I find it hard to feel any kind of alignment to New Labour, really.
There was talk earlier this year of a Rock The Vote campaign to mobilise young people and get them to the polling booths on election day. Could the Manics be tempted to participate in such an enterprise?
No, James states flatly. I wouldn t do it. To be honest with you, this is the first time I ve ever really talked about my vote, and I know for a fact I just couldn t get on a stage and do that. And as I said, I lived through that Red Wedge thing, and I know it didn t do the Labour Party a molecule of good, or young people for that matter. I could never envisage ever doing a Rock The Vote campaign.
James says that as May 17 approaches, he s leaning more and more towards the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, or Cumry, or however the fuck you pronounce the damned thing.
Yeah, you got it right (laughs). I don t really know yet. You find yourself thinking about it so much that you keep putting it off till the last minute. For me the perfect analogy for it is that it s like that bit of homework you really don t wanna do. I don t actually know if Plaid Cymru have any seats in the House of Commons at the moment. They might, but I don t think so.
Certainly, the Plaid Cymru bloke in my area really has vestiges of true socialism within him, but I m still not quite sure about his vision of an independent Welsh assembly and stuff like that. It s a thing I really have not decided upon yet.
If I can play devil s advocate for a moment, could it be argued that a vote for a party like Plaid Cymru is a wasted vote because they have no hope of grabbing any sort of meaningful degree of power?
That s a valid argument, yeah, he says, but perhaps I m more aware these days that I feel rather disenfranchised. I don t particularly feel as if there s anybody or any party around who proffers my political desires, my political wants or needs. Perhaps that s just one of the pressures of growing up. When you look at Plaid Cymru you know that they embody certain things which are kind of pleasing to the eye.
But yeah, you re also aware of the fact that your vote doesn t count, you re only satisfying yourself, which is another issue you ve got to confront whether to personalise your vote and be selfish, or emancipate your vote for other people. I haven t made any of those decisions yet, and I think that this election is the first one I ve experienced where I really don t know what way I ll swing until the day itself.
From the frantic, palsied, GN R-in-a-blender glam racket of Generation Terrorists to the more measured hard rock of Gold Against The Soul to the stripped-bare punk of The Holy Bible to the streamlined AOR (not an insult) of Everything Must Go, the overriding constant of the Manic Street Preachers recorded output in this humble scribe s opinion, anyway has been a seemingly tunnel-visioned desire to keep their music every bit as accessible and listenable as their lyrics are concentratedly intense and unwaveringly vehement.
In the minds of most people, Everything Must Go represents the zenith of the Manics modus operandi, being as it is a 45-minute snapshot of a band at the peak of their considerable powers. Unsurprisingly, James concurs with that view.
For me, anyway, it s our most complete album, he says. It happened that way because the lyrics always came first although of course I don t write them.
The words, in point of fact, are now all written by bass player Nicky Wire, who shared lyric-composing duties with Richey Edwards before the guitarist s disappearance; James and drummer Sean Moore shoulder the musical responsibility instead. Has he ever had any qualms about singing another man s innermost thoughts?
Well, I sing them by proxy, almost, and I have to interpret them, if you like. That s my job. I always felt that I kind of let people down on my part of the deal in the past by that I mean musically. I think Everything Must Go is the first album of ours where I ve done the lyrics justice.
Also, I think it s our first album to have lyrics which are much more concise, much more mature in their view, but still retaining the actual essence of what everyone is seeing in our songs. So yeah, I do think it s the most complete of our four albums, and the truest to the essence of what we want our albums to stand for.
If it hasn t become apparent by now, James Dean Bradfield is an extremely literate sort of a person, able to express himself with considerable fluency in an interview situation, which makes it all the more surprising that he s never written the words to a Manics song. He admits that he s never really been that way inclined, either.
No, I always believe in what Clint Eastwood said A man needs to know his limitations. I know mine. I m aware of what I like and what drives me on, and what s pleasing to my eye and so forth . . . (adopts booming voice) I know what I like, but I don t know what it s called. That kind of vibe. But, eh, my lyrical skills would be limited to just big slabs of grey doggerel, I think.
Have you tried your hand at it before?
Ah yeah, when you re young and stuff, you know, he answers sheepishly.
Your attempts at it didn t go according to plan, then?
Oh no. (sniggers) Extremely bad.
How bad is bad?
Ugh, I don t wanna think about it. As bad as Crass, I imagine.
(For the benefit of our younger readers, Crass were an anarchistic punk collective group who achieved minor notoriety in the early 1980s due to their simplistic political sloganeering and loud, attention-grabbing tactics. In those respects, as well as the rudimentary bombast of their music, they resembled the embryonic Manic Street Preachers to an amazing degree.)
Whatever about the whys, the hows and the wherefores, there is little doubt that Everything Must Go rescued the Manic Street Preachers career from inglorious decline, at least in a commercial sense. If it hadn t been critically and commercially received the way it was, would you have become sick of being seen as the perennial critics band ?
Definitely, states James. It wasn t that it would ve become too much to stomach after a while, because we were always sort of trainspotters, y know what I mean? And we still value a good NME album review as its weight in gold. We still all value what it stands for, more than you could possibly imagine.
But it just becomes an issue of man cannot live on bread and water alone (laughs), after a while, really. We did always crave critical respect from the start, as well, because a lot of our initial attitudes and fantasies were born of being obsessed with the music press. But also, we craved being a massive group, because all the groups we loved were huge, too. So I suppose we were just greedy little cunts, basically, wanting it all.
And now they have it in spades, what with Everything Must Go having outsold all three of their previous records combined. It could have been all so different, however, had the Manics made their spring 96 comeback with the sort of amphetamine-fuelled punk for which their name was then a byword, rather than the grandiose, elegiac explosion which was A Design For Life .
Put simply, although the band s profile had been involuntarily heightened by the Richey Edwards furore, the kids just wouldn t have been as eager to bite if the new, three-piece Manics had returned with another slice of heavy-going monochrome rock (albeit with the usual mindblowing lyrics). In the end, A Design For Life shot into the charts at no. 2, and was kept off the top slot only by the skin of its teeth.
Mmm, I think if we d gone down that path it would ve just solidified the meat communion of our faithful fanbase for ever, agrees James. They would have given us their bludgeoning respect till the end of time, and followed us to the ends of the earth. That sort of martyrdom was not really what we wanted.
It s strange, is it not, that as soon as you ditched the mascara, the fur coats and the rock star posturing, your much-longed-for mainstream crossover took place without any prompting or effort necessary it just happened.
Yes, I suppose so. The most ironic thing about it was that, when we at last got to push at that position, we were at our least capable in our bodily forms to carry it off.
Well, visually, at least, the band have never been more nondescript.
Yeah, exactly, and we were just becoming more and more aware of the falling precipices of our bone structures as we got older! (laughs) I think that s the most ironic thing about it. And it is quite paradoxical that we are in that position and we can t really carry it off. I reckon that as a team, we re not really as fit as we used to be!
So, on that confessional bombshell, let s move on to more important matters namely football. A committed follower of his country s national side, James has watched with mounting horror as the Welsh team has slipped to the status of fourth division in UEFA s firmament, their fortunes seemingly changing in inverse proportion to those of the Manics.
From being one missed penalty-kick away from USA 94 (stand up Paul Bodin), the Welsh are now easy meat and cannon fodder for the likes of Moldova and Georgia. Indeed, while the Manics were blazing through their set on Saturday night at the Olympia Theatre, the red-shirted lame ducks were going down 2-1 to Belgium in Cardiff, seeing their hopes of World Cup qualification finally and unequivocally extinguished.
James, the nettle must be grasped should the Welsh national team be wound up and liquidated to save patriotic face?
Welsh fans go through that kind of question at least four times a year, he replies. Obviously I feel like that after every game, but the main crux of the matter is that you shouldn t have a cunt like Bobby Gould managing the team. I can t understand his motivations.
His motivations would appear to include picking men of the calibre of Steve Jenkins, Andy Legg, Robbie Page and Jason Bowen and then people wonder why they let in seven goals against Holland.
Oh yeah, I mean when you see him doing an interview on Sky Sports and stuff, he really is like a cheap bargain-bin version of Mr Motivator and nothing else. That s all he is.
For his troubles, James is also a loyal supporter of the increasingly doomed Nottingham Forest, who at the time of writing were second from bottom of the Premiership, having played two games more than any of their rivals. The Manics frontman is grimly realistic about their chances of beating the drop.
I think they re definitely going down, he says sadly. I mean, why the fuck is Dave Bassett general manager? It s like asking Michael Portillo to be the prime minister of the country. It s nearly that bad. I mean, Bassett, he s just, oh, he s just nothing. . . (trails off disgustedly) . . .
I think if Stuart Pearce stayed as captain it would be cool, but I can see them going down this year. And it s gonna be hard to get them back up. Because if Forest go into the First Division, then there s no way they can attract a manager like Martin O Neill from a Premiership side to a Nationwide League side. O Neill has just fucking done that with Leicester. In summary, they re gonna go down and they re gonna be fucked, I think.
Have you no faith in Forest s most recent signing, Pierre van Hooijdonk (who did, after all, bang in a couple against Wales at the Arms Park late last year)?
No, he s Stan Collymore part two, isn t he? spits James. He s the kind of person who creates rifts within the team, definitely.
Well, the Dutch striker may not exactly be in the Collymore league when it comes to dressing-room disruption, but the quote he came out with last year about his supposedly inadequate wages at Celtic ( #7,000 a week might be good for the homeless, but it s no use if you re a a professional footballer ) certainly set the hackles rising, and not just in the soup-kitchens of Glasgow.
Yeah, that was unbelievable, wasn t it? (laughs) I couldn t get over that. I think that s classic. I don t think Celtic will exactly miss him, although they could certainly do with somebody world-class at the minute. I really wanted Celtic to win the Scottish title, but in many ways Scottish football is a bit like Welsh rugby in that something really needs to happen. Somebody needs to win their league, except for Rangers obviously, and to do something in European competition. Somebody needs to shake that fucking league up badly.
James Dean Bradfield s other sporting passion happens to be rugby union. The national team of his native land may not be as much of a lame embarrassment as their footballing counterparts, but in recent years Welsh rugby has experienced a worrying drop in standards and entered a period of deep stasis, broken only periodically by the odd stirring victory over England or Scotland. Puzzlingly, though, Wales remain completely incapable of scoring more points on their own pitch than the increasingly atrocious Irish XV.
Well, if you look at both Ireland s and Wales records in the last ten years within the Five Nations, he explains, Wales and Ireland are on a par with each other now, and it is quite worrying really. I mean, the only way we can redeem ourselves is for people like Scott Quinnell and Scott Gibbs and Robert Howley to play well on the British Lions tour in South Africa.
At the end of the day, we haven t got a squad, frankly. We ve got potentially an amazing first team, but as soon as some of those players those lads I mentioned, plus Jenkins, Charvis and Ieuan Thomas as soon as some of them fall out, we re fucked. And I think it just shows how amazing New Zealand are, really. It s such a small country, but their national pride and all their ability is just focussed on the one sport, and it just makes you realise what kind of grudging respect you should show to the smaller countries like that.
How did you feel about the recall of 1980s hero Jonathan Davies, who s spent the past decade or so earning a crust in the world of rugby league?
When I went to see the last game (against England) I didn t actually even realise he was on the pitch, admits James. Y know, God bless the fella, he had amazing natural talent when he was young, one of those old-fashioned naturally gifted kind of fellows who don t really exist any more. But against England, he was on the field for sentiment s sake, really. Arwel Thomas was injured, so that s the main reason he was given a run.
But that s fair enough, y know? It shows that s there s still a little room left for some romance in Wales and Welsh rugby. It was also the last rugby match at Cardiff Arms Park, which gave the whole thing added cachet. But there wasn t really much of the old magic left there.
The Manics have been known in their time to rail against what they perceive as the economic injustice of rugby union players being forced to defect to the league code in order to earn a decent living and feed their families.
I think it was Nicky more than me who got wound up about it, he avers. I just reckon it was a perfect balance in the 1970s you had JPR (Williams), he was a doctor, and then you had people like Davies who were at the other end of the scale. But you just have to look at today s England side: that balance in terms of class origin has been really tipped in one direction, in favour of the public school rugger-buggers.
The other annoying thing is, a lot of the Welsh team are playing with English clubs Scott Quinnell plays for Richmond, some of the others play for Bristol and Bath. And to keep a coherent national side, I think it would be good if those players were with clubs in their country of origin, i.e. Wales.
And on that wildly optimistic note of nationalistic fervour, we wind the interview up. Later, the Manics blast their way through a 90-minute set at the Olympia Theatre, the first of two totally sold-out nights at the venue.
Tonight, at least, they lose a lot of the edge on their material, perhaps due to the giant Welsh flag which entirely covers one of the amplifiers (he said facetiously). What is powerful on record is not necessarily so in a live setting, and so it proves tonight. They have played and will play better shows than this one; personally, I come away from the gig feeling vaguely disappointed, though everyone else I talk to afterwards apparently had a whale of a time, so I m definitely in a minority.
Curiously, the old songs that get an airing La Tristesse Durera , Motorcycle Emptiness , From Despair To Where , even Faster come across better than do the newer hits. Of the Everything Must Go material, only their best song, Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier , seems to really work. Even that four-minute modern classic, A Design For Life , sounds a little bit forced, as though the band are slightly sick of playing it, as though James is a little fed up with continually screaming out those opening lines about libraries and power and arbeit macht frei.
But one mildly below-par gig cannot mask the fact that it s been an astonishing two years for this most honest and driven of bands. Two months ago they stole the show at the Brit Awards: a Welsh agit-pop power trio hogging the limelight at the UK music industry s annual coke n champers jamboree.
It is impossible to convey the magnitude of this achievement without adverting to the notion of Arthur Scargill receiving a ten-minute standing ovation at the Tories annual conference in Brighton.
Having transcended their limitations in beautiful style, the Manic Street Preachers are now easily one of the ten biggest rock acts in Britain. They re probably never going to write a Wouldn t It Be Nice or an A Day In The Life , but it ll be fun watching them try.