Manic Street Preachers return with "A Design For Life", an unlikely Britpop anthem. Still, their views on Oasis ("the best") and Blur ("patronising"), suggest the tragic disappearance of Richey Edwards has not left them immune to their times.
In a hotel room in Cardiff, James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore are engaging in their first band interview since 1994. For the first time in public the Manics will cover a unique and terrible rock'n'roll story. One that kicked off on the morning of February 1 1995, when James asked the porter of London's Embassy Hotel to open the door of room 516 and he discovered that his friend Richey Edwards had gone missing.
Outwardly the Manics are chatty and polite as they pour tea and talk over the weekend’s sporting events. At first they briefly allude to themselves and the unenviable time they suffered in 1995. For a group that was so famously brazen in the past, they often talk in euphemisms now - referring to Richey’s ‘thing’ or his ‘whatever you call it’ - when mentioning their friend’s breakdown.
You learn, almost by accident, that Nicky has been treated for a stress-related illness. His Welsh doctor recommended that he undergo some bereavement counselling. On other occasions, he was offered Temazepan pills, but he declined. A Harley Street doctor examined Nicky and then advised him to make sure to wash the skins of fruit when he was abroad. Cheers for that, Wire thought.
Sean is mainly quiet, only butting in when he feel that his friends haven’t expressed a point as accurately as they might. James is more sporadic and emotional - you feel that he’s been the most frustrated member of the band. Without a steady partner and a domestic lifestyle, he’s the one that goes pinballing around London parties - a gifted musician who has most to achieve from travelling and playing plenty. In cold print, James’ outbursts occasionally seem cold-blooded, but that’s not the deal at all.
We start by mentioning the success of ‘A Design For Life’. Six years ago, the Manics were ridiculed by many people in the industry - laughed off as a provincial folly, an out-of-time aftershock of the punk era. They drank Babycham! Wore women’s blouses! Said they would sell 20 million copies of the debut album! How the cynics sneered.
But not even the headline believers - the mascara-rimmed weirdos, the malcontents, the rockers and the mentally frail souls who mad up the Manics congregation in the ensuing years - would have predicted such an outcome as this. Is there much joy in such a success story?
James: “I feel slightly bittersweet. It taints it. Lyrically, there doesn’t appear to be much to that song, but the lines are so concise. As soon as I got those words I thought ‘I’ve got to write the best tune ever’. This was one of the first times in a while when I read a lyric and it sent a tingle up my spine. To transfer that to a Number Two position - that gives me a sense of fulfillment on behalf of all of us.”
Since the Manics went away in 1994 we’ve seen a new type of fan emerging - the Britpop kid. Did you worry about how you’d fit in with this changing audience?
James: “I just though that we might become like Manic and the mechanics.”
Nicky: “Or we could have been accepted on the Radiohead album-selling ethic. I couldn’t tell which we’d fall into. It’s quite a mature sounding record really”
Do you feel confident?
James: “I wasn’t. I was confident that we’d get our nominal Singles of the Week in the press, but beyond that I thought ’11 or 12 in the chart will do me. Or 15 or 19.’ I went through so many different stages of not having confidence.”
Nicky: “We purposely supported bands earlier this year because we wanted to be anonymous; to ease our way into it. The fact that our own fans might be there made me nervous.”
James: “It was funny walking around onstage in Dublin as the Oasis support. There were loads of little girls at the front and you could tell that they were looking at me and thinking ‘Is that a roadie?’ They didn’t have a clue who I was. It was a bit more fun.
Nicky: “Obviously, in Cardiff there was more recognition. We were coming up to the hotel, right by the arena, and there was this gang of four Welsh boys and they started singing ‘Where the fuck has Richey gone?’ That was kind of good humoured.”
James: “It made me anxious, but he just laughed, I suppose it was quite funny, on some level...”
And have there been many encounters with fans in the street?
James: “Two months ago I was out having a drink in London. And someone says to me, ‘How can you be out having a drink?’ I say, ‘What the fuck are you on about?’ He says, ‘If I was you I’d be in my room chopping myself up by proxy for Richey.’ People think they know how they’d react if they were his friend. But I don’t feel that I’d been Richey’s friend at that point, because you didn’t have a clue what had happened at all. There were no equations.”
Nicky: “That’s what hurt as much as anything - the fact that perhaps he just didn’t like us anymore.”
James: “That’s the worst thing. He left us completely and utterly in...nothingness.”
Sean: “From the day he left us we know nothing. Absolute zero.”
James: “Perhaps one morning he just woke up and said we’re a bunch of dickheads, fuck off. That would be really upsetting wouldn’t it? He was adept at dramatic symbolism and stuff. You would expect something, just a little tiny thing. But at the end of the day, no matter how many little lies were going around about what’s happened, there were no clues.”
NME last interviewed Richey Edwards in September 1994. He’d just been released from the Priory Hospital in Roehampton, south London, which specialises in ‘acute psychiatric problems’. His particular problems involved anorexia, alcohol abuse and self mutilation.
All of these aspects of his personality were documented in his lyrics, most unflinchingly on the 1994 album ‘The Holy Bible’. Richey’s practice of cutting his skin was part of rock lore: on May 15 1991, he decided to answer a skeptical journalist by slashing ‘4 Real’ on his forearm with a razor, requiring 17 stitches.
The Priory doctors weren’t tolerant of such behaviour. Richey’s treatment require him to stop drinking and to adopt a 12-point recovery plan...One of the 12 points asks you to recognise that there’s a higher power than yourself - a God of some description. Shaun used the image of his grandmother to represent the good aspects of life. Richey had a lot of trouble with this. He couldn’t use the image of a person of a favourite pet, because they would die on you. So what else was there? He was still working on that conundrum when we left him.
James, Nicky and Sean had offered Richey a non-touring role in the band. He could stay at home writing lyrics and designing the Manics artwork instead. But Richey couldn’t agree to that - he felt he would be shirking from the toughest part of the job. So he toured with the band in France, supporting Therapy? for 11 French dates through the end of September, into October.
Richey was still following the 12 points, reading out stuff he’d taken from the hospital that sometimes embarrassed the others. Nicky said they sounded like prayers. But when the band embarked on a UK tour in October, Richey was losing his way again. He started identifying with the Dennis Hopper character, a crazed photojournalist, in Apocalypse Now, even buying the same model of camera that Hopper used, and wearing it around his neck much of the time. Nicky remembers some other aspects of his dress with unease.
“It’s a well known fact that anorexics try to cover up their condition with baggy clothes all the time. And on the first day of the British tour, Richey walks in and he’s wearing the tightest pair of girls leggings that I’ve ever seen in my life. He still wanted the rest of the world to know that he was completely fucked up. Everyone knew already. I said ‘Why are you doing that? You haven’t got to prove that you are whatever you are.'”
And then he began writing LOVE on the knuckles of his hand. Why was that?
James: “That’s just bollocks. Priory stuff.”
Nicky: “We all think the Priory filled him up with a lot of shit. All the things the Priory stood for, in one way or another, Richey had ridiculed viciously in the past. You can’t expect someone to come around to something like that. Sometimes, I think that one of the positive things he’s done is that wherever he is, he knew he’d never become the person the Priory wanted him to be. Deep down, he knew it was just crap. It’s pseudo-religion anyway. He said, ‘I can’t do anything I want to any more’. He really missed drinking. The one constant in his life which he enjoyed was drinking. The fact that it put him to sleep. He’d drink on his own - not a social thing.”
Sean: “It was a companion.”
Nicky: “When we were recording ‘The Holy Bible’, that was a really good time, honestly. Richey had just bought his flat. He’d come into Soundspace studios (in Cardiff), collapse on the settee and have a snooze while we did all the recording. Then he’d say, ‘Oh, I’ll drive you home now, boys’.”
James: “Me and him would go to the dodgy disco and we’d have a good laugh. A bit of ‘pullage’, all that kind of stuff. Try and get girls. Really ordinary things.”
Nicky: “Thailand [in April ’94, when Richey slashed his chest with a knife] was the first time that I felt something was going wrong. And then we went to Portugal and things were going awry. It’s not as if it was a matter of time, but I did feel something was gonna happen. We had to put him to bed one night cos he just burst out crying in the car. I did feel that we were taking it so far with the record, and some of the lyrics were so self-fulfilling for Richey. Like ‘Die in The Summertime’, I’m sure he felt that, ‘People are gonna say I’m a fake if I don’t do something about it’.”
The European tour with Suede, starting on November 7, was an appalling experience. James would stay up all night drinking - the rest wouldn’t see him until 7 p.m., just before show-time. James figured that was OK, because he thought they disliked his company anyway. Nicky had lost his suitcase, he was missing his wife, Rachel, and he was in poor health. He flew back to Britain after a week to see a specialist and by the time he rejoined the tour, Richey’s decline was manifest. He was breaking up pieces of chocolate on a plate demonstrating to whoever was watching that this was all the nourishment that he needed. He was also developing a large thyroid cyst on his neck, possibly as a result of the pills he was taking.
He became intrigued by the life and death of Def Leppard guitarist, Steve Clarke. He was a good player, but he’d become terribly fraught before a show - once even breaking his knuckles on a wash basin, so he wouldn’t have to go on. In the same spirit, Richey used to dream about chopping off his fingers. Then he went out and bought himself a butchers cleaver.
The Manics played a terrible show in Amsterdam and everyone was depressed, except Richey, who was oddly cheerful. Afterwards, Nicky pulled up his friend’s shirt to discover he had carved a vertical slash down his chest. “I feel - alright now,” said Richey. On December 14, Nicky woke up in Hamburg to find Richey outside the hotel, banging his head against the wall. Blood was running down his cheeks. The tour was over.
Richey had three last shows to play with the Manics - at the London Astoria on December 19, 20 and 21. There was a very special sense of expectation about the final show.
Nicky: “I was so nervous every night, that the end was just a relief. That last five minutes of the last gig when we smashed eight grand’s worth of gear and lights were five of the best minutes I’ve ever had in my life. It was just brilliant. We were transported back to the days of ‘Motown Junk’. Beautiful. It meant more than any of the songs. Until we saw the bill...”
Early in January 1995, the band spent five days rehearsing at a place called The House in The Woods, near Cobham in Surrey. They’d been asked to record something for the Judge Dredd soundtrack, and the new songs they played were generally more stirring and melodic than anything on ‘The Holy Bible’. And Richey was at his best, which in retrospect, the band find scary.
In these last weeks leading to his disappearance, every detail has been gone over in the search for significance and symbolism. Just as they were leaving Surrey, Richey presented them all with little presents: The Daily Telegraph and a Mars Bar for Nicky, a CD for James, something personal for Sean. And of course, there was the matter of some lyrics he presented to the others before going off...
James: ‘Yeah, but we’d seen them before. They were lyrics we’d been working on for ages.”
Nicky: “He never chucked anything into the river. That’s just not true. He didn’t have a passport with him. He left that behind in Cardiff. And there was lever a ritual burning of lyrics or anything. Those were just rumours that built up. He gave me lyrics first, and I said, ‘Oh, why don’t you give them to Sean over Christmas?’ Sean had them and then he did photocopies.”
James: “No music has been written to any of his lyrics since he’s gone missing.”
Nicky: ‘We didn’t feel comfortable with that. There’s about 50 songs in there. To be honest with you, they’re no more horrific than ‘The Holy Bible’. You can’t get any more low than that, can you really?’
When Wire came back to Cardiff in mid-January, James told him he couldn’t find Richey. His mother thought he was in London, but he wasn’t. Then he turned up a day later and said he’d been to Swansea. Richey’s dog, Snoopy, had died, and he’d shaved his own head, possibly as a sign of grief.
A week later, on January 23, Richey dressed in striped pyjamas, assented to his final interview with a journalist for Japan’s Music Life, Midori Tsukagoshi. It was a ghoulish testament.
So what of the sentiments expressed in that interview? Did Richey ready take the death of his dog badly?
Nicky: “He did love his dog - that was a Manics thing. We all had dogs. We used to stroke each other’s dogs.”
James: “It was like, Lucy, Dixie, Suki and Snoopy.”
Nicky: “And they all died.”
And what of the girl he mentioned in that interview?
James: “That’s personal.”
Nicky: “He had a relationship with a girl over a few years. That’s the only girl he had any feelings for and he did really like her but...”
James: “He never talked about it so there’s no point in us talking about it.”
Nicky: “I can honestly say that the five day at The House in The Woods was the only time when I thought he was back to being Iggy/Keith Richards, as opposed to Ian Curtis. But that could have been because he was going. It’s so hard to speak about it, because for all we know, he could have gone insane. The morning he left, for all we know, he could have gone mad.”
James and Richey checked into the Embassy Hotel on Bayswater Road, London, on the evening of January 31, 1995. They were en route to America, where they were scheduled to do interviews, prior to the Manics’ US tour. They were given adjoining rooms and James said he’d knock on his pal’s door after they’d had a chance to freshen up.
When James knocked half an hour later, Richey put his head around the door. He was smiling, in the middle of taking a bath. James asked him if he fancied going out, down Queensway - a favourite area for browsing. Richey said no, “I’m thinking of going to the pictures”. James said, “Well, if you wanna do that, I fancy it.” And he said, “Oh, come back in half in hour.”
But around 8.30pm, when James knocked again, Richey said he was going to stay in for a while, and that he’d call him in the morning. So James strolled out to meet a friend for a bit, and went to bed at 11:30pm.
In Room 516, Richey parcelled up a box and left it on his bed, addressed to the girl he’d mentioned in the Japanese interview. It looked like a belated Christmas present. The band got a look at the contents afterwards, but they say that, contrary to rumour, there was no special book in there - rather, a collection of reading material. As far as they know, there were quotes written on the sides of the box and videos of Naked and Equus in there too.
So there was nothing significant in the box?
Nicky: “It’s just like the lyrics he gave us beforehand. I went through a phase when I was just looking over and over cos there was collages in there and stuff. Me and James saw this picture of a house and it was like, ‘Is that where he is? It looks like a mad house in Bavaria.’ We were going, ‘Perhaps he’s there’. You can go in his flat and you can look at every book, everything. At the end of the day, you haven’t got a clue.”
James: “If you want to be that cryptic about it you could spend half your life investigating everything.”
Nicky: “Well, the front cover is Bugs Bunny, so I thought perhaps he’s in Disneyland. We went to a private investigator straight away, to try and track him down. The only grey area is me service station.”
After leaving London at 7am on February 1, Richey drove to his flat in Cardiff, where he left his passport, a jar of Prozac pills and some papers. What he did in the ensuing two weeks is still completely unknown. The next piece of definite information is that his silver cavalier was identified at Auste service station, near the Severn bridge, on February 14.
After contacting Richey’s bank, the band’s management discovered that while Richey had not used his account after January 31, he’d withdrawn £200 per day on the previous 14 days. This is one item of information that suggests Richey wasn’t contemplating suicide.
There have been many supposed sightings of Richey since then, but most have been quickly disproved. Some theories are more enigmatic. For instance, a taxi driver named Anthony Hatherhall picked up a young man from the Kings Motel in Newport on February 23. As requested, he drove him around the scenic roads of the Gwent valleys and Blackwood, before dropping his passenger off at Auste services. The cab fare was £68.
James: “It looks like it wasn’t him, ‘cos the bloke had shoulder-length hair.”
The other intriguing feature of Richey’s last known movements is the fact that no-one knows exactly when the car was left at the car park.
Nicky: “The car was discovered on February 14, but they really don’t know how long the car was there. If it had been there from the day he went missing, then I think it’s pretty likely that he’d be dead, to be honest with you. But I don’t think it was there that day. Otherwise, it would have had a ticket earlier. By the end, it had a ticket. The police were going to tow it away.”
So if he’d parked the car on February 12, then you reckon he’s still out there?
James: “You would think he was alive.”
Nicky: “For me, it would mean that he’d been driving around for 12 days, so why then decide to jump in the River Severn? The battery was flat, because he’d been playing tapes and everything. He’d been sleeping in there, obviously.”
James: “The conclusion you come to from that is that he couldn’t have used the car much more. So if he left it until the 12th and the battery was flat...perhaps he just walked off and hitchhiked. There’s a myriad of options.”
Nicky: “A lot of the signs do point to the possibility that he’s dead. I’m not denying that. I’ve been to my doctor and he said, ‘You’ve got to face the fact that he’s dead - you should go to bereavement counselling’. But it’s impossible to do that without a body, don’t you think? How can you go to bereavement counselling when you don’t even know if someone’s dead?”
James: “Once and for all - all of the stories that are going around: we haven’t got a fucking clue. We
Nicky: “There was a rumour the other day on one of the local radio stations that he was living back home...They thought they had a sighting of him in a hotel in Switzerland two weeks ago. There was one in New York - one story said that he’d done a tour of the death camps in Germany. There’s lots of things like that...He could be in a sewage works in Barry, for all we know. Done a Reggie Perrin...”
James: “That’s more plausible to me. Something that’s very mundane. Rather than some kind of pilgrimage. To do something in isolation.”
So basically, you’re keeping an open mind?
Sean: “We’re waiting for the next clue to come along. Obviously if he is alive, he doesn’t want to be found.”
Nicky: “Wherever he is, he’s made his own choice. Unless he’s gone insane, he’s made his own choice and he’s doing what he wants.”
James: “It’s hard for me to sit around and think about it because...I can’t imagine him ever wanting to get in touch with us again. If he did, then...”
Nicky: “The barriers that he’s put there are so great now. They say that’s the worst thing about trying to get back in touch with people. The longer it goes on, you’re just building up...”
James: “I couldn’t be friends with him again. Just for the sake of us three. If it went off again, just imagine how much it could fuck you up. It’s my biggest nightmare - what would I do if Richey turned up and wanted to know me again? It’s really scary.”
Nicky: “If he turned up and said, ‘Hey, I’m back and I’m feeling great’, I’d be searching his body to see if there were any cut marks - looking for flasks of whisky and drugs. It got a bit like that towards the end. When he went to bed every night, I’d say, ‘Pull your top up - let’s have a look’.”
By May ’95, Nicky, James and Sean had begun playing together again at the Soundspace studios in Cardiff. They vowed not to perform any old songs for a while, but to concentrate on the stuff they’d been trying out with Richey in January. Regarding the more recent sheaf of Edwards’ lyrics - those were definitely not to be touched. Richey’s older lyrics were used on ‘Elvis Impersonator’, ‘The Girl Who Wanted’ and ‘Small Black Flowers That Bloom in The Sky’. The latter was inspired by a TV documentary in October ’94 that presented the tedium and decay in municipal zoos. Richey had rung up Nicky when the programme was over. They’d both watched it, and were staggered at the images of gorillas smearing themselves in their own excrement. The song’s closing line, “Here, chewing your tail is joy“, will, of course, be regarded as being emblematic of Richey’s own ‘cage’.
The Richey song ‘Kevin Carter’ was based on the life of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. His most famous image was a picture of a dying child in Rwanda. A vulture stands nearby, anticipating easy meat. Kevin Carter couldn’t stand the celebrity that the shot brought him, and he killed himself. A fifth Richey lyric ‘Removables’, dates back more than three years. They could never get it to work. Then someone suggested a vibe more like the Nirvana ‘Unplugged’ record. It worked well, reminding everyone the night that Kurt died, the Manics were recording ‘Archives of Pain’ in Brittania Studios - the same place where Joy Division’s Ian Curtis had made his most pitiful recordings.
In contrast, many of the lyrics Nicky was writing took on a more positive aspect. A lyric like “everything must go” became a call for resolve in the face of black experience - the resulting anthem also became the defining mood and title of the band’s fourth album. The song also addresses the Manic Street Preachers’ fans, anticipating that a percentage of them will regard the band’s continuation as a ‘betrayal’ of Richey. “I just hope that you can forgive us,” James howls in the chorus.
Is there a distinction between Manics fans and Richey fans?
James: “There’s definitely a real hardcore.”
Nicky: “From ‘The Holy Bible’ more than anything. It was the cult of Richey, wasn’t it? Some of those fans and their letters and fanzines have upset me, really. They seem to expect us to do the same thing. I’m not gonna chop myself up and become an alcoholic.”
James: “And then professing that they know him. I hate that.”
Nicky: “Richey was lonely and sometimes he’d latch onto someone and just talk all night. I don’t think he’d mean anything, but a lot of those people think they know him.”
James: “About two years ago, when he was going out in Newport all the time, he’d get pissed and go out with a girl and things. He’s the kind of person, if he was asked a question, he would yap and yap. Then these people would turn up in the press, and go, ‘I’m a very good friend of Richey’. Fuck off, you wanker! You’re not one of his friends. You had a drink with him - he probably tried to pull one of your friends. I hate that. When we were heckled by those Welsh boys in Cardiff it was better than some 4st 7lbs, obsessed person coming up to Nick and giving him an apple.”
Nicky: “About four weeks before Richey went missing, we were chatting. We had so much poetry off anorexics and a lot of it was so shit even Richey was getting fed up - not another pile of this again. I said, ‘Look, I’m gonna have to write a song taking the piss out of their poetry’. And he was laughing, he said, ‘Yeah’ - even though he was one. Or at least half anorexic, he could still see what I meant. He’d go, ‘Oh no, not another fucking poem about eating an apple in the morning! Even though he was suffering, he still had it - the cynicism.”
In Chateau De La Rouge Motte, near Caen, where they worked with producer Mike Hedges, ‘A Design For Life’ was finished by September and mixed by Christmas, the string section added at Abbey Road in London. It had achieved what Nicky was looking for, “a sense of melancholic victory”. The song isn’t, as some critics think, about the end of the world. It’s about the resilience of the working class - how they get cheated and manipulated, but still prevail, according to Nicky. “It is a kind of heroic, working class song. We always fight back and we produce brilliant things. Even with something like Oasis, it’s obvious to me that they are the best band in the world. Liam is not very eloquent or anything, but you’ve just got to look at him and you know he’s the business. He could have only come from where he came from.”
But don’t the working class also give us Alf Garnett and Millwall supporters?
Nicky: “Exactly - I know that. I don’t pretend otherwise bigotry exists everywhere. But it’s the way that the working class is patronised a lot these days. Working class imagery is taken by the middle class people.”
So what does Nicky make of Blur’s Club 18-30 tribute, ‘Girls And Boys’?
“That’s the exact opposite. That’s patronising. Quite a few of those songs were the inspiration for writing ‘A Design For Life’. Not just Blur songs, but other bands, who shall remain nameless. It’s a good song, but I find the imagery a bit false.”
The line in ‘A Design For Life’ that goes “We are not allowed to spend” makes you think of interest rates and inflationary measures. How the ordinary person’s economic behaviour is controlled by city analysts and politicians.'
Nicky: “I was listening to the group Gene on the radio talking about ‘Sleep Well Tonight’, and the singer was going, ‘Oh, we’ve taken all this video footage of people spilling out of pubs and beating themselves up and it’s so terrible,’ and I thought, ‘What the fuck do you expect these people to do when they’ve been working in a factory for 20 years?’ Those people will start a revolution - not the Martin Rossiters of the world, who just stay in reading Morrissey lyrics all their lives. It’s really wrong to patronise all those people. Obviously, I don’t think violence is great; you beat yourselves up, destroy your own class. But I can stand back and understand why it goes on. I can understand why I used to walk in Blackwood, dressed up like a New York Doll, into a pub full of rugby players who’d call me a silly poof. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, those people should be killed’. That’s the inspiration for the song.”
You can’t really fault Nicky, James and Sean for wanting to change their situation - choosing bouts of normality over chaos, plugging for optimism rather than self-immolation. Behind them lies an awful, unanswered lyric: “from despair to where?” Part of their job now is to respond to that poser.
The French thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre came up with a neat line about this conundrum 50 years ago. “La vie commence a l’autre cots du desespair,” he wrote. Life begins on the other side of despair. Way to go.