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Manic Street Preachers - POP, May 1996

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Libraries gave them power. Four young men from the mining district of Wales who wrote essays for record companies; who formulated manifestos under the influence of Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin and Axl Rose. The music they created never moved in the same spirit-poor boys' room as the other bands. Their slogans were sprayed on the walls of an anorexic girls room, they were tattooed on their skin. For lyricist and songwriter Richey Edwards, it was the most painful. On the first of February last year, he left a hotel room in London and stepped straight into nothingness. Since then, Manic Street Preachers have made their best record and Nicky, Sean and James ask for our forgiveness. Everything must go on. IN SEPTEMBER 1994, Nicky Wire, Sean Moore and James Bradfield offered their one lyricist and guitarist, Richey Edwards, to stop touring with the Manic Street Preachers. He could stay at home and dedicate himself to writing lyrics and designing the band's album covers. But Richey refused, he thought giving up would be the most difficult thing. James had always been jealous of Richey's looks. He tried in vain to teach Richey to play the guitar. But Richey couldn't bear to care. Although it didn't matter much, James thought it was at least as important that they had members in the band who looked good in pictures and on stage. Richey did.

So the Manic Street Preachers resigned themselves to the fact that Richey would never be able to play guitar. During the band's concerts, the sound of Richey's guitar was always turned down and James had to play all the guitar parts himself. Richey just posed, jumped up and down, hit awkward riffs on the guitar and mimed along to his own and bassist Nicky Wire's lyrics.

When someone pointed out that Richey didn't play on stage, the band replied that of course he did, he just played very, very quietly…

Richey's presence during the concerts was nevertheless as important to the Manics as any of the other members.

Manic Street Preachers has always been about so much more than music. They have always held an almost religious belief that Sylvia Plath, Valerie Solanas, Albert Camus, Henry Miller, Nietzsche, William S Burroughs and Nik Cohn — all of whom were quoted on the cover of the debut album — are as rock'n'roll as ever they band that was the reason they started Manic Street Preachers.

It was in literature, poetry, film and art that they drew strength and inspiration. They saw no difference between a Guns N' Roses riff, a poem by Philip Larkin or artwork by Willem De Kooning and Jenny Saville. Richey's fixation on skinny supermodels was absolutely not sexual in nature, it was based only on his own anorexia and his inordinate vanity.

The Manic Street Preachers, especially Richey and Nicky, were obsessed with beauty since childhood.

I want to walk in the snow / And not leave a footprint / I want to walk in the snow / And not soil its purity. 4PCS. 7LB.

Many were the ones who laughed at his and Nicky's empathetic texts written from a female perspective. But it also gave them thousands of devoted followers — mostly girls — with fragile souls who took every line to their hearts. It was about them. The Stone Roses or Ride's lyrics didn't. At least not in the same way.

Hospital closure kills more than car bombs ever will. NEW ART RIOT

It didn't matter that the Manics were lousy musicians, that James Bradfield sounded like a half-assed metal singer, and that the songs were more often than not bombastically pretentious orgies in some kind of borderland between sloppy punk and the worst kind of over-arranged American power ballads most associated with, say , Ski Row.

Those who understood that Manic Street Preachers were a band unlike anything else around at the time let them be lousy, it didn't matter. Because there was always something that made them bigger than all these other bands.

Manic Street Preachers meant something. They sang about reality, they were loudly political and they just wanted us to understand why they did what they did. That there were other reasons for being in a band than wanting to be a pop star. And beneath the glam make-up, the leopard-print pantyhose and women's blouses with spray-painted slogans — »Anxiety Is Freedom«, »Useless Generation«, »I Am a Culture Slut« — they were always frighteningly honest, completely naked and self-revealing.

If you stand up like a nail you will be knocked down / I've been too honest with myself / I should've lied like everybody else. AUNT

They declared early on that they came from nowhere and that the only icons and role models available to them were the icons and role models of other people — and other artists. They claimed they had nothing, but they were proud that at least it was their nothing. They were desperate for understanding, they could not live with the knowledge that they were misunderstood. Everything was explained, everything was analyzed down to the smallest detail.

"We have nothing to lose, because we know we have already lost," they said. Then, of course, one can ask what it really means that a pop band is real, that they mean it.

Manic Street Preachers nailed their theses, their ambitions and dreams, on a wall for all to see. They tattooed them all over their bodies. They promised dearly and sacredly that they would never betray their unattainable ideals and that they would only write about things that were important, valuable and just right.

They promised us that they would be the band they themselves never got to experience growing up in Wales in the second half of the eighties. Like all bands that never quite make it big, but for that very reason mean so much more, albeit to fewer people, they made their disciples read poetry and novels, take an interest in politics, take art seriously and seek solace in Dexy's Midnight Runners .

»All Rock'n'Roll Is Homosexual« and »They Fuck You Up, Your Mum and Dad. They May Not Mean to, But They Do« are some of the slogans that adorned Manic's tour shirts. They took advantage of every opportunity they got to spread their truths. Manic Street Preachers were convinced that their debut album would be the best ever recorded. It would sell twenty million copies and then they would shut down.

Of course, it didn't happen that way. Like the Soviet logo they used around »The Holy Bible«, where the band's name was written in a circle around CCCP and the hammer and sickle, it was a beautiful dream, a utopia that came crashing down.

Kevin Rowland once said something similar, claiming he was breaking up the band to start a political party.

The only way to change things is to shoot the men who arrange things THERE, THERE MY DEAR Dexy's Midnight Runners

The Manics said they would - as a protest against the Conservative government - set themselves on fire if they ever got to appear on Top Of The Pops.

The fact that I keep coming back to Dexy's Midnight Runners is because they are the only band that meant as much to me as I feel Manic Street Preachers did to those who were too young to witness Kevin Rowland's confessions in »Keep It Part 2 (Inferiority Part I)« and »Until I Believe in My Soul«.

The Manics were the first band after Dexy's — and possibly The Smiths — that I instinctively felt would change the lives of young people, who were worth loving and cherishing in the same way.

Manic's lyrics will never be as irreplaceable a part of my life as Kevin Rowlands. For Dexy's, my Manics, Rowland my Richey.

An acquaintance who saw one of the band's very first concerts in London described them as "someone doing a very bad imitation of The Clash in a school play", and James' voice as "Axl Rose in the goal breach". I agree with. That's why Manic Street Preachers forced me to embrace music that can only be described as heavy metal, music that I always loathed — and by the way still loathe — and they made me believe in things I didn't want to believe. James Bradfield, Nicky Wire, Richey Edwards and Sean Moore made people confused, very confused.

They released two singles — »Suicide Alley« and »New Art Riot« — on tiny independent labels, Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne, then writing for the weekly Melody Maker, conducted the first interviews with them outside of Wales.

A few days after the first interview was published, he received a long letter of thanks, the only one he had ever received from a band during his journalistic career.

Nicky and Richey continued to write long, impassioned thank-you letters to all journalists who wrote something kind about the band. Those who wrote something negative received even longer letters, with the entire band desperately trying to convert the person in question.

They just wanted everyone to understand.

More than anything, Manic Street Preachers was about a few young men who refused to be stepped on, but were far too intelligent to resort to violence. They felt that what they were trying to say, what they were trying to convey through the music, was so incredibly important that they would do anything to make us listen.

But a band that writes long letters to journalists, that takes criticism very seriously and absolutely cannot allow itself to laugh at the critics who do nothing themselves but follow and comment on what others have done or said, are laughed at. The rules of the game are just that.

But few people understood. They understood that these four young men were offering us their lives on a platter. I know that sounds pretentious, almost a little silly. The Manics never understood why they should hide behind any image, try to fit in with the prevailing musical climate or pretend.

When the record company Heavenly signed the band, they hoped that the laugh would stick in the throats of the detractors. It didn't.

— Everyone giggled at us for taking on Manic Street Preachers. But had they seen the letters the band wrote us, some of the early gigs they invited us to and if they had actually read the lyrics Nicky and Richey wrote they would have shut up. They were so passionate and so honest in their mission that you couldn't help but be convinced. Everyone thought we were going to fuck the Manics, they claimed they were going to be Heavenly's downfall. Nobody would take us seriously after that, says Heavenly's Martin Kelly just before Manic Street Preachers' gig at Manchester's Maine Road in early May, almost to the day five years after they released »Motown Junk«.

When the Manics play »You Love Us«, one of the singles they released for Heavenly, an hour later, Martin sits with his eyes fixed on the stage, miming the lyrics and just looking so proud. Only in 1994 did the laughter slowly but surely begin to subside. It took them three albums to get there. But even that wasn't quite enough. Richey's alcoholism, drug abuse, his self-loathing and mental health were the reasons that silenced the detractors.

He continued to talk about everything in such intelligent terms, like a doctor, he analyzed his illness and his problems for anyone who could listen.

He disappeared several times, no one knew where. The Manics had to complete several gigs without him. They never replaced him. They left only an empty seat on the left side of the stage. It is still empty. But he always appeared, more broken than before and extremely confused, but still alive. On February 1, 1995, Richey disappeared for the last time. No one knows where, no one knows if he is alive or dead. It was almost a year and a half ago.

Of course, everyone has theories. One of the last times anyone saw him alive, he was wearing a pair of black Converse sneakers. Kurt Cobain was wearing a pair exactly the same when he committed suicide just under a year earlier. Manics loved Nirvana.

They adored all these beautiful, self-immolating losers who have become worn-out clichés in rock history. Richey's six years as a member of the Manic Street Preachers was marked by his quest to find meaning in everything. All he found were a few straws.

  • * * * *

It is a Friday in early May 1996. A few hundred people are crowded into the basement of Manchester club The Hacienda. Manic Street Preachers will play their first own gig without Richey. They've done a few before, but they've been giant, impersonal arena concerts that connected the Stone Roses. This is the first time they are face to face with their own audience.

— It was terrible, says Nicky Wire in his hotel room at the Holiday Inn two days later.

— It was the hardest thing I've done since Richey disappeared. I really missed him and everything just felt so sad. It was a terrible gig. It was such a small venue and I recognized several of our fans in the audience. It was shattering in every way. I haven't felt as bad as I did that night in a long time. Every time I looked to the left, where Richey used to stand, I felt physically ill.

Nicky left the stage after the concert and threw up. It was an odd gig. They sounded musically better and more cohesive than any time I've seen them before. James' voice no longer sounds like that of a lousy metal singer, it's just powerful. His guitar playing as well. Nicky silently mimes to all the lyrics. Just like Richey always did. And the words never quite fit the music.

But the songs they play show how brilliant a compilation album of their best songs would actually be. Anyone who still doesn't understand the Manics should ask someone to record a chronological cassette of »Motown Junk«, »You Love Us«, »Motorcycle Emptiness«, »Stay Beautiful«, »From Despair to Where«, »La Tristesse Durera«, » Life Becoming a Landslide«, »Roses in the Hospital«, »Suicide Is Painless«, »Yes«, »She Is Suffering«, »Faster«, »This Is Yesterday«, »Die in the Summertime«, »A Design For Life« and »No Surface, All Feeling«.

Then they would understand too. I hope.

The only thing that was said from the stage in The Hacienda's basement was the title of the next song. But before "Kevin Carter" Nicky said it was written by "my best friend".

Richey's text for »Kevin Carter« is about the photographer of the same name who received the Pulitzer Prize for his documentation of the war in Rwanda. At least one of his pictures, depicting a dead boy with a vulture waiting in the background, has been seen by most people. Those who have seen it will hardly forget it. Carter was accused of exploiting the horrors of Rwanda for the sake of his own career. After that, Carter never photographed anything other than animals and nature. But the memories he had of Rwanda could not be erased. The guilt he felt was too great and the accusations he was subjected to hardly helped, and shortly afterwards he killed himself.

The title track on Manic Street Preacher's new album, »Everything Must Go«, deals with the situation the three band members found themselves in.

— It is a prayer for understanding. And it is almost desperately hopeful. We can't change our history, it's just there, but we hope for forgiveness. Because sometimes you just have to let go and move on. This is year zero, we will never forget our background but we must be given an opportunity to build something new. We will never be what we have been, we can't.

Nicky is huddled in an armchair, wearing an oversized Welsh ice hockey jersey. For several days, everyone around the band has kindly asked me to try not to talk about Richey. Nicky was his closest friend and now they prefer to discuss the new album. And I haven't really had any thoughts of wallowing in Richey when interviewing Nicky. But he is still present throughout our conversation. Nicky talks about him all the time, although sometimes it's just a subtext.

— The dark, depressive sides of us have always been there. We are melancholic, it's a frame of mind I feel safe in. Melancholy can actually make me feel almost happy. And from the very beginning, we have indicated that the band would one way or another explode, or rather implode. And that Richey would be the first of us was kind of obvious.

— But we have always been inspired by things that really meant something, that said something. And this applies not only to music, but equally to literature and film. We have never been pure nihilists, we have always tried to instill hope in those who listened to us. You don't have to accept the rules and restrictions that society requires you to follow. Everything is not black, you can discover something else, you can acquire a different life than the one you have. We have always tried to say that. We have never just been black, negative and written about depression and death. But at the same time, most people who try to stand outside society put their whole soul into their art. And it can go too far, it is dangerous to become too self-disclosing, when you really become one with your art. And, as you know, all the best…

And then Nicky goes silent. He tries to smile kindly. He looks so kind and sympathetic, but his eyes are completely glazed with tears.

What do you say? That you understand? But you don't do that, you can never really do that.

— Richey always wanted everyone to understand him 100%. But I don't really mind being misunderstood. I could live with it, in the end it almost became something that spurred me on. It made me stronger to believe that no one liked me.

The reason Manic Street Preachers is in Manchester is that Oasis will be playing in front of roughly 80,000 people at Manchester City's home arena, Maine Road, just outside the city. The Manics will open for them both nights, along with The Cast and Ocean Color Scene. The other three bands have very little in common with Manic Street Preachers.

— Oasis means a lot to people. But I also have a hard time understanding how bands like Cast, Ocean Color Scene and even Oasis seem to be so happy with how they sound, what they write about and how they look. At least it's not enough for us, it never has been. Because we have realized that the whole thing is a situationist spectacle. We are probably just too ambitious, there is always some place further away that we strive towards. The main reason why we will never be the world's biggest rock band is that we are not one-dimensional enough. We are born that way, unfortunately.

— If you really want to do your own thing, you have to accept that there are only a certain number of people you will reach all the way. But we really communicate with those people one hundred percent.

  • * * * *

Six years earlier, everything was so different. Four young men from a small town in Wales, Blackwood, started a band, a punk band. They loved The Clash, Guns N' Roses, Stooges, Public Enemy, Big Flame, The Smiths and Dexy's Midnight Runners. They wrote about the Gulf War, about Northern Ireland, about the decline of trade unions. They wrote texts about self-loathing, about illness and about death. Has anyone other than Manics written a text about Tourette syndrome? Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire took turns being Stephen Hawking and Axl Rose in one and the same person.

Like Dexy's Midnigt Runners before them, Manic Street Preachers took themselves incredibly seriously. They wrote their manifestos, political and artistic manifestos, which they then sent to the press. They refused to be interviewed by journalists who they felt did not understand what they were trying to achieve.

After all, they were the bands and artists who did things that James, Richey, Sean and Nicky themselves adored.

— Richey loved Dexy's Midnight Runners. For a period he was completely obsessed with them. He couldn't stop playing »Searching For the Young Soul Rebels«. Richey knew all of Kevin Rowland's lyrics by heart and I think he wanted to come across as strong in his writing as Rowland did in his lyrics.

Self disgust is self obsession / And I do as I please / I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer / I spat out Plath and Pinter. AUNT

— So it's no coincidence that we called ourselves Manic Street Preachers. We even played »Geno« at some of our first gigs. Although that was before we ventured outside of Wales. And Bruce Springsteen's »Nebraska« was always on when I was at his house. So there are two records I listened to a lot during this last year.

Manic Street Preachers loved Nirvana. That's why they played Nirvana's »Penny Royal Tea« live. They didn't care in the least that it would somehow be wrong for a small English band like the Manics to play a song by the biggest rock band of the moment. No band other than the Manics had even dared to think the thought.

Richey's mental health, his anorexia and his self-mutilation came into play long after Manic Street Preacher's controversial first year. In any case, it took quite some time before he slowly turned into an icon.

After all, it was never a question of young people starting to cut their arms and other body parts because Richey did it, it was just that someone gave those who did it, mostly without knowing exactly why they did it, a face and at least an attempt at an explanation.

— This time we are not as concerned about what people think and think about us. Once upon a time we were on a mission to prove to the whole world that we meant it, that we were different from all the other bands. I think we achieved that too. But now… I don't know… none of us have the energy to do it again. We have to concentrate on the records and if they don't convince people, if it's not enough, then we have to learn to live with it. And I think we can do it today.

In the last year I have often run into James Bradfield in London. We have some mutual friends who for a period last spring took turns going to the movies with James when he was at his most confused. He went to the movies so much that he saw »Black Beauty«, a movie about a horse, four times. At a party in Notting Hill, he sat far away from everyone else and drank copious amounts of beer. He didn't talk to anyone else. Finally I heard him drop his tenth bottle of beer on the floor and fall asleep over some chairs.

— He is single. Ever since he and his girlfriend broke up, he's been roaming around the big city. And I understand him, if I wasn't married it's very possible that I would do the same. Although I probably wouldn't dare move to London. It seems too big and I don't know anyone there. It sounds even lonelier than staying in Wales.

— Besides, I haven't drunk alcohol in four years. I just don't like it. I've probably just had too many alcoholics in my immediate environment, besides, I want to have control over what my brain does. Richey always had booze on him, for a period those bottles were his best friends. When he went to his room to go to bed, I sometimes felt like I had to check that he hadn't hidden bottles in his pajamas.

I've always thought that the Manics were very much about getting away from — as you've often said — the washed-out dreary Wales you grew up in?

— Yes, but where? I do not know. I feel safe at home in Wales, no one there treats me like a pop star. I'm just one of the villagers. I live up on a mountain and I can walk up and down that mountain and tinker with things I like to tinker with. That's all I need. And then I want to live near my mother, father and brother.

James lives in London, Nicky in Wales and Sean in Bristol. The band members, the childhood friends, don't get to see each other as often anymore.

— That is perhaps one of the reasons why it is actually TV, more than anything else, that has helped me through the last year. Especially a program series on the BBC called »Our Friends in the North« which was full of warmth and genuineness. It was a documentary about a family in the North East of England that follows the family from the early sixties right up to the present day. It was just such a true documentation of the everyday life of the working class in this country. But I've also probably listened to more music than ever. The Boo Radleys have written some songs that are so beautifully sad. And Oasis, actually. »Slide Away« is one of the songs I played the most during this time. It is so beautiful. Oasis is also very fascinating because they feel like such a political band.

— Although I have stopped reading books. Everything I've read in the last fifteen years will have to do. I've got too many references, too many memories. Now I have started to read more about things that I have already read. I can read about Philip Larkin any number of times.

Manic Street Preacher's records have gotten better with each album they've released. They keep getting closer to what they talked about in the beginning. »Everything Must Go« is not as broken a jumble of barbed wire punk and lyrics with painful insights into madness and self-loathing as »The Holy Bible«, not even the three lyrics Richey wrote himself. »Everything Must Go« is about realizing when you have to dare to let go, when you just have to move on to endure.

Producer Mike Hedges has embedded the songs in arrangements reminiscent of the records he produced for McAlmont & Butler, and Everything But The Girls' »Come on Home«.

Personally, I think it's the best album they've recorded. But it will never be the most important thing, or the thing that means the most to those who identify with Richey's fate.

— I think we stand for almost exactly the same things as we did six years ago. We are still the same screwed up fools from the fringes of civilization. But it may not be as obvious anymore. Richey was something of an icon for those who felt the way we did. To expect the three of us to follow in his footsteps is to expect a little too much, it would be unfair. But »Everything Must Go« is an ambitious record and we still feel no connection whatsoever with any other band.

In addition to Nirvana's »Penny Royal Tea«, the Manics have recorded versions of songs such as »Suicide Is Painless« — the theme song from »MASH« — and Art Garfunkel's »Bright Eyes«, Wham's »Last Christmas« as well as a bombastic version of Burt Bacharach and Hal Davids »Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head«.

— We have always been very much in favor of grand gestures, we want to leave an impression. We also want to try to transfer the energy we have when we're on stage to the audience, because Manics is definitely not just about the music. But these songs are songs that everyone our age has memories of in one way or another. And if we play them, I'd like to think they'll be… different. When we started Manics we liked Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths and Dexy's. And through that we discovered The Clash and the Sex Pistols. We saw them on video and it was enough to see how these bands moved on stage and how they looked to want to stand there yourself. But we had to look back. Growing up today seems to be better than when I was a teenager. The musical climate is a little more human. And now, four albums later, I'm starting to feel very old.

  • * * * *

Nicky is 27 and he has not the faintest idea how long Manic Street Preachers can continue as a band. Not only have they survived Richey's disappearance, a year earlier their manager and close friend Philip Hall died of cancer.

— As long as we can write songs that mean something, that we ourselves love, we will continue. I think we'll understand when it's time to call it quits. When we wrote the songs for »Everything Must Go« we decided early on that we were going to split up if we didn't all agree that they were brilliant. But »A Design For Life« was one of the first we wrote. James called me up and said he had written a classic. And I had a text that I thought was really important, that I thought summed up what's happening to the working class in Britain. And after that everything went very easily. But the fact that the single has become our biggest hit so far is both fantastic and a bit strange. At least right now. Bittersweet is probably the right word. Manic Street Preachers are terrified that anyone will see »Everything Must Go« as an exploitation of their past, that they are taking advantage of their missing friend. From the day »The Holy Bible« was released, Manic Street Preachers became synonymous with the cult built around Richey.

— No one other than James, Sean and I had a say in whether we should continue or not. People have such a hard time understanding that the last thing we thought about when Richey disappeared, whether he's dead or not, was that someone in the band is gone. It was our friend Richey who was missing. I never think of James as the lead singer of Manic Street Preachers, I think of him as my pal James who I've known since I was five years old. I never thought that Richey wouldn't play with us on stage again. What makes me so incredibly sad is that I can't call him after watching football on TV or watching some other show that I know we both wanted to watch. We used to talk to each other every day. And I still pick up the phone sometimes to dial his number.

The three spent a lot of time discussing what to do. Would they change their name? After all, they could only think of one band from modern times that had suffered something similar — Joy Division. When Ian Curtis hanged himself in his parents' attic, the other members came back as New Order. The rest of that story you know.

— Well, we saw some similarities between Joy Division / New Order and what happened to us. But we could never think of changing the name. We are still Manic Street Preachers. However, we have toned down the design of the album covers.

The Manics asked Mark Farrow — who designed covers for the Pet Shop Boys in particular — to design the single and the album. And the cover of »A Design For Life« could very well contain something of New Order. But the music is, just as Nicky points out, nothing but Manics.

— I really think that a song like »No Surface, All Feeling«, which ends »Everything Must Go«, is incomparable. It is soulful and uplifting. And that is what I myself want to feel when I listen to music. I listen to our own records all the time and am so incredibly proud of what we have done. I probably listen to Manic Street Preachers more than anything else. I feel beautiful when I listen to us and somehow very alive.

Nicky Wire blushes when he says that. He is so accommodating, just wants to be helpful and it's so obvious he wants me to walk away and leave him alone. And then he goes on to talk about his friend Richey.

MANIC STREET PREACHERS are current with their fourth album »Everything Must Go«. Andres Lokko