Alex Ogg profiles the former indie band whose carefully cultivated image has brought them a run of top 40 singles over the last year
Of all the acts to break through in recent years, none has generated so many column inches, or seen as many journalistic reputations staked on either side, as the Manic Street Preachers. Seen as either punk heirs apparent at sloppy revivalists, they have provoked a media war so intense it has all but obscured their music. Like the Alarm, the last Welsh hand to flirt with punk imagery, they have aroused nothing but controversy. From the start, they hatched a maniacal scheme in the best traditions of Malcolm McLaren. Their appearance was carefully calculated: leftist, or existential, slogans sprayed on shirts and white trousers (like the Clash), and the lipstick-smeared androgyny of the Dolls, They simply leafed through a catalogue of rock’s rebellious poses and taken what suited them. Their music was to tread a similar path.
There are some myths which need dispelling, however. None of the Manics are wide-eyed bumpkins who discovered the public lending library three months ago: in fact, Richey and Nicky are political history graduates from Swansea University. It was Richey who accelerated the band’s notorious image in an early encounter with the media, To the amazement and horror of NME critic Steve Lamacq, he cut the words ‘4 Real’ into his forearm when the scribe dared to call into question the band’s authenticity; the scars still remain. The group who said “we want to be the most important reference point of the Nineties” were very suddenly a cause célébre.
It is little wonder, then that the Manic Street Preachers have attracted such massive press coverage They give good copy - effortlessly candid, contentious and contradictory. They berate their peer group seemingly out of a sense of duty, and they are photogenic beyond belief. Some of the more perceptive critical comments have come from Simon Reynolds, who called them “bulimic rock”, gorging and vomiting pop’s iconography. Everett True of ‘Melody Maker' thinks they are in Clash that girls can relate to, while Stuart Maconie of the ‘NME‘ describes them as Japanese rice crackers in a world of Hula Hoops. John Robb wrote that they “demand opinion", which is a nice way round the hoary old cliché, in this case fairly accurate, about loving or hating 'em, What no one has noticed is their unerring resemblance — both musically and physically - to Transvision Vamp, albeit without a blond bombshell and with announce more credibility.
The group - James Dean Bradfield (vocals, guitar), Nicky Wire (real name Jones; bass), Sean Moore (drums) and Richey Edwards (rhythm guitar) — were all born in the early Seventies in Blackwood, Gwent, a Welsh mining community. Nicky and Richey are the glamour twins and lyric writers, with little apparent interest in their instruments (Richey took great pleasure in disillusioning members of the press by admitting he doesn’t play guitar in the studio) while James and Sean provide the musical muscle.
Friends (as well as cousins) since primary school, Sean (youngest ever trumpeter for the South Wales Jazz Band) moved in with James after his parents split up. Their footballing friends Nicky (who once had a trial with Arsenal) and Richey frequently joined them, to form a bastion against the prevailing small town bigotry. Real men do not, after all, drink lager, never mind wear lipstick! The county has the largest per capita incidence of alcohol poisoning in Britain, no doubt fuelled by the collapse of the mining industry. Perhaps it was this, and the threat of a lifetime’s worth of shifts at the local Pot Noodle factory, which gave our heroes resolution to succeed.
Devouring anything from the Sex Pistols to Gang Of Four in their first exposure to punk (1986 was nostalgia year), their appetite for something ‘real’ sent them back as far as the Who or the current hands, it was Manchester’s wonderful Big Flame that clicked in their consciousness. In sticking rigidly to their beliefs (like the pre-eminence of 7" vinyl), they were the only contemporary group who pierced to the Manics’ nerve centre. Later the Manics' tastes evolved to embrace Guns ‘N’ Roses and Public Enemy, both of whom had that requisite scent of danger about them.
The Manic Street Preachers first release was the hopelessly rare “Suicide Alley” single, financed out of their Giros, and recorded at a friend‘s studio as a favour in June 1988 Only 150 copies came with a handmade sleeve, as they soon ran out of money. The record was sent to bands in the hope of getting support slots, and to several industry moguls. The producer of Suicide Alley - incidentally no fan of indie rock 7 has been fending off hundreds of requests for his skills in the last few months from would-be Manics fans. Meanwhile, the single has recently changed hands for up to £100. Steven Wells promptly made it NME single or the week, later describing them as “the most articulate, most politicised, most furious, sexiest white rock band in the entire world”.
The band were evidently keen to leave Wales behind as soon as possible, Their first London gig, only their eighth in all, was at the Horse And Groom in Great Portland Street; their first at home in Blackwood, had ended in a riot. Though many A&R men scoffed at these early, chaotic events, they were enough to convince Damaged Goods manager Ian of their potential.
Their debut for that Label, “New Art Riot", was a marvellous little record, close to Senseless Things and Mega City Four territory, with James' vocals pitched noticeably higher than on later recordings. Like these contemporaries, the Manics seemed at first glance to be a throwback to the Sex Pistols and the Clash, while at the same time offering a brutal release from Manchester‘s new dance-based hedonism. And while the Manics professed to disliking the Mega City Four‘s later lack of ambition, the MC4 had been among the first bands they‘d targeted with begging letters for support gigs.
The 12"-only four-track “New Art Riot” EP is still obtainable from Damaged Goods (£4 inc. P&P, from P.O. Box 6471, London E17 GNF). However, there have been several different label designs (with alternate colours) changing every time a repressing was required. Full details are listed in the discography, alongside the limited editions on CD and pink vinyl. Like “Suicide”, the ’EP garnered single—of-the-week awards, but never had the distribution to be more than a good promotional tool.
Increasingly visible in the press, and also featured on BBC2’s “Rapido”, it was not long before the Manics aroused the curiosity of fashionable independent label Heavenly. Their first single there, “Motown Junk” (all three tracks of which were later re-recorded by the band), kicked off with a sample from Public Enemy. Two lines from the song demonstrate the thought processes which dominated their early recordings: “I laughed when Lennon got shot” is obviously attention seeking, an explicit stab at outrage, while “Songs of love echo underclass betrayal” is deliberately ambiguous. Central to their appeal is the ability to find common ground in the directionless anger of youth, while boosting the audience identification factor through impenetrable imagery. There are enough hints and clues to encourage listeners to link these sentiments with their own situation.
The first Manics song to really grasp the nettle was “You Love Us”. Slovenly, cute and massively arrogant, it immediately kicked away the critics’ pedestals. From now on any press they were given, good or had only underscored the sentiments of that song. The sleeve displayed obvious icons (Monroe, The Who), alongside the less obvious (Travis Bickle, from Martin Scorsese's film “Taxi Driver") and the frankly silly (Aleister Crowley), while the B-side featured the original version of “Spectators Of Suicide” (formerly titled “Whiskey Psychosis”). Two songs, “Starlover‘ and a live version of “Strip It Down" from the 12" and CD, have yet to appear elsewhere. Harder to locate is a one sided white label radio edit 7" which utilises an entirely different mix of the single, exclusive (in the U.K., at least) to this format.
Always in search of the maximum possible exposure, the band soon found themselves tied to a major via a lucrative deal. They signed to Columbia/Sony via managing director Tim Bowen, who had seen them at Guildford - a gig he compared, almost inevitably, to the Clash (whom he’d signed to CBS more than a decade earlier). The price was a snip at quarter of a million, with a guaranteed £400,000 to finance their debut album. The group also made sure that Jeff Barrett at Heavenly was looked after. And so the Manics entered the jaws of the savage beast. So far relations have been cordial, excusing the odd fax from Japanese headquarters asking them to spit on people for press purposes! The Columbia deal was launched with "Stay Beautiful" — originally called "Generation Terrorists", a title saved for eventual use on the album. The B-side, "R.P. McMurphy", was a semi-acoustic lament, inspired by the Jack Nicholson character in the movie "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". The single was also an obvious twist on the old 'live fast die young' motto; and was their first to take residence in the charts, peaking at No. 40.
"Love's Sweet Exile" (original title "Faceless Sense Of Void") gained A-side supremacy for the next single, although it was overshadowed by both "Repeat" ("Repeat after me, fuck Queen and Country") and "Democracy Coma". Both were highly charged political songs, with lyrics guaranteed to prevent airplay. Arguably the best song of the trio, "Democracy Coma", was the only one not included on the band's debut album. One reviewer cited "Repeat" as `Sun'-speak, which is actually closer to the truth than he might have expected. Using the language of sensational-ism is as effective a way as any of communicating with a nation fed on sound-bites and tabloid journalism.
In collusion with Columbia, they made their next move by reissuing their theme song, "You Love Us", in a much more incisive form: "It's got the big rockist ending we couldn't do last time. We've learned to play now," they proclaimed. Steve Brown's production trans-formed the song into something vibrant and disturbing, while the taunting title refrain seemed increasingly likely. Watching James chew the words on Top Of The Pops' rammed home the similarity to John Lydon sneering "We mean it maaan" a decade and a half earlier.
Just a month later, in February of this year, "Generation Terrorists" was finally unveiled. At first, the double set was meant to include thirty songs; then they crowed that if the album didn't outsell Guns N' Roses' "Appetite For Destruction", they would be worthless failures. Sony must certainly have believed in them, though there were frequent calls to producer Steve Brown when the studio budget doubled. Though it was originally planned that the gatefold sleeve for the vinyl issue would be a limited edition, sales have - somewhat sadly, bearing in mind the Guns N' Roses comparison - so far failed to make a single-sleeved version necessary.
While it received mixed press at home and abroad, there is much to like about the LP, and much more for critics and fans alike to discuss. It contains a New York remix of "Repeat" by Public Enemy engineer Nicholas Sansano with Frank Rivaleau and Dan Wood, satisfying a long-held ambition to work with the rap group's cohorts. Celebrated American porn-star-turned-actress Traci Lords contributes guest vocals to "Little Baby Nothing", a pro-women duet whose lyrical thrust is taken from a Salvador Dali line. Apparently Kylie Minogue wanted too much money. Shame!
The Manics made an honest and brave attempt to match the choice quotes bedecking the sleeve (originally to have featured a mustard coloured body) with their own lyrical currency. Granted, they fired blanks at too many obvious targets, but the sheer scale of ambition was impressive enough. Musically, as many have noted, it was no triumph. "NatWest-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds", for in-stance, never broke away from its awkward title phase. But it was far from being the AOR piece described by some critics, a category which would appal the youth-obsessed Manics. Generally the singles came out best, though it was nice to hear a re-recorded "Tennessee" (originally "Tennessee [I Feel So Low)" on the B-side of "Suicide Alley"). The best of the lyrics maintain their links with pick 'n' mix semiology and esoteric bouts of stream of consciousness, presumably inspired by the Beat writers.
A limited edition of the album has recently been pressed on picture disc. It is also worth pointing out that it was released in America as a single album, against the wishes of the band. Pictures of Richey's arm after the '4 Real' incident were also employed in a rather macabre fashion by the U.S. marketing team. This was, after all, an incident he regrets: he was at pains (and in pain, no doubt) to ensure that while he was waiting in casualty, other people should be seen first, because his wounds were self-inflicted.
Of all the band's releases, their next single, "Slash 'n' Burn", was arguably the most disappointing. As usual, there were iconic reference points (to Madonna and God), but they were married to a riff that owed too great a debt to Guns N' Roses, and the song was no more than adequate heavy metal — awkward accompaniment to a song about Third World economic conditions. "Slash 'n' Burn" was backed by the band's re-recorded version of their deleted Heavenly single, "Motown Junk" — which also supplied the final track on the CD. The video for "Slash 'n' Burn" was shot at the London Astoria gig on 20 February, and featured Nicky smashing up a video camera which was blocking the fans' view with his bass. Such altruism.
Their latest single, "Motorcycle Emptiness", was a far mellower affair than earlier 45s, betraying the songwriting influence of Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame. A four-year-old eulogy to the motorcycle culture so romanticised by rock's hierarchy, the song's resigned tones placed the supposed freedom of the vehicle back in its proper, consumerist perspective. A new track, "Bored Out Of My Mind", appeared on the B-side of the 7" (which - featured an edited version of the song). No standard issue of the 12" was released, simply the limited edition picture disc. Both this and the CD included "Crucifix Kiss", recorded live at the London Astoria. The extra song on the CD was a live cover of Alice Cooper's "Under My Wheels", taken from a recent Tommy Vance session. The promo video was recorded in Japan.
Anyone who managed to catch their Steve Wright session (an a capella version of "Little Baby Nothing" plus "Motorcycle Emptiness" and an interview, on 17 March 1992) will hope to see this emerge on vinyl at some point. The next single to be taken from the album looks likely to be "Little Baby Nothing", but the band have already written new material which they were breaking in on their recent international tour They arrived in San Francisco just as the West Coast erupted in mass rioting. In honour, they inserted a verse from the Dead Kennedys' "California Uber Alles" in their live performances of "Repeat". Members of Bon Jovi, Guns 'n' Roses and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have all been spotted in the audience at recent gigs.
They sensibly elected to go to Disneyland, turning down the `NME's offer of a photo session in the riot zone. That really would have smacked of the Clash (when they were too frightened to play Belfast but had their photos taken against the backdrop of barbed wire and soldiers anyway). Back in their Safe European Home, an expression borrowed from Joe Strummer by Richey himself, the band are currently polishing up their new set. Several other recordings by the group are worth mentioning before we close. The first was the work of music journalist Bob Stanley, who is presently peddling St Etienne (who must surely be polar opposites to the Manics). CAFF 15, bizarrely titled "Feminine Is Beautiful", was taken from early demos the band circulated, and features awful versions of "New Art Riot" and "Repeat" without any bass. But the fact it's a limited edition of 500 has interested record collectors, and the label will be profiled in our Upcoming series spotlighting indie labels. Incidentally, it has absolutely nothing to do with the amiable Caff from the management team.
There is also a flexi-disc containing the otherwise unobtainable "U.K. Channel Boredom". The label is fascinating, bearing the legend: "Behaviour leading to self actualisation or ways to dig the world Part 1. This record is not to be sold to anyone who was 10 or more in 1977. I've seen pictures of you lot embarrassing." If only the actual song was as good. Originally available with a fanzine for 50p, you will now be fortunate to find it for less than ten times that price.
The Japanese have issued, among other Manics items, "You Love Us" on a four-track numbered CD, which includes three versions of the title track. Of these, the 'Heavenly' mix is most interesting, as it is not, as you might imagine, the version which graced the original Heavenly issue. Instead it is a slightly different take from the same sessions. Manics merchandise includes 'Last Exit', a tentative foray into the world of fanzine publishing, and the MSP make-up compact (I bet the Blackwood mining community are pawning their hobnails this very minute!). Issue 2 of `Last Exit' will offer prizes of white label copies of Heavenly's "You Love Us" 45, the "Stay Beautiful" promo video, and some promo LP stickers.
And so the Manic Street Preachers have left the street and moved into the MTV league. They have already outlived their initial threat to quit after their debut album, but the pressures are building. Real fame can be a damaging thing for genuinely sensitive people, which the band undoubtedly are. It sure would be disappointing if they didn't continue to confound expectations, though.