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Manic Street Preachers Know Their Enemy - Pause & Play, 26th May 2001

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For many American music publications, including Pause & Play, it was perhaps the best artist feature never written. In late 1994, Manic Street Preachers lead singer-guitarist James Dean Bradfield and his band mates did a series of interviews to promote the early 1995 U.S. release of the Welsh group's "The Holy Bible" album. The band was on the verge of being hailed "the next big thing." How could they not be with such biting tracks as "The Intense Humming of Evil" and "Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart"?

Then came the disappearance of lyricist-guitarist Richey James on the eve of its U.S. promotional tour in February 1995. He hasn't been heard from since, and speculation still brews today on whether he's dead or alive.

Epic announced that "The Holy Bible" wouldn't be released stateside, forcing U.S. publications to scrap features on Manic Street Preachers. Any chance the Manics had of making headway in America with what was then their third album faded.

"There was a great American mix of that album," Bradfield said recently. "I was pissed off about that. It was, at least for me, a perfect opportunity to show off what I think was one of our most cohesive albums. America never got to hear it, and it might have been the one album that might have been understood by American college radio. They never got the album, obviously."

One Web site offers Manics fans a venue to air their theories on the vanishing of James. Some presume he's dead. Most think he's in hiding, choosing to remain out of the spotlight. Other theories are a bit more of a stretch. One fan thinks James' aunt in Taiwan fell ill and he agreed to look after her; after she recovered, he was roped into the family business making plastic products. Another believes James, unable to handle the pressures of fame, concocted the disappearance with the other Manics - Bradfield, drummer Sean Moore and bassist Nicky Wire - as a publicity stunt.

Yet another fan urges anyone who encounters James to check for the phrase "4 Real" that he carved into his arm during an early press interview. "Immediately tell the police, as his family and James, Nicky and Sean need to know that he is safe and well," the fan writes. "But please leave him alone, as he is where he wants to be."

All this talk clearly frustrates Bradfield.

"You get absolutely amazing things where, up until two months ago, I became aware that there were a group of people who actually believe that we know the house that he lives in, in the middle of nowhere, and like we go to see him all the time," he said. "People actually believe that. You know, if Bill Clinton can't keep a blowjob a secret, how the hell do they expect us to keep a house supposedly where Richey lives secret? It's bizarre. The reality is, we lost one of our friends."

The situation six years ago sent the Manics into a tailspin. They didn't know if they had the strength to carry on as a unit, Bradfield says.

"When it became apparent to us that this was not going to be a quick fix, that he wasn't going to turn up, we made a decision to take a break for a while and decide what we wanted to do," he said. "We didn't want to think about being in a band for a while.

"Once we actually got back together, we realized all three of us were still best friends. We had grown up with each other. We had been talking all the time, but just not about the band. When we got into the rehearsal studio again, we had one song, called 'A Design for Life.' That was the first thing we played in rehearsal. As soon as we played it, we realized we were essentially the same band but we had moved on. It was the three of us and we could depend on each other because it became obvious that the Richey thing was going to be an ongoing saga that would probably become a myth that we had no control over. The only thing we had control over was carrying on, writing songs with each other."

The trio bounced back a year later with the cathartic "Everything Must Go." Gone was their early glam clothing, heavy eyeliner and political bravado, now giving way to poignant, socially aware and strings-laced songs. Fittingly, James' lyrical presence could be felt in the tracks "Kevin Carter" and "Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky."

The album, yielding four straight U.K. Top 10 hits, established the Manics as superstars in England. They won best British group and best album honors at the 1997 Brit Awards. The follow-up LP, 1998's "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours," took them to the top, powered by the passionate "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next." More Brit Awards followed.

America, meanwhile, continued to lag behind. The album and single failed to make a dent.

"There's one story that perhaps sums it up," Bradfield said. "I did a lot of interviews on American radio right around the time 'If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next' came out, and I remember talking to an American DJ and I did a really good interview with him. At the end of it, he said, 'I really love this song, 'If You Tolerate This,' but I tend not to play it because the title's too long.' I remember thinking, 'Well, if that's what I'm hearing, then there's not much hope, really.'

"One thing people always say about us is that they didn't know which radio stations to play our songs on, and yet a song like 'A Design for Life,' which is a rock song with strings on it, and you had the whole album before that we could have been played on college radio but it was punk-oriented, almost goth. Every time we would come back with a new song, people would always be confused with which radio station to go to. That's always been the one theme that's been leveled at us. At the end of the day, I just don't know what to say."

Bradfield will say that he and his band mates aren't losing sleep over their lack of U.S. success, even if their latest Virgin album, "Know Your Enemy" (released April 24), similarly falters.

"It's not something we ever get bitter about," he said. "It's been so obvious from day one that we weren't going to do much in America since the first album. The first time we came to America on the first album, we got rejected in such grand fashion that it was obvious that America was never going to be warm to us from that point on."

Some Americans also may not warm up to the Manics' anti-U.S. tones on "Know Your Enemy."

"I've got to admit, there's a lot to be made about that sometimes, that there's anti-American sentiments on the records," Bradfield said. "But people tend to overlook other things. One of the most positive things on the new album is 'Let Robeson Sing.' Paul Robeson's one of our heroes, and he's American. A song like 'Baby Elian' obviously has an element that questions America's coverage of news stories and never covering two sides of the story. Yet 'Let Robeson Sing,' it's just bowing in the presence of the memory of a man named Paul Robeson who was an American. It's very black and white for people to think we have a lot of anti-American sentiments to our songs."

The album's most tender moment comes on "Ocean Spray," a track Bradfield wrote as an ode to his mother, who died of cancer in 1999.

"When you're very ill and you've had lots of operations, they always make you drink a lot of cranberry juice," he said. "It's one of the best things to keep infections away. Say you've just had an operation, if you drink a pint of cranberry juice every day, it's deemed one of the best ways to keep infections away.

"Of course, my mother - who had like a seven-year bout with cancer - was in the hospital and every day she would say, 'Can you get me some Ocean Spray?' Five times a day, I'd be going up and down these lifts in the hospital with bottles of Ocean Spray. The fact that she was so obsessed with drinking it just showed how much spirit she still had left, that she put so much faith in something so small, that drinking cranberry juice would keep her alive. It inspired me in a way, in the face of something which is so devastating."

THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: " 'My Old Piano' by Diana Ross. (He starts to sing it.) It's from the same album as 'Upside Down.' (He sings again.)"

THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: "Echo & The Bunnymen at Bristol-Colston Hall. Myself, Sean and Richey went to see them when I was 16 years old. I wanted to be in a band and as cool as them. They had the best sound I had ever heard in my life."

WILL TONY BLAIR WIN RE-ELECTION?: "I think he will, but I think it's going to be a massively reduced majority. We always have really good election turnouts in Britain, but there's a lot of talk about voter apathy this time and some people are expecting less than 60 percent turnout, which would be a disaster. There's so many issues in Britain at the moment. Obviously, the upper middle classes come from the countryside to a certain degree, so the foot-and-mouth thing - so many cows and sheep have been slaughtered - has been big. Those people in the countryside who typically vote Conservative voted Labor last time, but perhaps they go back to Conservative this time because they might think the foot-and-mouth thing was mismanaged. There's also a bit of right-wing reawakening in Britain with the asylum-seekers issue. We're getting a lot of asylum-seekers from Europe, and the Conservative Party is really stirring that up, saying 'We can't just give an open hand to these people. It's got to be controlled. We've got to kick a lot of them out.' That's appealing to a lot of people's sensibilities, whereas Labor's trying to keep an open mind on asylum-seekers and giving people British citizenship."