Guitarist Richey carving the words '4 REAL' into his forearm with a razorblade last week was just the latest stunt from this year's most contentious rock'n'roll band. Are they just a bad joke, fourth division punks or, as they claim, rock saviours and the best band in the world? Jon Wilde talks to the Welsh renegades about their kamikaze crusade for glamour and glory.
It's six o'clock in the morning and I'm locked in some shitty little room above a public house in Warrington with a bunch of silly buggers who might yet change the haggard face of rock'n'roll. Four Manic Street Preachers queue up on one side to spew out their manifestos and line up on the other to spew up their vodka and Babycham cocktails into the nearest sinks. By the time it's all over, I'm exhausted with discord and laughter and still can't decide if this is the worst group in the world or the greatest.
"We are a revisionist band. Totally. Secondhand ideas are all that we've been fed. All we've been brought up on is rock culture. From the Stones to The Clash. That's our culture and we're prepared to use it. All we're doing is recycling that culture. We look at those bands and see how badly they f***ed up. They said what they wanted to say and then became an obscene joke.
"We say that we want to make the perfect record and then disappear. Because we look at rock music and we see that it is dead. That intensifies our own sense of failure. We've been fed a youth culture that is entirely useless beyond mere entertainment. Youth culture has driven itself into the wall. There is no edge to push yourself off any more. All we're saying is that we understand that. We're pissed off. We're bored. So what are we going to do about it? We're going to say something that's never been said before.
"After punk, everyone became a user of culture. Our only option is to take culture and manipulate it. You can't create year zero again. We're completely conscious of that. We like the idea of using music as a tool against music. Writing classic melodies and putting lyrics in there that are designed to destroy the idea of pop music. We don't respect punk. We don't respect rock. We don't respect Elvis. We're just the best rock'n'roll band there's ever been. When our next single comes out, everyone will realise that."
Manic Street Preachers are now four singles old and have yet to make a record that will blow a hole in time, but play some of the most ecstatic rock'n'roll you've seen on a stage for years. The chasm between their aspirations (to be bigger than Guns N' Roses and more confrontational than Public Enemy) and their reality (an imitative homage to early Gen X and the Drones with a sliver of mid-'60s Stones thrown in) is an almighty one.
By carving landscapes into his arm with a blade for the benefit of some minor journalist, guitarist Richey has offered a reasonable argument for this group's immaculate intent. He's not the first rock'n'roll idiot-saint to hack lumps out of his body for the sake of a quibble. Likewise, Manic Street Preachers are not the first group to search for chosen parts of the past to revive in opposition to pop's demand for perpetual novelty. Then again, originality has never been on their agenda.
"I sliced up my arm," says Richey, "because it was the only way I could get through to a 24-year-old who thinks like a 45-year-old. I wasn't doing it to be like Iggy or Sid. I couldn't give a f*** for those people. I just pity them. I just did it because you can talk and talk and never make some people understand now much you mean it. Anyway, the f***er was asking for it."
"I've never wanted to be original," says Nicki. "Because I'm the product of recycled culture. From Keef to Sid to Izzy, I'm completely recycled. I don't want to be new. It would be too avant-garde. It wouldn't sell. We nick from everything. Absolutely everything. The B-sides of the new single were nicked straight off Dada/Futurist/Situationist manifestos. We've lifted whole verses from Public Enemy and changed the words. We don't give a shit.
"Sociologically, we're a one-off. We don't pay respects to anyone cos they're all twats basically. We're just interested in recycling rock and we're only concerned with the biggest bands. You can compare us to second and third division punk bands, but we've never listened to the f***ers. Just like no one believes that we're not interested in The Velvet Underground or The Byrds."
Punk rock might have turned feeble-minded long before the Pistols imploded in the USA and The Clash evaporated into a Rolling Stones wet dream. Over the last 13 years, there has been no shortage of young turks with necrophiliac tendencies; complete with a brace or dubious chords and a crop of ideologically sound hair-do's, hellbent on revising the punk mythology. From the fag-end inanity of Anti-Pasti, GBH and The Exploited through the right-wing thuggery of Oi to the sub-goth pantomime of Positive Punk. Then beyond, to isolated atrocities like Erazerhead, Sputnik and Lightning Strike.
Nothing yet has been more furious, hilarious and dizzyingly perplexing than Manic Street Preachers.
Having known each other since infancy, they grew up listening to Darts, Queen, Shakin' Stevens and Kajagoogoo. They would spend their teenage years locked in bedrooms, drinking weak tea and deciding what to love and what to hate, waiting for Wednesday morning to roll around when they could devour the music press, their only contact with the distant and unreal world of rock'n'roll.
"We were just hopelessly bored. So we tried to find something. We read everything. We just read, read, read. At the end, we felt total disgust. We were young and we felt like nothing. We were insignificant pieces of shit. All we want to know is that no 16-year-old reels as hopeless as we felt."
You have to keep reminding yourself that they have dropped out a poop hatch called Wales, a country whose contribution to rock'n'roll has been, to say the most, negligible: John Cale, Steve Strange, Darling Buds, Harry Secombe, Max Boyce, Shakey, Racing Cars and Man. Perhaps the last genuinely maddened teenage roar before the end of the millennium could only come from Britain's last remaining cultural void.
"Anyone who's come out of Wales and made it big has made a positive point about where they've come from," Richey explains. "For someone living in Hull or Warrington, it's not much different from Wales. It's just another level of boredom. An atmosphere exists where nobody wants to get out. Even in Yorkshire, they revel in their village mentality. In Wales, a local band gets a little bit of fame, a few hundred people, and it's enough for them. They don't need anything else. For the first time in their lives, they've got something and they're treated a bit differently."
"See, we're really cutoff where we come from," Nicki elaborates. "Glamour is really important to our lives. If we're presented by someone like Shaun Ryder or Ian Brown, we're not going to see that as an escape. We've been around people who look like that all our lives. A group like The Fall, there's million of plus points, but we take a look at them and they're just like our dads. I can't force myself to like them because I'm so unhappy. I need something larger than life. Glamour is not necessarily a superficial thing. If you're hopelessly depressed like me, the ultimate escape is dressing up.
"Everyone we knew in Wales was brought up on glam rock — Hanoi Rocks and Mötley Crüe. Our friends at school were faced with the choice of Hanoi Rocks and The Smiths and they chose Hanoi Rocks every time. If they are presented with Morrissey or Mike Joyce, they're just gonna throw up. I don't blame them. The Smiths really enforced this idea of living in a shithole and wallowing in your own misery."
This is the Manic Street Preachers digest of Glamour: teenage hysteria, Number One records, Artaud and Breton, Jagger's lips, Bolan's bollocks, Axl Rose's popped veins, loud mascara, sexual frenzy, razor blades in flesh, sexual disease, love-bites, Babycham.
"Babycham is very glamorous in Wales," Nicki assures me. "We're not hardened drinkers or anything. But, if you go to Wales and drink Babycham, you're guaranteed to get beaten up. Or you would be if the f***ers weren't too depressed to beat you up. But I've lost count of the useless f***ers who want to beat us up now.
"Every concert or interview we've done, I've wanted people to beat us up because I know I'm prettier and more intelligent than they'll ever be. That's the truth. We set out to split people down the middle. We never wanted to be loved. Hate was the first emotion we ever felt so we only wanted to be hated. When I go on stage, I feel like everybody wants to kill me or f*** me. It's as simple as that.
"Some boy came up to me tonight and told me that Northside have got it in for us. Well, go ahead, beat us up. I'll happily stand there and let them beat the shit out me. If Shaun Ryder walked up to me and started beating the f*** out of me, I wouldn't fight back. I'd just stand there and take it. Anyway, my father was in the Army for four years. If anyone came near me, they'd be dead."
Having evolved from music press disciples to music press darlings/heretics, Manic Street Preachers are preparing their next leap. They argue that, by the next single, the tabloids will come running with their begging-bowls at the ready.
"There's nothing good about the press," says Nicki. "If they can put groups like The Wedding Present and Inspiral Carpets on their covers, why should we have any respect for them? So many people come up to us and say, 'We made you look good in Melody Maker'. We just spit on their backs and they walk out looking like twats."
"We've been fed all that shit for years," Richey continues. "Critical respect is the last thing we need. But we'll use the press right down the line. We've already left the music press behind. With the next single, it'll be front page of The Sun, a couple of pages in News Of The World. No f***ing problem. It's a huge jump, yeah, but we're gonna take it. If it doesn't happen, then we'll crawl back in our holes. We've set ourselves up for that."
Already, they sense that goalposts will have to be radically shifted if their three-chord outrage proves to be an insufficiently robust vehicle to carry their dreams of world domination. While Shaun argues somewhat enigmatically that, "Three chord songs are always the biggest sellers," Nicki is faintly more realistic.
"We can't really expand our musical vocabulary. That's all we know. But, if we have to write the 'Wild Horses'/'Stairway To Heaven'/'Sweet Child O Mine' of the Nineties, then we'll do it easily. If that's what it takes. Public Enemy are our favourite band, but we can't sound like them. It would be pathetic. We could get in some producer from The Farm and ask him to do a remix. But why would we want to humiliate ourselves? Our sound is as white as you can get. The one option that white rock music has got is to be produced effectively by the people who do Public Enemy."
At the moment, it is their live performances which offer the most convincing argument. A cannibalised 25-minute, 10-song assault that ruptures with ill-focused energy and deals out equal measures of self-hate, self-parody and leering narcissism. They make 30-year-olds feel dunce-capped or obsolete and 16-year-olds feel sociopathic.
Ask them about rock'n'roll and they'll offer a bewilderingly convoluted argument in support of their supremacy. Ask them about sex and they'll still be raving like chuckleheads when you're stupid with sleep. Ask Nicki, whose mum hasn't spoken to him since he announced to the world that he has suffered from herpes for the last six years.
"Sex is crucial to this group," he says. "It's the most subversive thing in Wales because everybody f***s all the time. You come to London and no one seems to f*** at all, unless they're paying for it in someway. Where we come from, f***ing just seems like a natural conclusion to everything else. As far as I'm concerned, every girl is seriously deprived. Every man has a duty to try and they don't.
"With me, it's not a macho thing. A Welsh taxi-driver can f*** more girls than me. Robert De Niro can f*** more girls than me. When I f*** a girl, I know I'm being used. I'm nothing. I'm just pathetic. But I walkout on stage and anyone can love me, anyone can hate me, anyone can f*** me."
Ask Richey, a boy in love with Guy Debord, sulphate and self-annihilation. But mostly, himself.
"Personally, like, I only lost my virginity six months ago. I never looked at girls and just stayed in my bedroom all day. I never even kissed a girl. Then the band started...
"Sexual conditioning is so controlled. Men are just treated as aggressive bodies. Women are just lumps of meat. Sexual alienation is massive in this country. That's why girls are so amazed when you go down on them. Even if you run your fingers through their hair or something. They expect you to get there, f*** 'em and kick 'em out.
"Personally though, sex is just another way of blocking out the boredom. I get as much pleasure from wanking. I could just as happily go back to the hotel, sit on the bog and have a good wank. It doesn't make any difference to me."
Ask James, who'll cause a stampede at showtime with the rallying cry, "If there's any pretty boys out there who want to bugger me, I'll see you all after me show."
"When I walk out on stage and I see girls and boys looking at me, it makes me feel like I could try anything. Like I wouldn't mind going to bed with a boy. The possibilities are endless."
Ask Shaun who used to play the trumpet in a South Wales brass band and now wears cool fake fur coats for a living.
"Those two girls I was with last night... all I did was help them out. They had spent a lot of money travelling up to see us and they were only students. So I took them back to the bedroom, showed them the beds, then I went to sleep on the bathroom floor with a single sheet around me. The floor wasn't even carpeted. It was made of vinyl. Basically, I think we're all pretty romantic."
IF THEY achieve nothing else before disappearing back into oblivion, Manic Street Preachers might resurrect the generation gap for 15 minutes. To 16-year-old sensualists, for whom punk rock is just another worn chapter in rock'n'roll anthologies, these four provincial renegades might seem like the first and last word in authentic rage. To cynical 30-year-olds who have been there before and faced the hangover the following morning, Manic Street Preachers might be a joke in search of a punchline.
"Yeah, we seriously know that people think we're a big f***ing joke," says Nicki. "To 30-year-old journalists, we're always going to sound like a pastiche. But we're not making records for 30-year-old journalists.
"Their ideals are so low. These are the same people that will pick up on some shitty band and think they've cracked it if that band sell 10,000 albums and get into the Top 10. That doesn't mean anything to us. The bands we've liked have never set their sights so low. We've always admitted that we're basically just sluts and prostitutes and we're prepared to compromise all the way down the line. Sticking to your ideals is ultimately the most pathetic thing because you just go on appealing to the same old people. Our songs are the only integrity we've got."
What are they rebelling against? What have you got?
"Ah, f*** it, we're just confused basically. We're just a hopeless mass of contradictions."
Now make a record that spits blood you lovely f***ed-up children.