The stage is a sea of colour, a huge projection screen dancing with images of happy families and street violence, of summer holidays and civil strife, terraced houses and baton charges.
London's Kentish Town Forum is boiling with people; a solid, excited throng who have turned the air to steam. The sound filling this former theatre is breathtaking -- as the images collide, the soundtrack is a swell; surging strings, rumbling timpani, an irresistibly rising score. As the images fade into slogans and the strings slide into white noise, James Dean Bradfield takes the microphone and launches into the soaring new single, the workers-of- the-world-unite anthem A Design For Life. And after 18 months adrift, the Manic Street Preachers are back.
May's tour by the Manic Street Preachers was, to many, the final catharsis in a tragedy that has become one of the British pop scene's most intriguing legends. On February 1, 1995, the Manics' guitarist and chief lyricist, Richey Edwards, disappeared from his hotel in London on the eve of a press trip to America. His car was found 16 days later near the Severn Bridge, a notorious suicide spot. He has never been found.
Edwards was to many the Manics' centrepiece, the lyricist who glued Sylvia Plath soundbites and Situationist sloganeering over the band's powerhouse brand of glam and punk. At 28, he had already battled several years of alcohol abuse, anorexia and self mutilation, once requiring 17 stitches for carving "4 Real" into his arm after an argument with an NME journalist.
At the time of his disappearance the Manic Street Preachers were one of Britain's leading cult bands. Formed by four childhood friends in Wales' depressed mining town of Blackwood, Edwards, singer and lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore became fired by the late-'80s remembrance of punk, replacing the wasted lyrics with fierce, intellectual diatribes and dressing like coked-out glam wannabes.
Constant touring and provocative interviews led to a 1992 deal with Sony and three albums; the scattergun punk vitriolic of Generation Terrorists, the airbrushed Clashisms of Gold Against the Soul and the cold nihilism of The Holy Bible. The Manics' cartoonish Welsh Clash tag faded as the band became serious contenders, revered as much for what they stood for (education, self-empowerment, individualism) as for its music. And then Edwards disappeared.
The Manics drew ranks as their friend's disappearance stretched from days to weeks to months. There were no interviews, no tours, no new songs. Their third and bleakest album began to be regarded as some kind of suicide message, crowded as it was with Edwards'
chilling proclamations of wanting "to die in the summertime". As a band they had always admired The Sex Pistols for the band's perfect history, the clean-cut beginning and end. The Manics, for the most tragic reasons, looked like joining them.
On a sticky July day, James Dean Bradfield is holed up at the Sony offices in Soho, central London. Dressed in combat pants, blue polo shirt and austere looking specs, he's unfailingly polite, chatty and disarming, fidgeting with his hands as he talks over the Manics'
Return to the fray.
The Manics are back, and in a way that has capped Edwards' disappearance with a victorious return to form. Its fourth album, Everything Must Go, is wrapped up in its most ambitious soundscapes so far, like The Clash produced by Phil Spector.
Bradfield, for one, is relieved to be back.
"I'm just relieved, relieved that we've still got a place, that we can inhabit a space that's not anyone else's," he says.
"It doesn't feel as if we're fighting that much of a battle any more either. I suppose when you're releasing records in that atmosphere you start to get a chip on your shoulder and it doesn't feel like that any more."
Everything Must Go was recorded in France last year, away from the Brit pop wars between Blur and Oasis and the distractions of an insular looking music scene. Edwards had left contributions for seven songs -- the Manics' delineation was that he and Nicky Wire shared the lyric writing while Bradfield and Moore (classically trained trumpeter as well as tub thumper) wrote the tunes -- but preparation was still a strain.
The lyrics mantle has now fallen on the shoulders of Wire, a man who has suffered his own problems in the past. But Bradfield says Wire is probably at his strongest now.
"I think one of the big differences is that Nick is starting to write about things that inspire him."
Between the first two albums and The Holy Bible, the band's famous self-confidence took further dents. Edwards became more depressed, finally being admitted to a clinic in August 1994.
Wire has since claimed the rehabilitation programme left Edwards "a wreck" and may have contributed to his disappearance.
Bradfield equates the band's position now -- poised for an assault on America and Australasia that is expected to take it to Auckland's Big Day Out in January -- to the Manic Street Preachers' genesis in 1989, when Bradfield sent Wire money every week so the university student could pay off gambling debts and buy food, when they pooled dole money to press singles and wrote media releases from their bedrooms.
Edwards' absence will always be felt. But the Manics seem stronger. It's a bittersweet ending, but Bradfield is philosophical.
"I've always found melancholia really uplifting, whether it be the last scene in Rumblefish or the way Jack Lemmon is in The Apartment . . . it's like gathering yourself through loss, at the end of a losing streak. And I think that some kind of victory always comes out of that."