The Manic Street Preachers were promising punk upstarts until Richey Edwards disappeared seven years ago. Since then, it's been downhill all the way, says Fiona Sturges
On starting out, the punk revivalists Manic Street Preachers pledged that their first album would sell 16 million copies, after which they would vanish without trace. Fourteen years, six albums and a couple of No 1 singles later, it's clear that things didn't go according to plan. As it turned out, the guitarist Richey Edwards did the disappearing act by himself, seven years ago next week, prompting the kind of outpourings of grief among fans not seen since Nirvana's Kurt Cobain committed suicide.
Before Edwards's strange departure, the Manics had what you might call a cult following - a modest-sized body of fiercely devoted fans. The band were at odds with the prevalent musical mood, providing an alluring alternative to baggy's drug-addled empty-headedness and grunge's miserable introspection.
They were legendary crowd-baiters, too. Uncharitable remarks about Michael Stipe made by the bass-player, Nicky Wire, rightly earned them detractors yet bore testament to their don't-give-a-toss attitude. Wire later remarked: "I've got nothing against Michael at all; I'm just all for bitching in music." 1994's Holy Bible, their third album mostly written by Edwards, fearlessly took on such thorny issues as the Holocaust, prostitution and anorexia. Self-conscious though it was, it was by far their best.
But when Edwards went, so did the band's credibility. An alcoholic and depressive, he was the embodiment of youthful nihilism. His tall, skinny frame and wounded good looks made him sufficiently enticing to young girls and boys in need of a tragic hero. Even his most banal utterances were seized upon, immortalised on pencil-cases across the land, while his frequent and well-publicised acts of self-laceration were deemed by many of his fans as the greatest rock'n'roll gesture after suicide.
Two weeks after he vanished, Edwards's abandoned car was found at a motorway service station on the English side of the Severn Bridge. Since then, there have been alleged sightings - one in Newport library, 15 miles from his home town of Blackwood, Gwent, and another in Goa, India. But there is still no hard evidence as to whether he is alive or dead. He was due to be pronounced dead by the police next Friday, the anniversary of his disappearance. But at the last minute his parents requested that the investigation remain open.
Look on the internet and you will find hundreds of desperate individuals still agonising over Edwards. Should you feel inclined, you can look at gruesome photos of his various acts of self-mutilation; you can even buy a Richey Edwards Memorial stencil with which you can trace "4REAL", the words that Edwards famously carved into his arm with a razor in 1991 in an effort to persuade the NME writer Steve Lamacq that he was on a serious mission.
Given the ghoulish fascination that surrounds Edwards, it seems odd that the band through whom he became famous didn't do better in the early days. It wasn't until 1996's Everything Must Go, the Manics' first LP after Edwards's disappearance, that they achieved mainstream success. The album, which included the singles "Kevin Carter" and "Design for Life", showcased the band's new stadium-rock sound, earning them NME awards, Brits, Ivor Novellos and even an appearance at the Smash Hits poll winners' party.
One doubts they would have trodden such a dismal path if Edwards had stuck around. He was, after all, devoted to the notion of authenticity. In the early days he vowed that the band would set fire to themselves on Top of the Pops - another empty promise. But you wonder what grisly theatrics would have taken place if Edwards had been around for the Smash Hits shindig.
Post-Richey, the Manic Street Preachers have become a byword for musical conservatism. They began as punk pretenders bent on cutting down the previous generation; now, they peddle the kind of bland stadium fare that would make Bryan Adams jump on a chair and scream. Attempts to be radical in recent years have come across as horribly contrived. They may have viewed their decision to play in front of Castro in the Cuban capital as an anti-capitalist statement, but to everybody else it was a publicity stunt.
Of course, accusations of having sold out have been levelled at the band constantly since 1995. Their last few albums have been preceded by claims, often from the band themselves, that they were returning to their darker roots, yet with each they have become further entrenched in middle-of-the-road rock. Their 1998 album, the snappily titled This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, was written off by the heavy-metal magazine Kerrang! as their "Mr and Mrs Ford Mondeo album". Indeed, for some sections of the music press, the Manics have become objects of mirth. The toilet incident at Glastonbury, when they brought a private loo along, artfully dubbed "Crappergate" by one magazine, made them look like preening rock stars, not the post-punk revolutionaries that they once claimed to be.
In some ways you have to sympathise with them. Edwards had always been the driving force behind the band and made himself an impossible act to follow. Many of the band's early fans were horrified when they carried on with out him, believing there could be no Manic Street Preachers without Edwards. It seems they were right.