The Manic Street Preachers on friendship, loss and rock 'n' roll resurrection.
February 17, 1995, Aust Service Station, Severn Bridge. A silver Vauxhall Cavalier, registration L519 HKX, sits abandoned. The car’s owner, 28-year-old Richey James Edwards, rhythm guitarist of the Manic Street Preachers, dumped it there three days earlier. He'd driven to the notorious suicide spot from his flat in Cardiff Bay, leaving behind his passport, credit cards and the prescription Prozac that cushioned his clinical depression.
On February 2, Manic Street Preachers manager Martin Hall went to Harrow Road police station to report the guitarist as missing. The last positive sighting of Edwards was when he left the Embassy hotel. in Bayswater, west London, at 7am on February 1. “He hasn’t been seen since," says DS Penny Hayes at Harrow Road. “There has been no new information and there’s still no trace of him.”
The remaining Manic Street Preachers - 26-year-old singer James Dean Bradfield, bass player Nicky Wire, also 26, and drummer Sean Moore, 25 - are still together as a three-piece. On April 21, 1996, they entered the charts at number two, with “Design For Life”, their most successful single to date. The boys from Blackwood, South Wales, are bigger than ever. Given their history, it’s remarkable they’re together at all.
The Manic Street Preachers’ predicament is unique. Other rock ‘n' roll AWOL episodes have been merely temporary - in 1981,Joe Strummer ran away from The Clash until he was located, several months later, by a private detective in Paris; he said he needed a break. More common is that most public of private gestures, the rock ’n’ roll suicide - but where does a band go from there? Following Ian Curtis’s death in May 1980, Joy Division's surviving members laid their singer’s ghost to rest by becoming New Order, while the surviving members of Nirvana entertained no thoughts of soldiering on.
But the Manics are not an average rock band. Their current, fourth album, Everything Must Go, has been lauded as a brilliant achievement, sealing their place at the vanguard of British music. Such plaudits have not been won easily. When they began with 1989's self-financed seven-inch, “Suicide Alley” - a mess of choppy guitar and punk stroppiness — they were regarded as a joke. They wanted to change the world at a time when bands were smugly content with an NME front cover, promised to make one epochal double album and then split up. “We just wanna be the most important reference point of the Nineties. That's all,” said James Bradfield at the time. They delivered gobby slogans, wore spray-painted shirts and were considered hilariously naive. In 1990, The Fall’s Steve Hanley described them as “someone doing The Clash in a school play".
On May 15 1991, NME reporter Steve Lamacq (now a Radio One DJ) interviewed Richey Edwards after a gig in Norwich. He questioned his band’s sincerity. As they spoke, Edwards gouged the phrase “4 REAL” into his left forearm with a razor blade, remaining calm throughout. Lamacq said he could’ve been writing it “in Biro". Edwards needed 17 stitches, but at Norwich General Hospital he insisted accidents be treated before his self-inflicted wound. Nicky Wire described the incident as “our Altamont”.
Duly signed to Sony, the group's fanfared debut album, Generation Terrorists, arrived in February '92, proving that they amounted to more than dumb punk sham. The cover was littered with quotes from Camus, Confucius and Philip Larkin, something that would feature on all subsequent artwork. Interviews revealed that they were genuinely literate entrants to a rock world where reading Ken Kesey is still deemed rebellious. They blossomed musically, too. The tension between James and Sean’s anthemic backing and Nicky and Richey’s increasingly articulate lyrical rants against the bland bankruptcy of the modern world became magnetic. In March '92, Richey told Smash Hits readers they should die before they reach 13. The comment was edited out of the published piece. James describes the initial two years of the Manics’ career as “perfect, the best”.
Richey told James he’d have nothing left in his life if they split as promised, but even the emotional crutch of the band was to prove inadequate for him. During the making of their second album in '93, the brazenly pop metal Gold Against The Soul, Richey was becoming alcoholic. Drying out trips to a health farm failed, and by '94 he was consuming a bottle and a half of vodka a day. He also began to cut himself in public, slashing his chest with a set of knives given to him by a fan while in Bangkok in April. On top of all of this, he developed anorexia.
Early that August, amid unconﬁrmed rumours of a suicide attempt. Richey was hospitalised with depression and nervous exhaustion. His fellow band members visited him almost every day. The band’s third album, The Holy Bible, was released a few weeks later, Richey having written 70 per cent of its devastatingly bleak lyrics. With subject matter encompassing anorexia (“4st 7lbs”) and the Holocaust (“Intense Humming of Evil”), the record was seen as an articulation of Richey's fractured psyche. Nicky believes it’s too much to suggest Richey associated his breakdown with, say, the massacre of six million Jews. “He was never that pretentious,” he says. James considers the album “a holy chalice, burning through anything it touches".
Richey emerged from rehab in November ’94, rejoining the band as they toured Europe and played a brace of pre-Christmas shows in London. He was on a 12-step programme but still cutting himself. On January 23, 1995, Richey gave his last interview before disappearing, to Japanese magazine Music Life. He'd shaved his head and wore striped, prison-style pyjamas. The severe hairstyle was in memory of his dog Snoopy, his pet for 17 years, who'd died earlier that month.
By Richey’s departure, the Manics had scored 14 top 40 hits in four years. In aspiration and attitude, they’d laid foundations for the Nineties guitar band explosion led by Suede, Blur and Oasis. “I do believe we had that effect," says Nicky. “We made people think big, stop settling for things.”
Richey represented those desires, his iconic presence galvanising a fanatical fanbase. Prior to the release of Gold Against The Soul, the band received a series of letters from fans who also cut themselves, written in blood.
In his absence, Richey was inevitably appropriated as a totem of dysfunctional youth, cast alongside Kurt Cobain, who had committed suicide in April '94. Melody Maker published a special “Samaritans” issue with the two of them on the cover.
“Richey’s always been a self-abusive person in every way," says James. “And whether you can look upon that as perpetuating a self-myth or trying to be iconoclastic is beside the point. When you get past a certain point you realise somebody is just ill."
Blackwood, South Wales, late Seventies. A group of pre-teen boys play football in Gossard’s Field, named after the nearby underwear factory. One of the boys, Nicky Jones, known as “Wire” since he’s tall and thin, has invited his best friend, James Bradfield, to bring along a team for a kickabout. Bradfield’s team includes Sean Moore, his cousin. Wire's outfit comprises boys living on his side of town, Woodfield, and includes a Richard Edwards, whose cuddly demeanour has attracted the nickname “Teddy”. Still more interested in sport than music, the boys all live within a mile of each other. This is the ﬁrst time the future members of the Manic Street Preachers meet.
“Our romanticism always came from a certain isolation," says James. Blackwood is nothing if not isolated. A tiny working-class town in the Gwent Hills, it was on the front line of Thatcherite economic policy. Gutted by the Miners’ Strike in 1984, the pits were replaced by factories producing Japanese electronics and Pot Noodles.
“I believe environmental situations do produce certain types of people," says Wire, whose father is a builder. “Blackwood deﬁnitely produced us."
They all knew someone who had lost their job during the Miners’ Strike. The protest marches passed right by James’ front door and Neil Kinnock, the local MP, lived on his street. The son of a union-affiliated carpenter, James’ direct experience of social upheaval politicised him, sowing a desire to sever himself from traditional working-class history that, he says, “glorifies the loser who won't get down on his knees".
Adolescence cemented the boys' friendship. By 13, James had retreated to his bedroom with Nicky to plan rock stardom. Wire taught James rudimentary guitar chords and his aptitude for the instrument was immediate. This was the first time James had bettered his friend, “the cool one with brilliant hair... that all the best girls in school fancied, even in the infants", at anything. Multi-instrumentalist Sean (declared best trumpeter in Gwent Youth Brass Band in 1984) was an obvious choice for drummer. Especially since he’d just left home to live with James. Nicky’s older brother Patrick, now a librarian and local newspaper journalist, fed the boys books by Burroughs and Kerouac, the Beat tomes that had transformed his own life. Despite this, the first song Nicky and James wrote wasn’t about long highways, or even first love. but the Miners' Strike.
In the late Eighties. Nicky and Richey went to Cardiff University to study English and Political History respectively. Richey's self—harming tendencies emerged when he cut himself while revising for his finals in ’88. The following December, Richey joined the Manics full-time. replacing original rhythm guitarist, Flicker. because he was better looking and had a cooler guitar. Initially, he could barely play at all and his instrument was left unplugged.
During the Manics' early years as the butt of music—business humour. one person had faith. Philip Hall was a London PR who became their manager, lending them £45,000 to finance themselves prior to the Sony deal. The band even lived at his west-London home, along with his wife Terri, for eight months, cooking and cleaning while Hall was at work. James still lives there. On December 7 1993, Philip Hall died of cancer. His brother Martin took over management of the band, and his widow Terri is now their PR. The protective family atmosphere around the Manics is palpable.
“It's always been like that," says Martin Hall. "I speak to James and Nicky every day, even when they’re not working. They're just nice blokes. Obviously. it helped to cope with Richey, although eventually it wasn't enough. Did it help them to continue? Obviously if you go through what we've been through it makes you closer, and that can make you stronger, too."
Wembley Arena, December 29, 1995. "It's only us!" says Nicky Wire, stepping up to the mike in an outsize Cardiff Devils ice-hockey jersey and strapping on his bass. The Manics are supporting The Stone Roses in their first appearance since Richey's departure. Sean and Nicky don't want to be here at all. James isn't happy either, but Martin Hall talked them into it.
What follows is 40 defiant minutes of mostly new material, and nothing at all from The Holy Bible. After the show, they feel terrible. James doesn’t think they can play live anymore.
“I thought we would just crumble as a band,” says James. “I didn’t think we‘d carry on, and certainly not with our name. There was never any question of a replacement guitarist, even though the record company suggested it. But for the first three months we never thought about ourselves as a group at all."
While Richey was hospitalised in ’94. Nicky said that if he couldn't rejoin the group. they would quit. And for a couple of days after Richey's car was found by the Severn Bridge, they believed it was all over. "We’d lost purpose." he says.
Talking uncovered resentment they didn't want to feel and although there were consultations with Richey’s family, Martin Hall and Rob Stringer, their record company MD, there was no sudden decision to continue. But, after time apart, the three friends drifted back towards their band. Doing nothing wasn't helping and emotionally they were at a point where another try seemed feasible. It was writing “Design For Life” that clinched it. They believed it was their finest achievement to date. It felt like a new start.
James, the stocky, Rhonda Valley-born boy who sang in his school choir, is now the band’s focus by default. Cheerily self-effacing and terrible with compliments (mostly met with a semi-serious “fuck off"), his gentle macho bluster does a poor job of hiding a more sensitive side. His was the job of conveying Richey's lyrics to the world. Decoding them was something he enjoyed, but around The Holy Bible he begin to tread carefully. It started, he says, “to do my head in".
James is uncomfortable being front and centre. It means he has to cope with strangers telling him they know where Richey is or that he's betrayed his friend by carrying on. He's also struggling to bridge the band's personal and pop lives as smoothly as Richey sometimes appeared to.
“They meet me now," sighs James, “and it's like ‘God, I can't believe how short you are’ [he’s 5’7"], Or, 'Oh, you‘re such a good bloke.' And I'm not being fashionably modest, but I really loved the element of myth Richey put into the band. He framed the picture."
Friday, April 26, 1996, the basement of The Hacienda nightclub. Manchester. The Manics are playing a secret gig, warming up before supporting Oasis at Maine Road that weekend. In the packed cellar James is struggling with the cramped setting. Halfway through the set, Nicky bumps into him. James then does what he always does when this happens, turns to his right to
smile at Richey. This time, all he sees is the rest of the stage.
Tuesday, May 30, 1996. James' front room, Shepherd's Bush, West London. “Look at this,” he exclaims, brandishing a page torn from a newspaper. It has an old, Generation Terrorists-era picture of Richey on it. alongside the headline “Suicide or stunt?"
“There it is,” he says, “The South Wales Echo - ‘Suicide or stunt?‘ It's just mad. I laughed at this, because it typifies the tin-pot press in Wales.”
“I didn't know you'd kept that.” grins Nicky.
James sits down, sinking back into his seat.
“Yeah,” he mutters. “So I can remember the name of the cunt that wrote it."
When Richey disappeared, his family appealed for his return but the band made no statement. They didn't want to be drawn into a game of press-release tennis with a media hungry for dirt and deification. Speculative half-truths emerged anyway, from a "sighting" in a gay pub in Liverpool to the story that Richey dramatically handed Nicky a bundle of lyrics before his departure. (Nicky: “It was six weeks before he went. He was always giving me lyrics”) James couldn't take taxis when he went home to Wales, because drivers would pester him over Richey’s whereabouts.
Their fans were harder to cope with. Nicky acknowledges the “cult of Richey” that exists, one that includes anorexics and people that cut themselves. Unsurprisingly. the band were always reluctant to become involved, for fear of making things worse.
“They can’t live through him, especially now," says Nicky softly. “It's the serious letters from anorexics that worry me most, ’cos they actually seem like they're dying. Like they’re going the same way. That‘s upsetting...[his voice trails off] you feel helpless."
In October '95. Channel 4 showed From Despair To Where, a documentary about Gillian Armstrong, a Manics fan who cut herself. It contained a sequence in which she was making Plasticine models with her son. The child was constructing the predictable, brightly amorphous blob. Armstrong made a model of Richey, complete with blood spattered left forearm. Nicky “detests” the programme.
“I had a bit of a problem even with the self-dramatising aspect of Richey himself,” he says. “Sometimes I felt like giving him a slap: y’know. ‘You're drop-dead-gorgeous, you’re successful. I know things are not fantastic, but they're not the worst.’ That sort of thing. But at the end of the day, even I didn’t know what he was going through. and I thought I knew him better than anyone."
The band acknowledge that the music and literature they've consumed was all, according to Nicky, by “alcoholics and drug addicts”. James says it now feels strange to have their own band blighted by tragedy. They wonder if, by prodding culture’s darker corners, they’ve brought this trauma upon themselves. Do they feel victims of their own rock myth?
“I don’t see us as having a myth,” retorts James. “Myths come with decades, or with corpses. We’ve got neither. There's no precedent for this. You know that one day it’ll be a gargantuan myth. [Pauses.] But not yet.”
“I'm always moaning," says Nicky Wire, standing in James' kitchen with a broad grin illuminating his face. “I always think I’m ill.” Charmingly grumpy, Wire, once captain of the Welsh under-16 football team, is also sports mad. Aside from football
and cricket, he's partial to snooker and darts. He has a dart board hanging on his bedroom wall and Jocky Wilson was his idol as a youth. Until the Scots oche hero drunkenly told him to “fuck off" in answer to an autograph request.
Wire still lives in Blackwood, in a small terraced house two miles from his parents. When not watching March Of The Day, he writes, and not just lyrics for the band. The B-side of “Design For Life”, “Dead Trees And Trafﬁc Islands", began life as a synopsis for an episode of Cracker, about someone whose ultimate aim is to kill a serial killer. Nicky wrote continuously after Richey left, although many songs were too personal to find their way on to Everything Must Go. They were “so suspended between love and anger" that he felt it wrong to expose those feelings for public consumption.
Two years ago, Nicky Wire married a librarian called Rachel and their wedding photographs are on display at home. Earlier this year, he was looking at one in particular - of him, James, Sean, Richey, Martin and Philip Hall — and the absence of Richey and Philip sank in. Nicky wrote “Enola/Alone” (on Eveyrthing Must Go and containing the line, "I’ll take a picture of you/ to remember how good you looked") almost immediately.
James has the same photo. Nicky fetches it from the front room. The band look incongruous, standing outside an anonymous church in dark suits. Philip’s large frame fills the far right of the picture. Richey stands dead centre, with a beatiﬁc smile.
“When I look at pictures of Richey, I don't think of anything bad,” says Nicky. “I remember him flopping around in the studio in the morning with a hangover. And he’d really describe having a drink so nicely - you'd hear the ice cubes clanking. One time he tried to convince us he'd drunk so much orange with all his vodka that he had a huge Jaffa orange growing in his stomach. All happy memories. It's just that kind of Manics melancholia. That’s why I like living in Wales. It's always raining.”
Sean is the Manics' quiet engine room. Page-boy looks tempered by a stony demeanour, he speaks slowly and deliberately, meeting you with an intense gaze. The day after Richey left, he laid a new floor in his Bristol home, where he lives with Rhian, his girlfriend of 12 years. According to Nicky, Sean was the anchor during their forced sojourn, a “Nietzschean-strength man". During the creation of Everything Must Go, he was also the most relaxed he'd ever been in the studio, utilising his depth of musical talent for the first time ever. James finally persuaded him to display his trumpet skills on the Bacharach-esque “Kevin Carter”.
“A few years ago, there was a period when my drum kit was growing so much so that I could hide behind it.” says Sean. “Now it's a bit more stripped down, I'm enjoying it a bit more. The anger that I've got is more controlled. The angst has gone."
James, Nicky and Sean have built a future from disintegration. Everything Must Go replaces the spitting anguish of its predecessors with warmly regretful melancholy, touches of Phil Spector (on the title track) and Nick Drake (“Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky”) mingling with full-on Smashing Pumpkins-style fuzz metal, (“No Surface But All Feeling”). It‘s one of the great rock albums of recent years. According to Nicky, the title track is a statement of intent addressed to their fans. “I won't become an anorexic or an alcoholic," he says, “just so they can have another martyr."
Although the band has moved on, Richey's story remains without conclusion.
“For me there’s no reconciliation with the past, there’s no ending to move on from." says James. “We're left in limbo. We still feel numb and we haven‘t got any answers.”
“He could walk back through that door at any moment," says Nicky. “It’s scary to think that might happen. Does he know us, does he want us, does he like us? The only way we could handle it was if he sent us a postcard to say he was all right. If he's a sewage worker with a big beard writing a book, then good luck. At least he‘'s OK.”
“If he knocked on the door now," interrupts James, “I think I’d turn into a gibbering wreck. I wouldn't know what to do.”
Nicky says he sometimes wears Richey as “a badge of honour”. He draws strength from the fact that his best friend was "the greatest rock star of his generation and one of the best lyric writers". He’s proud to have known someone who “took it as far as it could go".
“The very name, Manic Street Preachers, is a brand name for the fucked-up people of the world to identify with,” he exclaims. “It’s like Coke. But it’s so much more than that, obviously. It's about lust for life. too"