James Dean Bradfield says it in relation to the Sex Pistols, but that phrase applies equally to the way the Manic Street Preachers have operated throughout all of their 21 years on Planet Rock. Following the release of their National Treasures singles collection, he talks Richey, The Clash, Diana Ross and Johnny Rotten with Stuart Clark.
The title of their new singles retrospective is obviously a bit tongue in cheek but whether they like it or not - secretly I think they do! - the Manic Street Preachers are on that same list of venerable British institutions as Stephen Fry, Dame Cilla Black and Bovril.
Starting with 1990’s ‘Motown Junk’ and coming bang up to date with their take on The The’s ‘This Is The Day’, National Treasures: The Complete Singles documents the Manics’ evolution from mere Clash copyists into a band of real intellectual substance.
“I’m not sure about the ‘intellectual’ part but I like to think there’s always been substance to what we do,” James Dean Bradfield smiles. “We’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way - I’ll let people compile their own lists! - but that’s better than finding something that works and sticking to it like glue for 21 years.”
To borrow a phrase from the great Declan Lynch, Messrs. Bradfield, Wire, Moore and - up till his disappearance in 1995 - Edwards have always had the courage of their contradictions.
“That’s quite a good way of putting it...actually, that’s a very good way of putting it! We’ve always totally believed in what we’ve done even if at times it turned out to be bollocks.”
When ‘Motown Junk’ arrived back from the pressing plant, did James have any idea there’d be another 37 of them?
“I did. Not on the basis of my ability but because I was in a band with two absolutely powerhouse lyricists. Every time I thought we’d topped ourselves, Nick and Richey would give me another lyric and I’d be like, ‘Wow, nobody’s written anything like this before or for a long time.’ How can you not want to be in a band when you’re given lyrics like the ones on The Holy Bible to write music to? My mindset when it came out was, ‘As long as I can work with these two guys I never want this to stop.’ Obviously there’s a bittersweet irony in that Richey departed after The Holy Bible but then Nick presented me with the lyrics to ‘A Design For Life’ and I thought, ‘Although we’ve lost a massive part of our band, we can still continue because everyone’s writing about greyhound racing and getting pissed up.’ But no one was talking about the consequence of inverted working-class violence and snobbery and how it all ends up in some impregnable amalgam. Britpop was dumbing down, so we felt we had to dumb up.”
Which is probably one of the best answers to a question I’ve ever been given. As brilliant as the words are, did James ever say, “For fuck’s sake lads, how am I supposed to fit ‘If you tolerate this then your children will be next’ into a pop chorus?”
“At one point I said to Richey, ‘Look, you’re obviously much more intelligent than me - you’re a walking, breathing computer for knowledge - but have you ever learned how to use punctuation? How the fuck do you expect me to sing this?’ It was like Harrison Ford going to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars (adopts cornball American accent): ‘You can write this shit but you can’t act it!’ I remember looking at ‘Faster’ and a lyric called ‘If White America Told The Truth For Just One Day It’s World Would Fall Apart’ and thinking, ‘Even though I’m going to die of lyrical asphyxiation it’s an absolute privilege to put this to music. This cavalcade of emotions and knowledge is coming towards me and he trusts me with it.’ So whilst it was always a physical challenge of trying to sing it, it was a challenge I absolutely loved.”
Which is another of the best answers to a question I’ve been given. Seeing as we’re talking singles, what was the first 45 (ask your granddad) James bought?
“Oh, fucking hell! I wish I could lie about this but ‘My Old Piano’ by Diana Ross. I had the grave misfortune coming out of the shop to run into a local heavy called Didds who ripped the bag out of my hands to see what was in it. He was like, ‘Diana Ross? You little poof, you. Wait ‘til you get back in school Monday...’ And sure enough I got a smack from a couple of the AC/DC and Whitesnake fans. The second 7” I bought was ELO’s ‘The Diary Of Horace Wimp’, so I really didn’t learn my lesson!”
If Desert Island Discs was to be NAMA-ed, what’s the one single James just couldn’t live without?
“Today, it’s got to be ‘Complete Control’ by The Clash. It was a stand-alone single; it was produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and it’s got that ‘transmitted from South America’ sound. It’s the aural equivalent of watching the World Cup from Argentina where everything’s a bit grainy but under the grainy-ness there’s beauty. Tomorrow, it’d be ‘God Save The Queen’ by the Pistols. Everybody thinks it’s a numbskull punk song, but it’s molten lava literacy. You could start a novel with the line, ‘If there’s no future how can there be sin?’ What a fucking amazing line!”
Did James ever get to say, “Thank you Mr. Strummer for changing my life”?
“Er, no, Joe had a bit of a dislike for us,” he recalls without rancour. “Somebody tried to introduce me to him at an Underworld gig, but he snarled and walked off. I just thought, ‘If your admiration of somebody has got to be done on the basis of reciprocation then it’s not real admiration.’ So I left it there. I’ve met Paul Simonon - lovely fucking chap. I’ve met Mick - amazing bloke too. I’ve never met John Lydon, but that’s okay - I’ll leave him on the plinth that he deserves to stand upon.”
The Manics are a band democracy, but who’s really in charge?
“At different points we’ve all taken the lead,” James reflects. “Obviously on The Holy Bible Richey took the lead with the lyrics and seeing what he was doing Nick stood back. Up until then they’d written every lyric together. I think that gives you an idea of what happens - if somebody’s running with the ball everybody else recognises they’ve got the juice and lets them keep going. The thing about Nick is that he always has a strategy, a plan, which I tend to fall in behind. Before we did Postcards From A Young Man, he gave me a piece of paper on tour that said: ‘Van Halen playing Tamla Motown dressed in pink and gold; songs to break the world’s heart.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I can get that!’ He’s got that West Wing Chief of Staff vibe about him.”
Did James retain the power of veto to tell Nicky and Richey, “Sorry, I can’t sing these lyrics”?
“Nick gave me a lyric once called ‘Anniversary To No One’, which made me feel utterly depressed about everything - it was an incantation to death and destruction. It’s the only time I’ve given him a lyric back and said, ‘I don’t want to write that.’ You either have to believe in it or try and understand it. 20% of the lyrics on The Holy Bible I had to go up to Richey with the lyric sheet and say, ‘What does this mean?’ Trying to empathise with someone else’s profoundly-held sentiments can be a bloody challenge.”
The Manics set themselves an almost impossibly high benchmark early on in their career when they released ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Was James aware recording it that it’d go on to become their anthem of anthems?
“I actually think of it as our anti-anthem of anti-anthems,” he proffers. “Basically, it was a song saying, ‘We’re the first non-generation. We have nothing to stand by, we have nothing to celebrate, go fuck yourselves!’ I remember it being around for quite a long time and originally being called ‘Go Buzz Baby Go (Ode To Rusty James)’ - Rusty James being a character from the Ford Coppola film, Rumble Fish. It mutated and mutated into ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, which was the first song that really lived up to our ambitions. Knowing we were capable of that was an incredibly exhilarating experience.”
People buying into the Manics wholesale is a great compliment, but also creates a burden, which the band constantly have to shoulder. Particularly in the wake of Richey’s disappearance, has it been difficult to deal with that level of fan intensity?
“Back in the Holy Bible period you were confronted by people who felt as if they’d interpreted everything you’d done and suddenly they knew the purity of the flame. They were saying, ‘I didn’t think you’d do this because you wrote that...’ I found it hard to live up to the purity of the keepers of the flame. The songs are not all about something real - they’re not all political, they’re not all based on the drug experience; sometimes it’s just a very personal aesthetic. A song like ‘For What It’s Worth’ by The Cardigans utterly turns me on in every way, but there’s no comment there about anything except a very personal situation. Sometimes I felt the pressure of having to follow the supposed Manics bullet-points.”
I’ve saved the most important question for last - is being a Manic Street Preacher fun still?
“I feel like I need a hip-replacement every time I come off stage but, yeah, it’s still the best job in the world,” James concludes. “The great rock ‘n’ roll hit single being dead we’re going to go backwards and completely indulge what the album is as an art form. That’s where we’re going next - Taffy The Musical!”