In the last part of our Manic Street Preachers story, we chart the rise of the band, from their first gig as a three-piece in London supporting the Stone Roses, to their current status as arena rockers.
The disappearance of Richey in February 1995 didn't create too many waves at first. The wider media virtually ignored the event, while fans, friends, family and band members clung to the hope that he had merely taken an impromptu break to get his head back together.
As the weeks turned into months, however, anxiety and speculation as to his whereabouts multiplied, The Maker letters page became monopolised by a surge of letters, largely from women, expressing not just their fears for Richey but also outlining in frank terms how they, too, had shared the same syndrome of suffering - cutting themselves, anorexia - and how they identified with the Manics' lyrics, especially Richey's, which mirrored their own sense of inadequacy and depression.
These letters, outnumbering even those received in the wake of Kurt Cobain's death, dared to tackle issues that had never been broached before in the pages of the music weeklies with such graphic emotional intensity they could hardly be dismissed as the silly, adolescent gibberings of a bunch of morbid goths. Something 4 Real was happening here, We were beginning to feel a little out of our depth.
A Maker feature on depression in April 1995 prompted the media to escalate their interest in the story of Richey, and we were invited to speak on most of the mainstream TV and radio stations, from ITN to '"The Today Programme". Someone had coined the phrase "culture of despair" , but what we really despaired of was the fact that the media were scrabbling blindly about without any prior knowledge of the Manic Street Preachers or even of the nature of clinical depression, in the hope of digging up some spurious punk-rock style wrist-slashing suicide cult.
What was really happening was that a large number of young people, inspired by Richey, though distraught at his disappearance, now felt the confidence to "out" themselves as depressives. This wasn't a trend, like goth, but even the BBC News team found this hard to grasp. I remember a researcher asking us if anyone could tell him of any records other than the Manics which reflected this new "culture of despair". We couldn't help him so he dashed down to Tower Records and that evening the news gravely intoned, as evidence for this "new" development in pop music, that The Smiths had made a record called "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and that there was a group called Suicidal Tendencies.
In April, in an effort to make some sense of what was going on, The Maker ran a debate featuring rock musicians, journos and articulate fans like Gill Armstrong.
"The problem is that people don't think mental illness is real," she said. "They think it's fake, an excuse..."
The remaining three members of the Manics, meanwhile, kept well out of the spotlight, quietly waiting and hoping.
It wasn't until the turn of the year that they reappeared, as a three-piece, supporting The Stone Roses at Wembley Arena.
Perhaps because of the wave of sympathy about Richey, perhaps because they'd finally found the big, crossover MOR rock belter they'd been looking for, The Manics had a Number Two hit in April with "A Design For Life". Inspired by a slogan above a lending library set up in 1904 by miners in Newport - "Libraries Gave us Power" - it contained themes close to James' heart and his lungs rose to the occasion.
Two months later, Taylor Parkes met Nicky and James. Nicky, who had been closest to Richey, had been treated for stress following his disappearance. Taylor Parkes observed that "a light seemed to have gone out of him" as he discussed his "lack of ambition" Nicky came across as resentful of those who sought to create a Cult Of Richey and even faintly resentful of Richey himself:
"In 1994, I was starting to grow away from Richey. He came out of The Priory, full of this 12-point recovery programme and all that shit and he just wasn't the same person anymore as far as I was concerned..."
"I don't want to disappoint people, I but wrote most of the words to "La Tristresse Durera", "Roses In The Hospital" - all those words are mine..."
"Richey got so sick of anorexics coming up and offering him f***ing peaches. I'm not suggesting all these people are fakes. But I think a lot of them are selling themselves short. And they need to be told..."
"I've got memories of Richey that people wouldn't even want to know - Richey coming round to my house and playing on the Sega, this time in a bar in Portugal when he started doing the moonwalk in front of all these people and remember thinking, he's not tortured tonight, he's pissed."
However, try as he might to demythologise Richey, he couldn't hide his emotional scars.
"Playing live is difficult. I remember supporting Oasis at Maine Road, during the introduction to 'From Despair To Where' looking over to where Richey would have been standing swigging a bottle of whisky and there was no one there. And when we came offstage I virtually had a breakdown, I was just crying hysterically for about three hours, like a twat. The first time I'd been able to cry since they found his car."
James, meanwhile had taken solace in becoming, in his own words, a "lad about town". But a residual, working-class puritanism had prevented him from embracing the Groucho Club scene completely.
"It never interested me. Where I come from, I've been in stomach-churning fights, but even that doesn't turn my stomach as much as some of the things I see in London. The perpetuation of certain privileges, certain forms of so-called 'intelligence'."
The Manics' fourth album, "Everything Must Go", featured some lyrics by Richey, such as his "Kevin Carter" but had the feel of a band who, by dint of their clear-eyed integrity and determination had, if not actually banished their demons, at least managed to hold them in a half-nelson.
The band's fortitude earned them the sort of commercial and critical plaudits that had eluded them while Richey was still around. Old Manics fans furiously encamped themselves in opposition to "new" Manic fans who chanted laddishly along to the chorus of "We only want to get drunk" from "A Design For Life". One old fan declared he wasn't a Manics devotee now he felt they were benefiting from a post-Richey "sympathy vote".
The band seemed less troubled by this. Come June 1997 and the Maker met a Nicky Wire basking in the glory of "Everything Must Go" having won both the Maker's readers and writers' end-of-
year polls. "Melody Maker's always been the bastion of our true weirdos...
Yet we were faintly aghast at the newer, mellower Nicky, who used the Trevor Brooking-esque phrase, "At the end of the day", who no longer wore mascara, who now lived a life of utter, deliberately conventional domesticity, married, mowing the lawn, watching the darts, who refused to slag off other bands, "In case I meet them at festivals", who actually praised the lyrics of The Beautiful South's Paul Heaton, regretting the callousness of such early Manics lyrics as, "I laughed when Lennon got shot".
As for Richey, he commented, mistily, "It's not a blind hope or anything. I genuinely think that Richey's still out there...
Whether the Manics have mellowed/fattened/softened up, the next album will tell. I suspect not. The new single has brought up the usual Bryan-Adams-with-attitude accusations, but that's nothing new. The Manics were never interested in pushing back the sonic peripheries of the indie avant-garde but in occupying centre-stage. Like them or not, you have to acknowledge that there has never been a band like The Manics. Guns 'N'Roses, The Clash, Joy Division, the Pistols, none of them matched the Manics' all-consuming, unflinching nihilist visions that were coupled with a unique puritanical strength that gave the lie to their junkyfslut-style self-loathing, which persuaded that despair was something you could finally get past.
Perhaps the main reason why they've always connected is that in a world where pop has mutated into a morass of clever-cleverness and all kinds of weird, interesting mutations, the Manics have pulled off the trick of being the least stupid, yet also the least ironic, band in Britain.
4 Real, indeed...