With a hit single. a new album and a tour lined up, the Manic Street Preachers are closer than ever to mainstream success. But the unexplained disappearance last year of guitarist Richey Edwards hangs over the band like a shadow. Bassist Nicky Wire talks to Toby Manning.
Rock 'n' roll has always been about spectacle. and no band has understood this better than the Manic Street Preachers. liver since they crashed onto the scene in late 1990 with the incendiary 'Motown Junk'. these childhood friends from Blackwood. South Wales have combined raw, visceral rock 'n' roll with an incisive ability to mock and deconstruct the entire spectacle. With their strutting. preening. glam-tart image. their no-holds—barred onstage destructiveness and their knack for the headline-grabbing statement ('all rock is homosexual'; 'I hope Michael Stipe dies of Aids soon'). The Manics were a journalist‘s wet dream.
If that had been all. The band could never have struck the kinetic chord they did with the fans. Not only were their songs searing, anthemic and melodic, but, for all their knowingness, the band's intensity was genuine. Ever stroppy and contradictory. the Manic Street Preachers played up to the spectacle for all it was worth and, as lyricist/bassist Nicky Wire says, tried to "subvert it from within".
But just as the band were admitting in early 1994 that they'd been naive to think they could control their major-label masters, so were there signs that the Manics weren't so much playing with the slobbering. drunken. self-destructive rock ‘n' roll spectacle. as being consumed by it.
"We'd always been attracted to that." says lyricist/bassist Nicky Wire. "If you came into our houses when we were teenagers, we all had the same books and records, and we were all attracted to alcoholics, drug—addicts and suicide in a kind of romantic way. Between the four of us, I always thought something would happen - from the first time we played a gig. We were all so intense. It‘s the same with a lot of the great bands. We thought we were in control. but after Thailand [May 1994] we realised we were in a bit of trouble."
But the portents were there much earlier. When lyricist/guitarist Richey Edwards slashed the words ‘4 Real' into his forearm in 1991 the NME had a brilliantly rock 'n' roll moment for its cover, but the incident should have sounded an early warning. Perhaps those lyrics regularly invoking alienation, despair, loneliness and suicide were not just required rock 'n' roll attitude. Perhaps, as Richey had proclaimed, they were ‘4 Real'. Then, in summer 1994, events took another queasy lurch when Richey was hospitalised for depression, alcoholism, anorexia...and self-mutilation. His interviews when he re-emerged made for voyeuristically fascinating reading, but were also depressing and disturbing. What price the rock 'n' roll spectacle?
"We didn't want to be doing what we were doing," says Nicky of that period. "The media sluts thing had gone too far. You always feel you've got something more. For me it was pissing off back to Wales." And for Richey? "He just couldn't walk it anymore. Especially after he stopped drinking. That was the only thing left he enjoyed."
By February 1995, Richey was gone, his car abandoned at a notorious suicide spot. No word has been heard since. "I thought I knew him better than anyone, but I never thought he’d disappear." says Nicky. "Perhaps I didn't know him as well as I thought. The fact is he's done what he wanted to do — whether he's a sewage farmer or whatever, he obviously felt he had to do it." These are not the words of someone who thinks his best friend is dead. "My head tells me he is, but my heart tells me he's alive. Perhaps it's just wishful thinking."
For all this, the band have struggled on, attempting to put 'the Richey thing', as singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield puts it, behind them. When the single ,A Design For Life, entered the charts at number two, they knew they had succeeded. But there's also a strong sense that much of the interest in the band is precisely founded on 'the Richey thing', that the shadow his worldview, his personality. and — most of all — his disappearance has cast over the Manics has given them depth, 'human interest', and that rock 'n' roll romance Nicky talks about. After all, cynics mutter, suicide or elaborate fakery. you can‘t take the rock 'n' roll spectacle any further.
For the Manics themselves. such an idea sticks in the throat — it’s their lives we're talking about here, their friend, not rock 'n' roll myth— making. "I'm quite proud of the fact we've reached something of a peak," says Nicky, "but it‘s bittersweet — always tainted with sadness because of Richey." But he's enjoyed the controversy their brilliant video has caused, its violent imagery earning it an MTV ban: "We've still got that kind of anger in us, that desire to be censored and hated," he admits. "We still want to subvert from within."
These days, the Manic Street Preachers' stage act is notably muted — a gap left where Richey used to stand, for which even James's newfound stage mobility doesn't fully compensate. "There were times in our career when we've been the most exciting live band ever," says Nicky sadly, "but now, you look over and realise Richey's not there." These days they dress down, the makeup is gone, there's no guitar-smashing, and even the once combustible Nicky Wire stands stock-still, rocking on his heels, eyes blissfully shut, the only man in rock who can mouth the words of songs onstage without it being corny.
Writing without Richey is a lonely experience: "Richey was such a researcher, that was amazingly stimulating because he consumed so much. I'm a bit of a lazy bastard. Every day we'd talk about something we'd read, something we'd seen — it was quite telepathic. That's when I really miss him - just talking — like your best mate, just talking about everything under the sun. It's not about the band so much, that's what no one seems to understand, it’s the personal thing. For four years we've all been totally obsessed with each other. It was like going out together. Everyone else had girlfriends, we had each other. We were sad bastards really."
Richey"s absence makes for a lyrically more positive world view on the excellent new album Everything Must Go — except on the few songs to which he contributed. It also affects the music - not because he was ever integral in that department (it's said he barely played on the records), but because of the subduing, even mellowing effect his disappearance has had on the band. The new album is lushly produced, featuring keyboards, strings and trumpets (courtesy of drummer Sean Moore). Its pop sound is a long way from the desolate musical landscape of The Holy Bible. "The music is meant to be a bit more uplifting," says Wire, though the Manics will never lose their punky, abrasive quality, and there are still tracks which make for distinctly uneasy listening.
It's a strange kind of success the Manic Street Preachers have achieved, particularly in the light of their early career plans for world domination. Success has come without Richey, maybe even because of Richey's disappearance, with the band consequently shorn of the spite and strutting arrogance that once defined them. As a result. it's hard not to read the current single's plaint about the working class's self—destructive tendencies as a rejection of the rock 'n' roll spectacle that took such a toll upon the band: as the setting of a new agenda — a design for life.