James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers blew our minds at last year's London Acoustic Guitar Show with his impassioned performance. Acoustic asks the great man how he did it.
The career of the Manic Street Preachers has enjoyed a unique arc in the two decades and more since they emerged into the public eye. The music media has generally adhered to one of several blanks clichés when describing them, and why not? That's what we hacks do.
However Manics singer James Dean Bradfield manages to confound pretty much all of said clichés with today's solo acoustic performance at London's Olympia. He is no longer the gobby Welsh anarchist who came out of the blocks in 1990, promising to sell huge numbers of albums and then vanish along with his eyeliner-toting, Guns N' Roses-adoring bandmates. His stage slot certainly doesn't resemble the stadium-sized productions which the Manics'shows became a few years later. But what he does do, with great ease, is remind us what solid songwriters he and his band (bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore) have been since day one.
We meet James after his set. He's tired, the result of a broken night's sleep courtesy of his young daughter, and he looks a bit harassed and glum. Ask about the performance, and how he prepared for it though and he perks right up.
"You know," he ponders, "when I was thinking about what songs to play today, I picked some from The Holy Bible, because it's the 20th anniversary of that album this year [in 2014, when interviewed]. I was looking back at the album and how I wrote it and surprisingly it turned out that I wrote most of the songs on acoustic. You would assume that it was all done on electric, because a lot of the songs have a lot of riffs But no, most of it was done on acoustic."
The Holy Bible, one of the Manics' most revered albums, isn't what you'd call an easy listen - but it is a deep one. The challenging lyrics of songs such as 'Of Walking Abortion', 'Die In The Summertime and '4st 7lb' epitomised the bleakness of the band's worldview back in those days, and what's more, those emotions were often accompanied by the full roar of an electric band. How did James find the process of taking those songs back to acoustic guitar?
"It wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be," he replies. "There's one or two songs in there which are exclusively acoustic anyway, but most of them are songs which I've taken back to the source of how they were written on the acoustic. Take a song like 'Faster' off The Holy Bible: there's a dissonant riff in A going all the way through it, and that just came from playing a chord. You can play the chord and hear the notes in there, then take the chord apart and play the riff that you hear in the chord, so I just go back to playing the chord that you actually hear the riff in, if you know what you mean."
As for riffs, the mainstay of the Manics' bigger songs, then as now, would they translate onto the acoustic? "For me, it wouldn't feel right to sit and play a riff on an acoustic guitar in front of a crow," he demurs. "Take something like 'Motorcycle Emptiness predominantly there is a riff in there, I'll try and play that riff within the chord. It'll be an echo of the riff within the chords. In fact, if a song's ever been based on a riff, you can usually find the riff in the chord itself. It's fairly easy to take it back to the source. Its kind of strange, I admit!"
With all that said, sometimes there are songs that simply don't translate from the electric to the acoustic guitar. Too much raucous clangour, too many layers of energy... James agrees. "Yes, there are a few songs like that. Take 'P.C.P.', another one off The Holy Bible. It's just one of those songs where there are very few chords in there. They're Barre chords with a dropped D string in it, and those don't really work with an acoustic. I dropped it in the first place because you need the chugging power of the electric guitar in that song to actually make it work. Also that song just has too many words for me to sing I'd need a can of oxygen by the side of the stage if I wanted to sing it. I also wanted to play Archives Of Pain' - which is a real party piece, as you can tell from the title - but it just felt wrong."
Ah, but James's songs haven't always been vitriolic or depressing. In fact, a particular acoustic performance comes to mind that is quite the opposite. Readers of a certain age may remember a performance by James on Chris Evans' TV show TFI Friday in 1996, where he sat down in front of a crowd of lagered-up onlookers (including chat show hosts Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, surreally) to deliver a heartstopping performance of 'Last Christmas' by Wham!, George Michael's erstwhile pop duo. You can revisit the startlingly young-looking singer's performance on YouTube or pick it up on the Manics' rarities album from 2003, lipstick Traces.
Perhaps James's choice of cover version shouldn't come as surprise. The 80s was great for pop singles, after all, and you only have to mention a certain spandex-clad rock band to pique his interest on the subject of songs reinterpreted on acoustic guitars. Readers of an even more advanced vintage will remember GNR Lies, a half-live, half-acoustic album released in 1988 by Guns N'Roses, a record which James is keen to discuss.
"GNR Lies was the clue as to what made Guns N' Roses such a great rock n roll band," he tells us. "They were the metal band that reclaimed metal as a genre from whammy bars and hair and having palm trees painted on your guitars. It was the clue as to why they were different."
He adds: "You could tell that they were students of old, Exile On Main Sreet-era Stones and that they'd really understood that Gram Parsons, Rolling Stones rock n' roll lineage. The acoustic guitars were such an essential part of what they did, not like bands like Warrant or whoever, who came before them and never touched upon those things. You could tell that GNR weren't just a metal band, they were a rock n' roll band. They embraced that acoustic side of rock n' roll from the start. You could tell they were different right from the start."
Asked which guitars he was using at the LAGS, James explains "I've been playing a couple of Cole Clarks, and I've got a Taylor that I constantly take on the road. They're a bit more snub-nosed in their sound, but if you really work them, they're brilliant. They have a more earthy quality to their sound than Martins or Taylors. They're really underrated in my opinion. I'm terrible at model numbers, though, I really am...Strings? Well, I practised for this show for a couple of days and I've been using 10s. They feel different on your fingers, but I'm not so much of a navel-gazer that I worry about that. I'd get kicked out of the band if I was!"
It's clear that the acoustic guitar enjoys a place close to the heart of the Manic Street Preachers. As James concludes, "What was that Keith Richards quote about the acoustic guitar? Its the beautiful thing that fills the gap between the left speaker and the right speaker. And it you don't use the acoustic guitar to give you that platform to sing over, you might as well not have it."