When Richey Edwards disappeared, everyone assumed the Manic Street Preachers would go with him. But four years on, they have converted their brand of anthemic, socialist rock into platinum sales and an unprecedented haul of Brit awards. Simon Hills goes on tour with Wales's rock and roll radicals.
At 10 o'clock in the evening, in a Tokyo hotel room, Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire takes delivery of his post-gig rock and roll pizza. With the ear-shattering chords of the final song still echoing around the auditorium, he had sidestepped the band dressing room, slipped into a waiting minibus, and made straight for the hotel. The remnants of make-up smeared across his eyelids are the only indication that half an hour previously he had been pumping out the thundering bass riffs that have made his group one of the most anthemic live bands in the world.
If the adrenalin normally associated with such performances is still coursing through his body, Wire isn't going to wind down with the customary binge of whisky and class A drugs tonight, or any other night. "I've tidied my room up, I'm in my pyjamas, I've cleaned my teeth, I've gargled, I've put myself to bed," he says.
The co-author of such torch-bearing rock and roll anthems as Design for Life, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next and The Everlasting will shortly settle down with a biography of Ted Hughes - "I've always had a big problem with understanding him, but Birthday Letters was so beautiful I thought I'd try and make an effort" - or a book on Wales's only foray into the later stages of the World Cup in 1952 which lie next to the bed.
For a man who exercises so much rock and roll posturing on stage, Wire is softly spoken, intelligent and exceedingly polite. This he puts down to his working-class upbringing in the mining town of Blackwood, near Merthyr Tydfil. For the same reason, his room is scrupulously tidy.
"One of the nicest things anyone ever said to me, when we were staying in this nice hotel doing a photoshoot in north Wales, was when the maid came in and said, 'You've got a lovely room. I didn't even have to make it up it was so tidy'," he recalls. "I still find the rock and roll side of this and the mythology attractive, it's just not something we do. We have never written graffiti in our dressing room. You go to clubs around the world and the dressing rooms are full of graffiti and bands drawing pictures of arses and so on. We've never in our lives scribbled anything, and it just about sums us up, really. It's how we've been brought up. There's always something that keeps you from being obnoxious."
It's not the impression the Manic Street Preachers gave in the beginning. At the end of the glamour-obsessed, high living Eighties, four school friends from Blackwood were watching videos of the Clash and glam-rock bands such as Hanoi Rocks, parading around town in make-up and women's clothes. They were intense, arrogant and angry. While London was guzzling champagne on the back of the service industry boom, and Manchester was going crazy on a diet of all-night raves and Ecstasy, they were living in the shadow of the 1984 miners' strike and chronic unemployment.
Nicky Wire and guitarist Richey Edwards were good-looking, naturally academic, pouting idealists, now down the road at Swansea University. Guitarist and singer James Dean Bradfield and his cousin, drummer Sean Moore, were getting to grips with their instruments, honing a sound that blended punk and hard rock.
The four of them came to London in 1990, all sunglasses and fake fur, Valley Boy arrivistes who pronounced that they were going to be the biggest, most important rock and roll band in the world. Armed with a welter of ideological references and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the music press, they possessed a shocking self-belief and contrariness.
"We had to, because some of our points were so ridiculous amid that sea of drug taking and obsession with designer labels," says James Dean Bradfield, the next day, relaxing in combat fatigues and T-shirt on a hotel room sofa. "The only way to make the point we were trying to make was to get noticed and people to think, what a daft bunch of wankers. At the start all our energy was derived from being hated."
They found a manager in the form of former music journalist Philip Hall, and the four of them spent six months dossing on the floor of his west London flat. Within months - just as the precocious Welshmen had always believed - their thrashy, spirited singles started insinuating their way into the charts. Motown Junk struggled to 92, You Love Us got to number 64, while Stay Beautiful reached the giddy heights of number 40. Their debut album Generation Terrorists charted at number 13 in early 1992 - but they still felt they resided on the wrong side of the music industry tracks.
A second album, Gold Against The Soul, was released in 1993. By this time Richey Edwards was becoming more and more disturbed. He was burning with frustration at not being taken as seriously as he thought the band deserved, and pronounced gloomily that "there's something about human nature which always reduces life to a routine". That frustration had already famously spilled over in 1991 when, while being interviewed after a gig in Norwich by the Radio 1 DJ Steve Lamacq, who was then working for the New Musical Express, he carved the slogan "4 Real" on his forearm with a razor blade as the journalist looked on in disbelief. Lamacq recalls being so mesmerised by what Edwards was saying as he mutilated his arm that it didn't occur to him to try to put a halt to it. It might have been the ultimate rock and roll statement, but it characterised an obsessive misanthropy that was to afflict him throughout his adult life. After the release of Gold Against The Soul, Hall died of lung cancer in December 1993. "Philip was the first person who understood us," the band said in a statement to Melody Maker. "He was more than a manager. Without his help, motivation and generosity, it is doubtful whether we would have carried on."
As they rehearsed for what would be one of the darkest albums in rock and roll - The Holy Bible - with songs about anorexia, abortion and Auschwitz, Edwards, by now smoking 60-plus cigarettes a day, started cutting himself again and wound up in Cardiff clinic. On December 21, 1994, they played London's Astoria. The explosive set finished with the group, in time-honoured fashion, smashing up their instruments on stage. It was the last show Edwards was to play.
He should have turned up to go on a tour of the US with Bradfield to promote the new album. When he didn't show, the group and everyone around him went on a search. On Valentine's Day 1995, Edwards's Vauxhall Cavalier was found abandoned by the Severn Bridge. The disappearance was, Nicky Wire sardonically asserted in a documentary last year, "more Reggie Perrin than Lord Lucan". Although his body has never been found, it is now generally accepted that he committed suicide.
After "a terrible period" when, Wire recalls, every time he missed a phone call he thought it might relate to Richey, the group have reached a peace after the deaths of Edwards and Hall. "It's taken a while to reach that level of calm," Bradfield has said. "But there's no anger, no resentment, no bitterness, no fear. I know what I feel and they're all good, warm feelings. I've no complex in me about Richey whatsoever."
Since the group reformed after what looked to be, even by rock and roll standards, a shattering demise, their rise has been remarkable. Ayear after Edwards's disappearance, the band were at number two in the singles chart with A Design for Life, a state-of-the-nation socialist anthem. A month later the album that contained it, Everything Must Go, reached the same position.
"I think people see that we've had to struggle on under the weight of our own creation," says James Dean Bradfield. "By that I mean the ongoing myth of Richey. They've seen us struggling on through tragedy and loss, and that we didn't bottle it in the heat of that scrutiny post-Richey. I think people see it as blue-collar heroism. I don't like the equation too much. Heroics always involve matters of the heart over the head a bit too much for me."
The Manic Street Preachers have trod a path that is almost unthinkable in the Nineties, where bands are expected to recoup a record company investment as quickly as possible. They learnt their craft in dingy clubs around the world, building up more and more fans and selling more and more records. As a three-piece, ironically, they have moved nearer to their goal of being the biggest rock and roll group in the world than they ever did as a four-piece with the headlines that surrounded Richey James wherever the group landed. At the 1997 Brits Awards, the group won Best British Group and Best British album, for Everything Must Go, and last month, they repeated that success by winning the same awards - this time for the album This is My Truth Tell Me Yours (a line taken from an Aneurin Bevan speech). Like its predecessor, it is working its way towards a million sales in the UK.
The achievement is a first. The awards were received, of course, with neither gaping smiles nor rebellious, naughty-boy sloganeering but with thanks to the band's families, the four members of the Clash circa 1977 and Steve Ovett. Nicky Wire skipped on one side of the rostrum while the other two collected the award.
Obviously the band are taking a satisfaction from the achievement and typically it is a grim satisfaction. Ask any of the three Manics, and they'll tell you that This Is My Truth falls short of their ideal. "I like the idea of coming to the end of a logical road," says Bradfield. "Yukio Mishima is one of my favourite authors. It's not his suicide I'm obsessed with. We've got enough reference points there. I like the fact that he was coming to the end - he knew that he was working on his last novel. He knew that was the sum of everything he'd ever done. I like the fact that he saw the end of the road. I like to feel that you do follow your years out and you do get your answer in the end."
So he sees the Manic Street Preachers ending up with an oeuvre? "Yeah," he says emphatically.
The obsession with authors has long been one of the defining aspects of the group. Right at the beginning Richey Edwards proclaimed that they "wanted to be so intelligent, we'd never get beaten". Nicky Wire now recalls their past entrenched not so much in their rock and roll sloganeering but the solid working-class upbringing and their love of books. The disappearance of Richey, he admits, left the rest of the group to be proud of their roots, to pull away from the excessive, melodramatic urges of their youth.
While he's obsessed with the dynamics of rock and roll, he says that even if the band were to have graffitied a wall it would have been a "French slogan". His contemporaries such as the Happy Mondays and now Oasis, he concedes, are a "bit more council estate".
"When you grow up you want to run away, especially when you're artistic," he says. "But then you realise certain stuff about that community. My dad always had loads of books and the institutes were the universities of the valleys. Everything was free, every miner paid a quid into the building. I'm not from the generation of every town having a pit. But when you think they all gave money, they had a cinema, a library, swimming baths. And now every one of them's gone."
On the B-side of the Manic Street Preachers' new single You Stole the Sun From My Heart (to be released on Monday) is a song Socialist Serenade -Wire writes all the band's lyrics - a resolutely Old Labour lament calling for a commitment to education. "If the policy they've got now was the policy they had when I was around, I might not even have gone to university," laments Wire. "It's really about abolishing grants. Everything else they've done hasn't surprised me, but the Tories would never had done that, it would have caused too much of an outcry. Having said that, I think it's a better climate to live in than under the Tories. It doesn't feel so bad."
The band have admitted that their contemporary heroes are the likes of Benn, Skinner and Prescott. Nicky Wire says that going into politics might yet be a possibility for him. What worries him, he says, is all the images of the past that might be brought up - "looking at the front cover of The Sun and there's a picture of me in a dress talking absolute bollocks. You think, 'How could I get out of that?'" He says that Peter Hain, the Welsh Office industry minister and MP for Neath, is a "really nice bloke". And he'd like to think that with the Welsh Assembly he might one day try being minister of sport or culture. "I wouldn't mind doing my bit," he says.
The idea is not as outlandish as it sounds. The Manic Street Preachers have tapped in to an audience for whom the slick pop of All Saints and Robbie Williams is anathema. Their mix of political rhetoric, emotional angst and rebel-rousing issue-based songs has elevated them to the stature of the likes of the Verve and Radiohead - rock bands for the tyro-intellectual. Their talent for sloganeering - their name itself is unforgettable - would go down well in the offices of spin at Millbank. Except for the fact that they are resolutely steeped in Old Labour values.
Their success owes itself to a mix of stoical British cynicism and a romantic idealism. Running through it is the extraordinary sense of self-belief that dissipates when most groups of their ilk gain similar success. Richey Edwards's "4 Real" laceration has taken on a new meaning. Although the band are now millionaires, the reality is that Wire lives in a Pounds 39,000 house with his wife, Rachel, and black labrador, Molly, a couple of miles from Blackwood; Bradfield lives in a modest west London flat, and Sean Moore in a housing estate near Bristol with his girlfriend of 14 years, Rhian. Moore admits to a liking for modern, high-tech gadgets, but the largesse of being in one of Britain's most successful rock bands is not just not flaunted - it's looked down upon.
"It's not that we've done anything extraordinary, or anything special or anything beyond our means," says Sean Moore. "We've achieved it just by doing what we do."
I ask him if that doesn't give him any satisfaction. "That's the thing, it doesn't," he replies. "For me, it's life. You get up in the morning, you wash, you put your clothes on, you eat.
"I never get too over-enthusiastic about anything because I always find it's very short-lived," he says. "I take things on face value and I take things as they come. When it's good, it's fantastic. But I never tend to dwell upon it, because it's in the past, it's gone. We've been through so much as a band, it's a very difficult thing to enjoy yourself."
Moore says that the band still has a lot to do. That they haven't broken big in America. That they expected Generation Terrorists to have been the biggest album in the world, and now they still feel like they're nowhere near the success they thought was their due when they started out. "It's like Groundhog Day - you keep going back to that first step all the time," he says.
But the fact remains that the first single from their latest album, If You Tolerate This - a song about the Spanish Civil War - sold 150,000 in its first week and went straight to the top of the singles charts. That's more than, say, Madonna or any of the current crop of boy bands shift.
In Nicky Wire's hotel room are a pile of gifts from Japanese fans. There's a book of cherry blossom trees, which relate to the lyrics of Nobody Loved You on the current album. There's a rare talking book of Jack Kerouac reading Mexico City Blues, a Van Gogh print and some Japanese books among the gifts stowed neatly in the corner of his room. (Of course, the group have steadfastly refused to have a fanclub, the whole notion running against their anti-hero ethos.) The gifts, most of which Wire says he will take home, are testament to the affection with which they are held by their fans. But the reason for their success is probably much more straightforward than these offerings suggest.
"We're a genuine old-fashioned rock and roll band," says Wire, "that deep down anybody can like."