Manic Street, it seems, is no cul-de-sac for 'pop's beautiful losers'. Adam Sweeting on how a rock quartet lost its illusions
THE Manic Street Preachers have cast themselves as pop's beautiful losers.
As they tell it, if they had their way, their career would be one violent explosion leaving them splattered like pizza across rock's yellowing canvas. "We've got a new song called Condemned To Rock 'n' Roll," says bass-player Nicky Wire. "There's a line which goes, 'The past is so beautiful, the future like a corpse in snow.' That is how we see our future. We just want to be nailed to history as soon as we can."
The quartet developed their romantic, morbid obsession with rock's faded glam as they grew up together in Blackwood, South Wales. They appear to have spent most of their teens hanging around together at lead singer/guitarist James Bradfield's house, which he shared with his cousin Sean Moore, now the Manics' drummer.
The only bands which played in the neighbourhood were the likes of Close Lobsters or the Wedding Present. Duly uninspired, the proto-Manics responded by ransacking the past for inspiration. In the incestuous inner world of Preacherdom, the Pistols and The Clash were stirred in with the Stones and the Who. They raided Hanoi Rocks and Johnny Thunders for their rebel togs and die-young chic. Mishima, Greil Marcus, and the Situationists provided texts to study and names to drop.
"People always ask, were you outsiders at school, were you really weird?" says guitarist Richey Edwards, in his soft Valleys accent. "No, we just stayed in our bedrooms and watched TV. We never had anything else to do." "We just really loved the past," Nicky explains. "We made no effort to make other friends because we felt so happy with each other."
The Manics have blossomed into something that portions of the media find hard to handle. The music papers have detected little more than pathetic punk copyists, hicksville Taffs drowning in their own laughable pretensions. After Richey carved "4 REAL" on his arm with a razor during an interview with the NME, they were sucked on to an escalator where ever-greater outrage was demanded. When they did interviews with the Japanese press, faxes whizzed back from Sony, their Japanese parent company, saying: "Please tell the band, be more obnoxious."
The Preachers now believe they've fallen foul of a bigoted, middle-class press. "The journalists want to create their own little working class playthings to build up and destroy," spits Nicky. (He can't possibly mean the Guardian.) "They don't understand that working class people can have sensitivity."
Of the arm-carving episode, Richey explains: "People should realise what the level of violence is like in most people's lives. It's sad that working class resentment is always turned on itself; nobody seems to realise that."
The Preacher package bristles with contradictions. Why does a group, obsessed with testing itself to well-publicised destruction, make no bones about its cravings for multi-million record sales and long-term American success? What explains theirtransformation? Shouldn't their debut album, Generation Terrorists, be an apocalyptic suicide note instead of a rock record containing carefully wrought hit singles?
It seems that in their Welsh exile the Preachers believed too much of what they read in the papers; even as late as the mid-eighties, they became convinced that rock was a crucible for grand ideals and epic gestures. Then they came to London. "We went down to the Underworld one night," Richey recalls, more in sorrow than in anger. "It was unbelievable. There were, like, five bands and loads of journalists, all drinking at the same tables. We were naive, but we never thought there would be that really close level of friendship. With most of the cool bands, you know the same people are gonna write about them all the time . . . We just get people who really detest us."
Nicky: "It was a sad time when we came up here and realised how small and ghettoised everything is. There wasn't one figure who was larger than life."
Still, the group were careerist enough to regard independent labels as a dead end, and soon they were down at Soho Square haggling with Columbia.
Richey: "The whole indie mentality that grew up from punk onwards just seemed so bullshit to us, because the most subversive, really important group in the world were Public Enemy, and they were on Columbia. The level of corruption on an indie label is just on a smaller scale."
The Preachers have a lot of collective mouth, and they'll have to change a million minds to make their "manifesto" work. But Generation Terrorists is a much better album than many sceptics expected. If they ever make it to football stadiums and platinum discs, they will be laughing all the way to the Bahamas.