From punk defiance to aspirations of stadium rock stardom Max Bell charts the rise and rise of Manic Street Preachers as they release their fifth album
When they released Generation Terrorists in 1992, the Manic Street Preachers were full of punk defiance. The four boys from Blackwood, a mining community in Gwent, were already notorious thanks to singles like Suicide Alley, New Art Riot and Repeat. While the baggy movement burnt itself out, the aptly named Preachers used the music press to rubbish the sacred cows of the music business, Sex Pistols style. Their declared ambition was to outsell Guns n' Roses' Appetite For Destruction and then split up. Like the Clash, they probably meant it at the time, and it made for good off-the-cuff copy. Later it transpired that one of the Manics was prepared to turn an idle boast into reality.
Richey Edwards, the Manics' kohl-eyed "Think Tank" and "Minister of Propaganda" disappeared on 1 February 1995. The lipstick glamour of early days when the four school friends perched together on the top of a bunk bed discussing existentialism, Dylan and Springsteen was gone for him; drudgery had set in.
Deeply affected by the death of the band's manager Philip Hall, increasingly disenchanted with touring and promotion, Edwards suffered anorexia followed by a nervous breakdown and spent a stint in a nursing home for the mentally unstable where he was pumped full of zombie drugs.
When he did come back to the fold his old spark was gone.
Edwards' car, a very un-rock and roll Vauxhall Cavalier, was found by the Severn Bridge, but his body was never recovered from the swirling currents below, nor was any suicide note discovered. When Edwards's parents got into his flat his passport and cash were lying on a table, the remains of a meal left in the kitchen.
Three police forces and a private investigator spent months looking into Richey's disappearance yet uncovered nothing. The case remains on file, but since he was of relatively sound mind and had not committed a crime, he seems destined to remain in limbo.
According to Nicky Wire, the Manics' bass player who inherited Edwards's mantle as lyricist for the group, Richey's unsolved departure "was more Reginald Perrin than Lord Lucan. I still think he'll turn up on the doorstep". Mention of suicide produces a prickly response.
Stories that Richey has been spotted busking in Goa seem highly unlikely.
Edwards had a way with words but he was a hopeless musician and he certainly wasn't a candidate for a year-round suntan in a hippy haven. He's more likely to be in Patagonia.
The warning signs were already visible. At the onset of their career, Edwards stunned NME journalist Steve Lamacq, who raised the question of the band's integrity, by producing a razor blade and carving 16 cuts onto his forearm that spelled "4 Real". The first cut was the deepest, a horrendous flesh wound that made Sid Vicious's self-mutilatory episodes look like child's play.
In a BBC 2 documentary filmed for the current Close Up series, Lamacq ponders the question everyone has asked him ever since: why didn't you stop him?
Such was Edwards's quiet charisma and resolve, Lamacq still can't find the answer.
It's only a short step between the Manics' well-publicised paranoia, what one commentator in the film calls their "hate and desire", and Spinal Tapesque absurdity. Rock music thrives on pretension and voyeurism. In person the band are nothing like that.
Nicky Wire, singer James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore come across as likable, polite, eloquent working-class men in their late twenties who aspire to the stadium-filling power of groups like U2 - something Edwards would never have contemplated and have the audience to make that dream a reality.
To an extent they are unusual rather than extraordinary.
They're ageing well and adolescent angst can't last forever.
Wire even expresses annoyance at the "number of Brit pop bands who want to react against their success. For me, playing gigs like Nynex in Manchester were absolutely euphoric - just to think that there are that many people you can influence.
Whether you can or not is beside the point. But just to get that feeling of empowerment - I feel like it's worth carrying on. At the moment, we're more relevant than ever."
Next Monday, the Manics release their fifth album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. Virtually certain to go to number one immediately, presales suggest it will easily eclipse its predecessor, the Brits and Brats-winning Everything Must Go.
An often thrilling and focused piece of work with a commercial, traditionally polished sound that's closer to Queen than Radiohead, This Is My Truth borrows its title from a speech by National Health Service pioneer and Welsh hero Aneurin Bevan. Wire contributes all the lyrics: songs about the Spanish Civil War, the nature of the Welsh countryside and national poverty, and a heartfelt polemic about Hillsborough.
Overwrought, pretentious in places - well, this is the Manics - the album contains three songs addressed to the missing Edwards, one of which Nobody Loved You - is almost a plea for him to return to Blackwood, if only for the sake of his parents and sister Rachel, who are still fielding cruel hoax calls.
"I think about him every day," says Wire. "He's always with us on stage whether he's with them - the audience - I don't give a shit." But, of course, he does.