Author Neil Collins has kindly forwarded the full, extended interview, huge thanks to Neil for allowing us to use his work
Manic Street Preachers’ lyricist and bassist Nicky Wire speaks with Neil Collins about the agony of second place, football songs and nostalgia.
IT’S APRIL 1996 and Manic Street Preachers are anxiously awaiting the chart position of their new single A Design For Life.
The song is bassist Nicky Wire’s most definitive summation of what the band are all about, and it encapsulates everything they’ve been trying to say since forming in Blackwood in the mid 80s.
Over the previous summer, Nicky spread two potential ideas across 20 pages of A4. One was entitled The Pure Motive (inspired by an episode of Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker about the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster), whilst the other was A Design For Life.
His words convey a heart-on-sleeve tribute to the resilience of the working class spirit in that no matter how much it’s cheated, manipulated and belittled, it will always fight back and prevail. These sentiments are reflective of the Manics too who – having suffered the loss of their manager Philip Hall to cancer in 1993 followed by the devastating disappearance of band-mate Richey Edwards just over a year later – are about to stage a miraculous comeback.
Furthermore, Nicky had felt patronised by Blur’s ubiquitous 1994 hit Girls & Boys (which revelled in the 18-30 lifestyle) and their caricatured version of “Parklife Britain” that painted working class people with sweeping strokes.
Beginning with the intriguing line “Libraries gave us power”, the Manics delighted their old fans just as much as they may have confused the new ones. Its thundering chorus of “We don’t talk about love / We only want to get drunk” would soon be sang back a little too literally by those jumping aboard the Manic Street Preachers bandwagon as well.
Yet, when Wire’s stinging lyric was married to the Morricone / Spector-esque waltz with strings that singer James Dean Bradfield had swirling through his mind, the end result was pure gold.
Reflecting 20 years later, Nicky still believes it’s the band’s finest moment: “I probably had that initial confidence even more than James did. The first time he sang it down the phone to me, and the first time we rehearsed it in a little rehearsal room in Cardiff (Sound Space Studios), everything just clicked into place. The drums. The strings. And “Libraries gave us power” is a really awkward first line to sing, but we were so confident with it.
“Guitar bands were selling so well at the time, so it meant that if we couldn’t do it with that song at that time, we were never going to do it. It was that magical moment where as a band we couldn’t quite believe it.”
Coupled with its slogan-heavy video, A Design For Life catapulted the Manics from being the UK’s biggest cult band into the wider mainstream consciousness.
With the rough mix in the bag by September 1995 and production finalised with a gorgeous string section added at Abbey Road around Christmas, the single was finally ready to test its mettle in April 1996. Most crucially, it was the band’s first release since the tragic disappearance of best friend and lyricist Richey Edwards, who vanished from London’s Embassy Hotel in February 1995 and was never seen again.
After the critically acclaimed but commercially problematic opus that was The Holy Bible, the Manics faced the very real possibility of being dropped by Sony. Therefore, after all the heartbreak the release of the Manics’ greatest song arrived at just the right time. Initially, A Design For Life stormed to the coveted No.1 slot, but its first week sales of 94,000 saw it agonisingly miss out on top spot by 7,000 to Mark Morrison. Yet, for the band it was a relief that they were still going and making such an impact; albeit tinged with such sadness.
“It does kind of hurt me that it wasn’t a No.1”, Nicky sighs. “But we’ve been plagued by it throughout our career with four No.2 albums and four No.2 singles. I think people remember A Design For Life more than Return of the Mack though!”
The Manics recently celebrated the magnificence of that single with its reissue on 12” vinyl for Record Store Day, and now they’re also set to release a deluxe version of its parent album Everything Must Go packed with B-sides, rarities and live tracks. Nicky won’t be swayed on revealing the curios they’re currently dusting off in studio rehearsals (“All top secret I’m afraid”), but he’s certainly looking forward to playing the album on the UK tour especially after the success of taking The Holy Bible on the road last year.
“It was massively hard work to play The Holy Bible,” he says. “I know that sounds a bit sad, but it’s such a riddle of an album to play live. It takes a load of concentration. There’s not much freedom to it, and you have to get into that mind-set and intensity whereas with Everything Must Go you can wallow in the glory of it. Its pores stretch out, and it gives you that uplifting melancholia that the Welsh are good at.”
The curtain comes down on the UK tour with a huge gig at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday 28 May. Despite vowing never to play in the city again after an infamous appearance at Singleton Park’s Heineken Festival in August 1993 when the band were heckled and pelted with bottles by a drunken crowd, Swansea generally holds treasured memories for Nicky.
“The magic of being in university there tumbling around with Richey, various nightclubs and pubs, kebab houses and Derrick’s Records. Playing at the Mandela (Swansea Students’ Union bar) and playing for the first time as a four-piece when Richey got onstage with us to do Sorrow 16. That was amazing. As was Brangwyn Hall when I belatedly got my degree presented in 2005. That gig really bought it home to us as a real shame that there was no venue there we could really play there, so that was one of the big things in doing the Liberty.”
Warming up the Swansea crowd will be Welsh legends the Super Furry Animals and London art-rock duo Public Service Broadcasting, whilst dark indie outfit Editors join the rest of the tour. Particularly since the Everything Must Go era, the Manics have been supported by a great mix of bands. There’s the Welsh ones including Stereophonics, Feeder and Catatonia; established but underappreciated acts like Mansun and Shack; and emerging talents in need of a helping hand up like Razorlight, The Enemy and Pretty Vicious. So, what’s the thinking behind the current trio sharing their stage?
“We took Public Service Broadcasting on tour of Europe as well and they’re a really interesting band, really tight and self-sufficient and lovely people. We love bands that are bursting with ideas so it’s great to have them.
“Obviously, the Furries are a no-brainer and they were up for it. It brought back memories of touring with them in ’96 when they supported us across Europe and at the CIA. And now they’re back together, it seemed the perfect way to celebrate.
“Editors too are a band we really like. Our paths have crossed over the years and it seemed like a really good fit.”
Whilst discussing support bands down the years, it’s impossible to not ask about Ian Brown, who was a solo support on the Forever Delayed greatest hits tour in December 2002. The Stone Roses frontman was evidently in an abrasive mood as he partook in a prolonged slanging match with the audience before cutting his set short on consecutive nights at Cardiff International Arena.
“I think Ian’s earned the right to be like that,” Nicky laughs. “I’ve always got on well with him and he did a great mix of Let Robeson Sing back in the day. When he was in Rockfield, he’d see James running up and down Kendon Hill, and obviously our first gig after Richey was supporting them at Wembley Arena.”
Following a 12-month hiatus from the stage, the Manics nervously emerged from the shadows as support act for the Stone Roses on 29 December 1995. Under unbearable scrutiny, the Manics aired five of their new songs. The tracks have certainly stood the test of time, but what does Nicky think of the album now? James recently stated that it was their best, narrowly ahead of The Holy Bible. Does he agree?
“I’ve got a massive soft spot for Send Away the Tigers and Postcards from a Young Man, but the balance lyrically on Everything Must Go probably gives it the edge. The social history infiltrates it and there’s the genius of Richey as well with Small Black Flowers and Kevin Carter. It’s probably the most balanced lyrical album, and then there’s the amazing music beneath it as well, so I’d probably go for it.”
Taking inspiration from a series of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, the album had the working title of Sounds in the Grass. However, it soon changed to Everything Must Go, which was the name of a play Nicky’s brother Patrick Jones was writing at the time. The twelve-track masterpiece would go on to win the Best Album accolades at the BRITS and NME Awards, and help secure the band a string of further prestigious prizes. But is there anything Nicky would change about it?
“I think there’s a case for Mr Carbohydrate being on there. It’s one of my favourite lyrics and there’s – dare I say it – a quaintness to it and a real Beatles vibe. Maybe Sepia as well. ‘These unwritten diaries that can never breathe’ - I love that line. I wouldn’t take anything off. As opposed to The Holy Bible, I’d definitely take She Is Suffering off.
“We were on a real hot streak then and I can think you can tell with our B-sides. Dead Trees and Traffic Islands, Horses Under Starlight, Mr Carbohydrate, Dead Passive. It felt like everything we were writing was magically unfolding before us without too much effort. A lot of our records take a lot of effort, but Everything Must Go didn’t.”
After a period of writer’s block, Nicky’s creative juices suddenly started flowing again and words were bursting out of him. With the record company gleefully sanctioning four singles (Everything Must Go, Kevin Carter and Australia all following A Design For Life), Nicky was tasked with writing more B-sides, which he pulled off with aplomb. One in particular evolved from a Cracker script he had drafted about a serial killer who dumped his victims on traffic islands.
“Dead Trees and Traffic Islands was a condensed version of a Cracker script I wrote, but like most things I write outside the band – my Doctor Who script, my Cracker script, trying to write my own book – I tend to look at after a while and think “This is shit!” That’s why I’ve got a lot of time for people who write. But the other stuff just isn’t up to the standard of my lyric writing.
“I’ve being trying to write my memoirs, but I don’t feel particularly comfortable doing it because I read it and I just don’t think it works. I’m not in any real rush to do that to be honest. Faber & Faber are, but I’m not!”
Another concept that didn’t come to fruition at the time was Richey’s idea that the band’s musical direction for the new album should be a merging of ‘Pantera meets Nine Inch Nails meets Screamadelica’. However, the feeling amongst the group was to become more uplifting and melodic as several demos recorded at House in the Woods studios in 1995 testified. Simply making The Holy Bible MK.II would’ve seen the band slip into self-parody.
“The Pantera thing wasn’t explored at all,” Nicky says. “Music just wasn’t me and Richey’s department, so you can come up with all these ideas in the world, but we had already written No Surface, Further Away and Small Black Flowers when he was still around. We all felt we didn’t want to do something as intense as The Holy Bible anyway.
“And none of our albums have been the same. Rewind the Film and Futurology were so different, and there’s not really much connection between Gold Against the Soul and The Holy Bible, if any. One is empty stadium rock and the other is post-punk intensity. We’ve always owed ourselves that.”
Thanks to his work with The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Manics had actually approached producer Mike Hedges to helm the decks for The Holy Bible. When they later discovered he had produced McAlmont & Butler’s epic 1995 hit Yes, there was only going to be one man for the job.
In September 1994, the Manics retreated to rural Normandy to Chateau de la Rouge Motte where Hedges owned a country house and studio. At this point the band wasn’t particularly famous in France, and away from the eyes of the UK media they were able to relax amongst beautiful surroundings. The internet still hadn’t boomed, and drummer Sean Moore was the only band member who owned a mobile phone, so the Manics were effectively ‘off the radar.’
The sessions were recorded on Hedges’ old wooden Abbey Road desk used by the likes of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Badfinger. After long, intensive hours of work, everyone clocked off and drank copious amounts of wine.
“Mike was so crucial to the whole record as a person, and not just as a producer,” Nicky recalls. “He was someone we really needed with us, and he was our George Martin for that period. He was someone you could trust like a father and yet he would have amazing ideas with compositions and engineering. And being in that chateau in France, it was one of those moments when the stars align. Everything felt really natural. We’re not the most natural of bands, but it did feel that way.
“I still love that McAlmont & Butler record, but I’m still annoyed they nicked my song title for Yes! Even though all the lyrics were Richey’s, the title was still mine. And ours has the better lyrics definitely. It’s a glorious record though. Mike also produced Baby, The Stars Shine Bright by Everything But the Girl, which is one of the greatest orchestrated records ever made, so that was a big factor as well.”
With the album ready for release, the Manics returned to the live circuit in March 1996 with their debut gig at the Cardiff International Arena supporting Oasis at their peak. It would be the first in a long and tumultuous tour around the UK and US including huge shows at Maine Road, Loch Lomond and era-defining gigs to 250,000 over two nights at Knebworth. Not only were the Manics reaching a massive new audience, but they could now take a back-seat to all the media attention which was now firmly focussed on the warring Gallagher brothers.
“They were some of the best of times,” says Nicky. “I was talking to Noel last year and it was only then we sat down and actually realised how many gigs we did together not just around the UK and Ireland, but all across America. And they were falling apart, and for once things were going well for us, and every week we’d get a good bit of news. We would be done by 8 o’clock each night and then we could sit back and watch them and enjoy the drama.
“But they were great to tour with, they treated us really well. It was a pleasure really. We’re cut from the same cloth and both have that vicious humour, and I think anyone who comes from the same background as us we find pretty easy to get on with.”
Spearheaded by Oasis, Blur and Pulp, Britpop was a key cultural movement throughout the mid 90s, which ushered guitar music into the mainstream and sold it by the bucketload. However, a glut of mediocre imitators deluged the market and it quickly become drunk on its own ego. By the time Noel visited No.10 Downing Street in 1997 and followed it up with the anti-climax that was Be Here Now, the last embers of Britpop had burnt out.
The Manics were co-opted into the Britpop movement, but its propensity for catchy yet unimaginative pop and cartoonish Britishness never sat well with them. Nevertheless, there was some great music and Wire would still prefer that time over the absolute blandness dominating today’s charts.
“There was a glorious period where there would be a record by us, or Radiohead, or Massive Attack or Oasis. But I don’t really feel any of them were Britpop bands. There was the real arse-end of stuff like Sleeper and other records, but it was a really open period; certainly lyrically.
“I think it was massively better than it is today. You’ve only got to look at songs about photographers killing themselves (Kevin Carter) and “Libraries gave us power” – that would not get into the charts now no matter who was singing it. People don’t want to hear anything like that. We were never part of Britpop, but it inspired kids to pick up guitars. It feels more than a lifetime ago that was possible though.”
Wire is adamant that Everything Must Go wouldn’t sell anywhere near as well today. Indeed there’s no band around like the Manics who put so much effort into their lyrics and literary influences, artworks and aesthetics, and spectacular soundbites. What new band can the youth of today fall in love with and have complete faith in?
“I can’t think of anyone,” he says. “I barely listen to music. I listen to Radio 4 because I find that so much more inspirational. There’s always records I love whether it’s Cate Le Bon’s new album or Bill Ryder-Jones. But it’s different to wanting to be in a band and trying to change something.”
Society now largely seems content with throwaway lyrics and music that doesn’t go into too much depth. In fact, it seems to reflect wider society’s apathy towards politics that councils are able to make cuts to the arts and close libraries with little public fightback.
“We live in such a post-political world of extremes, and it fills me with great sadness that politics has been taken out of my life. It’s something I really love and I obviously did my degree in Politics, but it just seems to have little or no relevance to wider society.
“Music has been taken away from me. Politics has been taken away from me. Radio and TV are still hanging in there in terms of the things I really enjoy. But I have to admit I feel powerless to do anything about it. I never felt like that before. Change is usually brought about by young people, and for me nearing 50 – as much as I feel the same way – I sadly feel powerless to influence anything any more. The band can remind people and give them a nudge, but really it’s up to the younger generation to fight for these things.”
Conversely, someone who is still raging against the machine at the age of 84 is Labour MP Dennis Skinner, who was thrown out of Parliament recently for his “Dodgy Dave” comments relating to the Prime Minister’s tax affairs. ‘The Beast of Bolsover’ joined the Labour Party in 1956 and has been an MP since 1970. As a staunch socialist and anti-monarchist, his forthright comments have seen him suspended on at least 10 occasions. Along with former NUM President Arthur Scargill, Skinner (an ex-miner himself) was an influence at the time of Everything Must Go, and they both continue to inspire.
“I was probably more Scargill than Skinner at that time,” says Nicky. “But what a great parliamentarian Dennis Skinner is. Fuck me, anyone who has kept the rage that long. ‘To stop aging, keep on raging’ as they say. At his age, that’s fucking phenomenal. Anyone who has still got an intellect and an anger is alright by me.
“I’ve got these two brilliant pictures of consecutive gigs where Kylie (Minogue) is in the dressing room, and then there’s Arthur Scargill. I think that summed up the Manics more than anything ever could!”
The miners’ strike of 1984-85 was a huge part of the band’s childhood and a major driving force inspiring them to succeed. In fact, Everything Must Go is dedicated to Tower Colliery in the Cynon Valley, which the Government had closed. Yet, the miners pooled together their redundancy money to buy the pit back off the Government for £1m. Within its first year it ran a £3m profit. You can’t imagine something like that motivating a band like Coldplay.
If the Manics’ debut album Generation Terrorists had been all about abandoning their valleys hometown to pursue the rock’n’roll dream, then Everything Must Go was the moment that the band reclaimed their national identity. Wire has often remarked that the sound of the album (and A Design For Life in particular) could only come from the South Wales valleys, and ever since the Welsh dragon has been draped over his amp.
One facet of Welshness that is making Wire immensely happy is the nation’s football team and he’s looking forward to watching the EUROs, but this time without the usual sense of detachment.
“I think if we get our best team on the pitch, we’re going to be really hard to beat and could get through to the second round or quarter-finals. Then anything can happen. But for the first time in my lifetime I can celebrate and sit back in the summer and think “God, we’re actually part of it all!”
The Manics will also be celebrating qualification with the release of the team’s official EURO 2016 song Together Stronger (C’mon Wales) on 20 May with all profits going to the Princes Gate Trust and Tenovus Cancer Care. But what influences has Nicky absorbed from the footy songs of the past?
“I’ve mainly taken inspiration from the team and support. World in Motion is the benchmark. That was a great New Order song, and then it became a great football song as well. And not that it’s the team I support, but Three Lions is a really intelligent lyrical foray into football songs. Those two were the idea in creating a narrative with a story of the high and lows of supporting Wales for all these years.”
But surely it’s better than The Anfield Rap?!
“It’s not bad you know The Anfield Rap! There’s worse songs. I think it’s better than Embrace’s one or Echo Bunnymen with the Spice Girls despite Echo being one of the great bands. Ant & Dec’s was appalling. Fuck me, that was bad!”
Was James tempted to do a John Barnes-esque rap?
“There’s kind of that moment, but I wouldn’t call it a rap. It’s more of a chant, which involves the players and a mass football terrace kind of chant. There is a breakdown section. It’s not a rap, it’s a chant!”
Following the UK tour, the Manics will play the Eden Sessions in Cornwall and two last festival dates before planning what their next move will be. Over the last three years, folk and Krautrock sounds have been explored, but Nicky is currently undecided as to where the future will take them.
“For once, we really don’t know. It’s been a relief doing Everything Must Go because it’s given us more breathing space to think of something better than Futurology, which won’t be easy especially as it’s one of our best received albums over the last few years and reaching No.2, so we’ve got to do something really brilliant and I’m not really sure how we go about that yet.”
Whichever direction they take, you can guarantee one thing – it definitely won’t be boring. Yet, with all the nostalgia surrounding the Everything Must Go tour it’s perhaps more important to reflect on what remarkable feats the band have achieved especially with 2016 being their 30th anniversary. So what would the 17-year-old Nicky Wire have said if he was told he’d still be making meaningful music three decades later?
“Knowing what a fucking gobshite I was, I would obviously have said that I’d been ‘a lazy old cunt and that I shouldn’t still be doing it!’ But 30 years is insane to think we’re still just the same people.
“To be honest, at times I would still prefer to be living in my bedroom at my mum and dad’s. If I hadn’t got married, I would’ve been! I might be in a band, but I had the greatest pleasures eating egg and chips with my mum and dad and watching TV. It was 25 years on the weekend since ‘Woosie’ (Ian Woosnam) won his Masters, and I remember being sat there with my mum watching it at midnight being so fucking excited it, and 25 years have just disappeared.”
Yet, is the fact that the Manics are still friends and making music his proudest moment?
“Yeah, there’s definitely an element of that. But certain songs have helped people, which is pretty amazing. People doing PHDs and discovering R.S. Thomas, or some people just having a generally uplifting feeling through us. It’s nice when someone has written to us, or you read something online that it’s helped them out because it’s certainly helped us.”
In May 1991 the Manics released their classic single You Love Us, which was aimed ironically at the critics who weren’t yet on-board, but who would inevitably fall in love with the band. After initially being dismissed in the media, they remain here fighting the fight all these years later and with their obsessive support still firmly behind them.
It’s safe to say the Manics are preaching to the converted.