The Manic Street Preachers are getting better all the time, despite the despite the disappearance of their charismatic guitarist and songwriter. George Byrne finds out why.
"Rock 'N' Roll is our epiphany/Culture, alienation, boredom and despair" - Manic Street Preachers, 'Little Baby Nothing'.
Even before the listener got to that handy little soundbite on track seven of the band's sprawling 1992 debut Generation Terrorists, it was obvious that there was more than something a little out of the ordinary about Manic Street Preachers.
Coming from a small town in South Wales as the Madchester party was hurtling through the alphabet from capital Es to a string of increasingly small Zs,the quartet gave dream interviews. Quoting authoritatively from Confucius to Chuck Berry, looking like rent boys who'd been refused membership of the New York Dolls fan club for being OTT and making wild claims as to how they'd make a double debut album, self ten million copies of same and then split up the Manics were either potentially the greatest band in the world or what Dublin rhyming slang would deem a right bunch of Bengal Lancers.
"We actually did genuinely believe we'd do all that back then," laughs singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield at the memory of his youthful exuberance. "And don't forget we did Come up with an 18-track album - although when I look back on songs like 'Condemned To Rock 'N' Roll' and 'Damn Dog' I wonder what the hell we were thinking about - and when it didn't sell the predicted ten mil-lion copies we were obliged to be slightly more, er, realistic in our expectations. f wonder though what would have happened to us if it had gone through the roof."
"What happened" to Bradfield, drummer Sean Moore, bassist Nicky Wire and rhythm guitarist Richey James Edwards was that in addition to a succession of powerful and provocative records - 'Motorcycle Emptiness', 'From Despair To Where', 'La Tristesse Durera', 'Faster' - the media focus shifted onto the increasingly troubled Richey. That the fiercely intelligent Edwards had a self-destructive streak was evident when, stung by an NME reporter's criticisms that the band were faking their passion and commitment, he promptly produced a blade and carved '4 Real' into his left forearm. Alcoholic, anorexic, prone to drug binges and bouts of self-mutilation, it was Richey's shadow which loomed over the bleak lyrical outlook on the band's third album The Holy Bible and then, in February of last year. he simply disappeared and hasn't been seen or heard of since.
"I was the last member of the band to see him," explains James, almost adding the word 'alive' but checking himself in time." We were about to head off to the States to do some interviews and when I called to his room to go to the airport he wasn't there. Initially, I thought he'd just done a runner because he didn't want to go on the trip but when there was no contact at all we felt some-thing was up, especially when his car was found abandoned beside the Severn Bridge two weeks later."
One of the unfortunate consequences of such a situation is that a spurious form of martyrdom becomes almost inevitable, indeed at the Monies last Dublin appearance - a pulse-pumping night at the Tivoli at the end of '94 - there was a palpable sense of distance between Manics fans and Richey fans.
"That had been there for a while," agrees James, "and you can deal with that without too much trouble, y'know 'Who's your favourite Beatle?' type of thing but it's since we decided to carry on that it's gotten out of hand. We've had people come up to us in the street screaming about how were disgracing his memory and the letters written in blood telling us to fuck off and never come back are a bit much. I can understand the genuine concern of real fans about the band's future, but what the lunatic fringe don't seem to realise is that all four of us had been friends since childhood and I don't have to justify my actions to someone who thinks they know him better than me through his lyrics. If I see him again I'll tell him myself."
With their manager and close friend Philip Hall having died from cancer not too long before, this was dearly not a good time for the Manics. Nicky and Sean. retreated back to domesticity in Wales and James became a fix-tare on the London social circuit for most of last year until the crunch came and the decision was taken to see if the Manic Street Preachers could satisfactorily exist again. The answer was a staggering affirmative, with the first fruit of the renaissance corning in the epic shape of 'A Design For Life', a Spectoresque classic which dealt with the decline of the pride and self-esteem of the working class. Business as usual then, oh, and their biggest ever hit to boot.
"That was the first song we wrote after Richey went missing," says James. "There are four tracks on the album which he'd contributed to before he went but 'A Design For Life' really seemed to capture how the three of us felt about carrying on, something that's probably even more evident on the title track 'Everything Must Go'."
Probably the standout song on what's rapidly emerging as the album of the year (so far) 'Everything Must Go' is proud, strident and defiant with Bradfield sounding ready to burst as he sings "And I just hope that you can forgive us/But everything must go," a response to those who feel that the three remaining Mimics are somehow 'betraying' the departure of their friend, In many ways 'A Design For Life' is the Manic Street Preachers first hit but one thing I'm absolutely certain of is that there's not a more vital or crucial band on the planet at this moment in time.