It was Britain's answer to Kurt Cobain, says Nicky Wire, bassist in Welsh band the Manic Street Preachers. He is talking about the disappearance of their guitarist Richey James in February, 1995. James has not been seen since. His car was left dumped at a petrol station, no body has been found and his passport remains unused.
James had a history of self-mutilation and anorexia. He left behind a folder filled with lyrics and poems, but no suicide note. Despite many alleged sightings across England, he remains a missing
person and will continue to be for another seven years until he is declared dead under British law.
It was the biggest blow in the turbulent career of the Manic Street Preachers. Formed in 1988, the quartet claimed its first album in 1992 the sprawling double-set Generation Terrorists would be the biggest-selling debut of all time. It wasn't.
They claimed they would make just one album and split up. They didn't. They remained a cult band making music best described as angst-ridden stadium rock, leading many to compare them to Nirvana, at least in attitude. By the time of their third album in 1994, the confronting The Holy Bible, James had become the focal point of the band. His main role was as lyricist, a duty he shared with Nicky Wire, his friend since childhood. James's guitar-playing skills were so minimal that his instrument was generally unplugged when the band played live. In December last year, they played their first shows since his disappearance as a three-piece, supporting the Stone Roses.
According to Wire, the hardest part of carrying on since James's disappearance has been playing before their audiences, some of whom have mixed emotions about them continuing. "The concerts have been quite nerve-racking," he says, "but most of them end up being really euphoric." Their fourth album (and first post-James) is tellingly titled Everything Must Go and in a month already has outsold their entire back catalogue. The single A Design for Life entered the United Kingdom charts at No 2 and stayed put for six weeks.
"I don't know if people feel sorry for us or if they genuinely like it," says Wire, only half-joking. With Everything Must Go scoring five-star reviews and the band's recent British/European tour its biggest yet Wire is happy the group is being written about for its music rather than its missing guitarist.
"We decided with this album that we've got so much history we'll let the songs stand on their own," he says.
Wire says making the album was both a cathartic and devastating experience. The presence of James remains through the use of his lyrics on five songs. "They were written before he went missing,"
Wire says. "He was around to hear us demo those songs. They were Manic Street Preachers songs; it seemed a waste not to use them. He'd want to hear them. Richey was a brilliant writer; it does add a different tone to the album."
The rest of the lyric-writing responsibility went to Wire, who then gave them to singer James Dean Bradfield to construct a song around. Wire says not knowing what happened to his friend is the hardest thing to cope with: "Sometimes I feel he's somewhere writing his masterpiece of a book, at peace with himself...sometimes I get a wrong number or silence on the phone and I think it's him, and sometimes I just think he's dead."
Everything Must Go is out now through Sony. Manic Street Preachers are rumoured to be touring Australia as part of the Big Day Out in January.