The Manic Street Preachers formed in 1986 as a post-punk quartet with a repertoire soaked in cultural and political references. In February 1995, lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared and, in November 2008, was officially presumed dead. Hailing from a small Welsh town but harbouring huge global ambition, the band decided to continue as a trio, perhaps hoping Edwards would return one day. His old school friend Nicky Wire, who played bass, took over lyric-writing duties. Three months after Edwards disappeared, Wire wrote ‘A Design For Life’, one of the great angst anthems of the Nineties. The band’s most recent album, Futurology, was a commercial and critical hit.
It’s 20 years since the Manics released The Holy Bible, a darkly personal and political album that spat on the cosy laddishness of Brit pop. Where does it fit into today’s music landscape?
It’s completely other. I don’t think there’s any sign of the public wanting anything other than comfort or moments of rapture from music these days. But when we announced The Holy Bible tour, 20,000 tickets were sold in nine minutes. The album has sold around 10,000 copies a year since its release, so there’s always a new generation discovering it, much as we did with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.
The Holy Bible was released in the same month as Definitely Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine Oasis visiting Belsen or Dachau on their days off as you did - or to respond with a song such as ‘Mausoleum’, which includes the chilling lyric: ‘No birds, no birds/The sky is swollen black’.
I wrote the original lyric ideas in my hotel room after walking around Belsen. I was struck by the lack of creatures and the silence. There’s greenery and trees, but it seemed to me even nature couldn’t face touching that horror. The first time we went to Japan, we visited the museum in Hiroshima. We’ve always faced up to universal truths as much as is humanly possible and it’s been a good thing for us, because truth’s about the only thing that has kept the band going.
Just six months after The Holy Bible was released, Richey went missing. Does his absence heighten the emotion of revisiting the album?
Of course, but making The Holy Bible was the period when we felt most free as a band - although, when we started to play it live and Richey was clearly starting to deteriorate mentally and physically, it did become harder.
The album’s themes include genocide and anorexia, and everyone from Lenin to Pol Pot is name-checked. Is it the most intellectual album ever made?
I think it is, actually. I wrote about 25 per cent of the lyrics and Richey wrote the rest. He was devouring all the culture he could and was really on fast-forward. It’s mind-blowing to think what he could have done in a digital world. As it was, he never had a mobile phone or a computer - he just wrote on an old portable typewriter.
The Manics were - and still are - angry about injustice, but you were never just dour blokes preaching your politics. You’ve always had fun as a band, too?
Always. There’s deep affection between us, but we’re mercilessly brutal with each other. We learnt not to take ourselves too seriously having read interviews in the music press with Morrissey and Ian McCulloch. We had a lot of fun making The Holy Bible. The three Astoria shows we did in December 1994, which turned out to be Richey’s last gigs, were heavy-going, but halfway through, James [James Dean Bradfield, the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist], put on a Santa hat and did a version of Wham!’s Last Christmas.
When you play The Holy Bible live, will you leave a space on stage as though Richey is sitting out a song?
Yes. We’re playing as a three-piece and we won’t be just going through the motions because we’re two decades older. We’re going for full-on intensity and anger.