It is difficult to overestimate the worth of importance of Manic Street Preachers in the scheme of 1990's pop music. None of which could have been more out of (or, as it happens, ahead of) its time. Rock was going through its worst slump ever, buried under the success of the dance music explosion and the "Third Summer Of Love" that accompanied it. Manic Street Preachers wanted nothing more than to pass on that summer of pills and hippie-dippie platitudes.
The Manics admittedly haven't always made the right turns on their path to rock stardom. And, in spite--or because--of the wild life and mysterious disappearance of lead singer Richey Edwards, they seem to have become the best role models for up-and-coming musicians.
In the rock & roll scene of the 1990s, Wales' Manic Street Preachers are a band nearly without equal, rivalled only by Nirvana and perhaps Oasis as contenders for the decade's most important act. Yet until the latter band's "breakthrough" into the U.S. market, this same decade had been marked by a paradigm of "two solitudes" where British bands are concerned, with the North American market largely cynical after years of hyped Britrockers came and went without making a dent in the mass consciousness of its rock audience. And sadly, this was the fate which befell "the Manics," as they are more often referred to in the U.K., when they came here hot on the heels of an incendiary debut album, Generation Terrorists, that only in retrospect is getting the acclaim it deserves, anchored as it is by perhaps the ultimate existential rock anthem of all time, "Motorcycle Emptiness," lyrics penned by arguably the most important and defining rock star of the '90s, the glamourous, intellectual, tormented guitarist Richey James Edwards.
Generation Terrorists was a sprawling, snarling riposte to a British rock scene gone soft and "baggy," its attitude summed up in the smart-assed sass of the song "You Love Us," as it melded the rip-roaring styles of The New York Dolls and The Clash to create a truly '90s glam-punk hybrid that sounds just as stylishly potent today as when it was released. After a spotty second album, the overpolished Gold Against The Soul (1993), the Manics collected their forces for a stab at true greatness.
Self-consciously committed to living out the rock lifestyle (he once slashed the phrase "4 Real" into his arm to prove his authenticity to a skeptical journalist, requiring numerous stiches), Richey Edwards, in the effort to turn his very life into art, took himself to the limits of both pleasure and pain, fasting until he was stick--and one must concede, beautfully--thin, engaging in all-night on-tour orgies with Thai hookers and consuming copious amounts of liquor and drugs. Elegantly wasted, he then pulled himself together and began composing what may be the most devastating set of lyrics that rock music has ever seen or ever will see.
As co-lyricist, bassist and best friend, Nicky Wire took a back seat. Edwards summoned up all his formidable intellectual power (he and Wire were university-educated working class lads) and churned out both songs of exquisite beauty ("She Is Suffering") and of nihilistic rage ("IfWhiteAmericaToldTheTruthForOneDayItsWorldWouldFallApart"), lyrics which seemed to be the poetic equivalent of the work of philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault (and indeed, one song, "Archives Of Pain," was a direct nod to Foucault's work in Discipline & Punish). Of course, all this effort might have been far less compelling had it not been for the awesome intrepretative abilities of the Manics' resident musical genius, guitarist and singer James Dean Bradfield, who couched Edwards' sentiments in a scorching musical setting which deftly combined post punk and goth guitar-rock stylings with his usual thunderous but melodious vocals. They called the potent result The Holy Bible.
The working-class Manics, boyhood friends all, had lost their golden opportunity to break big in America, but far, far more importantly and devastatingly, their dear friend Richey.
Then disaster struck. In February, 1995, on the eve of a US tour to promote a remixed for North America version of The Holy Bible, an increasingly troubled, emotionally exhausted Edwards went missing, his car abandoned at a famous suicide spot: the tour was cancelled, the remixed album shelved. The working-class Manics, boyhood friends all, had lost their golden opportunity to break big in America, but far, far more importantly and devastatingly, their dear friend Richey. After waiting over a year with no word and no clue as to what happened, they reconvened, decided to carry on, and began work on their first post-Richey outing, the aptly-titled Everything Must Go, which substitutes Wire's more direct, melancholic yet guardedly optimistic lyrics for Edwards' brilliantly bleak nihilism (which nevertheless appears on a small number of his previously unused songs which the band utilizes), and which, once again driven by the raging guitar and vocals of the indomitable Bradfield, leaves much of its competition in the rock marketplace of 1996 in the dust. The comparatively accessible, pop-tinged rock of Everything Must Go hopefully marks a new era of acceptance for the Manics, as they struggle to make it all new again in the face of the continuing, and perhaps permanent, absence of Richey Edwards.
I interviewed James Dean Bradfield at the bar of Toronto's Sutton Place Hotel. On this day looking bulldog-ish, with his closely-cropped hair and a muscular frame, Bradfield is small of stature and soft-spoken, belying the hollering, raging dynamo often heard on the Manics records. Throughout the interview, he seemed barely able to contain his energy, his "manic," rapid-fire yet incisive answers to my questions making me thank my lucky stars for the invention of the tape-recorder. Little did either of us know as the interview took place that more jinxed "luck" was soon to strike the Manics: a crucial opening spot on a large-scale American tour by Oasis would be lost only a few dates in as the feuding of the Gallagher brothers threatened to tear that band apart.
Back in the not-so-heady days of 1991 when Generation Terrorists was released, it seemed that the British rock press had been on a long losing streak, constantly hyping going-nowhere bands like Birdland as the next big thing. Somehow or other, to my everlasting chagrin, I foolishly ended up tossing the Manics in this junk-pile of New Musical Express wannabes. Given my experiences, I wondered, for openers, if Bradfield felt that the excesses and hyperbole of the British rock press had hurt the band's chances here in the past.
"The disaster was that we completely and utterly missed the target in every single way." --James Dean Bradfield
"Around that time there was a very large degree of cynicism towards anything that was on the cover of the NME whatsoever," opined Bradfield.
"It wasn't even cynicism, it was much more vicious than that...it was like, if you'd been on the cover of the NME you could fuck off and go back to your own country. In a way I can understand it. Usually Canada is more Anglophilic than America, but when North America in general started getting cynical about new British bands, you just knew things were going wrong."
The Manics themselves had made many proclamations in the early days about conquering America and outselling the biggest bands of the moment there (namely Guns N' Roses--yikes, how time flies!). Did they still feel as impelled toward that?
"No, certainly not. The first time we came to America, everything was such an unmitigated disaster. We lost our kind of inherent arrogance at that point."
"The disaster was that we completely and utterly missed the target in every single way, in terms of anybody liking us whatsoever. And we were so eager...I think any band on their first album is still in love with...it's like that colonizing instinct that British bands have got. That romantic vision. It's in your head. Any British band who releases their first album and says they haven't got that in their heads, they're lying! (laughter). But after the first flush of romance with the American idea, you never get that rush where you want to conquer it again anyway."
The rock press here in North America, of course, possesses none of the star-making power of the British weeklies--here, it's MTV and heavy touring. How far are the Manics prepared to go down that road in promoting Everything Must Go?
"There's so many tales of British bands coming over to America, spending loads of money and not getting anywhere and really fucking their lives up, and we're not prepared to do that. We'll do this tour with Oasis and see what happens. At some point you've got to read the star signs and see if things are going to work. If things are going quite well then we'll do it, but..."
Be that as it may, one of the key lines from the new album's title track expresses the desire to "escape from our history," a reference to the heavy weight of the band's mythology in the U.K. Could the relatively "clean slate" of the North American music scene now represent the best chance for such an escape?
"It is kind of liberating to some degree, yeah," mused Bradfield.
You don't mind playing the small halls and clubs?
"No, don't mind that at all. At the end of the day, even in Europe, you go to Portugal and Italy and you've got to play the same kind of gigs, so no big deal. The kind of baggage we talked about with the NME...sometimes it does kind of tarry you down, you feel like you're being crucified by a flood of press clippings. So it's good to come to America and realize that everybody's not so Anglophilic anymore, that the cool kid on the block who reads the NME doesn't exist anymore, that some people in the audience are completely unaware of your history. That is quite liberating."
Some of the mythology surrounding the Manics in Britain is so intense--journalists like Simon Price have even gone so far as to publish manifestoes advising the band on proper decorum in the absence of Richey Edwards! How do you respond to such intense identification and adulation?
"From the beginning," said Bradfield, "we've set ourselves up to be judged, so it's obvious that we've always liked to be judged anyway. I do like it when I read a really scathing review that sends me down to the inferno, because at least you know what kind of crimes some journalists are capable of, you know? That's quite cool. So we've always liked to be judged. And I like to let people down sometimes, anyway. Just when they think they've got you in their back pocket..."
Moving on, I wanted to probe Bradfield's feelings on class differences here and at home, as the Manics' latest single, "A Design For Life" (a smash hit in the U.K.) is a poetic exaltation/lament for the proletarian culture whence they sprang. Class difference itself is the last dirty secret of North American culture, a phenomenon that even the "politically correct" movement here--itself a manifestation of the white, middle-class--couldn't or wouldn't address, so deep in denial were its adherents. Is it better, I asked Bradfield, to have class difference right out in the open, as it is in Britain, or have it as a hidden, "unspeakable" thing as it is here?
"It's definitely better in Britain, which has become so isolated in terms of talking about class and using it within art, music, whatever. Here, as soon as you bring up class, and say 'the working class in North America,' a million journalistic questions spring to my mind, and they're all the same: 'So you guys are talking about class, we don't know about that in America.' If I could count the number of American journalists who've said that to me...it's always mystified me. I think it's had a massive effect on music. You take a band like Porno For Pyros, a political thing for them is setting up an independent video company!"
A very middle-class thing to do!
"Yeah, so I think this has had just a massive effect on American music. And it's had a massive effect on the way we perceive America. Being really knee-jerk, when you watch films in Britain when you're really young, like you're 14 years old and you watch Pretty In Pink, and Molly Ringwald is like the girl from the other side of the tracks, and she's a got a nice car...you think, 'Alright!' I do think it must be that Republican thing to eradicate any kind of class consciousness in America."
How would you compare "A Design For Life" with some other working class anthems? How about Pulp's "Common People?"
"Yeah, actually I haven't got any kind of big beef with Jarvis [Cocker] or anything like that. I think we come from a much more liberated working class background in terms of where we grew up--there was more expressiveness. His rage comes more from a class conflict kind of thing, where he was completely fucked by what you see in the song "Misshapes" [from Different Class]. So his rage is really different, where ours stems from more of an economic thing, what we saw right in front of us when we were like 14, 15, the coal mining thing, the miners' strike. So [Jarvis's] is just a different take, but I do respect his take on it."
This isn't an easy topic to broach. With Edwards' whereabouts still unknown, the band lacks a sense of closure on the matter; no wonder that Bradfield has tried to emotionally distance himself from the issue by labelling it "The Richey Thing." It can't be easy knowing that every single interview you do will at least in part concern itself with your missing best friend. Bradfield flinched slightly as I timidly nudged into the topic, then recovered with a tossed off "it's no big deal" as he gamely answered my query as to whether Edwards was after all a man committed to living life at the extremes of experience, whether it be the controlled self-denial of fasting or the Dionysian self-gratifcation of sex and drugs. In other words, was Edwards another in a long line of rock icons such as Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain for whom anything less than everything was not an option?
"The thing about comparisons people make between Richey and Jim Morrison or whomever, at the end of the day, the massive difference is that Richey was a tapestry of mythology, he was all too aware of any kind of mythology. Probably what you just said sums it all up, whether it was fasting or the Nietzschean Dionysus thing, Richey was too in love with mythology, too wrapped up in it all to realize he was becoming [a mythic figure] himself."
"Richey was too in love with mythology, too wrapped up in it all to realize he was becoming [a mythic figure] himself." --James Dean Bradfield
Certainly the Manics' previous album, The Holy Bible, a dark classic on a par with Lou Reed's Berlin or Nirvana's In Utero, one infused with Edwards' unrelentingly acute critical vision of our corporate sell-out age, solidified his mythological status forever, and possibly left him with nowhere to go artistically. In recent band interviews, I'd noticed an ambivalence about that album, and wondered if it had become a sore point for the Manics.
"No, there's two ways of thinking about [The Holy Bible]," Bradfield replied, unfazed. "I'm so glad we did that album. Looking back on our history, if there was only Generation Terrorists, Gold Against The Soul, and Everything Must Go, something would be seriously lacking. The Holy Bible allowed us to get ourselves back on track, ironically. It just came from the fact that the second album [Gold Against The Soul, which featured an overall poppish sheen that at times veered too close to standard stadium hard-rock] I absolutely despised, I think it's an absolute bag of dogshit! I realized after that one that I had basically just been building my record collection up with free CDs from the record company the last couple of years and had lost the reason why I was even writing songs. So the only reason [for the band's ambivalence] is that I think we've gotten pretty superstitious about The Holy Bible. It was playing the other day and something really bad happened."
Really? You were playing it onstage or just listening to it?
"It was playing, we'd been listening to some tracks off it, and something really bad happened. It's kind of like a holy chalice that breaks . . . But it's the most challenging thing I've ever done.
When Richey disappeared, Sony decided not to release the album in North America, even though in many ways it out-Nirvana-ed Nirvana circa In Utero: it was an album perfectly in tune with the prevailing grunge zeitgeist. Did they blow it?
"They were gonna release it--there was an American mix of Holy Bible--but that tour got called off with the Richey thing. We were dead in the water at that time and weren't going to be doing anything for a long time and if you don't tour America they don't release you."
Seems a crying shame--such a great album.
"I would be lying if I didn't say that. [Drily] I hope there's a retrospective review of it in MOJO some day.
Everything Must Go seems like one of the few breaths of fresh air to emerge in rock and roll so far in 1996--after a rather great year in 1995, this year has seen one cash-in reunion tour after another in North America--Eagles, KISS, Sex Pistols--and a general return to ultra-traditional forms (cleverly dubbed "Noelrock" in the press) in Britain. Rock and roll in general has seldom seemed so lifelessly enervated as it has in '96, a year where the Sex Pistols are not the solution, but instead part of the problem. As the Manics have always been outspoken, I quizzed Bradfield on the "state of the music," as it were, prodding him to be as vicious as liked. After begging off with a dry "Those days are behind me," he got down to business. Seems he feels a good deal more positive than yours truly.
"If you read the Melody Maker and writers like Simon Reynolds and Simon Price, they all talk about the zeitgeist, things that form the zeitgeist of that year," Bradfield offered. "I think journalists are confused because they can't talk in those terms at the moment. People are writing songs, nobody's constructed anything. I think people like Chemical Brothers and Tricky get close to something, to be honest--deconstruction and reconstruction [of the form]."
How about your touring mates, those fellow working class lads Oasis?
"I love Oasis. Three years ago I realized that if every fucking band was like us, it would be an awful world. I think Liam elevated himself, transcended his inarticulacy--he's admittedly quite inarticulate---and created this character of panache and grace. It just shows to me that as far as the working class, there is still a language there, you know, whether it's Shaun Ryder constructing himself in a James Joycean way within the English language or whether it's Liam being this courtly man who does things with gestures" [note: this interview was conducted well before Liam's less than courtly display of gestures at the 1996 MTV video awards].
Another symptom of "postmodern" rock has been irony--a kind of "we don't really mean it" stance typical of bands like Blur that clashes with sincerity of a group whose now missing member once carved the phrase "4 Real" into his arm in front of a shocked journalist. Is ironic rock getting grating?
"I think so, yeah. It's like what I always hated Woody Allen for--to me it's just in-jokes for posh people. I don't mind a bit of it, but. . . ."
The stark, minimalist sleeve design of Everything Must Go is a nod to the fact that the remaining Manics are well aware of the eerie parallels between their story and that of another legendary British group, Joy Division, which mutated into New Order after lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide on the eve of a major U.S. tour (something Richey, with his awareness of rock mythology, was also surely cognizant of). I wondered if the survival and ultimate success story of New Order provides the Manics with "A Design For Life," as it were?
Bradfield brightened. "For us it's flattering, to be compared to that lineage, to that kind of linear progression. The artwork was--we wanted to give ourselves a bit of human grace, we didn't want to be keep treating ourselves as automatons the rest of our lives. We'd set ourselves so many rules--we wanted to break our own rules and just sort of be anonymous, you know?"
You've said you didn't want every album to have to be like an encyclopedia, a reference to the more didactic direction of the first three albums.
"We'd set ourselves so many rules-- we wanted to break our own rules and just sort of be anonymous, you know?" --James Dean Bradfield
"It'd've been cool if things had taken a different turn and we could have kept up that tradition, but we just couldn't. It's funny, because there's a massive dichotomy in Richey and Nick's lyrics. Nick's quote was "Richey always wanted to be understood, but [I] never wanted to be understood."
"The ironic thing is, it was ultimately fateful, Nick would write lyrics that more people understood, while Richey's lyrics nobody understood," he laughs.
Seems like the ultimate paradox.
Bradfield became animated, enthused. "Richey's lyrics--he always invited people into his songs--he craved understanding--but he never let them out. His songs in a way are quite cowardly--that's not an insult. He said that himself--that's the craving thing. Nick's lyrics were always like complete and utter statements, he came at it from a more positive angle. He didn't care if people came inside his lyrics--didn't give a fuck, you know? It's strange though--at the end of the day, Nick was like a schoolteacher. He'd give Richey a title like "Faster" [from The Holy Bible] and Richey would write a song called "Faster." Nick did have a big hand in creating a lot of what Richey did--Nick was like his head teacher sometimes. Like an essay topic--'Now, discuss,' you know?"
Finally, it's a matter of great interest as to how The Manics create their songs--James and Sean (Moore, drummer) writing the music, Nicky and (until recently) Richey writing the lyrics, as two complete, separate entities.
Yet it all seems to jell quite smoothly.
"You just destroy your egos within the song" James explained. "We'd find out who could do what, who couldn't do what, and then we did it. Richey couldn't play guitar to save his life [smiles], I couldn't write lyrics to save my life. I was the only one who could sing, so I had to do that.
"And I loved Nick and Richey's lyrics so much that I knew I couldn't sit around writing music for the sake of it and then matching it up to the lyrics, but that everything I did with the lyrics would be on a purely interpretive basis. So I would never write any music until Nick or Richey gave me the lyrics--I would come to my own meagre understanding of them [laughs] and then write the music."
Future rock stars, take note of the recipe. Better role models will never be found.