Last Christmas, we asked if the Manics were finished. Thousands of you wrote in to tell us they weren't. Seems you were right - 1999 saw them recapture their fire...
It had been a pretty uneventful Glastonbury. Nothing, except the sunny weather, to distinguish it
from any other Glastonbury. Even the Manic Street Preachers, headlining Saturday night - the ideal slot for earth-shattering controversy - appeared bored and uninterested.
But the biggest story of Glastonbury '99 had already happened backstage. News had emerged that the Manics had brought their own portable toilet with them. It was one of those magnificent gestures of rock 'n' roll arrogance that instantly' divides people. You either thought, like Billy Bragg who sarkily snapped, "Nice socialist gesture, lads", that it was an act of unforgivable elitism among the supposed democracy of Glastonbury and went back to your Travis albums. Or you thought, "Yes! Yes! Yes! This is why we love the Manics!"
Whatever your reaction, it was a classic Manics moment, a symbol of the self-imposed exclusion from the let's-have-our-photos-taken-together chumminess of backstage culture reduced to an infantile level, a real case of "Eugggh, Cast, we're not sharing our toilet with you."
"If we'd done that in 92, everybody would have thought it was a fantastic gesture," Nicky told us when we interviewed him in November. "It's just because we're rich that people didn't like it,"
Not quite true. The people who hated it were the same people who hated James wearing a Balaclava
on "TOTP" in 1994, the same people who've always hated the Manics' thirst for treating pop as confrontational theatre.
The same sad fucks who no doubt loathed every minute of the Manics' sensational year 1999.
In the Christmas issue last year we asked the question: Have the Manics sold out? We had very good reasons to ask it: the much anticipated "If You Tolerate This..." album turned out to be a stale exercise in lifeless MOR, its lyrics a jumbled mess of crass romanticism. Their interviews bland and predictable, Nicky talking about his Hoover like party bores waffle on about their fuel-injected GTIs. During their autumn tour of 1998, possibly in honour of their support band Mogwai, the Manics took to the stage with all the enthusiasm of a horse trotting into a glue factory.
Little changed in the first half of 1999. The Manics won four Brit awards, again, and the exceptionally graceless "You Stole The Sun From My Heart" clunked around the charts.
It was at T In The Park that the sleeping giant awoke.
During an incendiary set Nicky called The Beta Band drunken arseholes", dedicated "Australia" to Billy Bragg - "I wouldn't want his dick pissing in my toilet for all the money in the world" - lambasted Stereophonics' attempts at instrument-trashing the night before, and then - to show their Welsh peers how it's done - annihilated everything onstage.
"It was the sort of explosive and dangerous Manics gig that we have long assumed was a thing of the past," we said, dusting off our tiaras. "Tonight, MSP are everything they ever were in 1991, plus everything they never quite managed to be in 1994, plus everything they pulled off in 1996, minus everything they descended into last year. That'd be the loudest, loveliest, most emotional
band in the world, then."
The difference between their performances at Glastonbury and in Scotland was the difference between a band looking tired and inhibited and a band seemingly reborn with purpose.
What had happened between Glastonbury and T In The Park? Well, they had pulled out of the Werchter Festival in Belgium, prompting rumours, from the spot-on - James voice was exhausted - to the amusingly wayward - Nicky had died. Even allowing for the highly dubious nature of much of the speculation, there seemed a real possibility that T In The Park might be one of the last Manics gigs. It was this sense of an impending end that inflamed an already frenzied crowd and, for Nicky Wire, it was clearly a turning point, a time to ditch the user-friendly Manics and resurrect the old, venomous Manics.
Nicky: "I was in my hotel room and I just thought of a couple of things and walking onstage at T In The Park, I knew it was all going to happen. All that bile was going to come out. I just felt
cleansed. To get to that point of reacting against something, there's got to be a big build-up of hatred. It's not like when we started and you could attack everything. When you meet other bands and pretend to like them and shake their hands and all the rest of it, you can't go slagging them off, so I just decided that really all that past six months had been pretty false."
Glastonbury's "Tolletgate" had revived the Manics' spirit, but it took T In The Park to see that spirit become a live force. It was as though they - and Nicky especially - used the Bragg-led finger-wagging that greeted the toilet scandal as excuse to go fucking mental in Scotland. You could imagine them thinking: "Yeah, that's right, we are the most outrageous pop group in the world - now let's go and prove it."
There was still a lot of hatred to be released the following month at V99. It was another high-voltage, stage-wrecking landslide of a performance, Nicky back to his Levellers-baiting best:
"So The Levelers gave us our first break? Well, they did. We looked at them and said 'They're the worst fucking band in the world.'".
Again, we loved it: "It seems they've decided to reverse the 'Everything Must Go' ethos and reclaim what made them great, rediscovering the beauty of fear, anger and glamour."
We also heard "The Masses Against The Classes" for the first time, describing it as: "a punky swagger that revisits and reinvents Richey's most exhilarating and stimulating moments." Talking to The Maker moments after coming offstage, James enthused: "I really enjoyed it. Playing live is a real pleasure at the moment. Today was as good as anything we've done in the last year. What I like the most is watching Nicky out of the corner of my eye, just catching him enjoying himself."
And the punchline? "I'm sorry, I've got to go now, got to use my executive toilet."
So why were the Manics such a blistering live experience this year? It's not as if they had better songs than last year - they were still playing most of the sludge from "This Is Truth...". They were, however, suffusing those songs with a previously absent fury, which meant that it was considerably easier to endure "My Little Empire" without sulking off to the burger van, because we could be guaranteed a vintage Wire nuclear-rant at the end. It was possible to glean a fundamental truth about the Manics from 1999's festival performances: most Manics fans would happily sacrifice ever hearing anything from "This Is My Truth..." again if it meant all of Nicky's tirades ended: ...And Gomez are a bunch of smelly cunts." Nicky Wire remembered how to be a Manic Street Preacher again: that's why they were so spectacular throughout 1999.
And so America stood firm to face the Manics' hurricane. Or rather it folded its arms, put the kettle on and asked, "Panic Street Teachers? Who are they?" That's not to say the Manics didn't have fans across the Atlantic - "We've been waiting to see them for so long that it's sort of a matter of life and death," one told us - but it seemed unlikely that their rescheduled autumn tour would result in mainstream success Stateside.
But that wasn't going to halt the resurgence of the Manics as a dynamic live presence. The Maker caught the first show of the tour at New York's Bowery Ballroom: "The show is astounding. New-album-heavy, for sure, but carrying all the fizz and fury of the Manics' inflammatory T In The Park performance."
Speaking to The Maker after the gig, James was in defiant mood: "If we'd done everything we could do in Britain, we'd split up tomorrow. We really would. What's left? To make our perfect album! Listen, I still think, mostly, that we're a million times better than most other bands. That's a good enough reason to carry on."
It's probably far too late to talk about the Manics breaking the American market, but the tour, for all the cancellations that plagued it (James' voice again), was considered a mini-triumph by band and fans alike.
Even Nicky had a good time: "It was...alright, and fucking hate the place. I quite enjoyed it this time."
It may seem odd to talk about a Manics revival in a year when they have had no new material out; it certainly says much about the poorly regarded "This Is My Truth..." that 1999 should even be considered a more productive year than 1998. But the Manics we witness this year are a Manics we feared we would never see again.
In a September Viewpoint, The Maker, still buzzing from the Manics' Summer Of Hate, said: "What the Manics should do now, aside from their raison d'étre of winding up as many hippies as possible, is rush-release "The Masses Against The Classes", asap, striking while the disillusioned fans are temporarily convinced that there's more than just tinned Spam in their bellies."
And what a feast: the roaring intro - a sample of a speech by Noam Chomsky, the thinking-along-similar-lines-but-more-in-a-more-wordy-way man's Nicky Wire - evidencing a band happy to embrace themselves once again, with the fact that the single ends with James howling another quote (this time from big-thinker Albert Camus) taking them right back to the point when they were the most exciting band on the planet - incendiary. urgent, necessary. And the necessary date for your diaries? January 10, 2000. Though you already know that.
"The lyrics are particularly spiteful," Nicky told us. "Just like 'You Love Us', for us, was ironically arrogant. When 'Motown Junk' came out, it was described as super punky weirdness. That's what the song is."
Ultimately, what was so thrilling about the this year was that they rediscovered that bitter, hysterical - and at times brilliantly puerile - misanthropic malice which, pre-1996, made them such an unstoppable rock 'n' roll spectacle. It all comes down to this: Some groups - Oasis, Blur, Stereophonics - are at their best when inspiring a communal bond, and some - Manics - are at their best when telling the world to go fuck themselves And, having conquered pop in '96/'97/'98, they could now piss off everyone on a scale that was beyond them back in 1994 - when they last spat such vitriol.
The last word belongs to Nicky. It always did. "It's great being the most unpopular man in rock 'n' roll again."