No other band right now is at the centre of so much controversy as Manic Street Preachers. Even without a hit record, they have been by turns reviled, celebrated, hated, loved, dismissed as arrogant, pathetic, arm-slashing throwbacks to the dumb days of sneering punk and simultaneously cheered as a combative alternative to Manc hedonism and the dream-pop escapism of the Scene That Celebrates Itself, which they predictably hate. With their major label debut, 'Stay Beautiful', about to be released, Simon Reynolds talks to a band whose determination to become rock myths is doomed to glorious failure even if they realise their immediate ambition to outsell Guns 'N' Roses. 'You're only this hateful and angry once, really', they announce defiantly.
Can you feel it? A creeping paralysis accompanying every advance in the obese accumulation of ‘good music’, a seeping slide into the mire of eclecticism. Don't you feel an urge to purge rising like bile at the back of your throat? And here's Manic Street Preachers, bulimic rockers.
Every other band today wants to embroider a corner of "rock's rich tapestry" (copyright: J Burchill); every other band is proud to be a torch from a venerated past to a grateful future. Manic Street Preachers are post-modernists too, but fixated on the Year Zeroes of yesteryear, those apocalyptic brinks when rock 'n' roll seemed both to die and be reborn.
Maybe they're just wistful dreamers trying to retell the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Story to date (and get the end right this time). Maybe they're no better than Teddy Boys, most likely they've simply looked at the baggy-minded generation, recognised that Happy Mondays and The Farm mirror the age perfectly, and decided that if that is what being contemporary is all about, then they'd rather be out-of-time. Either way – and putting aside for now the merits of the music – nobody is inciting more provocative speculation right now. The ghost of punk, incarnated by these four Welsh boys, must be placated; its reproach, from beyond the grave, at least deserves a considered riposte.
Because so many hate them despite the fact it'd be easier and crueller to ignore them. Because in the age of tongue-tied inarticulacy and pseudo-mystical gushing without content or context, they're a group to talk to and talk about. Because of the sheer intellect involved (Nietzche, situationism, Camus, Kierkegaard, more). Because just when we're all cosily immersed in the diverse splendour of ‘our music’, here's a band that's put unmentionable concepts like ‘boredom’, ‘rage’, ‘disgust’, back on the agenda.
All this is why I find myself at the darkest Surrey retreat where Manic Street Preachers are rehearsing for a tour and demoing their first and final LP. While singer James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore (the group's musical heart and beat) are hard at it a couple of floors below, Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards (the brains and beauty) unfurl their giddy whirl of contradictions (naivete and calculation, idealism and cynicism, exhibitionism and shyness). Instead of the obstreperous motormouths I'd anticipated, they're an endearing pair – candid, charming, incredibly bright. Even their most sulphorous putdowns of their peers seem kittenish in those lilting Welsh accents.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS USED TO DEFINE themselves against the boorish hedonism of the post-Mondays groups, with their lumpen pursuit of kicks and retreat from class politics. But these days they find the new aestheticism, the rock for rock's sake anti-stance of the Thames Valley/Scene That Celebrates Itself groups – Ride, Slowdive, Chapterhouse, Moose – even more despicable.
"All those bands are educated and middle class, but all they have to say is, 'We don't want to say anything'," avers Richey. "A lot of those groups are as wrapped up in musicality as the supergroups of the Seventies. There's so much emphasis on pedals and getting the right sound."
Nick: "It's nullifying, there's nowhere you can go with it but into your bedroom. We've done that all our lives, that's the last thing we wanna do. It's an aesthetic of blanking out everything."
I like a lot of the groups they detest; I know that the lovely new Slowdive EP is an advance where the new Manics is a retreat. But somehow I get more out of ‘Stay Beautiful’ than any of today's sumptuous sounds. Perhaps it's time for a return to the idea that there's more to rock 'n' roll than just music. Perhaps it's time to start using words like decadence again. Then again, aren't the only real criteria whether a band brings a bit more beauty into the world or not? The Manics think not: bringing more beauty into an ugly world has no value, whereas reflecting the ugliness and trying to rectify it does. They have no interest in expanding the boundaries of sound; they deny the validity of escapism or bliss-out. To them, it's just a middleclass version of the culture of consolation.
"Where we come from, that's what everybody did all the time. Everyone's just a wage slave or a dole slave, and every night you just get bombed out of your head."
The wallowing, inverted snobbery of the post-Manc proles, the effete, apolitical quietism of the dreampopsters – it's all equally infuriating and inconsequential to the Manics.
Nicky: "Where we come from in Wales, it's very working class, but there is a tradition of bettering yourself. Our parents never wanted us to go down the pit. Self-education is a really big thing. The work ethic is just massive."
Manic Street Preachers are self-educated. The group's background was about as claustrophobic and intensive as could be, real bloodbrothers, four boys against the world stuff. They've known each other since primary school. Sean moved in with James after his parents split up, sharing bunk beds in a tiny bedroom. This became the proto-Preachers' HQ. Year after year, day after day, they festered together, feverishly devouring the music press, books, videos, records, grabbing hold of every little bit of stimulus they could find.
"People accuse us of having lived vicariously through other people's ideas Londoners don't seem to understand that in most places in England that is all you've got – the music papers and pop music."
In their mid-teens/the mid-Eighties, they discovered the Pistols; ever since, they've looked desperately for something to match their impact. For a while, they loved Gang Of Four and Big Flame, for the lyrics and the attitude, until they realised the music alienated too many people. For the first six months, they adored The Smiths, "until we realised that there was no point in just standing on stage saying life hurts you".
For years, the boys bought the records the papers raved about, travelled considerable distance to see groups live, often having to sleep under bridges after missing the last train – but invariably, they were brutally disappointed.
The last few years have been a barren wilderness, according to the Manics. They briefly entertained high hopes of The Stone Roses, after the first MM cover story left the impression the Roses were class warriors. Apart from that, they've looked to America, drawing inspiration from Public Enemy (the style, the rage) and Guns N' Roses (the fact that Pistols – influenced hard rock could still sell 16 million albums). And so they hatched their masterplan, hoping to become the group they always craved for: radical politics plus trad-rock riffola plus glam appeal.
Born in the crucible of rock discourse, in a sense the Manics only exist on the pages of the music press – as the catalyst of controversy, lurid news items, a reference point. The Manics take the premeditation of previous manifesto groups (Age Of Chance, the Sputniks) to a new pitch of extremity. So far it's all hurtling ahead as (master) planned: they've got the front covers, a deal with one of the biggest majors in the world, Columbia/Sony, and the new single's been buffed to a commercial sheen by Wham!'s ex-producer. But the Manics have set themselves such preposterously high targets, they're almost guaranteed to fail. Their masterplan is a suicide pact: if the album doesn't top charts worldwide and outsell Appetite For Destruction, they're worthless failures. And if it does succeed, they're going to give it all up anyway.
Nicky: "Whether we sell millions and millions of albums, or we fail abjectly, we'll still have said everything we have to say in one double album. We don't want to look beyond that, because we'd just be treating it as a career. If you throw it away when you're the biggest band in the world, then you're bound to get respect."
But what will you do afterwards?
"I'm always happiest just living with my mum and dad and my dog. Watching telly and stuff like that. That is my perfect scenario, when I can reach some kind of peace."
‘Suicide pact’ seems the right phrase, because underneath this desperate desire to become myth is a kind of death wish: to be frozen for eternity as an immaculate gesture, the image of ultimate cool. What singlemindedness, what marvellous myopia! They blithely consign the rest of their lives to the dustbin, reject the idea of growth, the possibility that in three years time, their ideas might be, should be, completely different – "You're only this hateful and angry once, really."
And then there's Richey's infamous arm-slashing. What do they think is at stake to make such a gesture worthwhile?
"We're completely happy that people despise us, but when you get a writer who should be in fanzines, saying that he doesn't believe we mean it and that we're just a manager's invention, then I got so pissed off that I had to do it. That guy couldn't conceive that people can be so frustrated and pissed off that they're prepared to hurt themselves."
Pictures of Richey's arm are going to be the basis for Columbia's marketing campaign in the USA. But the Manics say they are ready to be used. Marvellously mixed up, they talk of "total control" in one breath and of "being useless sluts" in another. But by all accounts, they're incredibly organised: they send their management a steady stream of plans and proposals, while Columbia say they've never met a group who've known so clearly exactly what they want.
What they want is a Top 40 hit: ‘Stay Beautiful’ could do it for them. The new single is the first Manics record that's convincing on their own retro terms. It's a quaint but exhilarating salvo of combat rock that sounds rather refreshing in the age of furniture music.
And both ‘Stay Beautiful’ and its B-side ‘R.P. McMurphy’ possess a yearning romanticism that hints for the first time that there's soul beneath the Situationist critique. Too often Manics songs are collages of slogans that only briefly flash into poetry: on ‘Stay Beautiful’, I think I hear the line "All we love is lonely records", but later learn it's "lonely wreckage". ‘R. P. McMurphy’, a semi-acoustic, worldweary and homesick lament, is inspired by Jack Nicholson's character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and in particular that moment when he tries and fails to lift the washbasin.
Ideally, the Manics' insurrectionary politics would be wedded to the raucous futurism of The Young Gods; at the very least, it ought to be motored by a modern rhythmic undercarriage like EMF. Maybe if they get to work with Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy, they'll get there. But UK teenagers won't groove to their tinny, trad rock rhythms, whose appeal these days is limited to punk veterans. Oh, and Americans, of course.
"Ultimately we just think that rock is the only musical backdrop we can have, cos it's the most popular," defends Richey. "The American record company are really keen for us to release records over there. When they talk about us, it's not like they want us to go to the East Coast and blitz the college radio scene, they're talking about us going to the Mid-West, the rock heartland. Which is where we've always wanted to have impact, cos that's closest to our South Wales smalltown experience."
MANIC STREET PREACHERS BELIEVE IN energy and edge, in an age where the dominant rock aesthetic is bound up with space (dream-space, sound-expanse). They have no interest in listening to Can, loathe Levitation's idea of the return to prog rock. And the Manics believe in the resurrection of rock 'n' roll's most metaphysical and intangible concept: youth. ‘Stay Beautiful’ is about clinging to your sense of total possibility and "sense of waste".
"The only time you really have a chance of doing anything is when you're young, "argues Nick. "You're really free, cos you have no responsibilities at all. At school, there's always nutters of a certain age who will rebel against anything. Those people really are just like true anarchy. They'll just do anything to destroy school, which is almost like a prison to them."
‘Youth’ isn't compromised by ties, nothing ADULT-erates the terrible lucidity of your desperation, nothing clouds the clarity of your contempt.
"At a certain age, your thought is primed, you're ripe for anything. When you're married and you've got a baby, you've got responsibilities, you can't devote yourself to revolt. You have to resign yourself to making do."
YOU CAN SEE THEIR POINT, up to a point: there's so much to negate – the living death of consumption, cultural necrophilia, mediocrity. But don't they think there's so much to affirm, too: the wonder of being alive, Nature, love. Revealingly, the Manics complain about bands who only write love songs. Don't they believe that love is the great redemptive, transfiguring force? Have they never been in love? They shake their heads. Try it, I say, like a pusher.
Richey: "Once you fall in love, or get your girlfriend pregnant, or fall into credit, you've got no chance, you've got responsibilities. There's no way you can ever do anything. Once you're reduced to a couple, alone together between your four walls with your TV set, you're cut off."
It's almost as though they dread comfort, see the spectre of amorous bliss as something that would impair their singlemindedness. Amazingly, at the age of 23, Richey claims to have never had a relationship, and to have only lost his virginity six months ago: "Sex just never seemed important". Nicky (21) briefly had a girlfriend, "but it was just too scary". Of all the Manics, it's Sean who's the band's Charlie Watts, having been going steady for eight years.
"At school, we would have done anything to have girlfriends," says Nicky, heartbreakingly. "We were just chronically shy. But we're not emotionally developed enough. We're too petty, too obsessed."
But what about all these lurid tales of groupies? The Manics talk about such soulless encounters as though it's their duty as rock stars to be ‘used’.
"Anyway, people underestimate women," adds Nicky. "They're more sensitive that that. A lot of them just want to talk about the group, not get pissed and get f***ed. We're prepared to do anything, just sit and talk about what we feel and the songs. We'll never refuse anyone."
It's almost as though they see love as this century's opium of the people, a rose-tint that obscures your clear vision of the horror of it all. Being in love is "just someone to share your boredom with," opines Richey; Nicky adds "I think I'll always be happier with my mother anyway."
AT FIRST, I THOUGHT THE MANICS were trying to resurrect punk's ethics of drug use (ego-and-IQ-boosts like speed are righteous, ego-loss drugs like E or LSD are crap). But although they used speed to fuel their frenzies of reading and letter-writing ("It's really sexless, it helps you concentrate"), the Manics claim they're against addling your mind. Nicky claims never to have touched anything but alcohol, and says he wanted to waste the guy at a London party who said that the greatest pleasure in his life was fixing people up with good gear.
"Drugs just make people more governable," says Richey." The Politics Of Ecstacy is a great read but you look at Timothy Leary now and he's just a vegetable."
It's the same as their attitude to love: the Manics fear the sweet surrender, the urge to merge. They're too attached to their ego to want to lose themselves. Instead their trip is the rock rebel fix of self-worship/self-hatred. They're addicted to the glamour of ALIENATION (being f***ed up, f***ing other people off).
YET THEY KNOW that rock can never be marshalled into a punk-like unity of alienation again, everything's too fragmented. They're on a solo mission, kamikaze style.
"We just want to clear everything away. Maybe after us, music won't seem as important as actually changing the world."
All they dream of is making a gigantic gesture of repudiation. Isn't that sterile? Isn't negation a dead end?
"No. Because most people's lives are completely sterile anyway. Our attitude is that negation is always better than resignation."
But don't you think that making people really pissed off with their lives is good up to a point, beyond which it's pointless. Isn't it better to make some space for yourself, find some joy?
"It's really naive, but we really believe that if everybody became conscious of their reality, things could really change. When people stop looking for meaning in sport or music, then things could really change."
Let's call them ‘tunnel visionaries’. They mean it, man. Just adorable.