To the Manic Street Preachers, all human experience is an empty futility…so why should pornography be singled out for condemnation? Miranda Sawyer talks filth with the prophets of nothingness.
The picture is of a woman. She stands in white bra and knickers, looking down at the viewer with an expression that is difficult to read. A look of disdain? Of boredom? Is she laughing at you? She has short brown hair and she is massive. Hugely, violent, wildly fat. In places her skin is so stretched you can almost see through it, mottled and grey with purplish veins, rubbery flesh rolling and sagging and hanging from her towering body like so many yards of uncooked bread. She's on the cover of 'The Holy Bible', the Manic Street Preachers' third album.
Richey saw the picture in a magazine- it's currently on gargantuan display in the Saatchi art gallery- and phoned up the artist, 24 year old Jenny Saville, to ask if the Manics could use it. Although he'd asked to use a Saatchi painting before and had been told that it would cost #30,000, he tried anyway. After a detailed half-hour explanation of every track on the album, Jenny agreed to let them use it for free.
The Manics have always understood the power of images: crucifixes, nakedness, blood, bondage, combat gear and appallingly applied make-up. They've used them all to shock and inspire. They know how to objectify themselves. And they're one of a very few all male bands who have any valid ideas about women and image. There's a song on 'The Holy Bible' called '4st 7lb' about anorexia, that neither applauds nor disapproves, just notes that it's a way a girl can express her own power over herself. This is the band that in last year's 'Life Becoming A Landslide' EP commented that an idea of love "comes from a childhood glimpse of pornography". And this is the band that used Traci Lords, ex-porn star and business woman to sing 'Little Baby Nothing'.
"We wanted her or Kylie," remembers Richey. "Because at the time they were both women that were perceived as puppets. No one could imagine that they might have their own vision on how they wanted to be sold."
No one apart from our four icono-graphic artists. You might think Jenny Saville's enormous women are just Pilsbury Dough Girls, that cutting yourself is pretentious, that pornography is just harmless stockings, suspenders and saucy looks. Whatever you think, the Manics will almost certainly think the opposite.
What was your first porn experience?
Richey: "I was about 12, playing football and a bloke called Brian Summers said, I've found some great stuff under my brother's bed. It was quite hardcore porn. We had a look at it, about five of us, in silence, for ten minutes and then I had to run out the house quite quickly. I was ill. I was sick."
James: I was 12 and I used to mess around with a mate down the street in his garage and his father kept loads of porn magazines in there. I was just really turned on by it. It awakens all your interest. It was my rites of passage sexually, definitely."
Did you feel guilty?
James: "Only in one sense. When your young and you're hiding it in your bedroom, then the worst thing that can happen is that your mother finds it. Your mother's got superhuman qualities hasn't she? I'm not saying pornography's wrong- it brought me though a certain progressive apprenticeship - but in the end, you know your mother is not going to want to think of you sitting there wanking away to pornography. You just know."
What about porn films?
James: "I've seen loads. When I was 16 we use to go to a friend's house every dinner time and we watched this same porn film every lunchtime solidly for a month. You got bored after a while yeah, mostly because there was no way you could sneak upstairs to the toilet and just stay there for ten minutes because everyone would kill themselves laughing when you came back."
Have you ever used pornography as an aid to sex?
James: "No. It's helped me through my fallow periods. Everyone goes through a dodgy period when they can't pull anything. Porn just gives you a quick relief. It just sends you to sleep really."
Will porn always be exclusively for men?
James: "Men just want to see women with their legs open, I'm not quite sure about women. I would think that women would want to see erections, how well hung a man is, but until women catch up in terms of buying porn for themselves there's no way of knowing. If you go to Germany or Holland, you find men and women, couples, looking at porn- these countries are far ahead of us in terms of acceptance of pornography. But I don't think it will happen here."
Have You Ever Bought Porn Yourself?
Richey: "Yeah. If your on tour you might stop off at a service station and buy a magazine. It's usually chucked away before you even get back on the bus. It's banal entertainment. They're all identical. Films too. You've seen one porn film, there's no point in watching another. The only interest is when somebody gets something like 'Animal Farm', chickens and ducks. Yeah, I've seen it. After five minutes, it's boring, because it's just the same thing with a different animal."
What do you think of the feminist arguments about pornography?
Richey: "You can understand both sides. Catherine McKinnon said that anybody who looks at say page 3 of 'The Sun', is as guilty as a man who commits a very violent crime against a woman. Well, obviously that's not true, but I understand why there needs to be that strain of thought, why she and Andrea Dworkin are very necessary. On the other extreme, Feminists Against Censorship say that the question of banning page 3 is not worth debating in the Houses of Parliament. People walk past a single mother with three children struggling to get on a public transport system which is falling apart and that's the norm, that's accepted. Feminists Against Censorship are saying that's the important stuff to remedy, rather than page 3."
They also say that there's no point in changing page 3, you have to change the whole of 'The Sun'.
Richey: "It's that thing of, Does image shape reality and women's condition? Or is it the other way around? It's a hard question. It's the most confusing thing about Andrea Dworkin. I've never been able to work it out and I've thought about her a lot. I've got absolutely no idea what is the right answer."
Aren't image and reality intertwined?
Richey: "Yes, I think they are really. But with this sort of topic people want you to be black and white. People's reactions to Andrea Dworkin are interesting. If you put her book 'Mercy' in reference to Bret Easton Ellis' 'American Psycho'- the plots are very similar, except they're from two different perspectives, but the violence is the same. And yet 'American Psycho' is completely reviled in literary circles. I like Bret Easton Ellis and I like Andrea Dworkin."
Have you ever been to a sex shop?
James: "All bands have. When you tour Germany and Holland, that's what you do. I've been in one in Britain and it was so limp-wristed that I walked straight out. I'm too used to the hard stuff..."
Would you be upset if you were going out with someone and you discovered a porn mag under her bed?
Richey: "I would never walk out the door, say that's it, I would never judge anybody that harshly. I don't think I'd think anything about it at all. I'm not upset by very much, I can't understand why people get so upset by everything. I haven't got that liberal sensibility. People that when they see a violent film they cover their eyes. I know people who never finished 'Mercy' or 'American Psycho' and I can't understand why. A lot of people can't watch 'Aliens, or Roman Polanski's 'Repulsion'...I can't watch sport."
Why did you bring all these books along?
Richey: "I've met people that will not read 'The Sun' and would never entertain even touching a porn mag. And in their 300-a-week flat there's (de Sade's) '120 Days Of Sodom'- you know, Germaine Greer and Susan Sontag say it's OK, I'm a cool kind of guy, I understand... '120 Days' is one of the most pornographic things you’re ever going to read. It's very violent, it's more extreme than anything in 'Hustler' or 'Playboy'. And it's also more graphic, because he's a better writer. Pornography is a big banner. I just can't see the difference between the Marquis de Sade and 'Penthouse'. What I'm trying to say is that I know people who read 'The Story Of O' just for the fucking."
What turns you on?
Richey: "The books that I find erotic, that turn me on are stuff like Dennis Cooper's 'Frisk', or Mishima's 'Confessions Of A Mask', or JG Ballard's 'Crash'- which is very sexual all the way though. He dreams of being in a car crash with Elizabeth Taylor: auto-imagery, just piling into Elizabeth Taylor and the tail lights meshing into each other, the bonnet being ripped out. It's very violent. There's a Japanese film called 'Tesuo, The Iron Man', I love that film. All it is is a man turning into a machine, and in his mind he's got a girlfriend and a potential male lover. I find it really sexy. I think people are becoming more machine-like and that's the imagery I like. Also sex and death are closely linked. Sado-masochistic imagery, bleeding..."
Is That Why You Cut Yourself Up A Lot?
Richey: "I find it attractive. I find it... sexual."
Would you be turned on by a violent porn film?
Richey: "No, that doesn't interest me at all. I think that sex between two people is quite crushingly dull. All the magazines here... I really can't find anything sexy in them. Men with non-erect dicks or man on top of woman, woman on top of man- it just bores the fuck out of me. Essentially porn is totally, fundamentally boring. It's for 13-year-old kids."
What's the difference between erotica and pornography?
Richey: (After A Very Long Pause)"I dunno. Erotica has a Man Ray cover."
Is porn propaganda for a sexist society?
Richey: "Yes, but everything is propaganda for a sexist society. I find Danny Baker rampaging into people's houses going, this washing powder is great, I find that really disturbing. Your allowing an unknown man into your home and then he dictates to you what you should think. That's propaganda for a sexist society."
What do you think of the way porn is seeping into the mainstream?
James: "It's bad. That Wonderbra advert, it might be funny but it's still designed to titillate men. We'd be kidding ourselves if we didn't say that's a picture of a woman being subservient to a little sexual token, a bra. Advertising men use feminine images as subservient to everything. And 'Penthouse' and 'Playboy' try to diffuse their pornographic images by putting in features about cars, or lifestyles of the rich and famous- that's just backing up an advertising industry. It's fusing pornography and product. It's very tactful. It pisses me off."
Is porn boring?
James: "Only because the more you see, the more it repeats itself. You just put it down straight away, it's like putting down a bad book."
Does pornography stain your soul?
James: "I can only talk for myself. The thrill of pornography is coming, and I think that wastes away into wanting something better. It makes me more romantic. It's a classic male response: you get pornography, you get your kicks out of it, then suddenly you think, oh, I'm not really into that, because I want a relation- ship. Does that make me a better person or a worse person? I don't know."
Would you appear in a porn mag or film?
Richey: "We got asked by 'For Women' if we would, but I have no desire to expose my genitalia. Too small."