The Manic Street Preachers return, with an empty space where a silent guitarist used to be
It was the day after Easter, but there would be no more resurrections. Richey James, the pretty, self-mutilating, articulate rhythm guitarist of the Manic Street Preachers, disappeared on 1 February, 1995. Sixteen days later, his car was found abandoned at Aust service station, near the Severn Bridge, infamous locally as a location for suicide leaps. James didn't leave a note, and many people believe he is still alive, but he did leave a sheaf of lyrics, around which the band have reportedly written their new album.
Their performance at Leeds's Town & Country Club last week was their first headlining show since James vanished. To their credit, the three remaining band-members have not cashed in on the morbid fascination with James's legacy " he is not even mentioned during Monday's concert " but his absence is conspicuous. Not musically, of course: Richey never really learnt to play guitar and, in concert, his disinterested strumming was turned to zero volume. But, visually and spiritually, the band are lost without him. There was always something spectral about his presence " big-eyed, pale-skinned and superwaif-thin " but his invisibility (they leave a space for him, stage left) makes the others' enthusiasm look ridiculous and irrelevant.
Expectation for the concert was intensified by the brilliance of the band's new single, `A Design for Life'. A majestic, despairing anthem curlicued by strings, the song's lyrics were written by bassist Nicky Wire, James's co-writer and close friend. Though typically elliptical, they appear to be a requiem for the British working classes. `Libraries gave us power/ Then work came and made us free/ What price now/ For a shallow piece of dignity?' The Manics were always in love with grand statements. In 1991, his sincerity questioned by an interviewer, Richey carved `4REAL' into his forearm with a razor blade. In 1992, the band announced that they would release a world-conquering double album, then split up in glory. Generation Terrorists contained some wonderful songs " notably `Motorcycle Emptiness', a militant, Welsh rewrite of Springsteen's `Born to Run' " but the world remained unconquered and the group slogged on. Their subsequent albums, Gold Against the Soul and The Holy Bible, were essentially heavy metal records after a reverse lobotomy. Then Richey vanished, and the Manics were transformed from a successful but increasingly unexceptional rock band into a vessel of tragedy.
In their first-ever interview with the music press, in 1990, Wire declared: `When we jump on stage, it is not rock'n'roll cliche but the geometry of contempt.' Six years on, the group's soul belongs to stocky singer James Dean Bradfield, and this statement looks desperately ironic. When Bradfield howls into the microphone or plays solos on his guitar or pirouettes on the spot, it is with absolute, cliched sincerity. The lanky Wire, doing scissor-jumps, may well be taking the piss, but after six years how do you tell? Certainly, there is nothing jokey about the Manics' music, which " apart from `A Design for Life', `From Despair to Where' and `Motorcycle Emptiness' " is stodgy and unappealing, overloaded with heavy riffs, undeserving of the mythic halo which hovers above it. As for the clothes and haircuts, they are bizarre in their ordinariness. For a band obsessed with the politics of style to turn up wearing khaki trousers and dress shirts, the singer sporting a sort of public-school pudding-bowl, is either a very subtle subversion of convention or a dereliction of taste.
In the end, you are left wondering what the Manic Street Preachers mean in 1996. In spite of the spare majesty of `A Design for Life', in spite of the bravura guitar-playing and raw singing of James Dean Bradfield, in spite of the fans' euphoric reaction to old songs like `You Love Us' and `Motown Junk', it is hard to avoid the feeling that the Manic Street Preachers are just another rock band, distinguished only by the empty space on stage where there used to be a silent guitarist. Richey James, wherever he is now, is truly missed.