What the fuck are Manic Street Preachers on about? And what exactly is 'Motorcycle Emptiness'? Simon Price travelled to their Cardiff rehearsal studio to get to grips with the songs that you'll be hearing at Reading.
Ask most bands what their lyrics means and they'll tell you they "like the ambiguity", and that listeners should "invent their own meanings". Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire don't bullshit like that...
Nicky: "One of the most deplorable things about Robert Smith, Ian McCulloch, Bono and Jim Kerr - the four Great Statesmen of the Eighties - was that they'd say 'The great thing about our songs is that you can interpret them to say what you want'."
Richey: (imitating) "...and sometimes a fan writes me a letter asking if the lyric's about this and I say, 'Yeah man, it could be!"
So you prefer specifics of ambiguity?
Richey: "Yeah, but then lyrics that really annoy us are small-time specifics - like Carter namedropping streets in Tulse Hill. We try to be more grandiose. The thing is, our generation isn't conditioned to think about one thing: you're always flicking TV channels, always switching radio stations, so for us to sit down and write a song about one thing would be forced."
"We just write our thoughts without any regard for structure or tune. It's up to James to fit in. Sometimes he has a really impossible line or something he really doesn't want to sing, so he cuts it. We usually give him a page of words and let him choose. We've never cared about our lyrics being cut up - some of our favourite authors, like Burroughs, did that anyway. Kerouac never used full stops or commas..."
"Revolution soon dies, sold out for a pay rise." - New Art Riot
Nicky: "New Art Riot was one of our first slogans we used to spray everywhere. It was our most grey, political and dogmatic time: we read Marxism Today and carried the Communist Manifesto everywhere, and went through a naive phase of putting Lenin and Che Guevara posters on our walls. But it was the height of Manchester - a barren time for lyrics - so we were determined to say something."
Richey: My favourite line's 'Hospital closure kills more than car bombs ever will'. Terrorism gets an obscene amount of coverage, but subtle things like that go unnoticed."
Are you pessimistic about the possibility of revolution?
Richey: "Working class revolutions always end in dictatorship, because the leader, like Lenin, gets disenchanted by it all, while someone better organised, like Stalin, who no one actually wants, comes along and takes over. I always compare it to The Sex Pistols, who were the best band in the world, being followed by all that critically-acclaimed, avant-garde shit like Wire and Television. I didn't want that - I knew we had to be as massive and as obvious as possible."
"When the Berlin Wall came down, everyone said 'What a great triumph for democracy', but it's just led to the rise of anti-Semitism and misogyny...that's why we put a twisted distorted image of the European flag on the sleeve."
Some people say that The Manics themselves have sold out for a pay rise (the letters page of the latest Last Exit fanzine contains a number of complaints about the band's frequent references to Sega Megadrives etc).
Richey: But I've always detested that fake Levellers lifestyle, I've never wanted to be so strapped by dogma that you can't do anything. Yes we had a big advance, and we bought Sega Megadrives - we're not monastic - but those grey mid-Eighties bands like New Model Army, who thought you were immoral if you washed and didn't own a dog on a string, and The Redskins, who said they couldn't operate as a band because it was capitalist business...well, why start a band in the first place?"
"Leper cult disciples of a stillborn Christ" - Starlover
Richey: "I went to church three times every Sunday until I was 13, when I was big enough to refuse. Then it was football (another religion). But when you've got an 80 year old preacher screaming at you by name if you're late, you fucking sit there and obey, like blind sheep. Next to him, liberal teachers just didn't compare. At school, you walk around like, 'Who gives a fuck'. By 13, most of us could recite, parrot-fashion, huge chunks of The Bible. I still like a lot of Isaiah (stuff about misjudging people), I've got some of it in my notebook. In 'Crucifix Kiss' we quote Luke, Sermon 6: 'And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one kilometre then carry it two'. I've always found that attitude moronic. What's the fucking point?"
"Religion's the reason why areas like this, or Liverpool (where there's a catholic tradition) continue to be oppressed, because a false sense of community stops them rising up."
Yet, like a lot of rock stars, you find yourself drawn to the image of the crucifixion ('Crucifix Kiss', the cross you wear on 'Generation Terrorists', your admiration for Andres Serrano's 'Piss Christ...)
Nicky: "Whatever percentage of people aren't going to church, it's still the ultimate icon that everyone identifies with. In every hotel in the world, the only constant is The Holy Bible. But God never played a large part in my life...anyway, the line you quoted is all about Manchester. We used to dedicate it to Ian Brown and Shaun Ryder. In our town, the pub used to have 'Manchester Nights' and everyone would out a beanie hat on and say , 'Let's get some flares'. Looking back, it seems more glamorous than what's going on now, but it didn't offer anyone anything."
Nicky: "All these Helmets and Pavements are just as bad - they have no deep-rooted hatred of anything. And Pearl Jam are just the biggest load of shit ever. They're all rich - you see the videos and they're in their auntie's expensive house - they look such a bunch of stiffs. It started with Dinosaur Jr bringing a settee on stage. At least they were good at it..."
"All you slut heroes offer is a fear of the future" - Motown Junk
Nicky: A hate song. 'Motown Junk' is just a blur of hatred, a constant tirade. Everything in our lives had been one long let-down..."
Richey: "We always wanted to feel part of a youth culture, something to identify with, but we never had anything. 'Never ever wanted to be with you/The only thing you gave me was the boredom I suffocate in...' The only lyrics that said anything to us were from old bands..."
And you're accusing others of 'fear of the future'? A lot of people say The Manics are retrogressive...
Nicky: "We had no technology at our disposal. The Mondays stole from crappy Seventies disco, we stole from the Stones and The Clash. We never made any point of originality."
Richey: "The only icons I was interested in were the big ones, not the fucking 13th Floor Elevators."
"We are not your sinners/Our voices are for real/We realised and won't be mourned/We're gonna burn your deathmask uniforms" - You Love Us
Nicky: The press were trying to pin a 'dodgy old punks' uniform on us, at a time when bands whose whole policy was 'say nothing' never got questioned about it. We were saying 'You can't pin your sins on us by saying we've sold out." It was a bit early in your career for self-referentialism..."
Nicky: We were at Number 94 in the charts (with 'Motown Junk'), but everyone had an opinion on us. That was the most brilliant thing we achieved."
Richey: "We've always been obsessed by ourselves We've never denied it. It's the biggest thing in our lives. We can quote from every review we've ever had..."
"Deathmask uniforms...hmmm, ever been attracted by the aesthetic allure of fascism?
Richey: "That's what I specialised in at university: Fascism, The Rise Of Nazi Germany, and Russian Foreign Policy. I read all the race theories that Hitler swallowed: Social Darwinism, and all that shit. I love the architecture and the roads...but I did some research, studying old maps, and found that when they built the roads they always made sure they wiped out the Jewish quarter (making them wide enough for a tank to turn full circle)."
Nicky: "It can be glamorous, but on an intellectual level it appeals to really thick people. Racism in the flesh is the most disgusting thing you can witness. It uses imagery of strength, but, perhaps because I've been so puny and ill all my life (I've got hepatitis at the moment) I can't go for it. I'd still rather have 10,000 skinhead followers than the weak, useless people that follow The Levellers. But look at Morrissey now: seems like the end of a career is always the time for a flirt with fascism. At least Bowie did it best, designing his stage set around the Nuremberg Rallies. They lost, anyway..."
"Anxiety is freedom" - Stay Beautiful (and tattooed on James' right bicep)
Nicky: "That's from Kieregaard. He was so fucked up, he couldn't keep still. He concluded that his hyperactivity was his creativity - his anxiety was his freedom."
Richey: "William Burroughs believed that if he could remain in a perpetual state of kicking, he'd never die."
Nicky: "Bands like Slowdive were so apathetic, we decided that whenever we got on stage, we wouldn't stop moving."
"We blur into images of state coercion/Classified machines die misunderstood/City reflections pour out misery/We don't count, cos we hate" - Love's Sweet Exile
In July 1991, you told The Maker, 'You're only this angry once". Would it be fair to assume after a run of melancholy singles, that you've mellowed out?
Nicky: "Hopefully, by the end of the year, there'll be massive questions about us selling out. But then we'll release 'Patrick Bateman', the meanest motherfuckin' horrible single there's ever been..."
Richey: "People say 'Motorcycle Emptiness' means that we've mellowed out, but we wrote it years ago. But we had a guitar that cost about one quid, and a shit amp, so we couldn't do it justice. We rehearsed eight fast songs in James' room perfectly, and practised jumping up and down instead."
Nicky: But we must have mellowed. We can't go on stage feeling like smashing things up any more. It shouldn't get like Pete Townshend, when his guitar became a theatre prop - for the whole show, people waiting for him to destroy it."
"Useless generation/Dumb flag scum" - Repeat (first line also tattooed on Richey's left bicep)
Richey: "That's pretty self-explanatory."
Ever been a patriot?
Richey: "Welsh wasn't even taught in our school, Dim Chwarae Cymraeg."
Nicky: "During the Falklands War, when we were 12 or 13, James wanted to be in the Army. He was always working out, or running...Then we read 'Animal Farm.' The only other time was football. For England."
England?! So what do you feel - Welsh, British, European?
Nicky: "Nothing. I wish we could feel something - we might be more rounded people. But we've always been too alienated."
Hearing 14 year old girls singing 'Repeat after me, fuck Queen and Country' on the tube before a gig was quite something.
Nicky: "One of our biggest achievements is the large female percentage at our concerts. Women are treated as second-class citizens - they're probably more bored and fucked off than most men. Our most interesting letters are from girls. Most girls are more rebellious than boys at school, smoking and shagging in the toilets, but it's still seen as the divine right of the make to be the tortured artist.
"We are the useless sluts that they mould" - Little Baby Nothing
Richey: "Comprehensive school was the most depressing time for all of us. They either write you off of fit you in. If you're not academically gifted, it's Fuck you'. If you are, it's, 'The banks are coming next week for a talk, and we think you should go'."
Nicky: "The role model of the typical Welsh male was a nice pressure to fight against, But now you see so many great hulking Welshmen doing the shopping, it's sad. The image of the man has been destroyed in Wales."
Richey: "We set ourselves so far apart that it was difficult for anyone to come see us. When we played in Blackwood these huge Cardiff City fans were fighting onstage, and, between songs, the chant went up 'Simple Minds, Simple Minds'. It was brilliant! We're thinking of releasing it on video."
Ever been a slut?
Richey: "No one I know can stay faithful. Infidelity is a sign that people can't deal with self-hatred. Why bother committing yourself if you just have one-night stands?"
Nicky: "We're funny like that: very traditional. Maybe it's because in the first year of the band we fucked so many people and got sick of it. One morning, in Warrington I think, I woke up covered in my own sick at 7:30am and Richey was next to me shagging this girl..."
Richey: "So I had to get rid of the girl and clean up his sick. Sex has never been a big interest. I didn't lose my virginity until I was 21. 'A well preserved virginity shows a limited capacity for love'. Who said that?
Nicky: "Kenneth Williams?"
"Wreckage inside all that's real/Another bought product, no reality" - Methadone Pretty
Richey: Methadone's a substitute for heroin. When you realise your life's going nowhere, what you end up doing is finding substitutes for real life. I've got an 'MFI wardrobe - I'm really happy'. Or a two-week holiday."
Nicky: "As far as drugs go in this particular band...someone who has drunk a whole bottle of whiskey is far more fucked up than someone who has just smoked a spliff - if you're going to do it, at least do it properly - hit smack."
"Under neon loneliness/Motorcycle Emptiness" - Motorcycle Emptiness
Nicky: "It's been taken the wrong way. It isn't a cliched motorcycle anthem, although it was originally a Mary Chain-style biker song."
Richey: "Anyway, if I tried to write a Springsteen lyric - 'I went to Pontypool factory/Then drove-up Caerphilly mountain/And drank tea from a plastic cup' - I just couldn't do it."
The line scans perfectly - unusual for you.
Nicky: "You should have seen Richey's first draft: 'Under economic clouds of alienated loneliness..."
Have The Manics ever owned, or ridden a motorcycle?
Nicky: "Never, although the more money we earn, the more we're tempted, but I just know Richey would smash himself up. We tried to create a bleak, shimmering, poetic landscape to match the quote, 'I talk to God but the sky is empty (Sylvia Plath), that we used on the sleeve. Every highway you drive down in every country, you'll see the same McDonalds, the same shops..."
You give off contradictory signals. Are you celebrating consumerism (like Sigue Sigue Sputnik) or attacking it (like Cross)?
Nicky: "We see ourselves as The End. The ultimate consumer generation. Simon Reynolds was right when he called us 'bulimic rockers' - we eat up culture and spew it out. Everything we express is in secondhand language."
"The sword of time will pierce our skin" - Theme From M.A.S.H.
Ever considered suicide?
Richey: "It's a strong thing to do, but only in a mental sense. You can hurt a lot of people."
Nicky: "Mishima disembowelling himself was glamorous...but I've never felt the urge. There are too many people I still want to piss off. And I couldn't stand the pain."
Talent Borrows, Genius Steals...
Generation Plagiarists - an incomplete anthology
- "Why don't you just (fuck off)" (Stay Beautiful): Guns 'N' Roses' 'It's So Easy'
- "You better wake up and smell the real flavour" (You Love Us): Public Enemy's '911 Is A Joke'
- "Daylight bores the sunshine out of me" (Another Invented Disease): The Rolling Stones' 'Rocks Off'
- "Pump it safer than a suicide" (Methadone Pretty): Public Enemy's 'Bring The Noise'
- "Jam your brain with broken heroes" (Stay Beautiful): Bruce Springsteen's 'Born To Run' (paraphrased)