The agitpop Welsh rockers, Manic Street Preachers, won’t lighten up on their new tour says Stephen Dalton.
There will be disappointment among Manic Street Preachers watchers if the band’s imminent arena tour does not produce some kind of controversy. Their music may have drifted increasingly into the comfort zone of drive-time mellowness, as demonstrated on their manicured new album Lifeblood, but to the bass guitarist and lyricist, Nicky Wire, a captive audience of thousands invariably acts as a red rag to what he calls his “ intellectual Tourette’s” tendencies.
It was Wire, after all, who once wrecked the band’s US career prospects by thanking a New York music-business crowd for killing John Lennon. He later enraged a field full of hippies by suggesting that Glastonbury needed a bypass built over it. Bloody-minded and fiercely articulate, the lanky Welshman is the Julie Burchill of Britrock.
“To be honest, when we were recording the album I wasn’t motivated by hatred at all,” grins Wire, a deceptively saturnine and soft-spoken figure, in between tour rehearsals in London. “It’s just when I start doing interviews. It’s in my chromosomes.”
Still unfashionably old Labour, welfare-state socialists at heart, the Manics grew up in the Welsh valleys as part of what Wire calls the “classic working class”. As a politics graduate who was almost recruited by the Foreign Office, Wire reserves his most acid outbursts for the wishy-washy public statements of his fellow pop stars. The new Band Aid single, for instance.
“I just believe in higher taxation,” Wire shrugs. “If Gordon Brown put a quid on the TV licence and said we won’t have Children in Need, that would be great. If he put two pence in the pound as a tax for Africa for people who earn over a certain amount, which would probably affect me, I’d be fine. Political systems change the world, not charities or individual causes.”
The band’s burly guitarist and singer, James Dean Bradfield, echoes Wire’s view that “taxes are the bedrock of civilisation in this country”. One reason he is cautiously optimistic about the Welsh Assembly, for all its limitations, is because “it means that one day we’ll be able, if we wish, to tax the f*** out of ourselves. I do see lots of hope there.”
But Bradfield is less certain that rock stars can be class warriors these days. “Obviously my lifestyle isn’t working-class any more,” he says. “There’s a misconception that we always thought we were so political, but there’s never been a coherent manifesto.”
Next week’s tour also coincides with the tenth-anniversary reissue of the third Manics album, The Holy Bible, an emotionally lacerating neo-punk juggernaut that has passed into rock folklore as their doom-laden masterpiece, despite poor initial sales.
“Commercially it was a disaster,” admits Wire, who was instrumental in assembling the feast of additional artwork, DVD features and alternative mixes for the reissue. “But I think the key to a classic album is that it’s timeless. The Holy Bible still sells about 15,000 copies every year.”
Among fans and critics the enduring power of The Holy Bible is largely attributable to the band’s former guitarist and chief lyricist Richey Edwards, who was suffering from serious depression during its conception. Edwards went missing in January 1995 and is widely presumed dead since his car was discovered near the Severn Bridge. A track on Lifeblood called Cardiff Afterlife pays oblique homage to his memory.
“It’s just recalling the images, all the things he cherished,” says Wire. “Remembering that he was a brilliant guy to be around. It wasn’t all death and misery — even in misery he could be extremely funny. He made his own choice, he wasn’t mad.”
Although based in London, Bradfield spends “about 40 per cent” of his time back in Wales and increasingly feels “the pull of the fatherland”. Wire, who still lives in Newport with his wife and young daughter, admits his feelings towards his homeland alternate between love and hate, although during sports fixtures he becomes passionately patriotic.
“I do think it’s given me all my good things and unfortunately all my bad things,” Wire says. “Mostly the constant ability to look on the bad side.”
Another bittersweet anniversary the Manics are marking this year is 20 years since the miners’ strike, which deeply divided their home town of Blackwood and helped to shape the sense of fatalism behind much of their music.
“It was like a natural disaster,” says Wire, whose father is a former miner. “It was a disturbing time, and extremely violent to watch, watching a community tear itself apart.”
The Manics can be obtuse, antagonistic and wilfully provocative, but their intelligence and wit is rare in British rock right now. Love them or hate them. They need both.