Lost friends, the state of the nation, the craven commercialisation of the music business: Manic Street Preachers still have plenty to get mad about says frontman James Dean Bradfield
James Dean Bradfield, fiery Welshman, is reminiscing about the part played by Scotland in his band’s amazing story. “The Gourock Bay Hotel,” laughs the Manic Street Preachers’ guitarist, “although I think it was actually a DSS flophouse when we visited. A bloke down the front was waving a syringe about. I remembered how Joe Strummer of the Clash had caught an infection from swallowing spit from the audience and I was thinking: ‘Hepatitis C.’ I shut my eyes and mouth as this idiot started squirting. It smelled suspiciously like ... well, guess. Near the end there was a stage invasion. This big fella – 6ft 3ins, he’d be useful in the middle-row – totally trashed the drum-kit and Sean [Moore] almost got decapitated by a flying cymbal. There was blood, snot and other bodily fluids everywhere. Amazing gig, mind, and I treasure a ticket from it.
“I’ll never forget the first time we played King Tut’s either. It was the first gig where we got given proper food: fish pie with a proper roasted mashed-potato topping. Another amazing show, as was our first time at Barrowland. I had a DVD of Big Country playing there on Hogmanay and loved it. At our soundcheck I looked up at the starry ceiling and thought: ‘F*** me, I’m standing where Stuart Adamson stood.’ It was one of the best moments of my life.”
These random memories tell us a fair bit about the Manics: their love of music and their love of rugby. Their sense of heritage – rock’s and their own. Their verbosity, melodrama and – something not always appreciated – their humour. Their determination to carry on. And Bradfield, as we chat in Cardiff, seems happy in his reverie, especially now we’ve moved on to record shops. “I’m one of those sad gits who still buys four albums a month. Mostly you’ll find me in Spillers, my favourite store here. Maybe my favourite in Scotland would be … what’s that one in Edinburgh, near the top of the hill?” Avalanche, I say, and it’s closed. “It bloody isn’t! Oh, that’s terrible!”
Bradfield takes this so badly that I think the interview will soon be closed as well. He goes off on a rant about philistine powers-that-be disregarding the muso. “They want to save Victorian buildings, they want to save farmers’ markets, but when it’s music and language that’s under threat they don’t give a f***.” He seems bereft and I feel responsible, so I try to find another outlet for him, a place where 44-year-olds can be foostily fanatical about rock. Look, I say, showing him my phone, the one on the hill has merely changed addresses. The smile is as wide as the Severn Bridge.
“Not closed, just moved” might sum up the Manics, too. Bradfield, Moore and Nicky Wire are still here, despite 27 years of fads happening around them, the decline of the record industry, the internet, the Tories, posh rockers, gap-year rockers and politically-feeble rockers to say nothing of the tragedy of missing-presumed-dead Richey Edwards – although maybe they’re still here because of all these things. But new album Rewind the Film, their 11th, definitely marks a shift. It’s their quietest yet and Bradfield – usually so blousy and blusterful – only gets to play electric guitar on one song and at other times hands vocals to the likes of Richard Hawley and fellow Welshie Cate Le Bon. He says: “When I read Nicky’s lyrics I just thought it would be silly to riff over the top of them. Also, my voice works best when it goes past a certain point and is being aggressive. I just had the nagging sense that some of our friends would bring more subtlety to these songs.” Going acoustic seems to have worked; the reviews are among their best in years. Tomorrow night the band are back under the Barrowland stars, and maybe this show won’t be one for the syringe-wielding stage-invaders.
The lyrics reflect who the band are, where they’re at, getting older, the friends and idols they’ve lost, the state of the nation and the state of music – exactly what you want an 11th album to do. Indeed, when Bradfield sings: “I want to feel small, lying in my mother’s arms/Playing my old records, hoping that they’ll never stop” you might wonder if this is their mid-life crisis record.
What about the very first line, “I don’t want my children to grow up like me”? “A lot of people have flinched at that one, but surely all fathers feel like that,” says Bradfield, dad to an 18-month-old daughter. “I’m riddled with fault-lines that I don’t want my girl to inherit. My parents probably felt that way, too. It doesn’t mean you despise yourself.”
So what are his flaws? He widens them out to the band: “I think we’ve been too opinionated for our own good. Sometimes we’ve been a bit clunky. Songs like Slash and Burn were slagged off for being ‘first-year uni politics’. Well, that’s where we were at the time but we were pretty proud of Natwest-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds. That was one of our most prescient songs, considering the two financial meltdowns which came later. I suppose we’ve also been too obsessed and too competitive, also too introverted. Sometimes I think we’ve allowed the spikiness to outweigh the joy, although that’s the misconception about the Manics. We have celebrated amazing things – Let Robeson Sing and, on the new record, Show Me the Wonder – but we’re seen as being political miserablists.”
The Manics go all the way back to Oakfield Comprehensive School, Blackwood, South Wales, and 1986. Surely they can’t have imagined the band would still be around for the 11th album? “I kind of did,” says Bradfield. “There have always been two flanks. Richey and Nicky were the dazzling wingers, maverick and bonkers, who wanted us to be a Roman candle exploding into the sky. Sean and myself were more pragmatic and even at 16 I was using words like ‘longevity’ and compiling a catalogue of our future albums: the concept album, the one where we hated each other, Manics Live at the Budokan and so on.” He chuckles at this. “There was a schism within the party, perhaps even mirroring the Labour Party’s troubles.”
Bradfield talks warmly of his upbringing and that of all the Manics. “Our parents were incredibly supportive of us. That was kind of ironic, because while our main inspiration was punk rock we lacked the one pre-requisite to be true punks which was the generation gap. There were no issues with our folks; we had amazing relationships with them.
“My dad Monty was a carpenter and shop steward in his council yard and my mum Susan was very into her politics, loved her sport, loved music and was darts secretary for Gwent. They wanted us to get our degrees but they understood why we wanted to be in a band, write our own stuff, what with striking miners’ marches coming right down our streets.”
Susan died a few years ago but Monty is still going strong at 71. “He’s been an absolute titan in my life, even though he’s shorter than me and I’m pretty stunted. He even got into a fight at work over the band. We went on TV wearing our mums’ blouses and up on the roof the next day one of his workmates slagged us off. Dad defended our right to look like big jessies! Why did we do it? Oh my God, this band is riven with contradictions. We were big rugby and boxing fans but we were rebelling against the macho culture of the valleys. Add to that our antagonism toward the despotic centralisation of the Thatcher government. Well, the blouses seemed right to us!”
Edwards was the band’s Roman candle, right enough, carving “4REAL” into his arm with a razor blade during an NME interview to prove the band’s sincerity before in 1995 walking off the face of the Earth. He’s the subject of the new song As Holy as the Soil (that Buries your Skin) and the last line goes: “I love you so won’t you please come home/It’s been so long but I can’t let go.”
Bradfield says the Manics are still reclaiming the Edwards they knew from the mythology that’s grown around him. “There’s still the sense of people wondering if Richey would be happy at the way the band have turned out. We’ve made many more records without him than with, and successful ones too, but we’ll never know the answer to that. We were just incredibly lucky to have spent time with someone who was utterly fearless and utterly unique.
“My first reaction [to his disappearance] was: ‘How could he do this to us?’ That was wrong – you have to respect people’s actions – and the anger changed into sorrow. It’s good to give in to such emotions and they’ll never fade. Richey will never become a sepia memory. We’re more able to deal with these emotions now but we won’t ever achieve what the Americans call ‘closure,’”
The track 3 Ways to See Despair is dedicated to Stuart Adamson, the guitarist with Fife punks the Skids who founded Big Country and killed himself in 2001. “Scotland’s Jimi Hendrix,” says Bradfield, quoting John Peel, “although I didn’t know the song was about him until Nicky, who wrote the words, told me. Maybe it’s unhealthy I know so many people who could have been the subject. We revelled in Stuart’s brilliance and we celebrated it. But little did we know he was one step away from oblivion. The song’s a warning that you should try and cling on to the genius you have in your life, be it your father’s strength and homespun wisdom, your mother’s passion or Stuart Adamson’s guitar-playing.”
Finally, we come back to something mentioned earlier, about the band being political miserablists. Well, someone’s got to be. Not necessarily soor-faced, but definitely politically aware. The final song on the album, 30-Year War, crams in the Hillsborough disaster, the battle between striking miners and police at Orgreave, LS Lowry being shunned for rejecting a knighthood – and “the endless parade of old Etonian scum”.
Bradfield says: “I know this might sound pompous, but if there’s one reason for this band to exist it’s that song. I don’t hear anything else like it. We’ve been through wars, skirmishes and lots of interventions. We’ve been through economic meltdowns. Where are the songs about these events?”
Now, the infrastructure of music has changed, the internet is all-powerful, bands can’t survive by record sales alone and getting into bed with commerce to make a jingle makes “balls-out rebellion” a hypocrisy. Bradfield accepts all of this, but only up to a point.
“Maybe 30-Year War makes us sound like class warriors; I don’t think we are. There’s an imbalance of privately-educated MPs in government and of privately-educated bands in the charts. They seem to view a career in music differently, like a gap year. We know from sound engineers that they turn up at studios with their cook books.”
Bradfield doesn’t add that he thinks nutritious meal-breaks are against the spirit of rock – he doesn’t have to. This may make him sound quite unreconstructed, but he’s on a roll. “Mark E Smith created his own language. Shaun Ryder created his own language. Simple Minds were working-class lads who had no right to sound like an ambitious, experimental, krautrock-loving Scottish dream. These guys all had pure, vivid imagination and they transformed themselves. When I look at bands now I see lots of checked shirts, wedge haircuts, guitars worn high, steals from calypso music and, hey-ho, we get songs for insurance ads.”
Way back at the start of the album Bradfield sings: “I can’t fight this war anymore.” Sounds like the Manics have no intention of giving it up.