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Still Manic - Sunday Business Post, 26th September 2010

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Title: Still Manic
Publication: Sunday Business Post
Date: Sunday 26th September 2010

The Manic Street Preachers are excited.

Having just been told that they've arrived in Dublin on the same day as Tony Blair, the possibility occurs to James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire that they might be staying in the same hotel as the former British prime minister.

Sadly, we find out later that they're not even on the same side of the Liffey - which means the Welsh firebrands' many questions for Blair will just have to wait for another time.

"We've got Michael Sheen in the video for our new single, so I wonder what Blair thought about the way he played him in The Queen," muses Bradfield, the stocky singer who is polite and intelligent, but still radiates an air of no-nonsense toughness.

"If it wasn't for Iraq, he'd probably go down in history as a great prime minister," opines Wire, the lanky bassist whose wraparound shades suggest that he's a little more conscious of his rock-star status. "But I gave up on New Labour when they started giving out free laptops.

Trying to liberate the working classes with free wi-fi and Costa Coffee - how patronising can you be?

"Having said that," the band's chief lyricist continues, "I came up with a soundbite for our new album, where I said it was our last shot at mass communication - and straight away I felt like the Peter Mandelson of rock music. It's got to be one of my best lines."

Wire may be joking about his similarities to the Prince of Darkness of British politics, but the underlying sentiment is deadly serious. If there's one message the Manics (as they are popularly known) want to get across as they release their tenth album, it's that a band of forty somethings can still give younger rivals a run for their money.

Postcards From A Young Man is anthemic, swaggering and bristling with rage - suggesting that age has done nothing to calm the passionate anger that has made them one of the most revered bands of their generation.

"As Dylan Thomas said, we're raging against the dying of the light," says Wire.

"Bands as old as us are supposed to either rehash their former glories or just fade away. But we still believe in the power of that silly thing called rock 'n' roll, because we know it changed our lives.

"I see this as our heavy metal meets Tamla Motown album. It's got a classic rock vibe, but also that shiny punk energy that we've always had.

Most importantly, we're still hugely energised by the same subjects that made us write songs when we were just kids."

Bradfield chips in: "These are tough times for guitar bands, but we've outlasted virtually all of our contemporaries and we still feel pretty relevant.

We treated this as if it was our debut album, setting out to make something that would be uplifting and might get people thinking as well."

Many bands feel contractually obliged to claim that their latest album is "the best thing we've ever done".

While the Manics don't want to go quite that far, they do see Postcards From A Young Man as up there with 1996's career-defining Everything Must Go. If this had been released a decade ago, its string-laden production and stadiumswelling choruses would have made it a surefire hit - but behind the band's bravado, they admit to fears that their particular brand of agit-rock is no longer as fashionable as it once was.

"I couldn't believe the apathy from the music world towards this year's general election," Wire laments. "In some ways we were lucky growing up with Thatcher and the miners' strike, because it gave us a giant target to kick against.

But surely it's not just us who can see what a complete hypocrite Nick Clegg is? I mean, he's just like a bad motivational speaker - the David Brent of British politics."

If Postcards From A Young Man is partly an attempt to assert the Manics' continued relevance, it is also suffused with a certain nostalgia for the past.

There are guest appearances from Welsh composer John Cale, Echo & the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch and former Guns N'Roses bassist Duff McKagan - musicians who inspired Bradfield and Wire during their youth in the Welsh valleys.

"When we asked Duff, he said, 'Of course, I'll just get my old rig from[Guns 'N' Roses album] Appetite for Destruction," Bradfield recalls. "Even though it's 20 years since we were all in love with that record, that was still a big thrill for us.

And Echo and the Bunnymen was the first gig we ever went to - we've always loved Ian McCulloch because he's very much of his working-class background, but he's also managed to transcend it."

Just to add to the album's retrospective feel, the title was inspired by a series of postcards the band sent each other during their university days, exchanging ideas and promising that distance would never break up their friendship.

"I've kept all the letters, postcards and collages from that time," says Wire, a man who proudly boasts that his hobbies include hoovering and collecting stationery. "That may be nostalgic, but it's based on real sentiment. I don't think that in a century's time anyone's going to be poring over their collected e-mails."

Judging from the fact that the album contains a couple of diatribes against the internet, along with more predictable Manics topics such as situationism and the decline of British industry, these anti-technology sentiments are presumably quite heartfelt.

"I've never opened a computer in my life, and I never will," declares Bradfield. "I just don't believe in this notion that technology is some sort of substitute for community.

If I want to talk to someone, I'll ring them up or go down to my newsagent's for a chat about cricket."

Wire, anxious to offer a more intellectual justification for the band's Luddite stance, says: "Those songs are partly based on the writings of philosopher John Gray.

Basically, it's about how we're all busier than ever, but we know deep down that most of what we're doing is useless.

The worst thing about the internet is that it allows people to be as horrible as they like to each other, safe in the knowledge that there's no comeback.

"I also think that the rise of technology has contributed to the decline of rock music as an art form.

When you make music so easy to steal, you also make it more disposable. However much people try to justify it, it does end up demeaning the art itself."

The mere existence of Postcards From A Young Man is surprising, given that it comes just a year after the release of the last Manics album, Journal For Plague Lovers.

On that record they used the lyrics from a folder left behind by Richey Edwards, their childhood friend and former band guitarist, whose disappearance in 1995 has never been resolved.

While constructing a fitting tribute to him was not always an easy experience, it felt like closing a chapter in their history - and left them ready to begin a new one.

"Because it was all Richey's stuff on the last album, I had lots of material ready to go," says Wire. "And we just thought, 'Why wait?'.

We're proud of our past, but that doesn't mean we want to be trapped by it." As Wire and Bradfield admit, the ghost of Edwards will never fully leave them.

Even though the man they call "a wayward genius" vanished before the Manics became household names, the defining image of the band remains the gory incident in 1991 when, challenged by a sceptical journalist, he took out a razor blade and hacked the inscription '4 Real' into his forearm.

Although he was legally declared dead in 2008, reading his obituary in the newspapers brought no closure, and the Manics stick to the position that they simply don't know what happened to him.

"I wish Richey was still around, partly because it would have been amazing to see what he would have done with the platform we went on to achieve," says Wire. "He just had this insanely ambitious intellect, constantly reading the most obscure stuff and then rigorously critiquing it.

There's a depth and a desperation to his lyrics that I would never try to replicate."

Bradfield says: "What people forget, though, is that to us Richey wasn't this great mythological rock 'n' roll figure.

He was our friend, someone we played football with since we were five years old. If anybody wonders why the band has stayed together for so long, it's because we know so many intimate details about each other that it's impossible for any of us to develop a massive ego."

The Edwards controversy is set to be rehashed yet again next month with the publication of a novel called Richard by Ben Myers, a fictional recreation of the troubled guitarist's final days.

Although the Manics have yet to see a copy, it seems that the author needn't waste his time looking for their approval.

"We feel quite insulted by it, really," says Wire, who is described in the book as the "part brother, part unconsummated lover, but mainly best friend and fashion-crime partner" of Edwards.

"It's just so distasteful.

This writer never even met Richey, but he still presumes to know exactly what was going on in his mind. I was pretty close to the guy, but even I would never dare to do that.

There's been so much of this kind of stuff over the years, so we try to rise to above it as best we can. "It's a classic Welsh thing, because we're not like other Celtic nations - we're too insecure to handle celebrity. Every Welsh icon, from Dylan Thomas to Richard Burton, seems to end up destroying themselves and, in a funny kind of way, Richey is part of that tradition."

When the Manics first appeared on the scene in the early 1990s, they declared that their intention was to make one classic double album, sell 20 million copies, headline Wembley Stadium and then split up.

To say it hasn't exactly worked out that way would be a bit of an understatement.

As they enter their third decade together, the band once called the Welsh U2 believe that falling short of their ludicrously high standards is all part of the journey - which is certainly more than Blair is willing to admit.

"When we said that, we were more like pop strategists or agents provocateurs than actual musicians," Wire laughs.

"Richey and I were the chief whips and the others had to toe the party line. I don't feel embarrassed about that at all, because I think you've got to make some mistakes to find out what you're good at.

"So this album is our last shot at rock immortality. And even if it fails, it's better than not trying at all.