Alienated motormouths, buzzing on anger and frustration. The Manic Street Preachers want to be more than a rock 'n' roll band; they want to be a rock 'n' roll myth.
Manic Street Preacher Richey James appears wearing a red and black pinstripe suit, white polo-neck, old school trainers and no socks. Well-scrubbed and clean-shaven, there's nevertheless a faint sniff of alcohol on his breath. "You alright then?" he asks. Just a little shocked to see that you're such a calm, well-balanced and rather ordinary 24-year-old, is the impulsive reply. Where's the screwed-up rock 'n' roll star with a motormouth and an appetite for destruction? Where's the Richey who carved "4 Real' into his flesh during an NME interview, blood pouring from his arm and abuse spilling from his lips? Where's the cramped, curled-up, alienated youth behind a band who specialise in four-letter words, three-chord songs and elegantly flicked-up hard rock excursions into disease, suicide and serial killing?
Rewind to 1991, when the Manic Street Preachers first dragged themselves away from their South Wales hometown of Blackwood for London. The Happy Mondays, baggydom and Manchester were in full E'd up swing, groovily aspiring to some hedonistic point "higher than the sun". In a dirty room above a West End pub, the Manics appeared in tight white jeans, spray-painted their old white school shirts and smothered their eyes in eyeliner until they looked like pandas. In between smashing instruments and viciously slagging other bands they released their second single, Motown Junk, on Happy Mondays press officer Jeff Barratt's Heavenly label. A twisted scream of punky frustration, it chorused with the line 9 laughed when John Lennon got shot". Magazine covers followed, a major deal with Sony, full-on rock 'n' roll tours of the UK, a string of top 40 singles and a debut album, Generation Terrorists, that they promised would be their one and only release.
Driving away from London, Richey puts a tape on the car stereo, chain-smokes and talks. The cassette plays a mixture of Bob Marley, Nirvana, The Clash and The Smiths. Richey talks about their background. The Manic Street Preachers have known each other since they were about eight years old. Growing up in the same small town, they played football together, went to the same schools and hung out in each other's bed-rooms. The band consists of Richey James and Nicky Wire, the eyeliner twins who look like glam rock rejects, write the lyrics and do most of the interviews, and James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore, who write all the music. Bradfield also does his best to live up to the heroic implications of his name as lead vocalist, guitarist and on-stage frontman. Hanging out in teenage bedrooms, the four Manics taught themselves to play music (although Richey plays inept rhythm guitar and proudly refuses to practice) and write songs, and devoured as much media as possible. Music press obsessives, they'd spend hours arguing and searching for the meaning of rock 'n' roll, trying to work out whether bands were crap, credible or cool. Nicky later explains that Richey was "sensitive to the drama of rock 'n' roll mythology when he wrote '4 Real' into his arm".
For their own rock 'n' roll myth, the Manics pitch the point of departure with the Jesus And Mary Chain. 'It suddenly seemed so easy,' recalls Richey. "There was Bobby Gillespie on one drum looking so cool, and we thought 'we can fucking do that'. And when everything else is so accomplished and so removed from your abilities, I think you need to see something like the Mary Chain when you're young to actually make you do something." Playing 20-minute sets of raw feedback, kicking over their instruments and mumbling sweetly into their mikes, the Mary Chain suggested hope to the Mania. Just as Johnny Rotten's primal scream opened up a vocal channel for a new generation of non-singers, so the Mary Chain informed the Mania that they could also get away with it. "And then there was Public Enemy," says Richey. "We liked the way they divided the band up into a singer, musicians, producer and press spokesperson. It seemed a realistic way of being in a band."
Last June, the Manics played a secret-ish gig at London's Marquee club under the name 'Generation Terrorists'. James Dean had hacked off his shoulder-length brown hair for a vicious blond crop. The eyeliner twins, dressed in dirty black clothes, appeared drunk or drugged, and bobbed about smiling at each other clutching their guitars like life-rafts. But it was James Dean Bradfield you noticed. A bleached fury, he sang with the twisted sadism, vanity, sensitivity, pain, fury and longing that symbolises the dreams of every fucked-up teenager and wannabe rock star. And the crowd were lost, fol-lowing James into that private, screaming space where rock asks you roll up all your unfocused desire and frustration into one huge fiery ball and use it to smash something. Anything.
In a small pub in South Wales, the Manics are much smaller than they appear on stage or video. Absent is that sense of the artificially constructed messianic ego. Bradfield has returned to his natural hair colour and is a quiet, bored, muscular presence. He looks like a fighter. When he's not around to hear, Sean Moore describes him as a "closet egoist". Moore wears a woolly skate hat and kind of hides under it, occasionally speaking with a certain candour and dour matter-of-factness. The other eyeliner twin, Nicky Wire, sports a grin like someone's slashed his mouth to make it wider, an elongated skinny body and the fluffy white hat of a nutter. Put the eyeliner twins together and it all starts to happen.
"People need so much from their bands," says Nicky despairingly, it's just impossible to do it really, unless you are truly demented. That's why Michael Jackson is the biggest star in the world." We start to hit their favourite subject of rock 'n' roll mythology and the suffering implicit in being a rock 'n' roll messiah. After all, messiahs tend to get crucified, don't they?
In songs like Little Baby Nothing, where they work with ex-porn star Traci Lords. or La Tristesse Durera, based on Van Gogh's suicide note (the nearest translation to the title is "the pain never ends"), or Symphony Of Tourette, about the crippling psychological ailment of Tourette's Syndrome, the Manics identify themselves with the abused, vulnerable and diseased. Their lyrics continually reach out to embrace the fucked-up. as metaphors for their own ambivalent feelings towards their rock star status. Either that, or it's a piece of sly fakery as they do their best to associate themselves with the smack-addict legends of Johnny Thunders, Patti Smith, Keith Richards and Sid Vicious.
"Everyone feels used in some way," says Nicky, "whether it's going into a crap job and being treated like shit for a day, everyone feels some-thing like that. A song like La Tristesse wasn't actually about Van Gogh but a war veteran who sees his medals displayed on a catwalk? About how society eats up and uses war victims, porn stars or rock stars, transforming their private torments into shiny products for public consumption. On Little Baby Nothing, an ironic parody of Springsteen and Spector's positive sounds, Traci Lords sings: “My mind is dead/Everybody loves me/Wants a slice of me/Hopelessly passive and compatible…I wanna be your only possession.”
And rock 'n' roll is just the same. Richey and Nicky reckon they are exposing themselves with the endless workload of touring, rehearsing and interviews. "When it gets to a certain level," says Richey, "being in a band, you get humiliated so many times. Anything you love, and we love music, once it is your life, once you get a routine, everything loses some kind of enjoyment. You know when you're going to do press, when you're going to play; where you're going to be tomorrow, next day, next month. It becomes like a nine to five job, like a routine, and routine destroys everything."
We see ourselves as the only honest band around," chips in Nicky. "We admit that we're being used and that we get humiliated. And people like to watch people destroying themselves. Iggy Pop goes onstage and ruins his body every night and people want to watch it. Drive down a road and see a car crash and everybody wants to watch it. Nobody turns away, they always look."
But the Manic Street Preachers don't look like they're destroying themselves. They're a little bored, perhaps, but otherwise fairly normal. "I've probably watched Richey destroy himself over the last year and a half," counters Nicky, "drinking half a bottle of vodka every day and stubbing cigarettes out into his arm after concerts." And then he grins at Richey with that slashed mouth, every inch the sadistic older brother.
"Yeah, I messed my arm a bit," offers Richey, rolling up his sleeve to reveal huge red swollen holes in the flesh (next to the shiny scar tissue outline of his earlier '4 Real'), "but everyone's got their own way of dealing with things."
You see, the Manics have got this little problem. They want to be a rock 'n' roll myth like the bands they spent their youth reading about So they had this plan, or so they claim, to explode into the world, appear in the press, release one scorching album, split up and vanish, leaving a beautiful corpse. The last track on their debut LP reflected the sense of closure used by another band who lived on the edge of what is real and manufactured: Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Holly Johnson closed Frankie's debut with the words "Frankie say no more". The Manics chose the nihilistic coupling of "There nothing I wanna see/There's nowhere I wanna go."
"If Generation Terrorists [their debut) had sold enough copies, we would have split up, yeah," confirms Nicky. And what would you have done next? "I would never have to leave my house again. I'd read books, watch TV and listen to music."
Talking about punk, Richey divides it up into what belongs to myth and what doesn't make the grade. "Punk to us was a sad experiment in confrontation. We look back and see so many shit bands like The Lurkers and The Buzzcocks that have no bearing on our lives. The Buzzcocks sang about love and we'd had enough of that We wanted to hear about complete dissatisfaction, which is why we love The Clash and Sex Pistols, music that would last forever and a point of view that would last forever because it was based in the rock 'n' roll mythology we grew up with."
The mythology of live fast, die young, vanish and leave a beautiful corpse/LP/story and achieve some kind of hip immortality. "We feel guilty for not being massive," explains Richey, "we feel kind of failures because we haven't sold enough records to afford to split up. It's like I wish Nirvana had split up after Nevermind. I wish Kurt had never had the child, it's like he's some sort of representative for American family values. There's not much difference between listening to Kurt now and listening to the wino down the street."
They're keenly aware of the role played by drugs in the rock 'n' roll myth, but haven't quite worked out if it's cool to take them or not. "I don't think there's anything more boring this year than Evan Dando trying to convince every-one he's a drug addict when it's obvious he's just a sun-tanned LA wanker." Shaun Ryder, however, pulled it off. "It was brilliant with Shaun, he never talked about it but a reporter found him on a toilet just doing it There's much more glam-our involved when you're found out about”
Richey talks about Patti Smith, who vanished after four searing avant-punk LPs. His favourite Patti track is the heroin/anal rape mania of Horses. I ask him if he's ever taken heroin. Nicky jumps the gun with that cruel gash of a gob to answer for him. "I've tried to get Richey onto it a few times," he confesses/lies whilst Richey nods like a child. "I've got too much self-control myself. I don't drink, I've never even smoked a cigarette. Richey only started smoking in the last three months, now he's on 60 a day."
They're currently working on a third LP which they promise will be a "miasma of every-thing we listened to as young people; The Smiths, Echo And The Bunnymen, early Simple Minds and the Sex Pistols." Richey compares their work to books like Last Exit To Brooklyn, JG Ballard's Crash and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. "Everything is some kind of repeat, but every generation needs one of those books." Every generation needs some kind of transgressive icon and the Manics want that role, badly. They even recorded an American Psycho song called Patrick Bateman, relegated to the b-side of La Tristesse Durera. James Dean sings from the point of view of the killer, concluding with a near-hilarious chant of rebellious energy as he repeatedly screams "I fucked God up the ass".
Revelling in the repellent, the Manics' most recent attempt to shock was at the end of a gig last Christmas, when Nicky announced: "In the season of goodwill let's hope Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury pretty soon." For Nicky, it was a way of cutting the rawest nerve in rock. aft was a huge Christmas show, a big celebration and none of us were enjoying it. I wanted to do something so repugnant and vile that everyone would go away with a nasty taste in their mouth and think about things in a different way. It might sound big-headed, but I felt like Johnny Rotten at his last gig when he said every-one had been cheated." What they don't like about the Pistols are Sid's swastika and the lyrics of Belsen Was A Gas. Having visited the Nazis' death camps whilst touring, they were humbled by the horrors of fascism and are using the experience to inspire new songs.
"We actually saw human suffering on a large scale for the first time in our lives," says Nicky. "Not on TV pictures, but we went to Belsen, and seriously, there wasn't even a grasshopper, no birds, nothing. It was totally silent We went to Hiroshima and they told people not to take any flash photography. And still tourists were taking pictures, flashes going off everywhere, it could've been fucking Butlins." Richey assures me that the new Manics material will be "very bleak, just like the human condition".
And then James Dean has his say. He talks about the failure of working class power and the demise of the Labour Party. He grew up in the same street as Neil Kinnock and, with the death of the Left, saw all hope vanish. "I've never been a subtle person, I believe in high intelligence and high aggression, and I believe the two mix very well." What about the passion in your vocals? "Passion implies you believe in something and with us we never really believed in anything, it's always been quite nihilistic. I don't like passion, it sounds like very traditional notions of heroic failure." So what do you sing? What do you find in the twisted poetry of Nicky and Richey's lyrics? The pain?
He pauses and, in a voice that shows no fakery, he agrees. "Yeah, I sing the pain."
Rock 'n' roll, huh? It kills you every time.