Boisterous and brazen are not words usually associated with Manic Street Preachers. Returning from an extended hiatus, though, the agit-prop outfit are in stridently upbeat form. In a revealing interview, they reflect on their enduring cultural imprint and talk about long lost Manic Richey Edwards.
This being the general election issue, it’s apt that, with their eighth album Send Away The Tigers, the Manic Street Preachers are embarking on a vigorous re-election campaign.
Lets skip the Blair back-to-basics tropes and quips about reapplying for the job of greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world: James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore seem more concerned with reclaiming the essence of the original 1990s Manicfesto, the erudite and agitative spirit that made the band such a welcome anomaly when they emerged from the south Wales town of Blackwood in a mess of mascara, fake leopard print and skintight white jeans.
Fast forward in Citizen Kane newsreel style: that audacious debut double album Generation Terrorists; the heart of darkness travelogues and Bangkok shocks of The Holy Bible, the disappearance of Richey Edwards, the majestic comeback Everything Must Go, the Kubrick future shock of ‘If You Tolerate This...’, the Castro years, the stately and melancholic Lifeblood.
The Manics have pendulum swung between icy, solipsistic minimalism and spray-painted Marxist maximalism over the last 15 years, but from their earliest incarnation, they always possessed an immediately recognisable aesthetic, one so conspicuously, um, Manic, that when this writer saw Children Of Men last year, I immediately associated it with the band, even though there was no explicit musical reference.
“I do think we stand for something, and I can’t always articulate that or explain it,” says bassist Nicky Wire, “but there’s a certain identification with Manic Street Preachers, like you said, with certain things that crop up in culture. And this album was about reconnecting with those things. I don’t think we’d turned into a shit band or anything, but I’d read a lot about Pete Townsend with Quadrophenia, how he felt up to that point he’d totally bamboozled himself and his fans with Tommy and stuff. Even though he loved it, he kind’ve forgot exactly why The Who formed in the first place, and Quadrophenia is probably their quintessential mod album. And there was a lot of serendipity with this album, a lot of things really clicked.”
It’s early Monday morning in the Morrison hotel by the Liffey, and Nicky and James are gearing up for a day of press even as they digest the data on airplay and sales for the new single ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’, a rousing pocket symphony featuring The Cardigans’ Nina Persson.
“I usually drive James insane with my worries when I turn into Josh Lyman from The West Wing, worrying about mid-weeks and numbers,” Nicky says, a tall, extravagant-haired character with an open face and ready laugh. James, by contrast, is about a foot shorter, tan and fit, looking for all the world like a demobbed GI back from a Pacific tour of duty.
Send Away The Tigers (the title is a phrase the comedian Tony Hancock used whenever he hit the sauce) was recorded last year with Dave Eringa in Cardiff and Co. Westmeath. It’s loud, anthemic, viseral, sometimes weighty, sometimes playful, and at 10 songs (plus a bristling cover of Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’) in 38 minutes, it doesn’t muck about. ‘Imperial Bodybags’ is rockabilly by Chomsky, ‘Rendition’ a denunciation of military and media newspeak halfway between pomp and punk, ‘I’m Just A Patsy’ a tune Oswald might have written for his missus, ‘Autumnsong’ an Aerosmith-ish big ballad by way of Welsh valley airs.
This time out, Nicky has taken the precaution of penning the band’s biog, a candid and quite illuminating summation of the last decade and an attempt to explain the strategy behind the new record. Reading it, I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick circa A Clockwork Orange, and the director’s insistence to Warner Brothers that the person who conceives and directs the film is the one best qualified to design the posters and oversee the publicity material.
“We always work best when we’re heavily involved,” Nicky says, “and looking back on it, I think I’d just become a little bit lazy on that side of it. Probably the last time was the video for ‘Tolerate’, which was like the perfect synthesis of being involved and being a control freak. And the biog especially, ’cos you’ve always got that terrible record company biog where they’ve got, ‘Four Brit Awards, ten million selling albums...’ I wanted the biog to be raw, brutal, honest, show the mistakes and what we’re trying to do.
“I’ve always got a really healthy respect for journalists ’cos I kinda know how hard it is to write,” he continues, “even if you’ve got to write a shit review of someone every week, it’s not easy to write it well. Obviously you have the odd tete a tete, but it kind of ties in with falling in love with the written word again, not worrying about James’s voice having to sing so perfectly and beautifully, just cramming more into the lyrics and going back to when we were as much in love with words as music. And perhaps we kind of veered away from that a little bit.”
Most bands experiencing a period of creative rejuvenation tend to downplay the previous work in order to accentuate the new. It’s a bit more complicated with the Manics though. This listener has come to regard 2004’s Lifeblood as their secret masterpiece, a more coherent album than Know Your Enemy or This Is My Truth..., and melodically superior to the first three (yes, friends, The Holy Bible included). I’d go so far as to predict that ‘For The Love Of Richard Nixon’ will come to be regarded as one of their finest singles, a truly subversive statement in its debunking of the counterculture’s view of Tricky Dicky, the musical equivalent of Anthony Hopkins’ turn in Oliver Stone’s biopic. Despite its commercial underperformance, Lifeblood was lost treasure.
“Well, I’m not going to disagree with you about that,” Nicky says. “I think it is the one album that’ll be revisited and re-evaluated. But sometimes you’ve gotta be brutal with yourself and think, ‘Do you want to make underrated masterpieces for the rest of your life and fizzle away, or do you wanna get that technicolour moment back to the band?’”
James: “We’ve been very careful as to not actually slag Lifeblood, because we did find a different version of ourselves. Sometimes when you delineate and deconstruct, you find nothing, that’s the scary process. And we did find something, but we confused ourselves and our audience in the process. We couldn’t do that two albums in a row. And I did miss the physical aspect of playing an instinctive rock album. At some point you just want that physical release.”
Nicky: “Particularly me, because playing live, it is the Pete Townsend thing, that it is my drug. I don’t take drugs, I very rarely drink, but live I just turn into a different beast, I generally want to make people happy and stimulated from the brain to down below. And with Lifeblood it was very hard for me to play those songs live. I wanted to jump around like a lunatic and I couldn’t, I was just plodding away.”
One imagines the reason so many musicians end up in rehab is because the adrenalin-endorphin rush of live performance is the supreme drug, and the only way to replicate that feeling offstage is through substance abuse.
Nicky: “I one hundred per cent agree with that, and that’s why, when we come off tour, we don’t really mix with each other and carry on. It’s difficult, the first weeks when you get home and you’ve got kids and wives and all that.”
James: “It’s like those old stories about Whitesnake and stuff, isn’t it? John Sykes used to check himself into a B&B for a month after he’d finished a tour.”
Around about the time of Zoo TV, Bono’s wife sent him to a hotel for a week at a time to decompress.
Nicky: “What a lucky fucker! That’s perfect, that’s what you really need to do to ease into it. He’s gone up in my admiration.”
But if Send Away The Tigers is a more boisterous and brazen side of the Manics, the darkness that characterised songs like the sublime Bacharach-on-morphine of ‘I Live To Fall Asleep’ from the last album is still there – except on the new single it’s dramatised in the form of a dialogue between James and Nina Persson. And, as anyone who has heard the heartbreak masterpiece Long Gone Before Daylight will attest, her voice is the perfect foil, capable of conveying comfort and tenderness, but also steely reproaches to errant lovers or friends.
“We finished the record in Grouse Lodge and on that day Nick and Sean flew home to Wales and I flew to New York to get her vocal,” James recalls. “And just watching somebody else sing one of our songs, there was something kind of valedictory about it. I was amazed that she managed to get her head around some of our phrasing. She just completely did it in the first take, doing the old Frank Sinatra muso thing of singing right behind the beat. We’ve had other people play on stage and sing with us, and usually they take a while to acclimatise, but she didn’t. Being a singer myself, I was thinking, ‘Wow, there is something to understand about us,’ ’cos she’d obviously taken her time to think about it. And watching her sing, I wanted her to be in the band for more than one song, it was amazing.”
Nicky: “She’s got that Chrissie Hynde kind of vibrato. We did the video with her a few weeks back and it was really interesting, she turned up completely on her own, had her make up, no trouble, and then at the end of the night you just saw her disappearing on her own into the night with a can of Grolsch!”
James: “And her knitting as well.”
Nicky: “Yeah, she was knitting. It was really sweet: ‘There you go, off to your hotel with a can of Grolsch.’ But I do think she bought into the dialogue, the actual song was written as a duet from the off, it was a conversation in my head between me and Richey, trying to figure out what makes a country or a person gain some kind of contentment, is it love, democracy, hate, war, whatever. I mean, I’m a huge fan of her lyrics, I think the last two albums are fucking amazing and she’s written all the words. I genuinely believe there’s some sort of spiritual connection, something happened with it, it just did.”
There’s more common musical ground than one might expect. For a start, both bands have mined the dark side of Spector girl-group glam and Motown songcraft. In the Manics’ case, ‘Little Baby Nothing’ with Traci Lords and James’s spell as Kylie’s muse. On the other hand, The Cardigans’ ‘And Then You Kissed Me’ was a nod to the Crystals’ classic ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’. Similarly, ‘Your Love Alone (Is Not Enough)’ is a heretical statement in pop terms – no amount of romance can save someone hell-bent on self-immolation.
Nicky: “When I first gave James this song, he just went, ‘Oh not another fuckin’ song about suicide, I thought you’d done all that on your solo album!’ But although it’s not directly about that, it is something I’m deeply...fascinated is the wrong word, but if I was young and there was a degree in it I’d probably do it, because I’ve just known so many who’ve gone into the abyss, particularly men.”
Me too. I remember in the winter of 2002 in Enniscorthy where I grew up, there was a two week period when more than half a dozen young men walked into the river Slaney.
“Fuckin’ hell,” Nicky says. “That’s a novel waiting to be written. Jesus Christ.”
James: “That sounds like an episode of Millennium or something.”
Nicky: “There was one in Orkney, wasn’t there, something similar, eight of the football team killed themselves over a two year period. But that’s why I used a line from ‘You Stole The Sun’ in the song. People used to say that was a love song, but it’s actually saying, ‘You stole the sun from my heart; you made it black. You’re love alone is not enough.’”
By contrast, ‘I’m Just A Patsy’ takes a word loaded with political connotations and uses it in a love song. We associate the term ‘patsy’ with Lee Harvey Oswald but...
Nicky: “I’m glad you said that, ’cos not many have even fucking noticed so far.”
James: “It’s amazing that people just don’t understand what the word ‘patsy’ is: ‘Is it a word for fag, homosexual, pasty? It’s amazing the cultural gaps that exist.”
Stranger still, the etymological origin of the word is rooted in 19th century Boston and New York slang for a dim Paddy fresh off the boat, an easy mark for flim-flam men and confidence tricksters. There was also a stock scapegoat character in minstrel skits called Patsy Bolivar. And Robert Mitchum’s character used the word to describe himself in Out Of The Past.
Nicky: “For us it’s applied in a much more randomly fun way. It is a real classic guilty pleasure that song, it makes me smile when we play it. For all of Lifeblood’s merits it didn’t put many smiles on people’s faces, because it was a concept album about suicide really, if you strip it to its barest lyric.”
James: “But one thing that we went through was a tiny bit of reclamation of what was ours, whether it be the reverse lettering in the name on the cover, which we’ve obviously revived from The Holy Bible, or having two songs on the album in that waltz cadence (‘Indian Summer’ and ‘The Second Great Depression’) which before was ‘A Design For Life’. We looked back at a lot of our records and thought, ‘When have we really connected with ourselves and the people who love us?’ And a lot of those records are uplifting, anthemic, hopefully with intelligent lyrics.”
Reading up on the Manics’ past, one is constantly reminded of the importance of place. They came of age in a mining region ravaged by pit closures in the '80s, steeped in melancholic valley airs yet entranced by an inherited idea of LA glam. A short hop across the channel in Wexford, this writer was in thrall to gauche glamsters like Hanoi Rocks while hipper metropolitan cousins were listening to Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.
Nicky: “I think our part of the world has always had much in common with Ireland in the sense of we’ve always looked across the water to America, especially the valleys where we came from, and that’s never left us.”
James: “Without disgust, sometimes.”
Nicky: “We’ve never really looked to Europe, there’s never been a krautrock band from Wales, really. When we first went to London we were laughed at for wearing Guns N’ Roses t-shirts and badges. So that’s always been in us. I think Manchester is the perfect example of that in the UK. You look at the Happy Mondays or the Stone Roses or their entire lineage, it was always more dramatic and larger than life and fucked up. Although Manchester is obviously very metropolitan now, there’s a folklore there, and what usually fucks those bands up is moving to London, ’cos you’re kind of forced to go through having to be cool.
“That’s what happened to The Libertines. It’s more about Pete and Kate Moss than his undoubted talent as a brilliant lyricist. I still think he’s one of the great wordsmiths of our time. That’s why I’m always put off by a new band coming from New York, God, it’s just so overbearingly cool.”
By contrast Kurt Cobain is probably the most prominent example of how musicians from the boonies tend to be more unselfconscious and fervent about the mythology of punk or rock ‘n’ roll.
Nicky: “There was a documentary about Kurt Cobain on in the UK about six weeks ago, and all those things you were saying, the way he returned there, into the abyss, all the money and he’s still in a shit motel doing heroin. He had no interest in being cool. That’s a trait of people who come from those kinds of places.”
Plus, the sense of dislocation must be acute when you know you don’t belong in LA, but you can’t go back to Olympia and pretend things are like they were in the early days either.
Nicky: “We weren’t on that scale, but when James moved to London for three years it was a fairly decadent period, one has to say. You didn’t do much other than drink and...the other.”
James contemplates this as he stands by the window having a smoke and gazing out at the Liffey.
“It was only drink,” he says. “I didn’t take any drugs.”
Nicky: “No, no, I don’t mean drugs, I mean God’s other vice!”
“I saw moving to London as an opportunity to drink more,” James considers, “but in better places and until later in the morning.”
So did he learn anything from the experience? Did he return from the Groucho bearing tablets of stone?
Nicky: “I think he learned that he really liked it.”
James: “You know, I haven’t analysed the experience at all. That’s my fatal flaw I suppose, whereas Nick and in the past Richey would have.”
Nicky: “I think Richey’s a really good example, because I remember for a vain few months he seemed to try going out in London.”
James: “The young bright lights of London had dinner with Douglas Coupland in the Groucho Club or something, Richey and Julie Burchill and someone else, and they were walking around Soho afterwards, and Douglas Coupland sidled up to him and said, ‘You know what? I looove Soho. I’ve thought of a great name for it.’ And Richey’s a bit soaked and sounding a bit more Welsh and his mask is slipping a bit, and he says, ‘Oh yeah?’ And Coupland went, ‘Yeah, I think so. I think it should be called Diversity Island!’ And I remember Richey coming back that night going, ‘He’s just a fucking tosser! They’re all fuckin’ thick!’”
Mention of Richey reminds me of talking to Sinéad O’Connor around about 1994, shortly after returning from a spell in The Priory. She asked if I’d ever heard of the Manic Street Preachers, because she’d made a great new friend there called Richey.
James: “We’ve never had one of these stories, we’ve always wondered actually, ’cos I’d go there (to visit Richey) and see her. He kept very schtum.”
Nicky: “That’s never come up, ’cos Richey was very guarded about it...although he did say Eric Clapton had asked him to play guitar...”
Come again? Richey and Eric Clapton?
James: “He said he was nice and all that, but he said there was a terrible moment where Eric Clapton heard another musician was in The Priory and knocked on Richey’s door and said, ‘I heard you’re in this band; how would you feel if I brought my guitar in one day and we just jam in a room?’ And of course that nearly put Richey back two weeks in his therapy because he couldn’t play guitar basically, and he didn’t have the guts to say to him, ‘You’re fucking me up, go away, go away!’
“And I’m not being horrible, but Sinéad O’Connor being there was almost like a bit of solace for him, because he said there were a couple of incidents – and he wouldn’t go into them – but he said it was good to see someone else from a musical background who was absolutely telling everybody to fuck off: ‘How dare you analyse what’s wrong with me in such a simplistic manner.’ And that was Richey’s point: ‘They’d prefer it if I hid in the bushes with a Vietnam military helmet pretending I was in the war, then they’d believe there was something wrong with me. They’re always trying to find a simple way into the problem, which doesn’t exist.’”
Nicky: “But it’s good that Sinead came back from the abyss. The old Pope thing, I mean, that is so Manics-esque, it was so deeply admirable when she did that. We would have thought about it, but we would never have had the balls to do it. It was fucking unbelievable.”
And in her indictment of Church collusion with child abuse, totally on the ball. Hard to imagine the present crop of self-medicating rock ‘n’ roll drones or pop jobsworths putting their careers where their mouths are. In terms of the current cultural climate, the Manics, particularly Nicky, have taken a long, hard look at the cult of nihilism and decided ironic detachment is not what’s required right now. This from the biog:
“Every alternative band has just been sucked into nothingness. Everyone’s jaded. When we started we thought the most shocking thing we could do, because of indie snobbery, was say that we wanted to be like Bruce Springsteen and The Clash...we wanna be huge. Our oddness was our normalness. Now, hopefully, it’s our idealism – the John Lydon idea that anger is an energy – that’s gonna separate us. You have to be direct.”
Funnily enough, this writer has similarly come to detest everything I once liked about so-called cutting-edge modern American novelists and filmmakers adopting macho, misanthropic narrative voices. I used to love Fight Club, but now I feel like the real moral conscience of the film was Brad Pitt’s potshot at Ed Norton: “How’s that working for you, being clever?” William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech alone (“It is (the writer’s) privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart...”) knocks the whole Gen X canon into a cocked hat.
James: “It’s one of his big bugbears, Fight Club.”
Nicky: “Well, it is a perfect symbol of nihilism reaching its peak. I think on my solo album (I Killed The Zeitgeist) it was a conscious decision to be as nihilistic as I possibly could, because I wanted to come back to the Manics and reconnect and put myself where I was when I was 20, when you still had idealism, when you still had the naïve belief that you could actually change something, your own life or people’s lives, because I think we live in such a decadent time in the UK and Ireland. Y’know, James grew up with a fucking toilet in his garden. That is dead. It’s just that whole culture that we live in musically; all people do is get on an NME sponsored tour, go on MTV 2 Gonzo, and before you know it they think they’ve got a career. Then they’re fucking dead in the water a year later.”
In rock ‘n’ roll, it’s hard to be good without looking bad. Growing up, me and my friends were attracted to the glamour and decadence of the late ’60s Stones archetype but at the same time felt compelled towards the blue collar decency of Bruce Springsteen. Maybe that’s why The Clash were such a potent band: they had both.
James: “Not trying to blow smoke up your arse or anything, but the two examples you just gave there is the balance that we had a long time ago. Richey was the one side and he (Nicky) was the other.”
Nicky: “It was easier, wasn’t it?”
James: “It was easier, we had that balance between the Johnny Thunders ethic, but more intelligent at its core, and perhaps the Bruce thing, which Nicky perhaps shied away from. There was always that balance when Richey was there. And I think Nicky’s inherited it and learned how to balance it in Richey’s absence, but that is what we had when Richey and Nick were writing together.”
Nicky: “ I think that’s why if you look at Achtung Baby, that’s why it’s unbelievably tedious, ’cos you’ve got the God Squad suddenly adding wit and irony, but underneath it all you’re still thinking, ‘He’s a good guy, he’s not cocained out of his mind like David Bowie in Berlin.’ It’s a hard thing to achieve. I’ve been reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut lately, especially as he’s just passed away, and his last book (A Man Without A Country) you can really feel the moral core, with such nastiness and wit on top, it’s just beautiful. It’s the Johnny Lydon thing of anger is an energy. Anger has always been one of our main sources, it’s just we’ve channelled it in a more constructive way.”