Thirty years ago, when the Manic Street Preachers pressed up their debut single, Suicide Alley, few could've predicted that in 2018 they'd be national treasures, with 12 albums to their name. But, as they get ready to launch their magnificent 13th, Sylvia Patterson travels back to the scene of their earliest triumphs in Wales to discover Nicky Wire standing on the precipice of an almighty midlife crisis.
James Dean Bradfield is onstage in Blackwood’s Little Theatre, his black jumper deliberately ripped to expose a tantalising nipple, soon hoisting it upwards to reveal a bare chest etched with the words “I AM SEX”. The crowd are incensed, beer cans targeted at his and pogoing guitarist Nicky Wire’s jeering heads. A Mohicaned punter charges the stage with an open cardboard box, slamming it over bassist Flicker’s head, Bradfield punching it away, Wire bawling abuse, as seats are ripped up, a piano is smashed and an onstage brawl ensues...
“Here it is, I AM SEX,” grins Nicky Wire 32 years later, back in Blackwood Little Theatre for the first time since that night of jubilant chaos. He’s showing on his iPad YouTube footage from November ’86, the Manic Street Preachers’ third ever gig. They were 17, 18 years old, Wire thrilled to replicate the riot-inciting bands he’d read about in his vital link to life beyond, the weekly music press (for example, The Jesus And Mary Chain, cartoon fright-wigged chancers Sigue Sigue Sputnik). Back then, Richey Edwards was the Manics’ driver, not yet their talismanic guitar “player” and spume of lyrical lava, their shouty ramshackle repertoire featuring The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks, the Pistols’ God Save The Queen, plus originals Intellectual Monks and forthcoming self-released debut Suicide Alley (300 copies pressed in 1988, yours today for £1500 on eBay).
It’s 1 February, 2018, exactly 23 years since Richey Edwards went missing forever and they’ve just wrapped the performance clip for latest emotive single, Distant Colours, on exactly the same stage where their teenage selves played, Bradfield’s now elemental vocal imploring, “Are we living in the past/Where there’s nothing left to fear?” His own lyrics, they’re an ode to forgotten Welsh history, to the Manics themselves and the furies of the Brexit fall-out. Lunch was from a local chippy which doesn’t serve, as Bradfield notes, “any of that battered courgette-head shite”.
This is the Blackwood the Manics grew up in, the ordinary, small, South Wales town where the self-anointed culture sluts stalked the streets in foppish New York Dolls finery, evolving soon into the kohl-eyed, sloganshirted 22-year-old Marxist polemicists who’d arrive at interviews with pre-loaded verbal missiles laying waste to the thenprevailing culture and their own Useless Generation. Blackwood they deemed “rubble, a museum, soul destroying”.
“Those quotes were Richey!” hoots Nicky Wire today, wearing a fetching floral embroidered jacket and his Oakdale Comprehensive school tie. “A good tactic but Blackwood was decent, it had clothes shops, record shops... and Woolworths – Give ’Em Enough Rope, Transformer, “Heroes”, all Nice Price.”
Today, the Blackwood Wetherspoons’ walls feature three Manic Street Preachers paintings and a lounge bar calls itself PREACHERS (with two backwards ‘R’s). “And to think all those years we were refused entry to the bars,” notes a suited, horizontal Sean Moore from behind his ever-present smart phone. A suited, bespectacled Bradfield, from behind his newspaper crossword, contemplates their young selves. “I definitely felt, we’re on our way,” he decides. “We tended to... activate emotion, good or bad! But there was an activation.”
One week previously. Folded into a comfy armchair in London’s opulent Landmark Hotel, you could say Nicky Wire is deactivated, his disposition one of cultural alienation, boredom and despair. “I feel ill-equipped to be a rock star, in this age!” he announces, emphatically. “When you’ve stopped relating to... virtually everything. I feel genuinely scared. Of everything you say, of how you look, my intelligence levels are diminished. I still feel I could beat any other pop star on University Challenge. But... what does that even fucking mean anyway!?” He certainly appears equipped: enormous shades in place, subtly dyed burgundy hair, wearing a Bowie “Heroes” T-shirt, black skinny jeans hanging low off zero arse. Inside though he’s crushed, by “a torrent of anxiety and self-doubt”, sees a musical landscape of “lights going out” (latest extinguished searchlight Mark E Smith), convinced “all the best songs have been written, it’s not nostalgia, it’s just what’s fucking disappeared, more... a thud”.
Nicky Wire, who has been 49 for four days, continually refers to himself as either 50 or “approaching 50” and sounds, at times, more like 75. Culture today gives him “brain paralysation”, the only contemporary musician he admires is St. Vincent, “fearless”, while the Ed Sheeran phenomenon he ascribes to “a generational soppy malaise”. Grime he appreciates, “the millions of words, gritty, but at 50 it’d be embarrassing to pretend I’m in love with it”. If Wire’s generation are the appalled, bewildered parents now, for the first time in history the young are apt to agree, a generation skewed out of time by the infinite digital democracy. Wire’s 15-year-old daughter loves Oasis, ABBA, her dad’s Sonic Youth CD collection and 45-year-old Liam Gallagher in particular, “his humour, irreverence, there’s a longing for something which is not available, a character”. Shades off, a rub of those melancholy pale blue eyes. “Fucking hell, what’s happened?”
The Manic Street Preachers’ 13th album, Resistance Is Futile (a wry swipe at today’s ensnaring, quicksand culture) almost never happened. 2016 brought displacement from Faster Studios in Cardiff, home since 2001 (lost to the jackboots of regeneration), while 2017 found Wire in a creative void, with more important things to think about than conjuring poetic synopses of the doomed human condition. His 80-year-old mum, who’d never been ill, was diagnosed with leukaemia. “She was given three or four weeks,” he says, quietly, from behind those impenetrable shades. “And it’s the seventh month now. It’s been... a miracle.” Ever since, he and his poet brother Patrick have constantly visited their parents’ Blackwood home, walking the family dog.
“I’ve been... slightly detached,” he says, with considerable understatement. “Parents growing older, children, general responsibility, juggling so much, it wracks you with uncertainty.”
This is Nicky Wire approaching 50, the sometime superhero provocateur winded by reality, by mortality and a culture he doesn’t recognise, a vulnerable, almost apologetic figure. Britain’s premier rock swot, generator of encyclopaedic references from Camus to the Cuban Adjustment Act, is “embarrassed” to confess he’s also stopped reading, “apart from Philip Larkin”. Lyrically, after years of the Manics looking back and inwards through 20th-anniversary tours of their classic albums, Wire’s lone intention now is to inspire, “with beauty”. To this end, Resistance Is Futile features several “mini tributes” to creative figures, including Yves Klein (late ’50s/’60s French Nouveau réalisme artist), Dylan Thomas and David Bowie. Elsewhere, there’s elegant contemplations on a generation speeding into history, the closing song, the Wire-sung The Left Behind, a mournful paean to himself. The music, conversely, contains much signature Manics euphoria – sublime, raucous, at times comically jaunty, at times (in Bradfield’s youthful squally guitar) Neolithic to contemporary ears. The contrary Nicky Wire, meanwhile, rather than aiming a sharpened quill at today’s global political chaos has refused to add to the noise (and will barely be drawn even in conversation).
“Everyone’s always trying to win,” he baulks, of today’s bilious social media. “‘This tweet is so good, I won.’ I can’t join that debate. It’s something of a cop-out. But it’s dangerous, a mire. Which I can’t dig myself out of any more, when everything just explodes, instantly.”
Political moments are now so fleeting, he adds, anything he might say, “fucking two minutes later something else happens”. Besides, “it’s not like I haven’t been there, Know Your Enemy  wasn’t communist, it was totalitarian communism”. The shades come off, a shudder. “What was that Billy Bragg song, Full English Brexit or some shit? Fackin’ ’ell.”
Nicky Wire lives outside Newport, with his wife, two kids and family dog, in a Wales which voted for Brexit. “I don’t agree but I can understand it,” he notes, of Wales’ decision. “A massive working class vote, hard, socialist manufacturing, didn’t vote to remain, why would they? The European Union banned nationalisation. I can’t go, ‘They’re c**ts!’ I can’t do it. I see both sides.” He has very little political idealism left. “Because in my lifetime I’ve seen everything fail: communism, capitalism, neo-liberalism. And because I don’t really believe in humanity, I never have done though. But there’s a righteous young generation engaged and I’m fine with that. I just don’t wanna see it in myself any more.
It would be tragic. As I... approach 50.”
Opposite us a giant, silenced flat-screen TV hollers headline news over sexual harassment at the President Club dinner, sexual abuse now confronting us daily since the rise of the #MeToo #TimesUp movement. Wire, always a feminist, sporadically wearing a frock, can only hope this watershed moment “can realise itself into something permanent, it’s about time”. But he’s doubtful, ever aware of “the human tendency to exploit, which is obviously much more prevalent in males”. The TV flashes golden as President Donald Trump glides into our daily vision. “It’s like watching Peter Sellers in Being There, isn’t it?” he scoffs, of the 1979 movie where Sellers plays a simpleton gardener whose worldview is derived entirely from TV, who accidentally ascends into the Washington elite. Can he see how we got here, as a political historian?
“Not for this fucking madness, no!”
Nicky Wire has entered the digital era against his considerable will, forced to have an iPad for work. “The tentacles have drawn me in and I resent it.” The tech giants he sees as the most sinister ruling force in society today, their data selling, information manipulating, consumerism inflating, tax avoiding, their “taking no responsibility for anything at all”, as “the ultimate expression of capitalism”. Anyone who predominantly gleans news from Facebook, meanwhile, “I cannot take seriously as a human being”. He occasionally tweets Manics news via their official Twitter feed, “prosaic”, and posts images on the Manics Instagram, “because there’s no one on there calling you a c**t”. Recently, his kids made him post one of their dog, Axel. “I was convulsing, there might be a dog stealer,” he quakes. “They wanted our dog to be most liked. ‘Dad, no one likes you, Axel’s gonna be more popular!’”
Perhaps to redress the balance, Sean Moore bought him a vintage cassette player for Christmas, “sounded fucking fantastic”, thrilled to find mixtapes Richey gave him in their university years, “C86, Bunnymen, that did trigger things off in me, it was Richey’s handwriting. But it was lovely.”
The chasm Wire feels in music today he’s filling with visual arts, which is now his sole cultural preoccupation (other than the “zen practise” of his beloved darts). “Art is my refuge, the last haven left,” he assures, “for navigating the constant hysteria that surrounds us, because it’s not actually reality half the time.” This year he exhibits his own landscape paintings and painted Polaroids for the first time. “No one’s ever seen them,” he cringes, the once dauntless Wire turning palpably sheepish. Pressed on his style he manages “abstract impressionism”, citing his lifelong love for Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon. It’s the surface impact he loves, “you don’t even have to understand it”. His future won’t be in music. “James will always make music, whereas I wouldn’t, I’ll be staring into the void pretending I’m a painter.”
Which would make him the first glorious bass-playing artist since The Clash’s Paul Simonon. “Couldn’t be better!” he beams. “As the back disintegrates.”
He rises from his seat, fiddles with his dastardly iPad. Thirty years on from his teenage daydreams over music press interviews, those dreams have now evolved. “I spend hours pretending I’m being interviewed by Andrew Graham-Dixon,” he announces, of the exuberant 57-year-old TV art historian. Unexpectedly, he motions to his iPad, offering his artwork up for view: two Polaroids of blossomy trees, painted over in impressionistic daubs, two series of repetitive, colour-washed images of David Bowie’s Low album cover and Mick Jagger’s face in Performance. The Polaroids are mounted on boards which he steals from skips and wraps in foil.
Has anyone ever seen him skulking around skips in Wales? “The skip stealer,” he cackles. “‘He must’ve hit on hard times, I thought he was in Stereophonics!’”
In the lounge area of the country-swish Priory Hotel, Newport, in acute contrast to Nicky Wire’s dismay the week before, James Dean Bradfield is positively, well, manic. He’s jabbing at his iPhone, which his wife coerced him into in 2016, the year he finally capitulated to the digital tentacles and sent his first email.
“Oh, fuck off,” he blares. “‘D’you wanna join this network?’ Cancel, that’s what I despise, they bully you, the in-built obsolescence, it is utter fucking shite!”
This is James Dean Bradfield in a good mood, weeks from 49, more 35 in spirit. He’s on coffees at 9pm (no booze, driving himself home) and finds much worth, still, in new music (The War On Drugs, Ryan Adams). It’s the evening after the Distant Colours video shoot, partly his “voter disillusionment” song and for 20 full minutes doles voluble contempt to “the vitriol, opportunism, inter-factional warring” inside his once-beloved Labour party, to blind allegiance to Jeremy Corbyn, “who hates Brussels more than any Brexiteer, he hates federal superstates”, to Barack Obama, whose back-of-the-trade-queue speech gets his Brexit Blame, “a disaster, an American threatened us – working-class guys in Wales will go, ‘Fuck you.’” Worst for him has been seeing families and friendships ruined through rigidly opposing viewpoints. “I don’t believe in anything as passionately as people believe in Brussels,” he scoffs. “I don’t have that much emotional attachment to myself. Just let go. For the sake of your relationships. My life is built on the relationships I’ve kept.”
James Dean Bradfield lives in Cardiff with his wife, two kids and family dog which bears the most comedy female Welsh name in history, which he bans Q from revealing, because calling for her on walks “everyone takes the piss” (sorry about that, fact fans). He remains a dedicated musician, “it’s my thing, absolutely”, with a tenacious work ethic echoing his much-respected dad, “a roofer and chippy” who at 75 still works nine-to-five for the council. “He says, ‘I’m not sitting at home watching fucking Loose Women on the fucking TV.’” But he understands today’s musically retreated Nicky Wire.
“He retreated before, after the mega success of Everything Must Go, he was happier in the garden,” he nods. “But he is quite fragile. This could be final. This could be final.”
Does this feel like the Manics’ final album?
“It never does to me,” he avers, “but I am riddled with optimism. I knew there was one more to come.”
Which certainly suggests this might be their last?
“Not at all. But it will be one day. It just will. Not many bands get to 13 albums. I know things change. He might become the Welsh Paul Simonon. But I don’t invite [enormous smile] apocalypse into my head. Nick always says I have a Captain America deflector shield [arms aloft] ‘Bing! Bing!’”
Stunning winter sun sparkles off the windows of the red-bricked countryside cottage of the Manics’ new studio on the Newport borders. Inside the spacious, new-carpeted living room, Nicky Wire is immersed in one lifelong passion which has never let him down: darts. “First double of the day!” he grins, arms in the air at the oche. If he became a darts professional now it would be, he chirps, “the greatest rock’n’roll story ever told”. His darts name would be Nicky “The Wire” Wire, “you’re throwing under the wire, perfect”, his walk-on music The Fall’s Totally Wired. “And can you imagine the outfit?!”
Four sets of flight adorn a table, though no sign of Wire’s prized Jocky Wilson-motived flights. The mighty Scotsman and darts legend told the autograph-hunting young Nick Jones to “fuck off wee lad!” in St David’s Hall in ’84, one of the proudest moments of his life. Those ’80s-bought flights remain, he notes, “precious, rare, unless there’s some reissue out there they’re the last... [suddenly aggrieved]. Another thing disappearing. Jocky’s darts flights, I can’t go on! Fucking ’ell.”
In the downstairs, book-lined control-room lounge, Sean Moore sits opposite a vintage rock’n’roll collage: The Clash, PiL, Miles Davis, The Go-Betweens. He turns 50 this summer, lives in Bristol with his wife and three kids and seems exactly his age: measured, philosophical, realistic. Thirty-two years in a band, he acknowledges, “is a rarity, we’ve carried all the blows, but it’s getting harder and harder to find inspiration, just through age”. He also feels music’s best days are done, Britain no longer “influencing the world”, but sees bigger cultural concerns.
“Creativity is on the back foot everywhere, even within schools,” he notes. “They don’t really want people to think. It’s like an old ideology, thinking! It certainly seems like the dying of the light.”
If the Manics are raging against it – “that’s everything for us, raging, always has been” – he’s unsurprised Nicky Wire’s once incendiary political fury is now more of a flickering tea-light. “We were always more apolitical anyway,” he decides. “More ‘just think for yourself.’ That’s been pretty much the only message for 30 years.”
Back upstairs, Nicky Wire presses into Q’s astonished hands three antiquated, DIY cassette tapes. “Here’s Richey’s cassettes I was telling you about.” They feature his impeccably neat, mostly capitalised handwriting, cassettes he named “CRISIS”, “COMPILATON OF NEW SINGLES: Smiths Lloyd Cole Clash Echo + Bunnymen + more” and, perhaps most ruefully for Nicky Wire today, “ROCK’N’ROLL is here to stay”. Songs he urgently needed his best friend to hear include: McCarthy’s Antiamericancretin, Talulah Gosh’s Talulah Gosh, The Wolfhounds’ Me, Zodiac Mindwarp’s Prime Mover. All three Manics, introverts by nature, recall their brilliant, tormented friend with significantly less anxiety than they used to; he simply comes up in conversation. “You just come to terms,” says Moore. “Because there’s nowhere to go with it.”
Edwards would’ve been 50 already and Bradfield has a vision of him “revelling” in today’s soundbite culture, “wearing a good mustard-coloured cardie, with the football buttons on, Richey loved a good cardie”. Wire no longer rolls his ever-knotted back at his memory, even if yesterday in Blackwood, on the 23rd anniversary of his disappearance, he was “contorted, from the moment I woke up”, wondering if he should tweet, if it felt cheap (when fans did first, he did nothing). “But memories are just there, all the time,” he says. “The chink of ice in a vodka. I can still smell Richey’s hairspray. He would’ve been a true artist. Cos he was so fearless. Much braver... than me.”
Resistance Is Futile contains Nicky Wire’s most contemplatively human lyrics yet, assessing memory, time and loss, partly a symptom of regularly visiting his parents. This morning he visited again, dropping off gifts for his dad’s birthday, “tobacco and matches, 83 today”. The normally fastidiously private Wire mentions his mum several times this year, their relationship a defining cornerstone of his life. Growing up, they’d listen to her favourite music together, Neil Diamond, ABBA, Glen Campbell, “and likewise my mum would listen to The Jesus And Mary Chain with me and think it was brilliant”. The first time he bought a Philip Larkin book, High Windows, was aged 14 on a day trip to Cardiff, on the bus, “just this lovely day out with mum”. His principled worldview came specifically “from our house, political debate, the yin and yang, just growing up being so close to my mum, really”. His family ate together, watching inspirational TV. “That middle-class idea of having to eat at the table,” he notes, “well, I just ate with my fucking plate on the cushion on the sofa every day of my life. Perfectly happy. And we all were.”
The other day, coming back from his mum’s, he slipped into a reverie. “It made me appreciate, if you grow up in a good family, with your mum and dad, it’s just such a leg up to life,” he contemplates. “It really fucking is. I am so grateful, for that. Visiting my parents a lot, I’m constantly thinking, ‘God, did anything bad ever happen?’ That solid base to build on. Always supportive. You can take everything else away, forget going to university, it’s probably the thing, really, that made me.”
Back in the ’90s, an iconic Manics T-shirt featured a masked woman wielding a tommy gun and the words, “This Is The Only Answer To Rape”. Today, Nicky Wire has one new slogan: “Do No Harm.” It’s a striking evolution for the man who once wished death on his contemporaries, for a band preoccupied with depression, nihilism, self-harm, alcoholism, suicide. In today’s PC, post-joke world there could never be a new Manics: they’d be no-platformed out of every student union in the country, banned from safe spaces, draped in screaming trigger warnings, from Motown Junk’s “I laughed when Lennon got shot” in ’91 onwards, the year “4 REAL” gouged into Richey Edwards’s arm became an indelible, iconic image. “We would be shut down straight away, yes,” nods Wire. “Everything is of its time.”
Perhaps the Manics, though, haven’t fundamentally changed at all, still self-contained iconoclasts infused by indignation, to be cherished for however long they’re still here. Like John Peel famously said of The Fall, “They are always different, they are always the same”, both the last of their one-of-a-kind.
“That’s true,” decides Wire, happily. “Similar at core. Nothing musically, just wading through the shit with our own syntax. Our sense of heroic isolation. And raging. Even as I’ve reached this...weak point in my life. It’s still there.”
One week later Nicky Wire sends Q a text, a quote he’d mentioned from doomed ’60s protest-folk singer Phil Ochs, surmising his mindset today: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” Next evening, he sends another: “Had a couple 140s in darts today – happy times.” Perhaps, for today’s evercontorted Nicky Wire, it’s his way of minimising any perceived harm. Or perhaps it’s as James Dean Bradfield decided, even as he raged, that the Manics always want, ultimately, “to be reconciled to something positive”. Thirty-two years on from the activation back in Blackwood Little Theatre, the Manic Street Preachers’ light, defiantly, glimmers on.