Radio 1 DJ and ex-NME writer Steve Lamacq witnessed some of the defining moments in 90s pop, but the most disturbing was when Richey Edwards cut '4 REAL' into his arm with a razor. Here he reveals for the first time what happened that night
Whatever you've read is probably wrong. Apart from the date and venue, the accounts of the night that Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards inscribed the legend "4 REAL" into his arm have become more and more distorted. For instance, one recent article reported that it was me who called the ambulance for Edwards after our ill-fated conversation. In reality, I was standing outside the Norwich Arts Centre, the scene of our showdown, confused, shaken up and drawing rather desperately on a cigarette.
If you're unfamiliar with the incident, these are the bare bones: the Manics were an aspiring, ambitious rock'n'roll four-piece from Wales. I was the NME journalist sent to review them. After a post-gig interview in which we discussed both their methods and their merits, guitarist Richey Edwards invited me backstage for a final word. Edwards, while still talking, then cut "4 REAL" into his arm with a razorblade.
Those are the raw facts, the bits of information that I trot out when people ask what happened. But those aren't the images that really spring to mind. In order, these are the things I remember most vividly about the 4 REAL night:
The cigarette machine at the venue was broken, and photographer Ed Sirrs and I were down to our last Silk Cut.
Nottingham Forest were playing and bassist Nicky Wire and singer James Dean Bradfield spent their pre-gig downtime in the hotel bar watching the match on TV. James was wearing a ludicrously long shiny mac. During the 15-minute drive to the venue, he sat at the back of the bus and refused to be drawn into conversation. I remember thinking: "Well, this is a good start. He hates me and I don't like his coat."
The point when the guitarist, in his gorgeous, softly-spoken Welsh accent, said: "We are for real." That's the point when we were history.
The Manic Street Preachers had first come to the attention of the NME through a self-financed, double-A-sided single, Suicide Alley/Tennessee I Get So Low. I've still got one somewhere. It has a blue and white sleeve featuring a picture of the band on the front, striking a pose straight out of The Clash's picturebook circa 1977.
I'm sure they telephoned and wrote to loads of people around this time (I've got a letter from them and so has John Peel). Mine was scribbled on yellow A4, a scrawly note that savaged the Shoegazers, the Madchester scene (including the Roses and the Mondays) and rejected the whole "trip out and tune in" mentality of the time. The final line said: "PS - If we do some London dates, would you come?"
A few weeks later, I spoke to the group on the telephone and they were nice people. Eager to further their career, they said they needed a press officer and asked if I had any ideas. The only person of any use that I could suggest was Philip Hall. Hall had been a journalist with the music paper Record Mirror, before working for Stiff records and then starting his own independent PR company, Hall Or Nothing. Philip was a gent. My main dealings with him had been to do with the Sundays and the Stone Roses, whom he represented, but his punk/mod background indicated he might be on a similar wavelength to the Manics.
The Manics approached Hall who went to see them and took on the role not just of PR, but of manager as well. In the meantime, another contact-cum-friend had arrived on the scene: Ian Ballard from an independent label called Damaged Goods offered to release the band's next single. Dam Good had started life as a punk and garage reissue label, but was branching out into new acts who had the contemporary feel of some of the punk predecessors. The Manics were perfect.
Ballard saw the band play at a tiny but now infamous gig in a pub near Great Portland Street in London, and did a handshake deal with them to record an EP. When it arrived, New Art Riot was an improvement on Suicide Alley but still fell short of what the Manics were reaching for. The same went for some of their gigs. The first time I saw them play was at the Kentish Town Bull & Gate, where they appeared in the same - or similar - boiler suit chic that had featured on the debut record sleeve.
On a smaller, sweatier club, with the audience slap bang in their face, they would have probably won me over in a shot (this is why I regret not being at the earlier Great Portland Street gig, which had earned them a rave review in Melody Maker). But in a deathly quiet, two-thirds empty Bull & Gate they didn't live up to the early press reports. They sounded spindly and looked like they'd come out of a box marked "punk rock action figures".
The trouble was, the playful banter began to get out of hand. They released the fantastic Motown Junk (their first single for Heavenly, and a record I still play regularly) at the start of 1991 and we ran a "Tips for the year" piece on them. But by the time of the follow-up, You Love Us, we'd started to fall out in public. They had a dig at some bands I liked; I had a dig back, making some rather unkind comments about them in a review of another band called Bleach. In retort, they dedicated Starlover to me at their next gig (which I didn't see, but a gleeful Andy Peart phoned me up and told me). It was all a bit petty, but I guess it must have been serious stuff at the time.
Meanwhile, the press they were getting was unswervingly good and, in some cases, from where I was sitting, hilariously sycophantic. When it came to reviewing them on tour, we had a choice. Either we sent someone along who would fawn over them again, or we could go for a more objective opinion. Which is how I ended up going to the Norwich Arts Centre on May 15 1991. Ed and myself got a lift to Norwich with Philip, and we booked into a slightly chintzy hotel on the outskirts of town. With the exception of James - then the shyest band member - they were, if not chatty, amiable enough.
The gig was good, but sorely under-attended. The review describes the set as "a haze of wanton energy and sketchy punk outbursts. Starting with You Love Us, they snap at the heels of an audience split between curiosity and approval: the parochial atmosphere of the gig exaggerated by two people pogoing at the front." After 33 minutes, the band walked off and the pogoers shouted after them: "Plastic punks!" There was no encore, but then again, I don't remember them ever doing an encore when they first started. Instead, after it had cleared of people, we sat in the hall and talked about their songs, and their vision for the band. Again from the original NME piece: "After 30 minutes of friendly enough discussion and vitriol, we wind things up, for the most part agreeing to disagree. It was a good, if cliched confrontation (maybe leaving both sides a little unsettled)."
The transcript of the interview has been printed elsewhere and, yes, there are questions I asked which seem oddly irrelevant now, but there were some pertinent points, too. It wasn't as if I said "You're crap. Now defend yourselves" or anything. There was also no forewarning of what would happen next. Believe me, backstage, as Richey began to carve his arm open, I was as shocked as anybody was. But people always ask me: why didn't you stop him? And there are two reasons, I think. One is that it happened so quickly. The cuts were deliberate but fast (and got faster and lighter as he neared the end). The second is: do you think he wanted me to stop him?
I don't know exactly how long we talked for after the deed was done, but it was probably about three or four minutes. Apart from the odd moment when Richey had looked down to inspect his work, we'd been staring fixedly at each other throughout (Nicky Wire has said in the past that Richey was laughing as he did it, but trust me, he wasn't). By the end, the conversation was going around in circles and Richey's arm was beginning to look un comfortably gory. The blood from the first cut had started to trickle down his arm the moment he'd finished it (until I saw the photos the next day, I didn't know what he'd written because it was obscured by the blood). "We'd better do something about that... you're going to mess their carpet up."
Richey looked down at his arm, then up again, and agreed. At least he gave a faint nod. And that was it. I went to search for Philip, finding him back in the main hall. Trying not to set alarm bells ringing, I tugged at Hall's arm and muttered conspiratorially: "I think you should go and see Richey. He's a bit shaken up." Hall, a quizzical expression crossing his face, excused himself and sauntered backstage. Two minutes later he re-emerged at double-speed and darted off to find a phone or locate the nearest hospital. I found Ed, commandeered our final cigarette and stood outside the venue until it was time to leave.
No one spoke much on the journey back to London. We listened to a compilation tape I'd made up, and then I dozed off in the back seat. When I got back to Brixton, my girlfriend awoke briefly and asked how it went. "Oh, the gig wasn't bad. Not many people there. Then we did the interview and Richey cut his arm open with a razorblade." "Oh, right," she said. Then fell asleep again.
It wasn't until the following morning that the incident started to sink in. The rest of the day was spent explaining what had happened. First to NME editor Danny Kelly, and then to the rest of the staff as they filtered in to work. Ed arrived with the photos around noon and the debate over whether we should print them started in earnest.
The arguments raged, as people took it in turns to examine the slides. Would the pictures prompt fans to copy him? Was it the best rock'n'roll statement of the year? Ed told me on the phone the other day that the whole question of whether the shots should - or could - be used was referred to IPC's legal department. I never knew that. At the time, feeling like a bit of a spare part, I wandered back to the Live Desk. There were two telephone calls that day that put the incident into perspective. The first was from a press officer, who hinted that Richey had done this sort of thing before; that he had a history of self-mutilation. The second was from Richey. By a twist of fate, I wasn't there when he called. I was in our regular haunt, the Stamford Arms, explaining what had happened to a couple of my Live Desk team (I think, without wanting to sound too melodramatic, I may have been in a state of delayed shock. Sam Steele, then an NME freelance but now at Radio 1, claims I was white as a sheet). I subsequently lost the ansaphone tape with his message on it, but the gist was: "I'm sorry if I upset you in any way but I was just trying to make my point."
The NME ran with a news piece on page three - with the now famous Richey shot reproduced in black and white - and my review of the gig in the Live section. Of all the pieces I wrote while I was at the paper, this was the most difficult to construct. But some of it still stands up. This is from the conclusion: "There's no doubt that they are a thorn in the side of rock at the moment. That goes without saying. And agreed, what wouldn't we give for a new political pop band back in the charts? Someone who'd go further than just being worthy. But the fact is I'm not sure the Manics have everything under control at the moment."
The backlash was amazing. The Manics attacked me constantly in interviews (but, fair play, I would have done the same thing if I was them). The famous photograph was also later used on thousands of posters as part of their campaign to break America. Meanwhile, I stopped going out for a couple of days, because the incessant demands for graphic reruns of the story began to pall. The most stark reaction didn't happen until a couple of years later, though. Journalist Andrew Smith travelled to Thailand with the band for a feature in the Face magazine. At the end of a gig, he spoke with some of their fans, and reprinted snippets of the conversation in his article: "We understand why Richey did what he did," said one Manic supporter. "We have a culture of self-mutilation in this country. If Steve Lamacq ever comes here, we will... KILL HIM."
It's not the only feedback I've had from Manics fans down the years. Every year on the anniversary of Richey's disappearance I get a letter saying: "I don't know how you sleep at nights having driven him to do what he did." And I'd like to write back with my version of events, and how I don't believe I drove him to anything, but it strikes me that people like this have already made up their minds about the incident and aren't about to change.
We only saw each other once more before he vanished. Richey and James were reviewing the singles for NME and I stood in the lift with them, along with Philip Hall. There was total silence as they stared at their shoes right up to the 25th floor. But, to all intents and purposes, the Manics feud ended on the tragic note of Philip's death from cancer. It was an event which hit Richey hardest, but we were all affected. I didn't know Philip even half as well as they did - after all, the Manics had even lived with him for a while - but he was one of the few real nice guys I knew and probably the first close death I'd experienced while in the industry.
I phoned Hall Or Nothing to check if it would be OK to play a Manics track dedicated to Philip on that night's Evening Session. A hour or so later I got a call back from Nicky Wire and we went ahead with a short tribute on the programme.
Since then, I've spoken to them on a few occasions. James came on the Session shortly after Richey's disappearance, and in 1998 we made a programme for Radio 1 about the success of Everything Must Go and we went to the pub together afterwards. Nicky I interviewed for the cover of the Melody Maker after they swept the board at the 1998 polls. And drummer Sean Moore... the last time I saw him was at a gig at the University of London Union, when his first words were: "I know you don't like us, but..."