Released on May 20, 1996, Everything Must Go was the album that finally fulfilled Manic Street Preachers’ early claims that one day they would be million sellers.
Yet joy over the Welsh band’s success was mingled with sorrow at the loss of their co-lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards, who had disappeared a year earlier. (He was eventually declared legally dead in 2008.)
Twenty years on, Nicky Wire, the band’s bass player who took over as their chief lyricist after Edwards’ disappearance, admits he, singer and lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore were “a little bit” conscious at the time that Everything Must Go could be their defining moment. “The climate had changed dramatically outside us as well as within us – there was the explosion with Oasis and the rest of it,” he says.
“Even though we’d had hits before – Motorcycle Emptiness had gone top 10 and Theme From M*A*SH* – the landscape had totally changed.
“The fact that we had all these songs we were listening to in the studio and recording we just felt like ‘if it doesn’t happen now it’s never going to happen’.
“All the stars aligned that we’d made a brilliant record and that people were open to that kind of music and the lyrics. I did feel a quiet confidence that we would go from being the biggest cult band to just being one of the biggest bands.”
Though the Manics had lost their figurehead, Wire doesn’t think the band seriously contemplated splitting up in 1995. He does, however, add: “There was a period of five or six months where it just wasn’t an issue, I guess; we didn’t even consider ourselves in a band, it just didn’t come up, it wasn’t the conversation. We were just sat around waiting and worrying and trying to make sense of everything. It wasn’t until A Design For Life, when I sent those lyrics up to James and luckily enough he phoned me the next day and sang it down the phone and the rest is history.”
One of the great songs about working class identity, which opened with the line ‘Libraries gave us power’, A Design For Life was also a song that Wire feels the Manics couldn’t have made while Edwards was in their ranks.
“I think generally I realised I could never match Richey’s extraordinary internalisation and intellect and consumption of culture,” he says. “I’d like to think I could hold my own but in terms of writing lyrics it’s just never going to happen.
“I’d bought a little house in the valleys, I’d got married and I was rediscovering a lot of things from my youth through the poetry of Dylan Thomas and R S Thomas and through the Chartists and working class movements and it seemed to fit naturally that that kind of social history could help redefine the band a bit. Less words, easier for James to sing, all those things just seemed to come together at the right time. Whether [Richey] would have been so interested in that I’m not sure but probably why Everything Must Go is so good is it does have that perfect balance of a lyric like Removables or Small Black Flowers from Richey then stuff like A Design For Life or Enola/Alone from me.”
All the places I’d grown up in and the libraries, my parents and everything seemed to be becoming trivialised, I guess. I think the trivial nature of that era I just felt deeply annoyed by.
In his book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, the music writer Dorian Lynskey noted the irony that such an apolitical epoch produced two of the greatest songs about the class system – A Design For Life and Common People by Pulp. Wire says his lyrics were fuelled by a sense of anger. “I was getting pretty annoyed by the portrayal of working class culture as purely one of a raised eyebrow or some sort of Carry On film. It was all just reduced to silliness, really, and it just wasn’t part of the culture I came from. There’s plenty of humour in South Wales, it’s just merciless p***-taking, not that kind of endless ironic...the subsidy of taking things seriously.
Bradfield recently admitted he had felt jealous at the success of Britpop bands. Wire says he had similar feelings. “From the start we’d always talked about wanting to be huge and all those cliches that came with it – if you get a bit of power use it in the right way – so yeah, there was a jealousy,” he says, “an envy, really, thinking maybe with our words and the things we were saying we could actually do something positive rather than just reinforce the status quo. There was envy there, definitely.”
Wire has described Everything Must Go as a “melancholic victory” while Bradfield has talked about the “bittersweetness” of it becoming a hit. Performing the album live – as the band will on their current tour – still stirs complex emotions.
“It’s all rock ’n’ roll music at the end of the day but there are certain moments in the set where I can have a flashback to where we were just sat reading together or swapping lyrics or just in the room together talking about stuff or watching rugby or football, it does trigger the most minute details of tenderness and just niceness, really, which kind of get lost in the haze of being in a band at times,” he explains.
“And live it’s never been the same anyway because we’ve always left that gap [on stage where Richey Edwards used to stand], it was never the same balance that we had before but we’ve kind of found a way to work round that. It’s more just the little poignant moments, really, that certain lines trigger off. Removables in particular – “All removables, all transitory” – always get to me a bit on stage.”
In the Manics’ early years Wire and Edwards would write lyrics together. Wire recalls those times with fondness. “I remember a lot in my last year of university in Swansea, we would sit at his desk in King Edward Road together, we started putting stuff like Motorcycle Emptiness together and NatWest–Barclays–Midlands–Lloyds, so I remember those days a lot because we were kind of swapping lines and ideas and titles – titles were such massive things – and when we spray-painted all our shirts in Swansea in uni and nearly poisoned each other until we opened a window, those terrible car spray paints at the time were terribly in our faces, and stuff like that.
“Then moving on, during Gold Against the Soul we wrote a lot more in the studio together. The Holy Bible obviously was a different operation and I was just marvelling at [Richey’s words], maybe I chipped in 25 per cent but I was more than happy to let him lead the way because it just felt so brilliant and natural.
“I don’t know if anyone else has ever done it, really, in rock ’n’ roll where you don’t swap riffs, you kind of swap lines together.”
Wire has described Edwards as “absolutely fearless”; he thinks of himself as less so. “I certainly think age brings with it a certain reticence,” he says. “Having kids and all the rest of it. I still think we can put a lot of bravery into our lyrics and the general tone of the band but certainly I couldn’t go to the areas that he was going and it would have been fake to do so anyway because it’s just not me.
“The interviews at the time were completely unhinged, we were just talking like we did in our bedrooms and I just couldn’t keep doing that, as much as I would like to,” he chuckles. “I just can’t take the kids to school of a morning and read what I said.”
At 47 Wire still devours culture in the same way as he did in his teens. “I do but it’s literally a matter of time now, there’s just not so much time. Time seemed to stretch out in those days, being a student or being in the band there was very little distraction apart from those things, just to read and listen. I just tend to listen less, I guess, I don’t get the chance. In my head I still think I’m doing the same thing but there’s not so much time to do that.”
That said, he says the morning we spoke he’d just listened to The Existential Cafe programme on BBC Radio 4 about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. “The only reason being it’s just really enjoyable and I just like doing it, but I don’t think it has the same impact as it did when I was 22. I’m not inspired to write a lyric any more like I used to.”
He laments the lack of bands today who are willing to fall on their swords in the way that the Manics regularly did. “It’s one of those never-ending conversations,” he says. “Deep down we’re real fans of music and if a band comes along I still want to love that band, I still get inspired by young people looking good with great attitude, making music and writing good lyrics, and we still search for that all the time but there’s just something about the digital age and endless branding and a different feel of what you’re trying to achieve with music it’s just killed it for the time being.
“People may have the thought but that thought pretty much gets crushed early on because you’re so reliant on numbers, your Facebook numbers, your Twitter numbers, whatever, those things are determining how you progress and I’m so glad we didn’t have to worry about any of that. We kind of follow our artistic sensibility and build something. it’s so hard to actually build something now over three or four years which all the bands from our era had that opportunity to make mistakes in public but grow through it.”
To coincide with the Euro 2016 championships in France, the Manics have written Together Stronger (C’mon Wales), a song for the Wales football team. “To be honest it really is something we’ve always wanted to do,” Wire says. “Sport has been a massive part of my life and it’s certainly helped me, it’s kept me sane being in the band, having that distraction of just enjoying something which has nothing to do with music.
“Many times when Wales have failed at the last hurdle I’ve kind of had a lyric ready to go but it’s never come to fruition.”
This time happily Wales did qualify for the finals and Wire was inspired to write “one of the longest Manics’ lyrics” in their honour “going through the Welsh from 1958, the history of losing in the play-offs and all the rest of it, to ever since and James just came up with this brilliant tune”.
“It had to be good enough to be a Manics’ song otherwise we wouldn’t have released it but when we did it we approached the Welsh FAW and everything went really well from there. It was just a bit of a bucket list thing, something we’d always wanted to do.”
As for Wales’ chances in France, he says: “I think it depends on the first game against Slovakia. The way the group is one win might even get you into the second round so it’s such an important game if we can just win or get a draw then I think we’ve definitely got a chance of getting through to the second round. There will be so many fans and I think it will be just great to have something to look forward to in the summer, just to be part of something for the first time in living memory.”
After their current tour to celebrate Everything Must Go’s 20th anniversary, Wire says the band will get down to making a new album. “We’re just trying to get some new ideas together,” he says. “Our last record, Futurology, for a band on their 12th album critically and going in at Number 2 the charts was really good for us and made us feel relevant and just felt like a late period mini classic album and it’s got to be even better than that.
“We’re just trying to find a direction, really. We can always write songs but it’s just not enough to do that any more. It’s got to be of a certain ideal and it’s got to be definitely of a certain quality so we’re just trying to find a way.”