Already reborn once, the Manic Street Preachers are doing it again
The first time the Manics had to prove their relevance was when they first emerged from Blackwood, in South Wales, at the end of the 1980s as an outspoken, outrageous punk-glam band who looked extraordinary, gave great quote and rapidly attracted a small, faithful following and a large number of detractors who reckoned their PR value outshone their musical worth.
They proved their worth then in two ways. First, in the headline-grabbing moment when their guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards carved the phrase “4 Real” into his arm (a wound that required 17 stitches); and second, with their critically acclaimed third album, The Holy Bible, whose bleak and disturbing lyrics won comparisons to Nirvana’s In Utero.
Then Edwards disappeared, presumed to have killed himself, after his abandoned car was found near the Severn bridge. Although musically inept, Edwards was seen by hardcore Manics fans as the key figure in the band. The remaining trio - Wire, the singer James Dean Bradfield and the drummer Sean Moore - could either quit or continue without the band’s spiritual leader. Faced with this seemingly no-win situation, they won. Remarkably, they made their best album, 1996’s Everything Must Go, which is rereleased this week in a 10th-anniversary three-disc set. Wire, who describes himself as “the sad archivist” of the band, has unearthed a treasure trove of outtakes, demos, rehearsal tapes and live recordings. It’s hard to argue with his claim that they represent “the most intimate portrait of a band about to fulfil its promise ever released”.
Although The Holy Bible is now considered a classic album, it sold poorly at the time and the band were in danger of being dropped. They needed to start generating record sales that matched their profile. They knew they were in with a chance when they played their first live date as a trio, supporting the Stone Roses. “After that gig, the Stone Roses sound guy came up to us and said, ‘My God, that song that goes der-der der-der-der-der,” remembers Wire. The song he was describing was A Design for Life, the single that launched the new Manics, propelling them to the level of multi-platinum-selling arena-fillers. It may have boasted glossy production, sweeping strings and an uplifting chorus, but its lyrical heart was true to the band’s socialist ideals.
Wire wrote the words as a riposte to Britpop’s excesses. “The first inspiration was Damon Albarn and his take on the working class. I really admire Damon, but that was unbelievably patronising - to imply that a working class that could think, be creative, be loving couldn’t exist, that they were all idiots. I felt very unhappy and cross, it was gnawing away at me. I just wanted to write something about the welfare state, libraries: not really the general stuff of lyrics, but I felt bitter.”
“It’s about the other kind of working-class escapism,” adds Moore. “Escape through education.”
The title track of Everything Must Go is extraordinary - it tells their fans that the band are sloughing off their history, adding: “I just hope that you can forgive us.” A nice touch.
“Well, yeah,” says Wire, “but I found the original lyrics while we were putting this special edition together, and they said ‘blow a hole through you’ - slightly more nasty towards our audience, but this was the new Manics and we were turning into a nicer band than that.” Sloughing off history isn’t that simple, though, and Bradfield talks movingly about the difficulties of their early gigs without Edwards, before sighing and adding, “Still, a healthy trait of our upbringing is that we just plough on.”
Or at least they did until April last year, when the band announced that they would take a two-year break. Their 2004 album Lifeblood had sold poorly and they needed time to rethink. The band’s work ethic kicked in, and Bradfield and Wire have brought out solo albums this year that have been well received by critics. Thus, the Manics in 2006 find themselves in a situation not unlike the one they faced before Everything Must Go’s initial release. At least, they do if you listen to Wire.
“You can carry on as a band, you can play gigs, you can sell records, but if you don’t resonate within the culture, it just... I don’t know how bands continue,” he says.
Bradfield looks at him quizzically. “I don’t quite get all that stuff,” he says. “You can be gloriously out of step with what’s going on around you and still feel there’s some substance to what you’re doing. And sometimes I think that’s what we’re going to be.”
The solo albums acted as a reality check, says Wire, who is worried that the band were becoming complacent. “You come off stage and you’ve played to thousands of people, and you think everything’s okay - but really it’s not.”
“I’m in the ‘It’s all about the music’ lobby,” says Bradfield.
“You know you’re not,” counters Wire. “We grew up on music having the power to be more than just music. That seems to have disappeared.”
To illustrate his point that bands should mean something, Wire recounts a recent meeting with a fan who had just finished a masters degree on the connections between the Anglesey-based landscape painter Kyffin Williams and the Nobel-nominated Welsh poet RS Thomas - both of whose work she’d been introduced to via Manics songs. “I think we’ve inspired a lot more students than bands,” he says.
There follows a light-hearted argument between Wire and Bradfield, during which Wire’s targets range from bands who claim to be influenced by the Clash, but lack their authenticity, through to Johnny Cash, who “somehow gets some rebel chic by playing in a prison and saying the guards are the bad guys. Hang about, you’ve got f***ing mass murderers and paedophiles in there”.
Bradfield turns to me. “Welcome to our world. You have managed to unlock our world,” he says, before turning his attention back to Wire, about to launch another diatribe. “Stay away from the names, now, stay away from the names,” he urges. “Oh, it’s all right,” says Wire. “He’s already got the headline: Johnny Cash is a c***.”
One thing all three agree on is that the break has served its purpose - re-energising the band as they work on their new album. “I think we’re more focused, and I think we all look forward to it more. It’s more fun,” says Moore. The argument begins again, veering off into culinary areas: the decline of both the Great British Fry-up and the Decent Cuppa. “Boil the water fresh - and never reboil the same water,” advises Bradfield, “which is probably also a good metaphor for our new album.”