Throughout 1998. debate raged in The Maker: have the Manic Street Preachers sold out or are they still the most important rock'n'roll band in the Nineties? We look at both camps...
It was a debate that accelerated as the year progressed, dividing fans and the media alike. Beneath the stream of unchallenging interviews and inevitably obsequious album reviews, aside from the orchestrated hype, previously unthinkable questions about the Manics have been raised. Have they sold out? And, more to the point, do we need them as much as we used to?
When the Manic Street Preachers released "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" in September, it appeared to have cemented their reputation as the most compelling band in Britain. We were, unsurprisingly, inundated with a torrent of laudatory letters. And although there was a growing degree of abusive hysteria - as experienced by Sophie Ellis Bextor when it was announced that she had duetted with James Dean Bradfield ("Real Manics fans must hate my guts. 'What right does she have to come out of nowhere? Richey would never have let this happen"') - it was evident at this early stage that the Manics' fanbase was becoming even more idolatrous. However, many soon found their loyalty to the group tested. Falling below the standards set by "The Holy Bible" and "Everything Must Go", "TIMTTMY" was increasingly seen as an anticlimax on a par with "Be Here Now". In Your Shout, as the months have passed, the flow of pro-Manics correspondence has been supplanted by disillusioned fans uneasy with aspects of the group's music, image and lifestyle. One fan, Belinda Seed, ceased publication of her Manics fanzine "YPF" ("It stood for 'Young, Pretty and F***ed', which I guess I was") after finding little to excite her any more about the Manics.
"You can analyse it all you like, but it comes down to the fact that they're a terribly boring, middle-aged band," she says. "They've lost all their rock star aspirations, passion and energy. They're just too nice, like Barry Manilow or The Bee Gees." "Nice". It's a horrible word, bringing to mind Mr Kipling's cakes, garden centre sales assistants and "Last Of The Summer Wine". Aimed at a band like the Manic Street Preachers, whose attitude to the pop culture around them has always been antagonistic and confrontational, it's an ominous insult, but, crucially, not uncommon. From where has this wave of disquiet arrived? And why are the Manics, regarded by many to be the most important band of the decade, perceived as betraying the ideologies that helped to cultivate that status? "Lu H RT has happened to the Manic Street Preachers? The new song is the worst thing they've ever done. It sounds like a Scorpions B-side. Soft-rock balladic bollocks." DAFYDD LLEWELLYN, Caerphilly (Your Shout, Sept 19) We should begin with what is, for most, the basis of the problem, namely a change in howthe Manics sound. According to their detractors, the explosive insurgence of old - meaning both the punk militancy of "Faster" and the anthemic sweep of "A Design For Life" - has been substituted for something less immediate and more mel low, plagued by overelaborate production. What is indisputable is that their music has become gradually more accessible, a fact underlined by the use of the Manics' music in adverts and television trailers. Simon Parry is a producer for Independent Sports Network and has regularly chosen songs from "Everything Must Go" as instrumental links.
"We use so many Manic Street Preachers songs because they would be acceptable to a lot of our viewers and would be instantly recognised," he says. "It was a functional decision -they are usually the right length, very catchy and dynamic."
The Welsh Tourist Board used the Sonic Stealth Brothers' remix of "A Design For Life" in an advert promoting Wales, a decision that Robin Gwyn from the WTB agrees was engendered by a greater maturity in both the Manics' outlook and music.
"The first Manics album was full of polemical power, but when you're 28 you have different concerns than you did when you were 18. You tend to reassess what you think about certain issues. Their later output has been useful in marketing Wales, because it's more amenable to a wider demographic." Although few people will begrudge the Manics this level of exposure, it does raise the issue of whether the Manics are infiltrating the mainstream or being assimilated by it. Who is subverting who? As one Manics insider has asked, "How long will it be before 'The Everlasting' is used to advertise dog food?" Probably the most spiteful slur thrown at the Man ics on the release of "TIMTTMY' was that they now belonged to the cosily mundane universe of Radio 2. While Geoff Mullin, chief of Radio 2's playlist, declined to include 'If You Tolerate This...', general criticism of the album suggests that it wasn't such a fanciful comparison.
A self-confessed fan, Louis Eliot (now of Rialto) toured with the Man ics when hi was the singer of Kinky Machine, a time when he "loved" "Generation Terrorists". His response to the new material, however, is decidedly lukewarm. "I think it's an honest album, even if it's a bit worthy and earnest. It is quite safe in a way, and there aren't many tracks that leap out at you and make you want to like them."
Belinda Seed is more emphatic. "i didn't give a f*** about 'If You Tolerate This....'. It passed me by like an amoeba in the night. It's the sort of music which five years ago you'd listen to 'Generation Terrorists' specifically to escape from."
Praise, especially from existing fans, is never unequivocal and is often tempered by specific reservations. Journalist Linda Duff celebrated the embryonic Manics in the Daily Star.
"'If You Tolerate This...' is an OK record. It's good enough. They still have memorable melodies, but the lyrics could be improved," she says. Simon Price, a long-term fan and author of the forthcoming "Everything: A Book About The Manic Street Preachers" rates it as "their third-best album." "It's not their best - and to say that it is is the kind of delusion that every band has, like a mother giving birth to the.Elephant Baby and saying, 'It's beautiful'," he says.
But Simon dismisses the argument that suggests that the Man ics are "selling out" to a more banal MOR sound.
"It's nonsense to talk about anyone selling out, but especially in the Manics' case because they never ever said they wanted to do anything other than reach the largest possible audience. 'The Holy Bible' was an aberration. On every other album, they've attempted to sneak noncommercial lyrics through commercial rock music, so I think people should be asking why they did 'The Holy Bible', not why they've done 'This Is My Truth...'."
Nevertheless, part of the problem may be that "The Holy Bible" has come to be regarded - even more so than "Everything Must Go" - as the definitive Manics album, and the one against which their supposed "blandness" is disparagingly judged. Even allowing for the trauma of Richey's disappearance, did "The Holy Bible" prepare us for a style (and quality) of music and intensity of performance which the band had neither the talent nor the drive to sustain?
"Nicky's lyrics are nowhere near as important as Richey's. . . once the Manics were everything to me, my entire life summed up, my ultimate. Now I can't bear them." MAIREAD O'MUILLEOIR, Ireland (Your Shout, December 5) When the Manics first cut through the barbed wire of journalistic suspicion back in the early Nineties, they were armed with the boast that they wanted to be the biggest band in the world. Such aggressive egotism, in a climate of pre-Oasis, indie-schmindie reticence, was genuinely thrilling. That the music flirted with MOR influences, however beautifully, was disguised by the combined effect of media-baiting rhetoric, titillating androgyny, self-destructive glamour and encyclopaedic intellectualism. If the music was ever dull, the personality behind it never was. But now we must wonder whether they have the character, the desire, the image, the urgency and the lyrical dexterity to surmount- rather than reinforce-the stereotypes implied by MOR. If they haven't, are they merely a pale embodiment of the music?
Few people ever expected Nicky to eclipse Richey's lyrical ability which, at its best, was able to conjure poetry from the most brutal of subjects (for example, "A drained white body hanging from the gallows/Is more righteous than Hindley's crochet lectures" from "Archives Of Pain"). But, without this untethered rage as a foil, does Nicky fall back on predictable, oblique truisms (check the cringeworthy "The world is full of refugees/They're just like you and just like me"from "The Everlasting"), as hackneyed as Richey was inspired? Simon Price suggests that any contrast is down to fundamental differences in the two characters.
"Richey Edwards was a genius and simply the most intelligent person I've ever met, but Nicky is a hard worker and a deep thinker. He's tried to make the lyrics as simple as possible, but he's simplified them to them to the point of meaninglessness. However, 'Ready For Drowning' is an incredible three-way metaphor and ' Born A Girl' I find very moving."
There are some, Socialist Worker journalist Martin Smith for example, who think this simplification helps to unravel the Manics' postmodern politics.
"Look at Asian Dub Foundation's 'Free Satpal Ram'. Previously the Manics were incapable of that directness. Today I think they're actually more political, and manage to communicate their message to a lot more people. It's fantastic that we had a Number One song about the Spanish Civil War. Loads of kids have had their awareness of it raised due to the Manics and they often contact us to find out more. Consequently, we've printed an article about it."
Smith, who helped to book the Manics on an Anti-Nazi charity concert in 1993, does have one reservation. Referring to "SYMM", the last song on "TIMTTMY", he says, "Although it is good that they're singing about Hillsborough, I do find the actual song extremely insulting. He seems to be saying that there's nothing much left to say on the matter."
It's a subject of intense sensitivity.
Some letters to Your Shout have taken it as evidence that the Manics care more about being "enigmatic than "political". Others have bemoaned the inappropriateness of Nicky's lyrical tone - resigned, introspective, self-obsessed -given the highly charged emotions connected with the tragedy. Simon Price calls it "unforgivable lyrically".
As a researcher at the Institute of Popular Music in Liverpool and a passionate Liverpool supporter, Cathy Long remains uncertain about both the song's intention and potency.
"It seems strange that they should initial ise the title of the song, getting precious about offending anyone when the phrase 'South Yorkshire Mass Murderer' appears in the chorus," she says. "However, if that was the only way for the issue to be raised, then so be it. But they are not saying what should be done. Consequently, it does little to raise the campaign for justice. The song is removed, diffident and almost objective. There was an opportunity to write a really good song about Hillsborough, but I don't think this is it."
"Fame always, always,always,changes people, and always for the worst. Commercial, complacent, compliant - who was it who thought up the idea of the truth box'? Was it Nicky Wire or, as I suspect, some slick Sony bureaucrap?" MAO, Cardiff (Your Shout, October 10)
Another accusation levelled at the Manics is that they are waddling towards commercial self-parody, a particularly significant charge given the dynamism with which they used to re-invent themselves. One prominent feature of their recent incarnation has been a desire to promote their Welshness without the post-adolescent bitterness of yore, a development not lost on Robin Gwyn.
"Early on, they were reluctant to emphasise their Welshness because it may have been a barrier to commercial success. But now they feel a lot more comfortable with their roots and will wave the Welsh flag at social occasions."
But when does the red dragon become just another cliche, negated through repetition? And why have the band and the fans, for whom the flag, along with feather boas and tiaras is now part of the accepted Manics-related accoutrements, conveniently forgotten the jingoistic implications? Simon Price sees little value in the pursuit of Welsh national ism.
"Speaking as a Welshman, I'm tired of it all. What happened to 'Uselessgeneration/ Dumb flag scum'?l think national ism is a completely bogus motivation. Just because we're a plucky underdog doesn't change that fact. Flying the flag for Andorra or America is essentially the same thing."
Equally misguided seems to be Nicky's self-promotion as, in Simon's words, "The Hoovering Guy with a capital H and a capital G." Once, the image of Nicky's hooveringwas an amusingly domestic antidote to the music-biz schmooze-a-thon he so detests. Now, like the over-reliance on the red dragon, some find it symbolic of a creative vacuum.
Price: "I remember I saw Larry Grayson as a celebrity contestant on a game show years ago. He was outwitted by someone, the camera lingered on his face for an awkward few seconds, he had nothing funny to say and just said, 'Shut that door.' That's N icky Wire now. In the absence of anything else to say he just says, 'I like hoovering."'
Seed: "Forget hoovering. I want to read about sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. I was more interested in the Manics when Richey was going through his troubles-it'd be more compelling to read and I'd get a kick out of it."
Belinda feels that the Man ics use "the Richey factor" as a get-out clause, casually implementing it whenever they are accused of complacency or apathy.
"Losing Richey has had a profound effect, but does that mean that everything has to be so drab and introspective? Tragedy doesn't mean you have to sacrifice all your vitality or that you should dress down."
Like Belinda, many fans feel that for the Manics-one of the few bands in the Nineties to real ise the impact of image and then successfully ally it to the music- to look, in her phrase, "like golfers" is another case of treachery. This is, remember, the same group that provoked a record number of complaints by performing "Faster" on "Top Of The Pops" with James wearing a terrorist-style balaclava.
"It's obvious now that Richey was the one into clothes," says Gold Blade singer John Robb who, as a Sounds journalist, interviewed them for their first music paper front cover.
"In photos before Richey joined, they look just like any other indie band," he says. "However, they must feel very funny about pursuing an area of the band which Richey previously controlled."
But Belinda Seed refuses to see why this should shackle them.
"They simply can't be arsed about image any more. They'll never be visually interesting ever again. They think that they've had a Number One, so they don't need to bother with being a pop group any more."
Tellingly, tribute band Generation Preachers have stuck with the old leopardskin/boas/eye-liner image. James Dean Bradfield impersonator Lee Small cites a preference among the fans.
"They get sentimental for the Manics as they were. There's less aggression in the new songs and live they do lack the charisma and the buzz of old. There's less adrenalised energy, so to keep it interesting, we concentrate on their old look."
Which presumably means there is very little interesting about their new look.
"Don't really know howto feel about the Manics single. It's rather atypical fare. This band is worth more than The Verve, Radiohead... I want a f***ing reason to keep believing, dammit" DAN HARDING, Kent (Your Shout, August 15)
So why, after all this, do we still care? Well, mainly because we remember the Man ics as the most brilliant of pop groups, an ultramodern, violently original panorama of ideas. They were the anti-Radiohead, the anti-Verve, disciplined agitators uniquely focussed amid a sea of vague, introverted dullards. Furthermore, we want to love the Manics. We have nothing to gain from seeing our most volatile, outraged, intelligent, magnetic, socially and politically cognisant pop group slip sorrowfully into the shadows. But the Manics seem to be carefully steering themselves away from the demands of success, becoming just another pop group, the epitome of an attitude they once so eloquently despised. And when that transition is complete, when people actually start to use the word "nice" as a compliment, they will hardly be able to blame long-standing fans for expressing their disenchantment as passionately as they formerly expressed their devotion. When such a time arrives, the contentious question, "Have they sold out?" may well be met by a flippant, "Who cares?"