It started with an angry, hand-written scrawl to The Maker - and grew into a national institution of sloganeering and attitude. With a now album in the bag. we look back on the schizophrenic career of the Manic Street Preachers in Part One of this series
They'd been fermenting all _through their teenage years on the desolate peripheries of modern urban pop life, in Blackwood, Gwent, a place where, as they put it later, "all you've got is music and the music press". They'd hungrily consumed all the culture they could get their hands on, from the relative ephemera of the rock weeklies to maverick, romantic literary figures such as Blake, Rimbaud and Burroughs. They'd eaten up all the bands they'd been told to in the late Eighties and found them utterly wanting- indie no-hopers.
"We'd take the bus to Cardiff, which took an hour- a real drag- buy Singles Of The Week like The Wedding Present and get them home and they'd be total shit."
Fuelled by a Molotov cocktail of cheap drugs and adolescent fervour, the Manic Street Preachers wanted to explode all over the rock scene. They wanted to cause tidal waves of insurrection and old-fashioned rock'n'roll rebellion. Otherwise, what was the point? So when it came to sowing their first landmine in 1990, they wrote letters out of Nowhereland, one of which reached Melody Maker.
It read like the sort of manifestos the Futurists used to thunder out during the years of artistic convulsion at the beginning of the century. Typed up by Nicky Wire, it complained of the lack of "heroin-tainted rock'n'roll", prayed for violence and alienation, a rock'n'roll turnaround equivalent to the recent revolution in Romania and declared a new rock'n'roll Holy Trinity of "destruction, sex and heroin" which was, they claimed, "all they knew".
Curious, we made efforts to get back in touch, but met with little joy and eventually forgot about them. It wouldn't stay that way for long.
In 1991 the Manics had arrived in London and hooked up with their manager, the late Philip Hall, dossing down in his flat and playing a few of the usual toilets before swagging a deal in quick time. When The Maker met them, they one-by-one berated the most cherished left-field bands of the day.
Primal Scream "go in at Number 24 and then drop out the next week, which shows how worth less they are", The Charlatans were "even f***ing worse", Happy Mondays "don't offer any hope".
"Bands like Northside," sneered Richey of those Stone Roses contemporaries long since consigned to oblivion, "they say they reflect their own culture and where they come from, but that's boring. Where we come from, people come home from work in their dirty, filthy overalls and they just wanna dress up. Also, Northside and the rest are so traditionally male."
In a second interview with The Maker that Christmas, Richey warmed further to this theme with reference to honest crustierockers the Levellers. "You can tell they're middle-class poseurs because they wanna dress down like scummy people. The working-class tradition has always been to be clean and dress up. The last thing we ever wanted to do was wear rags. You could go to any Levellers concert and shout 'Jeremy!' and 75 per cent of the audience would turn round."
And what of The Smiths? Talking to The Maker in 1991, Nicky asserted: "All our friends at school were faced with the choice of [outrageous Eighties glam rockers] Hanoi Rocks and The Smiths and they chose Hanoi Rocks every time. I don't blame them. The Smiths really enforced this idea of living in a shithole and wallowing in your own misery."
So there you had it. Coming, as they did, from the grim reality of an urban landscape of grey non-achievement, they had no patience for indie's grey non-achievers. What the Manics proposed on paper was their own fiercely ideological collage of anarcho-chic, art terrorism, androgyny, glamour, suicidal tendencies, cut-up neoSituationist sloganeering and good old-fashioned shock-of-the-new rock'n'roll rebellion.
They cited Public Enemy and Guns N' Roses as influences. They wore white trousers, slogan-stencilled T-shirts, feather boas, fake leopardskin, dripped with mascara, stylistic re-hashes of every glam rebel in the book. They looked every inch the part. There was just one problem.
Or so The Maker was forced, reluctantly, to conclude on the strength of "Motown Junk", their "curiously muted" Heavenly debut which struck the reviewers as a weedy rehash of 1978. "The Manics are all that rock'n'roll should be. Now go make a record to back it up. Then we can all f*** off and die."
Others were still less impressed. One Maker live review scoffed at their "shortarse, short-arm jabs, their poxy powerchords", accused them of being the post-punk equivalent of Elvis impersonators and concluded, "A swift blow to the head should see them off."
The satirists of The Maker's TTT pages announced witheringly, "You've had The Australian Doors, The Scottish Sex Pistols. Now here's The Welsh Clash."
In May 1991, they responded with legendary, albeit self-inflicted, savagery to their detractors. Steve Lamacq, in his pre-Radio 1 days, took a sceptical line with the band, probing for substance beneath the anarcho-glam, until Richey, feeling cornered and goaded, took out a blade and sliced "4 REAL" into his arm. (Photos of this would later be used for the band's US press campaign). This action was an early hint of something more genuinely disturbed beneath the Manics' surface of perverse rock'n'roll rhetoric.
Talking to The Maker a month later, the band offered a more cogent response to their adverse music press criticism. "Yeah, we know that we're treated like a big f***ing joke. But we're not making records for 30-year-old journalists," said Nicky. "We've already left the music press behind. With the next single, it'll be front page of The Sun, no f***ing problem."
Though they had clearly eaten up every square column inch of the music press, the Manics claimed not to be courting its approval. Their masterplan, they declared more than once in these pages, was to emulate the sales of Guns N' Roses, sell 16 million copies of their debut album, then break up and retire, not to LA but back to South Wales, apparently happy just to have proved their point.
As for spurious notions of indie "integrity", Nicky argued: "We've always admitted that we're basically just sluts and prostitutes and we're prepared to compromise all the way down the line. Sticking to your ideals is ultimately the most pathetic thing. . ." And when accused of unoriginality, the band gleefully declared themselves guilty as charged. "We are a revisionist band. Totally. Secondhand ideas are all that we've been fed. All we've been brought up on is rock culture. From the Stones to The Clash. All we're doing is recycling that culture. After punk, everyone became a user of culture. You can't create your Year Zero again."
The Maker endorsed this point when we interviewed them in July 1991, dubbing them "bulimic rockers", consuming pop culture then spewing it all out in raucous, expressive patterns of their own.
The Manics had now released their fourth single, "Stay Beautiful", and The Maker interviewer caught a glimpse of the nihilism running beneath their frantic sensationalism. We were finding out a little more, especially about twin talkers and lyricists Nicky and Richey. (James and Sean were more taciturn, more concerned with chopping Nicky and Richey's ungainly, sloganeering verbiage into song-shape for their music.) The Maker speculated that with their million-selling masterplan, "The Manics have set themselves such preposterously high targets that they're almost guaranteed to fail. Their masterplan is a suicide pact. . . underneath this desperate desire to become myth is a kind of death wish; to be frozen for eternity as an immaculate gesture, an image of ultimate cool."
When we queried Nicky as to why he should want to retire back to South Wales of all places, the bassist anticipated the domesticity he would eventually embrace for real with equanimity. "I'm always happiest just living with my mum and my dad and my dog. Watching tel ly and stuff like that. That is my perfect scenario, when I can get some kind of peace.
None of that, however, for Richey. "Once you're reduced to a couple, alone together between your four walls with your TV set, you're cut off."
The Manics, it transpired, had committed themselves to one album only because, gloomily sage before their time, they recognised, "you can only be this angry once". After this, came living death. But The Maker took their pointed refusal to write love songs as part of their negation of the life force. Whereupon both Nicky and especially Richey revealed that, in spite of their early, incendiary talk of "destruction, sex and heroin", that neither had really had girlfriends and that Richey had only lost his virginity six months earlier. "Sex just never seemed important," he admitted. Only Sean was in a long-term relationship.
Their first (double) album, 1992's "Generation Terrorists", contained a salvo of the sort of calculated Iy anthemic poodlepunk the Manics had become infamous for, a rock sound that, unlike indie, seemed to yearn not for minor distinction, but for major selling orthodoxy, a sound begging to be bought up by millions. Yet wedded to this were lyrics that went beyond even conventional rock'n'roll rebellion - "We are the useless sluts that you mould"- beyond even the low-water mark of decadent nihilism set by the Pistols.
There were great moments. "Repeat" with its "F*** Queen and country" chant, "Little Baby Nothing", a duet with porn star Traci Lords which hinted at the Manics' untapped musical versatility and "Motorcycle Emptiness" which took even aficionados by surprise. Its "strangely reflective mode" was clearly not what people expected from the Manics at the time.
The Maker conceded the point about the lack of rock'n'roll originality on "Generation Terrorists", but countered, "music in pop is an overrated concept... in terms of glamour, sex, style, revolution and anything else that really matters, Manic Street Preachers are the most necessary band in Britain."
In June, the Man cs made their first foray into America. But with Nicky Wire's Pete Townshend-style flying leaps and their borrowed musical gestures of rage, the Americans, suspicious enough as it was of "new English haircut bands", were underwhelmed. Didn't Generation X do all this way back? And, like, can that skinny guy actually play his instrument, or what?
The most charitable thing The Maker's US correspondent at the time could find to say was that with a little less mascara they might have made a half-decent British Soul Asylum. But he decried their contradictory stance, singing anti-Lloyds and NatWest songs while signed to a major label. And, while he admired some of their "great, corrosive pop" concluded, "'You Love Us'? Not hardly. At least, not yet."
BY the end of 1992, the band were depressed. As yet, they had neither exploded into glorious oblivion, nor succeeded spectacularly. They were doing the worst of all things-they were doing pretty well, making steady progress.
"1992 was all about failure. We've done nothing we set out to do. We've done a lot for a contemporary band, but we still feel like failures." Two gestures summed up the Manics' year. At Reading, ignominious bathos. Nicky attempted to throw his bass guitar out into the crowd but it succeeded only in bouncing off the head of a security guard. At a Christmas gig, meanwhile, their anti-allother-bands stance reached a sour nadir when Nicky shouted onstage that he hoped Michael Stipe would go the same way as Freddie Mercury.
In their pessimism and impatience, Nicky and Richey turned their viperish polemics on their supposed constituency-The Kids. Richey waxed indignant about lay about students. "I worked hard to get to University. I never missed a leture. All..the time in the bar, there were people who were, like, 'I ain't made one lecture this term, I'm so outrageous.' And there's people where I come from who are desperate for a chance to get away. I think if you miss lectures you should be f***ing thrown out. Or drowned."
Nicky lamented the state of young people today. "Our generation has ruined everything. There's no fight, dignity or pride in them. It's the worst generation that's ever been in the history of Britain. Long live regimentation, I say."
These might have sounded like the reactionary harrumphings of the retired general in the golf club, but what they actually revealed, taken in full, was a) that the Manics thought harder than most about the dynamics and contradictions and impossibilities of "youth rebellion" ("The illusion of 'independence' is a lie" - Richey) and b) that in spite of all their talk about being media whores and cultural junkies, what really drove the Man ics was a sort of fierce puritanism.
The Maker noted two further points of interest. That the Manics' fan mail contained a great many letters from girls, "some of them written in blood" and that Nicky seemed extremely protective of Richey, among other things "keeping an eye out for his drinking".
In a 1993 interview with the The Maker's Everett True, it seemed that the spirit of disillusionment had spread even to Sean. "Everything's so crap," he announced, unbidden. "I just feel a lack for anything. If I could isolate myself away from everything, then I would. I'm disillusioned by everything."
Richey's spirits had sunk so low he was now drinking vast amounts of them. "When I sit in a bedroom and drink a bottle of vodka, I do it because I'm sad, not because I'm cool." Vain to the last, however, he was eating no more than a jacket potato and a few grapes per day, so as not to develop a beergut.
What was at the source of all of this depression wasn't clear-a growing existential ennui, perhaps, or the realisation that reality had fallen inevitably short of the programme they'd set out for themselves.
Later that year, sadly, they had a tangible reason to grieve -their manager, Philip Hall, died of cancer. He had been the first person to have faith in them. "He had a big impact on our lives," explained Richey to The Maker in 1994. "He was the first to respond to all the stupidly long letters we would send out... we stayed with him for a year in Shepherd's Bush, sleeping in two spare bedrooms, the kitchen and the lounge."
Meanwhile, Richey had fallen into the classic heavy boozing syndrome - drinking out of fear of staying awake all night. "That's my biggest nightmare. I can't stomach that thought." To be alone with his thoughts. As for Sean, his own private demons prompted him to walk out of the interview sans explanation. "He trundles from the studio, a tiny, gloomy dalek in a carapace overcoat, not to return."
Richey and Nicky explained that part of their problem was that they felt that, in their sheer voracity, they had read, seen and heard everything - that the supply of culture had given out on them, that they had "extravagant claim - more likely, they'd subconsciously realised that mere continuous consumption of culture was no substitute for "real" life -whatever that was. Mean while, for old time's sake, Richey had a sideswipe at innocuous shoegazers Slowdive: "They're worse than Hitler."
1993's "Gold Against The Soul" confirmed the band's transition from Manic Preachers to Manic depressives. The Maker lauded the album while slyly pointing out that its miserabilism was reminiscent of Morrissey, previously openly despised by the band. "From Despair To Where" lamented, "Pretend there's something worth waiting for/ There's nothing nice in my head", on "Life Becoming A Landslide" the cry went out, "I don't want to be a man ", and "La Tristesse Durera" featured the apocalyptic intonation that "The sadness will never go".
Some critics were still unimpressed. The Maker's Sharon O'Connell, reviewing the Manics live, accused them of "whining" and of maudlin self-indulgence, pooh poohing their claim that "there will never be a band as dangerous as us".
Whether the band were dangerous or not, one member was certainly becoming a danger to himself. In August 1994, Richey James was admitted first to a psychiatric hospital in Cardiff, then a London clinic. A press release stated that "he has decided to seek psychiatric help for what is basically an illness". It was also revealed that for some time he had been cutting himself, claiming that this was for him a "sexual" release of pain. This was beyond adolescent doom. An authentic darkness was about to descend...