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We Shall Overcome - Select, July 1996

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Title: We Shall Overcome
Publication: Select
Date: July 1996
Writer: Stuart Maconie
Photos: Simon Fowler

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"A Design For Life" has sold over 200,000 copies, the UK tour is a total sell-out and "Everything Must Go" is already the biggest-selling album the Manics have ever had. After Richey, illness, booze problems and the threat of a permanent split, surely they've earned a taste of success! "Don't say that," warns the group. "We just hope things go well..."

Scam seemed too small a word for it. The panda eyes, the pierrot panstick, the experiments with cosmetics that made Robert Smith seem restrained. Then there was all that ersatz Clash chic, boiler suits and stencilled shirts bearing legends like "Spectators Of Suicide" - legends that remained resolutely impervious to meaning. Anyone not hugely suspicious of MSP in 1990 was simply a poor judge of aesthetics. Sure, they'd done a couple of the rabble-rouser interviews with a couple of rock journalism's usual suspects. But if we stick to the facts, what we had was a group who had made a couple of angry, undistinguished singles and who had shot their mouth off a few times vis á vis world domination. Huggy Bear, Cornershop, Sigue Sigue Sputnik. The "Where are they now?" file is crammed with them. Around this time, a weekly rock inkie [the NME] ran a feature [Material World] in which various indie luminaries would inform us about their tastes in books, clothes, food, comedy, TV, sport etc. I had to edit this feature and, believe me, it was dull work. The bands had little to say for themselves and they said it without much style. One week came the turn of MSP, ho-hum. But what came back was extraordinary. Instead of the usual tossed-off semi-witticisms, the Manics had answered every question with a quotation. An apposite quotation judiciously chosen from a selection of the world's greatest or most maverick writers: Philip Larkin, Henrik Ibsen, Sylvia Plath, Camus, Sartre, Primo Levi... a kind of caustic intelligence flew off the pages. Simultaneously, the scales fell from the eyes.

This is the way most MSP conversions go: quick, absolute, blinding, road-to-Damascus stuff. After that it all made sense. 'Generation Terrorists'; hearing 'Motorcycle Emptiness' for the first time, one of the most desolate and beautiful songs since 'All The Young Dudes'; an extraordinary gig at Cardiff University; and, of course, MSP's continuous war of words against everybody. Against indie culture's celebration of mediocrity, against students who preferred the union bar to improving their minds, against Londoners who never sat down to eat with their families and couldn't keep a proper pet.

Wonderful stuff. But since then, a couple of tragic, seismic shifts have rocked Manics' world on its axis. First came the death from cancer of their mentor, manager, press officer and friend, Philip Hall, a lovely man who had such faith in the nascent band that he lent them, unasked, £40,000 of his own money. His death probably contributed to their next defining moment. On 1 February 1995, on the eve of a US tour, lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards went AWOL. He had been unwell of late - shouted down by a black choir of demons such as anorexia, drugs, alcoholism and his infamous self-mutilation - and so, at first, it seemed as if he may have merely gone to ground. Then, a fortnight later, on Valentine's Day, his car was found abandoned by the Severn Bridge...

The Manic Street Preachers' story is told here with terrific candour by Nicky Wire and Sean Moore. Guitarist James Dean Bradfield was present but largely incommunicado thanks to their stint supporting Oasis at Maine Road which had reduced his voice to a barely audible croak. It's an amazing story.

Oh yes and the reason they're telling it is because the Manic Street Preachers are back, with the biggest hit of their career and an album, 'Everything Must Go', recorded in Normandy with production maestro Mike Hedges. A heroic record, it is their masterpiece... to date.

The Manic Street Preachers regard themselves as dull these days, pottering at home, painting fences, watching darts and snooker on satellite TV. But that's really an irrelevance. Flaubert's maxim was "Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." Violent and original. Flaubert would have loved the Manic Street Preachers.

Is it true that 'A Design For Life' has sold more than all your other records put together?

Nicky: "Not quite, but it's our best-selling single - 93,000 copies in its first week. 'Motorcycle Emptiness' sold 100,000, but that took five years! Our first album sold 250,000 world-wide. But 'A Design For Life' is easily our best-seller, yeah..."


Nicky: "Firstly, it's one of the best songs we've written and also the climate towards bands has changed. 'Motorcycle Emptiness' is one of the best songs of the decade, but there was no way it could be a hit in 1992. British culture was so divided: the Levellers, the arse end of Madchester, shoe-gazing, acid house. But I think we knew straight away with 'Design'. James phoned me up after he'd written it and said it was something special. Ennio Morricone, bit of Tamla, bit of Spector. Our only reservation was that it might be too epic."

Sean: "Every time you bring out a single it's in the back of your mind that it might go to No 1 and, of course, it would be brilliant. You don't put out a single to go to No 20."

Nicky: "'Motorcycle Emptiness', 'La Tristesse Durera' and 'A Design For Life' we thought might be big hits. 'La Tristesse' would be Top Ten now, piece of piss."

You say the Maine Road crowd thought 'Design For Life' was your first single. What do you think would have happened if you'd had that single's level of success straight away?

Nicky: "I would have taken the piss out of so many people I'd have been chucked out long ago. If we'd fulfilled the promise of the 10 million albums and everything then I'd be running for the President of America by now. It wouldn't have changed us as people... except maybe to accelerate our decline."

Your decline?

Nicky: "In Thailand, definitely, for Richey and me, something just snapped. It isn't that we weren't getting on. We went to Portugal and had a terrible time and then Richey's friend from university days hung himself and, from then on, that summer, it got worse. We cancelled concerts."

Sean: "It was tough. You could see the pressure in people's faces. We went to Portugal and had a terrible time. It's not our favourite place. The first time we went there Philip died."

Nicky: "Since Philip died we've taken each day as it comes. Philip's death was so arbitrary. At least Richey exercised some kind of control. But they were both slow declines. 'Enola Alone' on the album stems from that, from me looking at my wedding photos and seeing two people standing right by me who are not around any more."

Sean: "I don't care about the No 2 single, I'd much prefer it if we were still struggling and they were here now."

Nicky: "Anyway, in Portugal Richey and I were in the hotel watching dreadful European TV and we weren't on 'til four in the morning and I've never felt so bleak in my life. Richey was having a few crying sessions. He burst into tears after the gig. And then, three months later, he had his first breakdown where he chopped himself up and then we went straight back out on tour. We did a UK tour which was OK, and then we did the Suede tour which was probably the worst time of my life."

What was so bad?

"Richey wasn't well. He really wasn't. I felt ill. I had all these pains. I flew home and went to a Harley Street doctor and he said 'You want to watch the fruit out there, they don't wash it, these foreigners.' Fucking Harley Street doctor!"

Sean: "James was pissed all the time and was lying in bed 'til five every day. I had my moments."

And you were playing stuff from 'The Holy Bible' to boot. Good-time stuff - 'The Intense Humming Of Evil'.

Sean: (Helpless with giggles) "We actually did. In Madrid, a great night, a really nice crowd. And we just slipped in good old 'Intense Humming Of Evil'.

Nicky: "But then we came home, played three nights at The Astoria, and the last gig was one of the greatest nights ever."

Sean: "It was a blessed release. We smashed ten grand's-worth of equipment. It was almost as if we were trying to destroy everything so we could never play another gig."

Nicky: "But come Christmas, Richey wasn't too good and he shaved his head and all the rest of it. He'd been trying so hard with his 12-step thing and then, on the subsequent British tour, he was up and down and then he got worse. The Priory (the private clinic where Richey was installed after his initial 'nervous exhaustion') ripped out the man and left a shell. These people say they've got a cure, but that cure is to totally change your personality. And you could see him struggling with this, wondering if this was the only way..."

Sean: "He had to go there, because there was nothing else we could do. He'd been in Whitchurch NHS where they've got no money and they just knock 'em out with drugs. It's not treatment. I don't think he ever saw a psychiatrist."

And after he'd gone, how close did you come to splitting up?

Nicky: "When Richey's car was found on the Severn Bridge we had to think... not so much about splitting up, but simply the prospect of everything being so dreadful. We were just frozen in disbelief. That's the closest we came without it being a literal 'splitting up' situation. When we toured with Suede I felt like having a break, because it wasn't very nice. Then, after Richey went, there was no policy meeting. The only policy was to immediately cancel the US tour on the spot. It would have been pretty bad if Richey's body had been found while we were on tour."

Sean: "Splitting up was a possibility right up until the first time we practised together."

Nicky: "Having a song like 'A Design For Life' was inspiring. It's a great song about something other than our own torments. Once that was in the bag it felt different."

What was your first practise without Richey like?

Nicky: "We did it where we've always done it, an absolute shit-hole in Cardiff. We didn't walk in and burst out crying. We're not drama queens. We're too self-conscious for that."

Sean: "In a way, it was just like the very first one. We were apprehensive and unsure of what would happen. It wasn't like we looked at each other and said 'Hey, it's still there... the magic!' It was just like normal. After 20 minutes we went shopping."

Nicky: "See, I never consider James or Sean as musicians. We're not a band chucked together from the back pages of Melody Maker. First and foremost we are friends."

At first, did you think Richey's disappearance was just a rock star 'lost weekend'?

Nicky: "Up until the car was found on 14 February - he went missing on 1 February - I thought there was a good chance he'd turn up. After the car was found, I thought either he was dead or he wouldn't turn up for a long long time. I was in Wales when he went missing, so I rushed down to the flat and waited for him and he had been there by all accounts, because he dropped something off. But he never came. We started phoning hotels. We asked every hotel in the country if they had a Richard Edwards staying. And we found one in Swansea. We thought we'd got him. I was just about to go down there and it turned out to be just some businessman... and then, after the car was found, we thought whatever he's done, he wants to do. If he's happy, good luck to him."

The not knowing must be paralysing...

Nicky: "If you have a body, you can let it flood out. Anger and grief. But we were just... suspended. Although the hope is still there, so is the dread. If I get a phone call and it's a wrong number, or the person just puts the phone down it can ruin your whole week.

"In terms of Richey's disappearance, there was the possibility that Richey just didn't like us anymore. That was a real blow. And that was the only time I wished he'd left us some kind of note saying, 'Boys, it's for the best. But I still love you." The fact that he just disappeared is very upsetting and I know that's selfish. Between the three of us, we can still be very sarcastic and piss-taking about the whole thing and ourselves and that helps. It's the New Order school of thought: 'Ian Curtis was a twat, cos he ruined our American tour.'"

One of the few bands who've had the same gravitas as the Manics is Joy Division...

Nicky: "We've discussed it. The only time we considered changing our name was as a kind of parallel to what New Order had done. The artwork for this new single is very New Order and so is the title. Clean, minimal. The last time we did photos we looked like Apocalypse Now extras. There are a lot of reference points. Ian Curtis killed himself on the eve of an American tour..."

A friend of mine said to me that 'The Holy Bible' was a great record, but "bloody hard work".

Sean: "It was never intended to be anything but."

Nicky: "I don't even see it as a record. I see it as a state of mind. One we were all in. When we were recording it Richey wasn't suicidal or anything. He'd just bought a flat. He was still drinking and he'd come in about 12 o' clock, collapse and have a snooze and say 'Leave me alone, I've had a big drink' in a nice Welsh voice. Then he'd get up and do a bit of typing and we'd record for a bit, then go round Cardiff and have a shop. Him and James would go out at night for a drink. It was actually quite nice."

Sean: "I used to commute in on the train. Regular work - drum 'til six and then go home. It was like a little office job."

Nicky: "I wonder whether Richey felt he had to justify himself. The lyrics on 'The Holy Bible' were so harrowing that a lot of the press would say 'How can you justify these records unless you top yourselves afterwards?'"

You realise that 'The Holy Bible' will always look like a suicide note?

Nicky: "Of course, but the stuff he left us with in the folder is worse than anything in 'The Holy Bible' . He was saying 'Life lies a slow suicide' in 'Motorcycle Emptiness'. The first record we did was 'Suicide Alley', before Richey was even in the band. And we did do 'Suicide Is Painless', but that was my idea. Richey wanted to do a Bay City Rollers song, but I liked the lyrics. If you'd gone into our houses when we were 20, you' have found the same books, the same records, the same videos. We were all attracted to the glamour of suicides and alcohol and beauty, that Rumblefish thing of self-destruction. It's just Richey took it a lot further. Richey took things a lot further than us. Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain were the two Richey icons. The Hendrixes and the rest were just decadent. But Kurt and Ian meant to do it - took control. That was more fascinating to Richey.

"With 'The Holy Bible', we just wanted to make a statement that was anti-everything. But in the end it was too grim. It's one of those albums. You won't play it very often, but it's comforting that it's there nestling in your collection somewhere. Like 'Unknown Pleasures' . You'll get it out once a year."

For all your outrageous remarks, you're a deeply moral band.

Sean: "The more we've experienced of the outside world the more moral we've become."

Nicky: "We realised the four of us were different from the outside world. We're very proper. We did believe the Welsh thing: get an education."

Sean: "On the first European tour I remember us going to Frankfurt and seeing the needles at the station and being so shocked. We had never had anything to do with that."

Nicky: "Even Richey#s self-mutilation was very private. His fuck-ups were not on public display. There was a working-class disgust - cover it up and get on with it. I have a concept of a working-class rage which is in some people. It's in us. It's in Liam. It's in Linford Christie and Nigel Benn. It's in Paul Gascoigne, the desire to prove yourself..."

After Richey had gone, did you ever consider what he would want you to do?

Sean: "That was never an issue for me, because it's to do with the three of us, rather than the four of us now. Richey isn't in the band anymore."

Did you find lyrics after Richey's disappearance?

Nicky: "Four or five weeks before he went missing he produced a folder of over 60 lyrics which he gave to me. I gave them to Sean over Christmas."

Sean: "They were pretty heavy going. There wasn't a lot to pick out, to be honest. Most of it was very fragmented and rambling."

Nicky: "Before he went missing he photocopied the whole file and gave a copy to each of us, but we haven't used any of those. The four or five songs that we have used on the album, they were all done before. It's funny how I've been written out of the story. Admittedly, on 'The Holy Bible , Richey did write 70% of the words. But up until then it had always been 50:50, so it wasn't that difficult for us to move forwards without Richey's lyrics. At the time of 'The Holy Bible' I'd just got married and moved into my new house and I didn't want to write about death camps, so I'd amassed quite a stockpile of my own stuff anyway. There was a kind of temptation to break completely with the past and not use any of Richey's lyrics, but in the end it feels quite elegiac really."

Sean: "The ones we've used on 'Everything Must Go' have a lot more structure. They were from a pile of demos we did on the day before he went missing. The last file he gave us was more like poetry of a sort. There was a lot of ranting, to be honest. And because they had never been worked on while he was around, it doesn't feel like Manic Street Preachers.

"Nicky: "Maybe one day we could use them and do an album of those manuscripts, but we need to come to terms with what's in there. There is some good stuff there... I know you can't get much bleaker than 'The Holy Bible' ... but after that we didn't think people were ready for songs about cutting the feet off ballerinas. There are no clues there as to what was going to happen. Let's face it, you don't need any clues for Richey. Ever since he carved '4 Real' on his arm nothing would surprise you. Alcoholic, anorexic, drugs, self-mutilator... all your favourite things rolled into one.

Initial reactions are that this is a very expansive, open record after 'The Holy Bible'.

Sean: "Well, we couldn't physically have made another 'Holy Bible' . But it was also completely natural to do something else. All of our records have changed. It's in the nature of the group."

Nicky: "In terms of going back to 'Gold Against The Soul' , it's a lot more cultured. There's too much bluster on 'Gold Against The Soul' . There's some great singles, but it's definitely not a masterpiece. Every song on the new album is a good song. It's more Spectoresque, rather than rock, a lot of the time. It was my Brian Jones contribution to say, 'Get a harp'. My one musical idea in five years. And we've always been trying to get Sean to play the trumpet. Having Mike Hedges around helped. He encouraged us to use our natural talents, because, boring thing to say though it is, we can play now. It's so much easier to record now that I can keep up with James a bit. When we released Generation Terrorists we couldn't play 'Motorcycle Emptiness' for six months, because Richey and I couldn't play it.

What made you want to work with Hedges?

Nicky: "As much as anything else, it was 'Yes' by McAlmont & Butler. But I've always liked a lot of his stuff: the orchestrations on the Everything But The Girl album he did. He's done so much: The Beautiful South, Siouxsie. We were thinking about having him for 'The Holy Bible's more Gothic punk side. He's got his own studio and it's the desk that The Beatles used and it's made of wood and it's in the middle of France..."

Sean: "It was very nice. Croissants and apricot jam. We tried some stuff at Real World with Stephen Hague, and it just didn't work. Stephen was a nice chap, but it was the place. A sterile pop-industry studio."

'Everything Must Go' is your best album, isn't it?

Nicky: "Yeah... if anything, Richey going missing has freed us a bit. We don't feel the need to justify ourselves because we've done enough of that. It's still melancholic, but we find that uplifting anyway. It's our most complete record. Half of 'Generation Terrorists' is fantastic. 'The Holy Bible' is brilliant, but it's not commercial and 'Gold Against The Soul' has got four great singles."

Sean:" It would be nice if this was the first single and album, but it hasn't worked out like that."

You could be entering the brightest phase of your career...

Nicky: "Don't say that. I know what you mean and I appreciate it. I just hope things go well."

Sean: "I suppose now it's up to us. It could be halcyon days ahead. Only we can fuck with it. One way or another, things will never be the same."

Nicky: "It's looking over and not seeing Richey knocking back his ten vodkas. We'll never fill that gap. We'll never get another guitarist. James will never go over to that side of the stage."

Sean: "We did a TV recently and we had to swap around, and Nick was in his space. It was really horrible."

Nicky: "But, yes, another chapter. I'm not going to become an anorexic self-mutilating alcoholic just for the sake of the media. This moment feels very optimistic, but it's sweet and sour. Everyone feels sorry for us right now. I think it might be a honeymoon period. I feel sorry that it took Richey to go missing before some people would accept us."

A week later, James' voice has become sufficiently human-sounding to manage a chat. In the flesh, James Dean Bradfield is as approachable as his on-stage persona is wired and bullish. Today, however, he's just returned from a short promotional trip to Europe.

"It was fucking unbelievable. The things these people ask you. Yesterday I was in Germany, and the first question was, 'The lyrics are often very powerful, but don't you think the music often comes down on the wrong side of Bryan Adams?'"

What did you say?

"I said, 'You're just a fucking cheesehead, pal.' It's enough to turn you xenophobic. An interviewer in Amsterdam actually asked, 'So, do you miss Richey, ha ha?' with a little chuckle in his voice, like it was a joke. I'd have been within my rights to kick his head in."

OK, something more positive then. How was Maine Road? What's it feel like being on stage again?

"On Friday we played a little warm up at The Hacienda and it was the first time we've played a small gig since Richey disappeared. In the old days, Wire would bump into me on stage and I'd turn round and shoot Richey a look: 'What is he like?' On Friday I looked over and there was no one there. I just thought, 'What the fuck did I do that for?' Apart from that, it was strange. There were a few heavily dramatised tears being shed down at the front."

Why has 'A Design For Life' been such a landmark record for you?

"People think we made some stylistic decision about it. But that's not how songs come about. I wrote it and was very surprised. It was the first song after Richey disappeared and I really didn't expect it to come out like that. We didn't have band meetings and say, 'This is what the next single should sound like.' When I was writing it, I could hear strings. It would have been a denial of the song to make it sound small."

Did it feel like a vindication when it went in at No 2?

"I've developed a superstition of celebrating any goal. Getting to No. 2 is not such an achievement. There are two very obvious things which have befallen us this year which have made me very aware of how things can be snatched away from you. I'm getting a bit weary of the arbitrary nature of life. I can't help thinking... Richey, if you could just have held on a little longer, things might have been a lot different. Maybe then you could have had all these things you wanted. You might have been happy."

Have you just made your best album?

"Every Manics album has been sort of a reaction to the one before. 'The Holy Bible' ... I really enjoyed it, enjoyed how it confronts the audience. But that album confronts us, too. You play it on stage and you can feel Damien round the corner. It feels like handling a cursed chalice, you can feel the lesions breaking out all over your body. By comparison, 'Everything Must Go' is quite comforting. There's a difference in Nick and Richey's lyrics. Richey could be quite nasty and classically nihilistic in that there was rage but no answers. And I loved them for that. But Nick's anger is translated into optimism."

I don't want to dissect songs, but the title track sounds like your current message to the world.

"It does. It does stand for getting rid of some of the baggage and learning that we have to break our own rules sometimes. This time we realised that we couldn't always be so intense about the artwork and make every album like an encyclopaedia. Once upon a time we couldn't have done a song like 'Further Away', which is almost a love song. It is healthy to be able to do whatever we like without always having to think, 'Wait a minute... we're Manic Street Preachers.'"