It was a a long letter wrapped around a cassette of a demo. The band were looking for press and they had targeted a tiny handful of journalists who covered this kind of music. At that time hardly anyone covered punkish bands, especially news from outside the London circuit.
It would not be long before I interviewed them and soon after gave them their first ever front cover at Sounds.
The press was fairly hostile to the band at the time with only me and Swells being into them. I thought they were fantastic, their songs were great, they looked great and they were brilliant interviewees. Their early gigs were all about alienation as the band played to empty rooms. I saw them play Manchester a few times and weird little gigs in London. They always sounded great and the more they were hated the more they thrived.
And then the suddenly made it.
A couple of years later i conducted this interview with them when they were on the road promoting their debut Generation Terrorists album. It was in a tiny motel room in Birmingham that the glamour twins were sharing…
BEAUTY of contradiction. Incendiary intellectuals tarted up on oxfam glam rags, sensitive made up boyos from the beer swilling valleys, the Manic Street Preachers are living a rock 'n' roll dream that is fast becoming eye-blinking reality.
The most hated band in the land are mid way through their debut bigtime R 'n' R tour. Playing Uni halls, promoting their debut Generation Terrorist album; an album of soft metal pop that is saved by the sheer strength and conviction of James Dean Bradfield's voice and their inherent, almost Welsh, melody lines that infuse the songs with an uplifting chorus combining with the neat patchwork of lyrical cut-up snippets than run the hole gamut from rock out soundbite clichÃ© to cutting shards of sadness from the headf**k desperation of being brought up in the shithole Welsh valley small town of Blackwood, spat on by ten years of Tory misrule and a none too subtle de-education that has pulped the minds of their contemporaries turning them into sodden beer monsters drowning their trapped lives with the easiest available drug.
It's no wonder that the Manics chose the slagfest of cheap R 'n' R as an escape.
“Liberal middle class people can never understand that working class people can be sensitive as well, can get pissed off, they always think that it has to be yob, yob, yob. Me and Nick (bass) studied politics at University and it never seems to get mentioned in interviews, people always seem to go away and write about their idea of the group. We were never fans of something like the Happy Mondays, they seemed to represent the worst aspect of working class culture like nicking from your mates. They glamourised all that as if was representative of some sort of cool social change, they make them out to be an important band and dropped them when they were bored, like in that last interview they got Sean to say that all gays were faggots and there was a big fuss in London everyone was going on about how obnoxious they were, if anyone believes that Sean Ryder wouldn't have said than all the time in his life they are really sadly wrong. That interview was about the only time I've ever really had any respect for the Mondays, because they didn't give a f**k and they were true to what they are, they have been completely used, the fashion-conscious picked them up as a band, as little working class playthings, and then got bored and dropped them.”
Richey James, the Manic's rhythm guitarist and one half of the political wing along with bass player Nicky Wire, is studied in the dynamics of pop and rock. The Manics know their stuff. This is the band that spent their formative years locked in a bedroom, immersed in pop culture, steeped in the classics from the Who and the Stones to the Pistols and the Clash, learning every shape, thrilling to every cocking a snoot at society gesture, believing in the myth, emerging in the nineties jaded pop scene completely out of place, a band that implicitly believed in the myth, the revolution rush, that rock 'n' roll was honourable, intelligent insurrection and discovering that the real world wasn't quite on the same track as they were. At the same time there was an almost tasteless desperation about the way that the Manics wanted to become famous, but the fame is probably the lure of R 'n' R. When Richey looks around he sees a dull scene, something that's far removed from his fascination with the genre.
“Music went wrong after punk, all that got written about was the music, all they cared about was their guitar sound, they don't care about what they look like or what they have to say. When we used to buy Smash Hits we were completely obsessed by pop culture and now when you look through it you have to work hard to find a pop band in there.
It's full of stars from Neighbours.
“The pop star is dead. At the end of the day the bands that sell the most records are rock bands, metal bands.”
So the four piece abandoned their firey punkoid roots and went for the mainstream jugular with a spruced up soft metal album with a bubble gum pop undertow: an album that seems geared for US mid West consumption, although it still crashed into the top twenty on this side of the ditch.
To some an anachronism, to others an irritation, to the Manics and their fans (a growing bunch of obsessives left out of the rest of the rock gene pool) they are a lifestyle.
But the most important thing about the band is their intelligence, too often played down by a media that has them marked as 'punks' and therefore 'stupid' (and all this useless talk of a punk revival, trust London media to want to haul that old carcass back, there's a lot to be said about the new 'punk establishment' that's getting hold of the media in the same sort of way that the hippy rearguard held tight onto the pop scene up to punk). This is a mistake as the Manic Street Preachers are one of the few bands left capable of doing an interview: brash and naive, the political wing have an opinion on everything.
“We're so obsessed with music, we criticise other bands but we criticise ourselves all day long. We though it was natural for groups to keep each other on their toes like that, but it's got really boring now, all the groups have become friends with each other.”
The Manics can't understand the pally scene when in London if you go out all the bands and journalists are sat drinking together. This is the malaise they are so determined to be apart from that they rarely go out at all, keeping themselves separate from the ever shrinking epicentre untouched by its methodical machinations.
In fact Richey has got bored of pop anyway.
“We play Sega all the time, the shops that sell that sort of stuff are packed with young kids buying the gear. Sonic The Hedgehog is far more glamourous than any band could ever be, you've got to go all around the country watch a band in a shitty little venue and freeze to death, sleep in a bus station and you could be at home completely involved in a computer. Pop is becoming redundant. There may be a massive audience now but in ten to fifteen years time it will be finished.”
Richey the man immersed in pop and trash culture can still stand apart from it all and look bemused.
“At the end of the day if you've got all the intelligent people doing music and not trying to find a cure for cancer it's ridiculous- trying to make a hedgehog spin…it's really sad. The one thing that is really good about us is that we are a clichÃ©-ridden rock band.” he adds abstractly.
The Manic Street Preachers are cynical enough to understand their position in the scheme of things, in 1992 when so many band believe that they are in some way 'independent' when very few can make that claim, the Manics at least understand that they are pawns of the muzak biz…
“From the start we said that bands were letting people use or exploit them, it's really natural and we found it surprising that most bands never admit this to themselves. When you sign to a record label they are obviously going to try and sell your records whether it's Creation, 4AD or Sony they put poster around town and adverts in the press. We always felt like we were slags right from the start.”
Keenly cynical or hopelessly naive, the Manics are probably a mixture of both, their track 'Little Baby Nothing' with Traci Lords heightened the cynical machinations of media stereotyping.
“We always thought that Kylie was cool pop, we wanted her on the track but we got bogged down with lawyers and then we suddenly thought of Traci and that seemed such a brilliant idea. The song was built around a brilliant line that we nicked from Salvador Dali…. 'a symbol of useless regret for a betrayed future,' and she was one of the most intelligent, articulate women that we had ever met. The life that she had when she was younger in all the films or whatever, now even if she had played a nun on her tombstone it would still go on about Traci Lords, porn star.”
The Manics emerge in 1992 half way on their dream journey still hoping for that massive world wide album. The London Astoria show is a complete sell out wirh the audience mostly made up with faded glam rockers instead of anyone really sharp. The album is due out in America at any moment there is as they say 'a buzz' in the air, and yet they are still hated. Most people over twenty five loathe them, most people don't trust them, the combination between naivete and cynicism is hard for most people to trust. On this tour they have fans, there are people thrashing at the songs, they have found a niche. Japan looks on hungrily and the Americans have yet to be tackled. They still dream but their dream has been chiselled by the harsh realities of road life, touring the UK in a freezing recession hit winter in '92 is not what they were fired up by the pages of Kerouac for; the reality is grotty motel rooms and not what they read about in their Stones and Clash books. Touring is not the swift rush to the top of the pile that the band dreamt of back in Blackwood in Wales.
“It's not nice touring, the only way that you can get to sleep is to get really drunk” mutters Richey. Nick seems a far more practical problem with touring.
“There's no way we could make a second album now, all we could write about is hanging around with groupies, loads of lyrics about the Rock 'n' Roll lifestyle- it would be so horrible. When I'm touring I want to go to art galleries, see the towns, but there is never any time. Edinburgh is the only place that I have really enjoyed on this tour so far.”
We're perched in the political wing of the band's cheapskate motel room in city centre Birmingham. This is the sort of room with walls built of cardboard, the type of motel that middle aged business men probably haul their secretaries back to for talks on promotion. It's cheap and seedy. Richey is holding court in the bedroom, fiddling with a tequila bottle that almost looks more like a prop than something that these fantastically effete rockers would actually drink.
Nick's holding court in the bathroom, applying his make up, transforming himself from a lanky Welsh beanpole to a tartly star. Richey is doing most of the talking, an intense child of pop, confused by the whole pop process, the sort of person to be worried enough about how people perceive that intensity that you could easily imagine being at the centre of the 4 Real incident. Nick, on the other hand, has his mind made up, he knows the band's restrictions, Nick is the Manic that would split the band up when the time is right. Nick himself is capable of dumb excess like swinging his bass at a photographer at the London show and wandering around the after show party with make up smudged across his face like an extra from Apocalypse Now.
But Richey the shy waif with the blotchy skin from too much make up who can still slide his cheap sunglasses on and dream. R 'n' R is a myth boyo and to live the myth you have to dream, desperately.
“Rock 'n' Roll can make your life better. When you look at the biggest bands of all time- like the Stones, when they were doing their European tour every single seat and a 5000 seater got trashed, at the end of the day you realised that all that happened was that loads of seats got smashed, you walk away thinking 'great gig' but life is still just as shit.”
What do people get from the Manics then?
“We get 3 or 400 letters a week now and it's not like 'I think you're a good band can I have a T Shirt', they are 2 or 3 pages long, some go on about killing themselves, it's a responsibility, people seem to be saying that they're into us because it's cool to have a rock band that sings about more than 'suck my cock'. I know a lot of people say that they don't understand our lyrics but it was designed as a William Burroughs thing with all garbled cut up phrases, at least its not saying the clichÃ©d thing.”
To the Manics (or at least the word writing political wing) the lyrics are all. Richey.
“I can't see any way that music can go forward, we always thought that the only way that rock music could go forward was with the lyrics.”
Realising that their literate art dream was nobbled from the start by the de-education of Brit schools, the Manics decided that if they had anything to say then they had to get to the lowest common denominator, rock.
“Nobody at school listened to the Cocteau Twins, everyone was into rock, Tom Petty or something like that…so that's the music we decided to make.'
The band were fired by the beat writers. Turned onto the prose firebrands by Nick's elder brother, Patrick, they devoured Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Burroughs, moving onto Keirkegard, Nietsche and Camus- their minds soaring under the influence of vigorous adventurous writing that hinted at a world a million miles away from working class Wales. Nicky.
“We were really wrapped up in Rock 'n' Roll and my brother, who had been into the beat writing for a few years, read us this poem called 'The Lament For Moths' about cripples- which was one of the most beautiful and saddest things that we had ever heard. Our lyrics were heavily influenced by the beat thing. We hate commas, they make you sick, remember at school were you had to learn how to writer letter properly with the letters all slanting in one direction…” he looks momentarily incredulous and flops back into the bathroom to get another layer of make up on, adding,
“The beat generation was a massive influence on us. People never seem to talk about this side of us, we're always tagged with the punk thing, we're always made out to be energetic working class playthings, they never seem to understand that the working class can be really sensitive, people think that the domain of poetry is the middle class, and for working class people a job in the bank is the pinnacle of their ambitions.”
Nick even feels that the band are in the same sort of fast burning tradition of the beats.
“We're losers, like the way that Kerouac or Cassady died burnt out on alcohol or collapsed on a railway track, our songs are tinged with that sadness, we really want to write stadium anthems, but Wales is a really sad place, our souls are repressed, what we have is a dignified sadness.”
In the traditional style of all rock 'n' roll romantics they were sparked into action by those dog eared beat lit wild hearts but swiftly realising that no-one was ever going to listen to them unless they sold their souls to rock 'n' roll because 'music is like speeded up books', since no-one can be arsed to read a book (TV taking the attention span down to seven seconds), pop is the best current poetic artform.
“When we started we thought we would read anything that we could get our hands on but we realised that nine tenths of the people in our class would rather play records, people that were feeling exactly the same things as us but they would rather play records, so we knew then that writing poetry was useless.”
Nick shuffles in from the bathroom, a loose limbed collapse of a frame this is the onstage younger brother of Paul Simonon, a Daddy long legs on uncoordinated limbs and white cotton, he smiles a Cheshire cat grin.
“Most modern authors are really crap anyway, there's only Brett Easton Ellis that has been any good in the last few years. I don't know if I'm qualified to write a book. I'm more immersed in Rock 'n' Roll anyway, but if someone dies in this band I'd write a book about it.”
Are they children trapped in their own world, a Peter Pan existence still confined to the legendary bedroom…
“That's what we always said, that we were in a band and nothing else, other people got trapped- they had girlfriends, they had a mortgage. The main reason that we got into this band is that we chose never to have any friends. Once you've got a girlfriend and you're in a band you've got to start caring about someone else.”
James and Sean got to know each other first.
“Especially after Sean's parents split up he moved in with James and they shared bunk beds, at first we were all really into football.”
Nick himself had trials for Arsenal (boo hiss) before selling his soul to R 'n' R, the rest is well documented. They started looking out at the mid eighties scene and couldn't find anything apart from a whole hist of cult indie bands like Mccarthy, Big Flame and a couple of other bands that could fire them, so they delved back into history, added rock history to the beat books and became students of the classic rebel pop thrust.
In between, Richey and Nick went to Swansea University studying politics, where the two future rebels had a very different attitude to education from their spoilt student mates. Nicky.
“We've always found student politics really bad, so in love with the thirties depression, they imagine that is was a really glorious time for the working class, but it was one of the most appalling periods of history.”
The pair were also shocked by their fellows idea of education.
“One of the things that really offended me when I went to University was how many rich kids where there treating the place like a joke, it was like 'ooh I didn't go to any lectures today!'. I went to every lecture and I worked really hard, I wanted to learn,” remembers Richey.
Smartly deciding against the sloth circuit, their fifth gig was reviewed by St Etienne's Bob Stanley (then writing for Melody Maker) and since then they've trawled acres of press coverage, possibly by the twin virtues of being photogenic and being able to talk. Richey.
“When we were young the music press was all powerful, it was the only thing that really meant anything to us, and people going on about rock being dead it's bizarre…those two kids who blew themselves away to Judas Priest, they were only going to be garage attendants and to the people prosecuted in Judas Priest that was hardly a big loss, I bet they didn't lose much sleep over the defendants.”
A rolling ball of colourful confusion, the Manics dig the sad old tantrums of Guns And Roses, a band long past any real spine shiverin' action with their showbiz version of 'Live And Let Die'. More smartly they understand the importance of Nirvana.
“I think Nirvana have had such a massive impact, like it's a great rock single and it really appeals to young kids as much as the way the band are as much as their music, they're so different with their behaviour, just the way that they are.”
Do you feel an empathy with them, the way that they are not a macho ass kickin' bunch of muscle bound goons, playing up a softer side or letting a genuine disgust burst through with their, compared to every other band in the hard rock genre, obvious intelligence.
“They are at least not singing about Harley Davidsons cruising down sunset strip hanging about on the Beach.”
So what's 'Motorcycle Emptiness' on your album about then!
“It's about the complete myth of speed, when you see all that motorcycle culture you think that it is really exciting, when it is just bullshit.”
'We wanted to piss off as many people as possible' they claim and in the last year from their sprayed slogan shirts through to the current blouses, to the tart glam look complete with leopard skin coats, this is hitting the target â the thing about the band is that most of the whinges about them have always been about their eye liner, their effete look: after years of pop cross dressing- people still complain about make up! This only makes the band slap even more on, so much that Nick's spots have almost completely disappeared.
He slopes back into the room again.
“I can't handle the fans anymore, people following me around and things like that, when I was young I never wanted an autograph â the only autograph I really wanted was Jockie Wilson…there surely must be better than their lives?” claims the world's most unlikely darts fans.
But after a gig resolve weakens and the lure of the road takes over. Nicky.
“We're so easy, we're sluts. We invite half of them back to our hotel, especially Richey. I've slept next to him while he's got down to it. It's voyeurism, we're so close this band.”
They despair at the coldness of the road and yet celebrate it, the pair of them sat in their seedy room after a gig, taking the slut thing to its extreme whilst Nick probably digs deep into a book. The political wing almost seem like lost brothers united in some desperate scramble to lipstick smear on the dowdy face of this middle-aged industry.
The key thing to the Manics and the factor that makes them really stand out other than their intelligence is sheer nerve.In a guitar pop scene that's dominated by musicians with no opinions, all thought processes worn out by the apathetic onslaught of the last ten years. But the Manics can seem controversial, most people now have nailed Richey as Sid Vicious clone, especially after the '4-Real' incident when Richey slashed his arm in front of an astonished Steve Lamacq from the NME – a man not used to Apocalypse Now style blood letting madness.
The Manic Street Preachers still want to burn out, Nick admits to being relieved that the band are still on course for the blow out. Richey feels that their are a couple more singles and a tour of America to go. They' promised the ultimate R 'n' R dream, to storm the world with one album and blow up deal, no fat, no time wasting, keeping the operation lean, mean and sag proof, but times are harder than that, there are temptations to be succumbed to, already they are slipping, the impossible ideal is slipping out of their heads. Every band has its price, the Manics, though, are dictated by odder ideas of 'sell out' etc. than their contemporaries. Richey.
“At any level when your a band or a journalist you lose integrity, when we did the video for 'Love's Sweet Exile' we wanted to appear naked on the video, we thought that would be a good statement, 4 blokes in the nude but when your naked in front of thirty people it's….it's…quite a humbling experience.”
A self confessed 'shy boy' like Richey would see this as a compromise of integrity.
“The only thing that was really important to us was to make the debut album, make it perfect with great packaging, that was our most important aim.”
The album itself is rock again, the production is neat with a bubblegum edge and the songs range from adequate to roaring adrenalin pumpers, going full pelt for the crossover. Richey.
“We just want to be, like, the consumate rock band but where everything that we say is different, I think that is a new way that rock music could go, it was the only music that we ever liked but we never wanted the crap bullshit lifestyle that goes with it, we've never trashed a hotel or dropped a TV out of a window, that's really sad.”
The motel room is filling with hair lacquer, the political wing is dressed to thrill, tarted up, slapping on the glam for the sake of the grey nightlife of Birmingham. (A city so exciting that our esteemed/steamed Siren art boss David Myers was not allowed into a club because is hair was too short and tidy!)
Do you think that in the days of instrumental Techno tracks or mundane pop words, that anyone is actually interested in lyrics anymore. Richey.
“That's why we are trying to do something different. Our words are really sad, we got tired of all the clichÃ©s. It's easy to write a song like 'I Love You Baby', we chose not to do any of that, there's nowhere left for those words to go Rock 'n' Roll is really sad because Rock 'n' Roll is all we've ever had in our lives, When you're young all you have to do is get up and kick a football round, everything is really hopeful and optimistic, everyone got aspirations. School really messes up your mind. The only solace we ever got was from Rock 'n' Roll and watching videos and we find that quite sad, the way that every dream gets destroyed.”
Music to the Manics is a platform, Richey believes that it's the background, almost the wallpaper for the statement. (I'm sure that James, the musical wing would disagre.) Richey.
“There is one thing that I read the other day, 'originality is a myth' and we've always believed that, bands that are supposed to be breaking down the barriers of music like even the Sex Pistols, what Steve Jones realised was that they were famous because Johnny was saying something different, you put our record next to Guns And Roses and the style of music is not too different but if you look at the lyric sheets they are very different.”
Even reading about music all the time gets on the Preachers nerves. Richey.
“When you read the rock press it's all music all the time. There used to be a far more broader spectrum of things covered in there. Maybe the NME should do a feature on male suicide which is increasing rapidly. A lot of feminists are saying that men are feeling guilty over the way that they look, they want their skin to be nicer, they feel that they can't compete with women in that way.”
Minutes before they go on and the Preachers look tense in the dressing room. Quiet drummer Sean snaps a brief answer when spoken to, grimly holding onto his sticks, he claims 'that I'm keeping all my energy for when I go onstage'. His hair longer, he looks even more feminine than before, muscular James swaggers confidently around. Onstage he looks like the tuff guy from the pit town flanked by the political wing's oxfam transvestite posing, running the whole gamut of rock guitar shapes from the Townsend leap to the Simonon bass scowl, from Keef's duck walk to the Sid Viscous, pretty vacant, stockstill malevolence. The Manics could be the perfect parody of thirty years of teenshag superstar guitar dreams if it wasn't for their complete belief in what they are doing.
They will have to remain sharp now they have charted â they could be swiftly diluted, the hatred against them is still strong and genuine, they have to avoid becoming immersed in the myth, their idealism tainted by showbiz subtle intrusions, (already bands like America's Nation Of Ulysses are talking up revolution in equally intelligent and dangerous terms.)
Maybe the best way to check their progress is to check them against that historical lineage that they have set themselves up with. Compared to the Clash they are slicker and conduct far more diverse interviews and don't have punk rock to ride along with. Compared to the early Stones they lack the dark brooding meanness and a Brian Jones to lace their pop songs with that twist of genius, but then they don't have the rush of optimism of the sixties to forge their plans with. Compared to the Pistols they still lack a Lydon focal point and an air of desperate danger and compared to the Who, well all they lack is the 'My Generation' anthem to bog them down for the rest of their career, and compared to the Guns And Roses they at least seem uncontrived eccentricly dangerous, the key to everything as they know is to crack the States, that's the real test for this sort of talk.
Mad beautiful fools, The Manic Street Preachers are still burning on a short fuse.