No band since The Smiths has had such an intense and loyal following as the Manic Street Preachers. On the eve of its Dublin appearance, the band's frontman, James Dean Bradfield, talks about The Clash, politics, commitment and the legacy of a certain Richey Edwards.
Down in the Welsh valleys, the remnants of a once proud mining town are keeping the home fires burning at a street party to mark the anniversary of the birth of their most famous son: Aneurin "Nye" Bevan, the Labour politician whose greatest legacy remains the post-second World War introduction of a Welfare State for one and for all. Up at the end of the street, someone has uncovered some old vinyl recordings of Bevan's passionate political speeches. He talks, nay hectors, about schools, hospitals and jobs, and at the end there is a pause before he delivers himself, thunderously, of his characteristic signoff line: "This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours."
Halfway down the street stands another Manic Street Preacher, who at the end of the recording, nods his head and shuffles off home. The evening has had a purpose: not only has it been an affirmation of the old Labour beliefs that lie at the core of the music of the Manic Street Preachers (this is a band who, in 1999, still sing about "antifascists" - and don't need a focus group to tell them to do so), but it has also given the multi-million selling Welsh three-piece rock band a name for their new album.
Six months later, the first single off This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours is released. Called If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next, it races to the top of the hit parade, but when the band performs it on Top Of The Pops, the gyrating teenagers in the audience look at each other quizzically as the singer delivers the line: "If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists". They might have got a starter for 10 (but probably not) if they had had a chance to see the artwork on the single; a grainy picture of the International Brigades in Spain during the civil war.
In many ways, the song If You Tolerate This ... tells you everything you need to know about the Manic Street Preachers: their absorption in and preoccupation with gallant socialism. And the bald fact that the song itself was written as a "tribute" to a song called Spanish Bombs by the band who made the Manics want to make music in the first place - The Clash.
Sitting in a Dublin hotel room a few weeks ago, with the Dolby Stereo sounds of the Kosovo crisis on CNN, weirdly muted by the lobby pianist tinkling out Danny Boy, the band's frontman James Dean Bradfield smiles wryly at the first question: Talking about the International Brigades, do you think someone like Douglas Coupland would ever put aside his cappuccino long enough to go and fight for something he believed in in the Balkans? "Those days are over, of course they are," says Bradfield. "The Spanish Civil War was the last great romantic war - everyone knew what they were fighting for.
"The flipside of that is now we're looking at Northern European imperialism. You've got a Serbian spokesman in London on Newsnight saying `Look! All the Kosovan refugees have got designer clothes on.' It's a CNN conspiracy. Any tosser who has seen Wag The Dog once in their lifetime knows that. There is a right doer/wrong doer paranoia. In the Spanish Civil War, it was a case of you could do the right thing or you could do nothing. It's not that clear cut anymore."
If this is not the sort of talk you expect from your average "rock star", remember that the Manic Street Preachers are anything but your average rock band. From the tiny mining town of Blackwood, South Wales, the then four members of the band grew up in the shadow of the 1984 miners' strike and endemic unemployment. Despite, or because of this, the four of them would swan around the town in makeup and women's clothes (something about "challenging perceived notions of masculinity and femininity"). While other groups had rehearsals, the Manics had "manifesto meetings" - if they weren't applying mascara, listening to The Clash or creating situationist slogans, they were reading Sylvia Plath, Rimbaud, Camus, Philip Larkin, and Nabokov. Still not able to play their instruments properly, they arrived (in fur coats and sunglasses) in London in 1990, loudly announcing that they were going to be the biggest and best rock band in the world and would split up once their debut album sold 18 million copies.
It didn't, but said record, Generation Terrorists did contain, amidst the post-punk cacophony, a song called Motorcycle Emptiness which is one of the most beautifully poetic songs you are ever likely to hear. After the music industry had looked them up and down and then got back to dealing with the grunge invasion, the Manics continued on their merry maverick way. Elvis Costello once said of Morrissey that his song titles were more interesting than the songs themselves, and the same applied for a while to the Manics, with titles like La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh), and who can forget If White America Told The Truth For One Day, Its World Would Fall Apart.
At times, their self-belief spilt over into dumb arrogance - at a gig in the early 1990s, bass player Nicky Wire announced to the audience that he hoped "Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.) would go the same way as Freddie Mercury" - a few months ago when Stipe was asked about his reaction to the quote, he merely said "Nicky Wire? Is that the guy who's still alive?".
The one thing that propelled the band in the early days was their intimate and almost cult-like relationship with their fans - not since The Smiths had a band developed such an obsessive following. Manics fans are notorious for their levels of intensity in following the group, and have been known to hold "study groups" to analyse and discuss the band's lyrics.
In 1995, the band finally hit the front pages of the newspapers, but it was nothing to do with their music. Their fourth member, Richey Edwards (the band's chief lyricist and chief agitpropper) disappeared on the eve of a US tour. Edwards had a history of eating disorders, particularly anorexia (he wrote the song 4st 7lbs on the band's Holy Bible album). He also had a drink problem and a scary capacity for self-mutilation (famously, he once carved the words "4 REAL" into his arm with a knife for the sake of a journalist who was questioning the Manic's commitment). Excluding crackpot Elvis-style sightings, Edwards hasn't been seen in four years and is presumed dead.
"It's taken a while to accept Richey's disappearance" says James Dean Bradfield (when the band plays live, they still leave a space on the stage where he used to play), "but there's no anger, no resentment, no bitterness there. I know what I feel about Richey and they're all good feelings. I've no complex in me about him," he says. When questioned if any of the band think he may still be alive, the answer is always: "We don't know".
After a few "lost and confused" months, the three-piece Manics reconvened: they finished off some lyrics Edwards had left behind, then set them to music. The resultant album, Everything Must Go, was a massive hit and put the band close to the position they had once boldly announced they would occupy. The album's first single, A Design For Life, was a working-class anthem: opening with the line "Libraries gave us power", the song dealt with the themes of class struggle.
The band recently refused to play at the opening of the new Welsh Assembly, saying tersely: "we don't play in front of the monarchy." Other songs on the album were about the artist De Kooning and the famed Vietnam war photographer, Kevin Carter.
"I think people saw that we struggled on with the ongoing myth of Richey on that album. I think people saw it as blue-collar heroism," says Bradfield. Last year's followup album, This Is My Truth, while shifting the same lorryload of units as its predecessor, saw the Manics get their first taste of a media backlash. Some critics dubbed it "stadium rock" (perhaps the worst thing you can say to a band forged in the white heat of punk) and pointedly alluded to the fact that it was the first Manics album not to contain any songs written by Richey Edwards (Nicky Wire now writes all the lyrics), and that the discernible bite in their music had been lost.
Was all the post-Richey goodwill used up? "I don't know if it was goodwill on Everything Must Go, but on this album the knives were out," he says. "It's not that that bothered me too much. I remember seeing an early review of If You Tolerate This and it said they've obviously gone for this big stadium sound - and it was one of the smallest sounding records we'd ever done. That was an irrational review and I knew from that point on we weren't going to get a lot of good reviews. But I was a bit surprised by some of the viciousness."
The reviews were really just a re-hash of the Old Manics/New Manics debate - the band's early or "Old" fans despise the BMW-driving, Ralph Lauren-dressed hordes who only jumped on the band after Everything Must Go, and seemingly don't have the right intellectual credentials (or right poetry collection) to appreciate the Manic's finer nuances. Obviously, the spectre of Richey Edwards looms large in the debate.
"The Old/New Manics stuff doesn't really piss me off, it just seems like a chain letter in the music press," says Bradfield. "I can fully understand how our old fans feel: the first gig I went to see was Echo and The Bunnymen on their Ocean Rain tour, and at that level they still felt like your band. Back then, you think 'God, Echo and The Bunnymen have sold nearly 200,000 albums, they're really big,' but they still felt like yours. Then me, Richey and Sean (Moore, the band's drummer) went to see them again after they had a massive hit, and we just went straight off them. So I know how Old Manics' fans feel when something is taken away from you because everyone else likes it. What I don't understand is people constantly writing letters about it. If you don't like us anymore, I understand it - go and listen to Placebo instead. It's like, if The Clash did an ad for washing-up liquid, I wouldn't have set off this massive, obsessive chain letter about it."
While the New Manics fans don't know who Richey was, the Old ones use him as a totem. Is that upsetting? "Yeah, there is an idolisation of Richey there. I can only speak from my own experience, and I have to admit when I was young I was obsessed with dead martyrs. It never made me feel that I wanted to emulate them in terms of having an early death. I was obsessed by what led them to do certain things."
Why such extreme responses from people, though? "Well, there just are more extremes these days. Even just looking at music, you've got the boy bands and the girl bands and then you've got ourselves, Radiohead and The Verve. But everything now is more polarised, certainly more polarised than I've ever known it."
Which is strange, because if you type Manic Street Preachers into an Internet search engine, the first thing that hits the screen is the question: "Do you want to learn more about the mental condition called bipolar disorder?"
Manic Street Preachers play Dublin's Point Theatre next Wednesday night.
[Originally published: The Irish Times, 19 June 1999]