by Bob Gajarsky
Britain's Manic Street Preachers have been one of the U.K.'s most successful bands over the past few years, from their stunning debut album Generation Terrorists, which yielded a half-dozen U.K. Top 40 hits to their second and third albums, Gold Against The Soul and The Holy Bible. Despite this, the Manics have never been one to follow the conventional thinking of a pop OR rock band.
Consumable was able to talk to the Manics' lead singer, James Dean Bradfield, to discuss a little of the band's past, present and future. At the time of this interview, the mysterious disappearance of guitarist Richey James Edwards was not common knowledge - which, after the fact, makes some of Bradfield's comments more interesting.
The new album, The Holy Bible (see review elsewhere in this issue), is a harder rocking album than the first two Manic efforts. Through the lyrical content of works ranging from the political "If White America Told The Truth For One Day Its World Would Fall Apart" to the pro-death penalty "Archives of Pain" to the emotional hurting of "She Is Suffering" and "4st 7 lb.", it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary band.
Four well-versed men, the Manic Street Preachers treat each album in an academic manner like an essay. The album title is the first thing to be decided, before any songs are written. Following this, the lyrics for each song are written, primarily by guitarist Richey James Edwards (and also by bassist Nicky Wire). After that, lead singer James Dean Bradfield interprets the lyrics and is the primary writer music (along with drummer Sean Moore) which will best suit the words. Although Bradfield has never disagreed with the lyrics he sings, he explains that "Everything I do is interpretative, which means I don't necessarily have to agree with everything in the lyrics."
Some lyrics which Bradfield does explain are those to the pro-death penalty song, "Archives of Pain". Brutal individuals and killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer are name dropped throughout the track. Bradfield details the meaning behind this song:
"There's a line, 'Give him the respect they deserve' - it's obvious the only thing these people (named in the song) respect is death - so give them respect too. Yes, it's pro-capital punishment. It's quite shocking for us, since we come from a very traditional background, even from our country. We wrote that song and it was obvious that it had a right wing slant on it. Other groups might have censored themselves and said "Fuck, we can't write that" but we figured since we wrote it, we had to be honest and not change it. We are quite disillusioned with our view of politics."
What makes the Manic Street Preachers different than other bands is the lack of egos within the group. "We were four best friends forever" states Bradfield. "Immediately, as we formed the group, found out what we could do better than other people. As four composite characters, we knew that we lacked certain characteristics. We always knew we were quite inadequate as four individuals, but as a group, we did for each other what we couldn't do for ourselves."
The politicized environment that the four lads grew up in the United Kingdom in helped to shape their jaded view of the world. The punk world of the late 1970's was beginning to take shape and thumb their nose properly at the establishment. Songs were written about atrocities perpetrated against individuals - and people were singing and *listening*, to these songs. James Dean Bradfield was also listening.
"Before writing the music for this album, I listened to all the music that I liked as a kid, such as Gang of Four, the Clash, Sex Pistols and Propaganda", Bradfield says. "These were the best lyrics Richey had ever given me. They were more final and complete and focused in terms of a general mood - and I had to get myself more focused to write the best music for them. I was dissatisfied with the music I wrote for the second album and didn't do the lyrics much justice."
That second album led to an unusual pairing - the Manics opened up for Bon Jovi at England's Milton Keynes Bowl. Bradfield remembers that show: "There were a lot of things that went wrong in the small-to-medium picture. We always had this perverse attitude that the best situations are the most bizarre ones. We enjoy putting ourselves in situations where we couldn't win, so therefore we thought we could win. It was obvious as soon as I walked on stage that I shouldn't be doing it.
We could have made it much more than we did (if we wanted to) - just say 'Put your hands in the air' and break it down into drums and vocals, and immediately you can win 1/8 of the audience. We just can't physically lift our hands to do that - I feel awkward. I didn't have a chip on my shoulder that day because we put ourselves in that situation and we were the people to blame."
Although "Little Baby Nothing" (a track off their first album, Generation Terrorists) was finally sung by a pre-music career, pre-Melrose Place Traci Lords, the band originally asked for the vocals of Kylie Minogue. Wait - *the* Kylie Minogue, Australian soap opera star who had a slew of top 10 UK hits written by the kings of bubblegum love songs, Stock/Aitken/Waterman?
"It was written with a symbol in mind and Kylie's sort of the image of it as well", Bradfield explains. "We saw Kylie as a manipulative kind of person without people really knowing it, but she had a very subtle way of infusing power into her songs - she had people in the palm of her hands. We see a parallel with Traci Lords as well. Judging who's in control by what appears on the surface is such a silly idea. People make assumptions without ever asking the person if they feel in control."
Then there's Shampoo, the European duet formed by two teenage girls who had founded a Manic Street Preachers fanclub, and are now writing songs a la Transvision Vamp, Cyndi Lauper or Toni Basil. There's no threat to the band, or even a contempt of the pop band: "I have no problems when Shampoo. They've got great balls! It would be a pretty fucking boring world if everyone did the same kind of music. They just piss men off because they completely intimidate men. I think it's fantastic."
There are only two moments when Bradfield expresses any kind of contempt or anger - both when this reporter gets a little too close to the heart of the Manics.
As we now know, Richey James Edwards, guitarist and co-lyricist for the band, has mysteriously disappeared for the last month in England. Given his past medical history, his state of living comes into question. Therefore, it is understandable that Bradfield (who was supposed to have been accompanied by Edwards for the interview) becomes a bit testy when asked about the circumstances regarding Edwards' summer visit to a United Kingdom mental institution.
"It's too personal", explains Bradfield. "On a surface level, he's always had too many vices to cope with - too much drugs, too much alcohol, the self mutilation thing - which he uses as a release. He always believes in a strong mind, strong body - and his mind overestimated the reaction to his body."
"The self-mutilation thing" which is referred to was most dramatically covered when a British reporter was questioning the authenticity of Edwards works, and wondering if the band was just a carbon copy of the Clash. Edwards took out a knife, cut the words "4 REAL" into his arm, and asked if that answered the question.
The other area of sensitivity concerns the lyrics to "If White America Told The Truth For One Day Its World Would Fall Apart", a track from the new Holy Bible release. Although most of the lyrics for the song appear pointed towards criticizing the moral right (and Tipper Gore, for her lyrical censorship issue), Democrats are brought to task as well with the final line imploring, "Fuck the Brady bill", the gun limitations act installed after the failed assassination of Ronald Reagan in the early 1980's. When pressed for an explanation of these seemingly contradictory stances, Bradfield defensively replies, "We've never felt the need to explain any of our lyrics - that's enough of a political statement. You'll never get us to explain any of our lyrics any further. I'll be contentious and let you make up your own mind."
Despite this defensiveness, Bradfield never passes the blame for the Manics not breaking in America. "We mean jack shit over here, and we want to reach a fan base over here. We always blame ourselves before blaming others - and if, to reach that fan base, we have to play to 20 people a night, so be it. I just want that chance - we've only played six concerts over here - and, whatever happens, so be it. It'll be just like starting over again - not knowing who will show up. It's scary, but we know our position."
Unfortunately, the Manics are in a precarious position. Another record - their third - is being issued in the United States six months after its U.K. release. Richey James Edwards has been missing since February 1 and no evidence has been found to determine if he is still alive. The tour designed to break the band in the United States has been cancelled. Bradfield has repeatedly stated that the band is a family - and the group would cease to exist if any member of the family did not want to stay (in the band). From a music standpoint, another great album by the Manic Street Preachers may be overlooked on the shelves; from a human standpoint, three members of the Manics may see their lives permanently scarred by the possible self-induced disappearance of their lifelong friend, Richey James Edwards.
In conclusion, the band's attitude in life can probably best be summed up by Bradfield's feeling when they were performing live: "I always thought as a group we were best when everything was about ready to fall apart on stage. We always are slightly vain; we like prancing around and not always sounding like the record. Sometimes, we like making it all fall apart and bringing it back together at the last possible second." Let's hope that the Manic Street Preachers, as a foursome, haven't let that second slip away.
[Originally published: westnet.com/consumable/, 27 March 1995]