by Hector Prole
It was always going to be an evening of intense expectation marred by the eventual, inevitable reality that we were not going to call the shots on this one. You see, with a band like the Manics' careful sculpted public profile of 'band as unit' and all that, you need to experience the whole deal, have your cake and eat it, so to speak. Before we even get to meet James Dean Bradfield at his Glasgow hotel on the opening night of the band's UK tour, we realise this is not to be...
Since Richey's much publicised journey to the brink of self-annihilation things have changed in the Manic Street Preachers' camp. They have always exuded an air of contrived tragedy, but somehow now it's frighteningly real. Richey's safely tucked up in his dressing room out of harm's way a good three hours before the show with Sean acting as chaperon. Nicky, so long the snotty and arrogant yet unspeakably charming mouth piece for the band, is not speaking to the press anymore (at least not for the foreseeable future anyway), according to James, "He's just missing his Wife". So it's James that's left to do all the talking, and talk he does.
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The band have just returned from a few French dates supporting Therapy? - the first with Richey since their triumphant Glastonbury appearance. Oddly enough it was James' first trip to Paris and he was surprised to find that the city's walls were not daubed with situationist slogans!! While he didn't regard the shows as a "warm up" for the British tour it did take him a while to get used to playing as a four piece again.
"I just couldn't get going on the first couple of shows because I was quite worried. I kept looking to my right all the time expecting something to be happening. I kept misinterpreting little glints in his eyes, I thought they were a sign of some kind of misplaced action that he was about to commit."
Surprisingly, when asked about whether he treats Richey any differently now, James doesn't feel that he's perpetually trying to avoid 'treading on eggshells'.
"Interacting on a 'day-to-day' basis hasn't changed at all, but when we kick into 'professional gear' I do get worried. I'm always aware of the myth, he has a sense of timing at least."
Despite the enormous amount of press coverage surrounding Richey's breakdown, it was surprising that the 'uncensored version of events' pertaining to the way in which it manifested itself never actually found its way into print. While not quite reaching the point of cageyness, James shuffles uncomfortably in his seat and offers up an almost 'pat' answer to this all too obvious line of questioning.
"He was just cutting himself up all over his body and taking shitloads of drugs and drink. I suppose if you've got just one excess you can handle it or harness it to a certain degree, but when you've got to deal with all three at once things get a bit difficult."
Maybe there was nothing more to it, or maybe it's just his polite way of telling us to 'fuck off' as it's none of our business. Either way that's all James has to say on the specifics. He did, however, explain that functioning on a daily basis became impossible for Richey.
"Richey's a very academic person, he loves routines and timetables. When we were working he always had timetables that he had to follow. But then we had some time off and he'd spend his time taking drugs and drinking and doing a bit of slashing here and there and that's how it all started really. We've always been a very clinical band because we've always believed in creating some kind of self myth. We've always admitted that, but then it went way beyond that and got to a point where it became really irrational. Before, everything he did was quite rational, he always did things to make a point which we weren't ashamed of. Then he started doing it in private. When he was doing it and trying to kid us that he wasn't we realised that it was time to give him a good slap. He did admit to himself that he had a problem and needed help but the solution was kind of imposed on him. He basically acknowledged that he wasn't as resilient in mind and body as he thought he was, so he kind of became humble I suppose."
For any member of the most inwardly looking of bands to 'fuck up' the way Richey did, you would inevitably expect it to lead to the rest of the band being thrown into a state of confusion and turmoil. While it did have a profound effect, their strength as a unit and ability to deal with each other in a brutally honest way helped them cope with it.
"There weren't really any signs that it was going to happen before it did, but once it did happen we were in quite a schizophrenic state. The first thing we did was to almost ignore that we were in a band because we'd known each other since we were children, so we tried not to talk about the band. I was having to deal with so many things that he'd had to deal with in the past I realised that, when we'd finished the album - which we all really loved - it didn't seem to have the desired effect on his psyche or whatever you fucking want to call it. So now and then I got slightly resentful and wanted to smash his face in, just like anyone might in a closely knit family. If he hurts himself then he hurts us too, not professionally but personally. Then you've got the flipside, which IS professionally... actually, 'professional' is probably the wrong word because we always made up for each other's inadequacies. We did for each other what we couldn't do for ourselves. It was always more than a job. I guess it was definitely a schizophrenic couple of weeks."
Perhaps unthinkable, something which was never even suggested over the past few weeks was that the band may have been on the point of splitting. It's only when James explains how the band helped Richey recuperate that it becomes clear just how close the Manics came to breaking up.
"There's certainly more than a 50% chance that we would've split up if he'd left the band. From the band side of things that's the only time resentment ever came into it. Actually, it's not really resentment, it's more that now and again I was thinking 'being in a band just isn't any good for him, we should just pack it in' but he didn't want that to happen at all. That was the only time when things became compounded to such a degree that it felt like they were going to explode."
Looking back at early Manics' shows, Richey always played the part perfectly of a beautifully vain peacock standing stage left, preening his feathers, pouting and generally looking so drop dead cool that every boy on the audience felt themselves miserably failing to suppress the latent homosexuality that exists in all of us. Yet during the band's tour in February this year he looked uneasy, on edge and frankly incidental to the Manics' live machine. Last month, Richey admitted that while he was in hospital he had felt like giving up touring completely and instead concentrate solely on lyrics and artwork but decided against it because he felt as though he would be betraying the rest of the band. James makes it clear that it was important that no pressure was put on Richey either way. That, ultimately, the decision he made had to be the one he truly felt most comfortable with himself.
"Yeah, there was the option to be some kind of Professor Griff type character, but basically we were happy to go along with whatever Richey wanted. That was the whole dictum, 'whatever you want you can do'. We gave him options, but every kind of option, not just those that existed within the structure that he'd already lived in. I know it sounds like fucking psychobabble but we had to offer him solutions. In the end I had to stop walking round the subject and be a bit more forward with it. Your sympathy can only stretch so far. So eventually it boiled down to 'we know you better than anybody else and you know us better than anybody else and we can't keep on spouting this armchair psychobabble and treating each other like strangers.' That's what it was like for a while. We had to bring it down to a basic level and try and be a bit more honest with each other. Richey was hiding behind a lot of that, the facade and veneer that all that psychiatric language gives you. It lets you hide behind it and we had to fight through that as well."
Anyone who has ever been close to someone who has suffered a breakdown eventually asks themselves the same question... "Am I the problem?". The remaining three members of the band were no exception.
"It's strange, because it's something that we know from watching crappy television shows and B-movies, but a psychiatrist is always going to pick a target to establish the problem and we were scared that the target would be us. In the end, thank God, it was something else. Basically that's one of the first rules of psychiatry, that you pick so many targets and fire at them until you hit on the problem."
In an attempt to answer all the obvious questions which would be asked about Richey's illness in one setting, the Manics granted the NME an exclusive interview a few weeks back. The resulting article made for a fascinating read but went too far with a front cover photo of Richey posing on his own, holding on to a Greek statue and living the part of the "tortured romantic". It came across as blatant, exploitative/sensationalist journalism.
"We were a bit worried about doing that interview and at the end of the day it's our fault. We knew that the tone of the piece would be infused to that degree. We kept asking for some kind of assurances that it wouldn't, but when it came out, we weren't surprised. It was our own fault. I think it will probably do us more harm than good."
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Some of the lyrics on "The Holy Bible" appear to be extremely personal to Richey - at times seemingly almost autobiographical. James, who becomes visibly irritated when asked about it, is adamant that he doesn't feel uncomfortable singing a song like "4st 7lbs" - even though they're not his words and he can't really comprehend what was going through Richey's head when he wrote them.
"I'd say that that song is 80% detached from his persona. I get fed up with people when they ask questions like that. I am stable enough to take the lyrics as somebody else's sentiment and if I'm ever worried about something within those lyrics then I can ask about it. I find it really confusing - the inverted snobbery that seems to arise when someone has to sing somebody else's lyrics. I could maybe understand if I was to be equated with Roger Daltry but I'm not. We all grew up with each other, were all very similar people to a crucial degree but it's not like we're four cartoon characters like the Who or something. I think that one thing which is sadly missing today in pop music is the interpretive basis. I've got total interpretative carte blanche to do whatever I want and that's really a privileged position to be in."
For anyone not closely involved with the band it is difficult to fully comprehend the intimate nature of the Manics' interpersonal relationships. So to an outsider it does seem scary for James to sing a line like "...4st 7, an epilogue of youth such beautiful dignity in self abuse, I've finally come to understand life, through staring blankly at my navel."
"I get more scared watching 'Salem's Lot' than I do reading any of our fucking lyrics because at the end of the day we don't have to take it quite as seriously as Richey. That's not to say that's why the situation arose. It's always been our intention to manifest a serious attitude, but it's not the same as taking yourself seriously. That has always been our attitude - never ever pat yourself on the back because you wrote a certain lyric or some music. So I never get that worried about it because, ultimately, I've probably had more problems with other songs which were completely detached from Richey's opinion or his state of being. I probably took more umbrage at things Richey and Nicky have said about other people in lyrics. Not to a great extent, just to the level of having an intelligent discourse about it. I've never had a problem with having to sing anything about what Richey's saying because I'm so close to him and the level that we all work together on means that we can never take ourselves that seriously in each other's company."
The Manics have always included covers in their live set; Guns & Roses' "It's So Easy", McCarthy's "Charles Windsor", The Clash's "What's My Name", Happy Mondays' "Wrote For Luck". On this tour they have controversially, chosen to reinterpret Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea". It is certain to provoke further worthless pontificating on the dangerous parallels which have already been drawn in some quarters between "The Holy Bible" and "In Utero" in terms of it being Richey's swansong.
"I think that we perhaps interpreted the song in a different way. It was to do with an old abortion potion, but the way we took it was like a pun on Penny Royalty (Monarchy) because that's the way we've been forced to look at ourselves at times. Also, I just got fed up with bands like Primal Scream using buzz words like passion, soul, integrity... To find those feelings you've got to go down to the deep fried South of America. We're not from the South, we're white liberal angst proffers. We've put a bit more into that cover than others we've done. We thought we'd pick something a bit more contemporary, something that's a bit more relevant to us in its essence. "We've always done covers. When we first started the axis was on Guns & Roses and Public Enemy because they stood for two very definite lifestyles. If you look at our lyrics there are songs like "Repeat" which contain sentiments which are common to a lot of our audience as well as us as a band. Then there's the flipside of songs like "Yes" which people can understand but don't really share much empathy with. That's crucial when I'm writing songs - to understand but not necessarily accept. That causes a certain kind of tension. There was always that flipside - the universal suffrage. For me a song like "It's So Easy" is entertaining to understand and accept. It's a cabaret kind of thing to exist on that level for just three minutes and throw it away. With all the poe faced poses and hot air that we've expounded over the last few years, I've always hoped that at least we were quite an entertaining band live."
Around the time of "Generation Terrorists" the band's manifesto seemed very much aimed at breaking America on a major scale, even to the point of releasing a more FM friendly version of the album over there. Even "Gold Against The Soul" had massive potential commercial crossover appeal yet it never seemed to happen. "The Holy Bible" will surely sound a death knell for any US chart ambitions. Although the band haven't exactly abandoned their plans to "conquer America" they're not prepared to kiss all the necessary arses required to make it happen.
"After the first album we just reconciled ourselves to being lucky in America. The second album's feel was more to do with other things rather than a blatant attempt at breaking America. Some bands start off on the wrong (or right) foot and sign a contract and then face this big dilemma. But when we signed our contract we didn't have any dilemma, we thought we were strong enough to withstand any sort of corporate control, but we were a bit naive. "Gold Against The Soul" does sound a bit more Yankee Doodle because I suppose we were too blasé about how we could have complete control while still remaining on Sony. It sounds really Orwellian but they had much more insipid ways of influencing how we did things. Our songs are at their best when they're at their most irrational or like three minute well informed news stories. A song like "La Tritesse..." is just like some poxy little left wing social diatribe vignette type thing and we had become so self obsessed in the wrong way about loss of innocence. Who were we trying to kid? I just think our songs are at their best when there are other people in them not just ourselves. I'm not trying to pour piss on its corpse or anything like that, but the carrot was dangled in front of us and we were bundled off to this massive studio and we became a little complacent."
"The Holy Bible" was recorded in a small studio in Wales, almost as a direct reaction against what had happened with "Gold Against the Soul".
"It was just a bit of pretentious art wank really, just trying to let your environment become yourself and it's art, all that bollocks. The new album's a lot more dense and obtuse - if it was book you wouldn't say there were many sympathetic characters in it. We treated it almost like an essay. We started off with the title, we didn't have one lyric or one piece of music written. One of the nicest things that's been said about it is that 'a year ago the songs would have been much more anthemic, but they've been flattened down into thin strips of metal'. We wanted to try and create a claustrophobic atmosphere in the studio. It wasn't a nice album to make. We've always been a band who wanted something to believe in but couldn't find anything and there's one pivotal song on the album "Archives Of Pain". It started out as a reposte to that line in Therapy?'s "Trigger Inside" ('Now I know how Jeffrey Dahmer feels') and, even though I really like Therapy?, we just couldn't agree with it so decided to come up with a modern response. It went on to become a capital punishment diatribe and by the time we'd finished the song we sounded like a bunch of right wing cunts. It's basically "O" level sociology, left and right eventually meet and they become impossible to differentiate from each other. And I thought that's what we'd become, when one side becomes totally fucked up. We started out as such a traditional working class band, and based all these situations on anywhere we could find a strand of unfilled ideology, but we've drifted further and further sideways. By the end of this song I realised that we were just a product of our times. We'd believed in so many things only to become disillusioned. That was one of the first songs that we'd finished and it was then that I realised that the whole album would be quite ambivalent in terms of its morals."
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The Manic Street Preachers are the most contradictory of all rock bands. They have epitomised every hackneyed idea they have embraced and touched. It's taken three long years for us to realise it, but Britain is finally waking up to the fact that the Manics are the best rock 'n' roll band that we have, or have had since The Smiths in their heyday. The cracks in their armour and inherent flaws in their make up ensure that their lustre shines all the more brightly.
[Originally published: Sun Zoom Spark, December 1994]