[Authorial disclaimer: I was requested by the editor to write this specific article. Any irrelevance to Doctor Who which it may therefore display is entirely his fault!]
by Clair Nightingale
An account of Manic Street Preachers fandom by one who (in the grand tradition of fandom) Woz There.
"This is the last tour I'm ever following." - a Manics fan 1992
"I'm never going to follow a whole tour again." - another Manics fan 1994.
"There's just no point in going to Norwich and Leicester if it's going to be like this." - a third Manics fan, 1996.
"Weirdos." - a Manic member on the Manics fans, 1997.
The Manics have a song called 'StayBeautiful'. It's an essential part of their live set. At one point the lyrics go 'Why don't you just [loud guitary bit]'. Over the guitary bit, the audience shouts 'FUCK OFF!' in tones of gleeful adulation.
In the early days of the band, this didn't happen. Most of the audience either stared stonily, repeatedly yelled 'Fuck off' for real, or occasionally threw bottles. Only a small section of the crowd - the fanbase - knew the moves. Like most (sub)cult(ure)s, Manics fandom started as a small, fanatical group of people who Understood, and used that shared experience to define themselves against a hostile universe.
The really wonderful thing about it was, it consisted almost entirely of teenage girls. OK, so does Boyzone's fanbase. But Boyzone don't bomb their record sleeves with quotes from writers from Philip Larkin to Nik Cohn, wear dresses onstage, urge their audience to get a good education and say things like 'we are the suicide of the non-generation'. When asked by the indie-boy music press, they said they were 'honoured' that many of their fans were teenage girls.
And would you know it, at first they actually were honoured. They replied to letters. After gigs they engaged in long discussions with us about anything and everything from Irish politics to whether cats are better than dogs. I once wrote a little satirical verse about their touring arrangements: it was included in the tour itinerary and according to the tour manager the band laughed their heads off, something which I wished I'd seen. They actually thought their fans were human.
Compare, then, the two competitors for my affections. Number One: boys at school, spotty, several years behind the girls in social development and utterly opposed to anything more intellectual than football in case it interfered with their cool (of course, there were a few boys who weren't like this, but not very many... I think they were all at home watching Doctor Who). Number Two: men in eyeliner and frilly shirts who talked about Camus and Plath, wrote lyrics that stood up to literary analysis and repeatedly asserted that women were the superior gender. Not much of a battle.
Year Zero for the Manics was 1990, when they released their first real single and began their assault on the press, which resulted in a series of music press covers in 1991... As you might expect, if as many people really were into the Manics in '91 as now claim to be, 'Stay Beautiful' would have shot straight to Number One. In fact it peaked at the somewhat tepid Number 40. Manics fandom as such didn't really exist at that time. There were people like me, getting into it in their bedroom, and a small group of devoted fans who went from gig to gig. It is a little-known but amusing fact that Shampoo, this decade's Big-in-Japan pop phenomenon, were among the first members of the Manics fanbase, and they produced the band's first fanzine, Last Exit', from 1991-92.
In 1991, Manics fans, like the band, wore leopardprint fur coats, white jeans, t-shirts with sprayed-on slogans, and several tons of eyeliner. This image has stuck as most people's favourite period of the band's history. It was certainly the most glamourous. The legendary '1991' didn't seem as romantic at the time as it has since been made out to be, as (like most golden eras) it just sorta happened. It's a lot easier to package and label a time in retrospect than it is when you're in the middle of it. Still, there's no denying it was something special.
The fanzine circuit grew gradually and exploded in around 1994. Titles were usually taken from Manics' lyrics - Last Exit, Methadone Pretty, Assasinated Beauty, 4 REAL are some typical examples. There were also what became known as rantzines, like No Future and CulturalApocalypse, which grew out of the Manics fanbase but were devoted to politics and culture rather than the band itself. CulturalApocalypse celebrates its fifth birthday this year, and is the longest-running Manics-affiliated zine, though the editor now expresses extreme reservations about the Manics. On occasion she curses them at some length.
To start with the usual format for zines was live reviews, lyrics, fans' poetry, satirical pieces and occasional academic discursions on lyrical content. As the years went by and the fanbase grew, 'how I met the band', astrological and fantasy pieces started appearing, marking a gradual change from a gig-going to a bedroom-worship culture.
You can probably tell I didn't approve of this development. Those of us who had met the band for more than a 'wow you're my hero, will you sign this' five seconds were all too aware of their shortcomings. We revered them in spite of their failings. Reading awed accounts of how Richey is the god of purity and integrity when you've just come back from a gig where he slashed his chest open on stage, got blind drunk in the bar and then attempted to have his way with a member of your party does not incline you to be sympathetic towards wide-eyed New Fans (© the music press), however much they may argue that they have as much of a right to be fans as you do.
Over time, a palpable difference grew up between two groups, who for convenience I will call 'touring' and 'bedroom' fans. Bedroom fans, who started appearing in numbers in 1993 sometimes attended gigs and went down the front, but too often they did everything with an expression of awe on their faces. They went to their local gig and went straight home after it, or possibly hung around the backstage door for an autograph.They were/are distinct from fans who just don't happen to go to gigs very often. I myself didn't start touring in earnest until 1993, but I don't recall ever displaying the disturbing passivity of 'bedroom' fandom. The point of the Manics was that they inspired you to write your own poems, form your own bands, etc and they provided a forum for like minded people to meet through fanzines or at gigs. We loved them, often with an unhealthy violence, but we never took them for popes. The first rot set in when more and more fans began to assume the band's infalliblity. The notorious 'Old Manics Fans vs New Manics Fans' music press war is a simplification of a more complex divide between fans who are prepared to question their heroes and those who adoringly accept their every fart. In general, I have found that the former correspond with the older fans, the latter with the newer, but this is by no means a concrete rule.
The real fanatical, possibly 'scarily obsessed' (to quote another of our number) but definitely self-reliant hardcore was always the touring fans. We lived for the next gig. The group had no distinct boundaries, you could just be sure that at any Manics gig in Britain at least two-thirds of a certain set of familiar faces would be there. Many of us were still in school, not to mention being broke: if it hadn't been for this I would've gone to every gig they played in 1993 and 1994.
There were individuals, like, me, and a few well-known gangs. I was a kind of associate member of the 'Irish girls', a bunch of, logically enough, girls, who were, less logically, not all Irish. Of all the fans around them, for some reason the band and senior road crew decided they liked the Irish girls best, and they helped us out by letting us sleep in their spare hotel rooms and arranging for some of us to work on the t-shirt stand. Of course the upshot of this was that all the other fans hated us and rumours abounded that we were shagging the band, the tour manager, the road crew and very probably the tour bus, but that was only to be expected. Tensions ran high on the full-length tours. Bitching rose to an exquisite art form.
One of the many things neglected by those who perceive the female music fan as a giggling violet is the fact that to follow a tour you have to be both tough and extremely well organised. Unless you get lucky with someone's floor, your best option is to scour the town for the cheapest and grimmest B&B in the place - and that's if, after paying for train fares round the country, your grant, dole or pocket money extends to accommodation at all. Otherwise it's the bus station for you. Some bus stations are OK. Birmingham Digbeth has a wonderful ladies' toilet where you can spend most of the night. Leicester has a disabled loo which smells, but you can barricade yourself in there if you get any hassle. Other places aren't so good. My willingness to spend the night on the streets of Cardiff can only be taken as testimony to the unmissable brilliance of the Manics in 1994. And added to the physical difficulties of touring, there are the emotional strains. Violent rivalry broke out among touring fans as often as Manic-inspired bonding. Manics fandom was a resting place for misfits, and quite a few of our number had problems such as eating disorders or bad home lives. Some of the things which happened in 1994 were enough to send some of the people I knew over the edge into temporary collapse. Occasional self-mutilation was scrupulously hidden from the band by the perpetrators, who didn't want to be thought of as Richey imitators. If someone collapsed into tears or hysterics because her bag had been stolen, or she'd been rejected by one of the band or her gang, or simply because of tour fatigue (lack of sleep, food and emotional stability, and excess of mosh pit bruises, catfights and drunk-dodging) she was immediately carried off by her friends so as not to inconvenience the band. This is the one thing I regret most. If I were to have that time again, I would march up to certain individuals and give them a piece of my mind on the subject of fans being people too. But we were all so afraid that if we made even a small nuisance of ourselves we'd never be allowed backstage again.
The nub of it, and the central attraction when it came down to it, was that you were certain of your mission in life - to get to the next gig. Occasionally you had the scary sensation of things being out of control. In fact, I spent much of 1994 swearing that this was too much, I was going to get out if I possibly could. Ha. Ha. Ha. Make no mistake, being a touring Manics fan was horrible. But the rest of life was and still to an extent is a bland dream by comparison. Love, death and passion don't even come close.
* * * * * * * * * *
How did everything come to go so horribly, intensely wrong with our little scene? By 1994, the wonderful band I have been eulogising above was undergoing some dubious changes. That year they released their masterpiece, The Holy Bible, a record which is unmatched in rock music for its combination of bleak elegance and intellectual rigour. The side effect of this, as is so often the case with 'great art', is that the chief lyricist went mad and the whole band became miserable bastards. By 'mad' I mean that the depression, anorexia, self-mutilation and alcoholism which Richey had so far managed to keep more or less under his control finally got the better of him. He spent the summer of 1994 in a psychiatric hospital. They toured a few months before this event, and shortly after. Some of us fans knew more than others, but none of us knew very much. Our love for the Manics was already dangerously intense and the conditions of touring not condusive to peace. The concern which permeated everyone in the touring entourage, from the band - all four of whom had been friends since primary school - to us lot, could only make things worse. On top of that, the rest of the band decided that Richey should be kept away from us girlie fans in case we were a bad influence on him. They knew that some of us were anorexic or had suffered from depression, so in their fear for their friend they imagined that we would somehow encourage him in his downward spiral. All that we picked up was that the band didn't want us around any more, and it made for a pretty unpleasant atmosphere. Especially when, after all the cotton-wool-swaddling of Richey to protect him from us, he began picking out the more adoring and therefore more vulnerable of us to use as groupies.
Somehow in 1994 Richey became defined by his problems, and this is how, largely thanks to the media, fans who got into the band at a later stage are always likely to see him. He disappeared from the band's hotel on February 1st 1995, leaving no trace. At the last gigs they played, in December 1994, he'd looked totally vacant. I was in the front row on Richey's side at their last gig and will always remember him at the very end of the gig, standing staring out into space, striking himself repeatedly on the forehead with half a broken guitar.
A poignant moment, I suppose, and a good fan credential for me to have. Only, truth be told, I did not spend that moment thinking 'Oh my angst hero, I love you'. I thought 'That thing looks loose. If it goes flying and clobbers me, I'm going to sue you for every penny you're worth, you mad bastard.'
Not until he disappeared and became a myth did Richey finally stop being Richey, the cute, hyperintelligent one with the Camus fixation and the innovative use for razorblades. The man as we knew him and the media creation have very little in common.
* * * * * * * * * *
The emotions produced by Richey's disappearance would not make nice reading. A brief list: feeling of utter suspension, being stuck in a nightmare with no end, not wanting to eat or sleep or move until he came back because he would be back soon, he would, and only that could break the dreadful spell. Moving swiftly onwards, we come to... oh well, we come to the even worse bit. The grief itself wasn't as bad as the contempt which was meted out to us for feeling that way. In the music press the fans were variously accused of driving Richey to distraction by happening to share the same problems as him (anorexia and self-mutilation are overwhelmingly female problems), deliberately having problems in order to imitate Richey and thus insulting his suffering, not understanding the depth of his pain (him being an artist and us being girlies) and finally of creating the stereotype of Richey-as-angst-god which the press themselves were so busily embroidering. The letters pages of NME and Melody Maker were inundated with Richey-related letters of all kinds and some younger Manics fans, seeing in this a chance to prove the trueness of their fandom and not really understanding what was at stake, took the opportunity to put on overblown displays of lamentation. Of course these were the letters which got the musicpress' attention, and the stereotype of the Manics fan - forearm adorned with carved-in slogans, devoted to Richey, God of Suffering and dieting on an apple a day - reached its zenith. To admit to being a Manics fan was to have all this instantly dumped on your head. Rest assured, O telefantasy fan beleaguered by cries of 'nerd!', Manics fans had it even worse. Not surprisingly, I scrupulously concealed my distress from people in my everyday life, only letting it out in the long, inter-fan letters characteristic of our scene.
* * * * * * * * * *
At some time during the above, a picture of the Manics as they are now has probably floated across your mind, and you may have doubted whether the doe-eyed rebels I am talking about can possibly be one and the same with the Fred Perry-clad chuggers of 'A Design for Life' or 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will be Next', which is a windmill masquerading as a giant if ever there was one. The blinkered determination of the Manics' current belief that they are an oppressed minority would be touching if it weren't so offensive, coming as it does from a bunch of white male millionaires.
During 1996-7, the era of the Everything Must Go album, received wisdom was that the new-look Manics, who reformed as a threesome when at the end of 1995 it became clear Richey wasn't coming back, are better than the previous version. Granted Everything Must Go had a couple of whistleable tunes, so perhaps it's no wonder casual listeners prefer it.. But it was also more pompous, less intelligent, more self-indulgent, less challenging and utterly inferior on every level except that of vague niceness. Imagine if the TARDIS was replaced by an IKEA wardrobe. It might be prettier and easier for a contemporary audience to relate to, but would you call it an improvement? Much as it pained me to slowly realise, the post-Richey Manics are arrogant, flabby-minded, and self-pitying. The loss of a loved one can either force you to grow, or diminish you, and the latter (in spite of press sycophancy) seems to be what has happened to the Manics. Now, when they deign to have contact with the fans at all, they treat us with condescension or open contempt. As a result, very few of their old fans have hung around to be insulted, and the Manics have ended up with the kind of slightly dippy, undemanding and adoring fanbase who they seem to want. Presumably the attraction is that dim and docile followers confirm the band's prejudices and allow them to feel superior. They now devote a great deal of time to making it clear that Richey is their property and no-one else has a right to talk about him or miss him. Galloping guilt, anybody?! The saddest thing of all is the emperor's new clothes state of their music. A recent comment by the journalist Caitlin Moran on the subject of 'Tolerate' hit the nail on the head: '[it has] no power save that of repetition'. This band who once declared their intent to unite The Clash and Joy Division and up the glamour content have been reduced - or, and this is the crunch, reduced themselves - to believing that 'ah ah ah ah ah ah, aah-aah-aah' (the repeated closing refrain of 'Tolerate') is a statement of great emotional and political depth. Weep.
* * * * * * * * * *
Manics fandom still exists, in fact physically it's thriving and larger than ever. Now though, the fanzines are all full of wide-eyed 'the day I touched James' shirt' type accounts. Satire exists, but in very diluted form. The essential fact, that the Manics should be questioned and perhaps even criticised, has apparently vanished from fan consciousness. I once loved them precisely because they stood against everything which both they and their fans now represent.
On the occasions I find myself mentioning to new fans that I've met the band there is a flurry of excitement. If I go on to explain that I don't mean just in a signing queue, that I'd been at the band's hotel on several occasions, talked to them at length and seen them in various compromising situations, (it is not a part of Our Gentleman of Angst's mythology that he was fond of the occasional joint...) eyes widen and I am begged to Tell All. So I do, and it's not what they want to hear. The new fans look disappointed. The last one even said she was 'crushed' by my account of the serial and sometimes underage groupie sex which went on for years but has been so perfectly expunged from the Richey myth. At such times I am the Ancient Manicer, Destroyer of Innocence, and I feel rather silly. Better to stay away from Manics fandom altogether, but I can't help going back again and again in the deluded hope that one day some of the old firewill show through in either band or fans. If there were some better alternative I'd take it, but the music scene is peculiarly flat at the moment. Even bloody Kenicke have split up, leaving the Manics, Embrace and their bilgy ilk to lumber unchecked across the airwaves.
When I needed money for my MA course fees I sold my desultory collection of setlists, photos and laminates to a lunatic who gave me over £350 and seemed to think she'd got a bargain. 'If I'd known this was going to happen,' I told another old fan. 'I'd've followed Richey round the hotel picking up his nail clippings!'
I will always be a Manics fan, but on my own terms. The scenes of my fandom are concert halls, backstage corridors, B&Bs and bus stations up and down the nation. Richey is the person who taught me how to be cynical, possibly the greatest gift anyone's ever given me. The stereotypes, of saintly, suffering Richey and his sheeplike girlie army can go their own way, and the bloated cod-political pap of the current scene can go up its own arse (something it is doing very well). For what it's worth, I woz there, and the rest is speculation.
[Originally published: The Troglodyte, Issue #1, December 1998]