Slashed chests, hand jobs and wailing fans: when Manic Street Preachers visited Bangkok, they brought a forgotten punk spirit to a city unused to anger. Even if they weren't quite sure what they were rebelling against.
No one has seen anything like this. It's the first of Manic Street Preachers' two sellout shows at the cavernous MBK Hall in Bangkok and the fans are weeping. They're crying! Not all of them, of course. Most of the 4,000 or so people present are pogoing wildly, leaping and gyrating like a sweating shoal of beautiful brunette salmon in "Sid Vicious Dead" T-shirts, oblivious to the little pocket of Manics fanatics over by the far side of the 50-foot stage who are wailing and tearing at their hair like religious devotees mourning a freshly-expired leader.
See, yesterday, one of the dozens of young women who've been hanging around the foyer of the improbably plush hotel where the band are staying, presented guitarist Richey James with a gift. It was a set of knives. She'd never seen Manic Street Preachers play before - they're the first "alternative" rock band to make the trip - but she'd read the reviews and knew that sometimes, when the mood takes him, James likes to cut himself onstage. "Look at me when you do it," she'd said.
Richey didn't like the suggestion: "I'm not going to be anyone's circus sideshow freak," he'd said to himself. So tonight, during a pair of solo acoustic numbers performed by singer James Dean Bradfield (his real name - dad was a biker and wanted to call him Clint Eastwood Bradfield, but his mum mercifully vetoed the idea), Richey went backstage and drew the blades across his chest in private, making a series of bloody horizontal wounds, which are now shining gruesomely under the bright lights.
The thing is, to a Thai mind, raised on their generous strain of Buddhism, this means he's unhappy. As the shows shudders to a climax with the gloriously cheeky punk anthem "You Love Us", this section of the crowd is standing there imagining that he's going through some devastating personal crisis. They don't realise that this is how he has fun.
Downstairs, there are other problems. The MBK Hall is on the fourth floor of the mammoth Tokyo shopping centre. It was not designed to withstand 4,000 people jumping up and down in unison, this not traditionally being a very Thai thing to do. Underneath is a posh restaurant. Quite apart from the unseemly row filtering down from above, cracks have begun to appear in the ceiling, and bits of it are raining down on the poor diners.
Accordingly, senior police officers and members of the city's engineering department will be meeting secretly with the promoters tomorrow to decide whether the second show can go ahead. The Manics have only been in Bangkok two days, but as per usual, they've already made their mark.
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Oh to have been a fly on the wall at a meeting of top Sony Record executives from around the world last year when, each delegate having been asked to name the label's most popular band in their respective territories, the Thai among them stood up fearlessly and declared, as if it was the natural thing in the world, "The Manic Street Preachers!" Not that they're not biggish news elsewhere: they've had eleven top 30 hit singles in the UK alone. Soon to be 12. It's just that they're so quintessentially British. What on earth could that mean to an Asian audience?
The Manics came screaming out of the Welsh Valleys like a queasy gangrenous dragon three years ago now. To begin with, they seemed more like a provocative concept than serious contenders. In truth, they could scarcely play at all, but they did give a interview: four lippy working-class lads who'd known each other since junior school, all punky fake fur and mascara, spewing forth bile like it was going out of style.
Actually, bile was out of style. In 1991, British independent rock was retreating into itself. Sexless shoegazing and escapist, ephemeral dream-poppery held worthy but dull sway, while the third (fourth? fifth?) Summer Of Love was in full swing. The Manics seemed to want to piss all over it. "When JG Ballard wrote Crash," Richey spits, citing the novel as one of his favourites, along with Last Exit To Brooklyn and American Psycho, "he said that what he was trying to do was force humanity to look itself in the mirror, then rub its face in its own vomit. That was what we wanted, too."
So the Manics stormed these sensible barricades with that peculiarly idiosyncratic Brit mix of intelligent suss and shockingly gratuitous, scatter-gun stupidity. Then, as now, their specialities were the spiteful soundbite and situationalist outrage. "We laughed the day John Lennon got shot," they declared on the early single, "Motown Junk." "Let's hope Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury in 1993," said Nicky at a Kilburn National gig in 1992, provoking howls of anger from the weekly music press, who had been gleefully reporting (false) rumours that the hallowed REM singer was dying of Aids. As with Kurt Cobain, blusters Richey now, the press had wanted a death. It was hypocrisy.
Then there was the NME interview in which Richey, in the course of defending himself against a counter-charge of hypocrisy (the Manics had declared an intention to split up after their first album. They didn't), carved "4 Real" in his arm, losing so much blood he ended up in hospital. All of which occurred a full 36 months before so-called New Wave Of New Wave made punk attitudes - or at least some punky styling - vogueish again.
During the intervening years, Manic Street Preachers were out there on their own. Wisely perhaps, they refuse to be drawn on the subject of NWONW, though sources close to the group insist that they view it with the same contempt with which they view most movements. Nevertheless, they may take heart from the fact that the world seems finally to be catching up with them. The Manics are no longer out on quite such a bloody limb.
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How is all this understood by the gentle people of Thailand - the self-mutilation, the hyperbole, the wilful self-contradiction? "Alternative" rock, for want of a better term, is new here and there's an innocent, infectious excitement surrounding it, rather as there must have been in the UK during the beat boom of the early Sixties. The first nationally-distributed music glossy has recently been launched and it's called, after Manic Street Preachers' first LP, Generation Terrorist. Its editor, a quiet, courteous man named Norasate Mudkong, also runs the Manics' fan club.
Generation Terrorist's motto is "Alternative Music For The Alternative Idiots." Something may have been lost in the translation there, but the sentiment is clear enough. The first thing to note, according to Mudkong, is that in Thailand they're only into British music. Smashing Pumpkins are OK, he concedes, but US rock is generally too aggressive and ugly.
As to the Manics, the people's choice, it's the accessibility of their ripping four-minute pop songs and the eloquence of their lyrics that appeal, Mudkong explains. That, and Richey, who's very Thai-like: very calm, reserved, repressed. Back in the hotel, the army of teenage girls who've camped in the lobby for three days have been asking him to sign photos of his arm, with the "4 Real" scar and added cigarette burns to the fore. In Thailand, Richey's arm is a celebrity in its own right. Nevertheless, Mudkong was one of those crying when the guitarist slashed himself. "It's traditional that Thai people cut themselves," he explains. "But they do it as a last resort, when they're really miserable. It makes us sad for him. And some young fans have copied it. If Steve Lamacq [the journalist involved in the "4 Real" incident] comes here, we will kill him!"
In interviews, Richey comes across as a loud-mouthed, arrogant creature. In person, though, he's soft-spoken, nervy and intense - every night, he requires sleeping pills and half a bottle of vodka to get to sleep. His favourite word is "Why?", as in "Everyone thinks that Aids patients deserve this incredible sympathy. Why? People who contract the disease these days knew exactly what the risks were. If I got it, I wouldn't expect anyone to pity me. You have to take responsibility for your own actions." Nine months ago, he took up smoking. Now he smokes 40 a day.
One night we all visit Pat Pong, Bangkok's notoriously sleazy red light district, the place where they filmed the Russian roulette sequence in The Deer Hunter, where you can see and probably buy anything and anyone that takes your fancy. As we drive into the area a Beatles song, "Nowhere Man", comes over the van's hi-fi system. Richey takes his own compilation tapes with him everywhere he goes, but I'm surprised by this particular track. Doesn't he hate the Beatles? "Oh, but we wrote that line in 'Motown Junk' when we were black-and-white as people. We'd decided that we hated The Beatles. Then we realised that we were just being stupid teenagers. We realised that they were a great band. I'm not embarrassed by that song, because at the time we believed it. It's important not to be embarrassed by your past. The contradictions are part of what we are. I think it's important to feel like a wanker sometimes. I feel like a wanker most days."
In the course of two days, Richey will lay into not only people with Aids, but the London homeless ("Most don't want to be in that situation, but there are elements that do. I know it's unpopular to say this - but why?"), snobs, inverted snobs, intellectuals, anti-intellectuals, politicians, historians. Then there's political correctness ("There comes a point when it's no longer worth living, you can't do anything"), therapy ("Such a middle-class thing. Where I come from, we deal with problems ourselves"), Schindler's List ("The most dangerous film ever made - that man was a bastard, pure and simple. He exploited Jews"), other bands, the press... everything. Some of it's bollocks, but often he's speaking a kind of truth. Not necessarily the kind of truth people want to hear, however.
The van pulls up in Pat Pong, and we pile out. It still looks like it did in The Deerhunter, with people swarming around the three main side streets like thin, ravenous insects. Everything is neon - even the people look neon, their faces flashing red or blue one instant, then dissolving into silhouette the next. Down one of the lanes is a market selling imitation European goods. I stop to examine some fake Rolexes, then, looking up, realise I've become separated from the group. For a few minutes, panic sets in. The crowd closes round. "You want sex?" "You want live show?" "We've got men and women, women and women, ping pong..." Then, suddenly James appears out of nowhere, chuckling. "We'd wondered where you'd got to."
James is the enigmatic one, the one who can actually play his guitar rather well, the Michael Nesmith to Richey's Micky Dolenz and Nicky's Peter Tork. Live, he holds the show together almost single-handedly. Asked about that now-famous boast that his band were going to jack it in after the first LP, he explains that in the beginning, the Manics drew up a blueprint. They listed their favourite artists, in order of preference, coming up with the Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, The Clash, Guns N' Roses and the Stones. The Pistols, they agreed, were the greatest: one great album, mutual hatred, implosion. A legacy that would one day inspire angry youngsters like Manic Street Preachers to do the same. Unfortunately, "Generation Terrorists" failed to make the impact that "Never Mind The Bollocks" had. The only option was to stay together.
We join the rest of the party in one of the go-go bars. Everyone's here apart from Nicky, who's stayed back at the hotel with his bag of medicines, terrified of contracting heat stroke or some hideous disease. No one sees him for days during our stay, and apparently every time he leaves his room he faints, this despite the fact that he was the youngest ever boy from his region to play for the Welsh National Youth soccer team and once had a trial for Arsenal. He doesn't drink, having given up two years ago, after a "brief flirtation with hedonism." "Physically my body wasn't up to it," he offers, when eventually cornered by a tape recorder. "There was a time in Warrington when I just completely broke down. I was crying on the tour bus for four hours. I was so ill. After that, I packed it in."
You're not interested in seeing Pat Pong? "No, I don't find sex very interesting to talk about and I'm not that voyeuristic in general. I just can't divorce sex from emotion the way some people can."
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In the go-go bar, there's a large rectangular platform, where a dozen women in bikinis dance to crap disco sounds. Each has a number tag. Right now, Bangkok is awash with money, the Thai economy being the strongest in the region, but the wealth gap is huge. For many, the go-go bar and prostitution is their only means of escape from abject poverty.
"See that one over there?" asks James slyly. When he was at school, James had a slow eye. He got bullied and at one stage, had no less than 15 cruel nicknames, such as "Crossfire", "Radar", "Minder", and "He-Man". When he found out that he could pick up a guitar and play it well, it was the first time he'd ever been better at something than his dashing classmate Nicky Wire. This may be why he's so good at it now and why he's more serious about it than the others. "Did you see her looking at me? She likes me. I must be gorgeous tonight." He's joking, of course, describing something of the ambivalence he feels at sitting here, watching.
Richey's not going to be trapped in that kind of emotional maze. Before I arrived, the boys had already visited Pat Pong once. They sampled the go-go bars, then went to a "lesbian" live show. "It was so choreographed," says James, "not erotic at all." Afterwards, Richey hopped in a cab to another part of town, the part where the massage parlours are.
In Bangkok the parlours are like department stores, each with three floors, each floor containing 30 or so women, ranged behind a glass partition. You choose one, go to a room with her and for 2,000 bahts (approximately £70), you take off your clothes and she gives you a mild massage. For a bit more money, she'll take her clothes off. For a bit more, you get a hand job. A bit more and you get to fuck her. Except that it's reckoned that 80 per cent of them are infected with HIV. In the course of our first night in Bangkok, we learn that, yesterday, Richey went on a personal expedition to one of these institutions. A heated, or more accurately, a well-oiled argument ensues. For all their attempts at outrage, Manic Street Preachers are a home-loving, family-oriented bunch. Until recently, they all still lived with their parents. Unlike Nicky, who's just got married, however, Richey has never had a lasting relationship. Until the band became successful, by which time he was aged 20, he was a virgin. He doesn't see why he should apologise for any of this. Not for getting a hand job at a Thai massage parlour.
"I'm not a very sexual person," he says. "I don't need the physical closeness of a relationship. And I'm afraid of the pain that goes with it, to be honest. I think it's more of an animalistic urge. Every man masturbates, it's something you just do, two or three times a day. It's not the same as lust. Sleeping with someone, for me, is a change from wanking. If we go on a 25-date tour, I might sleep with one or two people."
Women? "Yeah, women."
There are a few lines from "Faster", the B-side to the new single "PCP" - ironically enough, a song about the scourge of political correctness - which run: "I am purity, they call me perverted/I am all the things that you regret/I've been too honest with myself/I should have lied like everybody else."
"Yeah. I think the press always want liars. Every time I've slept with a groupie, I've always felt dirty afterwards. It's very functional. I know for a fact that I could go downstairs now and come back up and fuck somebody. I don't like doing that, so if I go and pay 2,000 bahts at a massage parlour and have a bath and get jerked off, to me it's preferable. But at the same time, if we were like other bands, a party band, and we went out to some bars in Pat Pong and got pissed, came back, smashed up the hotel room, went onstage, were very aggressive, fucked some girls afterwards, in lots of magazines we'd get complete respect for doing it. Look at Primal Scream. But because we're not like that, we stand in danger of being condemned. We're just being more modern about it. For me, everything is very carefully thought out. This is the way I choose to live my life."
How do you choose who to sleep with? "It's just people who come backstage. I like perfect aesthetic bodies, but most of the people I sleep with, I'm not really physically attracted to at all."
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With the possible exception of a crackdown on the bootleg tapes which used to account for 75 per cent of the music market in Thailand, the single most important factor in making Manic Street Preachers' journey possible is a DJ named Wasana Wirachartplee. The local equivalent of John Peel, she's the one who discovered the Manics pop anthem "Motorcycle Emptiness", playing it mercilessly to death and creating a huge swell of interest. With pleasing symmetry, as they got bigger, so did Wasana. "I owe them so much," she says modestly. Next month, she's bringing over the Boo Radleys. Last week, she opened her own indie record shop.
Right now, though, it's Saturday afternoon, the day of the final show, and Wasana's on-air sidekick, an Englishman from Barnsley called Mr Bee, is acting as translator for representatives of the Manics fan club who've come to meet Richey and Nicky. The questions he's been asked to put to them provide some sort of insight into how the band are perceived. To begin with, there are the looks of disbelief on the fans' faces when Nicky, responding to an inquiry about the state of music in Britain, replies: "Oh, it's very cynical, very post-modern, everything's a joke. Our generation's really struggling for something meaningful, trying to invent something new every year." The Thais, reasonably enough, think this sad.
Richey is asked if he would like to become a teacher. Nicky is asked if he'd like to become an MP. Suede guitarist Bernard Butler has become a cult figure here and the fans are anxious to know what the Manics think of him. One expresses confusion at the anti-monarchist rant "Repeat". The Thai people love their monarch, a point stressed later, when, in the act of presenting the Manics with their platinum disc, the country's Sony MD makes us all squirm with a speech about how we owe everything to the King and Queen. The point is, they do a lot of good work with the rural poor and the fans here find it ungracious that the band should refer to them as "Royal Khmer Rouge" and "Imitation demi-gods". Ah, well, blushes Nicky, we really had our own Royal family in mind when we wrote that one.
Most revealing of all, though, are the hundreds of letters from fan club members, which are handed to the band in three massive files. One goes: "I have a motorcycle. I like to ride it every day but it's old now. I try to pick up the money for a new chopper, but it's hard because I receive a very low salary. Maybe it will take a long time, but I don't care, I can wait. I love my motorcycle so much and I love your 'Motorcycle Emptiness'."
The average wage in Thailand is 2,000-3,000 baht per month. Tickets for the two Manic Street Preachers shows are 440 baht each. Work that one out for yourself. Indie music may be breaking all over Asia, but there's still a long way to go.
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On the second night, the floor doesn't collapse and Richey doesn't slash himself. "I didn't feel the need to do it," he confides. "Today was a much better day for me. I'm usually very nervous when we do our first concert for a while."
Why do you do it? "It just concentrates your mind. I can block out the pain fairly easily. There was this thing on TV this morning about a man in London who had a vasectomy without any anaesthetic. They cut into his scrotum and heat-sealed the tube and he blocked off the pain himself. I'm not saying I could do that, but I could make a better go of it than most. The one person I admire more than any other is Henry Rollins. He doesn't need a crutch. I have my sleeping pills and alcohol.
"If there's a thing which annoys you or pisses you off... I never shout at anybody, so if I cut myself or stub a cigarette out on my arm, to me that's just a release. Say somebody pushes me or punches me when I'm out in Cardiff, that hurts me more than having a couple of stitches put in my arm. That's someone taking their frustration out on me. If I have a fair deal of contempt for humanity, it's because it's never honest with itself."
The crowd is even more mental than on the first night and the band is in startling form. These days, Manic Street Preachers can play. At least James and drummer Sean can: Nicky gets by and Richey's guitar is low enough in the mix to provoke rumours that it isn't plugged in. He's pretty offended by this idea. James, meanwhile, professes to miss the days when things just used to fall apart. The last album suffered from a lack of chaos, he adds.
But in 1994, they're far more Guns N' Roses than Pistols: the tunes are taut, tight, full of blistering riffs and unexpected melodic twists. And the new single, "PCP", is a corker, the furious lyrics made up of a series of cut and paste one-line meditations, as their best lyrics always were.
"We lost that on 'Gold Against The Soul'," says Richey, echoing James. "We got too self-conscious. I mean, critics are always struck by what a great lyricist Elvis Costello is, how complete his songs are. I think he's completely crap. My generation is the soundbite generation. My attention span is incredibly short. My words reflect that."
He pauses a moment, considering. "I remember wondering, why isn't there a British band from our generation that we can all love? There's never been one, has there?" A new Manic Street Preachers album has been recorded, and will be released in September. It is apparently a major return to form. If you want something done, sometimes you have to do it yourself.
[Originally published: The Face, June 1994]