Love Your Masks: Manic Street Preachers, 1991-1996

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When the HBO show “Vinyl” spurred my curiosity about glam rock from the 1970s, I soon found myself on the Wikipedia page for the more complicated offshoot of the genre, glam punk. A quick look at the short entry led me to this sentence describing groups from the 80s and 90s: “The term has been used to describe later bands who combined glam aesthetics with punk music, including the early Manic Street Preachers.”

I’d heard of the Manic Street Preachers… hadn’t I?

Well, I had heard the name, but I didn’t know a thing about their music. The group, initially a four-piece – pictured above from left to right: rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards (then known to the media as Richey James), bassist Nicky Wire (né Jones), drummer Sean Moore, singer and lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield – had a sound that changed from album to album, at least in the first five or so years of their recording history. (Throughout it all, the songwriting duties were split between Edwards and Wire, while the music was composed by Moore and Bradfield.) Formed in 1986, the four childhood friends – and relatives: Bradfield and Moore are cousins – grew up in Blackwood, South Wales. I admit I don’t know how many other Welsh bands were contemporaries of the Manics, but from what I gather, there weren’t many. So the quartet stood out at a time when most of the other bands gaining traction on the British charts were, indeed, from England.

Readers of this blog know that I am interested in the myth-making of artists by the artists themselves, and how different segments of the music world can affect (and be affected by) pop culture. Thus begins another journey in my musical discoveries: there have to be melodies that I can believe in, but there are also have to be stories worth knowing, and I can never stay away from a compelling enigma or two. And the Manics have had a few such mysterious and intriguing moments in their career. Their legacy has been one of creation, reinvention, questions without answers and searches for truth in a world sometimes filled with more darkness than light.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, these are the definitions of the word myth:

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Lyrical content can be built on myths, like asserting that you will be the next rock ‘n’ roll icons, but a significant part of that glamour exists in the depictions of the artists’ bodies as well. As Joe Tangari wrote for Pitchfork in 2004: “In all of rock’s varied and storied history, I can’t think of another band that yearned harder and more desperately to be Important than the Manic Street Preachers. You can tell from every album they ever released, every photo they ever posed for, every line of lyrics they ever penned, that these guys wanted to change the lives and minds of millions and enter into rock’s history books as nothing short of legends.” Just look at early band photos for proof of this claim.

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Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire, photographed by Kevin Cummins for NME in 1991.

From the beginning, the Manic Street Preachers set out to make their mark on pop culture and establish the idea of their own brilliance. Undeterred by comments that they were copying the models provided by the Sex Pistols and the Clash in the late 1970s, the Manics insisted that they were going to sell sixteen million copies of their debut album, Generation Terrorists (1992), be a worldwide phenomenon, then dramatically split up for good after that one massive burst of glory. That didn’t end up happening, and instead the Manics changed their style with each of their first four albums, evolving each year from the first album’s glam punk (as seen in the makeup, leopard and lace in the photos above) to grunge (Gold Against the Soul, 1993) to post-punk (The Holy Bible, 1994) to more commercially accessible alternative rock/Britpop (Everything Must Go, 1996). The original myth wasn’t fulfilled, so new ones took its place.

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James Dean Bradfield, Richey Edwards, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore, photographed in 1994.

Who were – and are – the Manic Street Preachers? How do I pin down their identity within our vast, ever-changing musical realm? Why didn’t they ever hit it big in the US, where not one of their albums or singles has ever charted? I feel like I’m crossing music criticism with investigative journalism, although I’m not sure that I’ll properly address either endeavor. A person can learn only so much in just a couple of weeks, so this is more like my attempt at starting to make sense of only the first few chapters of a long, incredibly detailed story.

(I’m hyperlinking each of the titles of the ten main songs that I’m focusing on, so that each link takes you to a page with lyrics. Also please note that I have not included one of the band’s signature songs, “Motorcycle Emptiness,” because I put that in a post I wrote two weeks ago. It’s also an unusual song since it doesn’t really sound like anything else on their first album.)

1. “Stay Beautiful” (performed live on “The Beat,” 9/1991). “Love your masks and adore your failure”: this is a picture of Manic Street Preachers in the year they burst onto the scene and into the public consciousness. Four young guys, pissed off (by the “culture of consumption/destruction”) but a ton of fun to sing along with, bring both punk attitude and eyeliner-and-sunglasses rock-star glitz to this live TV gig.

2. “Love’s Sweet Exile” (music video; single released 10/28/1991). Whether you think that the Manics were subverting the typical heterosexual-machismo ideals of rock music videos by incorporating homoerotic imagery, or buying into the demands of appeasing viewers who wanted to see as much flesh as possible, the video for “Exile” remains a favorite of both the band and their fans. Nicky and Richey accentuate their androgyny for the cameras, while James’s guitar solo has been described as “on a purely technical level, possibly one of the most impressive instrumental parts in the history of the band.” By the video’s end, record-company-approved photographs of the band have grown so literally hot that they burn up and disintegate. And as the cherry on top, since literary influences were connected to the Manics’ music, take note of the Albert Camus quotation at the start of the clip.

TV interview from 2/1992. The Manics were the band that “everybody loves to hate,” given that in the months preceding the release of Generation Terrorists, they hyped up their own importance as the next great thing to hit rock ‘n’ roll, further annoying some by badmouthing lots of other bands along the way. The declarations of confidence are sort of balanced out by something that Richey says at the end of this interview clip: “…we’ve just got nothing to lose, you know, ’cause we’re secure in the knowledge that we already lost a long time ago.” Onstage swagger meets offstage defeatism.

3. “From Despair to Where” (performed on Saturday morning kids’ show “Gimme 5,” 1993). Are the Manics a band that the kiddies would enjoy? All part of the promotional process, I suppose. The Manics perform (miming the instrumental while James sings live) the lead single from their second album, Gold Against the Soul (1993), on which their sound had morphed from glam to grunge, more in line with the music most popular at the time (i.e. American grunge: Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, etc.) while still retaining their unique edge. Whether young viewers were expected to despair or not, puppet presenter Nobby the Sheep is seen bouncing in time to the music at the 2:11 (following shortly thereafter by a list of credits thanking corporate sponsors, including Converse, Nintendo and Sega).

While watching the Manics mime along to their song (a habit that TV shows had back then, both in the UK and elsewhere around the world), now might be a good time to mention Richey’s musical role in the group. Despite his designation as the band’s rhythm guitarist, I think he only recorded guitar parts for two Manics songs, “La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh)” (Gold Against the Soul, 1993) and “No Surface All Feeling” (Everything Must Go, 1996). He was no more active in concert; in the early 90s, he tended to play gigs with his guitar plugged in but the amp turned down, so that the sound couldn’t be heard (although he moved about the stage in such a rock-star way that I’m sure the fans must have believed he really was playing). Perhaps some fans were wise to the tactic, though, if this clip is any indication.

Two TV interviews from 1993. First: musing on makeup, being able to look at yourself in the mirror, personal fulfillment, hypocrisy, ideas of “beauty,” and Primo Levi versus Kate Moss. Second: Rhona Cameron, armed with a fluffy dog puppet, inquires as to why the band writes “miserable” music. Is the question “What’s a handsome young man like you doing getting down in the dumps?” valid when the subject has a history of depression, a condition which doesn’t discriminate based on physical appearance? If the life of a “pop star” is perceived as being less “pleasurable” than working in a supermarket, then that sounds to me like a true statement coming from the personal experience of being disenchanted by fame and celebrity. Cameron insists that “you’ve got to laugh” in the face of tragic subject matter “because if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry!” – tears being the worst, the unthinkable – to which one can say chacun à son goût, but maybe in this case being “miserable” was rooted in reality rather than being just another a fashion statement for a rocker.

4. “La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh)” (performed on TV in Yokohama, 10/5/1993). Playing in Japan, where the Manics had a following akin to Beatlemania (here’s an example in a Japanese talk show interview from 1992), the guys play a song – again, miming except for the live vocal – that is awfully catchy considering that it contains the lyric “Oh, the sadness will never go/Will never go away/Baby, it’s here to stay.” The origin of the song title comes from Vincent Van Gogh’s reported last words, “la tristessa durera toujours” (“the sadness will last forever”), while the song’s subject concerns war veterans who are ignored by the public, only cared about at special events and memorials before being forgotten again. (Incidentally, when the band performed the song on “Top of the Pops,” Nicky livened up the proceedings by wearing a colorful frock.)

5. “Life Becoming a Landslide” (performed live at Glastonbury, 6/24/1994). “Landslide” is one of James’s best songs in terms of vocal performance, and I think that this particular appearance found him in especially fine voice, totally searing the whole way through. The entire band, wearing the military-themed apparel that they now preferred, does a fantastic job at this huge festival concert; Glastonbury ’94 also represents a moment in which Richey was playing guitar live and fairly loud. I don’t think that the single charted in the UK, but then again it does contain the repeated lyrics “My idea of love comes from a childhood glimpse of pornography/Though there is no true love, just a finely-tuned jealousy” (considered a valuable insight into how Richey viewed relationships). The repeated line “I don’t wanna be a man” also has an interesting function in the band’s history of questioning traditional masculinity/femininity roles, which also recurred in Steve Gullick’s gold-paint photos of the band (to promote Gold Against the Soul) for Melody Maker in 1993 and Nicky’s aforementioned long-standing affection for wearing dresses in addition to his makeup.

6. “Faster” (performed on “Top of the Pops,” 6/1994). The first single from the Manics’ third album, The Holy Bible (1994), which is considered by many to be the band’s masterpiece. The performance you’re watching received more complaints from viewers than any other TOTP showcase – approximately 25,000 calls – because of the terroristic balaclava that James wore. (At the 3:03 mark, hosts Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer look appreciative of the audience’s enjoyment but also somewhat scared of the goings-on.) Tom Hawking wrote in 2013 that “if there’s one thing that stands out about ‘Faster,’ it’s the song’s air of defiance. It’s a snarl of contempt, a refusal to get beaten down by the vicissitudes of life. It’s full of the most brilliant sort of bravado — honestly, has another band ever written a lyric like ‘I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer/I spat out Plath and Pinter’? And as far as words to live by go, you could do a lot worse than the line that ends the song’s last verse: ‘I know I believe in nothing, but it is my nothing.'”

TV interview with Caitlin Moran on “Naked City,” 6/1/1994. Talking to “the only two living legends who are actually still alive,” Moran asks Richey and Nicky about the band’s involvement with the Anti-Nazi League, asking the rather ridiculous question, “Is that something you feel very strongly about?” (Doesn’t Nazism fall into the category of absolutes that a person either loves or hates?) (Richey, for his part, replies that “[the Holocaust] was the most horrific event in world history, so you’ve just got to be prepared to say what you think.”) After ripping fellow musician Morrissey for supporting the British National Party, the group which facilitated the Neo-Nazi movement in the UK, the guys concede that not all bands are terrible: Red House Painters, Alice in Chains and the Boo Radleys all make the grade.

7. “4st 7lb” (from The Holy Bible, released 8/29/1994). A deeply disturbing song named for the weight below which anorexic people are no longer expected to live (approximately 63 pounds in US units), the lyrics were based on Richey’s ongoing problems with the same eating disorder. It’s difficult to imagine an uptempo chorus more severely sad than one that contains the line “I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint,” or a more upsetting observation from the song’s narrator than “such beautiful dignity in self-abuse.” Though James sings from the perspective of a young girl, those who are aware of the song’s genesis know that it is connected to Richey’s own struggle with the disease. The Holy Bible has no shortage of grim topics, also covering political correctness (“P.C.P.”), right-wing totalitarianism (“Of Walking Abortion”), serial killers (“Archives of Pain”), the Holocaust (“Mausoleum,” “The Intense Humming of Evil”), suicidal death wishes (“Die in the Summertime”) and looking back on lost youth (“This Is Yesterday”). “Faster” also includes some element of Richey’s history of self-harm, which had been a part of his life since before the band’s rise to fame and which was horrifically evident at an April 1994 gig in Thailand, where a fan gave a set of knives to Richey and he slashed his chest while backstage, before returning for the show’s encore. Given that Richey wrote 70 to 80% of the lyrics (depending on which source you read), it’s obvious that his personal troubles informed the majority of the Manics’ material on this album.

TV program The Vanishing of Richey Manic, broadcast in 1996 (parts two and three continue below). In a way the story of Richey James Edwards comes to an end in February 1995, and yet in another sense, it is an open-ended mystery that, for all we know, may never have a resolution. In short: early on the morning of February 1, 1995, while staying in London’s Embassy Hotel with James in preparation for a trip to America (to coordinate plans with their label for a US tour), Richey walked out of the hotel, drove to his apartment in Cardiff (leaving behind his passport, credit cards and Prozac), was supposedly spotted in a bus station on February 5 (as well as in a passport office), was supposedly driven by a taxi through the Welsh valleys to Blackwood (his hometown), then was driven further to the Aust service station in South Gloucestershire, England. On February 14, his car received a parking ticket in the service station’s car park. Three days later the car was reported as being abandoned; some family photographs and burger wrappers were found inside the vehicle, indicating Richey possibly having lived in the car for a time, in addition to the car’s battery having run out of power. Among the few items found back in the London hotel room were a note simply saying “I love you,” a box containing photos of loved ones and also tapes of the films Equus (1977) and Naked (1993), and a photo of a house which none of the Manics or Edwards’ family members recognized.

And so – since then there have been no confirmed sightings of Richey. Vanished. It’s been twenty-one years.

If you subscribe to the notion of Occam’s Razor, then the simplest explanation is probably the right one: the Aust service station is next to the Severn Bridge, and the River Severn is known for its strong currents. In part three of The Vanishing of Richey Manic, Mike Cross (of the Cardiff Coroner’s Office) states that “it is possible for a person to jump off this bridge and the body never to be recovered because of the strength of the water, the depth of the water, and the fact that the river flows out into the Channel, and [for] someone who may have jumped off this bridge, it’s quite possible the body would never, ever be recovered.”

Because no body was ever found and apparently the CCTV footage of the bridge didn’t show Richey (though it is unclear to me how definite such a determination can be), a lot of people have the hope that he is still alive somewhere, having gone into hiding to completely escape life in the public eye. This would suggest that Richey was able to overcome years of depression, alcoholism, self-harm and anorexia and find a way to start over, which would be a tall order to fill. He has supposedly been spotted in places all over the world, including India and the Canary Islands, and some have suggested that the fact that Richey shaved off his hair shortly before his disappearance had to do with wanting to join a monastery (Richey himself said in his last interview that it was alternately an act done out of boredom and a sign of mourning for his recently deceased dog, Snoopy). We may never have an answer as to what happened to Richey Edwards. His work with the Manics endures but there is no doubt that the loss of him as an artist, as well as a person with family and friends, has left an irreplaceable gap.

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The band continued.

8. “A Design for Life” (music video; single released 1996 4/15/1996). The Manics’ comeback single was a smash hit on the UK charts, reaching #2 (the same number reached by the album on which it appeared, Everything Must Go). It signaled a new start for the band: moving forward after personal tragedy, reaching for the rafters with an anthemic track brimming with support for the working class, bibliophilia (“Libraries gave us power…”) and a love of cinematically sweeping, Ennio Morricone-type strings. This is the song that gave the Manics a second chance, as well as a new fanbase for their more easily marketable tunes. These weren’t the same guys who made The Holy Bible, but after losing Richey, how could they be? Some call the change “selling out,” but you have to be able to adapt in order to grow.

9. “Kevin Carter” (performed live on “TFI Friday,” 10/4/1996). Using lyrics left behind by Richey, this song tells the story of Kevin Carter, a photojournalist who could not handle the nature of how he gained his celebrity (winning a Pulitzer Prize for documenting the brutal horrors of famine in Sudan), among other emotional and financial problems, and committed suicide in 1994. As the lyrics say, Carter “click click click click click, clicked himself under”; did Richey feel that way about himself too? Note: James is playing one of Richey’s guitars (as can be seen in the music video for “Stay Beautiful” and the “Top of the Pops” performance of “You Love Us”). Extra note: the trumpet solo is played on the album by Sean, who was a highly talented trumpeter as a kid – the youngest-ever musician to play trumpet in the South Wales Jazz Orchestra – before becoming the Manics’ drummer.

10. “Australia” (performed live on “Later… with Jools Holland,” 12/1996). Nicky’s lyrics express the desire to “fly and run till it hurts, sleep for a while and speak no words” in the wake of Richey’s disappearance. (As Nicky told The Guardian in 2011: “Apart from when we’re in the studio, we’ve never been entirely comfortable as a trio. On stage, we still leave a space that would have been where Richey stood.”) To me “Australia” is an example of pop triumph, a glorious melding of the Beach Boys and Britpop, especially when you hear the backing vocal in the album version of the song. You can see why it would appeal to a larger audience than the Manics’ work from earlier in the 90s.

Interview with Jools Holland, 9/1998. In conversation with Nicky, some of the band’s myths and legends are observed. The “sad irony,” as it is described, is that Richey wasn’t around to experience the band’s ascent. In 1996, the Manics attained the kind of success that they had only dreamed of before, and for the last twenty years they have had the euphoria of experiencing #1 hit songs and albums. They also won NME’s Godlike Genius Award in 2008. Truth is always stranger than fiction, isn’t it?

And now, a coda –

Given the band’s unexpected new prominence in the UK music world, the Manics won a bunch of BRIT Awards (the British equivalent of the Grammys) in the mid-to-late 90s. This moment, from the 1999 ceremony, is a gem: receiving the award from pop princess Kylie Minogue, James belting out the name of the band, Nicky jumping rope.

As a last look back: if the band had gone on in 1995-1996 to make music that sounded like an extension of The Holy Bible, the results might have been like the song above. Before his disappearance, Richey expressed an interest in having the next Manics album sound like “Pantera meets Nine Inch Nails meets [Primal Scream album] Screamadelica,” so it’s anyone’s guess as to how that style would have affected the band’s popularity. “Judge Yr’self” (lyrics here), the last Richey Edwards composition that the band recorded while he was still with them, was supposed to be included on the soundtrack of the Sylvester Stallone action movie Judge Dredd (1995). It’s a monster of a song with amazing drums, but the work was scrapped after Richey’s disappearance. If “Judge Yr’self” had been released when it was intended to be (instead of in a collection of rarities in 2003), would the Manics have gained a following in the US? Who knows what else the band might have done? Would they still be together today? Maybe there would never have been a #1 pop hit like “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” (from This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, 1998), or a new punk-pop anthem (which also hit #1) like “The Masses Against the Classes” (2000), or a beautiful duet like “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough” (with Nina Persson of The Cardigans, from Send Away the Tigers, 2007). These are questions without answers, but you can’t ask what might been – it is what it is, and all I know at the moment is that I feel lucky to have discovered the Manic Street Preachers.

Further Reading (assorted pieces related to the band)

“Manic Street Preachers: ‘There’s just so much hate within this band. Why are we still like this?'” (Uncut, 2014) (an overview of the band’s history)

“A Mass of Angry Ideas, Set to Martial Melodies” (New York Times, 2009) (a review by Jon Pareles of the Manics’ NYC show at Webster Hall)

“The Manics’ lyrics were something special” (The Guardian, 2008)

“Will the Manics’ appearance on Strictly Come Dancing be subversive or just submissive?” (The Guardian, 2010) (the user comments section is worth checking out)

“The making of rock martyrs” (The Guardian, 2008) (ditto previous parenthetical note)

“Feature: Are the Manic Street Preachers better off without Richey Edwards?” (Tumblr, 2013) (lengthy, but very interesting)

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2 thoughts on “Love Your Masks: Manic Street Preachers, 1991-1996

  1. Pingback: 2015: Part 10 | The Iron Cupcake

  2. Pingback: Friday Music Focus: 11/11/16 | The Iron Cupcake

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