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The British music scene in the mid-1990s was painted as something carefree, light-hearted and full of tongue-in-cheek patriotism, with the likes of Blur, Pulp and Oasis leading the way as magazines and radio stations celebrated the homegrown success after the American grunge invasion a few years earlier. But behind the optimistic image that the media had created for these so-called ‘Britpop’ groups lurked something darker, with the parties and instant fame coming with a heavy price.
‘Success happened so quickly,’ one former band member told the Guardian. ‘It felt awkward, like we crashed someone else’s party. We didn’t realise we’d be on that many front covers or TV programmes. A big hit single elevated us to a league where we didn’t feel comfortable. It was like the Last Days of Sodom. We went from one party to another.’ Several artists who became associated with Britpop were reluctant to embrace the label, many of whom had already carved a respectable career before the term had even been created by the media. One such band was the Manic Street Preachers.
Few had suffered so much in such a short space of time as the Manics, a name journalists had labelled them that has stuck with the group to present day. Having grown up in Wales during the Miner’s Strike, as Margaret Thatcher’s Britain struggled through a recession and a record high of unemployment, four teenagers in the small town of Blackwood decided to form a band.
Fuelled on a mixture of The Clash, Public Enemy and Guns N’ Roses, James Dean Bradfield fronted the quartet, with close friend Nicky Wire on rhythm guitar, Bradfield’s cousin Sean Moore on drums and a punk from their high school known as Miles ‘Flicker’ Woodward on bass. Feeling frustrated with Flicker’s place in the band, he was soon fired and replaced by Wire, while their close friend Richey Edwards took on the role of second guitarist, despite being musically inept. He was, however, extremely cultured and intelligent and, alongside Wire, formed the lyrical base of the group.
From the very beginning the Manic Street Preachers had a master plan: they were to record one album that would sell sixteen million copies and then they would split while keeping their integrity. But their debut had failed to make the impact they had hoped and its follow-up was dismissed as corporate and shallow. Edwards had always been the most sensitive of the group and even before they signed to a major label he had found his way into the pages of mainstream magazines.
On 15 May 1991, NME journalist Steve Lamacq had dared to doubt their authenticity during a post-show interview in Norwich prompting Edwards to produce a razor blade and carve the words ‘4 real’ into his arm while staring the critic in the eye. From there on fans became obsessed with his intensity and sincerity, while the media focused on his emotional instability.
The band’s third album, The Holy Bible, is an uncomfortable experience on many levels, from their refusal to embrace the pop sensibility of their past offerings to the often dark and depressing lyrics, most of which were penned by the rhythm guitarist. Yet while some felt that Edwards would follow in the footsteps of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain by taking his own life few could have predicted what would happen next. Early in the morning of 1 February 1995, Edwards booked himself out of the Embassy Hotel in West London where he had spent the night in an adjacent room to Bradfield, awaiting a fight to the United States.
While the singer searched frantically for his friend, Edwards drove along the M4 to his home in Cardiff, South Wales and was never seen again. The following day the band’s manager, Martin Hall, filed a missing person’s report with the Metropolitan Police but it would not be until two weeks later that his car would be located, seemingly abandoned at a service station by the Severn Bridge, a location some newspapers at the time reported as a local suicide spot.
At the time of Edwards’ disappearance the Manic Street Preachers had become regular fixtures of the British press for over four years, regularly finding themselves in magazines as varied as Melody Maker and Smash Hits, more often through their outspoken beliefs than their music. The news even made its way to the American media, although a story published in Spin erroneously referred to Edwards as the ‘singer’ and the ‘English Kurt Cobain,’ despite being born in Wales. But with the fate of Edwards a mystery, the future of the band and whether or not they would continue without their most famous member seemed uncertain. Edwards had left behind some unused lyrics, but the moral question of whether or not the Manics should exist as a three-piece continued to haunt them.
‘I think we really just wanted to have some sort of conclusive evidence of what actually happened, because we had nothing,’ admitted Moore on the documentary that accompanied the tenth anniversary release of Everything Must Go, their highly-anticipated comeback following the disappearance of Richey Edwards. ‘Even with private detectives and the police coming up with nothing, then it wasn’t until some time afterwards that we thought we had to come to some sort of decision, because otherwise we’d be in limbo for the rest of our lives.’ Their last release was She Is Suffering, the third single taken from The Holy Bible which had been issued just four months before Edwards disappeared. The album had been an unexpected critical success, while its lead single Faster had given the band another top twenty hit.
But could the Manic Street Preachers survive if they continued down the abyss which The Holy Bible had taken them, and could fans handle another experience as distressing and devastating as that album? And with Blur‘s Parklife ushering in a more positive era for British music, the Manics would have to adapt if they were to remain relevant in the changing musical landscape. But what sound and image were the group to adopt next?
Their first effort Generation Terrorists owed a debt not only to The Clash but also Hanoi Rocks, the Finnish glam-punk hybrid who had achieved modest success during the early 1980s, while its follow-up Gold Against the Soul had been marketed for a stadium-friendly sound. The Holy Bible, however, was raw, uncompromising and anything but commercial. Critics could have been forgiven for predicting that the Manic Street Preachers would simply self-destruct following the disappearance of Edwards, but it is unlikely that few saw how the future would pave out for the band.
On 8 April 1995 Melody Maker included a front cover which featured both Edwards and Kurt Cobain, who had taken his own life a year earlier, complete with the caption From Despair to Where? While this had been a reference to the lead single from Gold Against the Soul, a description underneath explained that the issue was about ‘a year of suicides and breakdowns.’ Less than a year later the same magazine featured the band on the cover once again, this time announcing ‘The Return of Manic Street Preachers.‘ They had defied all expectations by not only overcoming such a tragic loss but by also coming back stronger than ever before. Once again they had proved that they were anything but predictable.
But their return from the abyss had been anything but easy. Each member of the Manics had dealt with the loss of Edwards in different ways. Wire remained at his home in Blackwood in an attempt to distance himself from the media frenzy that had built up around the disappearance, while Moore had turned his attention to DIY by building a new room in his attic. Bradfield, meanwhile, was struggling to come to terms with the loss and drank heavily, unable to cope with the flurry of emotions that he was feeling over the unknown fate of his friend.
More than two months passed before they were forced to deal with the reality of the band and whether or not they could or even should continue. Talks began with the family of Edwards, who urged the Manics not to split and even hoping that if they returned to the spotlight then their son may emerge from hiding, indeed if he was still alive. By the end of summer it had been announced that the band would continue without their friend and while fans were understandably shocked to hear the news, Bradfield, Wire and Moore had agreed that it was the best course of action.
It had been a few months since the band had performed together and so rehearsals were booked at Sound Space in Cardiff, the same studio where they had recorded The Holy Bible a year earlier. The first song that the Manic Street Preachers would record without Edwards was a cover of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, a track penned by writing duo Hal David and Burt Bacharach in the late 1960s for the acclaimed western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The recording was to be included on an album for the charity War Child, which would also include contributions from Suede, Radiohead, Oasis and Blur. Despite performing without Edwards, the experience had proved satisfying enough that the band were confident that the Manics could survive.
Bradfield had wrestled with his own paranoias as a songwriter prior to the disappearance, as he was convinced that Edwards would want the band’s fourth album to be in a similar dark vein to The Holy Bible and he feared that he would be unable to deliver something to his satisfaction. But now the band had the chance to start again, and while Gold Against the Soul was considered to be an ill-advised attempt at pushing the Manic Street Preachers into the mainstream, there was no way that they could deliver an album as without hope as their last. ‘Things are never going to be the same, basically,’ Wire told MTV prior to taking the stage at Manchester’s Maine Road in 1996. ‘We’re not going to forget that past but we’re not the same band as we were.’
The Manics also faced the very real possibility that their record label may drop them after the disappointing sales of The Holy Bible. The album had been their most critically acclaimed to date at that point but sales figures had been less than expected, despite producing a top twenty single, and by 1995 the country had become engulfed in the Britpop phenomenon. This change in public taste would allow the Manic Street Preachers to expand on their sound by incorporating different elements and exploring other genres. This would give Bradfield more opportunity to experiment with his singing and to offer an album that would be ultimately more uplifting than its predecessors.
During the rehearsals at Sound Space one song would emerge that would come to define the new Manics called A Design for Life. The lyrics, written by Wire who, without the input of Edwards, became the band’s sole lyricist, came from two separate pieces called A Design for Life and Pure Motive. Sharing similar themes, they were brought together to form one track, a song that would hail the return of the Manic Street Preachers when it was released as their comeback single in the April of 1996.
Initial recording sessions for the band’s fourth album would prove disappointing. The producer chosen for the task of reinventing the sound of the Manics was Stephen Hague, who had enjoyed considerable success throughout the 1980s with such pop acts as the Pet Shop Boys, New Order and Erasure, but the end result sounded too soft and lacked the edge that the songs demanded. Abandoning Real World, the studio owned by Peter Gabriel where the sessions had taken place, the group relocated to Domfront in North France where producer Mike Hedges operated from within his own studio, Château de La Motte Rouge.
Hedges had also enjoyed acclaim during the 1980s but with artists more akin to the Manic Street Preachers. Among the highlights of his résumé were The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, while his work with The Beautiful South showed that he had a pop sensibility. Hague’s work would still be present on the final album, however, with ballad The Girl Who Wanted to be God, one of five songs based around lyrics that Edwards had left behind.
A Design for Life was the song that immediately stood out for Hedges, a track that boasted an anthemic quality and lyrics such as ‘We don’t talk about love, we only want to get drunk.’ It was the kind of melody that was missing from The Holy Bible and even had a Motown feel, something that may seem ironic coming from a band who had enjoyed minor success early in their career with a song called Motown Junk. But it would be this mixture of Wire’s biting lyrics and the soaring music that would immediately resonate with the listener.
‘The greatest bands have always been able to straddle a pop sensibility with a sense of social action in their music,’ Bradfield told The Quietus during an in depth interview in 2008. ‘So many bands have managed and learned to bridge that gap. The Clash certainly did, Public Enemy certainly did. It was pop, but there was something seriously boiling inside of it.’
Another favourite of Hedges’ was Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky, a haunting ballad in which Bradfield’s vocals and guitar are accompanied by a harp. This additional instrument was performed by Julie Aliss, who had previously collaborated with Hedges on Siouxsie and the Banshees‘ 1987 album Through the Looking Glass. Another track that had been written around Edwards’ lyrics, Small Black Flowers was, according to Everything author Simon Price, about ‘the mental torture suffered by zoo animals. Richey and Nicky had both watched a BBC QED documentary on European zoos and phoned each other immediately afterwards to discuss writing a song.’
Moore, who like many drummers was often overlooked at the back of the stage, demonstrated a previously unexplored talent on the track Kevin Carter by performing a trumpet solo. Along with A Design for Life, another song that would make a significant impact, certainly through its use on television commercials, was Australia, a song that represented the band’s desire to escape from the endless attention they had received from the tabloids in the wake of Edwards’ disappearance.
The track chosen to close the album had originally been recorded during rehearsals at Sound Space in January 1995, a few weeks before Edwards vanished. No Surface All Feeling had been produced by Dave Eringa, who had worked on-and-off with the band since their time with indie label Heavenly Records in 1991 and had produced Gold Against the Soul two years later. The song included some of Wire’s best lyrics on the album, in which he posed the question ‘What’s the point in always looking back when all you see is more and more junk?’
Eringa would also work on several tracks that would later be released as the B-sides to A Design for Life, two of which – Mr Carbohydrate and Dead Trees and Traffic Islands – would also be included on the compilation album Lipstick Traces. The timing of A Design for Life was perfect. With Britpop at the height of its popularity, a song that was commercial but also had something to say was well received by both the British press and fans, particularly those of the Manic Street Preachers. It was a bold move to distance themselves so much from the sound of The Holy Bible but one that would ultimately pay off.
A Design for Life climbed to number two in the British music charts, kept from the top spot by Mark Morrison’s Return of the Mack, and announcing their comeback beyond all expectations. On 20 May 1996, Epic released Everything Must Go, the first album from the Manic Street Preachers without the involvement of Richey Edwards. ‘In the absence of Richey’s glamorous self-destruction, the lyrics are more guarded, but the passion is still there,’ announced CMJ New Music Monthly in their September review. ‘…behind the lush violins and self-aggrandising drums, you can always feel the pain of a lost boy looking for the way back home.’
Ten years later, when the album was re-released as a special edition, the album received even further praise. ‘Everything Must Go achieved the zenith of the Welshmen’s original ambition: to conquer the mainstream with anger, art and soul,’ declared the Guardian’s Dave Simpson. And he was right: two years later, the Manic Street Preachers achieved their first number one hit single with If You Tolerate This Your Children Will be Next, and then once more in 2000 with the punk-infused The Masses Against the Classes, which harkened back to the early days of Generation Terrorists.