Manic Street Preachers created controversy almost from the moment they started playing together, but by the end of the 1990s they had become one of the most popular bands in Britain. Influenced by musical trends from the 1970sunk and heavy metal in their attitude and sound, and glam rock in their stage appearancehe foursome seemed never to hold back their strong opinions when it came to discussing the state of pop music or the world in general. While their early declaration that a group should release one big album and then disband earned them derision from the press, fans did not hold it against them for staying together. The band came to be familiarly known as the Manics, and elements of their offstage life seemed to live up to the term, especially for rhythm guitarist Richey James. His disappearance and possible suicide in 1995 deprived the other three members of a close friend, and was also one of a series of ill-timed setbacks that prevented the Manics from touring and promoting themselves in the United States. But James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire, and Sean Moore carried on the band's name as a trio and continued to attract a larger audience and respect in England.
Although they formed the band while at the University of Wales, Swansea, the Manics had grown up together in the working-class Welsh community of Blackwood. The band had their genesis in a foursome called Betty Blue, which had the Manics line-up, with the exception of a man known as Flicker playing rhythm guitar instead of James. This group formed in 1986 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of a band they idolizedhe Sex Pistols. By the time they released the self-financed, limited release single "Suicide Alley" in 1989, they had become the Manic Street Preachers. That same year Flicker left the band, and James joined his old friends. He would prove to be a figure who would help bring the Manics a wide notoriety, often at the expense of his own physical well-being.
At the outset the Manics' attitude, sound, and appearance owed much to three of their major influences: outspoken rap group Public Enemy, the punk sound of the Clash, and the heavy metal of Guns N' Roses. They attracted controversy, sometimes purposefully. Bradfield told Johnny Walker (Black) for the web magazine Addicted to Noise, "From the beginning we've set ourselves up to be judged, so it's obvious we've always liked to be judged anyway." Their early stance that a band should break up after releasing one huge album certainly brought judgment from the British music press. The notoriety helped bring attention to their 1990 EP New Art Riot and their 1991 singles "Motown Junk" and "You Love Us." These two songs exemplified the band's attitude toward the music that was popular in England at the time. The first one trashed a revered pop music sound of the 1960s, while the second mocked the self-serving acceptance speeches of music awards ceremonies.
The confrontational lyrics of the Manics' songs came from James and Wire. Afterthey had written their words, Bradfield and Moor would put them to music. While both lyricists expressed the same kind of working-class anger at popular culture and social structures, James' tended to be more personal than Wire's. Bradfield described the difference between the two to Walker (Black): "Nick's quote was 'Richey always wanted to be understood, but [I] never wanted to be understood.' The ironic thing is ... Nick would write lyrics that more people understood, while Richey's lyrics nobody understood." Bradfield wrote music to their lyrics from the time they first started writing, finding the inspiration for his melodies and arrangements in their words. He told Lili Moayeri of Launch, "I spend ages reading the lyrics before I write any music to it ... I've always found that I connect to the music first, but within the lyrics is the sole reason the music's connected with me."
But the Manics' notoriety continued to grow for reasons other than their lyrics and music. James propelled them into the limelight during a 1991 interview with New Musical Express. When a reporter questioned the sincerity of the Manics' proclamations about music and themselves, James stunned the interviewer by grabbing a razor blade and carving "4 Real" in his own arm. The incident solidified the Manics' place as the inheritors of the punk legacy and attracted a lot of attention from the press, fans, and major record labels. Shortly thereafter they signed with Sony records and released their first single to reach the British Top 40, "Stay Beautiful."
Starting to make a name for themselves, the Manics made huge claims for their debut album, 1992's Generation Terrorists. They boasted that it would outsell the biggest album by one of their rock and roll idols, Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction. While the album didn't quite live up to the commercial hype, the individual songs continued to showcase the Manics' attitudes toward contemporary culture. Songs such as "Slash n' Burn," "Stay Beautiful," and "Another Invented Disease," tackled consumerism, youth culture, and drugs, respectively, with the group's usual bite. They then proceeded to put to rest the question of whether or not they would actually break up by releasing the single "Suicide is Painless," a cover of the theme song from the movie MASH.
Their second album, Gold Against the Soul, brought a change in the Manics' sound. Drawing more on Guns N' Roses as an influence than on their punk roots, the album sounded more polished than their previous work. In retrospect Bradfield told Walker (Black) that he "absolutely despised" the album. Even if the music sounded more mainstream than their previous work, the band had not become conformists, creating controversy with their public statements and behavior. Wire drew criticism for an on-stage remark that R.E.M.'s lead singer Michael Stipe resembled a dying AIDS patient. The more colorful figure who continued to draw attention for his behavior was James. Plagued with repeated bouts of depression, drinking, and anorexia, James took his penchant for self-mutilation to new depths by appearing on stage in Thailand with knife-slashes across his chest.
In the midst of all this personal turmoil, James took on most of the lyric writing responsibilities for the Manics' next album, The Holy Bible. Released in 1994, the album returned punk sounds to their repertoire, while retaining some of with the glam and metal sound that had dominated Gold Against the Soul. The lyrics, though, especially distinguished The Holy Bible. The Trouser Press Record Guide characterized them as "some of the most articulate, upsetting and brutally decadent in pop memory." Again they tackled social ills from personal, political, and philosophical perspectives. "4st. 7lb." gave a first-person account of anorexia, while "If White America Told The Truth For One Day Its World Would Fall Apart" expressed a blunt social outrage, and "Archives of Pain" directly acknowledged the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault.
This personal writing evidently failed to exorcise James' demons, though, and he entered a mental hospital for a short stay. When he returned the Manics were on the verge of an American tour. While a previous trip had failed to draw much attention across the Atlantic, the strength of their latest work gave hope that this time they would break through. Before they could go, though, James disappeared. His car was discovered near a bridge notorious for suicides, but no body was ever found. Eventually, police called off the search, even though reported sightings of James, alive and well, persisted for years. Under the circumstances the remaining Manics' understandably canceled the American tour. Without the tour, their record company decided not to release The Holy Bible in the United States.
Bradfield, Wire, and Moore decided to keep the Manics going as trio. In 1996, they released Everything Must Go, which included lyrics that James had written before vanishing. This new version of the group received high praise for their first album, which was named the number one album of the year by Melody Maker magazine and ranked number two in the New Musical Express critics' poll for the year. The web site Excite noted a change for the better for the band: "Perhaps most striking was their new sober imagehe make-up, military garb and much of the bravado were gonend their characteristic disaffection seemed more pertinent and controlled. Despite losing a member, the band had discovered a new voice, delivering a collection of powerful and socially aware songs." On the heels of this strong performance, the Manics again made plans for an American tour, this time opening for the immensely popular band Oasis. Unfortunately for the Manics, Oasis' Gallagher brothers had one of their infamous feuds, and the tour was canceled.
Even though they couldn't seem to make it across the Atlantic, their popularity and stature continued to grow at home. In 1998, they scored their first number one single with "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next." The song, along with its album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, continued to rack up honors for the Manics. They swept the major categories for the New Musical Express' annual awards, earning honors for best album and single of the year, along with being named band of the year. In spite of this success, the Manics had to wait almost a year for the album to be released in the United States. Bradfield insisted that making it big in American no longer mattered as much as it once did, telling Moayeri, "With America, you either got to be mentally in love with conquering it or you just go and not care. I think we're like that."
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours showed the Manics continuing to evolve musically while stilltackling social injustice. The range of Bradfield's guitar on the album prompted Michael Molenda of Guitar Player to describe it as "a brilliant tutorial for guitarists wishing to develop a facility for evocative textures." Lyrically, though, the familiar anger remained. The Manics stirred some controversy with "S.Y.M.M." (South Yorkshire Mass Murderer), an attack on how police handled a deadly soccer riot. This unflinching commitment to what they believe in has remained a constant throughout the band's somewhat star-crossed career. Their fans appreciate the Manics' integrity so much that they voted for Wire as their top choice for Prime Minister in a poll conducted by New Musical Express. Perhaps nothing else sums up so well the status and respect that the band has achieved.
Stay Beautiful (EP), Columbia, 1991.
Generation Terrorists, Columbia, 1992.
Gold Against the Soul, Columbia, 1993.
The Holy Bible, Epic, 1994.
Everything Must Go, Epic, 1996.
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, Virgin, 1998.
Buckley, Jonathan and Mark Ellingham, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Penguin, 1996.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, volume 5, Muze, 1998.
Robbins, Ira, editor, The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock, Fireside, 1997.
Guitar Player, September 1999, p. 84.
"Everything Must Go," Excite, .
"Manics Landslide Victory at Polls," New Musical Express, http://www.nme.com, (January 26, 1999).
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"Manic Street Preachers," Launch, http://www.launch.com(November 26, 1999).
"Manic Street Preachers," All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com, (November 26, 1999).
"The Manic Street Preachers: (Do) You Love Us," Addicted to Noise, http://www.addict.com, (November 15, 1999).
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