Smile, It Might Never Happen

(Q, Oct 1994 (?))


Except, for the Manic Street Preachers, it did. This summer, guitarist Richey James was hospitalised with nervous exhaustion and, despite his non-playing role, the close-kit agit-Situationists looked naked without him. "Most groups would have got in another guitarist," they tell Stuart Maconie. "That would have been a betrayal"

The Intense Humming of Evil, Mausoleum, Archives of Pain, Die in the Summertime. Even a cursory glance at the titles will confirm that this is not the new Gloria Estephan album. The cover too, a huge triptych depicting a woman of vast, fleshy dimension staring, absorbed yet detached, at her own reflection, is hardly the sort of thing Maria Carey goes in for.

It is, in fact, The Holy Bible, third album by the Manic Street Preachers, arguably their best, certainly the bleakest and most powerful thing they have done in their luridly high-profile four years in the music-business. Whilst their 1992 debut, Generation Terrorists, was full of chutzpah and provincial spleen, and 1993's Gold Against the Soul was a more accomplished and crafted set of rock numbers, The Holy Bible is an hour-long voyage into the places most rock songs don't want to go. Painful subjects are tackled unflinchingly; the Holocaust, the penal system, anorexia nervosa, prostitution, the noose of political correctness, tyranny ...

Even under normal circumstances, The Holy Bible would have been difficult to take anything but seriously. It is strong stuff, completely without the leavening lightness of previous Manics hits Motorcycle Emptiness, Roses in the Hospital or Life Becoming A Landslide, the kind of tersely anthemic fare at which they excel. But the band's travail of the last few months have ensured the record an even finer-toothed combing.

The essentially shy quartet of childhood friends from Blackwood in South Wales have always prided themselves in their self-imposed exile from the shallow mateyness of the indie rock scene, preferring to go home at weekends and opt out of the gossip column-lubricating lig circuit. But this summer, they upped the ante another rather alarming notch.

In July it was announced that the Manics' second guitarist and lyricist Richey James had been admitted to hospital suffering from nervous exhaustion, which the medical encyclopaedia describes as "a number of physical and metal symptoms including loss of energy, insomnia, aches and pains, depression etc." in Richey's case, it would appear that full-scale nervous collapse was neared the mark, brought on, it's thought, by a fairly punishing schedule of heavy and prolonged drinking, inadequate diet and a generally self-abusive routine, involving a good deal of self-mutilation, a tendency first glimpsed when he famously carved "4 Real" into his left arm with a razor blade to make a point to writer and DJ Steve Lamacq. "I didn't know what I could possibly say to him to make him understand", he has said since. "Other bands hit journalists and it's very macho ... I would never want to do that."

After a ferocious appearance at the Glastonbury Festival in June this year, James spent an apparently harrowing eight days in a Cardiff hospital (during which he actually contemplated leaving the band in a performing capacity), and then the band's manager check him into a clinic in London where, eventually, he regained his health.

He is more gaunt than most remember him, still prone to "days of wobbliness", and this left arm is a battlefield of fading welts and scars (self-inflicted), but he is, at least, back on stage and playing again. Certainly the vigour with which he takes a Telecaster to the amps at tonight's show in Leicester doesn't suggest a defeated man. But no-one is pretending that things should now go on blithely as before.

"We have to watch how we govern ourselves now," says singer James Dean Bradfield. "Without being corny, Richey and I were, if not quite birding and boozing buddies, something like that. We'd go out or stay up after the gigs. We can't do that now. I wouldn't want it for him. As far as his agenda is concerned, it's just not on the agenda. We don't want to be unfeeling dickheads."

The Manics have always enjoyed an exploited their love-hate relationship with the iconography of rock, exploding on to the scene in 1990 with Clash-indebted stencilling on their shirts, then craftily upgrading the punk imagery to something more effeminate, then macho, and, in the case of their recent paramilitary look, scary. They were not afraid to rock, although they claimed no interest in drugs, but Bradfield is quick to dismiss the notion that Richey's breakdown was a logical outcome of the mythic rock'n'roll lifestyle. "I don't think of it as a natural extension of being in a rock group. It might have accelerated it but that's all. In some ways Richey's a very Richard Briers person, very cardigan, pipe and slippers. But I think if he'd gone on to become a lecturer - which he might well have done - the same thing could have very easily happened, perhaps in a more private way.

"Richey's always been very aware of the myths surrounding groups. And the bad thing is, you don't only feed your own self-image, you want to feed the images other people have of you."

As to the suggestion that the others might have seen it coming, it's pointed out that "Richey would often take time off and go to a health farm when people around him felt he was looking ill. But, in the end, he is one of these people who will always do the opposite of what you tell him."

In the immediate wake of Richey's hospitalisation, the Manics fulfilled their live commitments as a three-piece, including a well-received show at the Reading festival. "I think a lot of groups would have got in another guitarist for those five dates but wouldn't have been right for us," says Bradfield. "To be honest, we were all quite numb to any sort of discussion about the group's future because we were too concerned about Richey. We've all grown up together. He's a friend first and foremost. So we never entertained any discussion about the group until he brought it up himself. It wouldn't have been thinkable in that first week. We couldn't walk out of the hospital and say, OK, what about this concert on Tuesday night then? It would have been a betrayal."

The solidly familial nature of the Manics' set up has meant that "there's nothing tenuous about relationships within the group. Nothing more than the fact that Richey is slightly more tenuous with himself right now, which is understandable."

The Holy Bible is the most issue-based album the band have so far recorded and was created through what Bradfield calls "an almost academic discipline. We sat down and gave ourselves headings and structures, so each song's like an essay."

James and bassist Nicky Wire supply the lyrics, and, through a strict demarcation process others find baffling, these are given musical shape by Bradfield and his cousin, drummer Sean Moore, before eventually being sung by James. "I'm in a privileged position of interpretation," reasons Bradfield. "Sean and I never use bits of music we have lying around. We start afresh when we hear the lyrics. And I have rules. I don't have to accept, only understand."

And never disagree?

"Well, on this album, for instance, I didn't think the first draft of Intense Humming of Evil was judgmental enough. It's a song about the Holocaust and you can't be ambivalent about a subject like that. Not even we are stupid enough to be contentious about that. We're not left-wing but we do have roots in Situationism and stuff, and when we formed the band, the Miners' strike was going on on our doorsteps. So I think when you listen to Archives of Pain (contentious pro-capital punishment track), a very right-wing song, one of the most important things we've done, it shows how fucked up and confused our times are. And it shows that we're still arrogant and unafraid enough to make judgements, even miscalculated ones."

The Manics could release a greatest hits album tomorrow - She is Suffering is their 14th Top 40 single - but the band are derisive about this kind of thinking. "We don't want that Wonder Stuff perspective. We're known in Britain, Japan, Thailand, we've had hits in Holland. But this is our third album and we're only played six fucking gigs in America. That's got to stop. We're still in love with the idea of The Beatles kissing the tarmac at JFK. We're still in love with the word 'million'."

They have never sounded better live, ferociously powerful and aggressive without a hint of the corny posturing that dogs most bands of their ilk. "Any other group in the world would get the audience to do this (he claps his hands above his head) during the quiet bit in Roses in the Hospital but we physically can't do it! We can't bond with the audience."

There is still a sense of purpose about the Manic Street Preachers that's been undimmed by recent events. As James puts it, "The birds are singing for me today. Some things will have to change but that's OK. I'll have to find a new drinking buddy.

"I was worried that, because Richey's undergoing treatment, he'd turn into Peter Gabriel, lyrically. He's living on a different proverb a day at the moment and I didn't want our songs to turn into psychobabble. But he's kept his own voice, which is admirable. It hasn't weakened us. But I'm not prepared to say, hey, it's made us stronger."

A grin crosses his face. "We're a very moral band ... but we're not the Waltons."