In Japan, we had the chance to see what made Manics guitarist Richey James really tick. Here was a quiet, polite young man who partied alonce with a vodka bottle and a razor blade
"Japan is clean, pleasant, safe," assures Manics frontman James Dean Bradfield, standing on a spotlessly hi-tech Tokyo tube platform which is notorious for suicide tragedies. "Everything that Britain isn't.
"You don't have to look over your shoulder here," he smiles. "It's the only other place I could live, besides Wales. The trees are great and I'm afraid that's a major factor for me!"
Richey James, the band's ropey rhythm guitarist, is less enthusiastic, despite appearing quite content. "I never find it exciting to go anywhere," he shrugs nonchalantly. "You get much more true information from literature than from travelling. Like, if I want to know about France, I'll buy the book I don't know if that makes me a moron."
Tokyo has 13 million inhabitants, despite being a tenth of London's size. In the bustling Shibuya area - Piccadilly Circus times 10, like an explosion in a neon factor - ultra-polite shoppers make little eye contact on the streets. Glass-fronted vending machines are everywhere. They wouldn't last 5 minutes in Camden Town, but they never seem to get smashed - even though a can of Coke costs the equivalent of £3.
Japan operates stringent gun laws. Just about the only danger you'll encounter in colourful, enchanting Tokyo is business executives hurtling down from their tower blocks. That, and earthquakes
The Manic Street Preachers are in the midst of a 13-date tour of Japan, their second such visit. They're in the capital city for three consecutive nights at the 1,000-capacity Shibuya-On-Air venue. They have been banned from Osaka's Club because at their last gig there, fans bounced so violently they displaced the building's foundations.
The Manics are bon fide rock stars over here. They're showered with enough Gameboys, toys, books and other gifts to fill a large pagoda. The night before their first Tokyo gig, both band and entourage venture out to a restaurant with German gumby metallers Accept on the video jukebox. Everyone removes their footwear to eat.
James Dean Bradfield hardly ever talks to the press, firm in his belief that "Richey and Nicky are eminently more quotable than me". But he's far more of a thinker than some might presume, given that Richey and Nicky exclusively write the band's lyrics while he and drummer Sean Moore handle the music.
"It's no definite law, though," he points out. "It's just that if I tried to write something like 'Slash & Burn', it'd end up like a second version of Ben Elton's ecological novel!
"Mind you," he adds, "I can tell that Nicky's got some music brewing; maybe the bass spine of a song "
He chats about how he's learnt to say "Thank you! 1-2-3-4!" in Japanese, how much he likes The Wildhearts' 'Earth Vs The Wildhearts' album, and how much of a bizarre turning point the band's Bon Jovi UK support slots were this last summer.
"We realised that you can't hijack an audience like that," he admits. "We agreed to do it, but it definitely contradicted everything we've been about."
Indeed, the two Bon Jovi dates at Milton Keynes Bowl made the band think hard about themselves. "It was probably the first time in our history that we felt like we'd sold out," concedes Nicky Wire with his trademark Cheshire cat grin. "I don't know why that was - we've done much worse things!
"Our ideals conflicted before those shows. It was a choice between smashing everything and abusing the audience, or just playing our songs. That's the dilemma we face every night now. The worst thing about it, though, was seeing Billy Idol dancing at the side of the stage with his fucking blond dreadlocks!"
"When you've agreed to do a gig," continues Richey, "it almost seems pointless to rebel. We did agree, and played to 120,000 people who didn't want to know who we are or what we're supposed to be. But just seeing our 'All Rock 'N' Roll Is Homosexual' T-shirt on a board made it all worthwhile!"
Nicky: "What we definitely hated most was that once you get to that scale of things, everyone thinks they're so fucking important! Like, the person who cleans Bon Jovi's toilets thinks they're more important than the person who cleans ours."
"The enormity of it all was quite frightening," adds Richey. "You ask yourself, 'Would you really like to do this? Would you want to pander to crowds for two hours every night?'."
Nicky: "It's the difference between living in obscurity like The Stooges or being huge. I think we try and marry the two aspects. What definitely came out of it was that our next album will be a completely artistic statement. I love 'Gold Against the Soul', but the next one will truly represent us. Whether that means 50 minutes of misery or complete and utter punk, we don't yet know."
After the restaurant, the band's attention turns to the nearest arcade. When out with the Manics, there's no need to worry about doing anything ridiculous. They're quiet people, although drummer Sean Moore is certainly not beyond getting helplessly drunk and loudly exclaiming "Blackie Lawless [leader of W.A.S.P] is a wanker!".
James dismisses the notion of going to a lesbian sumo wrestling club after the arcade as "fucking bullshit". Instead, he ends up downing whiskies in a low-key underground bar and arguing about Nottingham Forrest manager Brian Clough with his A&R man.
As a result, he fails to feel the tremors of the 2am earthquake. Centred under the Pacific Ocean and measuring 7.1 on the Richter Scale, it causes just one fatality - an elderly woman who suffers a heart attack while escaping her house.
Back at the Miyako hotel, Nicky Wire - a recently married man who can no longer drink due to a liver condition - is the only member of the band to notice the quake. He runs out into the corridor clutching a torch, "absolutely petrified". Richey and Sean are fast asleep in their beds, blissfully numbed by alcohol.
The Dressing room at Shibuya-On-Air club is small and covered with some of the worst graffiti imaginable. 'Small penis not satisfy bitch with large hole' is one of the most coherent efforts. Richey is not impressed.
"It's all shit - we've never written graffiti in our lives," he sniffs. He starts sticking written quotes up on the wall. The longest is from a writer who grew up thinking a nearby railway line was a source of inspiration.
"But he eventually realises that it's just a way of getting to a work place where no one cares about you," Richey expands. "He finally killed himself over a woman, which made him seem quite cheap." Richey's full of stories like this; he usually ends them with the words "very depressing".
At 6:30pm, the audience is standing in fairly neat rows. There's no support band and the venue will be empty by 8:30pm. As the opening riff of 'Sleepflower' uncoils, the mounting tension explodes into frenzied dancing. The myth that Japanese audiences are afraid to let themselves go is destroyed.
It's a good gig tonight, far more energised than the Milton Keynes shows. Nicky yells "Fuck the USA!" specifically because he thinks the band's American A&R man is present (he isn't). James smashes his guitar before the end of 'You Love Us'; it's the Les Paul he used during the 'Gold Against The Soul' sessions.
Half an hour later, Richey sits alone in the dressing room, smoking a cigarette and staring straight ahead. He's not saying anything. Is it because he treasures his guitars that he never smashes them?
"No, I dislike my guitar intensely," he sighs. "I can't even be bothered to smash the fucking thing. It doesn't deserve death."
Richey currently smokes 50 ciggies a day, having started two weeks ago. "Whenever I do something, I like to do it a lot," he explains back at the hotel. "When I was 13, I did a Shakespeare project that was 859 pages long. Everyone else just did sex. I just had fuck all else to do but sit in and write."
In the hotel's foyer, a bare-footed Richey recovers from an invasion of adoring fans with whom he's polite, if not as outwardly sociable as Mr Wire. It seems that the fans favour Richey until they actually meet the band. Then Nicky's cheeriness wins the girls' attention and the boys go for James' rock 'n' roll icon qualities. Richey brushes a hand over a fan's painting of him.
"It's alright," he judges. "Van Gogh colours " One thing Van Gogh and Richey have in common is self-mutilation. The guitarist presently stubs out cigarettes on his forearm. Previously, during a famous interview with a weekly paper, he carved '4 Real' into his arm.
"I'm not a violent person at all," he notes. "When I felt like clubbing this particular journalist to death, I just directed it at myself. I don't regret it. I don't regret anything."
He justifies the cigarette burns as "my way of not screaming when things fuck up. It's just discipline. We never call each other c**ts and wankers in this band, we just walk away".
"What I usually do," pitches in Nicky, "is put all my clothes in the sink and wash them. That/s the difference between him and me. Richey does tend to stub cigarettes out like that when he's drinking," he adds. "It's a vicious spiral of depression-equals-drink-equals-mutilation."
The pair find Japan's high suicide rate easy to understand. Richey: "It's the pressure to conform. I think it's quite romantic: no matter how bad their lives get, they refuse to place any burden on other people. If life gets too much, they make the ultimate sacrifice. It's better than nondescript violence, although both are fucked."
Tonight only Sean and Dave Eringa (the band's onstage keyboard player and producer of 'Gold Against The Soul') venture out for food and drink. Eringa's constantly laughing and fits in with the Manics' sombre image like Roy 'Chubby' Brown at a funeral. He and Sean are the band's true hellraisers.
"Richey's a private partier," laughs manager Martin Hall. "He parties just as hard - but alone, with a bottle of vodka and a razor blade! It's not the kind of party you want to be invited to "
Miki and Toshi, two highly glamorous female fans from Osaka, find it hard to express exactly why they love the manics.
"They're all very sexy!" babbles Toshi before they both collapse in giggles. Miki likes Richey the most; Toshi favours Sean. Japan loves the Manics for their punky material most of all.
"I'm glad they changed their set-list after the first show," giggles Miki. "We though it was kind of boring." She gasps, clasping her hand to her mouth. "Can I say that?" You just did.
The way the Manics approach their fans is interesting. While perfectly amiable towards them ion person, they rarely tone down their miserable demeanour and vicious humour. At a tea party organised for them by their Tokyo fan club, Richey insists on taking a suicidal Joy Division tape along as backing music. "Oh yeah!" mocks Nicky, "that'll really get the tea party rocking!"
On the second night (a triumph of musicality over rebellion), James introduces a song with, "This is a misogynistic, paedophilic, lovely little ditty called 'Little Baby Nothing'." As the crowd cheer, he spits "Fuck yourself!" at them with true venom. Yet when meeting the fans he's painfully shy. It would appear to be a matter of not patronising them.
"They definitely take more time to read our lyrics," James notes. "They also ask more challenging questions than most British journalists. On the first album ('Generation Terrorists'), we had quotes from Philip Larkin and Frederick Nietzsche, and one of the first questions a Japanese fan asked was: 'How can you reconcile these two strains of thought?'!"
He buries his face in his hands and laughs. "I just ran away. But there are a lot of contradictions involved in being in a band like us in Japan. On one hand, the fans make it seem like they almost love you. But then, they'll ask a question that makes you feel completely humble and hypocritical. If people think we're arrogant, that's fine. I've always thought I was better than other people to a certain degree. In infant school, I was such a little runt with a massive turn in my eye, which I've still got but I've learnt to disguise. I had about 40 different nicknames and I hated it, but I still thought I was better than the rest. Because I was caring, sensitive and intelligent, and they weren't. Arrogance has always been a self-defence mechanism for us."
To what extent to the Manics mean statements like this one from 'Life Becoming a Landslide': 'There's not true love'?
" 'Just a finely tuned jealousy'" completes Richey. "I wrote that line and I do think it's true. Man's a basic animal, and when he learns to deny emotions it's kind of a front. I know Nick doesn't agree "
"Usually, our lyrics have a darker side," nods Wire, "which tends to be Richey taking a negative slant against what I'm saying. It balances things out; my lyrics would be far too cheery."
Richey: "Whenever I've got close to having any kind of relationship at all I know it's kind of fraudulent, because I still find other people attractive. I think if I truly loved someone, that wouldn't be fair that's why I've never had a fucking girlfriend!!"
This is bad news for the gagging females who literally chase the Manics' mini-van through Tokyo's winding streets for a full five minutes. But at least they get to see a spectacular performance.
The third Tokyo gig is thrilling. Even Richey has to confess that the Manics are "happy puppies" tonight.