Don’t burn this

The end of this month sees the release of National Treasures, a two-disc singles album chronicling what now amounts to 25 years in showbiz for the Manic Street Preachers. That’s 38 singles in total, in order, beginning with Motown Junk (and thus excising New Art Riot from their history, because – apparently – it was an EP, not a single) and ending with their new cover of The The’s This Is The Day, which is a well chosen cover but inessential. Well, it’s commercially essential, as all compilations must be flagged by a loss-leader single, by law. I’ve been listening to these 38 singles, in order, a lot, as I’m reviewing the album for Word, but you’ll have to wait a month for that. The experience has been a rewarding one, but then, I am a fan of the Manic Street Preachers, and put up with the slightly less incendiary later singles by viewing the bigger picture: this is a band who’ve stuck together, stuck to their political guns, survived the loss of a crucial bandmember, turned the Spanish Civil War and Richard Nixon into hit singles, and never stopped being interesting.

Although I was initially suspicious – perhaps because the first journalist to latch onto them at the NME, where I worked in 1990, was the late Steven Wells, whose predilection for CAPITAL LETTERS and overstatement were not always to be trusted. But their music won me over, and I fell pretty hard for them. They were the first new band I’d met who could virtually recite the previous week’s NME, and although they gave me no special treatment initially, despite my love for them (Nicky Wire famously described me to a journalist from our arch-rivals the Melody Maker as a “pork pie dwarf”), we found common purpose and any chance I got to spend time with them, I jumped at it.

In 2004, Word asked me to write about my memories of Richey Edwards to mark the tenth anniversary reissue of The Holy Bible, for which I chatted amiably on the phone with James and Nicky. I rediscovered this piece – having pretty much forgotten about it – while writing about National Treasures, and since it’s not available online, I reprint it here, as it details the occasions on which I crossed paths with the band. (I’ve edited a bit, as it’s quite long.)

Richey James Edwards spent the summer of 1994 at the Priory, Roehampton’s psychiatric hospital of choice for the rich and famous. Scaling back his role in Manic Street Preachers while doctors attempted to cure his predilection for self-harm, alcohol abuse and anorexia, he was visited daily by his three bandmates, friends since junior school in Blackwood, South Wales.

They brought artwork to approve and reviews to read, maintaining an important sense of normality at what was, even for this square peg of a band, a pretty fucked-up time. For James Dean Bradfield, singer and gifted tunesmith, there were also guitar lessons to administer. Despite Richey’s vital role as co-iconographer and lyricist (with bassist and best friend Nicky Wire), guitar was never his strong point. He looked good wielding one onstage – legendary, in fact – but plugging it into actual amplifiers was not generally encouraged.

So imagine Richey’s horror when The Priory’s own Norman Stanley Fletcher dropped by. Though the others have reason to believe Richey may have embellished or even invented this story, they want it to be true and so do I. Eric Clapton, an unpaid volunteer within those walls, apparently popped his head round the door and said an old timer’s hello to the latest musician on the wing.

“Perhaps I’ll bring my guitar round next time?”

Richey was mortified at the prospect of jamming some 12-step blues. “Just what I need,” he told James after the visitation. “I’m going to be confronted by God, and God’s going to realise that I can’t play the guitar.”

It’s OK to smile. It might help shade in the colouring-book picture of Richey many people still hold in their minds: that of a drawn, troubled, depressed individual, a butterfly broken upon that oft-misquoted wheel. Certainly, Richey was not a happy rock star, fours years into a career that had brought front covers, a fanatical following, Top Ten hits and a unique notoriety. But he was no lobotomised zombie and nor did the band treat him like bone china, even when hospitalised. Despite their outward seriousness and total conviction, the Manics have always used humour as a defence against the world, and Richey was especially funny, by turns amused and amusing, ever conscious of the farcical circles in which he now moved.

His stay at the Priory was punctuated with bright moments and gentle ribbing. How tickled they all were at Richey’s indignation when tests on his liver revealed he hadn’t been drinking quite as much as he’d claimed. He bemoaned the fact that the staff didn’t believe he was mad (“But you’re not mad!” James would insist). Richey spoke of “the token gestures of insanity” – hiding in bushes, barking orders – and considered putting an Éclair on his head and “talking to an imaginary giraffe.” When building his weight back up from rock bottom (an alarming six stone), the band called him Mr Blobby.

If anything, perhaps Richey’s self-awareness, entertaining though it seemed, was his undoing. Was it, in time-honoured rock’n’roll fashion, Too Much Fucking Perspective that sent Richey off into the night?

By the way, I realise I’ve broken a golden rule of hard-nosed journalism in referring to my subject by first name rather than second, but it seems appropriate in this instance. Not because I’m here to reveal the inner workings of The Richey Only I Knew, simply that he never used his surname, preferring to be credited as Richey or Richey James. Only when he disappeared on Wednesday 1 February 1995 and became the subject of police appeals and national newspaper investigations did his full name seem to become forever formalised.

That was almost ten years ago. So why are we still idolising him, this guitarist who couldn’t play the guitar, this lyricist whose lyrics didn’t scan, this icon who couldn’t hack being an icon? Because the remaining Manic Street Preachers have given us their explicit blessing. Even though they’re currently touring brand new mainstream rock album Lifeblood, their fourth as a trio, they are simultaneously reissuing 1994’s The Holy Bible. This was their third and Richey’s last extant Manics album. For some fans it remains their finest hour. None of which makes its repackaging an obvious move.

We are talking a digitally remastered 10th anniversary Special Edition, the kind of fanfare and deforestation usually reserved for a conventional Classic Album like Dark Side Of The Moon, Diamond Dogs or London Calling – even Definitely Maybe. But The Holy Bible? A record whose lyric sheet’s fourth word is “cunt” and whose tracks includes The Intense Humming Of Evil, Archives Of Pain, Mausoleum and surely the only recorded reference in rock music to serial-killing nurse Beverley Allitt?

Speaking to Nicky Wire it becomes clear that he is the architect of this lavish repackaging, not Sony records. Since Richey’s departure, Nicky has willingly allowed domesticity to engulf him, retreating between albums to his house in Blackwood where he watches sport, sees to his baby and takes sellotape to the dog hairs on he and his wife’s soft furnishings. A 35-year-old man who makes no secret of a near obsessive-compulsive desire to keep his house in order (his self-mocking t-shirt at the Brits in 1997 read I HEART HOOVERING) he’s the natural candidate to, in his own words, “take control of the catalogue.”

But this is not just about quality control; the special edition Holy Bible exists as a memorial, albeit one for a man who has never been pronounced dead [NB: Richey was pronounced “presumed dead” in 2008]. Nicky speaks with touching candour when he says, “Sometimes Richey goes off the critical radar and I feel guilty about it. I really do. People need to be reminded how amazingly cool and great he was.”

Richey James Edwards: cool and great. It’s not a bad epitaph. “There’s no way I’d be allowed to be in any other band in the world!” he once told me. James used to describe Nicky and Richey as his two wingers.

For a forensic account of Richey’s last days in circulation I refer you to Simon Price’s biography Everything. Suffice to say, shaven of head and recently bereaved (his dog, Snoopy, had died at the age of 17 in mid-January 1995), Richey left few clues when he drove the band’s silver Vauxhall Cavalier from London to his “yuppie flat” in Cardiff, then parked it at Aust services by the Severn Bridge. Lurid press reports inevitably leapt to the suicide conclusion, wrongheadedly grouping Richey with accidental rock martyrs like Hendrix and Vicious (he would have preferred Curtis and Cobain), but his body has never been washed up and Elvis-like sightings in the years since – including one in Goa – have mostly amounted to wishful thinking.

As Price points out, an estimated 250,000 people go missing each year in the UK, a good 14,000 cases remaining unsolved at any one time. With more of that palliative good Manics humour, Wire described Richey’s vanishing act as “more Reginald Perrin than Lord Lucan.”

The last time most of us outside of the band’s inner circle saw Richey was at the triumphant London Astoria gigs in December 1994. I was there, in the circle, watching the glorious mayhem. Playing the backside out of The Holy Bible, this was a band at the top of their game, the anti-Britpop messiahs, somehow energised in aptly Nietzschean fashion after a European jaunt supporting Suede that had almost killed them. They smashed up their equipment on the last night. An £8,000 orgy they could ill-afford with Priory bills outstanding and diminishing commercial returns, it proved to be their final act as a four-piece. A fitting curtain call from a band who’d arrived on the baggy London scene in 1990 seemingly fully-formed.

They weren’t the first rock band with a gang mentality built on childhood friendship and smalltown disaffection, nor the first to stencil slogans on their shirts – indeed, they were precisely the second – but this studied love-hate relationship with rock history was their making. They read the NME from cover to cover, awaiting their moment.

It was all about context; the effects of Ecstasy and Acid House had softened rock music’s edges in the latter years of the 80s and a hybrid form we rather quaintly called “indie-dance” held lolloping sway. The Manics existed as a self-styled antidote. For the weekly music press they were a gift. They had a look, a manifesto and gave good quote.

Having had my initial doubts blown away by their first, audacious singles for the Heavenly label in 1991, Motown Junk and You Love Us, I joined the band as an NME writer at the residential Black Barn studios in leafy Ripley in Surrey, where they were locked into the recording of their debut double album for Columbia Records, Generation Terrorists. (The one they’d swaggeringly promised to sell 16 million copies of and split up.) It was here that I first witnessed the unique and efficient division of labour that underpinned the Manics. James and drummer Sean Moore wrote and recorded the music; Nicky and Richey provided the lyrics and decorated the walls of their bedrooms, Joe Orton style, with Edward Munch photocopies and cut-out pictures of Axl Rose, Brigitte Bardot, lipstick and Cherokee Indians.

During a conversation illuminated only by the flickering recording lights of a ghetto blaster playing one of Guns N’Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums, I fell under Richey’s spell as he demonstrated his innate knack for distilling into a soundbite entire swathes of cultural theory: “We will always hate Slowdive more than we hate Adolf Hitler.”

You should have heard the withering contempt in the way he mouthed the words “Loz from Kingmaker” when comparing that year’s model of NME indie decency to Vivien Leigh. Meanwhile, out in the converted barn, songs as good as Motorcycle Emptiness and Little Baby Nothing were being committed to tape.

Only a band this lovable could get away with a song called You Love Us. They only half-believed they’d sell 16 million albums so when they actually sold 200,000 and stayed together, it was too unwieldy a stick to beat them with. There was little point in accusing them of selling out. I’d tried that at the time of their first, disappointing single for Columbia, Stay Beautiful, produced by Steve Brown (Elton John, Wham!, The Cult). I’m rather ashamed to say that I accused them, in an NME review, of “going soft now that they’re firmly positioned upon corporate dick.” They didn’t hold the sentiment against me. Indeed, Nicky virtually quoted the 13-year-old line back to me when I spoke to him last week.

Perhaps the only disturbing aspect of my trip to Ripley was the sight of Richey’s left arm, whose healing scars still read “4 REAL”, six months after carving the letters with a blade to make a point to my colleague Steve Lamacq in Norwich. A disturbing display that telegraphed things to come and provided one of the decade’s most haunting rock’n’roll images, I vividly remember the hoo-hah in the NME office the next morning when photographer Ed Sirrs first slapped the transparencies on the lightbox. Could we run them in colour? Could we run them on the cover? (We compromised on both counts.) We all worried for Richey from that day on, even those who thought him an idiot. I found that image hard to reconcile with the gentle soul I always met.

The struggle to be taken seriously was collective, but for Richey it had a physical manifestation. The life of a touring rock band is shallow. Most anaesthetise themselves into compliance or pound themselves at the hotel gym, but Richey was too intelligent and too tuned in to ever tune out. He would drink himself to sleep but his mind would be brimming over, fighting against it. He nodded out once while we conducted a late-night interview, Paula Yates style, on his bed at Hook End Manor studios outside Reading in 1993. He was babbling to the end of the Smirnoff bottle:

“Fuck knows, I don’t know. It’s not the same thing is it? Twelve per cent . . . Steve Lamacq knows what you’re talking about . . . You too can  lie in a bed like this . . . you too . . . very Morrissey . . . don’t hate ’em all . . . bit too reverential about Suede . . . forgive Suede . . . forgive themzzzzzzz.”

As James recalls, when they were holed up in London for mixing, rehearsal or promo, woozy with hiraeth (the intense Welsh form of homesickness), Richey would expose himself to the seedier side of life and allow, say, a prostitute he saw at King’s Cross to get under his skin. This is a band who became enraged by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, so you can see why a little knowledge of the world might go a long way for a person as sensitive as Richey James.

Incidentally, I used the sleeve of the Manics’ first top ten hit, Suicide Is Painless, to illustrate this entry, as it formed the basis of a vignette I supplied for the band’s website to mark National Treasures‘ release. This is my truth, many other writers, commentators and musicians have told theirs. They’re all here, but this is mine:

I was lucky enough to meet Republican party reptile PJ O’Rourke in September 1992. I had a still-warm CD copy of the Manics’ Theme From M*A*S*H in my bag, and asked him to sign it. Across the image of a crumpled stars and stripes, he wrote, “Don’t burn this!” I covered his cautionary words with sticky-back cellophane for protection and still have this unique cultural mash-up. Their first top ten hit, recorded for a Spastics Society charity album of number ones the NME had compiled to mark its 40th year, the band unearthed the crunching epic in Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman’s Byrdsian lament. (Altman, son of M*A*S*H director Robert, was 14 when he wrote the sappily nihilistic lyric.) It was twinned with an unrecognisable and unplaylisted (Everything I Do) I Do It For You by Irish art-hooligans Fatima Mansions – their only hit, on a technicality (“the only way to win is cheat”). An extra curio: the extra track on the UK CD, Sleeping With The NME, though credited to the Manics, was in fact an extract from a fly-on-the-wall Radio 5 documentary, in which the ‘4 REAL’ aftermath at the NME lightbox was frozen in hysterical aspic. The Theme From M*A*S*H is thus a little piece of history from a prelapsarian age when it was still called the Spastics Society.