H.R. Giger changed my life

AlienBookcover0002

I was sad to read of the death, aged 74, of the Swiss surrealist artist Hans Rudolf “H.R.” Giger. Through his groundbreaking, influential designs for the alien and its environments in Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking, influential murder mystery in space Alien – a style that was known as “biomechanical”, a precisely airbrushed cross between the visceral and the metallic – he had more than crossed my radar. Although I was under the age of consent to see Alien on release in 1979, as an avid teen film fan I bridged the gap by requesting The Book Of Alien – a lavishly illustrated making-of by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross – for my birthday in March 1980. Via the portal of this otherwise conventional softback souvenir, I entered the rarefied, graphic world of Giger (the book was full of initial sketches and designs by various artists, but his dominated).

This book, though cherished, did not change my life. But Giger did, in 1987, although I didn’t even know it at the time. I was a student at Chelsea School of Art in 1987, on the cusp of graduation and what I hoped would be some approximation of a “career” as an illustrator or more specifically a cartoonist (my chosen area of expertise in the sense that it chose me: I wasn’t much good at proper drawing). I had been an avid reader of the NME since the year Alien was released, and had keenly rolled with its evolutionary punches as it morphed from the inky rag of the post-punk era to a post-modern media studies pamphlet designed with acres of white space in the early-to-mid 80s. What I didn’t know, as a reader, in 1987, is that the paper was on its knees, commercially speaking. This would have been no concern of mine; as long as my weekly fix of music news, culture and dangerous Marxist politics arrived on a Tuesday, all was well.

NME1979

I was the sort of nerdy NME reader who pored obsessively over what I didn’t know at the time was called “the masthead” (ie. the list of staff and freelance writers), and noted any personnel changes with interest. As a student of art and design, I also mapped the visual changes in the NME in relation to whoever was  designing it, and knew that the reigning art editor in 1987, Joe Ewart, had ushered in a starkly dynamic page layout, of which I approved. It was very much in keeping with advances in style magazine design over at The Face and i-D, except printed on shitty newspaper.

In 1988, I was living in a studio flat in South West London and attempting to keep the wolf from the door by taking on soulless freelance illustration work for a modest design agency. It was not “art”, but if I drew enough cartoon cats, cyclists and reindeers in a month for corporate handouts, I could pay the rent. (If you bought the puzzle magazine Puzzled around this time, you will have seen my cartoon owls, polar bears, penguins and other assorted fauna – this was the vertiginous level at which I toiled.) In order to satisfy my creative juices, I decided to produce my own fanzine and write about things that interested me and perhaps sell a few copies, like two new NME writers on the masthead whom I had quickly grown to idolise, Steven Wells (who produced Molotov Comics) and James Brown (Attack On Bzag).

Puzzled

I did not make my own fanzine, This Is This, in their image; instead, I went for neatly typed columns of copy with – yes – plenty of white space around them. I wrote about Tony Hancock, Stephen King, Gerry Sadowitz and the water metaphors in Lloyd Cole’s lyrics, and drew my own cartoon strips satirising TV-AM, Time Out and Apocalypse Now. I borrowed the photocopier at the design company that employed me and used it to “size up” my illustrations and create a clean page design. Then I paid Kall-Kwik to print me up and staple 100 copies. My aim was to carry them around in an Our Price plastic bag and sell them at gigs. I think I sold around a dozen.

However – and here’s where my life intersects with H.R. Giger’s, without his or my knowledge – I sent a copy of This Is This to James Brown, recently installed Features Editor at the NME, and, I hoped, a kindred spirit. The height of my ambition at this stage was to have my fanzine mentioned in the bitty news section Thrills, which James edited. Maybe I would flog a few copies by mail order. What I wasn’t doing at this point was looking for a job at the NME. The prospect was a fictional one.

ThisIsThis

I’m glad that I didn’t know then what I know now about how the office of a weekly music paper works. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have wasted a stamp. The probability that the brown envelope containing This Is This would have been opened, never mind the contents being read, was close to zero. I could never have imagined how high the teetering pile of envelopes on James Brown’s in-tray was. However, the stars were aligned for me, and he did open my envelope, and he did flick through my fanzine, and he did phone me up.

In the message he left on my answer machine he said he liked the fanzine and wanted to have a chat with me about it. I was cock a hoop, and yet still only dreaming of seeing my fanzine mentioned in the pages of the NME. He invited me up to the offices of the paper in London’s New Oxford Street – which was, for me, like visiting Mecca – and casually mentioned that he might be able to put a bit of writing work my way.

Now, the history books tell us that back the white heat of July 1976, the NME ran a small ad asking for “hip young gunslingers” to write “lively and incisive prose” in an effort to refresh the lifeblood of the paper in the wake of punk rock with a new staff writer. (Actually, the history book – Pat Long’s closest-to-definitive The History Of The NME.) It ended up with two from the 1,200 applications: Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, with Ian Cranna, Paul Morley and Paul DuNoyer taken on as freelancers. No such formal clarion call went out in 1988, but Brown and his successor on the live desk, Helen Mead, were unofficially tasked with trying out some new writers. It was in this spirit of provincial empowerment that I found myself sucked into the wonderful and frightening world of the NME. (Barbara Ellen, Stuart Maconie and Steve Lamacq were among those who also had their professional lives changed in the same period of conscription.)

Though lured into the office with the promise of writing work, a part-time vacancy was going in the NME art room and, technically if not practically qualified, I was introduced by James to editor Alan Lewis and new art editor (previously Joe Ewart’s assistant) Justin Langlands, who seemed to like me – or perhaps just my dungarees and Age Of Chance baseball cap – and took me on. All of sudden, from a standing start, I had landed a two-days-a-week post at my bible, which quickly expanded to three days. When Justin took his first holiday in the August of ’88, I actually became Art Editor for a fortnight; that’s two issues of the paper I’d read and re-read for almost a decade under my aesthetic control (yes, I redesigned all the logos while Justin was away, and Justin reinstated the old ones when he got back).

NME1988Proc

From my new vantage point, I set about bothering all the section editors for writing work, and one by one, they caved. My “journey” from layout boy to actual bylined NME writer had begun. The rest is autobiography. But without H.R. Giger, the man whose art had so captivated me in The Book Of Alien, my life might never have wound its rudderless way in this direction, and the NME might have remained a weekly newspaper I pored over and not one I actually tinkered with from the inside. The “media”, as I did not yet refer to it in 1988 – and an industry of which I did not count myself as a member – might have remained over there. I have no idea if I would still be a freelance illustrator, providing print-ready artwork for puzzle books, but it’s conceivable. If not for nine erect penises …

In 1987, when my wildest dreams still revolved around perhaps drawing my own comic strip for a newspaper, the NME I loved was undergoing one of its habitual regime changes. I couldn’t have known how seismic. According to Pat Long’s account, sales had fallen below 100,000 copies for the first time in 31 years. It is sad to say, but choosing Neil Kinnock as its cover star in the week of the General Election – a decision that thrilled me to marrow of my bones as a reader, and cemented all my political ideals – was symbolic of the NME‘s propensity to back a loser. The paper’s owners, IPC, saw that famous cover (“Lovely, lovely, lovely!”) as the shortest suicide note in history. Editor Ian Pye was sacked, and “safe pair of hands” Alan Lewis was parachuted in.

His commercial instinct and desire to drag the NME back to being about – hey – music were seen as anathema to remaining stalwarts like media editor Stuart Cosgrove PhD – a mid-80s appointee of editor Neil Spencer, under whose leadership the paper entered what was, for me, a purple patch of polemic and pretense. It was future Channel 4 Controller of Arts and Entertainment Cosgrove who produced an issue devoted to censorship while Lewis was on holiday in September ’87, which involved the reproduction of a sexually explicit painting by H.R. Giger known as Penis Landscape. It had been given away as a poster by Californian punk activists the Dead Kennedys in 1985 with their Frankenchrist album and landed the band and their lable in legal hot water. It depicted nine erect penises entering nine orifices that could be vaginas or anuses. What could possibly go wrong?

The NME folklore passed down to us was that the printers had refused to  print it and downed tools. According to Long, it was more a case of the colour repro lab complaining about having to print it, but the industrial kerfuffle gave IPC management the excuse to get rid of the staffers it considered “troublemakers”, notably Cosgrove – who I presume considered it a cause worth dying for – and Joe Ewart. “Media” returned to being a token section of the paper with film and book reviews in it, and Ewart’s assistant, Justin, took the art reins. (Having worked under him, I know that Justin was surprised and delighted to get the gig, although the trade-off was allowing Alan into the design room, whose lack of design finesse did not stop him wielding a scalpel and demanding bigger, clearer, more literal layout.)

NMEparty

Without understanding its significance, with a few months of my arrival in Justin’s art room, the NME moved offices back to IPC’s skyscraping HQ King’s Reach Tower in Waterloo. We were the unruly child, taken in hand and put under the same roof as Mum and Dad. I had no real idea that I was part of a new era, but events have proven that to be the case. Under Alan’s earnestly commercial helm, we started to produce a tighter, brighter, more focused, less discursive and more humorous paper. The circulation went back up. We even managed to cover Acid House within the newly revived, conventional rock format, made easier when, during the Madchester boom, guitar bands took E and picked up samplers, while Lamacq and new lieutenant Simon Williams plugged directly into an energised, corporate-sponsored indie scene. (As Lamacq told Long, “Everyone at that time wanted Danny Kelly’s approval,” and this genuflection to the larger-than-life successor to Alan Lewis generated real heat in the office, regardless of musical affiliation.)

If you’d asked me my preference as a media outsider in 1987, I would have wished for a Labour government and the continuation of the Ewart/Pye/Cosgrove regime. I would have cheered a pullout H.R. Giger anal fantasia every week and stuff those evangelistic reactionaries in the print trade. But it was not to be. There’s only so much sticking it to The Man you can get away with when you’re part of the machine, which the NME always was. (Believe it or not, we never referred to it as a “brand” in the late 80s – that was all to come.)

HR-Giger-Alien

So rest in peace, H.R. Giger. You changed my landscape, and very possibly paved the way for Hull indie rockers Kingmaker to breach the Top 20 in 1992.

 

 

Advertisements

Velocity rapture

?????????????????????

It may seem a little prosaic, but do you mind if I just list some band names? Jasmine Minks. The June Brides. Mighty Mighty. Big Flame. Grab Grab The Haddock. The Wolfhounds. The Dentists. The Servants. The Seers. The Brilliant Corners. The Close Lobsters. Is this painting any kind of picture for you? Cherry Red records, the label who were at the epicentre of the birth of indie, are about to release a five-disc box set entitled Scared To Get Happy: A Story of Indie Pop 1980-1989. It’s out on June 24, and there’s a gig in London on June 22 to mark its arrival.

The compilation boasts 134 tracks by 134 artists, beginning in style with Revolutionary Spirit by the recently reactivated Wild Swans on Zoo in 1982, and ending with Catweazle by future hitmakers the Boo Radleys on Action in 1990; in between, you will be transported back to a simpler time, when t-shirts had horizontal stripes, fringes were worn sticking out of the front of Greek fisherman’s caps and guitars were played in a masturbatory style that somehow perfectly crystallised the raw, undersexed emotion that lay beneath. I have been immersed in this grand testimonial for a week, repressing squeals each time a new memory is unleashed: Delilah Sands by the Brilliant Corners, Toy by the Heart Throbs (the first band I ever interviewed as a cub reporter for the NME at a picnic table outside a pub near Rough Trade’s Kings Cross HQ), Almost Prayed by the Weather Prophets, Every Conversation by the June Brides (a defining anthem of my early student years, which took me and my friend Rob to the Venue in New Cross) …

STGH - Cover

It’s also great to hear early efforts by bands who went on to greater things in the grown-up chart on major labels: Sick Little Girl by Pop Will Eat Itself, Quite Content by the Soup Dragons (whom I interviewed prior to their chart explosion and became good pals with), Motorcity by Age Of Chance (whose baseball hat I proudly wore to my first days at the NME, only to have it frisbeed across the art room by Steven Wells), Vote For Love by Jamie Wednesday, who would become Carter USM. It’s personal for me, this music.

As much as anything, it reminds me of being largely single and occasionally lovesick, which is apt, living on my own, subsisting off boil-in-the-bag Findus meals and large panfuls of mashed potato and cheese, and taping everything but the reggae off Peel and quirkily naming the cassettes (actually, I did record some dub, and certainly remember loving Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound at the same time, although there is no place for that here).

marine1

It’s also amazing to hear Grab Grab The Haddock again, the group formed after the Marine Girls by Jane Fox, whom Rob and I adopted as “our” band and followed around a bit. (How bitter the disappointment when they put us on our first ever guest list at the old Marquee, and the doorperson told us that the support band had no guest list.) And the Marine Girls’ Don’t Come Back, all the more poignant for my having sort of befriended Tracey Thorn – certainly remotely – in middle age, as well as Jim Bob, and Miles Hunt (the Wonder Stuff are represented by A Wonderful Day).

There are some “big songs” here, as well as ones that may only mean something to the lucky few: Up The Hill And Down The Slope by The Loft (whom Rob and I saw split up, without knowing it, at Bay 63, supporting The Colour Field, and whose bassist Bill Prince would become my colleague and friend at NME and Q); Velocity Girl by Primal Scream; Just Like Honey by Jesus & Mary Chain; Shine On by the House Of Love. National anthems, all.

I met and interviewed and shared tour bus seats with so many of these indie luminaries as they crossed over to major label hopefuls in the late 80s and early 90s, catching them on the way up, but not necessarily that long before the way down. There are some bands I only remember by name, and not by song – the Corn Dollies, the Waltones, the Raw Herbs – but even the names evoke lazy afternoons and lager in plastic glasses and zip-up jerkins and cheap Top Shop Ray-Ban copies and plastic carrier bags full of fanzines; they speak of Steve Lamacq and Simon Williams and Ian Watson and other be-capped indie enablers.

Railway Children (too new)Wolfhounds

It is a commonplace now that the word “indie” has been stripped of all meaning. But this compilation places it back on an ideological pedestal at a time when it meant beating the system and operating by its own back channel.

As I wrote in 2006 for a piece in Word, the first time I remember seeing the word “indie” was in Sounds, the first of the weekly music papers to carry the indie chart, inaugurated in January 1980 in trade mag Record Business, after an idea by Cherry Red boss Ian McNay. It was based on sales from a network of small record emporia, and was open only to records independently produced, marketed and distributed, that is, outside of the infrastructure of the major labels.

The likes of Virgin, Chrysalis and Island, though established as indies in the 60s and 70s, didn’t count in the 80s as they were distributed by The Man, and this was key to our understanding of the word. The same ideological exile had befallen pre-punk stalwarts Chiswick and Stiff, when they took the majors’ shilling. The indie charts did exactly what they said on the tin, and rapidly became not just an indicator of what was selling, but a useful business tool for the alternative sector, especially in terms of foreign licensing.

Incidentally, I can’t have been the only Sounds reader who initially assumed that the chart bluntly headed “Indies” was dedicated to artists from the West Indies, and not Eyeless In Gaza, the Marine Girls and Crass.

My Select co-conspirator David Cavanagh nailed the scene in his Creation Records doorstop My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize (named after a line in the Loft classic), producing a revolving paint dream of indie life in 1980, as Alan Horne, founder of Glasgow’s Postcard, and Edwyn Collins, leader of Orange Juice, put 800 copies of the band’s debut Falling And Laughing into the back of Horne’s dad’s Austin Maxi and head South. They arrive at Rough Trade, still primarily a shop, though also a label. Geoff Travis, hippyish boss of RT, plays the record, digs it and takes 300 on the spot. They manage to get Small Wonder, another capital-based indie shop-turned-label, to take another hundred, and head back to Scotland, “in good cheer.”

It was, in many ways, all downhill from there for the true spirit of indie. But the 134 tunes under Cherry Red’s latest umbrella (and by the way, where would indie be without their pivotal Pillows & Prayers compilation?) are flag-bearers for its finest ideals. Cheap and largely cheerful, albeit wan and apparently permanently single, these songs do it for the kids. If the golden year of 1986 has its own flag – NME’s iconic (yes it is) cassette C86, all of whose contributors are found here, I think – then Scared To Get Happy might have to be casually known as C80-89. It’s that complete.

Let us not remember indie by the snobbish panic that marked the late ’80s when Ecstasy changed the rules. It was certainly too hot to wear leather trousers and tassly suede jackets when you were “on one”. Dance music, while energising the indie scene with heady possibility – and later leading to the comedown-drone of shoegazing – also rent it asunder. Again, as I wrote in Word in a piece brilliantly headlined, by Mark Ellen, Wan Love, in the ensuing cross-pollination, the proliferation of one-off post-Acid House singles in the indie charts offended the purists.

As the Cav notes, one week in July 1992, the highest-placed guitar tune in the indie charts was at number 13. Chart compilers CIN eventually went all Stalinist and excluded these bleeping anomalies, to protect the integrity of Mega City Four, The Family Cat and Midway Still. A similar ideological panic occurred in 1989 when PWL dominated the indie charts with hits by Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue. Until Pete Waterman inked a deal with Warners, he was more indie than the likes of The House Of Love, The Wonder Stuff and The Fall, who had already made themselves ineligible by signing up with majors of their own. They were followed by the next wave, t-shirt bands like Carter USM, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Kingmaker.

With indie a marketable property, the majors started setting up their own “boutique” labels – Hut, Dedicated, Indolent, Laurel – all the credibility of indies, none of the tiresome independence. But let’s not go there. Indie: it was alright while it lasted. Now, where’s my fisherman’s cap?

Find out about, and pre-order, Scared To Get Happy (and explore the rest of Cherry Red’s catalogue) here.

Tramp the dirt down

Thatcherdigs2

You may recall the Elvis Costello song from his 1989 album Spike. It began:

I saw a newspaper picture from the political campaign
A woman was kissing a child, who was obviously in pain
She spills with compassion, as that young child’s face in her hands she grips
Can you imagine all that greed and avarice coming down on that child’s lips?

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher had been in power for ten years. Still riding high and roughshod over the remnants of our society. Within the year, she would be driven, tearfully, down Downing Street and away to a well remunerated dotage ($250,000 a year for being a “geopolitical consultant” for tobacco giant Philip Morris, anyone?), only latterly diminished by senility and a series of strokes. For anyone who remembers the 1980s, she looms large. She was the leader who wrote the instruction booklet for what David Cameron and George Osbourne are trying to do now: that is, to squeeze public services and sell off as much silver as possible to the private sector until we have a shareholder-run state which answers only to the bottom line.

She is dead now. Death was explicitly wished upon her many times, and not just in protest song, and now those casualties on the road to serfdom have their wish. Her loss is lamented by those on the right who regard her as a figurehead, an achiever, an icon. Some on the left are organising street parties, which seems a bit harsh now that she’s actually died. I wonder if Elvis Costello is planning a trip to St Paul’s. Maybe he has mellowed since 1989. They do say you get more right wing as you get older. I find I get more left wing.

I would love to rewrite history and say that I despised her and her monetarist policies from the day she swept to power in 1979, but I was 14 at the time, and not politically educated. My politics, such as they might have been described, were simply handed down from my father, the sort of benign provincial Tory who put his working-class background firmly behind him, reads the Telegraph and believes in lower taxes, but who is anything but a foaming-at-the-mouth old colonel. I thought of him then, and think of him now, as a gentle, fair-minded soul. I did not feel indoctrinated by him. But I had to leave home and get to London before a more informed and passionate politics overtook me.

Educated by the NME – hard to credit that by looking at it now, but in the early-to mid-80s it was powerfully polemical and driven by Marxist doctrine, like much of the best music of the era – I read a book from the library by Jeremy Seabrook about the failure of the Labour movement called What Went Wrong? and it set me on the path I’m still on today. It was actually fashionable to be left wing in that decade, and I don’t mean to make voting Labour seem like a hollow lifestyle choice, it’s just that it meant something more profound and full-blooded than a party-political cross in a box. It was tied in with CND, and the GLC, and Red Wedge, and the NME, and Anti-Apartheid and, in Scotland, with the SNP.

The zeitgeist was embodied by the 1930s protest song Which Side Are You On?, powerfully covered by Glaswegian folk firebrand Dick Gaughan in 1985 for the miners’ strike. You were either with Thatcher, or against her. To be against her was, in my experience, to be alive.

Thatchercovers

I was a student between 1983 and 1987. As a constituency, we were hardwired to bristle at Tory policy. Listen to the contempt Thatcher has for students, as related in her second memoir, The Path To Power, (this comes from a chapter on her years in the Dept of Education, 1970-74): “This was the height of the period of ‘student revolution’ … it is extraordinary that so much notice should have been taken of the kindergarten Marxism and egocentric demands which characterised it … the young were regarded as a source of pure insight into the human condition. In response, many students accordingly expected their opinions to be treated with reverence.”

She idolised Macmillan-government ingenue and national curriculum cheerleader Keith Joseph – and later, of course, brought him into her cabinet, where his education policies were so punishing, my Dad wrote a letter to the local paper complaining about them – and, in The Path To Power, she defends Joseph against charges of being a “mad eugenicist” after an infamous speech in 1974 at Edgbaston where he said that “our human stock” was “threatened” by mothers “pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5.” As far as she was concerned, “the speech sent out powerful messages about the decline of the family, the subversion of moral values and the dangers of the permissive society.” That the permissive society was tied up with the liberation of women, and that the “decline” of the family was a coded Tory way of encouraging women back into the kitchen helps us to understand why Margaret Thatcher was no feminist.

In an article she wrote in the Telegraph in January 1975 when she was shadow Education Secretary but challenging Ted Heath for the leadership, she defended what she called “middle class values” as “the encouragement of variety and individual choice, the provision of fair incentives … for skill and hard work, the maintenance of effective barriers against the excessive power of the state and a belief in the wide distribution of individual private property.” She ranged these against “socialist mediocrity.” She won the leadership by appealing to the Tory party’s misty-eyed nostalgia for these values, which, when you break them down, are about looking after yourself: “individual choice … individual private property.” She was, if nothing else, consistent, right through her reign, which began here.

In reading her autobiography, which ends as she enters Downing Street, at which point the book turns into a sort of manifesto, I felt I understood a bit more about her character. She seemed interested only in politics and policy, from a very young age. There was little sense of a human being interested much in culture. (This probably explains why she cut arts spending.) She was, if nothing else, dedicated to her line of work, and to work in general, famously sleeping for four hours at night at her peak.

And she was confident that she was right. She treated the men around her in the cabinet as lower life forms, and forged on with what she felt she needed to do, and in the end, they turned on her, probably trying to claw back a bit of self-respect after years of emasculation around long tables. She believed in the individual over the state, in private over public, in self over society.

These tenets found purchase in a Britain previously beset by industrial unrest, which she attempted to wipe out by crushing the unions and literally removing the industries where they flourished. (If you read The Enemy Within by Seamus Milne, and it’s a set text as far as I’m concerned, you’ll see how Nicholas Ridley was charged with preparing for a showdown with the miners that would lead to the dismantling of the coal industry in order to give a boost to the British nuclear industry.)

All because she had read Hayek and Friedman and Walters, who warned against state intervention in economics (“central planning”), which Hayek claimed, in 1944, would lead to totalitarianism. He believed that the economy should be left “to the simple power of organic growth,” and it sounds so harmless in that phrase. But it’s the market we must bow to, and yet the market which has left this country in tatters – left, as it heinously was by New Labour, untrammeled on their watch – so that the current Tories can bulldoze their own ideological notions through the wreckage.

Well I hope I don’t die too soon, I pray the Lord my soul to save
Yes, I’ll be a good boy, I’m trying so hard to behave
Because there’s one thing I know, I’d like to live long enough to savour
That’s when they finally put you in the ground
I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down

It’s difficult on the face of it – even mean – to celebrate the death of an 87-year-old woman with dementia, who hasn’t wielded political power since 1990. Except that her policies, pushed through with the trademark defiance and zeal that her admirers credit as her greatest qualities, linger on. Where were you when you heard that Thatcher had died? The same place as me: in her long shadow. She did change this country. Or at least, she saw its dark soul and changed the way we thought about ourselves. She championed Reaganomics before Reagan. She unleashed the selfish bastard within, and sold council houses and privatised utility shares to an electorate apparently desperate to improve their lot at any price. The price we paid was the loss of community, the loss of compassion, the loss of perspective.

When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam
And the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam

The blanket media blitz has been predictable. (It doesn’t take a newspaper insider to surmise that her obituaries have been “on file” for quite a few years.) The not-quite-state funeral next Wednesday – and oh how appropriate that it’s a public-private finance initiative – will hopefully draw a line under all the nostalgia. Blair was as much of a statesman as she was a stateswoman, and there my admiration for both ends. She was more honest than Blair, and more forthright than Cameron. She fed the satire industry while taking apart all the other ones, and comedians will never have it so good again.

I’ve heard miners on the radio and TV unabashed in declaring their hatred for a dead woman. You can easily understand why. But I think I would find it difficult to concentrate at a street party – or do a dance on the dirt – when her legacy is all around us, not least in the anecdotal and statistical evidence of a nation convinced by a right-wing press and a few scare stories that the welfare state is a bad idea. Beggar thy neighbour? It’s what she would have wanted.

I never thought for a moment that human life could be so cheap
But when they finally put you in the ground
They’ll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down

Marine biography

TraceyThornBedsitDQ

At last. I can review one of the best books I read last year. The reason I didn’t review it when I read it is that it’s published this year, and there’s no advantage to showing off that you’ve read a book before it is available in the shops. It is published now, in fact, in fancy hardback. Tracey Thorn very kindly sent me an advance copy of her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen and I devoured it quickly. (Sorry, The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke, you had to be put to one side.) If you lived through any of the pop years covered in this book, but especially the early ones in the 80s, it will ring a bell, and possibly warm your cockles. It will almost certainly provide a cue for a song. (I found myself mainlining my old EBTG albums while reading it.)

Tracey, whom I’ve only ever met twice in the flesh, was kind enough to include me in her publisher’s advance-reading list as we’d corresponded as far back, I think, as 2007, when she was first researching her own life in pop. She wanted to know if I had a copy of the NME in which I’d interviewed Everything But The Girl in 1990. Sadly, I didn’t. (My NME archive is patchy, at best – I only kept the issues for which I’d written the cover stories after a scorched-earth loft clearout, although I ended up re-purchasing some from eBay, to replenish my self-vandalised collection.)

I’d been a card-carrying fan of Everything But The Girl – and Tracey’s first band the Marine Girls – since the early 80s and Pillows & Prayers. Their first album, Eden, and their second, Love Not Money, got me through my first years of college, and their fourth, Idlewild, is one of the albums that marks my post-graduation year and the first days of living on my own in a studio flat. (I will always regard Eden as one of my “homesickness” albums. I taped it off my first next-door neighbour at the halls of residence on arrival for the first time in London, and its jazzy melancholy was a perfect fit for the way I felt, as well as a tub of emotional balm.)

So, when I got to meet and interview Ben and Tracey in 1990, when the disarmingly slick, LA-recorded The Language Of Life came out, it was one of those big-tick moments: all my years of fandom could be pressed into professional, journalistic service. I’d love to say I met them at their house – the first journalists to interview them got to go to their student flat in Hull! – but alas, it took place at somebody else’s smart mews house in West London, as I recall. (A dastardly trick used to this day by celebrities on Come Dine With Me.) Tracey remembers the interview, perhaps too well, in her book.

Andrew Collins came to interview us for the NME, and he too focused on the fact that the best aspects of the album were our songs, and more specifically the caustic lyrics to a couple of them … We were lucky to get off as lightly as this with the NME, to be fair. By now the acid-house revolution, and the Madchester scene it had given rise to, was no marginalised alternative fad, but dominated both the rock press and the charts. Andrew Collins had turned up for that interview wearing baggy dungarees and a smiley badge, and I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, the game’s up if this how they dress at the NME now.’

In the interests of New Yorker-style fact-checking, I must stress that Tracey confirmed with me the possibility that I might have been wearing dungarees. I’m afraid it’s all too likely, smitten as I was by the Stone Roses style. I’m prepared to concede the smiley badge, which I suspect may have been affixed to this “scallydelic” top. (Here modelled by a lake in Hultsfred, Sweden, circa 1990, with Tim Burgess.)

ACMadchesterTimB2

Now, as you can sense, I have a personal connection to the Tracey Thorn story. We’re of a similar vintage. We were in higher education at roughly the same time. (There’s a couple of years in it, which is how come she was already in a band making albums that helped me through my exams, as it were, in her immediate post-graduation years.) And that’s the beauty of the book. She simply tells her own story, and allows the observations made from the vantage point of the end of her forties to contextualise what she was going through at the time. When she first forms the band with Ben, she remember asking herself many speculatively melodramatic questions about their relationship, and concludes, from the distance of almost 30 years, “I didn’t really have the answers to any of these questions, and I’m not even sure I asked them.”

Bedsit Disco Queen is not raw with confession and emotion, which suits the private person Tracey has always been, but it is at all times honest. Her first memory of seeing Ben at Hull University is “blurred” (“What was he wearing? Levi’s probably? A white shirt?”); her early brush with leftwing politics is driven by interviews with other bands, like Gang of Four and Delta 5, who “introduced me to concepts and political theories which I was too young and inexperienced to comprehend fully – nonetheless, I agreed with every word”); and when she and Ben move to the country in 1989 to escape the rat race, she speaks of “a time-wasting fury of DIY mania” and confesses, “It took us about half an hour to discover we weren’t cut out for country life.”

Nobody is expecting self-aggrandising myth-making from a Tracey Thorn autobiography. After all, her songwriting has always been painfully honest and plain-speaking – and the full song lyrics seem especially suited to the chapters they now open: “I’m getting too used to this way of life” … “Now you’re feeling hopeless, now you’re looking older” … “Sure, I’d love a wild life, but every wild man needs a mother or a wife.” But this is not to say her rise-and-plateau-and-rise through fame and fortune is not without profound truths (that Massive Attack are locked into “playground relationships”, for instance), or, frankly, rollickingly entertaining insights. It ends on a hilariously random moment involving some younger female pop icons, for instance, which I won’t spoil.

TraceyThorn_EdenTraceyThornThe_Language_of_Life_Album

In yesterday’s Guardian interview, Decca Aitkenhead observed, “In another life Thorn would have been a brilliant columnist” (which rather unfairly precludes the possibility that she could become one now), and this is no truer in the book than when she ruefully reflects upon the advice given to contestants on The X-Factor by Lady Gaga after performing “inside a giant ten-foot bathtub” wearing “a tight, reflective leather cat costume” – “Be yourself.” From this spark, Tracey reflects upon the disconnect between authenticity and the pop industry, and her own struggles with truth and artifice.

She covers the big issues with candour, such as motherhood (admitting that, aged 25, she became broody over her sister’s little boy, but ruled it out at the time due to being “a singer in a pop group”), and Ben’s near-fatal illness (she poignantly remembers sitting by his bedside in hospital “doing jigsaw puzzles and reading PG Wodehouse”), but leaves out anything that might cheapen or coarsen the picture she wishes to carefully and diplomatically paint. (I innocently asked her about the absence of a particular player in email correspondence and she privately gave a perfectly decent and thoughtful reason for leaving them out.)

And my favourite passage of all is one about Twitter. Tracey has built a life-affirming community of souls around her on the social networking site, and, if anything, has raised her own profile by accident. (The Guardian piece was astutely headlined The Accidental Pop Star.) She wishes she could go back in a time machine to her and Ben’s lowest ebb, in 1987 – Idlewild, a harsh verdict from the record label, wrangles over the first single, career stalemate, boredom, self-doubt, anxiety – and “invent Twitter.”

I won’t quote it in full, as you should buy the book and read it in context, but it’s the most persuasive argument I’ve yet read for the positive effects of the sometimes maligned Twitter. She thinks, at that time, it would have been her “salvation,” imagining coming out of a depressing meeting at WEA and getting it off her chest by Tweeting about it. “You would have all Tweeted back with supportive comments, witty put-downs and descriptions of similar experiences in your own workplace,” she retro-fantasises. Back in 1987, of course, there was no direct way of communicating with fans, or like-minded souls, without a telephone or a stamp. You, too, will wish that you could go back in a time machine and invent Twitter for the 1987 Tracey Thorn.

I won’t put a link to the high-street-destroying Amazon, in the usual kneejerk fashion. You can find Bedsit Disco Queen your own way. Maybe you could order it via a local bookshop, or find one online, without using Amazon as a third party, and do it in the spirit of Cherry Red, who launched Tracey and Ben’s career. But this is her publisher’s website.

A popularity contest

This was to be my next column for the dearly departed Word magazine. I’d pitched it, and it was in a holding pattern, awaiting clearance – in other words, for a bit of space at the front of the mag. It was half-written, so I’ll finish it here. (Hey! Self-publishing! For no money! It’s the future!)

Today’s hot topic is … well, a seemingly obscure anecdote from my days as a music journalist, but bear with me. I remember being on Pop Will Eat Itself’s tour bus circa 1991 and discovering, amid the usual collection of VHS tapes and CDs, the inevitable copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, very much the accessory du jour at the time (the Fifty Shades Of Grey of the early 90s, except not much favoured by women.). The NME photographer Tim was keen to show me the “bit with the rat”, already notorious as the most disgusting chapter in the book. This proved simple, as the band’s paperback fell automatically open at that very page, where its spine was now permanently bent. This was the blunt, physical way of discerning a novel’s most popular passage in the 20th century: you used your detective skills.

In the same prehistorical era, the NME, in common with other quaintly paper-based publications, would run an annual reader survey. No clicking here. It involved finding a Biro, filling in a form, cutting along the dotted line, sticking it in an envelope, licking a stamp and sending it off via the postal service. (As a reader, I used to fill these in with glee, but never once got round to sending the form in.) The results of the survey were eagerly disseminated by the suits and presented back to those of us who toiled in the editorial department and we’d learn, without exception, every year, that the readers bought the paper primarily for the Gig Guide. Not for the reams of purple prose we sweated over every week, but the Gig Guide – unavailable elsewhere in that pre-electronic age, lest we forget. It was the newspaper’s “bit with the rat.”

How Amish the methodology seems now. We also used to have what were known as “chart return shops”, which were outlets selected to propel A Flock Of Seagulls or Sailor to the toppermost of the poppermost – and where, we were told, shady record company sharks would bulk-buy said items to help them on their way. It wasn’t exactly a level playing field. But then, nor is the click-based electronic age we now live in. What might appear to be a more democratic popularity contest is just as open to corruption.

Consider the list of “favourites” that appears on every self-respecting website – some of which can be seen above, but you know what I’m talking about: the most popular entries on a blog, most read stories on a news site, the “trending” topics on Twitter. If ever there was a self-fulfilling algorithmic prophecy, it’s here. Because once a “popular” story appears in the “most popular” panel, it’s far more likely to be clicked on, and to remain popular. This is how a search engine like Google works, isn’t it? And how something like Charlie Bit My Finger can remain one of the most watched clips on YouTube even though it’s barely worth a look.

Hey, we all need our hand holding. It’s a jungle out there. It’s certainly a jumble out there. Information is now no longer fired at us from billboard and TV screen; it oozes out of every electronic pore. Sports players are covered from head to toe in brands and logos, and that’s before they stand in front of the backdrop created out of more brands and logos; no news programme is complete without a ticker running along the bottom of the screen – that’s now standard-issue – but at every juncture on TV now we are entreatied to email, text, Tweet and add our voice to what is already a cacophony of voices. Those electronic black-and-white pixillated squares that look like interference are now stamped on every other ad, waiting to be unlocked by the app on our mobile phones (if we have such things), in order to supply us with more information. I won’t moan about the amount of supplements in our swollen Saturday and Sunday newspapers, for fear of jinxing them out of existence, but there again is an information overload, bagged up.

Perhaps it’s a benign public service to constantly shuffle things to the top of charts, so that we only need trouble ourselves with what’s already popular. But I worry – and I know I shouldn’t – that perhaps this accepted algorithm is killing our freedom of choice. There are a lotta books on Amazon. There is no meaningful way you can “browse” the site, despite the use of that word; in reality, you’re at the mercy of having books suggested to you based on … books you’ve previously looked at. Never mind books you’ve previously bought. I must admit I sometimes use Amazon as a journalistic resource. It’s free! But if you look a book or DVD up, for research, it will affect what other books and DVDs Amazon hawks at you. “Like this? You’ll love this!” Not necessarily. Amazon currently thinks I want to buy Coriolanus on DVD, because I recently looked up the BBC Television Shakespeares box set simply to see how many discs were in it for a link in my Telly Addict column. Fail!

Talking of books. My first memoir, Where Did It All Go Right?, defied low expectation and crept up into the Top 10 non-fiction paperback bestsellers back in 2003. I discovered at that time that WHSmith runs its outlets at stations and airports as a satellite to its high street stores; I also discovered that this is precisely where you want your paperback displayed. The thing is, once it’s in the Top 20, say, at those vital station and airport shops, it’s more likely to be picked up by a browser waiting for the call to go to their gate. The popularity of that book is thus almost guaranteed: it’s displayed at head height in the chart section, ergo it gets bought and stays in the chart section. Honestly, WDIAGR? lingered at head height for months. It wasn’t because it was one of the best books on sale, merely one of the most visible.

So, the seeding of that which is already popular is not new. In the old days, when the pop charts were based on people going out and buying round black discs at the weekend – as opposed to being based on people clicking a mouse or trackpad at literally any time of the day or night – it really mattered what was on Top Of The Pops, or conveniently displayed in Woolworths. These days, the equivalent is whatever’s in the revolving banner ad on the iTunes store homepage, or any of its generic tributaries. (When the Collings & Herrin Podcast found favour with a comedy nerd who worked on the iTunes Store webpage and then started to chart highly, as long as we kept producing one a week, our prominence was ensured.)

The Long Tail is an attractive concept: that with electronic shopping, an outlet without floor space to contend with can almost literally offer anything and everything, and the most obscure item in the shop will drive turnover as readily as your bestselling loss-leaders. But as the online stores have got deeper and deeper – and the tail longer – I wonder if customers aren’t more likely to be just adding to the pre-packed myth of “popularity”, and picking up that which is already trending? (Something trends; people chase it; it trends some more.)

Me? I’m old fashioned or moribund enough to still prefer books that fall open at well-thumbed pages, and shops you can poke around in with racks that can be thumbed. That said, you will find this widget on this blog, which makes me a massive hypocrite. I’m quite looking forward to a blog entry called “You must read this blog entry” going to the top of the charts, where it will stay FOREVER.

PS: Now that my situationist prank has succeeded (see: below), I’ll change the title of the post back to its original.

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.