- 21 Feb 20
Happy 51st birthday James Dean Bradfield! To celebrate, we're revisiting our classic interview with the Manic Street Preachers singer – originally published ahead of the band's set at Slane in 1998.
“DON’T WORRY, it’s not piss, I just washed!” James Dean Bradfield proffers a damp hand, closing the bathroom door of his suite in the Clarence Hotel behind him. The Manic Street Preacher is a diminutive figure, his burly frame clad in combats and a casual (but expensive-looking) short-sleeved shirt, the baby face rough with a ten-day scrub of beard.
Fresh, if that’s the word, from an all night mixing session followed by a delayed flight and a limo trip in from Dublin airport, Bradfield has the air of a man who thrives on travel and talk. He makes some swift adjustments to his surroundings, shutting off the radio and closing the window to mute the din of the midday traffic on the quays, then fetches me a Ballygowan from the mini-bar, before making short work of the cappuccino delivered by room service.
The Manic Street Preachers’ fifth album, This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, will be released in a few weeks, preceded by the quietly stunning single ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’. This is not the same band that emerged from Blackwood, South Wales and assaulted the Baggy-dizzy England of 1991, a band barely capable of playing their instruments but well able to talk the hind leg off an asshole, spouting a counter-cultural manifesto that embraced everyone from The Clash to Kierkegaard, the New York Dolls to Nietzsche.
Nor is it the childhood gang whose manager Philip Hall died of cancer in 1993, and whose molten third album, 1994’s The Holy Bible, was like no other record of its time, bulging with raw but beautiful polemics like ‘Faster’, ‘The Intense Humming Of Evil’ and ‘4st 7lbs’ (in which guitarist/lyricist Richey James explored the psychology of anorexia nervosa, and came up with compelling, if macabre images like “Lift up my skirt, my sex is gone/Naked and lovely and 5 stone 2/May I bud and never flower/Days since I last pissed . . . /I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint”).
This not the band who watched their guitarist starve, mutilate and lullaby himself with vodka, then endured the agony of his disappearance from West London’s Embassy Hotel on February 1st 1995, a band whose long lusted-after acclaim and commercial success (precipitated by the Everything Must Go album) was tempered by their not knowing whether their comrade was alive or dead.
No, this is a Manic Street Preachers who have dressed, but not dumbed down, who have at last had time to process their season in hell, and attempt to get over it.
This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours reveals an older and wiser band, one less given to rant and cant, a trio who have learned how to articulate the long-held belief that to create a work of aesthetic beauty is a subversive, if not political act in itself. Certainly, songs like ‘Tsunami’, ‘Ready For Drowning’ and ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ are suffused with that rare element in rock ‘n’ roll: grace.
I must admit, I wasn’t especially anxious to discuss the Cult Of Richey with James Dean Bradfield, and while it may be old news in a tabloid sense, it’s almost impossible to discuss the band’s history without the myth intruding. Given that Richey was reputed never to have played on the band’s records, his absence from the new album is surprisingly conspicuous: This Is My Truth . . . was a case of starting from Year Zero, not least because there were no more of Richey’s lyrics that the band were prepared to put to music.
“Yeah, it definitely felt like that,” Bradfield admits, lighting the first of the four cigarettes he’ll smoke over the next hour. “People asked us why we used some of his lyrics on the last album, and we said it was because he had heard those songs in demo form, or me playing them on guitar, before that whole . . . y’know, the events that overtook proceedings. So those songs were in existence before the Richey thing took over, and they were validated in that sense, within the equation of four people.”
Was it crucial to have Richey’s approval of songs like ‘Kevin Carter’ and ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’?
“Yeah, it was definitely,” the singer affirms. “Part of the last album still felt as if it was four people to a degree. I’ve only just listened back to it again, and I realised that it sounded like we were trying to free ourselves from certain things, there’s some kind of twisted escapism about it. Whereas the new one just sounds as like it’s trying to be beautiful, which is very different from the strange kind of euphoria on Everything Must Go.
“The (James-penned) lyrics we’re left with now, between 30 and 40 poems, are all in a book, we just don’t feel as if we can have any kind of accountability towards them. Some of those lyrics, as soon as you put Manics’ music to them, they just become symbolically more emotionally charged anyway, and we don’t really want to burden ourselves with that responsibility to certain members of our audience. We feel as if we’ll release those in book form some day, because he obviously left them to be used in some sense, they’re bound together as a piece of work.”
If the Manics shirked one kind of pressure by bypassing Richey’s remaining lyrics, then a recent remark from Paul Burger, Managing Director of the band’s parent label Sony Music, heightened expectations of the new songs to an uncomfortable degree. Burger recently referred to This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours as “Absolutely and without doubt the most important album we’ll release this year.” James is understandably anxious to downplay such grand pronouncements.
“That quote is just kind of unfortunate, ’cos it’s not the kind of thing we would ever want released,” he shrugs. “You kind of hear that quote bandied about about four albums at the same time, so you take it with a pinch of salt, really. At the end of the day I feel sorry for Paul Burger, because no boss of a record company wants to be seen to be as hands-on as that.”
As James also points out, the band have never made any bones about being comfortable on a major. Indeed, they’re probably more at ease with it than ever, given that their A&R man, Rob Stringer, is now the MD of the Epic branch of Sony. Nevertheless, the Manics of yore had so many other codes of honour and points of protocol, they were like some glam-punk version of boot camp.
“Never Write A Ballad, Never Write A Love Song,” James recites wistfully. “Those really childish, naive, idealistic equations were what gave us the energy and bravery to be in a band. We had all these little mantras: ‘Everybody knows what it’s like to feel love, but not everybody knows what it’s like to feel absolute hatred.’ And in a strange way, we thought that freed us up not to actually write any bad songs. Obviously that’s wrong now, but it’s a really good premise to start on.”
Does James have fond memories of that phase of the band?
“Yeah, of course,” he responds. “People always try to trip you up, they show you a picture of us from Generation Terrorists, complete and utter glam bunnies, and obviously it’s going to have the air of complete ridiculousness about it, but I never ever get embarrassed about anything like that. Some bands, they get to my age now and they look back on their past and they haven’t changed at all, they were always boring and completely tepid in their language, and they still are. Some people may argue that we’re slightly like that now, but we look back on our past and it was all born of complete and utter idealism. It was naive and trying to be fiercely intelligent, unbalanced and subjective.
“It was just really good being in a band at that point,” James continues. “I was sending off letters to the NME with our first single ‘Suicide Alley’, we were talking about Baggy and Manchester being just the culmination of the culture of money, and (claiming that) the only directives and inspiration in that generation were the fierce competitiveness of designer labels, and that the culture of money goes hand in hand with the self implosion of the working classes, et cetera, et cetera. It was really good that we were complete fucking maniacs sending letters off to everybody and getting them read by Tony Wilson on the telly without us even having a record contract. That was quite exciting. On a small, indie, trainspotting level.”
The new single ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, has been compared to The Clash’s Spanish Civil War anthem ‘Spanish Bombs’. It’s a melancholic epic of a song, explicit enough to evoke precise emotions, but sufficiently ambiguous to facilitate interpretations on several levels.
“Thank God you’re not Belgian,” James remarks, rubbing his new beard. “The fuckin’ Belgians’ll be going, ‘I find it stunning that you can write songs about the state of our nation at the moment.’ God.”
Since, despite the title, the song isn’t actually about Belgian paedophiles, is there a particular global malaise Nicky’s talking about in the lyric?
“What, you mean the international politics of the Sandinista period kinda vibe?” he shoots back. “Well, the song was just based on . . . y’know, the Spanish Civil War was like one of the folklore things I think anybody in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales grows up with to a certain degree. Especially North England – your grandfather knew someone who went to the Spanish Civil war and all that. Nick has got so much into that history as he’s got older, and he just used it as a metaphor for the past and dragged it into the future, that’s all.
“The song started out as a criticism of ourselves as a band, that we like to think that we come from such a fiercely left-wing background, and we’re so good at showing the courage of our convictions, yet people from the same backgrounds as us went and fought on such an abstract level. They fought in someone else’s country for something that wasn’t even touching their own nation at that time, not in a very omnipotent sense anyway. Nick was just going, ‘Can I hold my head up high, even as a lyricist with a political slant, if I come from a generation where I haven’t got a clue what it is to actually consider making a physical sacrifice to an ideal that is not even affecting the environment I live in.’
“And you start making really simple, crass connections,” James elaborates, “well not crass, but to try and bring things on a symbolic level. If you just take Yugoslavia, it took five years before the UN actually did anything there, and the UN is the most powerful organisation in the world besides America. But we’re not pious, earnest wankers, because the song started out as a criticism of ourselves, not anybody else. I remember Nicky at times saying, ‘Today I’m just pissed off because I’m trying to find a new pair of trainers, but I can’t actually find what I want to buy.’
“But it’s probably the first pro-war song anybody of our generation has written. And that’s gonna sound really outrageous: somebody could respond to that in a really reactionary sense, but it doesn’t mean that we want to fight the war or anything like that, it’s just the actual concept of it.
“It’s really funny,” the singer muses, dragging on another Marlboro Light, “because the one image you always associate with the Spanish Civil War is that Robert Capa photograph, it’s called The Dying Moment - the soldier falling down with a gun in his hand, you can see his braces and the white shirt and everything. And it’s just been proven that the shot was completely set up. And I have to say, more than anybody, we’re one band that, no matter how grim the situation, or the context of an historical event, we always get drawn in by one image that almost romanticises something, and to actually find out that the picture was completely set up, I felt like a complete mug. (laughs)”
On the subject of tampering with, and even rewriting history, the Manics have always been disturbed by Holocaust revisionist theories, books like Arthur Buntz’ Hoax Of The 20th Century. Indeed, visiting Dachau several years ago had a profound affect on the band. With that in mind, reports of the recent redistribution of Nazi bullion to Holocaust survivors didn’t go unnoticed by James.
“There’s this woman, a Jewish lady who wants to be compensated for the land that was actually taken from her, which Auschwitz was built on,” he declares. “She wants to reclaim the land that was stolen from her father, but she can’t make any headway at all. And that’s a complete and utterly legitimate form of compensation, emotionally and in any kind of moneyed sense, as a symbol for what’s been robbed from your past. It’s strange to think that there isn’t carte blanche for things (like that) to be railroaded through. In terms of like, they almost try to audit Swiss banks and they can’t really, it’s insane, they can’t do it. The most influential governments here can’t make the Swiss banks turn around on it. That kind of moral precipice, you can’t confront it at all.”
When the Manic Street Preachers are subjected to scrutiny by future scholars of rock ‘n’ roll, chances are the original incarnation of the band will be nailed as crackpot conspiracy terrorists, crank prophets of the disinformation age peddling songs of paranoia and disquiet like ‘Another Invented Disease’ and ‘Natwest Barclays Midlands Lloyds’. And while the group may have refined their manifesto somewhat over the last couple of years, due in part to the loss of Richey, any group with a lyricist like Nicky Wire is always going to have a keen social conscience.
As James Dean Bradfield remarked while on tour in America in 1996: “To be universal you’ve got to stain the consciousness of the people. You’ve got to dig out a truth that everybody knows, but they don’t want to hear, then tell it in a manner that’s so indignant, so beautiful, that they’ve got to accept it back into their lives again.”
“The attitude going into the album wasn’t as confrontational as that actual quote,” James says now, fidgeting with his lighter. “But it was still kind of bedded in it though. I think what I was trying to say was that you want to try and confront people with a truth they already know, but don’t actually want to accept, and you just want to ram it down their throats. Which is a really pious thing for a relatively young man to say.
“But it all stemmed from Nick’s writing environment. He lives with his wife and his dog, he doesn’t travel, he just reads, writes and watches TV. It felt like the first time that, even though I’m not religious at all, his lyrics were almost Zen-like, for the first time it was like he was almost happy with saying the truth to himself, and not really caring. Hence the title. If it was just This Is My Truth, the title would just seem so much more worthless. We stole it from Aneurin Bevan (Labour MP from a mining background in Tredegar, South Wales, who, as Minister for Health, set up the NHS in 1948 – PM). When he used to do his great oratory trips around Wales, at the end he would say, ‘This is my truth, now tell me yours.’ He’s one of Nick’s heroes.”
As James repositions himself on the floor, we’re talking about education, particularly the oft-quoted first line from ‘A Design For Life’: “Libraries gave us power” taken from the inscription on a library in Pwll.
“When I’d go and visit Richey and Nick down in Swansea University, Richey would be there at the weekend with all the Sunday papers, kneeling on the floor, circling things and cutting them out,” James recalls. “ He was a classic careening-around-his-subject kind of student. He was really earnest at the end of the day, he’d say, ‘My Mum and Dad worked hard to get me here and I’m not going to piss it up in the Uni Bar.’ We just never took those things for granted. I don’t think we were strange, we were just seen as strange because we were in a band, that’s all. And other people in bands around 1989, 1990 weren’t like that, it was very much a hedonistic period, and our idea of hedonism was just having four cans and a bag of chips.”
Before touring the last record, Nicky was very upfront about admitting that, post-Richey, the original Manics “aura” was gone. However, James dismisses the idea that they ever felt the need to restructure the live line-up in order to compensate for Richey’s absence.
“There was only ever one shaky moment we had, and that was a warm-up for the Maine Road gig supporting Oasis, at Hacienda the night before,” he maintains. “Nicky just burnt into tears, and then after that it was fine. The only time I felt as if I couldn’t look at what the band was (after Richey’s disappearance), was when I looked at magazine covers and pictures and thinking the symmetry wasn’t there. Symmetry was always important to us, it’s what we based ourselves on – there was always a magical symmetry between The Clash, with Joe, the old wizened, embattled, raging humanist in the middle, the two lovely, beautiful wingers on the side, and the human drum-machine at the back.
“And that symmetry for us was beautiful. That’s the only time I find it really disconcerting sometimes. We had to become more anonymous and live behind the music for the first time ever. And I just really missed being couched in that visual air that we used to have.”
When that last album propelled The Manic Street Preachers into the big league, there was much hoo-ha in the letters pages of the music press, mostly from the panda-eyed hardcore of yore, who condescended and complained about the lager lout element in the expanded Manics audience.
“There was a lot of antagonism on the last tour we did in Britain,” James confirms, “It was about 8,000 a night, and you had a lot of what you’d call the Richey-philes down the front, and then a discernible new batch of people going absolutely mad, just mostly lads, Ralph Lauren shirts and stuff, you could actually smell the aftershave. To be honest, I refuse to have any bias or prejudice towards either of those audiences, because I completely and utterly identify with both of them. The one funny thing I find is that The Holy Bible-ites, so to speak, cerebralise everything, they imbue everything with a symbolism. Like, y’know, we left a gap on the side of the stage, and that was us paying homage to Richey – it wasn’t! You just couldn’t put an obelisk there or anything!
“Then the boys at the back were just . . . I love seeing physical reactions to things, ’cos sometimes I feel more akin to that. I’ve been in a million situations where I can’t articulate what I actually feel or think, (adopts dumb rocker voice) ‘’cos I’m not good with words man’, so sometimes I know what to do but I haven’t a clue what to say, so I associate with that physical fuckin’ release sometimes.
“So I have no prejudice towards the laddisms that are showing up in our crowd. But also I have complete respect for like, the Richey-philes, the way they hang onto a band and fiercely defend what they see is the quintessence of a band, because I was like that when I discovered Joy Division, after Ian Curtis had died. I slowly began to realise that they’d mutated into New Order, and I was like, ‘How dare they!’ So I know exactly that feeling.”
Inevitably, the Manic Street Preachers have become part of the rock ’n’ roll stigmartyr set that Nick Kent eulogised in The Dark Stuff. However, James is philosophical about his band being lumped in with the tragically hip and the death-trippers.
“That’s what we bought into,” he points out. “The one thing that really scares me is dramatisations of certain things. I had this really weird dream one night, completely flattering myself, or us as a band, about some Alex Cox director getting some dodgy little Manics film together. And I remember Jacko from Brush Strokes was playing me. I was walking into a room and Richey was carving himself up and I was going, (adopts comical Welsh accent) ‘What are you doing that for? You’re bloody daft you are, man, just ’ave a good time! Just ’ave a bloody beer man, and stop writing those deep lyrics all the time!’ And he was going, ‘James, you don’t understand! It’s the abyss, can’t you see it, it’s in the corner of the room, it’s the abyss.’ And I was going, ‘It’s a bloody table, man!’ And this dream went on for ages, and I woke up and I was almost laughing and crying.
“But when you read those books, and when I’ve read little bits about us, the actual portrayals of certain situations are so embroiled in what the journalist wants you, or it, to be, then that is scary, yeah. But there’s no point in trying to rewrite any of that stuff before it’s written.”