- 10 Sep 21
As the Manic Street Preachers get ready to release their icy post-punk masterwork The Ultra Vivid Lament, frontman James Dean Bradfield talks about social media hysteria, the group’s early ’90s shock tactics, politics, Arctic Monkeys and the Welsh football renaissance. Oh, and the group’s youthful reading of Hot Press. Photo: Alex Lake
Welsh rock legends Manic Street Preachers this month return with their 14th album, The Ultra Vivid Lament. It’s an atmospheric and melancholic post-punk collection, with a dusting of icy synths notably reminiscent of The Horrors, a band who’ve received the Manics seal of approval.
Thematically, the album is a reaction against the hysteria and psychosis pervading the sociopolitical landscape – especially online – with a focus on the peace of solitude and retreat. Discussing our current cultural malaise, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire recently talked about a collective “paralysis of the mind”, and suggested we were experiencing an “inner migration”, to quote the late great JG Ballard.
It’s a theory that seems to pervade The Ultra Vivid Lament.
“I think so, yeah,” says the Manics’ singer James Dean Bradfield, speaking from the band’s studio in Caerleon, just outside Newport. “We definitely come from an analogue age, there’s no doubting that – I would say we are old, analogue, indie trainspotters, along with all the other things we are. We recorded Journal For Plague Lovers with Steve Albini, and I don’t think it would be any revelation to tell people he has the driest wit you could ever wish to experience.
“I remember one morning he was making his coffee, listening to the radio, and he said, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to fucking go insane if I have to listen to this digital hiss of hysteria.’ ‘The digital hiss of hysteria’ is a really good phrase, because it is hysterical. In the digital landscape, you have endless news, opinion, miscommunication, accusation, and tribal gathering of wars – it’s just exhausting.”
It was a future Bradfield saw us lurching towards many moons ago.
“I remember when we had cable TV put in,” he reflects, “my mother – who was a big news head – after six months went, ‘Twenty-four hour news might be a mistake.’ (Laughs.) If she was still alive, she’d be going, ‘Oh my god, little did I know.’ I don’t think you have time to digest an opinion or fact now, and make it your own, or disagree with it, or take some truth from it.
“You can’t always agree or disagree with something completely, unless it’s completely heinous or something you’re completely empathetic to. Sometimes you’ve got to find a grain of truth of in things.”
Like Bradfield, I don’t have a Twitter account, and we both share an aversion to its kneejerk tendencies. But I wonder if this viewpoint simply shows our age – is it more of a Gen X perspective?
“It’s the age you’re born into,” suggest James. “I’ve got two young kids, they’re going to be six and 10 this year. I can’t go accusing them of being something, because it’s the age they’re born into. When they get to their teen years, they’re gonna be what they’re gonna be to a certain degree. Hopefully, the things myself and my wife have taught them will endure in some way, but they will be different people, there’s no doubting that.
“I haven’t got a Twitter account, I’ve never tweeted or posted on Facebook. There’s lots of people who pretend to be me who’ve got a Facebook account, but I can swear in my family’s life, I have never, ever posted anything digitally – not one thing. Because I’ve got no need to, I don’t want to communicate. I think Nicky does sometimes.
“Nick is not a digital person, he’s very analogue, but he does love sharing visual things. He loves Instagram, he thinks it’s the form of communication that has most taste filters attached to it. But I think it is my age, and I would never try and deny that. Whenever I do read news on my phone, it never seems to stick with me as much when I actually sit down, and take an object with me to a seat and read it.”
Now 52, James notes he needs extra time to process large chunks of information.
“But I am a tiny bit strange like that,” he adds. “As I’m getting older, I do realise that perhaps the way I ingest information, the way I sort my own head out – it’s probably not as normal as I thought it was (laughs). It’s like baking a cake; I really need to sift the flour in my head for it to be any good.”
It is genuinely amusing to imagine the collective nervous breakdown on social media were early ’90s Manic Street Preachers to crash-land into the current cultural landscape. With troubled lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards – who disappeared without trace in early 1995 – still in the ranks, the band trafficked in a scabrous brand of commentary, routinely heaping derision on their peers.
Often, their attacks were excessive to the point of absurdity. It’s another factor missing in today’s dour cultural landscape: making a provocative declaration purely for its comedic or entertainment value.
“Yeah, the verbal sparring was very combative,” James reflects. “But we grew up with teachers, and they were Mark E. Smith, Ian McCulloch, and to a certain degree, Morrissey. They were destroying each other – they were just like, ‘No, I’m the best, fuck you!’ They weren’t threatening to behead each other; they were going 12 rounds with words.
“And they were very erudite and articulate in the way they tried to take each other down. To a certain degree, in a more brutal way, Noel Gallagher carried that on, because Noel’s not scared to say, ‘That’s fucking rubbish and I think it’s shit.’ (Laughs.) Growing up, we were inveterate music press readers: Sounds, Melody Maker, NME, Select, Hot Press – there was always a shop in the valleys that had Hot Press.”
As a massive fan of the Manics, it’s certainly gratifying to hear they were Hot Press readers in their youth.
“It was exotic,” says James, who’s clearly never spent a production weekend in HP Towers. “You’d be like, ‘Wow – what is that?’ You’d always see different bands on the cover, so you’d buy it. It’s like when you go to London, now and again you’ll find a copy of The Western Mail in a shop, it’ll just pop up somewhere. And you’ll go, ‘Wow, what the fuck’s that? I need a copy of The Western Mail, I need to know the South Wales rugby league results.’
“There were a couple of shops that took Hot Press now and again, and it was exotic. It was kind of like seeing the European edition of Rolling Stone, it was cool. Also, we read hundreds of copies of it, because our manager was Philip Hall, who passed away. He was a legendary press officer – he was the head press officer at Stiff Records for a while. We’d stay in Philip’s house, and one room was dedicated to magazines.
“In one corner, there was a tower of copies of The Face, in another there was a tower of ID, and another had a tower of Hot Press. We were always going through all of them. It was brilliant, it was like a little rock library for us, and Richey was always in there.”
Of course, the Manics are also renowned for political commentary, with the band’s working class Welsh roots informing their socialist outlook. Famously, they even played a 2001 show in Havana, where – remarkably – they enjoyed a summit with the late Fidel Castro.
THE MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE
One of my favourite ever lyricists, Nicky Wire’s masterpiece is perhaps the 1998 UK No.1 ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, about the Welsh volunteers who fought against General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Listening to it recently, as we celebrate a decade of centenaries to commemorate the founding of the Irish state, I couldn’t help but feel it captured the spirit of the struggle for Irish independence as well as any rebel song.
“The song started out as an exploration of how vain we had become as a generation,” James considers. “Nick was writing about himself. A lot of people don’t realise that sometimes, when he’s writing a song, the person he’s actually criticising or questioning is himself. He’d done an interview with someone where they were like, ‘Well, are you political? Why do you think you’ve got the right to write political songs? Have you ever stood on a platform?’
“I remember he walked away thinking, ‘Well, except for voting and being very politically engaged, what have I ever sacrificed?’ So, he looked at what another generation had sacrificed – people who went and fought for a cause that wasn’t even affecting them. It was on the same continent, but they were on an island apart from it.”
This provided the starting point for the track’s sociopolitical themes.
“He used that to illustrate what was present in the past,” James continues. “Perhaps sacrificing yourself for an ideal, sacrificing yourself when your beliefs were inconvenient to you. And then he was saying, ‘We’re a generation that just doesn’t know that feeling at all’, especially in mainland Britain.
“So the song started out as that. And then it became an exploration of trying to hold fire, when you know the middle ground is an important place to be, because trying to occupy the middle ground and compromising does save lives.
“But I think the song then became about when you can’t compromise against something which is so fetid and heinous – you’ve got to stand up for what’s right. I remember Nick talking about all those things, so I don’t know if that feeds into what you’re saying.”
It definitely does. ‘If You Tolerate This…’ also boasted one of the greatest videos of the ’90s, a piece of glacial sci-fi in which the band perform the song next door to a nuclear family – their eyes, ears and mouths all covered – who sit blissfully in their garden until the pool starts to fill with blood.
“Well, that was between Nicky and the director, Wiz,” notes James. “I remember Nick saying, ‘I want a lower case, calm, eerier couple of moments straight out of the Kubrick playbook, especially Clockwork Orange. But I want them to almost be on diazepam – down.’ If I remember rightly, Wiz also talked about Stalker, the Tarkovsky film. You’re not quite sure which time or world you’re in, because Stalker is about a time zone.
“In the cinematography, he wanted you to not question where you are. He just wanted it to be convincing straight away, so you don’t care about the narratives of time and place, you’re just there. Those are the two things I remember – Kubrick on diazepam and Stalker.
“Also, Nick wanted an image of the post-nuclear family. And he wanted an instance where you couldn’t decide if someone was blind, or whether they just completely refused to look. He wanted ambivalence about it.”
It’s a fucking incredible video.
“It’s probably our best,” nods James. “Nick and Wiz did a couple of our videos, and they were a great team. They always had time for each other’s ideas. It’s good when two people talk, and they don’t have to worry about the other taking the piss out of them for being wilfully pretentious – people need to indulge each other sometimes.”
I have got in many a pub debate over Alex Turner’s supposed status as a generational lyrical talent – my hot take being that if he ever writes a lyric as good as ‘If You Tolerate This…’, then he can enter the discussion. But the Manics are big Arctic Monkeys fans, so perhaps I’m being a bit harsh.
“Nick absolutely idolises the last Arctic Monkeys album,” says James. “Nick has always said that if you’re a lyricist and you’ve got to create a character, he doesn’t quite buy into it. But for him, that album is the greatest example of somebody inhabiting another character, and just pulling it off. He’ll freely admit that David Bowie has done it many times, and Bono definitely did it on Achtung Baby to a big degree.
“But he absolutely loves that Arctic Monkeys record, and it’s just full of words. And it’s full of narcissism, but end-of-the-century, you know you’re gonna end up bottom-of-the-heap kind of narcissism – you know your time is coming. He absolutely adores that record. In fact, he was driving me fucking mad pushing it! So he would probably be arguing against you I think.”
Now that’s one pub debate we could sell tickets for! Finally, I ask James about the Welsh football renaissance, with the Manics having written the team’s Euro 2016 anthem, ‘Together Stronger (C’mon Wales)’. It proved an amazing journey, with Wales reaching the semi-finals, where they were knocked out by eventual winners Portugal.
“I was talking to somebody about this the other day,” he says. “The first football match I ever went to was Newport County versus Colchester in 1979. There was a little van that went from our street down to Newport. Football’s changed so much since then. I went to see a couple of Welsh matches when I was young, and we had some great players, like Yorath, Toshack, Neville Southall, Ryan Giggs… But we were always just missing out on qualification.
“Of course, the 2016 Euros was the first time we’d qualified in my living memory. It’s a strange feeling. When the team came back, you couldn’t move on the streets of Cardiff. We’d got to the semis and been knocked out by Ronaldo’s header. It was almost like I’d woken up in a different universe.”
For James, Wales’ painful near-misses added to the sweetness of the experience.
“It makes you realise that the journey you have with a team, or a band, or even some friends or your partner in life – you’ve gotta go through some shit to get the good times,” he says. “I remember the last great glory the Welsh rugby team had was 1979, and then we had to wait until 2005 for a grand slam. And I fucking lost my shit when that happened. That was a long time waiting, that was fucking 26 years.
“It was the same with football. When we beat Belgium in 2016, by the time Sam Vokes had scored the third goal, my friend who was there was just crying. And this old guy from north Wales was behind him, and they were talking Welsh to each other. My friend was going, ‘I can’t believe this has happened.’ The old bloke gathered him into his chest and went, ‘It’s real son, it’s happening.’ That’s the feeling I was having: ‘Is this real now?’ And it is, it’s hard to believe.
“It’s been brilliant that I can follow the rugby team and the football team, and have the same emotions to a certain degree. Football always felt like the poor relation, so it’s incredible. And it’s been amazing to have people like Connor Roberts, who plays for us, who seems to really care about it. He said, ‘For me, scoring a goal for Wales is the pinnacle. I don’t know about other people, but that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.’ Seeing that emotion is important, it really is.
• The Ultra Vivid Lament is out today.