Manic Street Preachers Interview: A Heavenly Body Of Work - Part One
, September 14th, 2008 21:12
You lucky, lucky people. In, what is certainly the most in depth interview the band have given in recent years, Manic Street Preachers discuss with their biographer Simon Price the brief but explosive period that they were signed to the Heavenly label.
This weekend (12th-14th September), Heavenly Recordings celebrated its eighteenth anniversary with a special series of concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. On Friday night, as support to Doves, Manic Street Preachers - one of Heavenly’s early star bands - played all six of the songs they released on the label including the song that first brought them to the attention of the record buying public: 'Motown Junk'. Casting their minds back are James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire. The rest of this interview will run tomorrow.
So, let’s begin with the chronology. Your first contact with anyone in the Heavenly circle was when Richey used to send polemics to Hungry Beat fanzine, which was written by Kevin Pearce (whose inspirational book of essays, Something Beginning With ‘O’, would later be published by Heavenly)…
Nicky Wire: “Kevin Pearce was the contact, yeah…”
James Dean Bradfield: “My memory may not be absolutely accurate these days, but I do remember Richey having correspondence with Kevin Pearce. He was kind of a mod English eccentric, and there was a kind of ‘fanzine mafia’ with Kevin Pearce and Sarah Records and Heavenly. For me, it was all very very English. Richey had been sending things off to Sarah Records, and he sent things to Kevin Pearce and that’s how we got our first London gig, at the Horse And Groom at Great Portland St.” NW: “Which Bob Stanley (Melody Maker journalist, and founder of Heavenly band Saint Etienne) came to.”
What can you remember of the gig itself?
JDB: “We tipped up to the gig, and thought ‘Fucking hell, that’s Oxford Street there!’ It was just so cataclysmically, imponderably off-the-scale for me. In terms of me being a Valley boy, and seeing the big HMV for the first time, I couldn’t quite believe it. I’m not overstating that fact. I was like ‘Jesus Christ, the Big Smoke, the metropolis!’. Then I remember us meeting Kevin at the Horse And Groom, and either me or Richey saying to him ‘This gig is like a footnote from a Kingsley Amis novel’, and Kevin Pearce nodding at us appreciatively and saying ‘Yes, yes, that’s exactly what I was aiming for!’ So that’s how that all panned out. We got that gig through Richey’s shotgun-prose letters to these people.”
So, Bob reviewed the show…
NW: “He wrote a brilliant review in Melody Maker the following week. It was everything we wanted from a review. We knew he was in Saint Etienne, obviously…”
JDB: “We were just so shocked when we got a live review in the Melody Maker.”
Bob once told me that he was actually laughing as he watched you.
NW: “That’s true! But he was laughing at the insanity of four people from Wales in the tightest white jeans you’ve ever seen, covered in spraypaint… and even then, we were fairly abusive. It wasn’t as though we thought the crowd was going to just fall in love with us. But we won them over. They hadn’t seen a band like that for such a long time. It was a warm feeling. It wasn’t scrutiny of the music. It was ‘Which planet have this band come from?’”
JDB: “We did feel out of place there. Cos the Manics back then was like a military drill! All your kit had to be folded neatly by your bed, and you had to wear what was right and what fitted in with that ethos. I can’t remember which shirt I wore, but I had two to choose from and one got turned-down by the rest of the band for that gig so I had to wear the other one! We were playing with a band called The Claim whose single had been produced by Vic Coppersmith-Heaven who did The Jam’s stuff, so that English thing was very strong running through all this. The Claim were very preppy. Tank tops and knitted sweaters, and smart. And we looked kind of… dummy, and you had to kind of… scrunch up your eyes to look at us, ‘Is this working?’ And I’m sure that’s what Bob was thinking. He probably thought ‘I read this boy’s letters, but I never expected his band to actually be like this!’ That’s the sort of band we were. You’d read our correspondence, then you’d see us as a band, and you didn’t quite know if it made sense.”
He must have liked you, because not long afterwards he interviewed you.
NW: “Yeah, within four or five weeks he’d invited us up to his place. We slept in the car…”
JDB: “As I remember it, a couple of us slept in his flat and a couple of us slept in our van round the corner, I think. I remember thinking he was quite benevolent towards us. Because we weren’t the kind of band who would normally be on his radar, and we thought ‘He’s taking a punt on us here’. He was trusting his instincts rather than the fierce pop sensibility charter that he had.”
By this time, you had your second single, the 'New Art Riot' EP on Damaged Goods, on the way.
NW: “The title track of that is great, but it’s terribly produced. We weren’t pushing that as our vision of the future really. We weren’t hawking it around. The interview with Bob was more about what we were going to do. To be honest ‘Motown Junk’ is the start.”
Bob would later put out a Manics seven inch, ‘Feminine Is Beautiful’, on his own Caff label...
NW: “That’s the demo of ‘New Art Riot’, and ‘Repeat’ which is really good. Bob Stanley was quite important for us. He was such a sweetheart, championing us in a really sort of quiet, diligent way, and in his writing he really got the essence of us really quick. Which surprised us from a softly-spoken indie kid. But then, we’ve all been softly-spoken indie kids…”
JDB: “We were so much more indie then than a lot of people ever realise. I mean, a lot of people think we started at ‘A Design For Life’. We were more indie than you could ever imagine, at the start. We were entrenched in indie, but fighting to get out of it. I think Bob just admired how much into the indie ethic we were. And how much we were into fanzines. I remember Bob asking me what my favourite fanzine was, and I said Attack On Bzag (by James Brown) and another called Bullfrog. I remember him going ‘Hmmm’. Like, not impressed, but thinking ‘At least they’re into real fanzines’…”
Presumably, Bob would have been talking about you, informally, to Heavenly people.
JDB: “I don’t really know, to be honest. Our biggest connection would have been Philip (Hall, Manics manager). We had a review from Steven Wells in the NME for ‘Suicide Alley’, our DIY single, and then we had a Melody Maker review from Bob… we had a press kit! And from all those things, we got Philip.”
NW: “Yeah… obviously Philip knew Jeff (Barrett, Heavenly supremo) as well. He definitely saw Heavenly as the one we should go for.”
What, if any, was your perception of Heavenly at that point?
"It was a brilliant gig, we trashed everything, and when we got back to the hotel, Flowered Up had started a fire in the lobby."
NW: “Oh, we used to study labels! And we knew that certain ones were out of reach. But something innately chaotic and insane about the bands that Heavenly had, the nature of East Village, Saint Etienne, Flowered Up, then us coming in as well. It was a very fucking odd roster. And just cos of Jeff’s press background (Barrett was PR man for Happy Mondays among others), me and Richey thought that even if he wasn’t overwhelmed by us as a band, he could surely see the point of everything. Heavenly was a really exciting label. ‘It’s On’ by Flowered Up, I still love that to this day. ‘Weekender’ was really overproduced, but ‘It’s On’ is just euphoric. (He starts singing it). I remember going to see them in Shoreditch Town Hall, and I was fucking scared - this is before Shoreditch was nice - and I think it was to meet (artist) Paul Cannell. We were all dressed up, me and Richey… It seemed like a strange meeting of bedfellows but somehow it held together. If you look at it, there was a period where they released ‘It’s On’ by Flowered Up, ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ by Saint Etienne and ‘Motown Junk’ by us. And that is just a fucking ambitious twelve months. There’s nothing connecting those three bands together. Not one thing. So they were just being really fiercely ambitious. For me, that was a glorious time for us to look back on, that we were involved in. It takes a particular vision to take three bands like that within the space of twelve months and say ‘This is our vision’. The only way you can describe it is ‘Heavenly’.”
JDB: “We kind of knew of Heavenly Records from East Village, and then became more aware of it from Saint Etienne and Flowered Up. I remember Philip talking about Jeff a lot, in reverent tones, but also wry tones. He had a very strange respect for Jeff. Philip, for me, was the ultimate butterfly collector. He collected quintessentially English eccentric people. He liked surrounding himself with people like that. I don’t think he and Jeff were that socially close, but whenever Phil saw Jeff, he loved having a talk with him.”
So, in the hope of getting Heavenly interested, Philip set up a gig at the Rock Garden (unloved pay-to-play venue), which you’d already played once…
NW: “Yeah. Jeff was there, Martin (Kelly, Barrett’s sidekick) was there, I even think Jon Savage (legendary rock critic) was there. He was hovering around, bizarrely, back then. We hated the Rock Garden, we’d already done pay-to-play…”
JDB: “An absolutely diabolically soulless place. We felt as if the fates were stacked against us. Here we were, about to meet Martin and Jeff and Martin from Heavenly, and the thing with Heavenly was, it had a sense of itself. There was no clear manifesto as to what would go out on Heavenly, it was just ‘We are Heavenly and we know what’s good’. The other record labels, like Creation, had more of an identity because you knew it was gonna be very Byrds/Velvet Underground-inspired jangly indie-pop. Whereas with Heavenly it was much more of a confused message. With Heavenly, it was something that was much more imbued in itself: you knew it when you saw it, that was a Heavenly record. So, when we realised we were going to be playing in front of them… they weren’t even ‘cool’. They just are. They are themselves. And here we are, playing in front of them at the Rock Garden. We’re fucked. Because playing at the Rock Garden back then, you were off everybody’s radar. You were just one of those stupid bands who come to London in search of fame…”
With all your mates in a minivan.
JDB: “Exactly. You’d sell all those tickets the Rock Garden gave you to all your mates in two minivans. We never did that kind of stuff. So I remember thinking ‘We’re up against it already’. And that it was up to Nick and Richey to talk the talk to Jeff and Martin, because there was no way we could convince them with this performance in this soulless vacuum of a place.”
NW: “It was a good gig though. I think a load of people from our uni had turned up, which never happened. Philip was brilliant. Fucking amazing. He was a total svengali around that time. He totally understood, and had faith in us that we’d come up with the musical goods but for the time being that wasn‘t our raison d‘etre. He saw that. We saw him and Jeff standing in the corner and hatching plans…”
One version of the story has it that when Jeff and Martin approached you and said they were from a record label, you told them to fuck off.
JDB: “Oh god, Jesus, I’d have been way too shy to tell them to fuck off! That might have been Sean, I dunno.”
NW: “I don’t remember this! But Jeff did look particularly odd. He looked fucking insane, with his long ginger curls. He looked like Vitas Gerulaitas. But with a huge nose.”
JDB: “He looked like an absolutely cooler version of Robert Plant. His hair was fucking long at that point, and I was absolutely shocked, because he was indie colossus man at that point. Whereas Martin was much more the sort of preppy, silver-tongued, brogues-wearing English character. I remember thinking they just went together, like (uber-successful Nottingham Forest and Derby County managerial duo) Peter Taylor and Brian Clough went together.”
Was a contract ever signed, or was it all done on a handshake?
NW: “It was totally on a handshake.”
JDB: “I just remember, Philip Hall, for all his preciseness of what he wanted to do as a press officer and a manager, indulged in a little bit of chaos theory sometimes. I could never quite figure out whether we were signed to Heavenly or not!”
Was it like one of those football contracts where there’s an understanding that if someone really big comes in with a bid, you’re free to walk?
NW: “You’d have to ask their side of it. I thought it was that…”
JDB: “I think there was a tacit understanding from Jeff that because Philip was involved, there was probably an ambition to get the band on a major label. But I was never quite clear on the technicalities of the deal. Which is very Heavenly. I remember going into their Clerkenwell office and it was exactly as you’d expect it: The Gaffer’s office, paper piled everywhere against the wall, curled browned antique posters on the wall . . ."
It took a lot of balls for Heavenly to put out a Manics record at a time when most people thought you were a joke band.
JDB: “I can’t overstate Philip’s drive to have ‘Motown Junk’ out on Heavenly. He made it very clear to us that we needed Heavenly much more than Heavenly needed us. And the bottom line is that because that record was on Heavenly, people who were in two minds about us were prepared to give us a second look, ‘They might have something’.”
Is it true that Heavenly actually lost a few grand on the Manics, but as soon as you got the Sony money you repaid every penny?
JDB: “Yeah. Absolutely.”
NW: “The thing is, ‘Motown Junk’ came out on 12 inch and CD, and it sold out every week. It stayed at 92 for four weeks, ha ha. And I remember thinking ‘It should be in the fucking charts!’ Already, I was getting slightly impatient. It looked classy, it felt important.”
The whole social and cultural circle around Heavenly was as important as the label itself…
NW: “Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the Beat Generation was the guy who introduced everyone to everyone, and Jeff was like that for us. We were introduced to people like Bobby Gillespie, (photographer) Paul Slattery, Dennis Morris, the photographer who did lots of pictures with the Sex Pistols, (NME journalist) Dele Fadele was always round, (NME journalist) Terry Staunton was always pissed out of his mind…”
JDB: “That whole period made you feel kinda special. All the cliches of being around creative people and all that… I remember meeting Jon Savage in Oxford St HMV, he’d started a magazine, and me and Richey bumped into him. And the Pennie Smiths of the world (Clash photographer), it did feel like there was something going on.”
So, from a position of being locked away in your bedrooms in Wales writing letters…
NW: “Suddenly, doors were opened. It was really exciting for six months. I remember feeling it was the closest I’d ever been to any kind of rock’n’roll dream. It genuinely was. I remember Jeff had a mad party in Aylesbury. Primal Scream played. I don’t know if it was his birthday. I went down on the train. And it really was young, good-looking, sort of drug-infested… it was like Britpop before it even happened.”
You played a number of Heavenly package gigs, didn’t you. Paris, Birmingham, Camden…
NW: “The maddest one was the Heavenly night at the Locomotive in Paris. That was one of the longest journeys I’ve ever done.“
JDB: “It was actually the first time I had ever been abroad. I remember we all - this was very un-Manics-like - we were stuck on a bus with a load of other people.”
NW: “There was a lot of… chemical substances around. And you know how we disapproved of all that.”
They were all totally going for it, except you?
NW: “Well, apart from Bob and Pete (Wiggs, Saint Etienne). Although Pete indulged in a cheeky bit of naughtiness... And I think Alex Nightingale (Primal Scream hanger-on and son of Radio 1’s Annie) was there. And the really, really gorgeous singer from Saint Etienne, the one before Sarah Cracknell. And Spence (Saint Etienne drummer), the gayest man in pop. There was East Village, us and… it wasn’t Flowered Up, thank god. And us, all together. It was a fucking splitter bus. I said then ‘We’ve got to fucking get off this label‘, ha ha.”
JDB: “And it was a long drive, so there were a lot of compilation tapes. And I remember everybody else’s compilations had been played twice, these knowledgeable Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan, Byrds fans turned round to the back of the bus, and saw us sat there looking grumpy, and said ‘Have you got a tape we can play?’. And Nick got his tape out, and I remember a couple of scrunched-up faces down the front. Cos it started off with The Clash, which is good… then it started descending into The Skids, and I remember the heads at the front of the bus going ‘The Skids, they were okay’… then it got to Transvision Vamp, and the whole bus went ‘This is not acceptable!’”
NW: “It was a brilliant gig, we trashed everything, and when we got back to the hotel, Flowered Up had started a fire in the lobby. They were insane. Liam the singer was really lovely, though. And guitarist and the keyboard player was sensible. Liam got too badly into drugs but his lyrics were really interesting. That classic Shaun Ryder thing of a really lovable intelligent working class person who could, but was one step away from fucking disaster.”
What were the British gigs like?
NW: “Birmingham was weird. It was a fucking disco, and we turned up and I can’t remember anyone being there. Anyone at all. It wasn’t exactly a roadshow. Saint Etienne went down better cos it was a club thing. The Camden Underworld (where Richey famously lost his virginity) was fucking debauched. We drove home that night. I think we were on first. We were on early. That’s where we found our sound man Rob Allen actually, first time he did our sound. Me being me, I thought we were fucking better than all these bands, or at least we would be soon. So there was always an edge. Cos I wanted to be on a fucking major label. I was prone to ‘Your band’s shit!’”
JDB: “I don’t wanna sound over-earnest here, but they were all open to us as people. We were punk-loving, Situationist-reading, white trash Valleys kids, and we were slightly tacky but also highbrow, and they were open to that.”
Let’s talk about the actual recordings. You went into The Power Plant with Robin Evans…
NW: “Fair play to Heavenly. They put us in a really good studio. They funded us, they looked after us, they believed in us.”
JDB: “It was the studio that ‘Maggie May’ was recorded in. The exact same room. Which kind of impressed us straight away. It’s one of those old studios you’d see in Rock Follies, where there was a galley with the control room behind a window, and the producer would look down… which was very 70s. Robin Evans, the producer, was brilliant, he was mega, and I’m still in touch with him. I just remember that session being amazing. We did it in two days. Jeff didn’t come down and say ‘You’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that’. My other encounters with record company people since have been that you send something to them, or they come down and listen, and they very specifically tell you what they like and what they don’t like. But Jeff just said ‘It’s really good. Brilliant. Let’s put it out.’ And I said ‘Do you want us to put the guitar solo up, or the little harmony up?’ and he just said ‘No no, it’s just really good. That’s a Heavenly record‘. And I thought that was really cool, that he just let us get on with it and we had complete freedom.”
NW: “Those four days were magical. You can hear every bit of frustration, all the ideas, our crude attempts at sampling…”
Were all six tracks recorded in one go?
JDB: “’You Love Us’ was recorded in a different session, and I felt like Jeff and Martin were a bit underwhelmed by ‘You Love Us‘. Already, we had these ambitions, and you could hear our ambitions straining. Whereas on ‘Motown Junk’ our ambition is just to explode. On ‘You Love Us’ we’re already failing to articulate what’s in our heads. I remember Jeff and Martin being less enthusiastic, and I was thinking ‘Is this going to work?’. I remember Jeff saying ‘Um, it kind of reminds me of Thin Lizzy’. And we were thinking ‘Yeah, so?! What’s wrong with that? Thin Lizzy with our lyrics! Cool!’ But at least they were honest and didn’t bullshit us, and there was no flannel.”
And this was when you first met Dave Eringa (producer and engineer), with whom you’ve worked closely throughout your career.
NW: “Dave Eringa was just the tape op, making the tea. Sometimes you just warm to someone. Idiotic, with such a love of metal. Guns N’Roses…”
JDB: “Dave was just 19, 18 years old. He had a Kiss T-shirt on, hair like Sebastian Bach… and he was just so enthusiastic.”
NW: “That was one thing we were finding tough. Our Public Enemy/Guns N’Roses thing wasn’t going down well with anyone. I was at a Heavenly party once wearing a Guns N’Roses patch, and someone just came up to me and called me a racist! Fuck’s sake. Ten years later they’re all wearing Motorhead t-shirts.”