Manic Street Preachers Interview: A Heavenly Body Of Work - Part Two
, September 16th, 2008 09:18
In part two of an in depth interview Manic Street Preachers biographer Simon Price talks to Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield about their first taste of success on Heavenly.
Yesterday Manic Street Preachers discussed how they came to be on Heavenly along with Flowered Up and Saint Etienne. Today they take us through their back catalogue for the label, one song at a time.
OK, let’s do a track-by-track
Nicky Wire: “'Motown Junk' was just the best. You can hear our environment on it, our frustration…”
Presumably you don’t literally consider Motown to be junk?
James Dean Bradfield: “No, I don’t. I was very aware of the benchmark of Motown being the acceptable face of soul music to a white population who bought it up by the junkload. And there was the rubicon moment of What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, and the perception by critics that this was the black population voicing its concerns, and the irony of What’s Going On not actually selling that well. The irony that this was nowhere near the bitterest pill, this sweet soul music.”
NW “It’s the classic idea of pop music as vacuous. We loved Motown, the basslines… (he beats out the rhythm to ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’) …but we felt pop had become redundant and didn’t mean anything.”
This wasn’t long after the Rockist vs. Soulboy wars at the NME, so it was a fresh wound.
JDB: “Yeah it was. But the greatest bands have always been able to straddle a pop sensibility with a sense of social action in their music. So many bands have managed and learned to bridge that gap. The Clash certainly did, Public Enemy certainly did. It was pop, but there was something seriously boiling inside of it. And if I listen to Motown music… I remember taking slight umbrage at ‘Motown Junk’ as a title, cos I fucking love ‘The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game’, and songs like ‘Baby Love’, but when I saw Richey and Nick’s lyric I totally understood what they were getting at.”
Was there a particular Motown song you were thinking of with “Stops your brain thinking for 168 seconds”?
NW: “Good question. I can’t remember. What’s that, 2 minutes 48?”
JDB: “This might be myth, but is it ‘Baby Love’ or ‘Where Did Your Love Go’? (It’s neither, but ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ is one second out).”
NW: “I think Richey thought that might have been the perfect length for a pop single. It was my title. We’d written the song. It had been knocking around for a bit, before Richey was in the band, but he transformed the lyrics into something better.”
Was this an era when the songwriting was closely collaborative?
NW: “It was really collaborative. James and Sean did the music in their front room, with ‘Tennessee (I Get Low)’. Those were the two they did together. This was the period just before Generation Terrorists… We didn’t go into full collaboration until just after this. Quite a lot of the lyrics I’d already written before Richey joined, but when Richey came along, and we started writing together, I was always happy for him to add. Because there was always a depth and a desperation I was never gonna have.”
Do you remember who came up with the notorious line “I laughed when Lennon got shot”?
JDB: “(mock-wearily) No!”
NW: “Him! (meaning Richey)”
JDB: “I always skip it when we sing it live.”
It was such a ‘you’ thing to do. Burning your bridges with everyone before you’ve even…
NW: “‘Burning your bridges before you’ve even built them!’ That’s fucking brilliant. That’s a chapter in itself.
JDB: “I remember when I got that lyric, it felt like that Bill Hicks notion: why is it that the good people always get assassinated? Bill Hicks always had a list of people who survived assassination attempts, and ‘John Lennon? Dead.’ I always thought it was in that spirit, but I might be wrong.”
NW: “I remember feeling that ‘Motown Junk’ was a realisation of everything we thought we could do. I don’t think we’ve ever done a gig where we haven’t played it. Even supporting the Foo Fighters the other day, we put ‘Motown Junk’ in there and played it so fucking fast. It’s a real sense of purpose and pride.”
Of course, the line “All you slut heroes offer is a fear of the future” was deeply ironic, coming from a band who were playing old-style punk rock.
JDB: “Yeah. But you get double-negative echoes of it down the line: 'The future teaches us to be alone, the present to be afraid and cold' (‘If You Tolerate This’)“
NW: “I mean, that’s the genius of Richey. Somehow moulding everything we were about into a vision of the future, when we were obviously… different to that! The start, with the Public Enemy sample going "Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!", and the end, the sample of ‘Charles’ by The Skids, little things like that we thought were really important touches.”
Every time I listen to it, I still sense that desperation and urgency of a band who realise they might not get a chance to make another record, as though the plug might get pulled at any minute.
JDB: “I have to admit I never had the feeling that it would all be over soon. I always thought ‘This is going somewhere’. I always had absolute confidence in us as a band, that we were going to go where we needed to go to. Not in terms of selling 18 million records, but I always knew we were going to be a great band. I never felt ‘This is my last chance’.”
And yet, you can’t imagine “Motown Junk” coming out on Sony…
NW: “…and ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ couldn’t have been made on Heavenly. Oh yeah, Generation Terrorists feels like a different beast. If there’s one regret I have about the band - apart from me saying huge amounts of rubbish! - is, if only we could have done a mini-album on Heavenly. Cos you don’t get that desperation on Generation Terrorists. It’s a lot more cultured. You said it sounded like fucking Dexys Midnight Runners!”
I said it felt like Dexys Midnight Runners. And I know what I meant.
JDB: “That is weird, though. Sometimes I try to imagine a slightly different reality: What if there had still been a bit of Heavenly influence on us when we recorded Generation Terrorists? It really is between the devil and the deep blue sea when you think of things like that. If Heavenly had still exerted an influence on our first album it would probably have been a great rock’n’roll stroke Situationist stroke punk album. If we still had a devil-may-care, fuck-it attitude, the first album would probably have stood the test of time a bit more. But we wouldn’t have had ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. It’s hard to choose between alternate realities sometimes.
NW: “'Sorrow 16' was an older song I’d written most of.”
I remember it was always really exciting live.
NW: “Yeah… (starts humming the riff) We had a little practice of it the other day, and it’s still great.”
The line “Cut your hair in front of businessmen” is comical, but brilliant at the same time. It’s got the Sixties spirit of a flower in the barrel of a gun…
NW: “The Athena poster! And, when you get into songs like that and NatWest Barclays Midlands Lloyds there is a lot of naivete involved. We were 18, 19... and we were aware of that: if there’s a cartoon element to us, it’s not a bad thing. We can’t compete with The Stone Roses or whatever. We don’t want to compete with that. We’re a different entity.”
JDB: “We had this strange thing going on in the Valleys where heavy industry was disappearing, and what was coming out of the ground in a Christine-esque kind of way was these business parks in Wales. And we had this horrible dislike of this new reality, where people were on Restart schemes, and people who were bred for heavy industry and had a sort of fucked-up dignity were turning up in white shirts and ties to Cross Keys college and being told how to use a computer for the first time. It was just fucking mental. It was a very real thing for us. It might seem naïve when people read that lyric, but we were seeing literally the pick-axe being replaced by the clipped pen in the shirt pocket. It was a massive culture shock to us all.
The episode of Britain From Above about South Wales showed starkly how the former coal valleys have been ripped to pieces and become almost ghost towns…
JDB: “The population slump in the Rhondda is absolutely amazing. Certain towns were like newly-founded Klondike-style American gold rush towns. There was a massive population surge at first. In Sir Ivor’s Road (Pontllanfraith) where I lived, and where my dad lived, and where I was brought up, right along the street there was a massive slagheap which was left over from some open-cast mining. A mountain, basically, but made out of slag and coal. And we used to play on it when we were young. And I went away with the band, and when I came back, it had all been stripped away. This massive playground of post-apocalyptic waste. I turned my back and suddenly it was just an industrial park! We had the romance of a fucked-up industry, but it was replaced by this new strychnine reality which was just anathema.”
Nick, for the record, was it you singing that backing vocal, “I feel like falling… in hate!”?
NW: “Yeah it was. It is me. And on ‘We Her Majesty’s Prisoners’, I go ‘bow down!’.”
'WE HER MAJESTY’S PRISONERS'
NW: “It was originally called ‘Ceremonial Rape Machine’, but Heavenly wouldn’t have it.”
JDB: “Ha ha, yeah, there was umbrage taken at the word ‘rape’…”
Your first taste of compromise?
NW: “I can’t remember us being that bothered. It was very much Richey’s lyric… "We Her Majesty’s Prisoners" was virtually all Richey.”
The line about “butterflies trapped in frost” would become a familiar Manics theme. You presented yourselves as these beautiful young creatures who were brutalised by the adult world and by capitalism, etc…
NW: “And I do think most of those themes can be attributed to Richey, because, much more than the rest of us, he felt like that. We couldn’t wait to sign to Sony and get brutalised by capitalism!”
JDB: “We were young and there were a couple of books and films we were obsessed with, which had that idea of the promise of youth that is brutalised and trapped and kept in stasis forever. Rumblefish, Kes, even old black & white stuff like Billy Liar. Richey was obsessed with stuff like that. It was a popular thematic haunting, which was reprised throughout early Manics stuff.”
NW: “It’s like that poem 'Lament For Moths' by Tennessee Williams, about how moths are drawn to the light that ultimately kills them, there’s that delicacy in moths… It had a big impact on us all, but particularly Richey. Sometimes you don’t realise how much it means to him.”
It also has echoes of the Sex Pistols line about being flowers in the dustbin of history.
NW: “The thing is, you’ve been around us from the start. You know there was also always a massive element of bravado. Richey wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet…”
Speaking of bravado…
'YOU LOVE US'
JDB: “The template for it, of course, was a double-reverse-negative of ‘We Love You’ by the Stones. And yeah, I had a wry chuckle when I first got the lyrics from Nick and Richey: ‘Yeah, they’re not kidding, these people, they really are going down that road, they‘re not gonna stop.’”
NW: “That’s just the absolute genius of Richey. We were searching around for a title. ‘We Love You’ by The Rolling Stones was the inspiration, and we’d been writing and writing, on and on and on… and he just came up with that title.”
You were looking for one song with the power of “fuck you”?
NW: “We had millions of titles. We love titles. We love writing ‘em. But it had been dragging on and dragging on… then he came up with it. Brilliant moment. And we were writing together by this point, but the lyric is, I’d say, a good 70% Richey.”
This is probably a good time to talk about the hip hop influence on what you do, what with the lyrical steal from “911 Is A Joke”, the ‘rap’ at the end, and the uncleared samples…
NW: “Yeah, the end is literally the intro of ‘Lust For Life’, sampled. And Penderecki at the start. We didn’t get clearance. We didn’t get fucking clearance for loads of stuff. Back then we could get away with it. 'Stay Beautiful' was originally called ‘Generation Terrorists’ and it was supposed to start with the intro from ‘Rock & Roll’ by Led Zeppelin (sings the drumbeat) but by then we couldn’t get away with it.”
JDB: “But Martin and Jeff just didn’t give a fuck.”
A lot of bands around that time were literally fusing rock and hip hop, whereas with you it was more about the spirit.
NW: “I take your point about bands mixing hip hop and rock, but as a rule those bands were fucking terrible. It put us off. We knew our limitations. When you’ve grown up so much on The Clash and the Pistols… There’s nothing worse than some shit band from Camden thinking they can play reggae. The Holloways? For fuck’s sake. I was watching Get Cape Wear Cape Fly last night, that measly little cunt doing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, reggae style… There needs to be an amnesty where musicians give their instruments in to the police! A fucking cull. A seal cull.”
JDB: “We always said we wanted to combine politics with the deathly, fatal beauty and glamour of the Pistols etc. And I remember we once did a rehearsal tape of us trying to do ‘Fight The Power’ by Public Enemy, and Philip saying ‘Er, I don’t quite get that,’ ha ha. What we were obsessed by, with Public Enemy, more than anything was the division of labour. Regardless of Professor Griff’s ultimate idiosyncrasies and foibles - being an anti-semite, etc - just the idea of having a Minister Of Information we loved. And as well as obviously Chuck D himself, you had Flavor Flav as almost this theatrical horror-clown. We loved the idea of all these different jobs in the band. And you never saw the face of the people who really did the music! Terminator X wasn’t that involved in the music. And if you look at the Manics, the two people who were making the actual music - myself and Sean - we weren’t prominent in Manics press. The first NME cover was just Nick and Richey. That had a big influence on us: the idea that this is about more than just the music. Everything, from the ground up, informs the music. It’s not the other way round.”
NW: “I’d say the Generation Terrorists version of ‘You Love Us’ probably has the edge. It’s a bit pub-rock, the Heavenly one. Still, I remember Simon Dudfield - he of Fabulous - reviewing ‘You Love Us’ in the NME and his line was ‘Every band in Britain secretly wants to be in the Manic Street Preachers’. Which was a brilliant line.”
'SPECTATORS OF SUICIDE' NW: “‘Spectators Of Suicide was a song we’d already done, called ‘Colt 45 Rusty James’, a reference to Rumblefish. And that was another case of Richey coming along, thinking of a better title and adding some lyrics.”
There’s a sample from a Black Panther speech at the start, and the title alludes to French Situationism. Were you consciously placing yourselves in that tradition?
JDB: “I don’t know if we were placing ourselves in their tradition, but we were stealing their power, basically. That’s always been a slightly misunderstood thing with the Manics. We’ve never used these quotes or taken these samples and said ‘Yes, we are these people, we have a right to stand next to them’. We’ve always used them to inform what we’re doing, or to illustrate something that we found ourselves coming up short in. If it’s the last ten seconds of the race, and we decided we weren’t sufficiently articulate or intelligent to ram the point across, we’ve used somebody else. Whether it be a quote from a book, or a sample from a speech. I don’t think you can overstate how - oh god, I can’t believe I’m going to use the word ‘dispossessed’ - how dispossessed we felt back then. We felt as if we’d been under the centralised contract of a Thatcher government from afar, we’d been destroyed by that government, but we felt dispossessed from a Welsh identity at that point as well, so we were in no man’s land. As four teenagers, we felt ‘Where’s the pride in being Welsh any more?’ I don’t want to sound as though I’m trivialising, but sport was in a really bad state in Wales at that time, in rugby or any sport, music was in a really bad state, we didn’t have any discernible literary giants coming out, and the feeling of community that had been bred in our country was absolutely gone. So we felt as if we were trapped between the Thatcher government destroying us from afar, and this vacuum at home. So we were picking parts of other people’s culture, and saying ‘This is who we want to be’. We were lost, as people…”
Musically, it’s the first Manics song which is as much about elegance as energy.
NW: “Absolutely. ‘Spectators’ is an amazingly mature piece of music. Musically it didn’t change that much from when it was called ‘Colt 45 Rusty James‘. It’s the first track I genuinely think all the people at Heavenly really loved. Because it’s much more… classic. When they heard that, you could tell they were thinking…”
It’s a proper band?
NW: “Yeah, a proper band. The version on Generation Terrorists is a fucking abomination. It sounds like the fucking ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight’! (starts singing ‘ee-oo-ee-oo…‘).”
JDB: “The album version is the worst thing we’ve ever recorded, nearly. Just awful. There’s some good stuff on the album, but that’s an utter abortion. I still love the Heavenly version except my vocal performance. I hadn’t learned how to sing like that. It’s one of my worst vocals. It’s fragile. I don’t like that.”
NW: “I remember meeting Andy MacDonald from Go! Discs - cos we were choosing between Go! Discs and Columbia for a while - and he really loved ‘Spectators Of Suicide’ and they offered us a deal. But there was a bit more money with Columbia. Brutalised!”
JDB: “We had at least two demos of it floating around for a long time. Jeff and Martin absolutely loved that track. I think they’d have preferred it to be the A-side. They didn’t say so out loud, but they did laud some praise upon that track. They were surprised that we came out with it, I think. That song was finding romance in certain defeat, and trying to create something in the face of that. We were saying ‘We are defeated, we are absolutely and utterly voiceless, and we’re going to find some sort of fucked-up beauty in that, and we’re going to go forward from it.’”
'STARLOVER' NW: “I think it’s the weaker song of the six. I can’t remember what it’s about.”
Groupies? NW: "I don’t think it is about groupies. I don’t think we’d had much groupie action by then! It would have had to be a bit of wishful thinking…”
There’s another Public Enemy sample, from “She Watch Channel Zero”, a song widely held to be misogynist. And presumably there’s a reference to the Rolling Stones’ 'Starfucker'…
NW: “What’s the line, ‘Hate all records’… (sings it to himself). I really don’t know. I remember a gig at the Falcon in Camden where I dedicated it ‘This is for Ian Brown and Shaun Ryder’, but I can’t remember why I said that, and if it was good or bad. We did admire those two. But lyrically… I dunno, it was more of a Richey one.”
JDB: “I always thought it was about us, as people, wanting and struggling to be the visions of the things we’d admired, and live up to the roll-call of our heroes. Out of all the tracks, it’s the one that doesn’t have much going for it.”
“STRIP IT DOWN” (live at Bath Moles)
NW: “We’re not doing that at the gig…”
Sure, but for the sake of completism… Again, it has an echo of the Pistols: “Decaying flowers in the playground of the rich…”
JDB: “It’s a very ‘young’ lyric, that one.”
But the line “smother my life in interest accounts” connects to, in another song, the line “hospital closures kill more than car bombs ever will”, and in another song again, “death sanitised by credit”. That realisation that mundane political decisions can have more catastrophic effects than any violent act…
NW: “Yeah, interest rates, house repossessions, blah di blah. Richey was always really good at dissecting that. I was always more of the fucking Marx-Engels expert, but he could write it slightly better than me. The tawdry mundane shit. The ‘Hospital closures’ line was fucking brilliant.”
JDB: “Yeah, the pot-boiling issues of interest rates etc. Also, when they were writing these lyrics, Nick and Richey were just coming out of university and they were getting trapped in what they call the ‘milk round’ where they’d be told to go to interviews in various industries, and Nick was trying to pay off this massive gambling debt he had, so they were finding themselves in the offices of bank managers the whole time… And I remember my parents having crippling debts, and I remember thinking ‘How have they got these debts, when they’ve never taken a day off work in their lives?’ And they still didn’t own their own house, and they still had to take obscene loans off local loan sharks. You know, what the fuck? They are the work ethic, my parents, and they’re not getting anything for their work. It turns people into 1984-esque automatons. It’s like that Clash lyric: ‘The weekend approaches like jail on wheels’. There was no enjoyment to be had on weekends, because my mum and dad always had to work on weekends, and we never had any money to fucking do anything. So there was always a good core of social realist truth in Nick and Richey’s lyrics, even if it was diffused in some sort of metaphor. It wasn’t empty rhetoric.”
Was the inclusion of that track intended to show the world that you could, you know, ‘kick it live’?
NW: “I dunno. We did a gig in Bath Moles… We sound pretty good, I think. It sounds raw. It’s the one song from ‘New Art Riot’ we kept in the set for quite a long time.”
JDB: “I think it was just that we didn’t have any other songs! Have I ever told you the thing about Richey’s guitar on that track?”
No, I don’t think so…
JDB: “I just remember when we mixed it in the studio, Robin Evans mixed it, he was getting all the channels up - cos it had been recorded properly, separate channels - and he tried to feed it out to another amp so he could re-record Richey’s performance and somehow make it sound better. Cos Richey had been absolutely hammered for that Bath Moles gig, and he wasn’t the greatest guitar player anyway, so his performance from that concert was particularly bad. And I remember trying to go into the live room when Robin was mixing it, and I remember trying to stop Richey, going ‘No, don’t go in there, don’t go in there!!!’ But Richey went in to listen, and he heard the shocking reality of his live guitar all on his own. Me and Nick went into the room, and we couldn’t see where Richey was. Then we saw he’d slid down the wall onto the floor, just laughing and laughing. He was literally just apoplectic with uncontrollable laughter at the sound of his own drunken live guitar, in a studio. I’ve never seen him laugh so much, it was amazing. It was like a postcard of writhing laughter! It was amazing.”
Lastly, let’s talk about the artwork on those two singles, by Paul Cannell. It seemed to match perfectly with the spirit of the band…
JDB: “He was someone Jeff knew. We started off with a piece of artwork by Dennis Morris, the Sex Pistols’ official photographer, but we didn’t really like it. So Jeff just said ‘I know this guy. He’s crazy, but he’s brilliant.’ He was someone in Jeff’s collection. They had this Beat Generation sense of having loads of people round who were really creative. But at the same time, you knew that half of those people were fucking… mental.”
NW: “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the original artwork for ‘Motown Junk’…”
No, tell me…
JDB: “It’s very chilling. A Paul Cannell collage of Yoko holding a gun towards John’s head. It was… yeah, a bit too much. Even for us, at that point, even though we felt indestructible. I think somebody in the band thought it was good, but he got vetoed by the rest of the band.”
NW: “I desperately wanted to use it, but Heavenly wouldn’t let us. It tied in with the line ‘I laughed when Lennon got shot’.”
So you went with the stopped watch from the ashes of Hiroshima instead.
JDB: “Ha ha ha! Yeah, ‘Which one shall we have? John Lennon getting shot by Yoko, or the Hiroshima watch?’”
NW: “Paul Cannell was really important early on. He made us a load of clothes for a photo session with Martyn Goodacre. He was a brilliant artist, not just a designer. He did the one for ‘Stay Beautiful’ as well, which was on Columbia but still has the Heavenly logo on there.”
JDB: “The artwork for ‘You Love Us’, out of the blocks, was perfect, exactly what we wanted. I can’t remember if Nick or Richey directed him in any sense, but I’m pretty sure there was a list given to him of names that were wanted on the collage.”
You mean the collage with Betty Blue, Marilyn Monroe etc? I’ve got an 8ft poster version of that on my wall, with the words ‘OVER DO$E’ across it…
NW: “For the Marquee gig? Fucking fantastic. We sold out the Marquee and… we’d already played there supporting the American glam rock band The Throbs, and we loved The Marquee. It seemed like our territory. And we sold it out, and it was the only time we’d ever played an encore in Britain. Only cos it was so good. We didn’t wanna come on, but by the time we came on we left it so late that everyone had fucked off home! Fucking horrible. And we’ve never ever done another one.”
JDB: “With everything we did, even the artwork, Heavenly didn’t think it was too adolescent. They were willing to go with that certain… naivete.”