“All those other indie bands are tawdry and grey…” With those few words spoken over two decades ago Manics bassist Nicky Wire helped to separate the world into Manic and Not Manic territory. Here was a place where the early 80s Arctic Circle-glam of Hanoi Rocks would forever mean far more than the furry, blurry delights of My Bloody Valentine. Raised in Blackwood, South Wales, a town as boring and inconsequential as ten thousand others dotted across the UK, Wire and his friends Sean Moore, James Dean Bradfield (almost Clint Eastwood Bradfield, until his mother put her foot down) and Richard Edwards were inspired by a Channel 4 punk retrospective enough to want to change their lives forever. The first gig they all saw together was Echo & The Bunnymen (they would even steal their camo-heavy, “Apocalypse Now!” look some years later), but their heads were turned by a group of LA hair-metal scuzz-buckets. Their original guitarist, Miles “Flicker” Woodward, ditched them in early 1988 thinking they’d wandered too far from their punk roots, leaving room for Wire’s best mate, former Political History student at the University of Wales and sometime Manics driver and roadie Edwards to join the band full-time. Not that he could play much, but who cares about stuff like that when there’s leopard-skin, mascara and this great fountain of words and imagery to enjoy? What was important was making a noise, making a difference.
“We never used to have anything to be positive about,” Richey said 21 years ago, in the spring of 1992. “Now bands like Guns N’ Roses, Black Crowes, Nirvana and us have helped to put rock back on the agenda,” added his friend Nicky. But how in the hell did that happen, exactly?
Nicky and Sean were the group’s original big rock fans. The long-legged bass player loved Canadian power-trio Rush while the drummer favoured AC/DC. James was more interested in running, while Richey was focused on schoolwork. However, in their early teens both Nicky and Richie, the latter already a fan of William Burroughs’ book Junkie, fell – hard – for the furiously romantic, yet ultimately doomed Finnish glam-rock heroes, Hanoi Rocks, an event you can almost certainly date to this TV appearance from October 1984.
In the summer of 1986 Channel 4 broadcast a Ten Years of Punk season and this more than any other event put wheels in motion for all of them. It was there they saw politicised, slogan-friendly power of The Clash (“a terrible noise, they were crap, it was perfect!”) and immediately bought the band’s debut and played it to death. A screening of Lech Kowalski’s birth of punk documentary D.O.A.: A Right of Passage was, “the biggest culture shock we’d ever had”, according to Moore, while, for Richey, the filth and the fury of The Sex Pistols made them, “the most untouchable band of all-time”. From there they worked forward towards Blondie and backwards towards The Undertones, The Velvet Underground, the Stones and The Who. Meanwhile, the jukebox in the band’s local, The Red Lion, was seemingly stuck on The Alarm’s none-more-anthemic ‘Spirit of ’76’ – a 4 Rhyl moment right there.
You could, if you wanted, argue that without Guns N’ Roses 1987 debut ‘Appetite For Destruction’, Manic Street Preachers simply wouldn’t exist – after all, James taught himself guitar while playing along to it in his parents’ front room. “That was the first time we realised rock wasn’t dead,” Nicky said later. Elsewhere in an otherwise fairly barren late eighties Richey was reading Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (where R.P. McMurphy first appears) and Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 book Under The Volcano while Nicky dived headfirst into Public Enemy’s 1988 masterpiece, ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’, a record that perfectly fit his template of enthusiasm, idealism and anger.
The very early Manics gigs – allegedly – found them sounding somewhere between Pop Will Eat Itself and Primal Scream, even as they soaked up the dynamism and propulsion of bands like Big Flame, McCarthy and Gang Of Four. In 1991, as they were recording their debut album, Nirvana arrived completely from left-field and put precisely the sort of non-sexist, non-douchebag, personal-is-political rock right back in the mainstream. Perfect timing for a group of iconoclasts like the Manics. “Rock’s rich tapestry is all we’ve ever had,” Nicky said in early 1992. Which sort of begs the question, what more do you need?