Manic Street Preachers were once provincial PC lads, but give them a sniff of Bangkok's infamous Pat-Pong district and morality flies out of the window. Barbara Ellen experiences the whole sordid mess of hookers, go-go girls, booze and cuddly toys, not to mention Richey's continued self-mutilation.
On our first evening in the boiling, stagnant sauna that is Bangkok in its hottest month, we join three of the Manics for a cruise down the River Chopraya. Having arrived a couple of days earlier to acclimatise, the band were hard at work this afternoon signing CDs, posters and T-shirts for a scrum of over 3,000 Manics hysterics in the blistering heat. Their popularity in Thailand – ‘Gold Against The Soul’ shifted 50,000 units, earning the Manics a platinum disc – is the reason they’re here to play two nights at the local 2,000-capacity MBK Hall. A watershed booking: it makes them the first Western band of their kind (ie, below the stadium rocker senility-level) to play in Bangkok.
Nicky Wire is absent tonight, having slickly extricated himself from the excursion with dark references to the Marchioness disaster. The boat is, indeed, a wood, straw and spit shocker straight out of Apocalypse Now. On the plus side, once it starts moving, cruising dreamily alongside a riverbank littered with restaurants, bar, pocket-sized temples, and the odd sleeping destitute – it’s the coolest we’ve felt all day. The day-time heat here is enough to send any self-respecting Westerner rabid. Nevertheless, travelling from the airport into the city-centre this morning had been a revelation of sorts. Stripped of the drama of darkness, Bangkok doesn’t look like it’s got the energy, the get-up-and-go, or even the bikinis to be the torrid meat-market of the world. The Thais we see look downtrodden, world-weary and distant, grumbling to themselves as they shuffle inches at a time through the dusty scenic abattoir of their environment. Just like home, really.
Even the poverty – the sun-beached, tumbledown shacks, the slum apartment building the gorily emaciated cats and dogs – subsides as you near the centre, giving way to gaudy approximations of Western affluence. The sudden rash of luridly painted bars, lavish hotels, bustling stores with half-built half-office underlining the Manic’ belief that Thailand in general, and Bangkok in particular, is a developing economy about to boom. As Richey says, Thailand wits “ports, cheap labour and resources to grow coffee crops”, could well end up being the Japan of the 21st century.
“Right, are we off to Pat-Pong, then?”
Having gingerly disembarked from HMS Cat-Basket, we are now jammed inside the silver Manics-mobile, racing towards Bangkok’s notorious jailbait A-Go-Go district.
As party posses go, this is a disparate, half-hearted shower. There’s myself, photographer Cummins, the ever-reluctant Sean (“I had some fun a couple of days ago, that’s my lot for a while”), Richey, eyelids half-mast, his shoulders obscured by a billowing cloud of Silk Cut fumes, James, silent save for the obsessive tap of his boots in time to the van stereo, and an entourage that includes a certain Rob Stringer, head of the Epic label. The living embodiment of capitalist evil, Stringer is to threaten me with libel lawyers more than once before the trip is over.
To get to the bars, one first has to navigate the bustling, brightly lit night market, pushing your way through hordes of stony-faced young men brandishing crudely drawn ‘menus’ of sexual positions, shows and prices. Girls hang out of club doorways, bullying, cajoling and, at times, openly intimidating people into entering. For no particular reason we end up in one called The King’s Castle; any remaining PC reservations lurking within the group psyche swiftly evaporating in the face of our genuine astonishment at the lameness of it all.
As Sean later remarks: “It just looked like a ’70s Miss World competition.” Dark and a-throb with dated dance music (‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ is practically the national anthem over here), this could be any provincial disco-dive the world over. Except, that is, for the 20 or so pretty young girls in cheap floral swimming costumes dancing vacantly on a central stage.
Scraping their punishingly high stilettos back and forth across the chipboard platform, the girls – some obviously under sweet-16 – shimmy grimly against the silver poles, their face zombie-masks, their movements riddled with a laboured suggestiveness that is more Seaside Special than Electric Blue.
The mainly middle-aged clientele, leering, jelly-bellied Western eyesores to a man, lap it up. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they’re sitting in what is probably an HIV-supermarket. Or that, as far as these working girls are concerned, all Westerners are just human fruit machines with the arrow stuck permanently on ‘jackpot’. The only dilemmas are these moral incontinents grapple with are ones of choice: Which girl? Which condom to avoid wearing tonight? Which duty-free perfume to buy for the wife on the plane home? It’s all very sordid, very pathetic and, strangely enough, sexless in the extreme.
Isn’t it, Manics?
James: “Well, I haven’t got on a hard-on.”
Sean: “I find it very sad that a girl in a swimming costume is all that’s required to turn some men on.”
Richey: “Very lame, it’s male fantasy island for an older generation. Just an opportunity for middle-aged businessmen to buy women and feel like studs again.”
Sean sits slumped, glumly indifferent, in the corner. James rests back in his seat, eyebrows arched, chuckling every now and again at the torrent of lad’s talk spewing from the Cummins/Stringer corner. Richey slides into the seat next to me, and with an awesome articulacy – considering he’s drinking as heavily as everyone else – starts talking about what he sees as the misguided liberal snobbery aimed at Thailand.
“And developing economies abuse their young. When Britain was a developing economy we sent our children up chimneys and down coal mines and out into the streets to steal. This is just abuse on a wider scale.
“When we ask the Thai people about these girls they say that most of them want to be here. Some get sold here by their families, especially if their parents are drug addicts but a lot are here basically because some kind of flat and sanitation at the centre of the city is better than what they had.”
The day before the NME arrived, the Manics had been taken to a TV station, passing through areas of extreme destitution described by Sean as “that typical ITN newsreel of total abject poverty”.
“It was horrendous,” rages Richey. “It’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like to live in a zinc hut in 125-degree heat with no sanitation and basically no future. Who can blame these people for getting out any way they can?”
We move along to other bars. More wooden gyrating; more frankfurter waving boneheads drooling down their shell-suits. By this time, no-one’s even pretending to be scandalised. Somewhere along the way (probably ten seconds after entering the first bar), we have become de-sensitised to our surroundings, journalists, musicians and even record company heads all merging into one blurred scrum of loutish Western degeneracy in search of alcohol.
As James points out: “We all used the classic get-out clause. Let’s not get moralistic, let’s not let’s not question any economic factors and anything. We’re just here for a drink.”
The following eve, the manics play the first of two sell-out nights at the MBK Hall. A crushingly hot auditorium located indie a supermarket complex, the venue has the look and feel of half a Wembley Arena crossed with an inner-city school gym. The crowd mill around expectantly, some modelling home-made Manics T-shirts (‘F— Me and Leave’), others punked up in bondage gear, knee-length kilts and clumpy suede creepers. They look both comical and dive.
So much for Asian reticence. From the first moment the Manics crunch over the set, the fans explode into a churning sea of flagellating chaos, matching their heroes howl for howl, po-go for po-go. This is, after all, a section of the world’s youth that has until now been fed a live aural diet of Santana/Bryan Adams/John Denver pop-slop. No wonder they’re ready to puke. No wonder they’re ready to gorge themselves stupid on a rock band they can actually taste.
Instead of bouncers, armed police stand in front of the stage shining torches into the crowd. Others patrol the periphery. It’s all a bit off-putting. The ones at the front are even using cattle-prods to keep the front few rows away from the weedy-looking barrier separating the crowd from the front of the stage. For the main part, though, the police keep a low profile, acting as unlikely nurse-maids to the causalities being dragged from the thrashing fan-ocean (one of whom beaks a leg).
As Nicky later remarks, “In all honesty, some British bouncers are probably a lot more violent”.
To avoid encore hell, the Manics fulfil contractual obligations to play a longer set with a short James Unplugged solo spot (tonight ‘Democracy Coma’, and an achingly cute rendition of ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’). Once that’s finished the rest of the band return to wail, soar and reel their way through ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ and ‘You Love Us’.
But, however gloriously Nicky preens, however frenziedly Sean drums and however high James jumps, it becomes increasingly hard to tear your eyes away from Richey. He stands stage left, knees bent, head thrown back, body twitching as he scrapes haphazardly at his guitar. He looks so beautiful, so tortured, so ridiculously rock’n’roll it takes a while before you notice the blood coursing down his naked torso. He’s slashed himself several times across his chest with a set of knives given to him by a Thai fan earlier that day. A lad insane, or what?
“The only people who are disturbed by Richey cutting himself are those who don’t know him,” observes Sean witheringly. “They don’t understand… We do know him, we do understand.”
What’s there to understand, Richey?
“When I cut myself I feel so much better. All the little things that might have been annoying me suddenly seem so trivial because I’m concentrating on the pain.”
He smiles serenely.
“I’m not a person who can scream and shout so this is my only outlet. It’s all done very logically.”
The only people who are disturbed by Richey cutting himself are those who don’t know him. They don’t understand… We do know him, we do understand.
The next day, the message comes through that the ceiling of the room beneath the hall is on the verge of collapse: could the Manics please play quieter tonight? (HA! No chance).
Watsana – a local radio jock cum fireball rock chick who was instrumental in the Manics playing here in the first place – also gives the band a gentle but firm ticking off for dissing Thai royalty onstage the previous night. Not only did the manics bloodly-mindedly play ‘Repeat’ (Opening line: “Repeat after me: fuck queen and country”) against Watsana’s advice, Nicky topped it off by ill-advisedly shouting immediately afterwards: “Long live the King! May he reign in hell!” Ill-advised in that the Thais take their royalty very seriously. You would too if the alternative involved spending the rest of your life in leg-irons. When I catch up with Nicky back in his room later he admits to being “completely paranoid, shit scared”.
“It’s like The Trial by Kafka,” he quakes, “the way they pick on this fella for no reason and he has to put up with it all, I feel like an arbitrary power can just arrest me and take me away and put me in prison for life and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“It makes you realise how free Britain is. For all it’s supposed oppression, its not really. It’s probably one of the most freest democracies in the world.” His voice crumbles slightly. “That’s the truth, unfortunately.”
You really are homesick, aren’t you?
“I suppose I am. I always get homesick but, yeah… more so this time.”
Nicky Wire may be decadence personified onstage, but off-duty he’s so quiet, so loath to leave his room, any forays he does make into society are greeted with the kind of awe usually associated with UFOs or the Second Coming.
There’s nothing sinister about it. Not only does Nicky not drink (which rules out going out with us at night), he simply cant be bothered with new cultural experiences, especially ones that have to be taken first hand in a climate that has Satan controlling the thermostat.
Perhaps I am xenophobic in the sense that I find it hard in other countries. Then again, ” he muses, “I find it equally hard to fit in Wales sometimes.
In the calm of his room, air-conditioning cranked up colder than Serbia, Nicky ponders on pat-pong (“I could never go there. I couldn’t get go and see a stripper. Probably because I’m really close to my mother”); Cobain’s death (“I find the idea of him taking his own life frighteningly powerful. I’ve always been a sucker for that”); and his past as a press darling (“The yobbish element comes from my mouth. It’s the weakest past of my make-up”).
1993 wasn’t a great year for the Manics. What with the death of their friend, mentor and PR Philip Hall, the release of a second album ‘Gold Against The Soul’ that Nicky has now reassessed as perhaps too stretched, too ambitious (“We were just looking for that big hit”) and their continuing frustration at not even getting gigs in America, never mind cracking it (“It’s ridiculous. We’re working on our third album and we’ve only played there five times”), 1994, for them, a chance to start over. Not from first punky scratch perhaps (as Nicky points out, “James and Sean are too advanced musically for that”), but at least recovered from the knocks of the recent past. With this in mind, there’s an album scheduled for autumn and a sonic-powered double A-sided single (‘PCP’/’Faster’) out now.
“I had more to do lyrically with ‘Faster’,” says Nicky. “It’s not a post-modern nightmare number. It’s more a voyeuristic insight into how our generation has become obliterated with sensations. We could deal with things but we prefer to blank them out so that virtually every atrocity doesn’t have that much impact anymore. I don’t even know if that’s a bad thing. I don’t know if we’re not on some kind of path to a superbeing where all emotions are lost and everyone finally gets on perfectly because of that.
“The world is such a violent place. What we experience from the everyday world, what we read and what we see makes you realise that there’s worse and worse things happening all the time. Perhaps,” he concludes thoughtfully. “It might reach such a low point of existence and something good may come of it.”
When myself and Cummins arrived down in the hotel lobby to accompany the band to the soundcheck, we can feel hot little eyes scrutinising our every move. The Manic’ Thai fans are a different breed altogether from the poor wretches in Pat-Pong. Many are affluent student-types who think nothing of waiting around the hotel lobby all day for a snatched glimpse of their quarry. Some even go so far as to shadow the band’s van’s every move in tuk-tuks (Bangkok’s tourist taxi buggies).
The ones who haunt the lobby soon get bored, and suddenly any Westerner who’s ever been seen having a conversation, however one-sided and occasional, with a band member is immediately added to their sprawling list of people to get photographed with. I lost count of the number of times I spotted some roadie, or some lighting man, or some Head of Epic grinning into a brace of flashing cameras only to be tossed contemptuously aside when the real McCoy turned up.
The band are carefully polite to these diehards (Sean: “I don’t mind so long as they don’t keep me talking too long”), quietly accepting that, for now at least, Bangkok’s alternative music fan base is made up of middle class camera-clickers. As Richey says, “If you’re poor in a developing country there’s more important things to spend your money on than music. If you’ve only got enough money to buy food, buying an album isn’t high on your list of priorities.”
That said, the Manics’ second night at the MBK Hall turns out to be about as life-affirming as you can get. They are atomic, from the opening bars of ‘Motown Junk’ to the final, crazed, guitar-trashing moments of ‘You Love Us’. Nicky ripping off the dress he’d sauntered back on in after James’ singularly cathartic solo spot (raindrop will keep falling on his “fucking head”, apparently) and posing on the monitors, a vision of anorexia, anaemia and salaciously brief underpants, until the audience can take no more.
When we get backstage, Richey is wrapped up in a big, white fluffy towel cuddling a huge Snoopy; one of the many presents given to the Manics they end up ditching before they get to the airport (they’re all “stuffed with heroin”, anyway, according to Nicky). The band make their way down to the van. At one of the lifts, there’s a mass of fans who discard their normally demure demeanour to indulge in an orgy of clothes-rending and high-octane shrieking that only abates when the lift-door closes. When the van moves off, the same fans appear, rushing out of a side door. The poor lambs have run own six flights of stairs just to watch the van’s tail-lights disappear around the corner. Well, at least it keeps them fit.
On arriving back at the hotel, we embark on another night of hell-raising, starting with a full pack of Manics (watching football on satellite TV in a Brit-bar), and then carelessly losing them one by one until finally only James remains. We’ve arrived, via a sordidly circuitous route, at a grisly late-night drinking toilet. I use the word toilet advisedly. You have to wade – ankle-deep in used condoms, beer bottles and macabrely-hued pools of urine – through genuine toilet to get you to the bar. That should give you some idea of the kind of sty it is.
Stringer, recoiling in terror from moustachioed Dutchman who appears to have taken a fancy for him, says in awestruck tones, “Christ! It’s just the bar-room scene in Star Wars,” and he’s right. May the force be with us.
James Put my hat on his head and lolls back in his chair necking beer, curiously at home with the situation. In fact, throughout the entire trip he’s been looking curiously at home with any situation that involves alcohol, lads-talk and 80 Marlboros. Whereas previously it was Rickey and Nicky who were the decadent Glamour Twins of the Manics – Sean and James exuding a more serious, high-minded charisma – now James is the first to admit that the balance within the band has changed.
“Nicky and Sean are still true to the way we were, true to the spirit of the Manics, whereas Richey and I are tending to lose the plot a bit. In lots of ways, James is the most prickly, hard-to-know Manic. Mulishly stubborn on all manners of ridiculous subjects (Londoners are the Devil’s children apparently. They don’t “even watch TV properly”), he is a bristling jumble of barbed silences, self-igniting fuses and lippy put-downs.
James is a guy’s guys, a Marlboro man, a pumper of weights and the only person I know who’s ever used a hotel pool for swimming instead of lounging beside with a beef. A devout anti-bullshitter, his inveterate rudeness actually masks a certain shy charm. He even opens doors for women, which I, for one, dart through swiftly, just in case he comes over all Marlon Brando and decides to push me over and beat me up. He’s got that type of vibe about him.
What does he think about Bangkok?
James: “Enjoying it. I’ve never been on an 18-30s holiday before… I just feel like a complete lad.”
How is this manifesting itself?
“Drink, and slight irrelevance to women, I suppose. I don’t feel any need to be accepted by any women whatsoever which is the way I’ve always felt, so it’s reassuring to be me for once.” (Thank you, Monsieur Misogyny).
Have you learnt anything?
“Only that there’s no point in being a willing passenger and then trying to draw the line. It’s such a classic middle-class thing to have a good time and then look in the mirror and you don’t recognise yourself. Well, I’m sorry but I didn’t look in the mirror and there wasn’t a time I didn’t recognise myself, I just got pissed.”
Stringer is becoming hysterical. The moustachioed Dutchman wants him to take some heroin through customs in his bum. It’s time to leave. James hurls my hat back – now stretched into a strange oblong shape (cheers) – and we make our way home.
Our second to last day in Thailand is spent mooching amidst the glittering golden magnificence that is Bangkok’s grand Palace. I’d considered myself quite decorously dressed in a knee length Natalie Merchant floral number, but the guards don’t agree. I am pronounced a harlot and made to go into a small stinking room and don a skirt so long and voluminous it almost has a train.
For all its opulent curves and gem-encrusted passages, the Grand Palace doesn’t particularly impress the Manics. Sean, the master of the stark put-down, later likens it to a “gaudy Essex nightclub”.
That night, the Manics party posse once more takes on the go-go bars of Pat-Pong. This is our last chance to feel guilt, pity (anything) for the poor young girls clomping miserably about the stage. We blow it badly.
Not only do two of the males in our party accept a young girl’s offer to let them squeeze her breasts for the equivalent of 40p (complaining loudly afterwards: “They haven’t got much, have they?”). James bets Gillian, the press officer, 40 quid that she won’t get up on stage and dance with the swimming costume brigade. She accepts the challenge, but then refuses to collect her winnings. In a fit of decadent lordly pique. James rips up the money, admitting later: “I was a complete lad the whole time we were in Bangkok. I took everything at face value like a complete brainless idiot. It wasn’t even a matter of make sure you have safe sex because I didn’t even have any sex in Thailand…”
No, of course he didn’t have any sex. No-one did. Except Richey.
Before NME arrived in Bangkok, Richey travelled away from the cosy built-up region of the hotel into a side of Bangkok even seedier than Pat-Pong, whereupon he bough himself a hand-job from a prostitute in a brothel.
Before and after this little fact tumbled out, Richey and I were able to enjoy many spirited inebriated discussions on all manner of topics. There’s Richey’s horror of PC-ness (which led to the writing of the apocalyptic ‘PCP’), his intolerance of all forms of censorship (…”shutting down the BNP could lead to so much. If you give any government the power to silence a political party, however dodgy, they will end up abusing that power”), his child-like side (“I agree that I do have a very child-like rage and a very child-like loneliness”), his non-child-like side (he’s the only Manic who drives and he tends to organise everyone when manager Martin isn’t around), and of course, sex, because like Richey says: “Coming over here, if nobody talked about sex and Pat-Pong it would be like ignoring it, pretending it didn’t exist.”
We’re at the dank and stinking airport waiting for the plane to arrive and carry us home. Nicky has a wet flannel draped inelegantly over his head: James and Sean are stretched out on the floor; Richey and I sit a little away and discuss… Richey.
Richey has such a fear of relationships (“I’ve seen so many people get left of hurt. It looks terrifying”) he even gets ratty with groupies who hang around waiting for a kiss after sex (“There’s no passion involved for me so it would be immoral to pretend there was”).
With attitudes like these, and made no mistake, Richey is crushingly, dangerously honest about them, it shouldn’t really surprise any of us that he ended-up in the arms of a prostitute. It may even be the best place for him.
Did you enjoy it?
“It was alright”
Was your hooker really young?
What would you have done if you’d been presented wit ha 12-year-old?
“What do you think I’d have done?”
You tell me.
“I would never have never remotely considered it.”
Richey sighs, exasperated.
“It’s all done on such a business level the last thing they’re going to do is stick a 12-year-old-girl on you as soon as you walk through the door. A lot of people might get turned on by it but a lot would find it too heavy. They wouldn’t want to stay. I know I wouldn’t have.”
So, what was the point you wanted to make about your sexuality?
“I don’t know really. Perhaps, just that I don’t regard paying for sex as being that different from sleeping with a groupie. It’s all done on the same functional level.”
People are going to think you’re a sexist asshole.
“Yes,” he sighs, “that’s what they will think.”
Just another dumb Westener going in and exploiting these people.
“They probably might, I know that, too.”
We both stare straight ahead, too shocked to speak for a while. My head is reeling with images: the drink, the laughter, the bedlam, the shame. If Richey has sent a portion of his time in Bangkok in some sort of morality coma, he certainly wasn’t the only one.
Grabbing our bags, we run for the plane and home.