TEXT/PHOTOS BY MARK JENKINS
On Monday, April 20, a British rock trio that’s little known in the U.S. made its Washington, D.C. debut at the 9:30 Club. That’s so not unusual, except that this band was the Manic Street Preachers, who formed in 1986 and released their first single in 1988 — and still haven’t been properly introduced to the American audience.
Even stranger was that the first two-thirds of the 95-minute show was devoted to the entirety of The Holy Bible, an album that’s been hailed as a masterpiece in Britain but which caused barely a ripple in the U.S. The 1994 album recently got a deluxe 20th-anniversary reissue that includes the remastered album on heavyweight vinyl, a 40-page book, and four CDs (with the usual outtakes, alternate versions, and live tracks). Meanwhile, the band’s fine 2014 album, Futurology, is available to American consumers only as an import.
The band’s failure to connect with stateside listeners is partly a matter of happenstance. Twice, the Manics cancelled a major U.S. tour because of a significant loss: In 1995, guitarist-lyricist Richey Edwards disappeared. (He’s presumed a suicide, but his body still hasn’t been found). Then in 2001, singer-guitarist James Dean Bradfield’s mother died. I interviewed Bradfield before that planned jaunt, but didn’t write up our conversation because the tour never happened.
“Sometimes it felt like it was never going to happen,” Wire said from the stage at the 9:30 Club, addressing a crowd that could sing whole verses of Manics songs without prompting. “We’ve never played Washington before. I’m fucking glad we came!”
Although they didn’t make it to D.C., the Manics have done some U.S. dates. (The last were in 2009, around the time of an album with a characteristically cheery name, Journal for Plague Lovers.) They even went out as an opening act for Oasis in 1996, an experience Bradfield told me was great fun.
“It was nice to see another band falling apart in front of our eyes instead of have it happening to us for once,” he recalled in 2001. “I thought Oasis was brilliant. There was so much tension within their band at that time and onstage every night and it just made them so much more exciting. So I really enjoyed that tour in a funny way.”
The Manics began as scrappy neo-glam-punkers, widely hated in Britain for their debts to the Clash and their brazen boastfulness — and for being Welsh. (“There was a romanticism attached to being Irish and Scottish, but there was a bitterness attached to being Welsh which just didn’t seem to wash away,” said Bradfield in 2001 of the initial hostility to his band.) But their reputation has blossomed to the point where almost no one objected to the title of their 2011 singles collection: National Treasures. It charted in Britain, Ireland, Spain, and Japan, but wasn’t released in the U.S.
The Manics’ low profile in the U.S. doesn’t reflect just the relatively little time the group has spent on the road here. There’s also a conceptual problem or two. The band’s populist-rock sound combines the Clash and Guns N’ Roses, but is short on hooks. This may result from the way the band composes: Lyrics, whether by Edwards or bassist Nicky Wire, come first. The melodies composed by Bradfield and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Sean Moore are secondary — and often sound that way.
Also, there’s nothing populist about the lyrics, at least not to Americans who didn’t grow up in the British tradition of working-class leftism. While the tormented Edwards’s favorite subject was self-loathing, Wire’s preoccupations include the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, modernist poets and painters, and American violence and hypocrisy. Among the wordy Holy Bible tunes for which Wire wrote lyrics is “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart.”
In that 2001 interview, Bradfield attributed the band’s politics to growing up in south Wales’s coal-mining region, an area in economic decline for decades after World War II, and convulsed by the Thatcher-sparked 1984 miner’s strike.
“We were politicized in a very natural way, and in that I mean that we were just taught to be aware of the politics in and around our daily lives,” he said. “We were taught to think about things that affected our lives. I suppose the actual urge to escape in our songs was not there. We didn’t want any kind of escapism in the songs. We actually wanted to have some kind of discourse in the songs.”
Love songs? One of the band’s catchiest, from 2007’s Send Away the Tigers, is called “Your Love Alone is Not Enough.” The title reportedly comes from a suicide note.
Cardigan Nina Persson dueted with Bradfield on “Your Love Alone is Not Enough,” and guest vocalists are common on later Manics albums: Cate LeBon, Georgia Ruth, German actress Nina Hoss, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, and others sing on Futurology. Its predecessor, the acoustic-guitar-based Rewind the Film, featured the voices of LeBon, Lucy Rose, and ex-Pulp member Richard Hawley. The group has always used samples, beginning with its 1992 debut, Generation Terrorists. It gradually added keyboards, synths, horns, strings, and more, forging a modern-rock sound that might even be termed accessible.
At the 9:30 Club, though, The Holy Bible‘s 13 songs were as stark and guitar-oriented as ever. The trio didn’t bring along a second guitarist (as it sometimes has) to expand its sound. Perhaps that’s because Bradfield played all the guitars on the album, the last record made while the band was officially a quartet. Edwards attended recording sessions, but reportedly didn’t participate much.
“It’s well documented that Richey was not a musical person really,” Bradfield told me in 2001. “He didn’t really care for playing guitar. He couldn’t really play guitar.”
“I took a good solo and he took a good picture. And he wrote brilliant lyrics. He was like the mouthpiece of the band, the lyricist, and he looked absolutely fucking cool.”
At the 9:30 Club, the Manics went into The Holy Bible‘s opener, “Yes,” without a word. They skipped some of the album’s sampled intros, and at one point Bradfield briefly forgot what song came next. Otherwise, they played the album with the all urgency and earnestness of the recorded version. Wire, who towers over the other band members, bounced exuberantly around the stage, but Bradfield didn’t loosen up until the band got to the seven-song set that followed the Bible reading.
As with most Manics albums, only a few songs stood out, notably “Revol,” “Faster,” and “P.C.P.” The action was more in Bradfield’s guitar playing, which switched often between post-punk rhythm and arena-rock lead, than in the melodies delivered by his high tenor (and only occasionally supported by Wire’s voice on shout-along choruses). The slower numbers, as is characteristic of the group, were anthemic in way that was more often stiff than stirring.
The post-Bible set featured only one song from relatively sprightly Futurology, “Walk Me to the Bridge.” Most of the others came from the ’90s — and from albums that were actually released in the U.S., even if few people noticed. They included “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “You Love Us,” from Generation Terrorists, and three songs from 1996’s Everything Must Go and This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, the two albums that represent the peak of the Manics’ British popularity: “A Design for Life,” “You Stole the Sun From My Heart,” and “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.” (The Holy Bible was not a commercial success on release, but became a steady-selling cult hit.)
At the 9:30 show, one audience member hoisted a Welsh flag, and another threw a green-red-and-white hat to Wire. No one was checking passports, but it’s quite possible that the crowd was heavy on U.K. expats. It’s unlikely that this short tour — six dates in the U.S. and one in Canada — presages an American breakthrough for the Manics or a stateside discovery of The Holy Bible.
In fact, if this article piques anyone’s curiosity, I’d suggest checking out Futurology instead. It’s always impressive when a 29-year-old band’s latest album is one of its best. Interestingly, among the many guest stars is Super Furry Animals keyboardist Cian Ciaran, and the made-partially-in-Berlin disc’s eclectic internationalism’s suggest SFA’s later work.
When the Manics first strutted their way into the pages of the British music press, one of the attention-getting brags was that they would make one spectacular album and then disappear. Instead, they became craftsmen who have refined and expanded their music and outlasted most of their peers — all without cracking the world’s largest pop market.
He had planned for band to be “the fiery phoenix definitely,” Bradfield said in 2001. “I wanted to release a record as good as Never Mind the Bollocks, and for it to be perfect, a crystal moment in time, never to be topped. But fortunately we weren’t good enough to do that.”