Grand designs: from left to right, James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore.
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The Manic Street Preachers: “I’ll always hate the Tory party. But now I hate Labour, too”

The Manic Street Preachers talk to Dorian Lynskey about meeting Castro, losing faith in politics and why Europe is a “unified art movement”.

Some bands wear their influences on their sleeve; the Manic Street Preachers paper walls with them. When you climb the stairs to the living room of the trio’s Faster Studios in central Cardiff, you’re greeted by a vast photographic collage of their inspirations: Ian Curtis and Tony Hancock, Miles Davis and Malcolm Tucker, Fela Kuti and Norman Mailer, and so on, in a visual representation of magpie curiosity. The studio is named after their megalomaniacal 1994 single that declared, “I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer./I spat out Plath and Pinter.”

“This jumble of quotes is ingrained in my head,” says the bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire, offering me a pallid brew he not unfairly describes as the worst cup of tea in history. “I don’t even know what I’m nicking most of the time because there’s just a mass of shit in there.” He has a mind like a filing cabinet from which he compulsively plucks quotations (Nietzsche, Stockhausen, Rodchenko), not to flaunt his erudition but because, you suspect, he prefers their formulations to his own: “We’ve always been honest that the things we’re trying to pass on are better than what we can do as a band.” A current favourite, from the American photographer William Eggleston, is particularly apt: “I’m at war with the obvious.”

Wire, the singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, the drummer Sean Moore and the chief strategist, Richey Edwards, started out in 1988, ablaze with the belief that they could and should inhale as much of the world as possible and breathe it into pop songs, combining intellectual rigour with “rock’n’roll folly”. Like all great bands, they believed they were necessary.

When Edwards (“a poet who can’t play guitar”, in the words of the 1998 song “Prologue to History”) disappeared in 1995, they might have been finished. Instead, they became Britain’s second-biggest band after Oasis, with songs such as “A Design for Life”, a magnificently graceful hymn to working-class culture and socialist values. (Wire writes the lyrics, Bradfield and Moore the music, although the division of labour is more fluid these days.)

Their first number-one single, “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”, saluted those who fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish civil war; last year, to Wire’s delight, they performed it on The X Factor in New Zealand. Their second, “The Masses Against the Classes”, opened with the voice of Noam Chomsky and became Britain’s first new chart-topper of the 21st century. A week after they headlined Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on New Year’s Eve, Wire considered detonating the band then and there. “I remember thinking, how can it get any better than that? What a perfect way to end – to live out what we said at the start.”

Now, all aged 45, the Manics are enjoying an Indian summer of creativity with two albums in quick succession: last year’s Rewind the Film (acoustic, introspective, profoundly Welsh) and Futurology (dynamic, extrovert, Europhile), released this month. The band has rejuvenated itself by letting go of the desire for hit singles and arena shows. “It was extremely liberating but quite depressing,” says Wire, who speaks in long, sighing cadences punctuated with flashes of ire. “We can do whatever we want but, let’s face it, it’s not going to be as big as it was. We had to realise that or become something of an embarrassment.”

“Some people would say we were lucky to get as big as we ever did,” counters Bradfield, who talks to me separately in the studio, his feet resting on a mixing desk. “I’ve come to think that it’s amazing people ever gave us a chance to that degree.” He’s more sociable than Wire, less prone to melancholy and self-criticism. “Nick is 3D. He thinks about the past, present and future all the time. I don’t think like that. If I think about the past I get depressed. If I think about the future I get lost.”

The young Manic Street Preachers were unreasonably, delusionally ambitious. Bradfield remembers listening to Wire and Edwards during the band’s first interviews and thinking, “I haven’t met those people before. They’re nerveless.” They accepted no limits to what they could achieve – mass communication, a huge stage from which to rain down ideas and provocations. Their 1992 single “Motorcycle Emptiness” was a situationist rock anthem that declared, “Your joys are counterfeit.” They were genuinely surprised that it didn’t make them as big as Guns N’ Roses.

“Twenty-two years ago today we were doing it on Top of the Pops,” Wire says wistfully. “We had rose petals on the floor. We’ve been dumbed down to such a gigantic degree that anything other than the obvious seems really difficult but I don’t think it is.”

It has become a cliché to bemoan the dearth of politically engaged young bands and Bradfield skirts the subject for fear of sounding like a grumpy old man. He says he doesn’t know how it feels to be young and discontented in 2014, when Labour is the party that invaded Iraq and let the City run riot and: “Centrist politics have won, utterly.” The circumstances that created the Manics no longer exist. Nor, thinks Wire, does a certain kind of angry, razor-brained, working-class voice. “From John Lydon onwards, it was always there, pulsing through the culture, and it’s not at the moment. It probably won’t come back and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

The Manics grew up in Blackwood, the South Wales Valleys town that was the launchpad for the 1839 Chartist uprising. They were teenagers during the miners’ strike, which inspired Wire’s first lyric, “Aftermath”, and a recent one, “30-Year War”. “The marches were going straight past my door,” Bradfield remembers. “If you live in the provinces, you only see where you live through the naked eye – it’s never on TV – and suddenly you’re seeing it on the News at Ten but for all the wrong reasons. That makes an indelible scar.”

They were raised as “classic Labour”; the title of the 1998 album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours came from Nye Bevan. They turned down a role in the Olympics closing ceremony because they couldn’t bring themselves to perform in front of the royal family. Their estrangement from Labour has come as a shock. “I’ll always hate Ukip,” spits Bradfield. “I’ll always hate the Tory party. The only problem now is that I hate Labour, too. The sea’s washed over the sand. There’s not one thing you can hang your hat on any more.”

“I actually feel bad about myself because I am disenchanted with politics,” Wire says. “I hate the idea that there’s no one left to vote for. I don’t feel anyone represents me. They certainly don’t represent the people I care about. When the left abdicates its duty to the people it should be representing, that vacuum is always filled by the right. I think the Labour Party is so distanced from its core vote. It’s just become a giant think tank. You can’t get any sicker ironies than Tony Blair being a peace envoy and the banks being nationalised – too sick to bear.” He continues, “It’s not how I want to feel. I’m not Russell Brand. I don’t feel a part of any of it, really – unless I actually stood myself. If there was a presidential system in Wales, I’d probably stand.” The campaign would be quite something.

Notwithstanding appearances at a few benefit concerts, the Manics have never been activists. They are perhaps too stubborn and too inquiring to sign up to a cause. “That’s why I watch Fox News and Russia Today,” says Wire. “I don’t just want to be taking in the Guardian Online all my life. I take everything in. I feel you’re duty bound. You’ve got to be aware of the enemy otherwise it bites you on the arse.” The Manic Street Preachers’ suspicion of liberal shibboleths has sometimes led them down some contrarian paths. They have released songs advancing the logic of the death penalty (Edwards’s “Archives of Pain”), criticising the Dalai Lama (“Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children”) and extending sympathy to a reviled president (“The Love of Richard Nixon”). Of the last of these, Bradfield says with a wince, “I loved writing that lyric and then I heard it played on the radio and thought: oh, no. Curiosity is a nice thing but sometimes it should stay on the bookshelf.”

Another idea that perhaps should have stayed on the shelf was their concert in Havana in 2001, referenced on Futurology’s “The Next Jet to Leave Moscow”. They believed it was possible to maintain an ambivalent stance on Cuba but once they met Fidel Castro (“trapped in that Forrest Gump moment for ever”, says Bradfield), they were out of their depth. “It’s when I realised we’d overstepped the mark of politics and music,” Wire says. “The press conference was 100 hardcore journalists telling me I was wrong for being there. The idea was about the underdog, it was about romance, but that was all blown away.” For all their knowledge (Wire studied political history), the Manics operate best in the space between facts and ideologies, expressing better than any band the emotional dimension of political engagement: hope, elation, disillusionment, defeat. Bradfield says, “We don’t sit around going: right, what’s the new policy initiative today?”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of The Holy Bible, the Manics’ punishing masterwork about man’s inhumanity to man, and they’re considering playing the whole album in December to commemorate their last shows as a four-piece. It’s moving to hear them talk about Richey Edwards, whom they consider the band’s cleverest, bravest, most entertaining member. To them, he is never the popular cliché of doomed youth, tortured by depression, alcoholism and anorexia, but a glamorous intellectual superhero, dauntless in his pursuit of truth, even if some of his final lyrics were “pirouettes into the abyss”, too bleak for Bradfield to set to music.

“He was absolutely fearless,” says Wire. “I’m not. That’s why I lament him not being around today so much. I think everyone’s become obsessed with sincerity rather than the truth and there’s a massive difference. I think that’s true of politics as well. Sincerity is masking the truth really.”

Wire was always more grounded than Edwards. He is a proud neat freak who lives modestly in suburban Newport with his wife and children. Yet he also considers himself “bogged down in pettiness and hatred” and was once notorious for his venomous outbursts. Bradfield says the pleasure of working with Wire comes from “hearing him piss and moan one day and then be totally unrepentant and revolutionary the next”, and I can see what he means. “When I’m in the band I feel like a slightly different person,” says Wire, “and I think it’s good that I do because I wouldn’t want to bring all of that home every night.”

These days, he tries to avoid controversy, especially online. “Every time I think I should be interesting on Twitter I decide to be bland instead because I don’t want to have to deal with that,” he says ruefully. “It becomes so snide and pitiless. I know if I was still drinking and Richey was around it would be calamitous. Twitter probably wouldn’t have harmed us as celebrities but it would have killed us as a band.”

Wire says that the new album is less about Europe as a political entity than “a unified art movement”. He loves the serendipities that arise when you cram so much of the world into your art. After a recent show in Bologna he realised that a nearby landmark had featured on one of the band’s record sleeves 20 years ago. “It’s like a secret Manics history unfolding in front of you,” he says, smiling. “The stuff you can’t google.”

Not all the coincidences are uplifting. Futurology’s cinematic punk-funk centrepiece is called “Dreaming a City (Hughesovka)” – Hughesovka being the original name of a Ukrainian city founded by the 19th-century Welsh industrialist John Hughes. After the album was finished, Hughesovka was in the headlines under its current name: Donetsk.

“That upset me,” says Bradfield. What moved him about Colin Thomas’s biography of Hughes was the initial idealism. “That’s what I admire – that glowing ember in somebody’s head or heart and they just go ‘I should do this.’ And then what happens? He becomes a brutal industrialist. It’s the same old story. A dream that becomes success but then the wheels come off.” He read the book hoping for a happier ending, where the dream remained pure. “I so want that story to be there and I’m so disappointed when it never is.”

 

See more:

You are probably becoming more conservative. (10 July 2014)

 

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Why do we talk to ourselves? A new book investigates the voices in our heads

The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough is an ear-opening book – and an important corrective to myths about schizophrenia, the brain and even our self of sense.

You’re going to be late for that meeting; you haven’t even left the house. But where’s your wallet? It’s not in your pocket, it’s not in your bag – come on, come on, you’ve got to find it. Where on Earth could it be? If you’re like me, that “come on, come on” will be sounding vividly in your head as you stomp from room to room. You’re issuing a silent instruction to yourself. But how does this inner voice really work? What purpose does it serve? Does everyone hear something similar? These are some of the questions that Charles Fernyhough sets out to investigate in The Voices Within.

Fernyhough is an interesting fellow. A professor at Durham University, he began his career in developmental psychology, with a focus on social, emotional and cognitive development. But in recent years he has shifted his attention to the study of psychosis – particularly the phenomenon of voice-hearing, in which the inner voice is not the speaker’s own, helpfully assisting in the search for a lost wallet, but seemingly external, often frightening, dismissive or commanding.

People who experience this are often simply labelled “schizophrenic” – a “highly misunderstood term”, Fernyhough writes. The word, coined in 1908 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, invokes alarm: “The sound of its sibilant label triggers fear and prejudice.” One of the aims of this book is to question that prejudice and to consider other ways of thinking about these “external” voices, setting them on a continuum with the dialogue we all conduct with ourselves.

But it is more than merely science that informs the author’s attention to how the sound of a word can influence its effect on its hearers. Fernyhough is also a novelist and not a little of this book is concerned
with another expression of the inner voice – the creation and consumption of fiction. When Fernyhough asked 1,500 people whether they heard the voices of fictional characters in their heads, 80 per cent said that they did; one in seven “said that those voices were as vivid as hearing an actual person speaking”. Many novelists report the experience of building their characters as being observational as much as it is creative. Fernyhough quotes David Mitchell describing his occupation as a kind of “controlled personality disorder . . . To make it work, you have to concentrate on the voices and get them talking to each other.” Fernyhough’s fine description of how it feels to read fiction is an expert blend of the scientific and artistic:

The voices we encounter in a novel can express our desires, threaten our safety, challenge our morals and speak of what cannot be said. They take us into a place of expanded possibilities where we can try on other identities. Through their expert control of these fictional voices, novelists lead us into a controlled dissolution of the self, and then bring us back safely to who we are.

What happens when that dissolution of the self is not controlled? Fernyhough introduces us to Jay, who hears the voices in his head as having different accents, pitches and tones. There is Adam, who lives with a voice he knows as the Captain; the Captain is a hard taskmaster, ordering Adam around, berating him, letting him know who’s boss. And yet, while Adam struggles with the Captain, he doesn’t long for his disappearance. “It feels like you’ve got a mate looking out for you as well,” Adam says.

The Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme is a pioneer of the Hearing Voices Movement, which aims to remove the stigma often attached to the phenomenon of voice-hearing and instead pays attention to the information (about childhood trauma, for example) that those voices bring to the surface. Fernyhough discusses this approach with sensitivity and warmth.

The trouble is, as the author demonstrates, that discovering what is going on in the individual’s brain isn’t simple. Although voices, as he writes, can give us clues to “the fragmentary constitution of an ordinary human self”, the nature of that self – how my self makes itself distinct from your self, whether the voices in my head “sound” different to the ones in yours – is one of the central problems of both philosophy and science. Fernyhough doesn’t skimp on the science when demonstrating the difficulties that arise from “self-reporting”: inner voices must, by necessity, always be described by the person experiencing them.

The book traces in detail (the footnotes are just as interesting as the text) the various attempts to pin down inner voices, whether those involve MRI scans or something called “Descriptive Experience Sampling” (DES), by which volunteers describe exactly what they are thinking when a beeper goes off in their ears. Yet there is still a fascinating gap between science and experience: it remains impossible to express what those voices really sound like to each person who hears them.

The voices within have always been with us and this is a book of history as well as one concerned with science and art. In centuries past, our ancestors seemed rather more certain of the source of the voices that rang inside them. Fernyhough doesn’t neglect those who knew that what they heard was the voice of God – or the gods.

His discussion of Margery Kempe, the 14th-century English mystic whose recounting of her spiritual life lays claim to being the first autobiography written in the language, is particularly sensitive. And he is careful of the retrospective “reductionist dishing-out of diagnoses” when it comes to figures such as Kempe, or Julian of Norwich, or Joan of Arc. His role as a scientist does not prevent him from recognising Kempe’s experience as what it must have been for her – “an inner conversation with a very special substance: the relationship between a woman and her God”. The brain’s conversation was once perceived as mystic. Even if that is no longer wholly the case, much mystery remains.

The Voices Within: the History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves by Charles Fernyhough is published by Profile Books/Wellcome Collection (319pp, £16.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad