With his 'Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers)' Simon Price has written the fastest selling pop-book of recent times. If nothing else, it's certainly a comment on the depth of obsession the band have inspired in their fans. But it's also a fair reflection of the sheer quality of the book itself - 'Everything' is written in the spirit of The Manics as well as about them. It's suitably spirited and suitably enormous.
I arrange to meet Simon in The Social, a trendy bar on London's Little Portland Street. It's a gruesome place - London's Ab Fab types are squealing everywhere and combined with the tiny bar, making me claustrophobic. I wish I had a machine-gun. Rat-a-tat-tat! You can't help but worry at this stage what Simon Price will be like, having suggested this as a meeting place. But he then turns up, we de-camp to a normal pub, and he's a lovely bloke. Phew. He also recognised me, which is something of a relief, given that without make-up, crown, eye-brow stud or glam clothes, he looks nothing like the photo on the back of the book.
There are a lot of things to be discussed, as the above shortcuts suggest. And where better to start than with you, the reader.
And so, Manics fans, here's what Simon Price thinks of you:
'Famously, there are two types of Manics fans. I think everyone's got the old fan/new fan thing wrong. Everyone thinks the older fans are the ones who really understand the band and the younger ones are just bandwagon jumpers. I think it's the other way round. Anyone over the age of 25 at a Manics gig, probably only got into them with 'A Design For Life', whereas anyone under twenty is probably obsessed and knows everything Richey Edwards ever said. They've read all the books he ever quoted. They dress like him, they're totally hardcore.'
'The older fans are just this Ralph Lauren, polo-wearing, lager-drinking types.'
Possibly the most controversial moment in the Manics career, the disappearance aside, was when Richey slashed '4 REAL' into his arm during an interview with Steve Lamacq. Simon has unequivocal views on the matter:
'I thought it was funny (funny ha-ha). I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I thought it was a great rock n roll gesture, it was so him. It didn't surprise me whatsoever. He showed me the scars afterwards; we were laughing about it.
One beneficial thing about it was that people who were already harming themselves might have come out of the closet, and that's a really positive thing. Unfortunately, one thing he didn't predict was that for every person like that, there would be a load of imitators; or people that were on the brink and thought because Richey did it, then it was cool... I dunno, I don't want to get too Clare Rayner about it!
Even now I think it was funny because he'd always been cutting himself. It wasn't any kind of suicide attempt. For him, it was as normal as writing graffiti on a wall. When I heard, I just laughed - I thought 'nice one!'
ABISTI: You must realise there are a lot of people out there who'd be totally disgusted by you saying that...
SP: 'Yeah, well... I'm sorry. I'm sorry but I'm not sorry! I refuse to see the '4 REAL' thing as the first step on his downward slope.'
Price reflects on Richey's life in a band, the way bands are cushioned from the real world and what he sees as Richey's escape from all that:
'I saw his disappearance in a positive light. Finally he was taking control of his own life. I try and imagine him driving down to the Severn Bridge with a smile on his face. I imagine him thinking, finally, he's taken control of his own destiny. I've got no feelings of tragedy. Whether he's floating in the Bristol Channel or whether he's reading a book in Bali or somewhere - in a way, I don't care, because he's doing what he wants to do - that's what matters.'
IS RICHEY EDWARDS DEAD?
ABISTI: Is that good, to hang on Richey Edwards words?
SIMON P: 'There are worse people you could hang on the words of. I think he was a very negative role model in terms of all the arm-slashing crap. I think he was all about survival and strength through individuality, whereas these people are just into self-pity.'
AB: Regarding survival he wasn't a very good role model...
SP: 'It depends if you think he's dead or not.'
AB: And do you?
SP: 'No. I've gone beyond the phase of being diplomatic and saying, well, who knows? My own personal instinct is that he's still alive. (LAUGHS) I've done quite a lot of research into this.'
AB: Does it play on your mind a lot?
SP: 'During the days of writing the book, I used to have dreams of him - vivid dreams. Quite horrible, disturbing things. Sometimes I forget he's not around. I'm sure if that's the case for me, it's a hundred times worse for the Manics... I think newcomers to the band might not understand how important Richey is to the band. I know that everything Nicky writes, he always feels Richey's looking over his shoulder, saying whether he approves. Although Richey didn't write any of the music, he's totally the essence of the band, visually and intellectually, without wishing to downplay Nicky's role.'
EVERYTHING - THE MANICS BOOK
Writing 'Everything' wasn't all plain sailing, despite getting the utmost co-operation from everyone involved in the band. (Indeed, Nicky Wire was to have written a foreword for the book. But after reading about a third of it, he found it too emotionally draining, with all the Richey stuff.) Price was over a year late handing it in, which got him into hot water with Virgin:
'There were so many times during the writing of the book when I was three months late with the rent, my publishers were trying to sue me, and I had to get money quick, so I threw myself into journalism. I just wrote whatever I could - that's why the book took so long. It was a fucking nightmare writing that book - financial reasons being only the half of it, the other half being the psychological reasons...'
(At this point, a BBC TV reporter comes up and asks to interview us for some Vox-Pop thing about gadgets. We decline, of course, because we're already busy doing an interview. "That's a real post-modern moment" chuckles Simon.)
MELODY MAKER & MUSIC JOURNALISM
The psychological pressures involved in writing a book can truly be heavy. You spend a large chunk of your life working on something, not knowing until its finished whether it's brilliant or garbage. If you're lucky, you'll get a meagre advance, in the knowledge that many writers will never see another penny beyond that. And if, like Simon Price, you can 'only write when the inspiration strikes', you can find yourself in hot financial waters. Then there's the self-doubt: 'It has occurred to me that I made the wrong career-choice in life. I'm 31, I'm living in the same tiny basement flat that I lived in four years ago and I'm perpetually skint.'
So, you may be reasonably wondering, why bother?
SP: 'I remember when I was 13 years old, living in Barry, South Wales, reading the Guardian. It was like my lifeline to civilisation. At that time, we're talking about the Falklands War era, and it (The Guardian) seemed like the only truth, reason and enlightenment. I thought that being a journalist would be a really noble thing to be. Then, as I got older, I started getting more and more into music, and started reading the Melody Maker. The people at the Maker in the late eighties - Stud Brothers, Simon Reynolds, Chris Roberts, David Stubbs, Jon Wilde - they were more important to me than the actual bands. My great hero as a journalist was Chris Roberts - one of the most mercurial, poetic journalists there is. He totally inspired me - a very romantic, fluid approach to writing.
That was all I wanted to do. So I fairly ruthlessly set about doing it.'
Simon's first big 'break' was at the age of 16, writing a column in the Barry District News, ('embarrassingly called "Simon Says" - it wasn't my idea!') reviewing the latest singles. Then he came to London to go to university and was amazed that he could walk down Oxford Street in eyeliner and gaudy clothes and not be stared at. It was certainly a change from running Barry's gauntlet. At college, Simon took over the music section of the student paper. Somewhat fortuitously, it was decided to do a piece on the behind-the-scenes people in the music biz. Price ended up interviewing Simon Reynolds and took the opportunity to present him with a few samples of his writing.
'I was doing a course in French and Philosophy, which meant I was going to live in Paris for a year. Melody Maker said that if I was going to Paris, why didn't I send them a few reviews of what was happening over there. The first couple they ignored, but they printed the third one - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, November 1988 - and I just carried on. I couldn't believe you actually got paid to do it!'
He developed a deep belief in Melody Maker's supposed ethos:
'It was probably the last paper that believed in criticism, in being independent, irreverent, iconoclastic - all those things.'
The Maker/Price relationship was, however, to turn sour as time went on.
'When I was at the Maker, there was a directive 'Thou shalt not criticise Oasis'
One of the last things I did for the Maker, I was one of the team that went to do the Reading Festival in '97. I was reviewing the Melody Maker stage. The editor sat me down and said "you are not allowed to slag any of the bands off, if you do, I will cut it". I couldn't believe what I was hearing.'
And now for something I couldn't believe I was hearing! I wonder if Simon got into the Manics as some sort of Clash-of-the-nineties type love affair. Erm, no...
'I think punk's responsible for everything that's wrong with music now. Punk has created this mindset where authenticity and credibility are issues that most bands desperately crave. It even comes down to people like Jo Whiley saying All Saints are more credible/street than the Spice Girls.
'If you go back to '77, the most important music of the time was disco. Disco is part of the beautiful, magnificent tradition of pop. It goes from Motown to disco to early electro to house, anything to me that has any value - even hip-hop goes back to disco. Everything horrible and grimy and earthbound goes back to punk. I've got no time for punk at all.'
THE MANIC STREET PREACHERS
Reading proclamations like the ones above, it might come as a bit surprising that Price got into the Manics at all. 'I realise the Manics don't fit into my aesthetic at all. They're the exception that proves the rule', he explains.
'Even before I was into any of their music, just reading their interviews, I completely empathised with them. I thought they were exactly like me, I felt this instant connection.'
The Welsh connection certainly didn't do any harm. On his book, Price reflects 'I think they maybe trusted me more because I was from Wales', before pontificating about Wales, heavy metal, class and the Manics. All in one go:
'The valleys are pure heavy metal country. Cardiff is the Mecca for the people of South Wales. Saturday afternoons you'd take the train to the cosmopolitan glamour of Cardiff. People from Barry and Neath and Portcawl, Merthyr, wherever, all coming to Cardiff and showing out in the St David's centre. All the valleys boys would have Bon Jovi and Mottley Crue T-shirts on. So I know where the Manics are coming from, and I'm not surprised at all that they chose heavy metal as the way to present themselves.'
Simon says (oops!) that the Manics choosing heavy metal is a way of 'being true to themselves'. Yours cynically mentions that getting 'normal' jobs might be a way of achieving this even more...
'No, I don't agree. The main point about the Manics is refusing to know your place, refusing to accept that just because you happen to be born into a really scummy, depressed human scrap heap like the Welsh valleys, you have to go and work in a Pot Noodle factory. I think it's being completely true to themselves that they should whatever it takes to get out of that. It's that working class thing about Eastenders becoming boxers or footballers, exactly the same thing.'
Then, however, come the social difficulties.
'Yeah, there's been so many times when I've been to some launch party or soiree and thought "I don't belong here. Everybody else knows it, I know it, you know, they're going to find me out any second". But I think the Manics managed to turn that into a driving force.
'So many people in the London media patronisingly assume that there's no such thing as a working class intellectual. That's why when Oasis came along, they loved them - this is what working class people are like, God bless 'em. To me, the Manics are a much better example of what the working class can be. Particularly in Wales, where you've got the traditions of non-conformist religion, non-conformist politics... there are towns in the valleys that have Marxist mayors.'
THE MANICS NOW
So what does he think the future holds for the Preachers?
'A lot of people have said to me after reading the book that the Manics don't mean as much to me now as they did. I still have hope. Although I think Nicky Wire might have had trouble with the lyrics on the last album, I don't think he will on the next one. He keeps in touch with me by postcard and letter, I can always tell what kind of mood he's in. He was raving about the lyrics on the new one.'
AB: A song like 'If You Tolerate This...' getting to number one was brilliant though...
SP: 'That's great, but that song was as much about him as it was about fascism. It was about his inability to get off his arse and do anything, and that set the tone for the whole album. It was all about his own paralysis. I don't think it really lived up to its title 'This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours' - you think, "wow we're really going to get some bold political statement here!" Then you listen to it and it's just about a guy who has trouble stepping out of his front door. We all know the Manics aren't going to be around forever and I really think that they need to make some incredible, all-conquering, earth-shattering statement. I think they know that.'
Let's hope so.
LEVELLERS VS MANICS
There's another side to this interview I can't ignore. It's the meeting of the Levellers biographer with the Manics biographer. Those of you with long memories will remember the Manics slagging the Levellers off at every given opportunity a few years back. What was all that about then?
SP: 'It's funny, 'cos I don't think the Levellers and the Manics were that dissimilar in some ways. It was probably a bit to do with the fact that the Levellers took 'em on tour (Ed: gave 'em a few gigs). I think it was the right thing for them to do at the time. But the whole crusty thing ballooned, it was just mad at that time. It was the whole horrible lifestyle thing. There wasn't a music paper without an article telling you how to be a crusty or how to get your dog and how to get your string and how to be a traveller, and it was just some sort of leisure option for middle-class youth... working class people generally, don't want to be dirty.'
AB: Generally, they don't want to be in, or go and see pop bands either; we're not talking about pop bands here, we're talking about working-class people... you might as well talk about country and western bands...
SP: I'm not saying the Manics are typical working class people. They more talk about people like their dads' generation. The people around them. If you're happy working in a coalmine, you don't want to go round putting yourself in more dirt and wallowing in mud.'
AB: Nor would most wanna go and see The Manic Street Preachers...
SP: Well, a lot of people do (laughs... gets serious) I believe that crusty was a totally middle-class thing...
AB: Well. It depends what you mean by crusty. I've got no experience of the crusty scene, but I've got experience of the traveller scene...
SP: Ok, well how do you differentiate between them?
AB: Because I didn't have dreadlocks or para boots or...
SP: The way I see it... I've got a hell of a lot of sympathy for travellers... if you're living in some Godforsaken tower block in Hackney and you're trying to bring up a kid, and it's the difference between that and thinking 'fuck this! I'm going to get a van and go round the country, I know what I'd do, know what I mean? ' But I'm in a house... I actually think a lot of those part-time anarchists have got no concept at all.'
Couldn't agree more Simon. Not so sure about the next outburst though.
CRUSTY MOVEMENT RACIST!
'There's something racist about the crusty movement actually; it's all to do with Olde England. Its all quite a Thatcherite thing - its all to do with self-preservation - it's all about "never mind little grannies dying of hypothermia, round the corner; we're just going to live off the land, fuck everyone else". You know, I think there's something quite Thatcherite about that.'
POP MUSIC & CAPITALISM
Not half as Thatcherite as the music business, however. It is supremely ironic that voices of protest make themselves heard via a network of corporations that thrive on a philosophy of the few making a fortune and the many making nothing at all. Simon has a well-thought out angle...
SP: 'It's probably the only form of capitalism I completely endorse. Its pretty much to with meritocracy, if you're any good, you'll probably do OK in music. We've all got our favourite bands who've never made it in music; we can all name them. But generally speaking, crap bands don't make it, good ones do.
'I've got no sympathy with the sense of injustice that small-time bands have: 'why won't the world listen to us?' Fucking get a job! If you're no good, just don't do it. Sell your guitar and buy some tins of beans or something. You don't have a God-given right to have an audience. Too many bands think that because they can plug a guitar into an amp and play an E-chord, that they have a right to be bottom of the bill at the Reading Festival. That's not the way it goes.
'I think you've got to be ruthless and I always try to be ruthless as a critic. People think I hate music because I slag off 95% of the bands - that's 'cos 95% of bands are crap - wasting our time and clogging up the airwaves. You have to be cruel to be kind. It's because I, and people like me, love music so much - the 5% - that we're willing to slaughter, like King Herod, these upstarts who think they're any good...'
The glamour too, has an undoubted appeal, and Simon has a healthily disrespectful attitude:
'I'll happily go along to the launch of some God-awful Virgin 1215 MOR band as long as its on the top floor of the Hilton and I get free white wine and grub, because I'm a peasant when it comes down to it. I can't afford to live the high-life.
AB: Don't you think I was a peasant would be more accurate?
SP: 'I can't believe how skint I am. (Goes into long and convincing litany of how poor he is). What you do have is this weird proximity to glamour - you find yourself hanging around these amazingly posh places and looking over your shoulder and Madonna's there or Marilyn Manson's buying you a drink. I've been to LA six times, Las Vegas three times... you do that for three or four days and then you fly home to your cold, damp basement flat - it's a very weird life.
And then a surprise...
AB: Do you enjoy it?
SP: 'Not any more, no.'
AB: What stopped you enjoying it?
SP: 'Partly the general decline of the music press, and partly thinking I've got a certain amount of ability and intellect, and a dismal lifestyle. Thinking I should be able to convert one into the other better than I am. The last two years have been the worst for music that I can remember. I'm not sure if that's me getting old... when you're an up and coming music journalist, you need to discover bands and wave a flag for them. But for every Levellers (me) or Manics (Simon), there's ten others who never made it - I was probably faking my orgasms, After a while, you just don't want to fake your orgasms any more. You have to have a gold-standard about your record collection.'
And indeed your bookshelves. 'Everything' can stand proudly in anybody's, and Simon Price has surely got a less dismal future ahead of him writing books. His next planned project is a Suede biography, and if it's anything like as good as the Manics book, it will be worth the wait.
(www.abisti.demon.co.uk, in 2000)