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Manic Street Preachers: A design for life as outsiders

The Welsh band have been bereaved, ridiculed, and repeatedly topped the charts. Lyricist and bassist Nicky Wire tells Andy Gill how they made it this far

Before Manic Street Preachers had played a gig, virtually before they'd even formed, they had a deep conviction that they'd make their mark, in one way or another. "We kind of knew we had a pathway to fame," says bassist Nicky Wire. "Which was basically getting on the cover of the NME and onto Top of the Pops. It was a much simpler time back then! Even when James and I wrote our first song, called "Aftermath", in our last year at comprehensive, we deluded ourselves into thinking it wouldn't be long before people started liking this. We get painted very po-faced, but when you look back, there was a brilliant sense of the ridiculous about us – we were so deluded, in our own little bubble!"

Despite having no following in their Welsh homeland, and little experience of the music business, they quickly managed to release a string of indie singles, secure themselves a dedicated management team, and sign to one of the biggest record companies in the world. Before long they released an ambitious debut double-album, Generation Terrorists, which this week is celebrated with an expanded 20th Anniversary Edition, replete with alternative takes, DVD and the full panoply of the heritage-rock reissue. Not bad for a band that claimed they would make one legendary album and then split up. Nicky chuckles at the recollection. "That was all part of the master-plan – 'Here you are James, we're gonna make one album, it's gonna sell 16 million copies, come up with some good tunes! And then we're splitting up!'"

James Bradfield was the Manics' secret weapon, a guitarist so instinctively adept that just two weeks after first picking one up, he could apparently play all of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. He could also sing a bit too, and had a facility for coming up with memorable riffs, all skills deployed with a passionate intensity that made his and Nicky's ambitions more than dreams. But then, every member of the Manics was a secret weapon: for a rock drummer, Sean Moore was unusually musical, a classically-trained trumpeter, and both Nicky and second guitarist Richey Edwards brought an extra-musical panache that made the band more interesting than the routine indie landfill of the early 1990s. Raised on bands with attitude to spare, like Dexy's, The Clash and The Smiths, they knew there was more to modern pop than just the music, and they spent hours discussing things like strategy, tactics, politics, art, literature and philosophy.

"We decided early on that Richey and I were the Glamour Twins, the intellectuals, we could write the lyrics and do the interviews, and that James and Sean could do the music," says Wire. "Me and Richey just had no interest in playing our instruments live. I'd throw mine down and start skipping, Richey would sit on an amp and do his hair, I'd abuse the audience – I'm surprised James didn't crack me one sometimes!"

When an NME journalist questioned their commitment, Edwards famously carved the legend "4 Real" into his arm with a blade, a defiant act of self-harm which retrospectively acquired the status of an ominous portent when the troubled star vanished, now presumed dead.

"Richey was such an amazing rock star, an intellectual, so erudite," Wire says fondly of his former writing partner. "I thought I was clever, but he was way beyond me, his mind was accelerating to such a degree. We loved Richey so much, his intellect and his lyric-writing, that it didn't really matter about his guitar-playing." The band would later pay tribute to their friend with the album Journal for Plague Lovers, its songs created from Edwards's lyrics.

Their intriguing, deliberately antagonistic world-view, combined with Bradfield and Moore's grasp of the craft of rock riffs and melodies, ensured the Manics were able to back up their attitude. Remarkably, following Edwards' disappearance, they managed to develop their unique form of art-pop even further, securing huge hits with anthems like "A Design for Life" and the chart-topping "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next", songs whose overtly didactic, politicised manner was starkly at odds with the prevailing louche mentality of Britpop.

"We pissed everyone off," admits Wire with pride. "We liked the idea of antagonism. We were really petty, as well, which is okay when you're young and full of spite, and we did have huge chips on our shoulders. I remember we had a big discussion and realised we had to be cartoon-ish; we thought, if we're going to mainline into popular culture we've got to go big on everything. Which meant that some people did laugh at us, but that just gave us more energy. Which doesn't happen these days: I don't think anyone actively likes being hated today. It's this morass where everyone has to feel really popular all the time. It's deeply unhealthy. To get on radio now, all they look at is your Twitter and Facebook feedback – how big's your Twitter following, how many Facebook friends have you got, what's your YouTube numbers? If they're not big enough, Radio 1 won't play you."

Also largely unwanted at the Britpop party were the unashamedly intellectual aspirations which underpinned the Manics' project. Generation Terrorists includes references to Confucius, Rimbaud, Larkin, Plath, Nietszche and the Futurists, a checklist of influences designed to inspire fans the way that, say, Allen Ginsberg appearing on The Clash's Combat Rock, Morrissey's mentions of Oscar Wilde, and Matt (The The) Johnson being pictured in Smash Hits reading Sartre's Nausea, had inspired the young Manics.

"It was part of a plan, but we were absolute musical and cultural obsessives," he says. "I don't think people understood just how engaged we were with everything, they couldn't understand how four oiks from the valleys could be so literate. Generation Terrorists was really an album about all the love and devotion for things that inspired us. Like most Manics things, it can be quite nihilistic at times, but it's definitely an album of devotion, really."

These days, it's hard to imagine any modern band offering similar cultural pointers, and the libraries that once, to quote a later Manics lyric, "gave us power", are increasingly becoming just more internet cafes. There's a general cultural shortfall that troubles Nicky Wire.

"Yes, it does perturb me," he admits. "I have kids of my own now, and you don't want to come across like some boring old git all the time, but it's a worry. We did try to condense our world-view, politics, emotions, everything, into three-minute pop-songs – we saw that as a true art-form. I think that's gone in today's culture.

"I'd love to see a band a bit like us, that's prepared to fall on their sword. We did mean it, I know it sounds like a cliche, but we were living on our wits, we had nothing to fall back on but our education. And we put everything we had into it: this wasn't a band on their gap year! We probably tried too hard to get so much in Generation Terrorists, but I'm glad we overloaded, really. We were never going to be a band like the Pistols, that made their best album first; but we did make something of a grand folly."

Manic Street Preachers release the 20th Anniversary edition of 'Generation Terrorists' on Monday

This article will appear in the 03 November print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine

Review: Album: Manic Street Preachers, Generation Terrorists (Columbia)