One of Britain’s most celebrated band’s returned stronger than ever after being the focus of one of Britain’s biggest mysteries 27 years back. The Manic Street Preachers put out their fourth album, Everything Must Go, this day in 1996…about a year after their main lyricist and sometimes-guitarist Richey Edwards seemingly evaporated into thin air.
The Manic Street Preachers formed in Wales in 1986, under the name “the Manics” (which many fans still refer to them as), with core members James Dean Bradfield (the singer and guitarist), drummer Sean Moore (who can also add a trumpet bit here and there as required) and bassist Nicky Moore becoming friends in school. Richey Edwards was initially a roadie and buddy of theirs. Like them he was rather dark in mood and fiercely political (the band ally themselves with the socialists). He also had a way with words so by the time they signed to Columbia Records in the early-’90s, he was on board as a member who wrote most of their lyrics and played guitar, albeit not that well by most estimations. The band had good success right out of the gates with their first album in 1992 and were making quite a name for themselves by the time they put out their third record, the oddly-or-provocatively named Holy Bible in ’94. Enter 1995, and the day the band was supposed to fly off to North America for a tour, Edwards seemed to disappear. It’s quite a complex and odd case, but in short, he seemed to be seen here and there around Britain for a week or so then no more. His car was found abandoned near a bridge on Valentine’s Day with no trace of him. Many suspect he commit suicide, though no body was found, while others believe he executed a plan to simply go incognito and start a new life elsewhere under an assumed persona. There’ve been various supposed sightings of him through the years since in far-flung places like India and the south Pacific, but he was declared dead in 2008, even though no one has a clue as to what truly happened to him.
That was the backdrop for Everything Must Go, an album seeing the MSP back to their trio form, although the enigma that is Richey wrote lyrics for five of the songs and had laid down guitar tracks for one song (“No Surface, All Feeling”). Given that, it’s remarkable that a band viewed as rather bleak and almost nihilistic, who idolized early The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees should put out an articulate, polished record of intriguing songs. But that’s what they did.
Rising star producer Mike Hedges produced the record, with them visiting his studio in France to record most of it. Bradfield had wanted him since Hedges had done great work with Siouxsie, but his background – 10 years working at Abbey Road studios – probably helped shape the album greatly. He brought in strings, streamlined songs and helped them work towards a “Wall of Sound” effect they were hoping for. They looked to quite a range of subjects for inspiration including Sylvia Plath’s writings (“The Girl Who Wanted to Be A God”), the wave of American culture that dominated British media and minds (“Elvis Impersonator : Blackpool Pier”), a well-respected photojournalist who worked largely in Africa (“Kevin Carter”), and intriguingly an ode to suffering animals in captivity (“Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky”), its lyrics penned by Edwards and believed to be a metaphor for his own mental state – feeling caged and gawked at. And as one would expect with a left-leaning punk-influenced band, one good diatribe about the plight of the working class and the disparity between classes, “A Design for Life.” Nicky Wire wrote that primarily, saying they were “sick of the patronization of the working class.” Ironically that was the song which could have lifted them out of the ranks of the blue collars into the Blue bloods by itself, becoming a massive hit.
While all but unknown on this side of the ocean, they were on the rise and this album drew lots of attention and praise at home. Many noted how different – but by almost unanimous agreement – better than their previous record. The NME gave it 8 out of 10, declaring “tragedy has not dimmed the Manics creative glow” and calling the album “a record that races with heavenly string arrangements and huge sweeps of emotive orchestration; one that bristles with a brittle urgency.” At year’s end they called it the Album of the Year and “A Design for Life”, Single of the Year. The Guardian graded it 4-stars as did Q, which said it was “a return to and improvement upon the epic pop-rock sounds of Gold Against the Soul (their second album)”. Vox raved it was “so superb it just might make intelligence fashionable again.” Nicky Wire noted soon after it was “the most timid we’d ever been…it was the most un-Manics we’ve been. And then it was the most successful.” Successful indeed, it grabbed the Brit Award for Best British Album of ’96 and earned them the Group of the Year award
While they’d had one prior top 10 single in Britain (curiously, their take on the MASH Theme, “Suicide is Painless”), “A Design for Life” took them to another level, debuting on the charts at #2. The #1 slot eluded it but it quickly became their first platinum-selling single. “Kevin Carter” and “Australia” – which oddly didn’t crack the top 100 in that land – were also top 10s off Everything Must Go. The album itself made it to #2 and went triple-platinum there. But they seemed a fairly localized taste; outside of the UK and Ireland, it didn’t make a huge impact, barely cracking the top 30 in New Zealand and Sweden, and worse than that elsewhere. Here in North America, it didn’t chart anywhere but a few discerning alternative rock stations.
The Manics have put out ten more studio albums since, with a total of a dozen of theirs being top 10 at home, and Richey Edwards? To the credit of the band, they still keep his share of the royalties separate and in an account, waiting… Maybe he’s watching the success of his old buddies. Perhaps from a hut in the tropics, perhaps from somewhere in the Great Beyond.