When the line-up was announced for this year with many acts rolled over, the Welsh rock legends were conspicuous by their absence.
However, with the withdrawal of former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft, last week the Manics were drafted back in to headline Saturday night on the Castle Stage.
Entirely coincidentally, The Guide was due to speak with Manics’ frontman James Dean Bradfield on the day of the announcement, to preview the tour for new album The Ultra Vivid Lament, a tour which visits Portsmouth Guildhall on October 8.
‘It's a nice surprise for us too,’ he says when asked about their late addition to the festival bill. ‘It's only come together in the last couple of days – Brucie bonus!
‘Coming back to Victorious is all the sweeter now, for obvious reasons.
‘We played there before and really enjoyed it.
‘What I sense from people at the moment is that they're more open to going to festival shows than they are to indoor shows – they don't think there's as much inherent danger in terms of Covid.
‘It's in the open air and it's by the sea – let it just wash all that worry and anxiety away!
‘At the end of the day, it's nice to be working, it couldn't be more prosaic than that.
‘To actually see the main part of our job taken away... we still haven't done a proper gig, it will be nearly two years by the time we do do it.
‘The last proper gig we did was in Japan when we were playing at the Rugby World Cup in 2019.
‘To have your main way of expressing yourself, your main sporting activity taken away from you definitely had more of an effect on my psyche and physically and mentally than I ever realised it would.
‘And it took away our main way of earning any money. I can't deny that that it doesn't do much for your self-esteem that pretty much the one way you were making quite good money has gone. It's not good for a 52-year-old to feel like that,’ he chuckles.
Earlier this month the band played in front of an audience at St David’s Hall in Cardiff for Radio 2, but James isn’t counting that as a ‘real’ gig.
‘That was 150 people in a hall which can fit maybe 2,000 people. It looked like the ultimate socially distanced gig – or like we hadn't sold any tickets...
‘It was all competition winners, and it was good, it was nice, but not a real gig. A real gig is based on people's utter lack of regard for each other's personal space, and the other night, people were properly spaced.
‘Whilst it was okay, it doesn't quite have that sporting element where you feel like you're just about to have a fight. That's what I base a good gig on, where you have that slightly nervous feeling you had where you've arranged a fight for after school!’
Speaking of which, the Manics were renowned for picking fights with other bands in their early days – regularly using interviews in the music weeklies and monthlies, or even from the stage, to verbally attack other acts.
‘Those days of sabre rattling with other musicians are gone,’ says James sounding only slightly rueful. ‘We're all past that, and there is really no music press left, that arena for digs between Mark E Smith and Ian McCulloch and all that stuff, those days have gone.
‘Musicians used to rip chunks out of other, and used to enjoy doing that. Obviously that's not on the agenda these days because there's an emphasis on people being kinder to each other. We're just living in different times, aren't we?’
Are they older and wiser now?
‘Older, wiser, a bit more bruised!’
In their firebrand days, the Manics were adored by their fans, written off as poseurs by others. They were prone to spraying slogans on their clothes, quoted philosophers and historians in their interviews, and claimed their debut album, Generation Terrorists, would be ‘the greatest rock album ever,’ would sell 16m copies and they'd split (it didn’t and they clearly didn’t).
As such the critical knives were often out for these boys from Blackwood.
‘I can't deny a bad review really hurt sometimes,’ admits James, ‘but if you are strong enough in your own head, a bad review usually helps you – notch it up to experience, and let it inform you sometimes.
‘Any person who looks in the mirror and thinks they're 100 per cent right all the time is, well, we know that's just a narcissist.
‘Journalists' reviews – their insightful, spiteful opinions have sometimes been true...’
Twenty-nine years on from that debut they’ve sold millions of albums and racked up more than 30 top 40 hits, overcoming tragedy and scaling huge heights to become one of Britain’s biggest and most enduring bands.
Their brace of number one singles bear the titles If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next (about the Spanish Civil War) and Masses Against The Classes. There are few bands like the Manics.
Now album 14, The Ultra Vivid Lament, is due out on September 10.
While not skimping on the guitar-based rock they’re known for, this is their first album to be primarily written on piano.
As ever, bassist Nicky Wire provided the lyrics for James and drummer Sean Moore to work on.
‘We had written two-three songs before lockdown, demoing for the new record, and that's always a very uncertain bit where you're trying to find a direction, but I think we found it really quickly.
‘(Current single) The Secret He had Missed was the first song.
‘When Nick gave me the lyric, he told me it was a duet, because it's a distinct narrative of a brother and a sister talking to each other, so that was set in stone, so it had to be written as a duet.’
The song is written about Augustus and Gwen John – Welsh sibling artists – and their very different lives.
‘When it came out, it was like: “Wow, that's slightly Abba-esque, so we're going to follow that style... as if Manic Street Preachers are trying to play Abba, it doesn't completely sound like them, but you know what I mean,’ he laughs.
‘And that piano, in the demo, I'm going,’ he sings the chords, ‘you don't try to write it, you just start realising, my head is trying to channel this – I'm not in control of it.’
Next out the gates was Orwellian, which became the public's first taste of the album back in May.
‘That was written on the piano too and it seemed to work, it seemed to give space for the lyrics, and the honesty and the poetry that was there in the words, and that became the MO, so I carried on writing on the piano.
‘The words were so amazing, so honest, but so open, I really wanted them to be heard – not that I've been trying to obscure them in the past! But it really did feel as if they needed to be heard.’
James has in the past spoken of his difficulties in setting the verbose lyrics Nicky and Richey Edwards provided for him to music. Richey, the band’s rhythm guitarist and co-lyricist disappeared in February 1995. A body was never found and he was eventually declared ‘presumed dead’ in 2008.
‘Yeah, much more so in the past,’ James says now, ‘and when Richie was involved, but that was enjoyable too.
‘I loved doing The Holy Bible,’ Richey’s final, notoriously harrowing album with the band, ‘it felt like a physical challenge, which is great. Sometimes that makes the excitement.’
Orwellian also features the none-more-Manics couplet: ‘I walk you through the apocalypse, where me and you could co-exist.’
‘That's a tiny bit of a Manic Street Preachers trick where,’ says James, ‘you know when you take a Nurofen and it's got a sugar-coating on it? The music sugar-coats the lyric. But it's said with a tiny bit of a sense of humour – a bit of levity in there, I think.’
But as work on the album progressed, lockdown arrived.
‘We'd inherited this piano in my family from an old lady in Llandaff in Cardiff. She was 103-years-old, and she'd just moved into a care home, and her piano was about 103 years old too!
‘She'd bequeathed it to us and it arrived at our house just before lockdown.
‘The amateur film director in my head thought: “Wow, this is for a reason! This piano's come to us in a time of lockdown...”
‘That little am-dram going on in my head made me think that it was fate, so I started to really bed down and write on the piano and learn the piano a bit better.
‘I kept writing on it, and it kept seeming to fit the MO that everything was just a bit more open, a bit more free, a bit more melancholic, a bit less combative, and I've got to say, more openhearted.’
Album track Don't Let The Night Divide Us features lines which could neatly sum up the Manics in 2021: ‘We have the chords and the conscience, we have the plans and the purpose.’
When I put this to James, he laughs: ‘That was one of mine and Nick's only little arguments on the record.
‘I wanted it to be: “We have the chords and the conscience", but it reads: “We have the cause and the conscience.”
‘But I may have snuck in “chords” instead...’
The album’s opening track is called Snowing In Sapporo, and as long-term fans will know, Japan is a recurring theme in the Manics’ work, from the video for early single Motorcycle Emptiness to tracks like (I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline, or the spoken word Japanese over Ocean Spray.
Ask James about Japan and his passion for the country is immediately clear. From an early love of the country’s cinema and literature he picked up on from reviews or mentions in the NME – touchstones like actor/director Beat Takeshi, Seven Samurai director Akira Kurosawa or writer Yukio Mishima – to the band’s first visit there, which James recalls, vividly.
‘When we landed there it was probably the biggest, most positive culture shock.
‘I suppose the words culture shock can imply something, not necessarily negative, but a shock to the system. But this was the most positive culture shock you could have.
‘Before I was in the band I'd never flown – the only other country I'd been to was England. I'd never been on a ferry, never had a courgette, I'd never had smoked salmon.
‘I was just standing there going: “Wow”. Everything looked different, smelt different, tasted different. It was all ordered but in a very functional, busy kind of way.
‘Fans started giving us books all the time, so we were reading the books they were giving us, and I really got into the food and alcohol big time. And the concerts there were amazing.
‘I just loved it and loved the place.’
Visiting Japan for the first time was also a formative experience for the young band.
‘It's a memory that stays in our head because it made us realise we had a lot more to learn, we had lot more to gather in.
‘In our psyches, in terms of what we believed in, we were quite confident people, and we felt we were indestructible, and we were quite militant, and then when we got to Japan it made us open our eyes and realise there were different ways of seeing the world, of thinking about life in general.
‘We learned a lot when we were in Japan.
‘As a band, to be accepted in such an alien place – and it was alien to us – it was very humbling.
‘I just absolutely loved the place and still do, I've been there 26 times, and the one thing I was thinking about during lockdown was: what if I never get to Japan again? And it made me feel really so intensely sad.
‘I really want to go on holiday there with my wife and our two kids.
‘I don't over-romanticise Japan, I know it has a dark side. There are things you can disagree with, but just the rhythm of Japan... I love it.’
Aside from The Secret He Had Missed with Julia Cumming of indie band Sunflower Bean, the other high profile guest on the album is the American alt-rock survivor Mark Lanegan, on Blank Diary Entry.
‘With Secret He Had Missed, there were two distinct narratives. When Nick gave me this one, he said it could be a duet, but it's not written as such – there's just a hint there. When he told me that, I took it on board and started writing the music and singing in these two voices.
‘As I was doing the demo, I was singing in the deep voice, and it was: “Bam! Mark Lanegan...” It just came into my head, because I like a lot of his stuff – (Lanegan’s solo debut) The Winding Sheet, the Soulsavers stuff he did, etc.
‘And there was a song called Dollar Bill, which Richey used to love by (Lanegan’s old band) Screaming Trees.’
‘Dollar Bill does stick in my head because Richie used to love that song – that's what switched me on to Screaming Trees in the first place.’
Is it nice to still have a link back to Richey on the album, albeit in a less overt way?
‘Yeah, Richey loved a really good soppy indie song. People think he's always so forensic, but he was more prone to sentimentality than people would ever care to admit.
‘He would always listen to that (American indie-rock band) Buffalo Tom song Taillights Fade, he used to play those two songs all the time.’
The Manics had toured with Screaming Trees when both bands were supporting Oasis on their ill-fated 1996 American tour – singer Liam Gallagher walked out on the band forcing several dates to be cancelled.
Lanegan was in the grips of heroin addiction at the time, which he wrote about in his gripping, self-lacerating autobiography Sing Backwards and Weep.
James recalls: ‘We met them when we were on the Oasis tour in America, and he'll admit it was a tough time in his life.
‘I remember talking to him on some days and he was cool, and we had conversations about (cult American singer-songwriter and Lanegan's friend) Jeffrey Lee Pierce who I was a bit of an obsessive about.
‘We would just trade stuff about post-punk and new wave bands – he knows his music, and he loves all that era of British music. We just really got on, and then other days I'd see him and realise, okay, he's in recovery today, there's something going on.’
They didn't meet up again until both Mark and James were invited by Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale to take part in a 2008 tribute concert marking 20 years since the death of his erstwhile bandmate Nico, at The Royal Festival Hall in London.
When he arrived, James found he was sharing a dressing room with Lanegan.
‘I walked in the door and it was nice, because he was just like the person I'd met before.
‘Despite the problems he was having back then, I could see the real person, and he was clean now. We just sat there and talked for four hours about music.
‘I'm not friends with many musicians, but I've always really got on with him – he's just a dude. He's a guy I wish I’d known at school.
‘When I was thinking about who to ask for this, we've done Richard Hawley (on 2013 album Rewind The Film’s title track), so I can't ask him again... let's go with Mark Lanegan this time.
‘He came back with a lovely email and did it in three days. He's obviously got such a thirst for working – there's such an engine on him. All the things he put himself through, he still wants to create music all the time and is a very vital person. He did a brilliant job.’
Victorious Festival is on Southsea Common from August 27-29, with main stage headline sets from Madness, The Streets and Royal Blood.
Adult day tickets from £40, full weekend is £135, plus fees.
Manic Street Preachers also play Portsmouth Guildhall on October 8 as part of the tour for The Ultra Vivid Lament. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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