During a career spanning 30 years, Manic Street Preachers have enjoyed considerable chart success, topping both the singles and albums charts.
However, on many more occasions they’ve come tantalisingly close to the top spot, ultimately coming in second place.
So, when last year their 14th studio album, The Ultra Vivid Lament, topped the UK Official Albums Chart, singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield jokes it was like “living in The Matrix”.
Emerging out of Covid, the Manics toured the record last year and next weekend headline The Embankment in Peterborough.
Talking about their first number one album since 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, Bradfield said: “After everything everyone had been through with Covid, putting that album out and it being number one and then going on tour was just such a shock to the system.
“It felt like I was living in The Matrix, it felt like I was the character that had double-crossed everybody.
“After all that, we get a tour and a number one album - I couldn't make sense of anything when Christmas came, I was just like, ‘what the hell just happened’.
This year, Manic Street Preachers played a tiny headline gig at Clwb Ifor Bach in Cardiff, are currently opening for The Killers at stadiums across the UK and have a summer of other headline shows and festival performances lined up.
Bradfield explains eight months on since their headline tour, shows are starting to feel like they did in an era before Covid.
“It feels as if it's nearly back to normal,” he explains. “Not quite, but it feels different to the gigs we did before Christmas. Bit by bit you see people's confidence returning.
“It’s been great watching The Killers, watching a front man like Brandon Flowers still wanting it that much.
“For me it's inspiring. Being further down the road in your career, to get up and just go on stage and just still want to absolutely own everything is quite inspiring – it is the secret of being in a band, you've still got to really want it.”
Asked whether topping the charts 14-albums into a career remains important, Bradfield explains the band grew up and remain fiercely competitive.
In their early teens, Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, drummer Sean Moore and former rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards would obsess over the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles, which documented chart topping tracks from across the decades.
“We were a strange bunch in that sense,” Bradfield explains.
“Having it was a marker to show how competitive we were.
“We've so many bizarre near misses. Everything Must Go sold 1.4 million records in Britain without ever being number one. Know Your Enemy was number two and sold close to 100,000 records.
“Send Away The Tigers - off the back of a nearly number one single - was number two and missed out by a thousand copies or something.”
Bradfield attributes the band’s competitiveness in part to their love of sport – admitting by enjoying the latter, they were “indie kids that broke the rules a bit.”
“We didn't have that suspicion of sports like a lot of indie kids do,” he explains.
“We loved boxing, cricket, football, rugby, athletics, darts, snooker, everything - and I think being sports lovers kind of made us not be ashamed of being competitive.”
Written on piano by Bradfield, who learned the instrument for the record, The Ultra Vivid Lament took inspiration from both The Clash and Abba.
The result was an LP packed with melancholic euphoric pop and nine months on, it remains a record Bradfield is immensely proud of.
“There are times when you can look six months down the line and see the fault lines of a record,” he explains.
“After Resistance Is Futile, six months on I could see the things we'd done wrong where our judgment was slightly off.
“But this record, I put it on the other day just to refresh myself on a couple of songs, let it run and I really enjoyed listening to it.
“It has a blood rush to it, but it has more analysis in it, it has less judgement and it's an album that can only come from being this old, where you realise there are not so many absolutes.
“You realise you've got to settle into something that's a bit more nuanced as you get older because you realise none of the absolutes really matter anymore and you’re selling something which is more nuanced and less judgmental.
“It talks about all the fault lines of politics and culture that we live in now, how everything is so ridden with complication and anxiety.
“We wrote about all that and it was strangely comforting.”
Throughout their career, duets have been a reoccurring presence on many Manics albums, with Traci Lords, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Nina Persson, Ian McCulloch and Catherine Anne Davies just some of the singers who have accompanied Bradfield over the years.
The Ultra Vivid Lament features Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan who sadly died in February on the track Blank Diary Entry.
“I was devastated with Mark's passing,” admits Bradfield.
“We’d connect in an effortless way. I don't think we had much in common except for the way we knew how music affected us, talked to us and how much it meant to us.
“He’d overcome a lot of obstacles in his life. He'd been through a lot and I really admired him.
“He’d written about his own demons and his voice would always show that pain and fury, the shame, the experiences he’d had which is the best thing a singer could do really.”
As well as regular duets with other singers, Manic Street Preachers have a rich history of covering songs live, whether it’s just the opening bars of Stop! In The Name Of Love by The Supremes ahead of Motown Junk, or all out covers such as Bright Eyes and Train In Vain.
Recently, Madonna’s 1983 hit Borderline from her debut album has made its way into their set with Bradfield admitting the four members of the Manics fell “hook, line and sinker” for her when they first saw her performing on Top Of The Pops.
He said: “She had a really cool style, the fishnet stockings, the slightly glam angle, she almost looked like she could have been the singer in Hanoi Rocks the first time she was on.
“Pop music was great in the 80s and you could easily go to Woolworths and buy a Madonna single.
“It was a great era for 7" singles and Borderline was a song that we all loved.”
On the topic of Top Of The Pops, BBC4 is currently working its way through early 1990s repeats of the show, with classic live performances of Manics tracks like You Love Us, Motorcycle Emptiness and the Theme From M*A*S*H already having been broadcast.
Of the 20-plus times the band appeared on the weekly show, it was their 1994 performance of Holy Bible single Faster, which is among the most fondly remembered by fans (and the most complained about by other viewers).
With the band all dressed in military garb, Bradfield donned a balaclava with his name scrawled across the front.
Despite this, it’s off-stage memories of Top Of The Pops which remain most vivid to Bradfield.
“It’d be things like going into the canteen and you'd see the cast of Eastenders mingling with lots of musicians,” he explains.
“You might see a chat show host getting a bacon sandwich stood next to Clint Mansell from Pop Will Eat Itself.
“It was a weird corner shop where entertainment met slightly edgy musicians.”
The Manics appeared three times on Top Of The Pops in 1992 to perform singles from their debut album Generation Terrorists.
This year, the record celebrated its 30th anniversary and while it hasn’t yet sold the 16 million copies certain members said it would, it remains an acclaimed debut album which was released to significant hype in the music industry and features many of the Manics’ most beloved hits.
“I remember an intense feeling of nervousness and trepidation when we put the album out,” explains Bradfield.
“I didn't quite feel I could match Nick and Richey's ambition where they wanted to take on the world.
“I remember thinking this is impossible and I think they knew it deep down as well, but their tactic was to not at all rest on any laurels, just go forward in such an absurdly intense unreasonable way that we could never let up on ourselves.
“It was a weird feeling for me putting that album out because I knew we'd fail before we even put it out in terms of the ambitions that Nick and Richey had set.
“They went by that old Dylan Thomas maxim that ambition is critical.
“Ambition is still critical, it’s the thing that puts fear into you, it’s the thing that drives you on.”
Across its six singles, Generation Terrorists saw the Manics continue the indie staple of the ‘B-side’.
While it’s something which is all but lost in 2022, during subsequent albums some of the Manics’ best songs can be found across their CD singles, 7” and tapes.
Some of these were later brought together in the 2003 compilation Lipstick Traces (A Secret History Of Manic Street Preachers).
“The B-side was something that manifested itself in such a subtle but sly way,” explains Bradfield.
“You'd buy that 7-inch and it’d be there saying ‘go on, turn me over, give me a listen’.
“Angels and Devils (the B-side to 1984 single Silver) is probably in my top five favourite Echo & the Bunnymen songs.
“We grew up with the B-side, we were massive acolytes of what the B-side could be.”
When Bradfield first wrote the music to their number one single If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, he wasn’t sure the song - which has since gone onto be one of the band’s biggest hits – would be an album track, adding, “I thought it was good enough to be a fan's favourite B-side.”
Manic Street Preachers were far from the only band during the 1990s releasing stellar B-sides, with Oasis also notorious for burying classic tracks away.
“I think we are a great B-sides band. I'd go as far as to brag that we beat Oasis in the 'Battle of the B-side', which I'm sure Noel Gallagher would not give a f*** about, he'd much rather win the A-sides. “But knowing him he'd try to claim the B-sides too, jokes James.”
Asked about his favourite Manics B-side, Bradfield instantly names Prologue To History, which was originally released in 1998.
In the 2018 reissue of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, the track was promoted from B-side onto the main album.
“Prologue To History is a masterpiece. it just is. That's why it eventually went back on the album,” he explains.
“It’s a lyrical masterpiece which I tried to match with the intensity of the music.
“When Nick wrote those lyrics, I felt so much pressure because it's a mini montage, a kind of masterpiece of intent and a view into his unseen world of how he organises belief and principle, the way he glimpses things and makes meaning out of them.”
Bradfield also cites Gold Against The Soul era B-sides Donkeys and Are Mothers Saints as other favourites.
Adding: “I used to love it when bands put live stuff on B-sides.
“I'm a big fan of early Simple Minds and I remember the B-side of Waterfront - which is a great song about the industrial shipbuilding decline of Glasgow.
“The B-side was a live version of Hunter & The Hunted from Newcastle City Hall.
“It’s the epitome of five working class musicians, it’s the best chemistry any five British musicians have ever had together,” before joking, “I could go on about B-sides forever.”
Returning to the subject of reissues - Manic Street Preachers have released numerous extended and expanded versions of their classic albums to mark 10th and 20th anniversaries.
While a reissue or reimagining of their 2000 album Know Your Enemy has been previously discussed by Nicky Wire, after being quizzed about its progress, Bradfield laughs before simply replying, “Ask Wire, ask Nicky Wire.”
The early 2000s era Manic Street Preachers saw the aforementioned bassist make a switch to guitar and vocals for tracks like Wattsville Blues, while Bradfield would also regularly be spotted with a double neck guitar and bass hybrid for certain live tracks.
Talking about the era, he says: “It was silly fun, it was indulgence, it was us not really coping with success too well and it was us showing a lot of folly and it was us f****** up.
“That's OK sometimes, we all go through that in life.”
Making a comparison to his childhood, he says: “I remember being 10-years-old and getting my first Grifter bike and being a complete k***head because I thought I was the king of the neighbourhood.
“I have a bit of a different way of looking at Know Your Enemy at the moment, that's all I’ll say.”
Turning to the future, Manic Street Preachers are working on new material to follow The Ultra Vivid Lament.
Both he and Nicky Wire have written new songs, however, Bradfield admits new music or a new direction isn’t coming easy.
“It’s the biggest struggle I've had trying to write new stuff, new music to lyrics Nicky's given me for quite a while.
“Coming from Ultra Vivid Lament has left me in a bit of a tailspin and I don't really know what we're supposed to sound like at the moment, which is always a bad sign because when I overthink anything - whether it be a recipe in the kitchen or whether it be trying to turn my son into a winger or a central defender - whenever I try to overthink anything it f***s everything up.
“There's definitely a history of whenever I overthink Manics music, when it doesn't come naturally, it's not very good.
“So, I've switched off from trying to write stuff to Nick's lyrics at the moment.
“He’s found a groove, but I haven't found mine yet, we haven’t quite found our feet, but we're trying.”
With B-sides still on his mind, Bradfield quickly returns to that topic, citing the Sex Pistols track Did You No Wrong as another classic and when asked if the very concept has been steamrollered by the progress of digital streaming, he replies “realities which stare us in the face in terms of being in the present doesn't always deserve to be called progress.”
Manic Street Preachers headline Peterborough Embankment on Sunday, June 12.
Support is by Sea Power and Low Hummer. Tickets cost £45 before fees.
For more information, visit https://lphconcertsandevents.co.uk