On the 1st February 1995 Richey Edwards, the guitarist and charismatic driving force for the Manic Street Preachers disappeared. His car was later discovered abandoned not far from the Severn Bridge, but a body was never found.
It was the age of the troubled rock star and Richey Edwards’ name sits alongside Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley as 90’s musicians who were mentally ill-equipped to cope with being in the public eye. Although Edwards hadn’t achieved the level of fame that Kurt Cobain endured, the Manic Street Preachers’ star was certainly in the ascendency at the time of his mysterious disappearance.
1994’s The Holy Bible had garnered rave reviews and expanded on their debut album, Generation Terrorists. The press – desperate for genuine characters – latched onto the brash, cocksure pairing of Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire, a man it would be easy to believe spoke almost exclusively in soundbites. They were edgy, fiercely political and unusually backed it up with powerful, fresh sounding music. Like their BritRock contemporaries their blending of influences made them difficult to pigeonhole, owing as much to Guns ‘n’ Roses as they did to Grunge, but the belief was that the Manics could be ‘the next big thing’. What makes them stand out from their peers is that they actually were. Just sadly without Richey.
The fact that Everything Must Go got made at all is impressive. When a band member dies the remaining members have to make the decision whether to continue or stop. But when a band member disappears? When do you make the decision that he’s not coming back?
The second thing to note is how little the album references Richey. It has songs co-written by him but none of the songs explicitly deal with a situation that must have played heavy on his bandmates’ minds throughout the making of the album. There was never any suggestion that this was a callous whitewashing of Richey’s role in the band, however. More that this was a continuation of his life’s work.
Musically though it wasn’t so much as a step towards the mainstream as a somersault right into the middle of it. Gone were the barb wire guitars and scuzzy image, replaced by lush instrumentation and anthemic power pop. At the height of the Britpop era the indie kids accepted the Manics as one of their own and the record went multi platinum. Each of the four singles released broke the top ten, back when such a thing was still a genuine achievement, and the band have gone on to sell over 10 million albums worldwide. A phenomenal amount by any measure.
Did everyone like it? Of course not, there was a section amongst the old fans that cried sell out, but that was inevitable in the rock world where commercial success is almost frowned upon. It was also sneered at by those who prefer their music less sincere and earnest – ironic detachment was very much en vogue in the mid-nineties – but it would be hard to argue that this album was anything other than a triumph for the band. Even with Richey they had always planned for the biggest stage and Everything Must Go put them there and kept them there. The Manic Street Preachers showed that there was room for rock – British rock – in the charts, opening the doors for others to follow in their wake but few – if any – sustained their popularity, credibility and quality the way the Manics did. And all of it was built from the ashes of tragedy. Richey Edwards may never return, but his memory lives forever in the Manic Street Preacher’s musical legacy.