Nine Songs: Nicky Wire
Nicky Wire - and by extension his band of over 30 years, Manic Street Preachers - is an inherently contradictory pop figure: a singular iconoclast who is also, somehow, proudly the sum of a lifetime of influence.
From the Manics’ early cut-and-paste glamour punk aesthetic, juxtaposing Marilyn Monroe with Paul Simonon, to present-day collaborations with Cate Le Bon and Ian McCulloch, Wire has never been afraid to situate his cultural heroes front and centre. The band’s latest album The Ultra Vivid Lament is their 14th, and it sees the foregrounding of a number of previously dormant influences - a return to long-beloved artists with the benefit of age and experience. A complementary playlist of inspirations includes ABBA, Nina Simone, R.E.M. and a number of artists Wire has picked to discuss today.
“There’s a lot of overlap lyrically and musically, mood-wise,” Wire says of the playlist, and its relationship to his choices. For him, settling on a definitive Nine Songs to cover a life of voracious cultural consumption is impossible. “If you'd asked me this three, four years ago, I'm sure it would have been a bit different,” he explains, “but this seemed to fit with where we are at the moment.” Wire originally sent over a list of ten songs, and his last-minute relegation of Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” feels appropriate to the spirit of things. “I’ve already said so fucking much about the Sex Pistols.”
As well as old favourites, some of his choices are also reflective of recent favourite records, and the (often female) guest singers who have added not just their voices, but a fresh perspective to the band. “It's quite old fashioned, like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton,” Wire says of writing for artists including The Anchoress and Julia Cumming of Sunflower Bean, who feature among his choices. “We enjoy the discipline of writing them as duets.”
Much like the setlist of a Manics gig, Wire’s Nine Songs are a combination of overlooked gems and big pop hits, the result of catering simultaneously for hardcore fans who see every show on a tour, as well as those who might only get to see the band once in a lifetime. Wire is a big evangelist of the greatest hits CD, especially in the context of his “very old” car (he learned to drive aged 50) which he has because he “can’t do Bluetooth or any of that nonsense.”
Currently in his glove compartment are greatest hits from Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Echo & the Bunnymen's and Joan Armatrading, as well as “some really sad ones from Sainsbury's, like a three CD collection of Big Country or something.” The Manics are currently rehearsing for their Autumn tour, with a setlist including the new album, a Bunnymen cover, and some cuts from 2001’s fan favourite Know Your Enemy, alongside the hits, of course.
Although Wire’s choices are firmly rooted in his current life and work, our conversation frequently circles back to classic Manics preoccupations. This is a picture of Wire in the present moment, but also a tiny part of a lifelong conversation about iconoclasm, working class glamour, Susan Sontag, boredom, Wales, and everything else that makes this intelligent, contradictory, funny writer who he is.
BEST FIT: I've got to say, I was quite surprised to see this in your Nine Songs. I'm intrigued as to what the connections are here.
WIRE: “My wife is a huge Doors fan. I've probably resisted loving them for 20 years, but in the last ten years I've really zoned in. For one, Jim Morrison is just unbelievably beautiful, which I'm still impressed by, he had such limitless perfection for a couple of years. Then there’s a couple of lines in the song really get to me: "The day destroys the night / Night divides the day".
“Ian McCulloch definitely overlaps into Jim Morrison in his vocal style, and the way they both bounce off a bass riff, which is done on a keyboard with The Doors. They're such amazing musicians and it's taken me a long time to appreciate their wonderment. They have been lost to history I think, as a really important band.”
I think The Doors have more of a clichéd image nowadays, which is maybe something to do with the terrible Oliver Stone film.
“I love the bit in that film where they play "Light My Fire" for about 10 seconds, then they cut to the studio and it's perfect, like [adopts an American accent] ‘I've got a song man!’
“I've come late to the party, but I think due to the film and just that Rock and Roll cliché, people forget about the music and the lyrics. I re-watched Apocalypse Now twice during lockdown and I realised again what a masterpiece that is - and obviously The Doors do infuse that with "Riders on the Storm" at the end. There's not a lot on their records, there's such an economy. They’re not covered in loads of different instruments as a rule, they’re really sparse. There is a real majesty.”
And the beauty of Jim Morrison can go one way or the other - it can mask that, or it can be a way in!
“Well, it was definitely a way in for my wife! She always had a huge poster of Jim Morrison by her bed, and whenever I would go to visit her at university when I was 18 I would think, ‘Hmm, that's a lot to live up to…’”
WIRE: “I'm a huge Go-Betweens fan, and they've always been a big influence, from “Lee Remick” through to "Spring Rain" and "Head Full of Steam”. They’re such an underrated band, with at least ten or 12 cold stone-cold classics. "Finding You” is late period Go-Betweens, and therefore is a bit overlooked. Obviously, Grant McLennan died quite young, when they were reaching a second peak.
“It really inspired me to write a lot. It has such a lyrical flow. I'm obsessed with how words fold into each other and it had a big influence on the way I wanted to make the words for this album really easy for James to sing. There's a line in "Finding You" - "Then the lightning finds us / Burns away our kindness" - which is just a lovely, unexpected line.
BEST FIT: It's simplistic, but in the most beautiful way. It's economical.
“I think Grant's lyrics are more like that. Some of the others' become more complicated, with narratives and characters. But Grant's always seem more personal, and dare I say, quite tragic at times. I was watching the brilliant documentary about them during lockdown, and I went back to thinking about how a song will find you: if you write something that's deep and meaningful to yourself, one day someone else will get that as well. That's always been a Manics thing too - push something out into the universe and hopefully someone grabs hold of it.”
And not just for other people to find. I'm thinking of the way that you as a band rediscover old songs, putting them back in the setlist or referencing them. Rediscovering things and seeing them from a different position fits in so well with the idea of this being late period Go-Betweens as well: being more mature and looking at things in a different way.
“I remember when the banking crisis happened, we started playing "Nat West-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds" a lot. At the time there was almost a sense of ridicule that we'd write a song like that, about the horse of the apocalypse being Barclays Bank. But when it all came crashing down, it had a real relevance."
WIRE: “This goes back to my love of greatest hits albums. When I was young, they were such a great entry point to music, whether it was my mum's Best of The Carpenters or Neil Diamond, or ABBA's Greatest hits. For myself, there were some key ones, like The Cure's Standing on a Beach, or Echo and the Bunnymen's Songs to Learn & Sing. Joan Armatrading was one of those. I played her greatest hits Love and Affection non-stop when I was young. It really evokes memories of my youth, watching The Old Grey Whistle Test.
“As a lonesome person myself, I remember getting a lot of comfort from "Me Myself I". The lyric has a point of view that sometimes the greatest thing in life is doing it on your own. It's quite pointed at times, it's almost like ‘Fuck off! I don't need all of this stuff if I have to do it with everyone else!’ "I wanna go to China / And to see Japan - but by myself!” "I wanna be by myself / I came in this world alone" - such a great line.
“She was such a strong woman, especially for that era. She was always in control and always doing what she wanted. The song is a real statement of intent really - a very individualist statement, which I'm not usually drawn to as a rule.
BEST FIT: It did make me think of the dichotomy of your stage presence combined with your lyrics on something like "Mr Carbohydrate", a plea to just be at home.
“I think I have been really lucky to be able to separate those two things. It has always been such a joy to go on stage and live out a fantasy - not to be another person, but to be a version of myself that comes out in that scenario. Then go home, close the curtains and hide away. I think it's kept me sane. If you let that stage persona into your normal life, that's probably when things start to go wrong. And once you have kids, it's not gonna happen anymore. Save your ego for the stage, they don't give a shit! It really is the great leveller, the irrelevance of being in your own household.
This song is also on the inspirations playlist for the new Manics record. Is the connection there a lyrical thing?
“It is definitely a lyrical thing. The song "Happy Bored Alone" in particular was me trying to find a title like "Me Myself I". I went around the houses and came up with something which is Manics-esque. For people from my generation, especially if you're in a band, you really do have to deal with boredom. Mostly your life is waiting for soundchecks, waiting to check into hotels or airports, being on buses for 20 hours. If you can't deal with boredom, then you do tend to fuck up. It does seem that young kids find it really hard to deal with any kind of boredom, and I can see that with my kids. Which is understandable, because of the digital coercion around them.
“To me, the idea of boredom is something to treasure. I long to be able to say to someone, ‘I'm so fucking bored’ - it usually means you're relaxed! I think it's something that should be taught - how to accept boredom and mediocrity sometimes. Because life is lived a lot in the middle, with the extremes of the downs and the ups on either side.”
WIRE: “She is such a talent. She's made many great records since, but "Are You With Me Now" is such a big, honest song. I think she said it was about her gran or her aunt passing away. "It's not impossible / It's not unfathomable / It's not unusual, baby / To feel the shadow and cry". Oh God! Such a great lyric. I absolutely adore the Mug Museum album; it's so realised in its simplicity and in its clever lyrics. I think she really is a one-off, she's almost like the female John Cale. She's always doing something interesting, even if it throws you off the scent a little bit.”
BEST FIT: What was it like working with her?
“We're lucky enough that she sang on one of our songs "4 Lonely Roads", which I absolutely adore. I actually wrote the music for it, and she was so gracious and cool about doing it. She booked a studio because she was in LA at the time, and at the start of the song you can actually hear her shoes. I think she might have had a slight heel on, because you can hear a little clippity-clop going to the mic, which we kept on there because it's such a lovely thing. She toured with us as well, and it was just her, no band. She stood there in front of thousands of Manics fans every night, fearless. She always seems to follow her own path.”
One of my favourite elements of the recent Manics era is the way that you've integrated female voices into a lot of your songs. It feels like an expansion into not just other voices, but other points of view.
“Yes, from "Your Love Alone Is Not Enough" onwards - with Nina Persson, who is one of my favourite lyric writers and vocalists of all time - then Georgia Ruth, The Anchoress, and Julia Cumming on this record. It is a real thrill. For James in particular, just in a vocal texture sense, he does get sick of his own voice because he's been doing it for so long. Getting a different palette has made a big difference.
“Every time we're making a record, and we get someone sending their vocal back for us, it's the most exciting moment. It always works if they've bought into the song, which so far, they have. We treat them as duets as well."
That approach feels quite unusual, especially when so much pop music now is reliant on features and collaborations in a much different way.
“It can be quite cynical, just to get on streaming platforms by having as many famous names as you can. We've always resisted that. I mean, I'd love to have Joan Armatrading on the next record or something like that, if there was a song that really jumped out.”
You got Ian McCulloch on Postcards from a Young Man, so it feels like you could get anyone?
“That was probably the most amazing one really. Echo and the Bunnymen was James and Sean's first concert, then 15, 20 years later he's in our studio singing one of our songs.”
BEST FIT: Speaking of people who you have worked with...
WIRE: “When I spoke to Julia and asked her to do "The Secret He Had Missed" I said I was more excited for her record than ours! I'm a big fanboy with Sunflower Bean. They're such a great band, everything about them, not just Julia. I think “Twentytwo” is probably my favourite song of the last five or six years. There's some great lines about being damaged, and the expectations of youth and exploitation. It almost has a Dylan Thomas quality: "I do not go quietly / Into the night that calls me" reminds me of “Do not go gentle into that good night”. I did say that to Julia, and I think she might have had a bit of inspiration from it.”
When I heard "The Secret He Had Missed" I instantly thought of ABBA, from the quality of the piano to the style of the boy/girl duet.
“She did her vocals in the studio in New York, and I mentioned that we were looking for the glacial control of ABBA. It came back and we thought it was Agnetha on there or something - her voice really fitted into the aesthetic of the song. We live in a world where vocals are all about endless showing off. The great thing about ABBA is there's always an icy control in the singing, and I kind of miss that.
"I mean, I grew up thinking Lou Reed was the best vocalist in the world! I find it really depressing, the endless going up and down the scales, I just cannot stand that kind of singing. Julia could sing anything, but she can be really restrained as well. James is also really trying to restrain himself, vocally and guitar-wise on this record, trying to hold everything back.”
WIRE: “Certain songs really affect you. I've always been a fan of David Berman, but I think Purple Mountains is his most complete and realised record. The band on it are great too, they really seem to zone into the psyche and aesthetic of the record, and the lyrics are crushingly heart-breaking, even before what happened afterwards with David.
"I love that line, "Rolled in through the holes in the stories I told / Conditions I'm wishing weren't taking control" - such a brilliant lyric that's stuck with me. And the video is heart-breaking. The whole album really is a complete masterpiece.”
BEST FIT: His writing - and this song especially - has that economy that we were talking about earlier. He slowly reveals details through the repetition and the slight changes, and it's heart-breaking.
“When I first heard it, I wondered if it was a metaphor for life. But when you see the video, you're like, ‘Fucking hell.’ I still don't know whether it's more metaphorical or about his personal relationship. I guess that's the great mystery of lyric writing. Someone like him throws so many little curveballs. Like you said, it just reveals itself line by line, then by the end it doesn't leave you much hope.”
WIRE: “I was never a huge Arctic Monkeys fan until Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino, which I think is absolutely a work of genius. But Submarine is probably my favourite film of the last 10 years. I absolutely adore it, probably because it relates to an area which is quite close to me. I'm sure Alex Turner didn't set out to do this - how could he have? - but this song is so evocative of my youth, as is the film.”
BEST FIT: It's amazing how some songs immediately have that call back - like nostalgia, but from a new song.
“Yes, because it is really nostalgic, but it's from a generation that is a lot younger than me. I'm 52, so there must be at least fifteen years, maybe a bigger age gap, but there's something that places the song in the film. It’s just so evocative of darkness and South Wales.”
What other soundtracks do you like listening to?
“I think Submarine is my favourite soundtrack of all time, along with McCabe & Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman, which is just four or five songs written by Leonard Cohen. I usually hate music in films. I can't stand fucking big swells of strings, or electronic pulses. I would rather have none, unless they're songs written for the film, which is not something that’s done very often.
"Even with Apocalypse Now when The Doors come in, at least that's proper music, rather than some fucker pissing around. Half the time there's absolutely no need for it. I'm clever enough to know the crescendo is coming, I really don't need a massive orchestra to tell me what's happening.”
BEST FIT: The Anchoress is another very close musician to the Manics, what is it that draws you to her?
WIRE: “She is too talented, actually [laughs]. She seems to be able to play any instrument, her voice is great, her lyrics are really powerful and honest, she's totally in control of everything that she presents. She's quite frightening actually.
“There's a real ominous power to "Show Your Face", there really is confidence. I think this song and the last album in particular seems like a peak, where everything comes together. Sometimes you can’t tell when those things happen - sometimes it's luck, sometimes it's circumstance, sometimes it comes from a bad experience or sometimes something good.
“I often love the way that when we play with her, she looks like she's nicked my wardrobe from 1992 to ‘95. She always outdoes me! She rocks up in an amazing leopard print catsuit or something, and I'm thinking, ‘Oh god, why can't I look like that anymore?!’”
She's really got the audacity as well as the look. That's a certain attitude that I think all of the people that you have been collaborating with have - especially the women.
“I think 'audacious' is actually a brilliant word for her. There is an audacity. I'm a huge believer in aesthetics, which comes from reading a lot of Susan Sontag, especially her Against Interpretation essay. Sometimes, you just need to look at something to know it's right, you don't have to over-explain it. The first time I saw certain things on Top of the Pops, I just thought, ‘I want to be that, I want to aspire to that’, and I feel that with Catherine [Ann Davies, AKA The Anchoress].
“There's an attitude, there's an aesthetic, something you can't really describe. I do worry that that's being taken out of music, because everything has to have a backstory and everything has to have context, rather than that visceral experience of just being blown away by something.”
That's another Manics thing too – that essence of something that you can't quite grasp or describe. It's like charisma, but then also something else too: a sense of a hidden world that someone is the key to.
“The initial draw can be charisma, but then there's something deeper in there that draws you in and transports you to different worlds. That's certainly filtered through to us as people, and our band, because that's what has always excited us. It could be anything: it could be seeing Greil Marcus on the TV, or a writer or an actor, or a film. The first time I saw John Cooper Clarke on the telly looking like Keith Richards but saying all these words - I didn't need to know anything more than that initially. It just drew me in, and then it gave me the opportunity to delve deep.”
BEST FIT: This is a wonderful Roxy song, although there's so many to choose from.
WIRE: “The reason I love “Same Old Scene” is because it was in the film Times Square. "Damn Dog" (by Robin Johnson) is also in there, which we covered on Generation Terrorists. “Same Old Scene” is the first thing you hear and the last thing, and it's really futuristic sounding. It's not easy to play on chords or anything. It's just a really odd song. You feel like you're driving a car fast through New York or something.
“I am an outlier in that I do prefer post-Eno Roxy. Even though they look amazing, I find some of the Eno stuff almost a bit too jokey. I think some of the stuff they did post-Eno gets really overlooked, so I'm making a stand for the later period. I know it's the slick Bryan Ferry era, or at least it seems like that to a lot of people. "Love is the Drug" is unbelievable in its sex appeal, and I'm a big fan of "Avalon" and "Over You". I feel with Roxy Music that their entirety is overlooked at times.”
My favourite Roxy album is Stranded. I once read a Michael Bracewell essay that said it was Brian Eno's favourite as well because it was the first one that he wasn't on, so he could properly enjoy it.
“[Laughs] “So he could properly enjoy it...” It's a good record! I like Stranded as well.
The later Roxy stuff has got that reputation of being slick, but there's always a darker side to it.
“They almost became a yuppie band didn't they? Or a stockbroker band. He always seemed to be on safari, or hanging out with aristocrats, but people forget he was a working-class Geordie, and an art school product. There's something haunting about "Same Old Scene", with the film as an analogy for a relationship. There's always an underbelly of discontent. With that final line, "Now you've made an offer I'll take some more", there's a seediness. The slick contentedness is certainly not in the words.”
The last few Manics albums especially have had a brightness to them, which the lyrics undercut.
“There's a real subtlety, which I've tried to get from stuff like Roxy. We're getting old as well, and your mindset changes anyway, but there's a sort of seductive subtlety which does mask a real fucking misery at times [laughs]. I've always tried to get that kind of melancholia or misery into songs. I mean, "You Stole the Sun from My Heart" has become a bit of a wedding song, and it's actually a song about ripping the light out of your life! Someone stealing it. I've seen it at wedding dances and thought, ‘I'm not sure this is good for your future.’”
“All those kinds of seditious sort of things have been a part of us for the last 30 years. Like "Tolerate...", to have a song that big where not everyone knows the meaning of it. It's always an achievement to us when we break through those barriers.”