"Do you mind if I wear this as a laugh?" The true story of the night that 25,000 thick British TV viewers thought Manic Street Preachers had started supporting Irish terrorists

Manic Street Preachers
(Image credit: BBC TV)

In their early years, Manic Street Preachers were not afraid to put a few noses out of joint. Memorably, while making their debut performance at Glastonbury Festival in 1994, bassist Nicky Wire suggested that urban planners should "build some more fucking bypasses over this shithole." Guitarist Richey Edwards, meanwhile, suggested in 1991 that he hated shoegaze pioneers Slowdive "more than Hitler". The following year, onstage at the Kilburn National in London, Wire told the audience “I hope Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury”, a savage comment which the Welshman later deeply regretted, even if he did at times try to suggest he was making a point about how  the lives (and deaths) of 'celebrities' should not be venerated above those of 'regular people.

"If we’d wished for the immediate death of Prince Edward, John Major or Margaret Thatcher, would you have been offended?" the bassist asked a journalist from the now defunct UK music weekly Melody Maker. "Or would you have laughed?"

The 'outrage' inspired by these incidents, in truth, remained largely confined to the pages of Britain's music papers, though when the band were given a platform to put their music before a mainstream audience with a 1994 appearance on Top Of The Pops, they learned that horrifying the nation wasn't exactly difficult. 

Faster/PCP, the first single from the Blackwood quartet's third album, the brilliant The Holy Bible, was released on May 31, 1994. Given that the band had racked up 10 consecutive Top 40 singles after Stay Beautiful reached number 40 in the summer of 1991, it was something of a no-brainer that the Manics would score another hit with their new double A-side single, even if advance word on The Holy Bible suggested that it was an altogether more 'unfriendly' listen than its predecessor, 1993's Gold Against The Soul. So when the single duly entered the charts at number 16, an invitation was extended to the group to play the June 9 edition of Top Of The Pops, to be presented by comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

On a show which featured Wet Wet Wet's drippy ballad Love is All Around and the Pet Shop Boys' Comic Relief single Absolutely Fabulous featuring excerpts from the BBC comedy show of the same name, the Manics were always going to stand out, but the fact that they took to the stage in army fatigues, with frontman James Dean Bradfield sporting a black balaclava with the word 'James' Tipp-Exed on it, caused viewers nationwide to spit out their tea.

“I remember chatting with them in the dressing room,” former Top Of The Pops producer Ric Blaxill recalls in a new interview with The Telegraph, “and James had this balaclava, which had been knitted for him by his nan or aunty or something. He said, ‘Do you mind if I wear this as a laugh to show her that I’m wearing it?’ I said, Yeah, sounds like a hoot!”

“I kind of liked having bands who gave the show an edge sometimes,” Blaxill adds. “I wanted a bit of rebellion and thinking outside the world of pop.”

The viewing public were less enamoured of the performance than the show's producer however, and the BBC reportedly received a record 25,000 complaints, with most complainants voicing their horror with what they interpreted as a show of solidarity for one of the various paramilitary organisations in the North of Ireland, something of a leap of imagination, given that the Manics had never previously commented upon the actions of the IRA, the UVF, or any other terrorist organisation. 

“Because we were all dressed in army regalia, it felt like we were parodying the use of legitimate power, like the special forces,” James Dead Bradfield later told The Guardian. “It didn't enter our heads that people would see it as an Irish paramilitary symbol.”

"The day after,” Nicky Wire told Q in 2013, “Sony were saying, ‘You'll never get on Top of the Pops again!’.”

The label's paranoia was unfounded.

“We loved playing on Top of The Pops,” the band later wrote on Twitter. “We’d grown up watching it- so much fun, so many memories sat in the canteen spotting the cast of Eastenders. This is PEAK alienation and rage.”

The balaclava, incidentally, was last seen in the Manics' studio, being used as a tea cosy. 

Manic Street Preachers - Faster (Top Of The Pops 1994) - YouTube Manic Street Preachers - Faster (Top Of The Pops 1994) - YouTube
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Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.