Revisiting: Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible
There have been a lot of reminders recently for my generation that we’re getting old. The onward march of time means that records which soundtracked my coming of age – Definitely Maybe, Siamese Dreams, Parklife, In Utero – are now at least 20-years-old. There is a classic album from this time that still resonates with and shocks every new listener who comes across it. It is what I consider to be the Manic Street Preachers’ finest work: The Holy Bible.
The Manics were a glam-punk four-piece from the valleys of South Wales who burst onto the British indie-rock scene with a confused music press trying to work out what they were. Were they provincial oiks with art school pretensions or were they genuine agit-punk visionaries put down by a snobbish London-centric press? These were genuine concerns for the band, so much so that charismatic rhythm guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards carved the legend ‘4REAL’ into his arm during an intense interview with Steve Lamacq, who was writing for the NME at the time.
Their first album, Generation Terrorists, was a mixed bag ranging from Guns ’N’ Roses-style cock rock to Clash-esque punk with a smattering of glam. It produced six singles including ‘You Love Us’ and ‘Little Baby Nothing’ featuring former porn star Traci Lords, but failed to get any where near the 16 million copies the band arrogantly predicted they would sell worldwide. The second album, Gold Against The Soul, was a smoother, more corporate sounding record. Maybe the sound of a band chastised by their own over-ambitiousness, a band following the advice of their major label to chisel the edges off.
This decision to compromise still rankles with them to this day, as they describe their sophomore effort as their least favourite album. Professionally, they were at a low ebb compounded by the troubled and erratic behaviour of Richey Edwards. Eschewing their label’s offer to record their third album in Barbados, the band consciously stepped back from taking every opportunity and resource offered to them, trying to rediscover what kind of artist they wanted to be and sound like.
Consciously ignoring American influences, the four-piece solidly listened to British punk and new wave, such as the Skids, Wire, Joy Division and Public Image Limited, in order to rid themselves of any corporate sound that had ‘infected’ their previous work. Indeed, of the thirteen tracks on The Holy Bible only ‘She Is Suffering’ sounds like it could have been on Gold Against The Soul. They were happier being near home, recording in Cardiff, rather than an expensive Caribbean studio hideaway.
In lead up to these sessions, vocalist/guitarist James Dean Bradfield had the unenviable task of putting music to Edwards intimidating lyrics. Writing in the band was usually split between Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore providing the music behind Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire’s lyrics, with these words being a 50/50 collaboration. For this record though Edwards was riding a creative wave that was as soaring and destructive as his troubled private life and the lyrics were about 75 percent his.
1994 was the peak of his, and the band’s, creativity and also the nadir of his problems. A long time sufferer of depression, Edwards’ dependency on alcohol and self harm “escalated to a point where everybody got a bit frightened” according to Wire and he was battling anorexia to a point that his weight was down to six stone at one stage. His lyrics were a kaleidoscope of postcards outlining everything from his dissatisfaction with the band’s direction to the holocaust, with politics, prostitution and the death penalty in between. It was never going to be an easy sell for the record company and it was as difficult for Bradfield to write music for them, opting in most cases to go for a frantic scattergun delivery with crunching, fast riffs that sets the album apart from the rest of the bands oeuvre.
Dissecting lyrical meaning from such layered songs is never an easy thing to do and there will always be question marks over this album, due to what happened five months after it was released. On the eve of trip to the USA to promote the stateside release, Edwards went missing. Twenty years later, no one has ever found out for sure what happened. Had he jumped from the Severn Bridge, near where his car was found? Had he run away to Goa to start a new life? With a fan base as fanatical as the Manics there were as many false leads and conspiracies as there were facts.
One way to approach The Holy Bible and its myriad of meanings, is with the quote on the back cover of the album in mind. Taken from Octave Mirabeau’s The Torture Garden it reads:
“You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretences of your civilization, which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That’s the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.”
It reads as a mission statement of sorts. One part diatribe against a hated society, one part mood setter for entering the realms of Edwards’ darkest thoughts. You know from this that the album is not going to be anodyne, sweet pop. For all its catchiness in places, there is no escaping that you are listening to darkest out pourings of a troubled soul.
‘Yes’ opens the album in visceral style dropping the c-bomb in the first line in this look at prostitution, both real life and in metaphor linking the band as a prostitute to the labels pimp. The line that has always stood out to me as a ‘did he just say that?’ is “He’s a boy, you want a girl so tear off his cock, tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want. If you want”. It’s a bold lyric if ever you heard one and one packed with as many questions as it answers, rounded off by the second, more sinister refrain of “if you want”.
‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart’ is as relevant now as it would have been twenty, forty, one hundred years ago, name-checking Sam Colt, Tipper Gore and Abraham Zapruder on the way before continuing the theme of the right wing into ‘Of Walking Abortion’ taking it towards totalitarianism and the unsettling need of humanity to be dominated by ideas “Mussolini hangs from a butchers hook, Hitler reprised in the worm of your soul” and that atrocities are by extension committed by us all – “little people in little houses. Like maggots, small, blind and worthless. The massacred innocent blood stains us all. Who’s responsible? You fucking are.”
‘She is Suffering is probably more suited to the previous album, but can be interpreted as the ‘she’ meaning desire. “In other Bibles and Holy Books, no truth is possible until you empty yourself of desire” stated Edwards in a rare interview after the album’s release. Is he using this interpretation as criticism of religion maligning and attacking femininity? “She is suffering, you exist within her shadow. Beauty she poisons unfaithful all. Stifled, her touch is leprous and pale. The less she gives, the more you need her.”
One of the more controversial tracks for fans and the remaining band members, is Edwards seeming support for capital punishment in ‘Archives of Pain’. “A drained white body hanging from the gallows is more righteous than Hindley’s crochet lectures.” Bradfield feared the resultant message of the song sounds very right wing, but is it more of the dark part of human nature that wants revenge above all else, prevalent in left wing uprisings as much as in right wing crackdowns?
‘Revol’ is a little bit of an enigma with Wire and Bradfield stating that they never got out of Edwards what the lyrics were about. It’s a frenetic staccato delivery of lyrics and made an unlikely and at the same time obvious choice of single. It links political figures with their rumoured causes of failed relationships and maybe no coincidence that Revol is lover backwards, rather than just being short for revolution and that it relates to Edward’s own failed relationships. ‘4st7lbs’ is clearly Edwards at his most self-critical in a paean to his battle with anorexia and the unrealistic expectations it places in the mind of the sufferer “I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint” to its grim conclusion – the weight stated is that where it is believed an adult human body can no longer sustain life.
‘Mausoleum’ and ‘Intense Humming of Evil’ carry on the theme of track three, while ‘Of Walking Abortion’ is about totalitarianism in general, ‘Mausoleum’ was the gas chamber and ‘Intense Humming…’ the Nuremberg trials.
Originally titled ’No Birds’, ‘Mausoleum’ was concerning itself that even birds, bringers of doom in folklore, had no presence at Dachau on a bands visit to the camp even fifty years on like they knew of the horror committed there. The closing verse is warning to those who try to use right wing propaganda to stir hatred “And life can be as important as death. But so mediocre when there’s no air, no light and no hope. Prejudice burns brighter when it’s all we have to burn, The world lances youth’s lamb like winter, winter.” By convincing us we are deprived of our prosperity, they want us to lash out and blame the ‘outsider’.
‘Intense Humming of Evil’ opens with the sound of monotonous industry and an excerpt from the ‘The Nuremberg Trials’ (1947 Soviet documentary) “…the dead will rise… …Bringing with them the acrid smoke and the deathly odour of scorched and martyred Europe. And the children, they too will come, stern and merciless. The butchers had no pity on them. Now the victims will judge the butchers. Today the tear of a child is the judge, the grief of a mother is the prosecutor…” The song is oppressive and unsettling – never an easy listen. The criticism is not just reserved for the Nazis either, “Drink it away, every tear is false, Churchill no different, Wish the workers bled to a machine.” Each side had its crimes against humanity to a degree and to forget this is to wallow pornographically in the evils of our enemy – “Come and walk down memory lane. No one sees a thing but they can pretend” (from Mausoleum).
The lead single from the album, ‘Faster’, is a glamourised view of Edwards’ self-abuse infused with imagery from Orwell’s 1984. “I am stronger than Mensa, miller and mailer, I spat out Plath and Pinter, I am all the things that you regret, A truth that washes that learnt how to spell.” Edwards felt euphoric and heightened to more intellectual level in the aftermath of metal tearing flesh to a point where it became an addiction, “So damn easy to cave in, man kills everything,” the cleansing effect on the mind and the endorphins rush becomes a vicious circle.
‘PCP’ is an attack on the perceived notions of Political Correctness. A lot of arguments have waged over the origin of this term. The left may often accuse the right of adjusting their terminology to one that sounds politically correct and not prejudicial on the surface, while the right accuses the left of trying to inflict a liberal ideal on speech therefore undermining freedom of expression. “Teacher starve your child P.C. approved, as long as the right words are used. Systemised atrocity ignored, as long as bilingual signs on view.” The argument over what language is used blinds us to underlying message of what the speaker is trying to say. A recent example could be Benedict Cumberbatch being lambasted for saying “coloured” and ignoring that he felt Black actors were being discriminated against when roles are cast.
‘This is Yesterday’ is, in comparison to the rest of the album, a gentle nostalgic look to youth and its innocence, but in true Manics style it is a lament to a younger self without the wherewithal to see that their world isn’t really falling apart like it seems “someone somewhere soon will take care of you”. The someone is you with experience and perspective that comes from simply existing longer.
‘Die in the Summertime’ carries on this theme in to old age. Edwards said he wrote it as if a pensioner waiting to die with his thoughts on memories of youth, “I can’t seem to stay a fixed ideal, childhood pictures redeem clean and so serene, see myself without ruining lines,” with summertime being a metaphor for the prime of his life. This of course then begs the question did Edwards purposely die in his summertime? Did he want us to remember him in his physical and artistic prime?
And this is where we are 20 years after I bought this album. Yep, I bought this album after Richey Edwards disappeared and have always internally chastised myself for doing so in some way. It didn’t really matter on the great scheme of things, but after the sales spike of Nirvana albums in April 1994 and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ returning to No1 after Freddie left us I felt like in someway I was bathing in the glamour of someone else’s tormented soul.
With age and *coughs* wisdom has come the realisation that any work of art is a part of the creators soul and we should have to pay in some way to be able to view, listen or wallow in that piece of art whether that be through paying, consuming or just plain experiencing that piece of art. And what a piece of art The Holy Bible is. I firmly believe it is one of the most important albums of the last 30 years. It’s not the most enjoyable of listens, singing along to it is both cathartic and shame-filled – it has lyrical heft in abundance that the band could never again live up to.
I’m of the opinion that they should have followed the influence of Joy Division and reformed themselves under a new name and manifesto after the loss of their creative centre. But then, they never knew if Richey was dead and couldn’t move on in the way New Order could, mourning Ian Curtis – creating a cleaner legacy for Unknown Pleasures and Closer.
As with Joy Division’s oeuvre, The Holy Bible demands to be heard and contemplated by anyone who considers themselves a music fan or, indeed, a humanist.
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, The Holy Bible has been pressed on a picture disc exclusively for Record Store Day. Details here.
Words by Peter Watts