Happy 25th Anniversary to Manic Street Preachers’ third studio album The Holy Bible, originally released August 30, 1994.
What more can be said about Manic Street Preachers’ third record The Holy Bible? It’s a serious question and one that I asked myself many times before tackling this retrospective.
Since its release twenty-five years ago, the record has been autopsied countless times. In articles, essays, interviews, documentary films, and PHD dissertation after PHD dissertation. Biographies of the band, such as Simon Price’s exquisite Everything, dwell on the era that surrounds the record, hovering over the details that led to the writing and creation of the music, the Beatlemania type frenzy of the band’s tour in Thailand, the European gigs with Suede, the British festival appearances, the mismatched military uniforms, the infamous Top of the Pops performance of the record’s first single “Faster” that generated over 25,000 complaints from viewers, the final gig at London’s Astoria where the band smashed up every instrument, amplifier and light fitting causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.
Then of course the focus moves to the depression, self-harm, hospitalization and disappearance of Richey Edwards, the band’s guitarist, the record’s chief lyricist and the main architect of the band’s persona. That this period of the band’s history happened all within the space of less than a year and not an entire lifetime is astounding.
In recent years, the record has been revisited via two published studies. The book Triptych (Repeater Books, 2015) featured three extensive books rolled into one from the perspective of three separate authors that concentrated on the record’s music, artwork and literary pointers. More recently, Bloomsbury’s prestigious 33 ⅓ series published a slim, though well researched and well thought out tome on the record and its impact on its author David Evans (you’ll find my interview with him below).
Despite its dour worldview, antagonistic posture, and, at the time, quite poor sales, The Holy Bible has been recast as a triumph of extreme art, a perception that the fans and the band themselves have been happy to help promote. The record has also been honored with two in-depth retrospective reissues—one on its tenth anniversary and another on its twentieth—followed by a tour and a cumulative performance at Cardiff Castle in which the band dolled themselves up in military regalia and spun the record out in its entirety followed by another set of crowd-pleasing hit singles.
So what more can be said?
I’ll offer here a personal perspective of the record because, in essence, this is all I have, what any of us really have, and an argument I have made in many of my writings on Manic Street Preachers: a version of the band that is ours and ours only.
Manic Street Preachers had made no sense to me until late 1996 and only through the lens of Britpop did they emerge in my line of sight. There had been previous echoes of the band as my listening tastes broadened and developed. My older sister owned the band’s second record Gold Against the Soul (1993) on cassette tape. I stole it from her shelf, listened to the first few tracks and tossed it aside. It wasn’t Iron Maiden, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses or Def Leppard enough for me. It was too emotional, too soft. I overheard a radio broadcast about the disappearance of Edwards and shrugged it off as another casualty of rock & roll excess. I had succumbed to American rock and grunge, where my interests lay until Oasis blew up and my focus returned to the music scene that was happening within my own shores.
Manic Street Preachers lay on the periphery. Not Britpop enough, not hard rock enough. When they released the single “Australia” from their mega-selling post-Bible record, Everything Must Go (1996), something just clicked. I was hooked and obsessed with their history almost instantly.
After receiving Everything Must Go as a Christmas present, the record stayed in my CD player for six months solid. For my birthday the following July, I was gifted the band's debut record Generation Terrorists (1992). A CD copy of Gold Against the Soul was acquired at some point (possibly my sister gave me a copy as I have no recollection of purchasing it) and towards the end of the summer I geared up towards buying The Holy Bible, a record I'd only read about in passing from snippets in the music press, the consensus perspective being that the record was a bit "dark.”
In the blistering summer of 1997, I made my way to the local HMV and found the record in the stacks. I returned home and slipped it into the player, took out the inlay booklet that contained the lyrics and hit play on my machine.
Confusion. Utter, utter confusion.
The opening lines of the opening song "Yes" read "for sale, dumb cunt same dumb questions.” The tune to “Yes” was also a bit nauseating. The second song was titled "Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit'sworldwouldfallapart" and seemed, like its title, to contain too many words for the music to accommodate. The third song was called “Of Walking Abortion.” I motioned my finger further down the track listing: “Mausoleum.” “Die in the Summertime,” "The Intense Humming of Evil.” The description of “dark” did not quite cut it. The Holy Bible was scathing, unrepentant, horrifying.
Throughout the record, small snippets of recorded dialogue can be heard. On “Mausoleum” the voice of British author J.G. Ballard summarizes his 1973 novel Crash by saying, “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror.” This single quotation perfectly encapsulates The Holy Bible at its core. The record wishes to put the listener on trial. The vitriol is directly pointed at you (“who’s responsible / you fucking are” - “Of Walking Abortion”).
This did not gel with the brash naive glitter of the band’s debut record or the stauncher and reserved intelligence of Everything Must Go. The surrounding Britpop scene was about having a lark and enjoying life. Anthems like Blur’s "Girls & Boys," Supergrass' "Alright" and to an extent the holler of “we only want to get drunk” from the Manics’ own “A Design for Life” surely confirmed this.
The summer of 1997 was a jubilant time. Cool Britannia, Noel and Meg, Liam and Patsy, Damon and Justine all loved up on the front pages of the daily newspapers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the offices of parliamentary power and pushing a liberal-left agenda on the country. It felt great to be young and alive. The Holy Bible was something else, something that could not be understood in the confines of a small bedroom on a summer’s day in the new clothes of a third way liberal democracy. No disillusionment had crept into my pretty decent and laddish existence. Yet.
I skipped around the track listing, hoping in vain to find some resemblance to normality, some fragment of the band I had come to love for delivering their intelligence in easy-to-digest sweeping pop statements. It was there only slightly in the sad and delicate twilight of “This is Yesterday,” but nowhere else. Like other records that have challenged me as a listener, such as Nirvana’s In Utero (1993), there was a requirement to peel back the layers of sound, structure and lyrics in order to comprehend the music. A level of maturity—or at least perceived maturity —needed to be reached. I wasn't close.
I don’t recall the day The Holy Bible clicked, but I do remember seeing the band tour their fifth record, the magnificent This is My Truth Tell Me Yours in late 1998 and the Holy Bible songs they played that night (“This is Yesterday” and “Faster,” if I recall correctly) alongside the new songs and the old hits seemed to propel them into my consciousness. I gave The Holy Bible another shot. Older, wiser, more experienced with music of a difficult nature, I opened myself back up to the possibility and the experience, and was instantly rewarded.
It took more study than any other Manics record. I often take a look at the original CD booklet and notice the yellowing sweaty thumb stains in the center of the inlay booklet, as I held it out in front of me, learning and dissecting every lyric by heart.
Had I suffered some to reach this understanding? A broken heart? Sure, but young hearts mend easily. A brush with depression? Easily fixed with a drink and a chat down the local pub. A crisis of faith? Not likely. No real explanation as to why it happened for a year or two after originally buying the record, but my reasoning is that I was more aware of the world, the burning injustices, the pre-millennial tension that was building, the perils of history and of history repeating itself "first as tragedy, then as farce" as Karl Marx once said.
Huh? Karl Marx. That's kind of random to throw him in. Well, this is kinda the point I'm trying to make. The Manics’ constant quotation in record sleeves of historical figures and the band's vividly brilliant lyricism of historical events prepped me for the eventual understanding of The Holy Bible and well beyond.
Along with a cluster of bands (The Smiths, The Fall, and The Clash to name a few), Manic Street Preachers are considered an ultimate portal band, an idea made eloquent by the late cultural critic Mark Fisher. Through lyrics and artwork, these bands allow the listener to follow many avenues of literature, film, music, philosophy, and political ideology. Because of the Manics, I’d read Marx, Plath, Ginsburg, Solanas, listened to Morrissey, Marr, Curtis, spat out Chuck D and Brando. The Holy Bible was the ultimate portal record. The song "Revol" for example features more political figures (Lenin, Pol Pot, Stalin, Guevara) in its thrilling three-minute rush than you might hear about in a three-year politics degree.
It’s here that I realized something about Manic Street Preachers. Whilst they certainly operate within their so-called eras, one cannot separate those records from the greater picture. The ideals behind every song were and still remain the same: an adherence to intelligence and a need to challenge the listener no matter what the subject. There is anger in almost everything the Manics do, a working class rage, a punk rock spirit, but it is always channeled differently. On The Holy Bible, the anger is spilling over and ferocious. On Everything Must Go and This is My Truth, the same anger is there, but it’s coupled with a more focused and refined resentment and studied melancholia.
To think of The Holy Bible as an anomaly, a blade that punctures the narrative of the band, is a mistake. It has to be heard as a perfectly executed part of the evolution in sound. The real spanner in the works came with the disappearance of Richey Edwards that changed the direction and tone of the remaining members. The confrontation heard on Generation Terrorists and The Holy Bible was scaled back and could never really be repeated, though they certainly tried on 2001’s Know Your Enemy.
No more youthful proclamations of “I laughed when Lennon got shot” as they had delivered on “Motown Junk” or “I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer” as they had boasted on “Faster.” Now the band’s approach was “analysis through paralysis” (from the EMG era B-side “Dead Trees and Traffic Islands”), or in other words, treading on the shadow of Edwards whilst still, in essence, remaining the same band to themselves and their fans, new and old.
So, yes a lot has been written and said about The Holy Bible. And what I've written here is not original nor has it added anything new to the discussion about this record. I've lightly trod on the same ground everyone else has. Everyone is guilty.
And yet, despite all of this content, the record still offers a fascination that seems, 25 years later, insatiable. I want to read more. I want to know more. I want to see and hear other perspectives. Even if we tread over old ground, it is old ground trod in a fresh pair of shoes. To know what others think and feel about not just the The Holy Bible, but any Manics release, any part of the band's history, is to be enlightened by that singular experience that no one else has had.
And now we turn to another perspective, that of writer David Evans, who recently authored The Holy Bible installment of Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series of music books.
When did you become a fan of Manic Street Preachers, and how have they, as a band, influenced you as a writer and thinker?
I became a fan of the Manics in 2001, when I was in my mid-teens. I remember being dimly aware of them when they were at the height of their popularity in the 1990s, but I was more interested in the likes of Steps at the time. I’d bought a compilation CD called Q Anthems, which was full of some really quite awful music. But “A Design for Life” was on there, and that was the hook. Soon afterwards I got hold of Simon Price’s brilliant biography of the band, which taught me the history, and worked my way through their back catalogue.
Beyond the music, the thing that really drew me in was an idea that permeates everything they’ve done—that pop music at its best is deeply embedded in society and entwined with wider culture. The Manics’ records were like mini-encyclopedias that featured quotes from films and literature and encouraged you to strike out and explore new cultural landscapes.
There was a Reithian element to their approach: they wanted to inform and educate, as well as entertain. Without their influence, I would never have studied philosophy at university, or gone on to write about Herman Melville, whose name I first came across on the sleeve of an early Manics single. They completely changed my life, and there are lots of other fans with similar stories.
You decided to write about one particular Manic Street Preachers album, The Holy Bible. Why did you select this album and why do you still think it resonates 25 years after it was released?
The Holy Bible will always be associated with Richey Edwards’ disappearance in 1995, not long after the album’s release, and that’s where a lot of the lingering interest comes from. For many people, The Holy Bible holds the key to a great rock & roll mystery.
But for me, trying to read the record through the prism of Richey’s troubles tends to obscure more than it reveals. I was more interested in taking the album on its own terms: as a treatise on history, politics and human nature. What keeps me coming back to The Holy Bible, and what I really wanted to write about in the book, is Richey’s urge for creative expression in spite of the horrors he documents. I also wanted to do justice to the music, which has tended to go under-appreciated. James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore do a heroic job in translating the lyrics into music that has a gracefulness and life-affirming energy all its own. Finally, I wanted to explore the continuing influence of the album on the band and the fans whose lives it changed.
Lyrically speaking, the album has come under great scrutiny, especially in the wake of the disappearance of the record’s main author, Richey Edwards. What’s your perspective on The Holy Bible’s lyrical themes and Edwards’ legacy?
Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire shared lyric writing duties in the Manics, but The Holy Bible is mostly Richey’s work (aside from “This is Yesterday,” one of the gentler lyrics on the record). The Holy Bible’s themes include sex work, American imperialism, fascism, serial murder, genocide and political correctness. The band are from a staunchly socialist area in South Wales and always espoused left-wing causes, and the album can be read in that light. They are standing up for the underdog and standing against imperialism and capitalist excess, although a couple of the lyrics could be construed as libertarian in outlook.
Part of what animates the album is a horror at the prospect of resurgent far-right politics in Europe. Richey emphasizes the need to learn the lessons of the past, and part of the reason for the somewhat feverish tone of his writing is that this leads him to ask questions about how fascism exploits weaknesses in human nature. He preaches vigilance against the threat of political extremism—a theme that has taken on a fresh relevance in 2019.
There are also more personal lyrics, which have sometimes been read as premonitions of Richey’s own impending breakdown: the likes of “Die in the Summertime,” “Faster” and “4st 7Ibs.” But while these songs may well reflect Richey’s state of mind at the time, they are also perfectly crafted pieces of writing that demonstrate his awesome command of language. Take the famous line from “4st 7Ibs,” which is a song about an anorexic starving herself to death: “I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint.” On the one hand, the line may indicate Richey’s own desire to fade away, but it’s also a covert assertion of self; in its honed beauty, it leaves a trace of the author on the page and in our minds. It’s also a testament to Richey’s voracious reading. During my research I came across a similar image in one of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-known plays, Eccentricities of a Nightingale (Richey was a big Williams fan), which I think is probably the inspiration behind it.
You connect the record to the band's home of Wales. What makes The Holy Bible a Welsh record?
The Holy Bible isn’t usually seen as a very Welsh album, for some good reasons and some bad ones. It’s true that the band haven’t deliberately framed it as a “Welsh record” in the way they did later albums such as This is My Truth Tell Me Yours and Rewind the Film, but their background in South Wales helps to make sense of The Holy Bible in several important ways.
First, there’s the very strong sense of working-class autodidacticism in the lyrics—most notably on songs like “Faster” and “PCP,” in which Richey is rejecting stereotypes of the working classes as anti-intellectual or boorish: “I am a pioneer, they call me a primitive…”. The Valleys communities of South Wales always put a strong emphasis on working-class literacy and self-improvement, and the album productively taps into that history.
Then there is the Welsh chapel tradition, which Richey spoke of as an influence on the record. He was taken to a Methodist church as a child and was terrorized by the fire-and-brimstone preachers there; I argue that you can detect the cadences of those sermons in his writing. Finally, the music itself is indelibly linked to the environment of South Wales. Many post-punk bands, from Joy Division on, emerged from industrial areas to make music that reflected the landscapes that surrounded them, and The Holy Bible is very much a post-punk album in that respect. You can hear echoes of Valleys industry in the album’s harsh metallic atmosphere. The producer, Alex Silva, integrated samples of white noise that he collected from a Welsh steelworks while he was working on a local theatre production about the origins of the Industrial Revolution.
The focus of The Holy Bible has always been Richey Edwards, but you also focus on the musical accompaniment provided by the band's singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore, which I always felt was never appreciated as much. Tell us about the musical styles and structures that give The Holy Bible its backbone?
The Holy Bible obviously takes its musical cues from post-punk bands such as Joy Division, The Pop Group and especially Magazine (whose guitarist John McGeoch was a big influence on Bradfield). This makes sense, as the Manics shared a great deal with the original post-punk bands—the formative years in a post-industrial area of Britain, the commitment to intelligent lyrics and (on this album at least) sonic experimentation. I argue that The Holy Bible can be understood as an example of what Mark Fisher called, with reference to post-punk, “popular modernism,” a kind of working-class avant-garde. That said, The Holy Bible’s music isn’t just cerebral, it’s viscerally exciting and, at times, toe-tappingly catchy, which wasn’t always true of post-punk.
What do you think of Manic Street Preachers today? How has the legacy of The Holy Bible guided them?
The Manics have become national treasures in the quarter-century after The Holy Bible, something no one could have predicted when they emerged on the scene in the early 1990s as anachronistic punk upstarts. They’ve always acknowledged the album as their masterwork, but they’ve also tried hard not to make anything that sounded remotely like it again. Their musical template for the post-Richey years—strings, anthemic choruses—was something like the opposite of The Holy Bible, although you can detect some of its avant-garde ambition in later records such as 2014’s Futurology.
As The Holy Bible’s 20th anniversary approached, there was talk of an album-in-full tour. I remember being at the launch event for Futurology at a record shop in London in the summer of 2014, where the band unexpectedly played four or five Holy Bible songs. At the signing session afterwards, I asked James about the possibility of a full Holy Bible show, and he bristled slightly. That suggested to me that the band were still conflicted about the whole thing until quite a late stage—understandably so, given that taking The Holy Bible on tour would mean revisiting a difficult time in their lives, as well as trying to re-enact their finest hour as a band.
But in the event those gigs went ahead and they were perfectly pitched, they never felt staid or contrived, and there was never a whiff of cashing-in. The album truly came alive on that tour. It was a fitting tribute to The Holy Bible, and to Richey.