I had always been vaguely familiar with the Manic Street Preachers, the band enjoying something of a cult following in the U.K. I got around to listening to hit songs such as ‘A Design for Life’ and ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ properly in early 2006 and was floored by their beautiful melodies and lush harmonies. Being me, I got into researching the band’s music and history in depth and discovered a dark, alternative reality to their now clean-cut, M.O.R. image. At the dark heart of this other world was the album the Holy Bible and the story of long lost Manic Richey James Edwards. Intrigued, I ordered a copy of the album from Amazon and spun it for the first time in February 2006. The Holy Bible came to me in a dark time in my life, (apparently, there’s an unrelated book of the same name that does exactly the same thing for a lot of other people, funnily enough) which is probably why so many of its musical and lyrical themes hit me so profoundly. To this day, I could easily rate it as my single favourite album of all time.
Although in recent years the Manic Street Preachers have held a reputation as something of a “dad-rock” band, their music has gone through several dramatic stylistic shifts paralleled by an equally dramatic backstory that is sometimes even more interesting than the concurrent songs they put out. The band came crashing into the U.K. alternative scene at the start of the 90’s out of the deepest, darkest valleys of South Wales. Wearing lipstick, leopard skin gowns and spray painted, barely-sensical slogans such as “culture slut” and “death sentence heritage”, they proclaimed themselves a group of Socialist art punks set out to destroy rock and roll as we know it. In retrospect, it’s all very silly, but their early career was so full of energy and controversy that one can’t help but be slightly carried along. 1992’s debut album Generation Terrorists married the glitter punk aesthetic to a big 80’s rock sound significantly indebted to Guns N’ Roses and the Clash, which next year’s follow up Gold Against the Soul traded for maudlin alt-rock. As the Manic’s approached the creation of their third album, however, internal conditions began to push the group’s songwriting toward strange new frontiers.
From the very beginning the band had a unique songwriting methodology, all musical parts were written by frontman/lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore to accompany lyrics set by bassist/gobshite Nicky Wire and “rhythm guitarist” Richey Edwards. Knowing a little about the latter Manic is crucial to truly understanding the album’s content: fiercely intelligent and mind-blowingly well-read, Richey was also severely clinically depressed, alcoholic, anorexic, a chronic self-harmer and a solicitor of prostitutes. He also couldn’t actually play guitar, miming onstage for most gigs. It was an infamous incident in 1991 in which Richey used a razor blade to carve the phrase 4REAL into his arm in front of a horrified Steve Lamacq that truly burned the Manics into rock music’s collective consciousness. Around the time of the writing of the Holy Bible, Richey’s self-destructive tendencies spiralled ever more out of control until he was checked into the celebrity rehab clinic The Priory shortly after the album’s release. Things seemed better as 1994 drew to close, yet on 1st February 1995, Richey would literally disappear forever, his car found abandoned on the Severn Bridge. He was finally legally declared dead over 13 years later, his life story both enthralling and heartbreaking.
Whereas Edwards and Wire split lyric writing duties pretty much 50/50 on previous releases, the Holy Bible is well on the way to being all Richey. Opening track ‘Yes’ begins with a sample from a Channel 4 documentary about the U.K.’s prostitution industry, followed by a melodic but rhythmically uncanny (7/4 time!) guitar riff before Bradfield smacks you in the face with the first verse: “For sale? Dumb cunt’s same dumb questions. All virgins? Listen, all virgins are liars, honey…”. Follow-up track ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart’ (their misplaced apostrophe, not mine) sets gleefully sarcastic social commentary over a brilliant drumbeat and an absolutely evil verse riff juxtaposed with an anthemic chorus. ‘Of Walking Abortion’ is probably tied with Eminem’s ‘Kim’ as the single most angry, hateful song I’ve ever heard, and I’ve listened to Anaal Nathrakh and Pig Destroyer.
Of lyrical themes on this album we are treated to delightful subjects such as prostitution, anorexia, serial killers and not one, but two pieces on the Holocaust. The album alternates between tales of Edward’s personal Hell, such as the anorexia ballad ‘4st 7lb’, and of wider sickness and corruption endemic in society. Superficially, ‘Yes’ may talk of literal prostitutes, but they are a metaphor for the race to the bottom that is modern capitalism, even if you refuse to sell yourself short and prostitute your principles to earn a living, someone else will, “someone will always say yes.” Bradfield and Moore do an utterly brilliant job of bringing the brutal and beautiful lyrical vision to life musically: guitar parts alternate between cutting, barely-tonal riffs and eerie, phaser-drenched arpeggios. There are so many wonderful musical moments in this album that it’s just not possible to list them all: the opening bassline and guitar solo of ’Archives of Pain’, the way the static noises in the verses of ‘Of Walking Abortion’ follow the rhythm of the bass drum, the J.G. Ballard quote sampled in the middle of ‘Mausoleum’ that summarises the entire album’s artistic vision to a tee and the pounding, mechanistic drumbeat of ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ that appears to pay homage straight to the Beatle’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, of all things.
Manic Street Preachers’ career is defined by anomaly and contradiction and the Holy Bible is the biggest anomaly of them all. After Edwards’ disappearance, the group reinvented themselves as a middle of the road, introspective Britpop band with Nicky Wire as sole lyricist. Although commercially successful albums such as Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours are melodic and enjoyable pop-rock works in their own right, the band would never again be able to even attempt the incredible iconoclastic fury of the Holy Bible without Richey’s creative presence. The Holy Bible, to me, presented a popular music album of sheer artistic conviction where disturbing lyrics, claustrophobic production and hyper-intellectual imagery all combine into a tour de force whole. The album gave me a completely new appreciation of how popular music may reach profound and even poetic artistic heights. In spite of the bare-faced horror and brutally of many of the lyrics, some of the songs are surprisingly catchy and damn fun to rock out too. For those who dare, a truly astonishing album for both the mind and flesh.