Manic Street Preachers were and remain one of the most interesting, significant, and best-loved bands of the past thirty years. Their third album The Holy Bible (1994) is generally acknowledged to be their most enduring and fascinating work, and one of the most compelling and challenging records of the nineties.
Triptych reconsiders The Holy Bible from three separate, intersecting angles, combining the personal with the political, history with memory, and popular accessibility with intellectual attention to the album’s depth and complexity.
Daniel Lukes looks at the album’s literary and artistic sources, Larissa Wodtke analyses the way the album’s links with philosophical ideas of memory and the archive, while in this exclusive extract Rhian E. Jones considers The Holy Bible in terms of its steadfast incongruity. A theme that she pursues within the book in respect of the album’s political context, setting it within the de-industrialised Welsh landscape of the 1990s.
PROLOGUE TO HISTORY: THE STORY OF THE HOLY BIBLE
“Three words for 1994? Bag of shit.”
— James Dean Bradfield, 1995
The trouble is that The Holy Bible is hard to describe. It can seem both preposterously overblown and horrifyingly stark. It can seem relentlessly, desperately grimdark: even before you listen to the thing, you have to get past the grand guignol grandstanding of titles like “Archives of Pain,” “Die in the Summertime” and “The Intense Humming of Evil.” Sunless as a sewer and raw like an open wound, the album starts as it means to go on with the leprous “Yes” and gives no quarter. The Holy Bible is a pitiless record: in an era when it seemed grief had to be performative to be believed, The Holy Bible refuses to accept the performance of grief as sincere. Every tear is false. The album is heavy with unhappiness over the wrongs of human history, it repents and is sorry, but grief is not a get-out clause, and neither is repentance. Everyone is guilty. The entire fifty-six minutes can feel like a disapproving judgement on the listener. The Holy Bible is an overcast and stifling record, with even its gentlest moment, “This is Yesterday,” no more than a fleeting slant of sunlight through dark clouds. Even the gleefully careering “Revol” is weighed down by the futility of faith in either love or revolution, and shot through with détourned fascist slogans. Richey and Nicky’s lyrical shorthand, firing off historical, cultural and political shots while frequently neglecting to add definitive articles, had never been the easiest thing to follow or decipher, but on The Holy Bible this tendency is turned up to eleven. Listening to the album, one can feel there is too much packed into inadequate containers, with the time to adequately express anything fast running out. James Dean Bradfield slips into a personal vernacular of yelps and barks and howls, almost but never quite left without breath, drilling lines of dizzying or mystifying intricacy into the ear with merciless precision. If previous songs could seem contrived, track after track on The Holy Bible is compulsive. If earlier work could seem pretentious or glib, students of Meaning adopting a posture of Meaning It, this time they really meant it to a shocking and aweing degree. The Holy Bible is a cataclysmic, apocalyptic, fin-de-siècle record: gazing into the abyss of the twentieth century, it finds the abyss gazing back. Fury, horror, pity and despair pile up until we reach the album’s penultimate track, a remembrance of the Holocaust woven around creepily tumbling drums and metallic, industrial screeches and shuffles, the ending agonisingly dragged out, drums stumbling to a close, a blink of breathing-space, and then it’s all over bar the shouting (or, to give it its official title, “P.C.P.”). The Holy Bible, perfect for its purposes, is a fearless, flawless record.
The Holy Bible is a hidden gem — or rather the opposite, a dark and rotten un-gem, a lump of coal fated never to turn diamond — of the late twentieth century. It exists almost entirely on its own terms. On one level it is a head-on reckoning with all the manmade atrocities and failures known to history, and on another an extraordinarily specific self-dissection by one man in particular. The album’s unflinching focus on horror, dysfunction and morbidity made it a more uncomfortably personal listen than previous material, where such themes had been dealt with in abstract and general terms or outwardly directed. Besides the personal universals of sex and death, the album takes a political position on consumerism, freedom of speech, British and US imperialism, gun control and capital punishment, fascism, communism, war, genocide, white privilege, anorexia, political correctness, abortion, murder, rape, and prostitution. The personal crises documented in “Faster,” “4st 7lb” or “Yes” appear almost as rational responses to the social and political horrors that surround them. Conversely, the “political” can almost feel like bright spots, moments of relief, when set against the heaviness of the personal, and it’s tempting, though overly simplistic, to think of the former as Nicky’s more detached lyrical contributions while any deeply personal content is Richey’s. But, right from the opening of “Yes,” in which economic and sexual exploitation are shown to mirror each other, the album makes its case that the personal and political are intimately intertwined and there can be no neat separation.
The album’s darkness made it a strange proposition in the summer of its release, but its perspective would never have been a popular one in 1994. It ignores, or actively refuses, many of the narratives of its time, notably the twin triumphs of Britpop and Blairism and their boom-time optimism. But while it may be antithetical in style and subject matter to the rest of the 90s musical pantheon, The Holy Bible belongs there because of its engagement with key themes of the time, including the impact of the end of the Cold War, the crisis of working-class identity and representation, the growth in confessional art, and a rise in self-harm and eating disorders, especially among the young. The complex political views expressed on the album are grounded in the band’s origins in the political traditions and social morality of post-industrial South Wales, which shaped a particular working-class and masculine identity now increasingly suppressed and marginalised in popular and political discourse. The Holy Bible unlocks a hidden history of the 1990s in which we may locate the origins of several present crises.
The Holy Bible marked a shift in the perspective, image and perception of Manic Street Preachers. Despite its arguably adolescent outlook, the album is a more grown-up, considered and accomplished product than Generation Terrorists, the 1992 album with which the band attempted to secure their place in history. The plan then, in Nicky Wire’s words, had been to “make one brilliant debut double LP that sells millions of copies, and as long as we’ve made our statement and perhaps changed something then I just want to disappear and go back to live with my mam”. This was commendably but hopelessly ambitious, and the band themselves admitted as much. Acknowledging the failure of Generation Terrorists to change the world, Richey said: “The world had changed, perhaps more than we realised. People didn’t care about such things anymore. It wasn’t like 1977, when you could make a statement and get taken seriously”. By the time of The Holy Bible, Wire’s desire for domestic retreat was probably stronger than it had been two years earlier, but the band’s ambition had been tempered to a more realistic edge, their youthful frivolities streamlined into a sharp and deadly seriousness. As a consequence The Holy Bible, although recorded in a third of the time of Generation Terrorists and with a third fewer tracks, comes far closer to achieving the definitive and enduring quality that can constitute a “statement” album.
In musical terms the album is also markedly different from its predecessors. While Generation Terrorists was endearingly messy and sprawling, 1993’s Gold Against the Soul was a taut and polished but airless affair, with much of the debut’s personality muffled. Again, the band was conscious of this: in 1997 James Dean Bradfield acknowledged that the band’s live performances include only a few songs from Gold Against the Soul because “we just don’t like much of it.” According to Sean Moore, the album had suffered from the band’s attempts to emulate their US influences, and their approach to writing its follow-up was to rediscover “a little bit of Britishness,” drawing on their formative punk and post-punk influences including the Clash, Magazine, Wire, PiL and Gang of Four. This decision might have been made at a time when early Britpop bands like Blur and Suede were vocally opposing Britain’s cultural domination by US music, but that seems wholly coincidental. In fact, The Holy Bible sounds less like its 60s-enthralled British peers and more like a handful of contemporary US bands — the industrial grind of Nine Inch Nails or Tool, the viscerally personal rage of Hole, the heavy melodic slabs of the Pixies or Nirvana — many of whom had, thanks to transatlantic cultural cross-pollination, been influenced by 70s and 80s British punk and post-punk in the same way as the Manics.
In the aftermath of Gold Against the Soul, the band also seem to have become aware of the tension between their world-conquering ambitions — associated with the larger reach and greater expectations they perceived in US artists — and the reality of what achieving these goals might mean. The Holy Bible signified a disciplined, almost puritanical renouncing of what Bradfield called “all that decadent rockstar rubbish.” The band rejected Epic Records’ idea of recording in Barbados, and instead retreated to the tiny confines of Sound Space Studios in Cardiff’s dingy red-light district. They raced through the recording process in a brief but intense four weeks, which seems to have been a time of variable emotions: engineer and co-producer Alex Silva attributes the break-up of his relationship to the long hours involved, and Richey spent much of the time in tears, drinking the day away or asleep on the studio’s settee. This is balanced by Wire’s insistence that recording the album “was a really good time, honestly” and by James and Richey’s after-hours excursions to Cardiff clubs and bars — what Bradfield described as “really ordinary things”, set against the extraordinary album that was meanwhile taking shape.
LET’S GO TO WAR
The Holy Bible is able to convey its message so effectively partly because of the emphasis on clarity and directness in its production. From the densely packed lyrics to the stripped-down sound to the shoestring recording budget, everything was pared down to essentials in the interests of “honest communication.” If Gold Against the Soul had been the Manics’ most unfocused period, an album on which the band felt they had “inhabited too many personae,” The Holy Bible is focused, like a laser beam, to what can be an uncomfortably acute degree. According to Bradfield, the album was constructed with “academic discipline,” the band working to headings and structures “so each song is like an essay.” This provides a further contrast with Generation Terrorists, which seemed to constitute not a series of essays but an essay in itself, albeit an overly ambitious one written during a speed-assisted all-nighter.
Few things seemed to signify the Manics’ new seriousness more than their switch away from Gold Against the Soul’s uncertain aesthetic, in which remnants of the old era — white jeans, eyeliner, feather boas — blended uneasily with fragments of Americana and glittery gameshow-host jackets. They exchanged this for a new uniform — literally — of military gear bought in army surplus stores while touring in early 1994, for what they described as an homage to the Clash in their Combat Rock incarnation. The Clash had long been a source of musical and aesthetic inspiration for the band; watching a ten-year anniversary broadcast of a Clash gig had electrified the teenage Manics and become, in suitably militaristic terms, “our unifying moment… our absolute bullet-point – a rallying call”. In the increasingly ominous conditions of 1994, however, putting on uniform seemed to signify an attempt at self-defence and closing ranks by a unit who felt themselves under attack, facing an unrelenting barrage of critical or prurient attention from the music press and increasingly from more mainstream media. Whether withdrawing behind conceptual “back-to-our-roots” lines, or pulling up the drawbridge of Sound Space Studios, the album’s production was imbued with a sense of defensive retreat.
This discipline, this seriousness, gained the Manics a new set of fans and won them wider critical acclaim. Kerrang! called the album “the first thing they’ve done that deserves to be called great.” From the hostility and ridicule directed at their early efforts, and the artistic wrong-footing of Gold Against the Soul, with The Holy Bible the band were finally taken as seriously as they sometimes took themselves — although not without personal cost. After the media storm around Richey Edwards’ disappearance in February 1995, and the band’s commercial success with “A Design for Life” the following year, the reputation and sales of The Holy Bible grew steadily. As of 2014, it had sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide, and has consistently been placed in the top ten or twenty best albums of all time in surveys from Q to Kerrang!. But in 1994, although The Holy Bible reached number six on the UK album charts on its release, it sold less than the band’s critically-derided previous albums. Its three singles all performed worse than expected, and critical praise failed to translate into chart placings in either the US or mainland Europe. Wire described the album as a commercial disaster, after which “there was nothing to build on and nothing to lose.”
Thirty years on, the 90s appear as a lull, a relatively stable and content intermission, between the end of the Cold War and the onset of a post-9/11 future. But, beneath the decade’s blandly buoyant surface, something darker was stirring. In April 1995, one year after the death of Kurt Cobain and two months after Richey’s disappearance, Melody Maker pictured both men on its cover to advertise a panel discussion between artists and readers on “a year of suicide and breakdown.” The coverage reflected a more general media panic over “what is happening to our young people?”, which pulled in everything from a rise in teenage binge-drinking to a supposed self-harm epidemic, with Kurt and Richey sensationalised as exemplars and instigators of this malaise. Cobain’s death had inspired copycat suicides by teenagers around the world, we were told, while Richey’s more select number of acolytes were apparently cutting their arms, starving themselves and shaving their heads in spellbound imitation of their idol.
The “discovery” of widespread and intense unhappiness in the 1990s, particularly amongst the young, was regarded as something shocking and inexplicable. Why weren’t we happy? Why, with apparently all battles over and liberal utopia at hand, were we nonetheless enacting disaffection and destruction on ourselves, directing against our bodies and our futures the hatred and violence we were told had dissipated along with the fear of nuclear annihilation? In a context that encouraged papering over the structural cracks, whether political or personal, the refusal to do so became a fault-line which ran throughout the decade. Anxiety could be expressed in the 90s, and damage acknowledged, but only if it was framed in terms of emotion and not economics. Much of The Holy Bible’s power is derived from the tension between this tendency — the personalised expression of unhappiness through self-harm, mental illness or disordered eating — and the band’s recognition, still socialist at heart, of the systemic roots of much of this unhappiness in political neglect and economic inequality. We were told throughout 90s politics and pop culture that this was the best of all possible worlds, while The Holy Bible’s fatalism, pessimism and nihilism starkly contradicted this.
Which side were you on?
From Rhian E. Jones’ ‘Unwritten Diaries: History, Politics and Experience through The Holy Bible’
Triptych: Three studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible, by Rhian E. Jones, Daniel Lukes and Larissa Wodtke is published by Repeater Books on 16 February 2017