Album Analysis | Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible
The Welsh alternative rock band’s magnum opus The Holy Bible reaffirmed their principles, reflected the mindset of their troubled chief lyricist, and captured their intellectual appeal. We examine this lost classic as its 25th anniversary has come to pass.
On 24th November 2008, it was announced that Graham and Sherry Edwards had obtained a court order, issued by the Probate Registry of Wales. The Probate named them as the executors of the estate of their son, Richey James Edwards, declaring him dead in absentia. Edwards, better known as Richey James, was the co-principal lyricist, rhythm guitarist and main spokesperson of the alternative rock band Manic Street Preachers. He disappeared on 1st February 1995, the same day that he and lead guitarist and vocalist James Dean Bradfield were due to fly to the United States on a promotional tour. According to his obituary in The Guardian, little is known about his movements in the following days, although it appears he left London for Wales. Two weeks after his disappearance, his abandoned Vauxhall Cavalier received a parking ticket at the Severn service station, and it is widely believed that he jumped to his death from the Severn Bridge.
Edwards was born on 22nd December 1967. He grew up in Blackwood, Caerphilly, Wales and, along with his future bandmates Bradfield, Nicky Wire (bassist/co-lyricist) and Sean Moore (drummer), attended Oakdale Comprehensive School. A voracious reader, he graduated from the University of Wales, Swansea with a 2:1 degree in political history. Said Wire of Edwards on BBC 2’s Close Up documentary on the band From There to Here:
“Richey lived up the road and we always used to play football with him. It was our street against his street. His nickname was “Teddy Edwards” ‘cos he looked like a little teddy bear, he was a real cuddly sort of fella.”
Despite humble beginnings as a driver and roadie for the band, and little to no musical talent whatsoever, Edwards would eventually become the band’s fourth member. Aside from lyricism, his contributions came in the form of design and musical direction; his Marxist-Leninist political outlook, androgynous glam-punk style and preoccupation with Hollywood tragedies like Marilyn Monroe informed the early aesthetic of the band’s music and public image.
Though his disappearance came as a shock, clues of Edwards’ mental instability were present from early in the band’s rise to prominence. On 15th May 1991, immediately following a performance at the Arts Centre in Norwich, England, he gave his most infamous interview to Steve Lamacq, then with NME. When questioned about the seriousness of the band’s punk ethics, Edwards responded by carving the words “4 REAL” into his forearm with a razor blade, necessitating 18 stitches. Edwards discussed his depression openly in interviews and, that sole incident aside, was known to burn himself with cigarettes and cut himself. By the time the band started to record The Holy Bible in 1994, his mental health issues also extended to alcoholism and anorexia nervosa. Despite growing concerns about his mental health, Richey would remain defiant in public. In an interview with NME that at times now seems cruel, he would say:
“In terms of the S-word, that does not enter my mind. And it never has done, in terms of an attempt. Because I am stronger than that.”
Manic Street Preachers’ debut album Generation Terrorists was generally well-received by the music press and sold relatively well, despite the band’s admitted lack of quality control, obvious underproduction and the band’s overstated mission of releasing a single album that encapsulated a time, sold 16 million copies, and was heralded as the greatest rock album ever, before breaking up. Their follow-up album, Gold Against The Soul, however, did not fare as well with the critics or even the band themselves. Both drummer Sean Moore and James Dean Bradfield would lament the direction their 1993 sophomore album took them when revisiting The Holy Bible for its tenth anniversary reissue; Moore expressed his feeling that the band had been “going a bit astray” and that their mission was to rediscover “a little bit of Britishness that we lacked”. Bradfield would elaborate his feeling that the band had become “a bit too rockist… we had lost our direction.”
In reaction to their hard rock stagnation that NME dubbed as “too much Slash, not enough burn”, the band would listen exclusively to British post-punk bands, their grassroots influences. When the time came to record The Holy Bible, the band teamed up with sound engineer Alex Silva and against the wishes of their label, Epic Records, elected to work frugally at the low-rent Sound Space Studios in Cardiff over the course of four weeks. The band would give up their social lives – Silva attributes the creative process for the album to the breakdown of his relationship with his then-girlfriend – and work to headings and structures, as if completing a thesis. Edwards was by this time a full-blown alcoholic, sleeping through recording sessions and openly weeping. Said Bradfield:
“Inevitably, the day would start with a ‘schhht!’; the sound of a can opening.”
Having written the lion’s share of the lyrics on The Holy Bible, it is almost impossible to discuss the album without reflecting on Edwards’ inner turmoil and eventual disappearance. His mental state hit rock bottom during recording sessions upon learning of the suicide of a close friend. By July that year, he would be hospitalised after severely cutting himself and sent to Whitchurch Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Cardiff. He weighed 6 stone, a mere stone-and-a-half above the weight at which sufferers of anorexia are all but sentenced to death, as shockingly romanticised on one of the album's highlights, "4st 7lb". The lines, “I want to walk in the snow / And not leave a footprint”, are particularly haunting.
The song begins with an equally harrowing dialogue from Caraline’s Story, a 1994 documentary about anorexia; "I eat too much to die and not enough to stay alive. I'm sitting in the middle waiting." is a sinister way to open up a song, and one hell of a surprise to new listeners. This tactic was used throughout the album. Other notable examples include Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and their Johns on “Yes”, a television advertisement for GOP TV's Rising Tide show on “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit'sworldwouldfallapart”, the mother of one of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims on “Archives of Pain”, John Hurt’s monologue from the film adaption of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on “Faster”. But how do they fit?
At surface level, “Yes” could be about the sex trade, but the sex worker narrator is clearly an allegory for Edwards. Imagery of self-abuse and feelings of being sold are scattered throughout, both applicable to Edwards at the time of writing. Lines like “And I don't know what I'm scared of or what I even enjoy”, “For 200 anyone can conceive a God on video”, “Can't shout, can't scream, hurt myself to get pain out” and “The only certain thing that is left about me / There is no part of my body that has not been used” feel too real to be part of a mere character study.
It’s fitting that the blistering “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit'sworldwouldfallapart” would be named in such a way that makes it seem like it was being spewed by an auctioneer. Musically, it is barbed and sinewy, and a real showcase for the Manics’ unsung hero, drummer Sean Moore, who frenetically drives the song. Lyrically, the song reflects the band’s anti-establishment values; comparing British imperialism to American consumerism with equal disdain. The bulk of the lyrics were penned by Wire who stated in an interview with Melody Maker in 1994:
“It’s not a completely anti-American song… It’s just trying to explain the confusion I think most people feel about how the most empty culture in the world can dominate in such a total sense.”
“Ifwhiteamerica…” paints the land of the free as the land of the empty, its foreign interventions catastrophic and its domestic policy cursed. 25 years later and it’s more relevant than ever. Meanwhile, “Archives of Pain” offers one of the more intriguing examinations in the Manics’ oeuvre: examining the glorification of serial killers in the media. It is unclear if the song advocates the death penalty or an ironic narrative told through the eyes of one who does. Over an ominous bassline and fuzzed-out guitars, Bradfield sings Edwards’ words:
“Kill Yeltsin, who's saying? Zhirinovsky, Le Pen Hindley and Brady, Ireland, Allit, Sutcliffe Dahmer, Nielson, Yoshinori Ueda Blanche and Pickles, Amin, Milosovic Give them respect they deserve”
That respect, of course, being none whatsoever. This song, out of step with the group’s overtly socialist principles, was difficult even for Edwards to come to terms with:
I like the idea in “Archives of Pain” I took from Michel Foucault, when he advocates a return to 19th century values of execution and capital punishment. You know, it appeals to me, but you shouldn’t only bring back capital punishment. It should be compulsory that your body be kept, have oil poured over it and be torn apart with horses and chains. It should be on TV, and four or five year olds should be made to watch it. It’s the only way. If you tell a child “That’s wrong”, he doesn’t really learn. But if you show a body being ripped to shreds, after “Blue Peter”, he’s gonna know. But then, that’s really right wing. Which I’m not.
The defiant “Faster” – the closest the Manics ever came to straight-up punk – opens with a sample that draws parallels between Winston, the main character of Nineteen Eighty-Four and himself:
“I hate purity, Hate goodness, I don't want virtue to exist anywhere, I want everyone corrupt”
“Faster” is a diatribe that rails against societal judgement, with particular attention paid to the perception, or cult of personality, around Richey in the public eye. While Richey saw himself as a progressive, critics accused him and the Manics of being regressive. Given the juxtaposition of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, glamour and Marxist-Leninism in their presentation and content alike, it’s easy to see how easily the band could’ve been misunderstood. Most notable is the verse:
“I am an architect, They call me a butcher, I am a pioneer, They call me primitive, I am purity, They call me perverted”
Edwards’ pessimism and perceived persecution allow him to find comfort in his own existential dread however, strongly reflected in the line, “I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing”.
Of course, the frank, open lyricism on The Holy Bible could never have worked without the freshly-adopted post-punk sound that backed it up. Sonically, the album has much more in common with PiL’s Metal Box (1979), Nirvana’s In Utero (1993) and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral (1994) than Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction (1987). The guitars are immense and metallic while the rhythm section is sharpened with frantic drumming and menacing bass work. Bradfield’s howl gives a voice to the venom and hatred (whether of the self or otherwise) that the words express. The aural colours match that of the army fatigues the band adorned during the promotional tours; everything sounds earthy, grimy and, at times, wrought with heavy machinery. Any slight divergence from monochrome still blends in with the terrain.
While “Yes” allows Bradfield to flex his guitar virtuoso muscle, this is as close to the androgynous glam punk of earlier Manics albums as The Holy Bible gets. The Slash mimicry is otherwise nowhere to be heard; tracks like “Of Walking Abortion”, “Archives of Pain” and “4st 7lb” rely more on barbed riffage and muted guitar scratches than flashy solos. “Faster”, “Revol” and “PCP” capture the band at their most frenetic, while cuts like “She Is Suffering”, “This Is Yesterday”, and “The Intense Humming of Evil” are departures and experiments in textures and mood.
A perfect experience of cathartic, uneasy listening, The Holy Bible was too dark for mainstream success, in spite of its critical acclaim, and too British for an American audience in spite of its expansive US mix by Tom Lord-Alge (which the band were reportedly fans of). Given the resurgence of post-punk in recent years and the openness and vulnerability some of its finest practitioners are privy to, it seems only right that The Holy Bible is re-valued and re-examined. It will live on, however, as an underappreciated and underrated landmark in the annals of alternative rock.
Listen to The Holy Bible on Spotify here.