Monday, September 1, 2014

Manic Street Preachers: 'The Holy Bible' 20th anniversary


This month marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most intriguing and intense records ever produced. The story of The Holy Bible - The Manic Street Preachers 3rd album - has become the stuff of legend. As a tribute to the album's enduring importance, I was compelled to write a few thoughts on the facts and possibilities surrounding its creation.

Ask anyone who was there what albums defined the Brit-pop era and you wouldn’t get much of a variation on Blur’s Parklife and Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. Those bands were celebrating their creative or at least commercial peak, and were a feast of material for music columnists everywhere. The year was 1994 and in grunge’s dying light it was ‘no time for losers’ as British rock – from many journalists point of view at least – provided an antidote to the endless parade of sulky post-Nirvana American 'slacker' bands. Realistically though, very few of the so-called Brit-pop bands wanted a bar of the media-driven ‘scene’ they found themselves unwilling parties to. More to the point, there were in-crowd bands who made bankable albums and gave good quote - namely Blur and Oasis – while two rather angular outsiders (also good for a quote, it should be mentioned) felt rather more worthy of my attention. A year after their much hyped debut, Suede dropped the grandiose, career-defining Dog Man Star and it's raw ambition alone lifted it head and shoulders above anything in the then scene. Its creation however, was so utterly punishing for the band, any promise of a future seemed in tatters. Suede's rise and fall and rise again became a pattern which ultimately defined them, but such triumph and tragedy paled in comparison to that of the Manic Street Preachers.

As opposed to Suede, 1993 was not a good year for the Manics. On the verge of being dropped by their label following underperforming second album Gold Against The Soul, the band who so many found difficult to swallow threw out the manifesto which had got them noticed in the first place. Old, borrowed ambitions of ‘world domination’ and ‘highest selling albums’ were let go of. The new manifesto if there ever was one, was to ditch the clichés – or at least to stop trying to compete with Guns N’ Roses. For the Manics, the way forward was in sight, but at what cost? I sometimes wonder if they would have done things differently had they known the outcome awaiting them in the wake of their third album. The recording of The Holy Bible (working title: The Poetry Of Death) was by all accounts a fairly jubilant time within the band. Reportedly, Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore were smashing through tracks in the studio in record time. His technical role as ‘rhythm guitarist’ meant that Richey Edwards was scarcely required during recording, yet he never missed a session. Realistically, his work was already done and he had little to do but witness the process of his words being turned into music.

Romantically speaking, Edwards’ approach to writing conjures up images of the Marquis De Sade amusing himself with a bout of desperate scrawling and analyses. Along with co-writer Nicky Wire, it’s fun to imagine the pair wiling away the hours over a bottle of claret, filling note pads with ‘controversial ideas’ and ‘quotable common sense statements’ by dusty old European provocateurs. Wire may in fact have planted this image in my head himself, but he knows too well that it is barely half the real story. The lyrics on The Holy Bible will forever be the handle by which it is grappled and wrestled with. Musically no one could deny its intense power, but Edwards’ raw insight was so compelling, many could not get past it then and – following his slide into depression and ultimate disappearance – it only served to act as an epitaph. The pen had proved mightier than the guitar and the Manics would go down in history as the band who had and lost the greatest writer of their generation. What was it then that separated Edwards from his contemporaries and peers?

Over the centuries many great periods of enlightenment have been documented – the birth of science, Renaissance art and critical thinking all rank among events of historical importance, but rock music’s ability to shape society is often overlooked when compiling such lists. Having said that, The Holy Bible didn’t shape society any more than the invention of the lollipop, but as a contemporary piece of art, it strived for more – much more – than what was already on offer. Its significance was felt  by the listener willing to invest in what was actually being stated, and in many ways it was near impossible to criticise. Listening to his words, I feel as though Edwards not so much  peered into the abyss, but shared an intimate relationship with it. The beauty of it all though is his lack of trite self-reflection or cringe-worthy emotive megalomania. The Holy Bible is beyond ego which is its most enduring feature. It’s the album equivalent of the artist who stopped painting himself and finally broke through the surface, producing a work of genuine truth in all its wonder and horror.

Key track, Faster works as a summary for the album. It’s truth is the serendipitous realisation that only if we discard the ego, are we free to realise our true power and potential. Hence, the setting we are in as listeners is not the ‘happy being sad’ territory occupied by the pompous black-eyeliner wearing goth and emo bands. The album, it must be said, only reveals itself gradually. Titles are often misleading, lyrics sung in a garbled fashion but then there is no doubt what 4st 7lb deals with. Here Edwards offers a matter-of-fact approach to anorexia from firsthand experience, devoid of any kind of self-pity. He treads a fine line between critical analysis and exploration based on remarkable insight and observation. But the tragic reality of Edwards was that in apparently achieving this rare kind of detachment, he lost his will to self-preserve. He came to see himself as so flawed that his mind would not allow him help his failing body. The much-documented self-harm and poor diet on top of alcohol abuse finally landed him in a psych hospital pumped full of sedatives. To this day, Nicky Wire believes that Edwards’ treatment in the Priory was his undoing.

Then in February 1995, just over five months after The Holy Bible hit the shelves, Edwards discharged himself from life at the age of 27. While suicide was a likely outcome, the true nature of his disappearance will probably never be known. The album was Edwards’ final legacy and the very act of writing it gave him not release or relief from his growing issues, but rather a doorway into an area of his psyche from which he could never seemingly return. Songs such as The Intense Humming Of Evil and Mausoleum had historical context – namely the Holocaust – but pouring over Edwards lyrics, he isn’t writing about one event in history, he sees human history itself as one long Holocaust. Abuse of power is a recurring theme on the album as witnessed in songs like Yes, Revol and IfWhiteAmericaToldTheTruthForOneDayItsWorldWouldFallApart. Edwards reappraised works like Animal Farm utterly stripping away any metaphor. IfWhiteAmerica… and Yes are as direct as their names suggest. The later dealing with prostitution in all its forms to be clear. Edwards was not so much anti-corporate – the band were on a major label after all – but he accepted that at every stage in one’s life/career etc… there is always somebody to answer to. Power is always somewhere else – never with the individual. 

Whether this troubled him immensely or it was just a fact of life as he saw it, is hard to tell which really is the true unanswered mystery of The Holy Bible and its creation. The rest of the band asked very few questions about Edwards’ motivation for what he was writing at the time. It was good material and they brought it to life, but should his outpourings have raised alarm bells? To be fair to the band, no. They were on their third record and it was shaping up to be the most ground-breaking material any one had heard in a long while. They trusted him as a writer completely and they yearned for success. Edwards himself had no ‘shrinking violet’ pretensions. He wanted the Manic Street Preachers to be the biggest band on the planet, because, as he put it, they were the only band who told the truth and they deserved recognition for it. His reason for naming the album The Holy Bible, was that it contained the true history of mankind and should therefore claim ownership over ‘that book’ which offered only fantasy. Ultimately though, his grandiose stance proved unsustainable, and once the songs that made up the album were out of his system, he physically digressed so completely it was as though his very soul had been sacrificed for them. Witnessing his final year from the conception to completion of The Holy Bible, Edwards disappearance almost seems like the only logical outcome following what he would probably have seen as total and utter fulfilment.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Manic Street Preachers: Futurology (review)


The build up for the release of Futurology began almost a year ago in the wake of the Manics 11th album, Rewind The Film. What was promised was a heavier ‘yang’ to Rewind’s acoustic ‘ying’ - Nice analogy, and hardly a first in music, but ‘yang’ comes nowhere near cutting it when describing Futurology’s monstrous, Germanic stomp over Rewind’s slow amble through Wales’ recent history. Recorded at Berlin’s world renowned Hansa studios, the second part of a proposed trilogy takes its cue from post-new wave industrial music, David Bowie’s Low and good old German precision. Pre-release, the fan-teasing announcements came thick and fast ensuring anticipation levels never dipped. A return to rock, a variety of guest vocalists, and the knock-out punch that Alex Silva would return on production duties had fans salivating. After all it was Silva who assisted in bringing The Holy Bible to life – long considered to be the Manics’ true masterpiece. While that album was a sprawling bombsite of nervous energy and the darkest of thoughts, Futurology is the post-devastation re-build - and if any band knows the meaning of ‘rebuilding’ it’s the Manics. 

But all anyone really needs to know in order to enjoy their current work is that contradictions abound and listeners are challenged to make their own minds up as to why. Futurology is defined as the study of patterns in society with a view to predicting a probable outcome. It is argued that this is a futile act, and that hindsight is the only true teacher. This pseudo-science is a hint as to where the Manics are coming from. The importance of ‘learning from the past’ is a mantra most history buffs are quite happy to chant, but on Futurology the Manics present a more realistic – opposite is reality – theory. The title track sets up the album’s manifesto with muddled tenses, “we’ll come back one day/we never really went away”. Musically, the past is carefully mined to include sounds associated with a time when Kraftwerk and The Human League were THE sound of the future. Rest assured though, this is no puffed up ‘ironic ‘80s’ album from a bunch of aging socialist rockers. First single Europa Geht Durch Mich’s delivery is icy and direct, aided masterfully by German film star Nina Hoss who swaps choruses and verses with JD Bradfield. The result is an urgent, militant bilingual exchange over a relentless marching beat that makes Rammstein sound whimsical by comparison. Europa is complemented and perhaps even outshone by the fearsome Let’s Go To War. The darkness of The Holy Bible returns on this rally cry, which conjures up images of goose-stepping Nazis, while clearly is a reaction to the bands’ own occasional dithering deviations. It’s an odd blend of Eno-esque cavernous/claustrophobic synths and multi-tracked vocals – surely a signature of Hansa studio itself. Most importantly though, because it’s a Manics album, these tracks - along with Sex Power and Money and Walk Me To The Bridge - are dressed up as certified stadium rock anthems. The latter of which is pomp at its best. Imagine Livin’ On A Prayer shagging She Sells Sanctuary – only much better.

At its core, Futurology is a complete overhaul by a band approaching middle-age and who are still hungry but keen to put a few past mistakes to bed. Wire’s biting but self-effacing lyrics on The Next Jet To Leave Moscow are a genuine nod to errors of judgement, such as the much maligned concert for Castro; “So you played in Cuba, did you like it brother?/I bet you felt proud you silly little fucker”. Departure is a recurring theme but predominantly the songs are underpinned by a youthful, idealistic future full of possibilities versus the lamentable reality. The View From Stow Hill as a case in point is the tale of two desecrated cities – Newport and Berlin – both of which quickly became gentrified after years of neglect and political mismanagement. Wire’s bitter-sweet observations are carried on through the sublime working class ballad, Between The Clock and The Bed – a perfectly matched duet between Bradfield and Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside. Misguided Missile is the nihilist from Faster all grown up, “I am the strum and drang/I am the Schadenfreude/I can still fill your void.” But it’s the longing Divine Youth that is the real heart of Futurology. This paean to physical change - the truly unavoidable indicator of passing time – humanises this often brutalist work. Only time will tell if Futurology will enjoy the level of plaudits often heaped on past glories like The Holy Bible or Everything Must Go, but the Manics know too well recognition for their victories has long been hard-won. If anything it’s this fact which has ensured they continue to work harder and are quite likely to yet produce their finest album. In the meantime, Futurology will do nicely as wearer of that particular crown.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Thomas Jaspers interview: 2014


At 27, Melbourne comedian Thomas Jaspers realises many of his interests are not typical of a guy his age. A self-diagnosed early mid-life crisis has recently bought to the surface his inner ‘little old lady’ - and she has a royal appointment of the highest order. In his new show for the MICF – God, Save The Queen – Jaspers flexes his stiff upper lip and indulges his peculiar obsession with the world’s most iconic little old lady and her renowned dysfunctional family.

“I think the royal family were the first celebrities, as in how we see celebrity today, but also the Queen is a mum and grandma as well as being a fashion icon for lovers of pastel everywhere.” Jaspers admits the two main prompts for his latest show, were the world’s least risqué tattoo and the realisation he just loved little old ladies. “When I was growing up, my parents worked in a nursing home and I spent a lot of time with old ladies, and I know it’s really uncool but, I actually loved talking to them and hearing their war stories. Also as part of my ‘gay mid-life crisis’ I decided to get a tattoo of the Queen and because everybody keeps asking me why I got that, I decided to write a show expanding on my obsession.” 

When Rhonda Met Rhonda
Jaspers, despite his clean-cut appearance and ‘kind to old ladies’ policy, has the heart of a gutter-crawling drag queen. His hilarious drag characterisation of entertainer, Rhonda Burchmore (Ne. Rhonda Butchmore) as a sloppy drunk is widely known among fans – no less than by Rhonda herself. In cross-dressing mode, Jaspers swills beer, belches and staggers about reflecting the much suspected behind closed-doors behaviour of the late Queen mum.

“I’m a big fan of the Queen mum – she was the biggest fag-hag in Britain for employing only gay men to work for her.” He laughs, “There is a lot of material for comedy within the royal family, but this (show) isn’t some anti-monarchy rant. Of course I talk about the sort of failings of Prince Phillip, whose main role seems to be to just walk two paces behind the Queen, making him the most pussy-whipped man in the world. But it’s mostly just an affectionate but honest look at the good and bad sides of the royals from a queen’s perspective.” But Thom’s affection for the Queen extends beyond regular fandom, he reveals. Not that she would have remotely suspected during their brief encounter on her 2012 visit to Melbourne - “It was like a religious experience” - but he had already long been planning for her majesty’s eventual passing.
“Since I was about 10, I’ve had a separate savings account that’s got about two grand in it specifically for when she dies so I can fly straight to England and attend the funeral.” He adds, “I even have a clause in my work contract for my day job that states if the Queen dies I automatically get two weeks off for bereavement-leave!” With the breaking news that Prime Minister Abbott is planning a return to ‘ye olde worlde’ titles in parliament – Knighthoods, Damehoods etc.. – Jaspers has been handed a steaming hot topic, teaming nicely with his theme. “It’s given me about ten extra minutes of material, actually.” He laughs, “But I think I might be the only person who’s actually really into this idea.” He adds, nominating himself, “I think it’d be nice to be Australia’s first Knight AND Dame all at once. I could be Knight Jaspers and Dame Rhonda Butchmore. Wouldn’t that be fun?”