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.