With The Holy Bible The Manic Street Preachers jettisoned situationist glamour for a defiant, post-punk nihilism that chartered the mental deterioration of their chief lyricist, Richey Edwards. Ten years on the band speak to Keith Cameron about their most notorious album.
October 7, 1994. To the four young men in uniform, reaching to hurl themselves into the fray on yet another tour of duty, Carl Davis's theme to the classic Laurence Olivier-narrated documentary The World At War seemed like the perfect musical prelude. After all, from where the Manic Street Preachers were standing, their world resembled nothing if not a war zone.
Backstage at Norwich's University Of East Anglia, in their military fatigues and camouflage make-up, James Dean Bradfield, Richey James Edwards, Sean Moore and Nicky Wire heard the sombre orchestral strains and moved into position. At their side was long-time friend and confidant Martin Hall, now managing the band alone following the death from cancer in December the previous year of his brother Philip. It was Martin who'd suggested using the World At War theme as the intro to the UK tour, the group's first following the release in September of their new album, The Holy Bible. As the house lights went down, and the audience gazed upon a stage shrouded in swathes of army netting, Martin's choice felt perfect. The music was gravely ominous, invoking dread fear and acute anticipation. The four Manic Street Preachers looked at each other: their world at war. Point of no return long gone. Dulce et decorum est…
Just then, the tune changed. The World At War was over, and in its place a jolly Bavarian oompah song, parping incongruously from the speakers; less October Revolution, more Oktoberfest. As fans pondered whether this heralded the latest dramatic MSP visual metamorphosis, Martin Hall realised what had happened. The CD had skipped on to the next track. He caught a look from James Dean Bradfield. And ran.
"No! No!" he screamed, pushing a path through the crowd towards the sound desk. "For fuck's sake, turn it off!" Backstage, meanwhile, the Manics were apoplectic with fury. The group's agent provocateur and guitarist Richey Edwards, about to play only his second UK gig since his discharge from the Priory private psychiatric clinic, began stubbing cigarettes out on his arm. "It was," says Nicky Wire, "a dreadful moment."
"Then," says Martin, laughing at the memory "they come on, all in their army gear and make-up, when you kind of expected them to be wearing leather shorts and doing a little dance! I still go red when I think about it, just knowing what James's face looked like."
Exactly ten years and a day after the farcical events in Norwich, James Dean Bradfield's face looks positively serene. The Manic Street Preachers' singer/guitarist got married in the summer of 2004 and is far less the tensed up worry bead of a man he once seemed, particularly during interviews. Back in 1994, with Richey Edwards hospitalised on the eve of The Holy Bible's release, James found himself in the unaccustomed position of facing the press with bassist Nicky Wire, Richey's partner in an interview team of formidable eloquence. The band's prodigiously gifted musical fulcrum, abetted by his drumming cousin Sean Moore, James wasn't comfortable in the role of official mouthpiece.
"I have a way of talking, even more so back then, of going off track and trying to come up with an answer," he says, sipping coffee in a conference room at Sony Music's London offices. "Whereas Nick and Richey doing interviews were always bouncing off each other. I felt a bit inadequate. Nick would be talking, and I'm thinking, 'What the fuck's he on about?!' And the obvious questions about Richey, to be honest, came as a relief. Because I felt at least I can answer something. It was so close to the surface that I didn't have to scratch around for an answer. At that point I didn't feel troubled talking about Richey, because I wanted him to think we were out there promoting his album, but waiting for him to come back. It was really important to us."
The notion of The Holy Bible as "Richey's album" - a valid enough perspective given that he wrote 75 per cent of the lyrics to Nicky's 25 - became entrenched following Edwards' still-unsolved disappearance on February 1, 1995. This event continues to haunt the remaining three Manic Street Preachers, first and foremost because they still don't know what happened to their friend - in whose absence they at last received the huge commercial acceptance they had initially craved but found elusive. To those seeking a solution to the puzzle, The Holy Bible's barely coded preoccupations offer scant grounds for optimism. One of the first songs written for the album, Die In The Summertime's lyrics presented its author on the verge of abnegation: "The hole in my life even stains the soil/My heart shrinks to barely a pulse/A tiny animal curled into a quarter circle." 4st 7lb, meanwhile, fetishised the anorexia from which Richey was suffering: "An epilogue of youth/Such beautiful dignity in self-abuse." Of the songs which did not transparently concern Richey's mental and physical malaise, two - The Intense Humming Of Evil and Mausoleum - addressed the Holocaust. Throughout, the record offered a vision of humanity as a baleful, benighted species. "So damn easy to cave in/Man kills everything," rang Faster's mantric coda.
In purely commercial terms, The Holy Bible was a disaster. Released in the same week as Definitely Maybe, it peaked in the UK album chart at six. Three weeks later it had dropped out of the Top 75 altogether. For all the intrigue surrounding Richey and his fate, his last album as a Manic Street Preacher remains stigmatised by its own soap-operatically bleak reputation.
"The sales were terrible," acknowledges Manics A&R man Rob Stringer, today managing director at Sony UK, who was MD of Epic in 1994. "I don't think the Richey situation drew people to the record. In my opinion, [it] made that record more untouchable, rather than drawing people towards it. You were drawn to Nirvana by what happened to Kurt Cobain. With Richey, I don't think people said, 'I must get that record, it's really poignant', but unfortunately, 'it's too dark'. There was nothing poetic about what Richey did. It was mental illness."
Yet this is not the whole story of The Holy Bible. Artistically, it is the most absolute of triumphs, what happens when a group closes ranks and instinctively combines its complementary individual qualities to effect a collective transcendence. For all the subsequent mania, the atmosphere during the recording sessions was harmonious: "A really happy time," says Nicky. "It was very cohesive and everyone was really easy and gentle with each other. You knew the right things were coming together." Sonically, it hasn't dated. Indeed, as a new synthesis of the classic post-punk schema as minted by Joy Division, Magazine, Wire, Gang Of Four et al, it anticipated one of today's hallmark pop strands by ten years - The Strokes, Interpol and Franz Ferdinand all genuflect before its barbed wire altar. And after the gung-ho, occasionally inspired but often vapid Fantasy Rock of the first two Manics albums, it evinced a band finally compelled to look in the mirror and decide that's where the revolution always has to start.
But even before its completion, The Holy Bible was being overtaken by events surrounding the deterioration of one of its primary architects. The saddest irony concerning the case of Richey Edwards is that it has eclipsed his finest artistic achievement. Which is partly why his erstwhile bandmates decided to instigate a DVD reissue and a special gig to commemorate its tenth anniversary. Given that this occurred just a month after their new album Lifeblood was released represented a considerable risk: virtually inviting comparisons between the current model MSP and their 1994 selves.
"People forget that the album wasn't always associated with Richey's disappearance," says James. "It was associated with his being as creatively heightened as you could be. It was associated with some kind of strange euphoria at the time. Why set so much store by an anniversary? Because we just feel we should. We're making life harder for ourselves, but we felt it was being respectful. We can't indulge in many Richeyisms - we can't put his picture up on-stage. The MOJO Richey article [MOJO 99], I couldn't read it. And I just felt it was hard for me to get involved in this morass of Richey history, except for when it's quintessentially about him, and that's The Holy Bible. This is the only time that I'm prepared in my life to say actually, for better and for worse, this epitomised him in every way, and this is the way I'd rather talk about it. And if we're going to do that we should do it now. Regardless of… Jesus Christ, the sales in Britain, I remember it just hitting me like a thunderbolt: nobody's bought this record. But it doesn't matter, because, fuck - it's brilliant."
Most bands on the road in Germany would not elect to spend a day off visiting the preserved remains of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Then spend their next day off doing likewise at Belsen. But as has long been evident, the Manic Street Preachers are not most bands. 1993's patchy second album, Gold Against The Soul, recorded at vast expense in the opulent surroundings of Hook End Manor in Berkshire, had failed to annex the hearts and minds of a generation. Nor did its air of dejected bombast suggest much future mileage in continuing to hold down a gig as the Situationist Guns N'Roses. October 1993 found the quartet in less than ebullient fettle as they hauled around central Europe.
"Richey was in a bad way," remembers Nicky. "The drink wasn't working. When the drink stopped working it got messy."
At 35, Nicky Wire's sole vices remain satellite sports channels and neurotic hoovering. He has been married for 11 years and is the father of a baby daughter ("Potty training," he shudders. "It's just as well I like to clean…"). We meet at Stir Studios in Cardiff, near the pungent Brains Brewery and not far from the now-demolished Soundspace Studios where The Holy Bible was recorded - at a fraction of the cost of its predecessor.
"Gold Against The Soul's attractiveness is its emptiness," he says. "It's soulless. We just knew that the £2,000-a-day studio, this hollow-arena to make arena rock, had to go. And the German tour was horrendous. The first gig, Richey was just gone. He was drinking Johnnie Walker Black Label during the day, which he never used to do, and before the gig. And on days off we visited death camps!" he laughs. "Which was weird. We were still dressed kind of rock'n'roll back then, and all these tourists from America were just looking at us. We were very respectful, don't get me wrong. But when you get to the gas chambers… You'd then go back on the bus and drive to some dreadful place in Germany to do a gig. It genuinely had a big impact on us."
James returned from the tour of Germany, "bored of Gold Against The Soul and the songs we were playing". Still living with his parents, he had discovered early on in the tour that his mother had cancer, and this, combined with the break-up of a long-term relationship, impelled a realignment of priorities.
"I was unhappy. Pissed off because my mum was ill. I knew something was wrong at home but my parents didn't tell me because they were being good and old-fashioned and didn't want it to get in the way of my life. And I thought, 'Fuck, I've really lost sight of something'. So when I got home I was really glad to be there and I didn't want to record anywhere else than Cardiff. It made me realise I wanted to be like the person I was when I was 17. I wanted to be that edgy angst-ridden little prick again. And I wanted that to be reflected in the record. I wanted to feel like we felt at the start. And it's ridiculous to say that, because we were only a couple of years down the line. But I'd already felt that we'd lost it, basically."
In their various ways, each Manic Street Preacher had arrived at the same place. Richey's heart of darkness was all too obvious in both the hyper-cognisant screeds of lyrics he was writing and his self-abusive behaviour. Even Sean, the epitome of drummerly stoicism, felt "we'd gone up our own arses on the last album and it just wasn't that good".
And so, spurning their record company's offers of palatial studios and name producers, the Manics retreated into the south Wales cocoon from which they had sprung, like scrawny blithe spirits, some four years previous. In seeking to relocate a truer sense of self, they took inspiration from the post-punk indie records which had ruled their lives until Appetite For Destruction dared them to dream bigger, and recorded two demos - Mausoleum and Die In The Summertime. In a quintessentially gallows instance of MSP kismet, these were the last two new Manics songs Philip Hall heard before his death.
Martin Hall: "Philip was very ill at the time. The boys were at his house, sitting around talking, and he was asking about the new record. Richey said, 'We've got one called "Die In The Summertime" and one called "Mausoleum".' And he said, 'Oh, cheery! Thanks for that!'"
Nicky: "He was a truly great man, Philip. There in his Pogues dressing gown, he looked pretty poorly, wasn't really with it, but he was desperate to hear [the songs]. At the end, he goes, 'Yeah, this rock'n'roll has got to stop - this sounds like you're doing the right thing.' That really stayed with me, the idea of inverting rock'n'roll and getting back to something cold, with a different kind of emotion."
On February 7, 1994, the wider world was offered a premonition of what was about to unfold. 'Comfort Comes', released as the B-side to 'Life Becoming A Landslide', the final single from Gold Against The Soul, didn't resemble the Manic Street Preachers at all. It sounded like Pink Flag-era Wire goose-stepping in a shoebox. A week later, the band began the studio session that would confirm this was no one-off aberration.
James: "The first song we recorded was 4st 7lb. I remember going to the cafe, walking down the street thinking, I'm pissed off. Everything is shit. My mum's ill, my girlfriend's dumped me and I'm fucking recording a song called 4st 7lb which I'm not even sure if I like yet, and it's all grim. And the girlfriend who'd dumped me was stood right in front of me. It was Valentine's Day and I thought, This can't get any worse. And she looked really good. I had an army jacket on, growth on my face, dandruff everywhere and I had a pair of my dad's council work jeans on. And I could tell she was thinking, Thank God I dumped him. I was thinking: 4st 7lb. Cancer. Valentine's Day. SHIT!"
But despite this inauspicious start - compounded when Nicky accidentally broke James's prized white Gibson guitar - work on The Holy Bible moved at a pace. And at James's instigation, for seven days a week, for six weeks, he left the insalubrious £50-a-day confines of Soundspace only to eat and sleep. While Nicky, Richey and Sean would work regular 10-6, eight hour days before returning to their respective domestic sanctuaries, James would never quit earlier than midnight - and frequently later. Dutifully at his side throughout was rookie engineer Alex Silva, who for years afterwards would drive bands to distraction by insisting they painstakingly double-track every guitar part, because that's what James had done. Prior to the session, Bradfield struggled for three weeks to perfect the music to 'Faster' - the album's first single, a shredding conflation of 'Comfort Comes' - rewriting it 21 times. Popular myth has cast The Holy Bible as "Richey's album", but the Manics' fevered lyricist wasn't the only obsessive on board.
Nicky: "James was the leader. His musical vision was paramount, it dictated the tone of the whole record. I mean, I played 'Archives Of Pain' but James wrote the bass line, which totally defines that song. You had to keep up with him. He was unbelievably driven. Richey was too, of course, but James (laughs) seemed the one with the more personal agonies at the time."
James: "I started thinking, Fuck, I can't do this any more. I thought 'Faster' was the best lyric I'd been given and it was so important I get it right. Faster validated the other songs I was writing, that's when I thought I was doing something good. And once it turned out that way, that's the direction I thought everything would take. The guitar and the bass would be strychnined into the song, there was always this image of things marching in my head. All the songs were marching towards something. And it just became more aggressive. Straighter. Angular. Colder."
Nicky: "Also, suddenly Blur was happening, Oasis were happening, and we were in this crappy studio making this deathly post-punk record. That made us realise - let's make the album that is the truest essence of us. Nihilistic, defiant… We've always been at our best when we've been like that. The more we got into The Holy Bible the more we were enjoying it. Sean always used to say 'Intense Humming Of Evil' is the sound of the train coming into Auschwitz. I know it's a perverse thing to say we were enjoying it, but we just knew people were going to listen to it and be shocked. And whenever I play it, it just frightens me. It's hard to put yourself back into that state of mind."
On April 8, news broke of Kurt Cobain's suicide. James was in Britannia Row studios in London with engineer Mark Freegard, mixing Archives Of Pain. He immediately phoned Richey, at home in his newly purchased flat in Cardiff.
James: "I can't pretend I remember what he said, but it was something like, not 'good on him', nothing so easy to digest as that, but something which expressed… admiration. So I remember being happy in the studio, then calling him up and thinking: Please react in a human way rather than on an intellectual level. Just leave it. Something is happening and it's bad, leave it there."
But as work on the album drew to a close, the unravelling of Richey gathered a sickly momentum. His infamous public self-mutilation during a gig in Bangkok in late April was only the most obvious manifestation of his distress.
Nicky: "Something went badly wrong in Thailand. After that, it was downhill. The mirror had cracked. I couldn't get to grips with what Richey was talking about a lot of the time. It was verging on madness. No matter how many times we put him to bed, or sat around talking, there was no conclusion to it. It wasn't getting anywhere."
For the rest of 1994, the ugly truths of The Holy Bible's philosophical DNA came to resemble a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Manics struggled through the summer, playing several festivals without Richey in order to pay for his treatment. At one point, the notion of him assuming a non-performing role was mooted.
James: "We used Brian Wilson and [Saint Etienne's] Bob Stanley as examples. He laughed about that. 'Well, I don't know if I can be Brian Wilson, but I could definitely be Bob Stanley!' We also said, We can just finish - we can stop this. And after thinking about it for two days he said, 'No, we've got to carry on'."
They staggered through two more European tours, Richey wrestling with a post-Priory 12-Step regime which prohibited alcohol, before ending the Holy Bible life cycle with three blistering shows at the London Astoria on December 19-21. Richey Edwards' last ever gig ended in an orgy of destruction ("The only orgy the Manic Street Preachers have ever had!" laughs Nicky), as £26,000 worth of equipment went up the Swannee.
Sean: "It was a relief. We'd reached rock bottom. We pretty much thought that night that was going to be it - that those would be the last gigs we'd ever do. So we trashed the gear thinking, We don't need this any more."
James: "I didn't think it would be our last gig. We had Pennie Smith there doing photographs backstage. And they were a lovely set of photographs. They were just a band, looking really at peace with itself in a strange way. Even after all the bad stuff that had gone on, I thought perhaps we're gonna come out the other end brilliantly. But something had to change. I knew Richey in the band would be different. Because sooner or later, in his head he was gonna realise he had the answers, and no one else. And obviously (laughs), he did. But in a different way."
There can surely be no other band whose present and future is so acutely defined by its past. On the title-track of the first post-Richey album, Everything Must Go, the Manic Street Preachers expressed the wish to "escape from our history" - but for painfully obvious reasons they remain unable to do that. And perhaps unwilling, too; because the logical conclusion is even more unpalatable. On the B-side of 2004's single, The Love Of Richard Nixon, is a song called Askew Road. Titled after the west London location where the fledgling Manics would stay with Philip Hall and his wife Terri, it features Richey's voice, recorded back in those early days. Still more poignant, however, is this elegy to lost souls' closing line: "Askew Road, a place in my heart/Forever hoping we'll all make our way back".
"We're cursed between the idea of hope and closure," says Nicky. "Can't honestly say I want closure, I prefer the hope. If you want closure you've got to kill the hope, and I dunno, maybe I should? Richey's not blamed, I don't blame him for anything. He did what he did.
"Most of my memories of him are good." He sighs. "It started so brightly. Things can happen, but I never thought The Holy Bible would end like it did. I genuinely never thought we could end up like that."