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Q Classic Album: The Holy Bible - Q Magazine, November 2019

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Title: Q Classic Album: The Holy Bible
Publication: Q Magazine
Date: November 2019
Writer: Keith Cameron
Photos: Mitch Ikeda, Kevin Cummins, Pennie Smith

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By early 1994, Manic Street Preachers’ opulent, provocative rock shtick seemed to have worn thin. Inspired, however, by lyricist Richey Edwards’s sincerely bleak writing, the band carved out a brutal, career-saving new sound. Keith Cameron charts the creation of a harrowing masterpiece.

On 21 December, at the Astoria Theatre in London, at the end of the final night of a three-gig residency, James Dean Bradfield, Richey James Edwards, Sean Moore and Nicky Wire were giving themselves an early Christmas present. The cost? £26,000. A bit steep, possibly, but considering the 12 months the Manic Street Preachers had been through, it felt justified.

Almost exactly a year earlier, Philip Hall, who co-managed the band with his brother Martin, died of cancer. In July, Richey Edwards, the band’s co-lyricist and intellectual fulcrum, was admitted to the Priory psychiatric clinic, as the physical consequences of his mental illness spun out of control. In between these two traumatic moments, the band wrote and recorded a new album with a mindset that was pure Year Zero. Deeply dissatisfied with how their original grand ideals appeared to have already dwindled into just another middling rock career, the Manics’ new record was primitive and raw where its two predecessors had been opulent and polished.

It offered the harrowing self-analysis of one individual, staring into his own personal abyss as a logical response to the wretched condition of the world. “Little people in little houses/Like maggots, small blind and worthless,” Edwards wrote in the song Of Walking Abortion. “Who’s responsible?/ You fucking are.”

This new album was called The Holy Bible. The beginning of the end started with the guitars. Edwards first, slamming his Fender into the amplifier stack, then Bradfield and Wire joined in. After he’d finished with his own gear, Bradfield looked over at Edwards hacking away at what remained of his equipment and decided to help out. Then he noticed Wire hadn’t quite managed to completely obliterate his bass guitar.

“I’ll have some of that too,” he thought. Then Bradfield turned around and saw the unthinkable: Sean Moore smashing his prized drums. After that, everything on the stage went.

The Manics had destroyed stuff before. As learned pop-art iconoclasts, it was in their blood. But not like this. Never everything. Never the lights. Never Sean’s drums. This wasn’t a pre-programmed rock’n’roll gesture. This was personal. This was the end of The Holy Bible – an album titled in acknowledgement of its definitive content. A last set of words.

In an interview with Swedish television just three weeks before his final performance, Edwards stated: “I think that if a Holy Bible is true it should be about the way the world is.” Six weeks later, Richey Edwards disappeared.

On 7 February, 1994, the Manics’ record label Columbia released Life Becoming A Landslide, a fourth and final attempt to wring some life from Gold Against The Soul, the band’s patchy, often turgid second album recorded a year previously, at vast expense, in Oxfordshire’s luxurious Hook End Manor. The single flopped – its Number 36 chart placing was the Manics’ lowest in three years – but its B-side offered a startling portent of the future. Comfort Comes was an oppressive blast of clipped-riff austerity, like the definitive post-punk band Wire’s song Our Swimmer being forced through a corroded shower-head. Rock’s routine cathartic tools, such as cymbals, were verboten. Compared to the lead track’s overblown production and bombastically orchestrated melancholy, it sounded like the work of an entirely different band.

The Manics produced it themselves in their South Wales heartland. The aesthetic was deliberately gritty: for an engineer they chose novice Alex Silva, a member of Brith Gof, an avant-garde Welsh theatre company who had previously collaborated with industrial noise troupe Test Dept.

They recorded at the tiny £50-a-day Sound Space Studios, in a seedy locale near Cardiff ’s Brains Brewery.

“Pete, who owned the place, had this baseball bat,” Bradfield later remembered, “because there were always people trying to break in, glue-sniffing, shagging against the door. He would come out with the bat: ‘I do not want any fucking discharge on my door!’ My memories of recording Gold Against The Soul were us being pretend rockers. I wanted that opulence to be got rid of. I wanted to feel like we felt at the start. We were only a couple of years down the line but I’d already felt that we’d lost it.”

The lyrics to Comfort Comes, written entirely by Richey Edwards, pondered “the difference between love and comfort”, and offered little in the way of hope: “I wish that someone would hold me/Wrap their arms around a shrinking somebody.” In every aspect – its sound, the circumstances of its recording, and its authorial perspective – Comfort Comes was a bridge to The Holy Bible.

“That song haunts me,” said Wire.

“It’s so fucking minimal and miserable, so bare and raw. And honest.”

Late in 1993, they had visited Philip Hall and played him demo recordings of two new songs. The first of these, Mausoleum, had originally been titled No Birds, inspired by two separate visits to the Nazi death camps at Dachau and Belsen during the Gold Against The Soul tour. The second song was the harrowing Die In The Summertime. “Oh cheery!” the ailing Hall said. “Thanks for that!” With just weeks to live, their manager approved the new direction.

“He was slumped in the corner, and wasn’t really with it,” Wire recalled. “It was sad. But at the end, he said, ‘Yeah, this rock’n’roll has got to stop – this sounds like you’re doing the right thing.’”

Even as darkness closed in around them, the Manics were locating an esprit de corps, one that lent a paradoxical aura of harmony to the writing and recording of The Holy Bible. On the January 1994 UK tour which heralded the release of Life Becoming A Landslide, the Manics began dressing in military fatigues. It was partly a tribute to their heroes Echo & The Bunnymen – and, as with that precedent, the Manics fans began copying the uniform look – but also an expression of their embattled mindset. A collective resolve that positioned them diametrically opposite the imminent explosion of Britpop.

“It gave us an identity,” Wire said. “Just after that, we got the worst possible NME Award, for ‘Best Radio Session’. That was a special night, because you had Damon and Justine at their student love peak, and Liam at his coolest, Graham Coxon looked great… We went up onstage and got this crap award. And Liam shouted out, ‘Fuck off, ya c**ts!’ James just looked at him, really hard, and went, ‘Yeah, all right, come on then.’ And there was a deathly silence. We felt really together that night, totally at ease as a band. And from that moment on, it was just a telepathic mission.”

Reconvening at Sound Space with Silva in February, the first three songs recorded for The Holy Bible – 4st 7lb, Faster and Of Walking Abortion – were broadly representative of the record’s musical and lyrical preoccupations: didactic bulletins from an existential twilight zone. Faster built on Comfort Comes’ geometric template, albeit permitting the occasional heroic flash, like cymbals. Bradfield spent three weeks trying to write the music to a lyric that he considered the best he’d been given, finally nailing it at the 21st attempt. “I thought, ‘This has got to be a single, it covers so much in one lyric.’ So, of course, as soon as I decided that, it wouldn’t happen. I was at my mum and dad’s house, a Friday night, they were out, my mum was playing darts, and I was thinking I would have to hand this one over to Sean. Then, I just thought, ‘Let the lyrics speak to you.’ I looked at the rhyme and metre of ‘I am an architect, they call me a butcher’, and thought it’s got to be regimented. ‘Long live regimentation’, that quote from Saul Bellow’s novel Dangling Man came into my head. I thought, ‘Yes! We can do this!’ All the songs were marching towards something, and it just became more aggressive. Straighter. Strychnined. Angular. Colder.”

With Skids’ Stuart Adamson and Magazine’s John McGeoch his twin post-punk guitar pillars, Bradfield stoked the furnace. Newly single – his long-term girlfriend had ended their relationship shortly before the recording began – Bradfield dictated a relentless schedule in the studio, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for six weeks. “James was the leader,” said Wire. “His musical vision dictated the tone of the whole record. People say it’s Richey’s album, but James was unbelievably driven. Richey was too, of course, but James seemed the one with the more personal agonies at the time.”

On previous Manics albums, Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire had contributed lyrics equally, writing as a collaborative partnership. On The Holy Bible, however, the words were around 75 per cent Edwards’.

Faster would be the last song the pair wrote together: Edwards took six lines from a song Wire had been writing based around the lyric: “So damn easy to cave in/Man kills everything”, and finished it off. Nicky suggested the title. “I felt it in him. I remember saying, ‘I can’t keep up with you, it seems like everything’s speeding up in your head…’ The acceleration of culture to a point of no return. When he gave us the lyrics to Yes, for example, I said, ‘I can’t add a single thing to that’. It was a perfect piece of prose. The genesis of Ifwhiteamerica… was mine but we only used four or five lines because Richey’s stuff was so brilliant. His masterpiece, 4st 7lb, I didn’t touch at all. I looked at that and thought, ‘I can’t relate to it. I’ve no experience in those feelings.’”

Although Edwards would be guarded with regard to some of the inspiration for his increasingly internalised writing, he discussed 4st 7lb with Bradfield. “Obviously he’s into his personal battle with eating and vanity at this point. He conveyed to me – as the lyric did – the chatter of that vanity as the result of anorexia and bulimia: ‘I must pass a mirror without looking at myself’, ‘Do I look as cool as Johnny Depp?’ He was saying to me, ‘Yes, it sounds nasty when I say it out loud but it is a genuine thing that goes on in my head and other people’s, which leads to a very bad place.’ So I wanted the first part of the song to convey the freneticism of that vanity. And then, the resolution was the supposed self-control, the defeat you suffer from getting control over yourself and not eating, that’s the coda at the end. I remember doing a couple of heroic guitar bits in the coda and Nick popping his head round the corner of the control room. ‘Steady on, Slash! This is not the record!’”

For all the material’s bleak intensity, the atmosphere in the studio was upbeat. Wire’s photographs of the session are full of smiles. When Edwards finished the lyric to IfwhiteAmericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart – Sean Moore’s drumming masterclass, and a critique of US racism that contentiously advocates more liberal gun laws – he pronounced: “Charlton Heston’ll like this one!”

“There was genuine good humour recording that album,” Wire said. “It was very cohesive, everyone was really gentle with each other. You knew the right things were coming together.”

The band’s avowed non-musician, Edwards would sit in the office next to the control room with his ever-present typewriter, writing lyrics, designing artwork, scheming future tours and ideas. He sourced the dialogue samples that precede each track on the album, crudely recording from TV documentaries and films. In the pre-internet age, the effort required to research the litany of obscure philosophical and political references in songs like Archives Of Pain and Of Walking Abortion was prodigious. Whenever the band was in London, Edwards would frequent the hallowed Reading Room of the British Museum, following in the footsteps of Karl Marx, George Orwell and Virginia Woolf. He also made regular pilgrimages to Compendium on Camden High Street, the capital’s pre-eminent independent bookshop. “Richey must have bought well over 150 books from there, it was a running joke in the band,” says Bradfield today. “They also sold academic research papers. He’d have a suitcase on the road, just filled with books. I don’t mean this in a flippant way, but when Compendium went under [in 2000] I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s probably because Richey’s not around!’ He absolutely loved that bookshop.”

But as the recording process reached its conclusion and the band left the scuzzy cocoon of Sound Space, reality began to contaminate their world. At a gig in Bangkok in late April, Edwards cut his chest open with a set of knives gifted to him by a fan.

“Nothing was the same after that,” Wire recalled. “It’s only then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy – having to realise that you’re playing these songs every night, singing these words every night, listening to these words every night. Something went badly wrong in Thailand. After that it was downhill.”

Shortly after an apocalyptic performance at the Glastonbury Festival, Edwards was admitted to the Priory. At the end of August, the Manics played three festivals without him, their first gigs as a trio: they needed the money to pay for Edwards’s treatment.

The Holy Bible was released three days later, in the same week as Oasis’s Definitely Maybe. It entered the UK album chart at Number 6, but within three weeks had plunged out of the Top 75, never to return.

With Edwards out of hospital and on a 12-step programme to curb his alcoholism, the band careered through two month-long European tours – the first supporting Therapy? in September, the second opening for Suede in November – with a month headlining around the UK in-between.

“By that Suede tour, we were absolutely shit-hot,” said Wire. “We only played for 35 minutes each night and we were blisteringly brilliant. But the record was dead as a dodo. No one cared. I was very close to leaving the band. I was having chronic stomach pains.

James was just pissed out of his mind, you wouldn’t see him until the evening of the gig, all the rest of the time he’d be sleeping and drinking. Poor old Richey. I didn’t feel I was in the greatest position to be the shoulder to cry on. The only thing that kept us going was knowing we’d made the right record.”

By the time they arrived at the Astoria, it felt like an endgame was underway. The reason Sean Moore trashed his drums at the Astoria on 21 December was he didn’t expect he’d need them again. “It was a relief. We’d reached rock bottom. We pretty much thought that was going to be it – that those would be the last gigs we’d ever do.”

Bradfield saw things a little differently. “That was The Holy Bible finished. But even after all the bad stuff, I felt if things could work out we’d be going somewhere new. 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, he did! But just in a different way.”

Although by no means their most commercially successful album, The Holy Bible is so intrinsic to the Manic Street Preachers that the band have honoured it with two commemorative editions. A 10th anniversary version featured the unheard mix by Tom Lord- Alge, intended for the album’s American release that was cancelled after Edwards disappeared. That reissue came out in late 2004, inconveniently adjacent to the release of the band’s seventh album Lifeblood. At a meeting, Martin Hall warned them to expect reviews of the new record to feature invidious comparisons with their classic record from the past that was now forever wrapped up in the tragedy of Richey Edwards.

“It is awkward for us,” Bradfield admitted at the time. “We’re making life harder for ourselves, but it would have felt wrong if we’d hidden our past at the expense of our future. We felt it was being respectful.

We can’t indulge in many Richey-isms. We can’t put his picture up onstage. I 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. People forget that the album wasn’t always associated with Richey’s disappearance. It was associated with his being as creatively heightened as you could be.”

A 20th anniversary edition arrived in 2014, with a book reproducing Edwards’s typewritten lyrics, his preparatory concept for the cover design and other notes and fragments (“My working title for the album, jauntily, was The Poetry Of Death,” Wire chuckled). In December that year, almost exactly two decades on from the final three Astoria gigs, the band toured the UK, playing The Holy Bible in its entirety. “When we did the 10-year edition, I didn’t really listen to the record,” Wire admitted. “I still thought it was a bit too close. But the more I’ve been listening lately, and practising, it’s made me feel a bit sad, made me realise you can only do something like that when you are really young and fearless. Perhaps you can never be that brave again.”

In 2019, when its depiction of homo sapiens as a failed species hardly seems controversial, the album’s 25th anniversary is being left to pass quietly.

As a group, the Manic Street Preachers haven’t played any of its songs live since 2015. “The reason is, you can’t fake them,” Nicky Wire says today. “They are not entertainment, they are a state of mind – a uniform rejection and examination of humanity. A brutal poetry of disgust.”

Just about the way the world is.