Testaments Old And New - Under The Radar, 14th April 2015
As Britpop was taking off in 1994, the Welsh quartet Manic Street Preachers entered the marketplace with an acclaimed, dark classic of an album that exposed the raw nerves of the human experience.
Following the straight-ahead rock of their 1992 debut, Generation Terrorists, and '93's commercial-leaning Gold Against the Soul, The Holy Bible was an unexpected blast of political commentary, emotional upheaval, and unyielding observation. Largely featuring the lyrics of troubled guitarist Richey Edwards as well as contributions from bassist Nicky Wire, the tracks veered from stirring ("Faster," "Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit'sworldwouldfallapart," "PCP") to tender ("This Is Yesterday") to unsettling ("The Intense Humming of Evil") and sometimes genuinely disturbing (the anorexia study of "4st 7lb"). With their U.S. label on board to seriously push the album, Edwards disappeared in early 1995 just before he and singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield were to depart for America to promote the album. Bradfield, Wire, and drummer Sean Moore decided to carry on, and 1996's Everything Must Go propelled them into the ranks of the U.K.'s biggest bands, a status they've maintained ever since. Edwards was declared presumed deceased in 2008.
Last year, the trio observed the 20th anniversary of The Holy Bible by playing the album in its entirety during a string of U.K. shows that coincided with the release of new additions of the album. The Holy Bible 20, a boxed set including a vinyl copy of the album and four CDs, was recently released domestically, and this month the Manics will launch their first North American tour in years with shows that will once again present The Holy Bible from start to finish. Taking a break from tour rehearsals in their Wales studio, Nicky Wire looked back over The Holy Bible as well as last year's acclaimed album, Futurology.
Hays Davis (Under the Radar): Have you seen the movie Whiplash?
Nicky Wire: No, I haven't. Why would you say that? James saw it. He thought it was brilliant.
It had a main character with a willingness to go to physical and emotional extremes to achieve an artistic goal. Is that something you could identify with personally, or does that fall completely outside of your aesthetic or the band's?
As the four of us, we certainly were prepared at the start to push ourselves to the limits. I won't say that made us like original musicians or anything, but it was just something in our heads that, I think, coming from Wales, we had to try so much harder. We had to be larger than life. And I think we did the rhetoric, the look...not just the music. I think the whole package. We probably did push a lot further than any band around us at that point, for sure.
Now that you've played The Holy Bible a few times, are there elements of performing it that you felt edgy about at first but have relaxed with at this point?
It's so fucking hard to play as you get older! [Laughs] It's just one of those albums you just really have to concentrate so hard [to play]. I don't know what it is about the album. It's the angles...just physically the way you play it. It's not like any other record. Chords don't follow each other like they do on normal records. When you get onstage it is a force of will, of concentration and anger, and controlled anger, I guess.
To my knowledge, I don't think we've ever played Washington before. I think we were there once with Oasis [slated as openers] and they cancelled their tour and we were in their hotel there. And ticket sales have been really good, so...kind of really surprised. I never thought we'd make it to D.C. so I'm really looking forward to it.
Are there certain songs or sections from The Holy Bible that playing them now still seems sort of like moving a little too close to an open furnace, whether from any songs' lingering emotional connection or simply in how it feels to play it?
There is. I play our records a lot. James and Sean don't bother playing our records; they're just not interested, but I do. But The Holy Bible's the one I don't play so much because it does take you into a world very few records do. Maybe something like [Nirvana's] In Utero. It is quite uncomfortable, let's be honest, but there is a comfort there, in some respects. Having to play those songs every night...but the reaction of the crowd, really, is what made it easier. Just hearing them sing songs like "Mausoleum" back to you, three or four thousand people in London just singing those words. [Laughs] Never been a gig like it, really. That kind of communal thing, and of something so dark, made it all worthwhile.
As you guys moved from Gold Against the Soul into your work on The Holy Bible, Richey was dealing with personal issues that ultimately required treatment. How was he contributing to The Holy Bible during this time? Were you getting sporadic lyrics from him?
He was very controlled at this point, actually. The problems didn't really start until we'd finished the record. Obviously, there was always something; the four of us were pretty extreme, but Richey was more extreme than the rest. Nothing unraveled, really, until we finished the record. He was very organized like he always was. Like we all are, really. We were very disciplined, making the record. It was probably from the trip, really, to Thailand, where we're premiered "Faster." I think "Faster" came out quite a few months before the album. That's when, really, it started to unravel. But in terms of making the album, it was one of the most focused, disciplined periods the band had ever had. We were completely determined to kind of take total control of the presentation of the music, the words. And Richey's lyrics were just stunning. I could take a back seat; 75% of the album was Richey's words, whereas the other ones we pretty much shared everything out. I could tell he was in such of a rich vein of this stunning prose and poems. We knew it was going to be pretty special.
Were there lyrics that anyone within the band thought, "Is there even a way to make a song from this?"
I think James had that moment a few times. I still can't believe [James] turned "Yes" into such a melodic song, really, because when you see the lyrics written down there's just so many of them, and they're so awkward. They're brilliant, but they're almost journalistic rather than lyrical, and I think James just really rose to the challenge at this point. He felt a desire to create something really original: sounds of our youth, and the darkness and the melancholy of Wales, transferring that into all the places we'd visited on tour and the death camps of the Holocaust. I think he just loved the challenge of trying to make those words into tunes.
Reading that the creative process for songs that were often pretty bleak was actually a positive experience for the band sounds sort of paradoxical. Did it seem strange at all at the time that creating such dark material could be a positive direction from your work on Gold Against the Soul?
Yeah, I don't think we realized it. Pop was exploding in the U.K. and we were totally out on our own. We'd made this dark path of a record. We were all wearing military gear and going for the Apocalypse Now look. It made you feel really tight as a band, and we were getting on great. But once we released the record and realized the way it was interpreted and how we'd play those songs, then the façade unraveled a bit, really. We just realized it was really difficult. Difficult to play, difficult to listen to. There was no fierce intensity that we reveled in, but it became apparent that it felt like some sort of self-fulfilling prophesy was going. Everything seemed to be spiraling out of control a bit by the time we played the [London] Astoria at Christmas.
Considering the recorded clips used as intros or outros for some of the songs [including interviews with Hubert Selby, Jr. and J.G. Ballard, an extract from a report on the Nuremberg Trials, and dialogue from a 1993 documentary about the prostitution trade], was there source material you're aware of that might have been influential on the writing of the lyrics?
The lyrics definitely came first most of the time, at this point. We'd sort of done it really early on with "Motown Junk," for instance, and the original "You Love Us," where we'd had these strange intros and some nit bits: Penderecki and "Lust for Life" and Public Enemy. We wanted to get back to that. We wanted to have strange intros, spoken word. So we just let our imaginations run wild, really. Anything that was empathetic to the tone of the song we used. Mostly Richey, again, because most of the lyrics were his, so he had the main insight to those words, but I think it really enhances the album, whether it's the start of "Faster" or J.G. Ballard in the middle of "Mausoleum." It kind of illustrates the lyrics sometimes, almost better than some of the words because sometimes they're really impenetrable. You have these quotes that really illuminate the songs.
Looking back on feedback you may have gotten from fans on differences between Generation Terrorists and Gold Against the Soul, what do you remember hearing following the release of The Holy Bible?
With Gold Against the Soul we'd reached the apex of us trying to be sort of a gigantic rock band in the traditional sense. There are moments on Gold Against the Soul which we still love, but you can tell we just weren't a band that we wanted to be. We were almost trying too hard. When people got the first taste of "Faster" and "PCP' they just felt like, "Oh, we've got our band back. This is the band we fell in love with, almost even better than before." I can't remember any negative reaction, really.
What prompted the creation of the album's U.S. mix [included in The Holy Bible 20 as well as the album's 10th anniversary edition]?
I think it was just a suggestion from the American [label]. Ironically, it's the one album that we had a shot at doing well in America, because the record company was really into it. They wanted to remix the album to make it, shall we say, more "modern rock." [Laughs] And we loved it. [Tom] Lord-Alge did an amazing mix. At least six, seven of the tracks, I think, are better than the U.K. version, which is why we put it on the anniversary editions. I think it was the initial spark of someone from our record company, and we were quite happy to go along with it.
What was planned for James and Richey with their trip to the States to promote the album? Which song or songs were considered to help introduce it?
We were talking about that the other day, and we can't really remember. We were due to do a huge tour with Sponge. We were sold as kind of being the new Jane's Addiction, and we were going to do at least 18 dates, I think. So our record company was happy with that and they were building all the promo around it, and they loved the remix. I can't remember the trip James did, what the main thrust was, really, other than the press.
What does the album mean to you, in hindsight? Do you have a hard time weighing it against the band's other work without consciously or unconsciously considering it in its historical context?
I think it's true artistic expression, musically and lyrically. That doesn't necessarily mean it's my favorite record, but it's the truest expression of the people we were at that point. You can't ask for much more than that. It's just so brutally honest, especially at a time when the rest of Britain was reveling in a totally different genre of music. Kind of makes us feel pretty good, really.
[Onto your current album, Futurology,] naturally, any band wants a batch of new songs to sound fresh, but have there been times over the years where you guys approached work on a new album with what you felt was a genuine sense of reinvention?
Yeah. Definitely with [2007's] Send Away the Tigers. It felt almost like we were a new band. Not so much musically, but just like we'd rediscovered the reason why we loved being in the band in the first place. It just felt completely natural and made us feel 10 years younger. I think with Futurology, especially, as well, it just felt like, not only did we feel like a new band again, we actually sounded like a new band. Kind of the most radical departure for us, in many ways. You could tell, as songs would come in, and the lyrics. Just the whole mood of the album, I guess, the whole European mood, made us feel like we could convince people again of the worth of the band, really. Again, in an artistic sense rather than purely commercial.
As you settled into the writing and recording of Futurology, was there anything in particular that you knew you wanted to definitely do or definitely not do this time around?
We didn't want to worry about having a hit single, really. Apart from that, we just let our imagination follow the tone of the album, really. We didn't want to spoil the tone of the kind of European feel of the record just for the sake of trying to have a hit. We didn't want to destroy the vision of the record, which I think we achieved in the end. We sort of stopped ourselves and thought it stands up as it is, rather than trying to force something on it.
What's your opinion of why Futurology had such a strong chart impact in the U.K. compared to some other Manics albums over the past few years?
Well, we've just been really lucky, with Send Away the Tigers and Postcards [from a Young Man, 2010], and now this being number two. Just a really good run. I swear I think people have started falling in love with us again mainly because we fell in love with ourselves again. And to be on our 12th album and going to number two and still feel relevant when most of our contemporaries have split up and reformed and are off starting again. We don't dwell on it too much, to be honest. We're always thinking about the next thing.
There are times that the band sounds like you're having a great time. Did it seem at times like renewal, or was it simple exuberance here and there at how well a track was going?
Yeah, I think "exuberance" is a good word. It's just the power of ideas. That's what Futurology is about, the idea of how our minds have been opened up so much by traveling and reading and experiencing different cultures that we wanted to get our enthusiasm across on the record, and for once it just came really naturally. Just didn't have to force anything about it. I think that comes across.
This one followed fairly quickly after Rewind the Film. Was it a matter of following momentum, or of moving quickly with a new album as part of a fresh statement of purpose?
They did overlap at times. We did have quite a bit of Futurology done. Obviously we knew they were two completely different albums. Rewind the Film is probably the most startlingly different record we've done, just because it's so tender and melancholic. And we knew that we could never put those records together because they just didn't fit in any way at all. We kind of set out with the idea of doing two radically different sides of ourselves, and I think within six months we knew we could pull it off.
What do you think the Manics of the Holy Bible period would have made of Futurology?
I think we would have loved Futurology, actually. I'm not sure about Rewind the Film but I think we would have loved Futurology. [Laughs] I think we would have loved the idea. It might have even been the next record, you know. Maybe instead of Everything Must Go we would have gone down with something even more European. Who knows? But lots of critics have put it in our top three or four albums, and that's really gratifying, to be in your mid 40s and still do that.