The Commitments - The Guardian, 21st November 2004
In 1994, the Manic Street Preachers released The Holy Bible, an album shot through with passion, visceral imagery and political conviction which went against the grain of Britpop. But why didn't it inspire a new wave of intelligent bands?
Ten years ago, UK rock music was in the middle of the cultural moment that excited onlookers were already starting to term Britpop. Blur's Parklife had revived a very English mode of arch social comment; the Gallagher brothers were proselytising about the life-affirming properties of old-school rock'n'roll and proving no less influential. By the following year, both strands had been tied into a picture of hedonistic national renewal: a Britain clad in sportswear, drunk on premium lager, sloughing off the hegemony of America by gleefully singing along to the latest Britpop hits.
There was, however, one unwelcome guest at the party: an album released in the autumn of 1994, in the same week as Oasis put out their debut album Definitely Maybe. Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible was, as its authors still proudly claim, the antidote to Britpop. Whereas the prevailing pop-cultural mood was giddily celebratory, this album escorted its listeners through such themes as genocide, communism and fascism, capital punishment, the hypocrisy underlying the American dream, anorexia, self-harm and suicide.
The album will be rereleased early next month, packaged in a luxurious 10th anniversary edition and newly tagged as 'a triumph of art over logic'. Rock music may have caught up of late with some of the angular influences that form its musical bedrock - Joy Division, Magazine, Public Image Ltd - but The Holy Bible's lyrical aspect is still glorious and remarkable.
Around 70 per cent of its words are the work of Richey Edwards, the member of the group whose unexplained disappearance in February 1995 left them as a reluctant trio. A political history graduate and voracious reader, he was outwardly in thrall to the standard rock archetypes - androgyny, excess, a solipsistic kind of angst - but his sense of what the group's music could convey (shared, it has to be said, by his co-lyricist Nicky Wire) was pretty much unprecedented. The Holy Bible's cast speaks volumes: within its songs lurk references to Lenin, Pol Pot, Myra Hindley, Winston Churchill, Shakespeare, Slobodan Milosevic and Michel Foucault.
Via such songs as 'Die in the Summertime' and '4st 7lbs', Edwards also sought to suffuse the album with a clear sense of his trials. That said, though his dysfunction is streaked through whole swaths of The Holy Bible, so, too, is a palpable sense of pride in his leading of the group into such singular territory. 'I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer,' goes the album's most successful single, 'Faster'. 'I spat out Plath and Pinter.'
Among its other qualities, The Holy Bible was a brave work, unafraid to break with one longstanding rule in the rock manual. In the past, music had tended to deal with humanity's woes via what Bob Dylan called 'finger-pointing songs', angrily taking issue with the adult world and/or the establishment. This album, by contrast, bluntly contended that the Manics and their audience were complicit in just about all the horrors it described. At the end of a song titled 'Of Walking Abortion', singer James Dean Bradfield repeatedly delivered one of the album's key lines, finally rising to an outraged shriek: 'Who's responsible? You fucking are.'
The Holy Bible took root in the wake of an uncertain phase of the group's progress. Having initially claimed that they would sell 16 million copies of their 1992 debut album, Generation Terrorists , they fell way short of their rhetoric, then went back into the studio to make Gold Against the Soul. Still founded on a worldview that was theirs alone, it was chiefly compromised by its bombastic aesthetics, suggesting that the group's fondness for hard rock had rather got the better of them. 'I actually quite like that record for its sense of... bewildering emptiness,' says Nicky Wire (aka Nick Jones), perched on a sofa in the group's Cardiff rehearsal studio. 'But after it, there was this realisation that we were completely lost. And I thought the way to regain our soul was to give ourselves the freedom to fail. Our whole ethos, of trying to be the biggest band in the world, had to take a sidestep. We had to make an artistic statement.'
The band's lyrics, written by Wire and Edwards, were always the starting point for their songs and at that juncture, the latter was evidently on a roll. His first contribution was the lyric for a song entitled 'Yes', a raw mea culpa in which the Manics surrenders to music business protocol were equated with the more stomach-churning aspects of prostitution. Soon after, he came up with 'Archives of Pain', a treatise on the innate human need for revenge, built around such lines as 'Prisons must bring their pain' and 'The centre of humanity is cruelty'. 'He told me, This a pro-capital punishment song - I think you'll love it,' says Wire. 'He smiled as he said it.'
As taboo-breaking were 'Mausoleum' and 'The Intense Humming of Evil', both inspired by one of the group's chosen forms of on-the-road recreation. 'On our days off on a European tour in 1993,' says Wire, allowing himself a smile at the incongruity of it all, 'we went to Dachau and Belsen. Most bands would get a load of skunk weed and lie around; we visited death camps.'
'I did feel, Should we actually be writing these songs?' admits James Dean Bradfield. 'It's a hard thing to justify; to try and sing a song and convey those feelings when we're so removed from them in terms of culture and history. Without wanting to sound flippant, it was, Can we get away with this? Is it expression or the grossest sensationalist voyeurism?'
The band, cooped up in a tiny Cardiff studio, working seven days a week, rejoiced in the quality of what they were putting on tape. The words were combined with fierce, angular music; the result, they concluded, was a near-perfect synthesis of medium and message.
'It's not an album with a Hollywood ending,' says Bradfield. 'But the liberation of playing the songs and realising that we'd found a new voice, a collectiveness of thought, was an achievement. It felt valiant. And when I went on stage every night and sang those songs, it was like being in a fight every night. I enjoyed it. It was a good feeling.'
The Holy Bible's artwork centred around Jenny Saville's Strategy (South Face / Front Face / North Face), a confrontational image of obesity, chosen by Wire and Edwards because of its portrayal of 'beauty in perceived ugliness'. Two months before the album's release, the Manics served notice of the album's second visual aspect: a new band uniform of mix-and-match military apparel, decisively introduced when they played 'Faster' on Top of the Pops.
Perhaps most remarkable of all was the contrast between the album and its context. Somewhat inevitably, its commercial fate paled in comparison to the kingpins of Britpop: while Blur and Oasis racked up sales that ran into the millions, the Manics managed a modest 35,000. In the wake of the career-defining success of their 1996 album Everything Must Go, however, it found an audience: every year, according to Wire, it unfailingly sells around 15,000 copies.
Wire remembers when he first appreciated The Holy Bible in its entirety. He and the other Manics were travelling home from an appearance at the Radio One roadshow, and they listened to a cassette of the new record. 'That was when the realisation came,' he says. 'It was, It doesn't seem like this is going to give us anything but trouble.'
If such songs as '4st 7lb' and 'Die in the Summertime' had eloquently portrayed a hellish kind of personal breakdown, the ensuing months rapidly blurred the distinction between the band's art and their collective life. 'Richey started drinking things like Tennent's Super, which seemed to say, I've lost the enjoyment of drink; I just need it,' says Wire. 'By that time, he seemed weak, light, as if he was going to a different place.'
'Die in the Summertime is the most frightening song there, lyrically and musically, in that it does merge into prophecy,' says Wire. 'Obviously, it took six months longer than that - if he did die, or disappear, or whatever. But when I listen to it and when we play it live... lines like, "A tiny animal curled into a quarter circle" - they're amazing lyrics, but there's that idea that nothing gives you any pleasure any more; that, post-childhood, life has been utterly empty. I still find it chilling.'
A distance of 10 years also allows them to think about the record in slightly more dispassionate terms, particularly when it comes to the songs that address grand themes. 'For me, it just feels like something that could only ever have been done in Europe,' says Bradfield. 'There's a morass of remains . We went through two world wars, and it's man's greatest achievement that we now live in Europe in peace. But the record says that there are ghosts there: it's built on blood, bones and rubble and we still live with those things.'
As proved by their recent album, Lifeblood , a collection of 'elegiac pop' that Wire claims amounts to ' The Holy Bible for 35-year-olds... a concept album about death', the Manics remain proud advocates of lyrics that both engage with the world and are couched in a poetic vocabulary - and it's this subject to which Wire returns time and again. The Holy Bible , he says, set an intellectual standard that has subsequently been ignored.
'You're not allowed to use words,' he says. 'You know, the White Stripes are seen as being important, but I can't recite you a single one of their lines. Even the Strokes, who are a perfect conglomeration of people, a truly stunning-looking band - none of their lyrics stick in my head. The destruction of language seems unstoppable. When a reviewer says, "Sounds like he's swallowed a thesaurus" - that old line - you just think, Oh, fucking hell - there's just no way somebody can be intelligent in pop any more. It's dead, truly dead,' he says. 'How can it ever come back?'
The Holy Bible is released by Epic, 6 December.