The gospel truths behind the Manic Street Preachers’ revered masterwork
As the dust settles from the Manic Street Preachers' anniversary tour, we consider the life and times of the 90s most extreme album – 1994's The Holy Bible. Dismissed by all but the most rabid fans on release, it's a confrontational, climatic and deeply traumatic listen. Set up as the definitive guide to 20th century history culture from thee worldview of the troubled genius Richey Edwards, its mythological status exploded when the guitarist – and de facto leader of the band – disappeared six weeks after the closing of their final tour.
Despite (or perhaps because) of its foreboding reputation, The Holy Bible is an album with a fascinating afterlife and long shadow – its lifelong followers include Erol Alkan, Raf Simons and Jeremy Deller to name just a few – and it stands as one of the most complete musical and artistic statements ever committed to CD. Since Dazed is an office stuffed with Manics obsessives, we decided to dedicate 2014's last dA-Zed guide to this extraordinary record.
A IS FOR ASTORIA
Iconic London music venue, demolished in 2009 to make way for the Crossrail project. The scene of Richey Edwards' last ever gigs with the band and the culmination of a Holy Bible tour that saw them spiralling out of control and coming to a full stop. On the last night of a three-date run, they smashed their entire equipment and the venue's lighting rigs, causing £26,000 worth of damage. Within two months of those gigs, Edwards had disappeared.
"We did the Astoria (shows), for three nights we all had nosebleeds, the last night was a joy, we just trashed everything. I really felt like 'something's finished here' and it turned out to be the last gig we ever did with Richey" Nicky Wire
B IS FOR BALLARD, JG
JG Ballard's writings on humanity are an ever-present Manics influence, but the sample of him talking about his novel, Crash, on the introduction to "Mausoleum" probably sums up pretty aptly what the Manics were trying to do on this record:
"I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror"
C IS FOR CENSORSHIP
Album closer "PCP" deals with themes of censorship and freedom of speech. "PC followers take up the idea of being liberal, but end up being quite the opposite," said Nicky Wire, with Richey Edwards taking the view that "on things like censorship, I think everything should be allowed on television. You know, I mean anything. I don't know who believes that any more. Every left wing party says there should be some degree of censorship, that some things are bad taste. But it's unjustifiable for anyone to decide what is bad taste."
D IS FOR DOSTOYEVSKY, FYODOR
"Beauty is a terrible and awful thing," goes a line in Dostoyevsky's 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov, which explores the connections between beauty, desire, intellect and religion. "She Is Suffering" takes similar themes and lifts this line.
"Beauty finds refuge in herself,
Lovers wrapped inside each other's lies,
Beauty is such a terrible thing,
She is suffering yet more than death"
E IS FOR EATING DISORDERS
"4st 7lbs" takes you deep inside the the mind of an anorexic, and is all the more disturbing for being one of the more semi-autobiographical tracks on the album. "4st 7lbs" is believed to be the weight at which death becomes medically unavoidable. Alongside alcoholism, depression and self-harm, Richey Edwards was a long-term anorexic, and in Nicky Wire's words, "every word of that (song) is Richey's, and it's pretty autobiographical. I think that when he was admitted to hospital, he was down to about six stones, which, for a five-foot-eight 25-year-old, is pretty grim."
"Self-worth scatters, self-esteem's a bore
I long since moved to a higher plateau
This disipline's so rare so please applaud
Just look at the fat scum who pamper me so
Yeah 4st 7, an epilogue of youth
Such beautiful dignity in self-abuse
I've finally come to understand life
Through staring blankly at my navel"
F IS FARRAKHAN, LOUIS
Controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, as appointed by Elijah Muhammad and name-dropped in the song "Revol": "Farrakhan alimony, alimony"
G IS FOR GILROY, PAUL
Writer and professor of American and English Literature known for his works on the cultural politics of race and nationality. His 1987 work There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation looked at evolution of the relationships between race, class and nation over the previous 20 years. Part of the title was borrowed for "Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart", to suggest that this was the view of Britain's Conservative government.
H IS FOR HOLOCAUST
The Holocaust is one of the central themes of the album, and "The Intense Humming of Evil" sets the mood from the off with its opening sample from a Soviet documentary film on the Nuremberg trials.
While the landscape of the album's release in 1994 was one of lad culture and "cigarettes and alcohol", the Manics were getting theirs from visits to Nazi concentration camps.
"We went to Dachau and Belsen. Most bands would get a load of skunk weed and lie around; we visited death camps," said Nicky Wire. "Those places had quite an intense influence on us, and on the whole album. Dachau is such an evil, quiet place. There's no grass, and you don't even see a worm, let alone any birds. all you can hear is this humming of nothing."
I IS FOR IBSEN, HENRIK
Nineteenth century Norwegian playwright and poet. Revered as the most important playwright since Shakespeare, he influenced the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, James Joyce, Eugene O'Neill and Miroslav Krleža.
His quote was included on the sleeve for "Faster/PCP": "The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone", and, 20 years later, on the Instagram of Dazed creative director Ronojoy Dam:
J IS FOR JOY DIVISION
Where first album Generation Terrorists saw them proclaim their desire to meld Guns N' Roses with Public Enemy, sell 16m records and split up – and Gold Against the Soul was their stab at shiny, radio-friendly rock – The Holy Bible brought a return to the band's "grass roots, rediscovering their Britishness and influences that had inspired them when they first formed," according to co-producer Alex Silva. Holing up in a dingy studio in Cardiff's red light district, the band dug deep into post-punk inspirations like Joy Division, Magazine, Wire, PiL, and Gang of Four during recording sessions.
"Ian Curtis was the only musician whose death I was saddened by. I love music, but I couldn't give a fuck if anybody dropped dead tomorrow, I wouldn't shed a tear" Richey Edwards
K IS FOR KATE AND KRISTEN AND KITKAT
"Kate and Kristen and Kit Kat, all things I like looking at." Kate Moss, Emma Balfour and Kristen McMenamy: three of the most iconic models of the 90s who are referenced in "4st 7lbs" and its unremittingly grim look inside the mind of an anorexic.
L IS FOR LENIN
Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Napoleon, Chamberlain, Trotsky, Che Guevara, Pol Pot, Farrakhan. No, this isn't a syllabus for modern history, it's a list of all the leaders and dictators featured in "Revol". "All adolescent leaders of men FAILED," wrote Edwards in his pass notes for the album. "All love FAILS. If men of the calibre of Lenin and Trotsky failed, then how can anyone expect anything to change? Won't get fooled again."
M IS FOR MIRBEAU, OCTAVE
The French writer whose lines from The Torture Garden adorn the album's back sleeve:
"You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack of all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That's the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilised world"
N IS FOR NORTHUP, SOLOMON
Writer of Twelve Years A Slave. Twenty years before his book was turned into a Hollywood film, the Manics were quoting him on the sleeve of "Faster/PCP":
"They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come – it will, if his prayer is heard, a terrible day of vengeance, when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy"
O IS FOR GEORGE ORWELL
Another literary ever-present in the Manics' world, whether it's the opening sample to "Faster", with John Hurt as Winston Smith in the film version of 1984 saying, "I hate purity. Hate goodness. I don't want virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone corrupt," or the sleeve of "Faster/PCP" with the Animal Farm quote, "Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say."
P IS FOR PROSTITUTION
Opening album track "Yes" was never going to get much radio play with its opening lines of "For sale, dumb cunts, same dumb questions," nor with its sample lifted from Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns, a 1993 documentary about the prostitution trade by Beeban Kidron.
Nicky's description of "Yes" in his track-by-track guide to the album explains how the song "looks at the way that society views prostitutes as probably the lowest form of life. But we feel that we've prostituted ourselves over the last three or four years, and we think it's the same in every walk of life.
"There's a line in there, 'Tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want.' You can get to a position when you're in a band where you can virtually do anything you want, in any kind of sick, low form. It's not something we've particularly indulged in, but it is a nasty by-product of being in a group."
Q IS FOR QUEUES
The Manics' recent Holy Bible shows sold out in under 20 minutes. Touted as being as much about looking forward as looking back, the gigs offered fans the first opportunity to see the album played in its entirety. "It’s a complete state of mind," said Nicky Wire of the band's approach to the shows. "You have to be so well drilled; you have to literally hate your audience."
R IS FOR RIMBAUD, ARTHUR
The enfant terrible of French modern literature best known for Une Saison en Enfer ('A Season in Hell'). Rimbaud stopped writing completely by the age of 21, and, like Richey Edwards, disappeared in mysterious circumstances, but was later found to have become a coffee and arms trader in Africa. Edwards was pictured in the catacombs beneath Paris with this verse scrawled across his clothes:
"Once, I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts opened and all wines flowed.
Alas the gospel has gone by! Suppose damnation was eternal!
Then a man who mutilates himself is well damned, isn't he?"
S IS FOR SAVILLE, JENNY
The YBA whose triptych "Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face)" was used for the album's cover. After seeing the painting in a magazine, Edwards contacted the Saatchi Collection to buy it, but was put off by the £30,000 asking price. Saville originally declined the band's request to use the artwork, but changed her mind after a 30-minute phone call from Edwards in which he described every track on the album in detail, giving them permission to use it for free.
T IS FOR TOP OF THE POPS
The BBC received a record number of complaints for the Manics' performance of "Faster" on Top of the Pops. The band looked as ready for guerilla warfare as they did a a prime-time pop show, but James Dean Bradfield's balaclava was interpreted by some as sympathetic towards terrorism and the IRA, sparking 25,000 complaints from viewers.
"We didn't see anything wrong or controversial about it. We were so Apocalypse Now by this point. I look at it now and it scares me a bit watching that video" Nicky Wire
U IS FOR USA
A track titled "Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart" was never likely to pay glowing tribute the American dream, and the thee-and-a-half-minute diatribe on American foreign policy, racism, inequality, consumerism, gun laws and more that follows pretty much backs up that assumption. Britain doesn't get off lightly, either. "It's not a completely anti-American song," said Wire, "it compares British imperialism to American consumerism. It's just trying to explain the confusion I think most people feel about how the most empty culture in the world can dominate in such a total sense."
V IS FOR VALERIE SOLANAS
American radical feminist writer, equally famous for writing the SCUM (Society For Cutting Up Men) Manifesto and shooting Andy Warhol in 1968. A passage from Solanas' manifesto gave "Of Walking Abortion" its title:
"The male chromosome is an incomplete female chromosome. In other words the male is a walking abortion; aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples"
W IS FOR WEST GERMAN ART
Martin Kippenberger was the prolific, provocative, hard-drinking artist considered one of the brightest German talents of his generation. Three of his works made it onto the sleeves of singles from The Holy Bible: "Flying Tanga" was used for "Faster/PCP", "Nice Communist Woman" on "Revol", and "Tits, Towers, Tortellini" for "She Is Suffering".
X IS FOR X BASEBALL SHOES
"You've no wounds to show, so wash your car in your x baseball shoes," a line from "Of Walking Abortion", is apparently a reference to the scramble to cash in on Malcom X's legacy after the release of Spike Lee's biopic on the black rights activist, and people adopting moral causes as a fashion accessory.
Y IS FOR YOUTH
The track "Die in the Summertime" did nothing to dampen fears for Edwards' state of mind around the time of The Holy Bible, but the troubled lyricist always maintained it wasn't about him, instead insisting it was "about an old man looking back over his life, over his favourite period of youth, childhood basically. Everyone's got a perfect mental time of their life and that's what this song is about."
Talking about Edwards after his disappearance, Nicky Wire said, "What made Richey the way he was? There is no dramatic thing, that's the scariest thing of all. To be honest, I think that, if anything, it's because his childhood was so happy that when he reached the age of responsibility, he couldn't handle it. He genuinely loved being young, but when you leave school, that's when the real world hits you. That's the most traumatic thing, having to grow up and realising – as he would put it – that everything was shit. Richey used to say 'you're born unmarked', then he'd look at himself and go, 'now I'm scarred'. They do say that 27 is the optimum time for males to commit suicide or break down, usually because of a longing for a disappearing youth."
Z IS FOR ZAPRUDER, ABRAHAM
The man who captured the assaination of JFK on his home-movie camera. Namechecked in "Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart": "Zapruder, the first to masturbate / The world's first taste of crucified grace."
"America is still trying to convince itself it is positive, enlightened and absolute," said Edwards of the song. "Zapruder (was) the first to sow doubts behind the reality/death of JFK."