Reflections on a seminal work...
With samples plucked from documentaries about sex workers, imagery focusing on German death camps and a visceral edge that never lets up, ‘The Holy Bible’ is a record whose existence and subject matter has offered a convenient shorthand for explaining the disappearance of Manics member Richey James Edwards in February of 1995.
It’s an album that’s taken on an extra layer of ugliness that suits the much-scrutinised circumstances surrounding its creation – but it’s worth stepping back a little and remembering that, at its core, this was the product of a band boldly standing out amongst its peers.
The recently released 20th anniversary box set offers a means to flesh out the story of ‘The Holy Bible’, including a sample of the nose-bleed peppered final Astoria performances, contemporary B-sides and the hefty American mix, which the band concedes actually trumps the original in parts. Its foregrounding of the music – the responsibility of drummer Sean Moore and, more particularly, singer James Dean Bradfield – serves to remind us all that the primary reason for focusing on the Manics’ third studio LP is its position as one of the greatest rock records of all time.
For an album so immersed in mythology in the time since its release, it’s perhaps fitting that ‘4st 7lb’ was the first song upon which the band worked. Its brutal imagery, centred around the staggering line “I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint,” is given a strangely redemptive pay off in the musical shift of if its second phase, imbuing the final words with a knowingly, but unstoppably, irrational tone.
The song was – is – undoubtedly autobiographical, even if the rest of the band failed to realise it until after Edwards’ stays in several hospitals during the summer of 1994, following a particularly extreme 24 hours of self-harm. As he told NME soon after: “I thought my body was probably stronger that it actually was.”
The danger of treating this record as a potent full stop is that, for the band, it was a quite remarkable period of creativity. Edwards added: “In terms of the ‘S’ word, that does not enter my mind. And it never has done.” Indeed, when promoting the 2009 album ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, written using words Richey had left behind, bassist and now sole lyricist Nicky Wire told NME: “There is a sense of more calm. It’s like he’s been through this process of doubting everything. And the conclusions he reached, they’re not particularly happy. But they are… rational, even.”
As the album came together, Richey was driving the band to the Sound Space Studios in Cardiff and back every day. Bradfield was still living with his parents, making for an odd base while crafting some of the most visceral music of the ’90s. Once a week, the band’s funds would stretch to a night for him in a Marriott hotel. In his words, from a recently revived BBC interview, he “didn’t have a pot to piss in.”
Nobody in a tiny studio in the Welsh capital was deluded enough to view this ferocious record as a likely commercial smash, although ‘She Is Suffering’ was, in Nicky’s opinion at least, potentially the band’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ – and James envisaged the record’s first single ‘Faster’ as “Top Of The Pops gold”. (And it was.) The latter is a prime example of the wrestling these lyrics needed in order to be bent into shape, Bradfield only hitting upon the magic formula on his 20th attempt. With its references to Plath, Pinter, Miller and Mailer, it has long held its place in the band’s setlist, a curiously catchy testament to the intellectual impact the Manics have on their fans.
With not only the musical interpreters of these lyrics but his co-conspirator Wire needing to ask Edwards what some of the words meant, ‘The Holy Bible’ is a monstrous avalanche of rhetoric. So much so, in fact, the band’s label boss insisted that the album’s press campaign should be a double-page spread with nothing but the artwork and the complete lyric sheet.
‘Archives Of Pain’ rails against the cult of the serial killer and explores the validity of the death penalty. ‘The Intense Humming Of Evil’ and ‘Mausoleum’ touch on the Holocaust. Richey found himself terrified by seemingly intelligent people debating the reality of events in the Second World War, while ‘Mausoleum’, driven by Wire, was inspired by the lack of birds at (former concentration camp) Belsen, which the band visited during a particularly grim German tour in support of the polished, heavier rock of ‘Gold Against The Soul’.
Prior to their third album, Edwards and Wire had crafted the band’s lyrics in unison, passing phrases back and forth and sculpting their early work in partnership. Much has been made of how, for ‘The Holy Bible’, Richey was responsible for approximately 75% of the words and the temptation has long been to dig and dig and dig until the layers of prophetic meaning bubble to the surface.
But such facile actions simply don’t fit with the album’s genesis. As Wire laid the foundations of blissful domesticity, Edwards was rampaging towards an intellectual peak and railing against the violence, brutality and corruption of the world as he saw it.
While Magazine, PiL and Joy Division all leave their mark on this music, a more productive reading of ‘The Holy Bible’ might be to highlight, and grandly applaud, the notion that this is Bradfield’s masterpiece. Arguably the most underrated and yet impressive guitarist of his generation, he refers to the recording as “one of the best times of my life”.
The fourth disc of this reissue features a sizeable excerpt from Richey’s penultimate gig with the band, the second of three festive nights at London’s Astoria. It captures the lyricist’s rather less technically adept guitar playing, his sometimes out-of-time chopping present in the left channel. Its presence is rather moving, one part of the collective power and potential that existed within the Manics as 1994 came to a close.
‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’, ‘No Surface All Feeling’ and ‘Kevin Carter’ – all of which made the cut for 1996’s ‘Everything Must Go’ album – would soon be demoed, and the intensely articulate prose of ‘The Holy Bible’ looked to have been delivered, absorbed and conquered. The tense atmosphere on stage in those Christmas shows was expunged with an all-out trashing of their kit on the final night, and the new material offered a clear route forward.
It may well serve as a testament to a remarkable lyricist, a fascinating mind and one of music’s abiding enigmas, but what this box set truly does is confirm ‘The Holy Bible’ as a peculiar masterpiece. Its energy, intelligence, triumphs and failings are still quite stunning.