Bible Stories: Investigating a Personal Relationship with the Manic Street Preachers and The Holy Bible
When I saw that the Manic Street Preachers were on the cover of the 8th October edition of NME celebrating twenty-five years of their music, I was reminded once again of that long period of time earlier this year when I was listening, almost exclusively, to the band’s magnum opus, The Holy Bible.
Every day on the bus into university would begin with Yes and, dependent on what the traffic was like, the album might get to This is Yesterday or Die in the Summertime by the time it reached Gower Street. I began to listen to it instinctively. It was like being fifteen again when I listened to only the Ramones for about six months, convinced that everything else was illegitimate, only this time, my behaviour was practically pathological. A friend advised me to ‘cut down’ on The Holy Bible. I told him I could stop any time I wanted. He said he thought I may have a problem.
But seriously, habit and addiction analogies aside, listening to incredibly dark songs about, amongst other things, self-harm, anorexia and the Holocaust soon became the essential lynchpin of my day. That’s not to say that I was unaware of this. I spent a lot of time trying to reason with myself as to why my listening was so compulsive. Obviously it’s a phenomenal piece of work - this goes without saying…even though I just did. Indeed, back in January, I wrote a piece with the snappy little title, ‘An attempt to work out why I have been listening to the Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible every day for the past month’. However, aside from one perusal by a very obliging friend, I was quite embarrassed by how unsatisfactory such an ‘attempt’ had been so it never really saw the light of day beyond that. Perhaps it’s because I feel a relapse coming on now that I’ve decided to try again to search for a more adequate answer, though I can’t say I expect complete enlightenment on the subject.
However, there is evidently something about this seminal album from which I find difficult to distance myself. Though not an unnatural response to a musical suite so immersed in emotion, mythology and intellectual content, I’m still anxious to try and explore such a response further, since I’ve never experienced it before or since with another album in its entirety.
The stories of Richey Edwards’ life, work, disappearance and the way each informed his characteristic lyrics are now the stuff of legend. And yet, despite the fact that he was (or rather, became) the principal song-smith in the band, he never sang his own material. James Dean Bradfield took lead vocal duties, and, occasionally, Nicky Wire would also contribute. Edwards’ dark and, at times, deeply uncomfortable, material was always projected through another, literal, mouthpiece, and this attached it with a sense of inaccessibility and detachment. I’m not saying that the likes of Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain or Elliott Smith lacked such a ‘mystique’ on the grounds that they sang their own lyrics. That would be silly. I only mean to suggest that Bradfield’s delivery of Edwards (and Wire)’s words definitely lent the whole of The Holy Bible a tone that was fraught with difficult emotional content and sustained, unresolved tension. Richey Edwards becomes a semi-present ghost. The lyrics could be no one’s but his but it is never him that verbalises them. I’ve tried to think of another example of a band or album wherein this is the case to such an extent but I haven’t been able to do so.
Ultimately, this idea of distance through Richey’s vocal silence lends the lyrics a devastating truth. It’s not Ian Curtis (whom I also admire greatly) attempting to exorcise his psyche on-stage and spasmodically flailing his limbs in a heart-breaking parody of his own epileptic fits. It’s James singing Richey’s words whilst the latter attempts rhythm guitar, hardly plugged in most of the time either in live performances or in the studio.
Indeed, Bradfield’s vocals used to be a source of considerable annoyance to me, so much so that I would often get quite angry about them. I felt that his delivery barked out the lyrics in a manner comparable to a faulty machine gun mowing down foot-soldiers. Consequently, I thought that he was defiling their sentiments by up-chucking these beautiful words through indistinct annunciation and highly uneven and almost volatile phrasing. However, now I see that this delivery remains critical to the sense of distance I mentioned earlier that has so transfixed me about The Holy Bible. The fragmented phrasing takes the edge off of the sharp sting of the lyrics which are often startlingly direct.
Take Yes for example, and its chorus of darkly bitter cursing alongside brutal characterisations of prostitution:
‘And in these plagued streets of pity you can buy anything / for $200 anyone can conceive a God on video / he’s a boy, you want a girl so chop off his cock / tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want / I eat and I dress and I wash and I still can say thank you / puking – shaking – sinking I still stand for old ladies / can’t shout, can’t scream, hurt myself to get pain out.’
Written down, as bold as brass, the bitterness of the words sits on the surface, glaring back at us as though daring someone with a less than sympathetic ear to react unfavourably. However, spat out by Bradfield, I’d argue that it’s not nearly as hostile, regardless of whether or not you know what’s been said. Maybe it’s the fact that the lyrics go through different levels that separate them from us yet still manage to remain firmly attached to their meaning. Each track on The Holy Bible is so intense and saturated in Edwards’ fierce intellect, scholarship in political history and wide reading that I’ve come to look upon them as little essays, the musical counterparts to which are an equal partner in their compelling morphology. I cannot imagine the difficulty encountered by Bradfield and Moore in trying to formulate or adjust their musical compositions around Edwards’ erratic lyrical structures to create a means through which they could be suitably conveyed without detracting from the sonic sympathies adhered to by the group. Together, the songs on The Holy Bible form a suite totally incomparable to any of the Brit Pop genre artists contemporaneous to the Manics’ emergence.
So, curiously, it seems that the only viable way to understand my personal relationship with The Holy Bible is, ironically through a sense of irretrievable distance and absence. Of distance, through the articulation of highly personal lyrics by another person rendering the author only semi-present. Of detachment, through the exposure of someone no longer present though who the large majority of people never really knew in the first place.
The immediate comparison I’d like to make here is probably testament to my History of Art background. I’m reminded of Andy Warhol’s screen-prints of celebrity starlets like Marilyn Monroe or Jackie Kennedy. These works employed common-place, infinitely reproduced images of highly public personalities that everyone recognised but with whom few were really familiar in a direct sense. I’d argue that the accessibility of the raw Manics sound on The Holy Bible is not unlike such a saturated mythology, only through an aural rather than visual output. One might scorn the image of the traumatised artiste peddling tales of their own, very real and terrible, woe, but I think that such a mythology is important (as well as highly attractive). It might be argued that this detracts from the quality of the music itself but it all feeds into how we perceive something so emotive and, at times, visceral as a stirring piece of music. The ‘fantasy’ is important. And when it claims a life, I don’t think that it can be dismissed very easily as anything arbitrary or purely fictional. The 27 Club is surely case and point, especially with the recent addition of Amy Winehouse in July.
Popular myth and its simultaneous detachment are perhaps what make early Manics both so unnerving and yet so fascinating to me. Exposed trauma, uncapturable, but all-too evident. Raw human pain, spoken plainly, but somehow absent. This is what my fairly comprehensive contemplation has found to be a reason why The Holy Bible has continued to consume my music-time of late, and, I hope, always will, if not to the obsessive degree it has done. I’m happy for the fixation to peter out into a healthy interest and understanding of every song, but am also aware that the day that this comes to pass I will also feel as though I’ve lost something.
I’m still not entirely sure why I have felt the need to substantiate this all in more coherent speech than the scatty notes written on the back of Sainsbury’s receipts have previously permitted. I suppose the only real reason I’ve written this is to try and pay testament to my musical fixations, which, after all, are the things I care about most in life.
This essay is dedicated to Betty Woodruff for teaching me that the Manics were more than worthy of my time and consideration. I can’t thank you enough for such an invaluable education. X