This is a re-post of a piece from another blog, about the Manic Street Preachers masterful album from 1994, The Holy Bible. This week, August 29th, 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the album’s release in the UK via Epic Records.
In many ways BritPop could be looked at as a direct response to American’s grunge movement of the day, specifically the meteoritic rise of Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana. It wasn’t like Britain didn’t like grunge, a quick watching of the Nirvana dvd ‘Live at Reading’ more then shows this, as does the interpretation of Cobain’s career by several of the leading glitterati of the BritPop movement. Noel Gallagher for example, wrote Oasis’ breakout single ‘Live Forever’ as a direct counter to Nirvana’s ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’, expressing essentially that pop stars have some sort of obligation of message to millions of impressionable, adorning fans. It would almost be weird stance for him to take, as in a few short months Oasis would themselves be heavily under the influence of hardcore street drugs (his direct quote on ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’ was, “‘Well, I’m not fucking having that.’ As much as I fucking like him [Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain] and all that shit, I’m not having that. I can’t have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That’s fucking rubbish. Kids don’t need to be hearing that nonsense.”). But, as is almost always the case with British pop, it distinctions and chief breaking off point with grunge was a class distinction at heart. As Noel continued, “Seems to me that here was a guy (Kurt Cobain) who had everything, and was miserable about it. And we had fuck-all (the Gallagher’s grew up in a broken home that was incredibly poor), and I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest fuckin’ thing ever, ’cause you didn’t know where you’d end up at night. And we didn’t have a pot to piss in, but it was fucking great, man.”
What all this says is a critical distinction of the era’s music geographically (it could probably be extended to the entire post-Elvis pop landscape in the specific countries; American pop music deals in rebellion in a expressionistic, nihilistic way that is incredibly individual, while British pop celebrates the class ascension afforded it’s pop stars. In short, that’s the essential dream of becoming a pop star [but both are rooted in the under class]. It’s why the clothes are so important to the British pop star, and why fashion has been relatively consistent throughout its family tree; Pete Townshend wore Fred Perry in 1965, as did Steve Marriott in 1967. Then so did Desmond Dekker in 1971, then so do Paul Weller and Terry Hall in 1979, as did Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn in 1993, and why Alex Turner did in 2006. It’ll be why the next great artist will in 2015, or 2020). The point of all this is to point out that while BritPop on the surface looked like throwaway cheery pop compared to the doom and gloom of grunge this wasn’t actually the case, BritPop was as depressive as grunge (and in some ways more so) and most of the leading records of the movement clearly exhibit this. In fact several are about this depression, often articulated as either individual existential angst (Suede’s Dog Star Man and Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, or more acutely Oasis’ ‘Morning Glory’ and Blur’s ‘Badhead’ and/or ‘Tracy Jacks’) or the collective crumbling of English imperial class culture (Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish or The Auteurs New Wave, or more acutely Pulp’s brilliant ‘Common People’). Nirvana, and the music that came in their wake, was just music colored in slightly different tones.
This key distinction, that’s just a distinction of articulation of similar themes, is but one thing that makes the Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible from 1994 such an interesting record. Kurt Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun blast on April 8, 1994 and Oasis’ ‘Live Forever’ appeared on August 8, 1994 just 4 short months later. It’s a weird oscillation of pop psychosis then that The Holy Bible would appear just weeks later (August 29, 1994 to be exact) capturing both the individual expressionistic angst of American grunge with the historical political scope of the best of BritPop. The Holy Bible is the record that collects and articulates everything from the era (from all vantage points) in the most articulate, coherent statement (I’ve often said that the album needs to be read not listened to, and it’s why I found it so vital to link this, an almost Cliff Notes summation with the album when it was presented as my pick for the Record Club several years ago), and it happens to feature an iconic cover painting from the British painter of the day, Jenny Saville, for added period emphasis.
It’s a wonder then that the album was so difficult to find in the US as it was meagerly imported by a record company deeming it a bit to obscure and English for the American audience thus leaving the Manics to be seen forever in the States as fringe cult artists (if seen at all). When in fact, for a brief time after The Holy Bible‘s release (and it’s triumphant follow up, 1996’s Everything Must Go) the Manic Street Preachers were the best, and most important band in the UK. A fact lost on virtually everyone inside, and certainly outside, that geographic region.
The Manic Street Preachers started as a guttural, almost anarchist group much in the vein of a mix between the Sex Pistols, Hanoi Rocks, and Appetite-era Guns N’ Roses (early statements from the band exhibit a desire to create the English Appetite For Destruction, i.e. a debut that sells 10 million copies, then just quickly burn up and go away) with a pinch of the revolutionary left leanings of the Clash thrown in for good measure. Generation Terrorists, their 1992 debut, was well received and highly ambitious, but its follow up Gold Against the Soul (1993) with its increased sheen, was generally seen as a classic sophomore-jinx setback. Just as their heroes the Clash had refocused after Give ‘Em Enough Rope by writing (London Calling) together in a rehearsal space over a few months resulting in a tighter, more complete record, the Manics decided to turn back into their heritage as well. This meant rehearsing and recording in Cardiff, Wales where they’d started and first attracted attention, while also no longer listening to American music and extinguishing the desire of American fame. It was back to listening to their English influences from the early days; including Magazine, Wire, the Skids, PiL, Gang of Four, and Joy Division. The band worked with an “academic discipline,” according to lead vocalist and guitarist James Dean Bradfield, working on the material “so each song is like an essay”. An essay on what is then where the album begins to reveal its intricate brilliance.
While the rest of the band was secluded in Cardiff reconnecting with their musical roots and finding a visual identity to which they could present themselves, Richey Edwards the bands chief lyricist (he wrote almost 80% of The Holy Bible‘s lyrics according to band) was mired in a dark struggle with depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe body image issues (he had long battled self-harm and cutting and had recently become embattled with anorexia nervosa, actually falling to 84 lbs. during recording). He had gotten so bad, and so open about his struggles that the band became increasingly ‘frightened’ about the state of their bandmate and friend. Edwards was admitted to the hospital after one severe cutting episode coupled with his mental state further worsening when he learned of another friends suicide in the middle of the year. By the time the album was released in August he was in a mental hospital (that he’d later compare to Nazi Concentration Camps in his journals), before getting released to rejoin the band in the fall of that year to promote and tour the record. His eating and self-harm issues continued during this time and into the new year, though the band was slightly optimistic as his alcoholism became more under control. On February 1, 1995 however Edwards disappeared and was never seen again. His car was found at a popular local suicide spot, but members and friends never believed this could be his ultimate fate, and to this day the band continues to keep his royalties separate in the event that he should return (Edward was however pronounced legally dead 13 years later and only recent Manic records begin to acknowledge that they’ll never see their friend again).
This is quite a lengthy build up, especially compared to what is the norm for this Series, but it’s important to put this records conception into proper perspective; it’s a complex dark record coming from an intelligent introspective band with intense ideas and presentation, within a movement that is surprisingly grim and an era where pop music was as serious as it had ever been.
‘Yes’ opens the album with an account of personal anguish and prostitution. It’s the buying and selling, or reframed as using and abusing that is so on the protagonists mind. Bradfield somehow turns the density into a workable melody (his vocal talents in find melody where there is seemingly none is his greatest asset—outside his guitar chops— and he’s one of the supremely underrated vocalists of his or any generation). ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart’, the albums second track is an account of the hypocrisy of Democratic countries (acting as totalitarian regimes) that spread freedom and other liberties with military ‘intervention’ (see: bullying). The conflicts (see: atrocities) of Grenada, Nicaragua, and Vietnam are explicitly referenced coupled with the rise of moral majorities (“yet your morals only run as deep as the surface”), slightly bringing into focus one of Edwards chief concerns: find a personal moral compass in an increasingly immoral and highly hypocritical world (and the prospective of the songs voice changes sarcastically about midway through to find a “friend” in Tipper Gore). ‘Of Walking Abortion’ continues this moral descent, perhaps at the eventual bottom, finding the whole of humanity in a zombie state of carcasses rooming a barren world where “everyone’s guilty”. The track opens after another sound clip to a circular echoed catchy riff before moving between frenzied traditional rock to slowed melodic pulse.
‘She is Suffering’ takes it’s conceptual cue from Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, specifically the controlling and therefore destructive nature beauty (or seeking to attain it) can have on one. Mishima chose the idea to also open his seminal Confessions of a Mask an allusion Edwards must have understood and intended. It’s almost a ballad performed as a midtempo rocker, and when done live the hook given extra nuance and beauty. ‘Archives of Pain’ shows the brutality of their moralistic leanings. Easily (and misunderstandably) interpreted as a right wing call for capital punishment for mass murders, rather it’s just a savage ‘eye for an eye’ essay about a specific kind of criminal, and a specific kind of crime. Besides, the sound clip that opens the track is an undeniable clue to the songs meaning; even if the removal of mass murders is the moral thing to do, we must understand that we lose a bit of ourselves when this solution is sought. Musically it’s a deflating number featuring a bubbling, almost flat tire sounding bassline as its driving force. ‘Revol’ continues much of this idea, specifically the political bent. Musically it’s delivery as a driving rocker, and as such it was released as one of the singles from the album (amazing considering what’s actually being said). Lyrically its one of the most obtuse concepts the Manics ever attempted, and I’m not even sure I understand the connections being made (‘revol’ is ‘lover’ spelled in reverse so many fans believe its meaning is connecting the regularity at which most political leaders and love relationships dissolve or fail).
‘4st 7lb’ is a harrowing contemplation of the ills of anorexia. It’s delivered in a condemning tone, specifically the vogue heroin-chic look of the day (the razor thin Kate Moss had just burst onto the fashion scene) and the celebration of it by the media. Know what Edwards was going through, that he would write this just brings his self-loathing into sharper focus, plus his ability to always take his personal ills and relate them (or see them manifested) into the larger society or history of the day is but one reason for his (and therefor the Manics) brilliance. It’s perhaps the most elegant rocker on the album (a great introduction to the band), shifting between interesting riff with a military drum cadence to slowed contemplative beauty. ‘Mausoleum’ is the poetic manic sound of approaching Armageddon, where no meaning is available and the sky is “swollen black” complete with a contemplative J.G. Ballard sound clip during the songs climax. Bradfield urgently delivers most of the lyrics set to a chugging tempo. ‘Faster’ was the lead single that garnered controversy due to the band performing it on Top of the Pops (I link to the performance) with Bradfield sporting a black balaclava (he wore it to honor the British Special Air Service he’d claim though most saw it as an allegiance to Irish Paramilitary Terrorist Groups like the IRA). The song, with lyrics about the ambiguity of self-harm (the doer sees the act exactly opposite as those around him/her) is again given larger political context (some of those opening lyrical couplets are among their best). It’s raucously performed as a catchy rock song which helped it become quite a successful single and garner public interest in the coming record (it predated the album by almost 3 months).
‘This Is Yesterday’, (shown here in a beautiful live take which a sublime rendering of the guitar solo) track 10, is in many ways the most important song on the album. It offers a slight emotional respite in the otherwise dark whirlpool that has threatened to pull the album into the abyss. Its respite isn’t the normal one of course, it’s more of a confession, or a plea rather, to be forgiven that this is the only articulation (as shown in the albums others songs) that the narrator feels accurate. If placed at the end of the album, as the last track, it could perhaps lead us to a better place, instead it’s just a island unto itself climax which will lead us to additional dark resolution. When the next track (‘Die In the Summertime’) opens with “scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals” we are brought to this realization rather suddenly and quite obviously. Thematically it is a continuation on the thought left earlier by ‘This Is Yesterday’ of the inability to maintain a “fixed ideal”, and features a dizzy mix of instrumentation to open it and continue its forward thrust. ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ opens with a sound clip taken from the Nuremberg Trials which, even if one doesn’t know that, places things in a dark, somber tone (and for this record that says a lot) connecting the enslavement of the masses by various leaders throughout history. It’s the atrocious atrocities that seem to get all the press and the remembrances (and rightfully so) but the small ones, that happen everyday, are also worth fighting and collectively standing up to. ‘PCP’, the albums frantic closing track (rarely played live now due to the vocal difficulty had matching the abundance of words with the quick pace), is a take down of PC mentality that is meant as a liberal celebration but often is just the opposite leading to “police victory” (and the clever connection, “when I was young PC meant police constable'”). It’s as appropriate a closer as any (really how do you end an album like this?) and forever a fan favorite since its appearance.
The Nirvana opening is also important to note in how the records are approached from a sonic template. Ritchie was a Nirvana, specifically In Utero fan, so that is his chief lyrical touchstone (he could be looked at as the English Kurt Cobain, he’s that good in his brutal honesty) but since his input on the Manic’s sound was incredibly minimal (he’s easiest to be compared to a more talented Sid Vicious. Often live the Manics would unplug his guitar without his knowledge, as he wasn’t a master on the instrument—even if the odd video here or there showed he could play a bit—and generally live he had taken to intoxication to the point of hindered finger dexterity necessary to play. But he was really a writer first and foremost), the album doesn’t really sound like In Utero (and this is also because the Manics didn’t have access to the great production ear of Steve Albini). Where In Utero is raw and abrasive and at times minimalistic, The Holy Bible is textured and rather complex. It’s as aggressive as In Utero for the most part, it just has most of it’s lose edges smoothed out (the Manics wouldn’t make a genuine In Utero sounding record until they’d tackle the rest of Edwards’ left over writings on 2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers, [a record that is every bit The Holy Bibles equal], and actually get Albini to produce, it’s rightly become a record that is called The Holy Bible Part II.)
It could all add up to be quite an unbearable listen, and sometimes, it probably is. It would be all the time if it was cloaked in naked post-modern cynicism that so much of the 90’s (and 00’s) so lovingly wallowed in. But no, here life, even in its seething destructive state, is reaffirmed. Reaffirmed because it’s taken as seriously and as intensely as it comes. It’s a literal matter of life and death, nothing is cloaked in irony or typical cheekiness but instead the grand melodrama that every moment is. From the loneliness of the Political act to the togetherness of a romantic embrace, it’s all in the context of past and present, history as soon as it hit the record shelves. Religious books speak of ‘truth’ and here an album named liked one, does just exactly that.