David Evans | The Holy Bible | Bloomsbury Academic | May 2019 | 17 minutes (2.781 words)
Manic Street Preachers never exactly fit in. When they emerged from South Wales with their debut album Generation Terrorists in 1992, their leopard-print outfits, political sloganeering and widdly-woo guitar riffs already seemed out of date amid the musical movements du jour: Madchester, Shoegaze, Grunge. Critics tended to dismiss them as a quirk of pop history, about as relevant to the zeitgeist as that other Welsh throwback, Shakin’ Stevens.
But when The Holy Bible came out, in August 1994, it felt more than just anachronistic. Rarely has a major record been so spectacularly out of step with its cultural moment. This, after all, was the year Britpop took off; the year of girls-who-do-boys and boys-who-do-girls; the year of the New Lad and his lairy pursuit of sex and drink; the year a former barrister named Anthony Blair began remaking the Labor Party in his own primped, twinkle-toothed image. The dominant mood was a sort of willed optimism. “Things Can Only Get Better,” as D:Ream helpfully put it.
In this jovial atmosphere, Manic Street Preachers made an album that elevated deep thought to something like a moral imperative. At a time when Blur’s Damon Albarn was telling Loaded magazine he’d given up on reading in order to concentrate on “football, dog racing and Essex girls,” The Holy Bible urged us to “analyze, despise, scrutinize.” A photograph on the back cover of the LP depicted the band in military outfits and smeared face paint. They looked earnest and slightly gaunt, like extras from a war film who’d been secretly shooting up between takes.
Sonically, too, the Manics stood apart. The favored production style of the era, typified by Oasis’s Definitely Maybe, was lush, expansive. The Holy Bible, by contrast, sounded harsh and claustrophobic; listening to it felt like being trapped in the bowels of a giant machine, surrounded by clanking pistons and rattling rivets and vats of bubbling oil. It was the kind of music the post-punk pioneers might have made — although even Ian Curtis would probably have looked at a song title like “The Intense Humming of Evil” and deemed it a tad overdone.
At a time when Blur’s Damon Albarn was telling Loaded magazine he’d given up on reading in order to concentrate on ‘football, dog racing and Essex girls,’ The Holy Bible urged us to ‘analyze, despise, scrutinize.’
The man chiefly responsible for The Holy Bible’s exaggerated seriousness was Richey Edwards, the Manics’ waif-like guitarist, lyricist and wit. Richey was treated for depression, alcohol addiction, and a suspected eating disorder soon after he finished writing the album’s lyrics, and they refer obliquely to his own experience. But his songs also peer outwards, addressing issues that lie beyond the scope of traditional rock: capital punishment, suicide, gun violence, political correctness, religious fundamentalism, genocide, the sexual proclivities of dictators, Cold War paranoia. Like Sylvia Plath, Richey runs together personal traumas and world-historic tragedies, often in the same lyric. Part of his intention was to puncture the sense of complacency he saw in Britain in the mid-1990s. First teaching of The Holy Bible: Things Can Actually Get Worse.
The Manics had always written about heavy subjects, or ‘culture, alienation, boredom and despair’, as they once defined their own thematic territory. Nevertheless, it was clear from the opening track of The Holy Bible, ‘Yes,’ that there was a new element of danger in their work, and maybe even the band themselves didn’t know quite where it would lead them. An adulatory review in Select magazine concluded on a prophetic note: “Let’s hope [Richey] realizes that, with a record of such unsettling, morbid resonance as The Holy Bible, no further gestures are required.”
Like Sylvia Plath, Richey runs together personal traumas and world-historic tragedies, often in the same lyric.
On February 1, 1995, as the Manics prepared to travel to America to promote the album, Richey vanished. Two weeks later, his grey Vauxhall Cavalier was found in a car park near a bridge that spans the Severn estuary between England and Wales. Fans sifted the lyrics for clues to his whereabouts, but to no avail. Richey remains missing, presumed dead.
In his absence, The Holy Bible has been likened to Joy Division’s Closer and Nirvana’s In Utero: the valedictory statements of brilliant, troubled young men. The comparison is inexact, though, because the stories of Curtis and Cobain have a finality that Richey’s lacks. As the journalist Taylor Parkes once wrote, when the Manics could have been the full stop at the end of rock ’n’ roll, they chose instead to scribble a question mark…
* * *
… or maybe it was an ellipsis. Just as Joy Division adapted their sound and continued as New Order following Curtis’s suicide, so the three remaining Manic Street Preachers went on to achieve substantial commercial success after their friend’s departure. Their rapprochement with the rock mainstream after 1994 was considered an act of unforgivable apostasy by the so-called Cult of Richey, a loyalist element of the band’s fan-base. But to my mind their post-Edwards career was distinguished by something more like a negative theology. They paid tribute to The Holy Bible by averting their eyes from it, speaking around it.
At first, it is true, the Manics sounded nothing like the band they used to be. Though their magnificent comeback album Everything Must Go used lyrics Richey left behind, its clashing brass and surging strings were more akin to ELO than PiL. Their biggest seller, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, featured — wait for it — a whistling solo. By the late 1990s, having forsaken androgyny and power chords for casual sportswear and tasteful acoustic fretwork, they had begun to be tainted by association with the dregs of Britpop. To anyone who was unaware of their history, the Manics appeared to be little different from Stereophonics or Travis or Ocean Colour Scene (now there’s a litany of horrors to rank with anything on “Archives of Pain”), or sundry other guitar bands that chugged along in the wake of the Gallaghers’ big, ponderous mothership.
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The Manics had become almost as big as Oasis, and almost as ponderous. They rounded out the decade with two Number One singles, a headline slot at Glastonbury and a sell-out show to celebrate the turn of the millennium a Cardiff ’s rugby stadium, where beery mayhem outweighed any lingering fin-de-siècle angst. But then came Know Your Enemy, an awkward record that aimed to recapture the punk ethos of the Richey years; listening to it was gruesomely compelling, like watching a paunchy thirty-five-year old try to pull on an old pair of jeans.
A tenth-anniversary reissue of The Holy Bible followed, and later, Journal for Plague Lovers, which set some of Richey’s unused lyrics to new music. By 2014 the Manics were ready to go all the way: they would mark the twentieth birthday of the Bible by playing the album live and in sequence. The tour culminated in a homecoming gig the following summer, beneath the watchful eyes of the gargoyles at Cardiff Castle.
Anniversary concerts are a funny thing. They threaten to turn pop music — whose greatest strength has always been to catch an instant as it passes, to distil a sense of now — into a musty and reminiscent artifact. As Simon Reynolds has observed, British culture’s twenty-first-century obsession with revivals and remakes may indicate a deeper creative exhaustion. But given the harrowing nature of The Holy Bible — and its personal resonances — the Manics’ decision to play it live was clearly not a straightforward case of nostalgia, and considering its relative commercial failure the first time round, still less a cashing-in.
As the journalist Taylor Parkes once wrote, when the Manics could have been the full stop at the end of rock ’n’ roll, they chose instead to scribble a question mark.
Watching these three ageing rock stars re-enacting their finest hour in the Welsh capital, I was reminded of a poem by R. S. Thomas. In “Welsh Landscape,” Thomas accuses his compatriots of being preoccupied with the past: Wales, he writes, is a land of “towers and castles,” whose people take an unseemly pleasure in “worrying the carcass of an old song.”
But those arid lines don’t quite capture what was going on during that June evening in Cardiff. As James Dean Bradfield hopped about on stage beneath the crenellated walls, fingers scurrying spiderishly up the neck of his guitar, he was conjuring the old songs into vigorous new life. There was solemnity, yes, but also a little self-deprecating humor. The occasion wasn’t fun, exactly, but it wasn’t mournful either. The swells of emotional tension and release were extraordinary. The air fairly crackled.
* * *
The story of The Holy Bible is the story of four young men learning to come to terms with history: the world’s and their own. There is a certain unacknowledged Welshness to The Holy Bible. The Manics’ Cymric turn is generally agreed to have come later in their career, when they began to fly the red dragon on stage and opine on the composition of the Welsh Rugby Union squad. In the Richey era, they disavowed Wales and embraced a European outlook. They would have approved of Dylan Thomas’s quip about the land of his fathers, to the effect that his fathers could have it.
Look closer, though, and you see The Holy Bible is altogether drenched in Welsh drizzle. The Manics hail from a region known colloquially as the Valleys, whose ridged landscape harbors rich veins of coal. In the nineteenth century a network of mines opened, unleashing an economic boom. But by the time the band formed in the mid-1980s the Valleys had endured decades of industrial decline, and Margaret Thatcher’s drive to shut down the remaining collieries precipitated unrest. Today South Wales is battered and neglected, its lovely countryside studded with some unlovely towns.
Richey’s lyrics allude to economic ruin, social decay and cultural loss, in the Valleys and beyond. The Welsh have a word for this sort of compulsion to look back: hiraeth (pronounced ‘here-eye-th’). The term is often misunderstood. It’s come to be associated with a mawkish pining among the Taff diaspora — Dylan in New York, seeking Laugharne in the bottom of a whiskey glass; Richard Burton sunbathing in Puerto Vallarta, dreaming of the Port Talbot mists – but hiraeth has more to do with time than place. As the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (University of Wales Dictionary) has it, hiraeth encompasses a sombre palette of emotions including ‘grief or sadness after the lost or departed, longing, yearning, nostalgia’, as well as wistful homesickness.
The Holy Bible is full of “grief or sadness after the lost or departed,” the darker species of hiraeth. “The Intense Humming of Evil” and “Mausoleum” are written for history’s victims; they are, in part, songs of mourning and remembrance. And there is that simpler sense of ‘longing’ or ‘yearning’ for the past on those lyrics in which Richey slips into the voice of an older man, such as “Die in the Summertime,” whose rheumy-eyed narrator strains to recall happier times: “Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene / See myself without ruining lines / Whole days throwing sticks into streams.”
Much has been said about the Manics’ saturnine, backwards-looking tendency. But that’s not the whole picture. There’s another Welsh word: hwyl (‘who-will’). It denotes an access of inspiration and energy, an “oratorical, passionate fervor,” as the academic Chris Williams puts it. Think of Burton declaiming Shakespearean monologues in his pomp: eyes aflame, brow beaded with sweat, every word he speaks springing the coiled potential from the last. Richey’s melancholy, reflective lyrics are punctuated by others that thrum with hwyl, in which he is alive to possibility, flexing his lyrical muscles and using his command of language to create anew.
The Holy Bible can be seen as a belated Welsh contribution to post-punk, one informed by the band’s own experience in the Thatcher-ravaged mining towns of the Valleys.
Tellingly, “Faster,” the album’s centerpiece, contains both of these moods. Richey revisits adolescent anguish (“soft skin, now acne, foul breath, so broken”) and proclaims his power to shape the present with his eloquence: “I am an architect… stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer / I spat out Plath and Pinter.” Like “Faster,” The Holy Bible as a whole oscillates between hiraeth and hwyl.
No doubt readers with a surer grasp of the Welsh language than I will quibble with my usage. Others will, perhaps, feel a cultural cringe, given that hiraeth and hwyl have become rather sentimentalized markers of Welsh identity. To be clear, I have no truck with nationalism; I have in mind a more specific, regional point of view. Nor do I wish to trap The Holy Bible within any kind of reductive prison of Celtic interpretation. My guiding idea is simply that hwyl and hiraeth will help us to explain how an album that traverses such gloomy themes can sound so utterly, wonderfully life- affirming.
The Holy Bible’s roots in South Wales might also account for how distinctive it was, in the days of Blair and Blur. Take the record’s gestures to post-punk. Earlier in the Manics’ career, Bradfield’s high-powered riffage had emulated Slash — or, at his most indulgent, Steve Vai — whereas on the Bible he is closer to Bernard Sumner or John McGeoch, whose silken guitar work threaded a link between Public Image Ltd., Siouxie and the Banshees and Magazine. Sean Moore’s drums evoke early Simple Minds. Nicky Wire’s bass-lines wriggle in the loam at the bottom of the mix, like Jah Wobble’s.
That the Manics turned to the music of the late 1970s and early 1980s on The Holy Bible was no accident. The skittish rhythms of post-punk were perfect for conveying Richey’s lyrical manoeuvres between stasis and propulsion. What’s more, many of the bands of the post-punk era were, like the Manics, based outside of London’s metropolitan centre, hailing either from the industrial cities of the Midlands and the North (Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Joy Division, Magazine) or Scotland (Simple Minds, Orange Juice, the Skids). The Holy Bible can be seen as a belated Welsh contribution to post-punk, one informed by the band’s own experience in the Thatcher-ravaged mining towns of the Valleys.
Above all, The Holy Bible shares an ethos with the post- punk groups, a determination to “question everything,” to use Reynolds’s phrase. This skeptical stance is part of the reason why it stood out as it did at a time when pop music was replete with affectation and irony. It also explains why the album has traditionally appealed to girls and boys in their teens. Isn’t questioning everything the default mode of the moody teenager?
* * *
Moody teenagers like me, I suppose, back in the early years of the new century. I can’t remember the first time I heard the Manics — I was uninterested in music when they were all over the radio in the late 1990s. But I remember the first time I listened to them. I was fourteen, and was playing “A Design for Life” on repeat through tinny earphones while staying with my grandparents in the Valleys town of Merthyr Tydfil. I no longer lived in Wales, having long since moved with my parents and siblings from Cardiff to a dull commuter town in the Home Counties. I was studious, but hated my school — a big comprehensive in which keeping your head down was the preferred survival tactic. Problem was, my head was covered in conspicuous ginger curls. And my soft skin was riddled with acne, which didn’t help either. My school was the kind of place that made you ashamed of how you looked, how you thought. You quickly learned to stuff any evidence of academic achievement down the bottom of your rucksack.
Here was that rare thing: a reader’s band. ‘Libraries gave us power,’ they sang.
Enter Manic Street Preachers. Here was that rare thing: a reader’s band. “Libraries gave us power,” they sang. “A Design for Life” was the gateway drug, leading me towards the earlier, harder stuff, and The Holy Bible was hardest of all. I sought out all its reference points: Orwell, Plath, Ballard. I read up on Soviet iconography. I discovered Sartre’s Nausea, whose lonely young protagonist is mocked for his red hair (I winced in sympathy). I flicked through Miller and Mailer, swallowed Plath and Pinter. The album was like a portal through which you tumbled into the vaults of the literary canon. You blinked, dusted yourself off, set to work.
I was by no means the only one. The Holy Bible had a huge impact on a generation of kids for whom reading came to be associated with a rock ’n’ roll frisson. Here, too, that hwyl/hiraeth dichotomy will come in useful. For some, the record was a galvanizing force. For others, Richey’s fixation on death and loss was not a salutary example.
As for me, The Holy Bible brings a mixture of happy and not-so-happy memories. But standing in the crowd at Cardiff Castle, I was transported back to a deliriously exciting phase of my teenage years, when I would return time and again to the album’s first song. The title suddenly rang true. Because as I listened, and the questions proliferated like strange blooms, and I cast around for answers in films and books and music — most of all this music, this dark, exhilarating music – one word came repeatedly to mind, and the word was … Yes.
David Evans was born in Cardiff and educated at Cardiff University. He holds a DPhil in American Literature from the University of Oxford. His writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Independent on Sunday, FT Weekend, and Sight & Sound.
Excerpted from The Holy Bible (33 1/3 Series), by David Evans. Copyright © 2019 by David Evans. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury and David Evans.
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