‘I Know I Believe in Nothing, But It Is My Nothing’
The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers, 20 Years On
In a fight for Best Record of the Nineties, Suede’s Dog Man Star is edged on points by The Holy Bible, Manic Street Preachers’ incensed, incendiary masterpiece. Released in 1994, prior to the disappearance of guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards and before the band’s subsequent rebirth as the acceptable face of stadium rock, the album’s thirteen songs take in topics as dark and diverse as the Holocaust, political correctness, anorexia, gun control and Boris Yeltsin’s impotence.
To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of its original release, David Lewis looks into The Holy Bible’s black, pulsating heart....
The album opens with a radio-friendly pop punk tune that conversely contains some of the bleakest lyrics of all time (not to mention the word ‘cunts’ in the second line’). The Manics always embraced contradiction and it’s never more evident than here. Richey Edwards’s desolate catalogue of a daily routine fraught with disillusionment and a self-prescription of anorexia and mutilation just to get by is welded to a more universal attack on empty consumerism to create a song of devastating poignancy. The fact that it’s written from the perspective of a prostitute seems dismally apt.
Key line: ‘In these plagued streets of pity / You can buy anything’
Although The Holy Bible is perceived as being consumed with Richey’s personal problems, his depression, self-harm and alcoholism, the true soul of the album is its fierce moral fury, its righteous attack on hypocrisy, corruption, denial and apathy. ‘Ifwhiteamerica...’ raises the butt of a .44 Magnum and smashes Uncle Sam in the face with it, tearing apart the turpitude of American gun culture like a hungry bear rampaging through McDonalds. Its ludicrous title was the last of the great Manics song-names, but with news in the US dominated by institutionalised police racism and a nine-year-old girl accidentally shooting her gun instructor with an Uzi, its white-hot intensity resonates as strongly in 2014 as it did twenty years ago.
Key line: ‘If God made man they say / Sam Colt made him equal’
Of Walking Abortion
Whereas ‘Ifwhiteamerica...’ is aimed at a culture more than anyone in particular, and its ire is tempered with a little barbed humour, ‘Of Walking Abortion’ pulls no punches in its vicious, unrelenting assault on the moral breakdown of the human race. Despite an all-encompassing denunciation – ‘everyone is guilty’ – the attack seems to centre directly on you. It’s difficult not to feel simultaneously helpless and culpable for the failure of the species when James Dean Bradfield is screaming blame straight down your earhole....
Key line: ‘Who’s responsible? / You fucking are’
She Is Suffering
The initially unreleased US mix of The Holy Bible is – it was shocking to discover in 2004 when it finally saw the light of day – mostly superior to the original, Tom Lord-Alge transforming a snarling monster into a supercharged cyborg bulldozer. Certainly, ‘She Is Suffering’, the album’s weakest track, is a transatlantic revelation. While still being better than anything by Radiohead, the song as first released is a tedious dirge. Lord-Alge’s alchemical mixing fingers turn it into an eerie, menacing bastard.
Key line: ‘Can someone give this to the US label and get them to do some work on it?’
Archives of Pain
While this is very much an album dominated by words – it was advertised in the music press with double-page spreads of the lyric sheet – it would be doing the band a grievous disservice not to address the quality of the music. James Bradfield’s Magazine-meets-Alice In Chains-to-play-Guns’n’Roses guitarwork is fluidly expressive yet brutally efficient. Almost every riff is a stripped-down, lean-cut reflection of its song’s macabre lyrical content. Sean Moore’s drumming is a career high, while even Nicky Wire’s much-maligned bass-playing sounds better than ever. The switch from plucked notes to continuous strumming during the extended instrumental break of ‘Archives of Pain’ is simple yet fiendishly effective.
Key line: ‘There is never redemption / Any fool can regret yesterday’
Inexplicably loathed by the band for years following its release, ‘Revol’ is the most joyously demented single the Manics ever produced. Although it’s presumably more about Richey’s own sexual failings than anyone else’s, the takedown of political figures in trash compactor-compressed bubblegum metal is genuinely funny – and insanely catchy.
Key line: ‘Lebensraum / Kulterkampf / Raus raus / Fila fila’
It’s impossible not to hear echoes of the Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’ in the music, but who cares? This is Richey’s design for life: defiant, ghastly and strangely beautiful in its unflinching horror. The most disturbing aspect of the song is not its bleak glamorisation of a starvation diet, but in the minutia of the anorexic’s daily routine: the small victory of maintaining discipline in the face of temptation and the grim pride in rotting away.
Key line: ‘Self-worth scatters, self-esteem’s a bore / I long since moved to a higher plateau’
This writer’s secret favourite track on the album, ‘Mausoleum’ is the first of the death camp diptych inspired by the band’s visits to Dachau and Belsen in 1993. While the second, ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ explicitly concerns the Holocaust, this is a more general condemnation of humanity’s capacity for wickedness and self-deceit in its aftermath. Built like an articulated lorry and sounding like a buzzsaw orchestra, the Manics have – mystifyingly – only ever played it live twice.
Key line: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit / And force it to look in the mirror’
If ‘4st. 7lbs.’ Is Richey’s personal statement, this is his political manifesto. Although it sticks to The Holy Bible’s the-human-race-has-fucked-the-world theme (‘So damn easy to cave in / Man kills everything’) and was the lead-off single, it has almost outgrown its parent album in the aftermath of its author’s disappearance and consequent elevation to cult figure. Every line reeks of Richey, both of his public persona and the person people imagined him to be underneath. Endlessly quotable, rich in intellectual mystery and abject despair, ‘Faster’ is the supreme apotheosis of the Manics’ original incarnation.
Key line: ‘I’ve been too honest with myself / I should have lied like everybody else’
This Is Yesterday
Amid the tortured landscapes of The Holy Bible, ‘This Is Yesterday’ is an anomalous respite, a breath of fresh air amid the fog of misery and madness. It’s also deeply evocative of the mid-1990s: the album’s solitary sop to Britpop sensibilities. It’s also one of Nicky Wire’s greatest lyrics, a gently reproving reflection on regret that seems in retrospect – like so many of his songs – to be about Richey Edwards.
Key line: ‘I stare at the sky / And it leaves me blind’
Die In The Summertime
This song is a beast: a giant fist wrapped in a trigger warning, all horror for the loss of childhood innocence and dread at an adult life not suitably equipped to function as a replacement. It’s the diseased twin of ‘This Is Yesterday’, the clean lines of its sibling contorted into gruesome angles, the bittersweet nostalgia poisoned into wretchedness. Or so it seems. There is a school of thought that claims this is the MSP equivalent of ‘I Hate Myself And Want To Die’: a satire by Richey on the public’s perception of him that is only partly serious. But if there is humour in here, it’s buried under the blackness.
Key line: ‘Scratch my leg with a rusty nail / Sadly, it heals’
The Intense Humming of Evil
A lament for the eleven million people slaughtered in the Holocaust – specifically the six million Jews who were killed – ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ is as chilling a piece of music as has been committed to tape, a grinding evocation of the sentiments expressed in the opening sample: the dead crawling from the ground to exact justice upon their murderers. For a band who were all about uncertainty, this is as unequivocal as the Manics would ever be: fervent in their championing of the innocent victims and ferocious in their condemnation of the butchering architects of genocide.
Key line: ‘Funeral march for agony’s last edge’
The most dated song on the album, reflecting its birth in an era when the phrase ‘political correctness’ was a fixture in political discourse rather than merely something to be dismissed by readers of the Daily Mail, it can nonetheless be described as literally a case of ‘political correctness gone mad’: ‘P.C.P.’ is deranged. Lyrically, musically, it’s a four minute-explosion of ideas that would take four years to dissect, let alone explain. God only knows what it’s about, but there’s a shitload of fun to be derived from bellowing along to it.
Key line: ‘When I was young ‘P.C.’ meant ‘police constable’ / Nowadays I can’t seem to tell the difference’