Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible
-By Kyle Rainville
The Holy Bible: an album of myth and legend, sought after by those in the know. An album that creates its own universe that parallels the more grotesque aspects of our own. An album that refuses to be ignored and somehow manages to draw you continually back in for more. Almost like passing by a car wreck, you just can’t look away.
After the band’s own disappointment with their second album, they started working on their third album. Richey continued to have problems and things only escalated with time. He now had issues with anorexia, drinking, self-mutilation, depression, etc. He uses these issues to his advantage though and puts his experience on wax. It helps that Richey is one hell of a poet/lyricist. He crafts some of the most prolific lyrics set against some of the most bleak and brutal music ever.
Every song on this album is incredibly enjoyable and serves a greater purpose. The subject matter ranges widely but it’s all bleak and hopeless. Prostitution is the first topic covered in album opener, Yes. The first thing you’ll notice about this album is that it has a lot of samples from actual preachers/movies. These samples are honestly one of the features that add a wonderful personality to this work. Anyway, the album opener tromps along with a rather poppy atmosphere and catchy guitar riff. Many rightly view it as Richey’s manifesto. It’s as great a mission statement as any band has decided to open an album with considering the stark lyrics that include the likes of:
For sale? Dumb cunt’s same dumb questions
Virgins? Listen, all virgins are liars honey…
Puking – shaking – sinking I still stand for old ladies
Can’t shout, can’t scream, hurt myself to get pain out…
Purgatory’s circle, drowning here, someone will always say yes
Funny place for the social, for the insects to start caring
Just an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff…
The only certain thing that is left about me
There’s no part of my body that has not been used
Pity or pain, to show displeasure’s shame
Everyone I’ve loved or hated always seems to leave…
Don’t hurt, just obey, lie down, do as they say
May as well be heaven this hell, smells the same
These sunless afternoons I can’t find myself
What a hefty block of quotes, correct? One may think it gratuitous but there’s even more lyrics I could’ve quoted but I believe the above captures the gravity of the opening track, and by extension the album, quite well. After listening to the track, you realize that you are Dante and this album is the hellish confessional you have committed to passing through. The first song bears no guise as to the nature of the album – “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”.
The album soon dives into deeper territory, covering the hopelessness of America and it’s capitalistic viewpoints – rich conservatives watching their own backs without a care in the world for others spreading their diseased ideologies to the moral masses.IfWhiteAmericaToldTheTruthForOneDayIt’sWorldWouldFallApart features frenzied guitar-work that oozes tension and a militaristic drumbeat worthy of the song’s leviathan-sized title. A quick examination of the lyrics will lead one to the correct conclusion that Richey was admirably well-read as he makes many a reference to famous figures, laws, and countries:
Compton, Harlem, a pimp fucked a priest
The white man has just found a new moral saviour
Vital stats, how white was their skin
Unimportant, just another inner-city drive-by thing
Morning, fine, serve your first coffee of the day
Real privilege, it will take your problems all away
Reading the lyrics of this album is akin to poring over a work of disturbed and complex poetry. It raises the question, “How exactly can any of this be put to any sort of recognizable vocal melody, let alone one that fits with the rhythm of a rock song?” A truly understandable question and one that finds solution in one of the great lead-singers of the ’90s, James Dean Bradfield. Although Richey usually receives the majority of the praise for The Holy Bible (as he rightly should), Bradfield’s contribution cannot be overstated. According to Manics’ lore, even James thought it nigh impossible to use the lyrics but through some sort of miracle, he made it work through a ragingly blistering punk-approach and occasionally through a more sullen post-punk drawl. If Bradfield’s heart wasn’t in it, it would’ve been extremely easy to have undermined the entire album by not implementing the proper feeling into the lyrics. After all, these are not his own words that he is singing but rather Richey’s (and to a smaller degree, Nicky’s). Each song has an assiduous vocal performance with Bradfield conveying every emotion of the words and emphasizing each nuance at the precisely perfect moment all while crafting melodies that not only impress, but work in tandem with the instrumentation to highlight all of its strengths – an absolutely jaw-dropping and genuinely visceral showing.
Of Walking Abortion is one of the greatest representations of musical and lyrical unification the album has to offer. The initial build, especially the incessant drumming and punctual bass riffs, is utter brilliance. It’s absolutely brutal and gets me pumped every time. The lyrics examine the human race as a mentally castrated bunch that has no chance of being saved. Richey believed that each of us had a “worm” in us (specifically in our soul) that causes us to believe people like the fascist dictators of WW2. He believed the worm caused us to have an innate need to be dominated. Should his sheer weight in intellect be unproven to you up to this point, notice how he effortlessly uses two words from different languages perfectly within the context of the track; those two words being “Shalom”, a Hebrew word meaning peace and prosperity, and “Acedia”, a Latin word meaning languor, listlessness, and hopelessness. The track also implies a detestation for the “American dream” family unit and the facile war/atrocity excuse of “It’s for the children”:
Little people in little houses
Like maggots small blind and worthless
The massacred innocent blood stains us all
Who’s responsible – you fucking are
She Is Suffering offers the first sonic reprieve of the album, shaping to be a more quiet and despondent track without a focus on bludgeoning its message into your cerebral cortex through unhinged force. The rhythm section is the dominant force throughout the track as the bass crawls and the hi-hats combine with eerie guitar-work to make for a track that’s almost danceable goth music. Bradfield’s vocals on this one are fittingly seductive, almost alluring, simply to get the message across; that message being a metaphor – “desire” is suffering. (although “beauty” works nearly as well) The Buddhists have a philosophy that by shedding every desire from oneself, one can no longer be saddened by not having what they desire, thus reaching peace or in their terms, nirvana. Richey was oftentimes quite preoccupied with the concept of perfection and purification – he was a true idealist at heart. His mindset regarding things such as these ultimately led to his mental downfall as he found himself self-punishing through anorexia and self-mutilation. Reading it from the “beauty” standpoint, those who “exist within its shadow” as the song puts it, are the ones who suffer, positioning beauty as an innate curse. Those who have it are either appreciated as a “beautiful man/woman” before they are even thought of as an individual human being with their own thoughts and feelings. Those who don’t have it are jealous of others or discarded in favor of the more beautiful completely. By simply existing, beauty creates many problems and intense feelings without actually serving a useful purpose. That’s the interpretation I’ve come to from the lyrics anyway; I hold more of an Oscar Wilde view on beauty but that’s a discussion for another day. In addition, the song includes Richey’s view on sex as “Nature’s lukewarm pleasure”, if any more indication as to where his head was at was needed. The song, with all of its many meanings and melancholy soundscapes amounts to a surefire highlight from an album full of such songs.
After a brief meditation on desire and beauty, we’re back to the political side of things with Archives of Pain. A sample of the mother of one of Peter Sutcliffe’s victims opens the the track with dark and deadly style. The incredibly evil bass-line begins and the frantic and claustrophobic guitar riff starts that gradually eats away at itself until it begins to shimmer for the bridge and eventually obliterate the horizons with distortion on the chorus. The climax of the track shows off the longest guitar solo the Manics have ever recorded and it’s a showstopper guitar virtuosity. Coupled with a pummeling drumbeat characterized by calculated hi-hats followed by a snapping snare, the amalgamation of the instruments is absolutely majestic in the darkest of ways and that’s not even taking the grim subject matter into account. The lyrics of the song are an examination of human nature in pertinence to killers, death, the death penalty, justice, and remorse. It may be a bit foolhardy to try and discern whether Richey was writing for or against the death penalty – many say that the often grotesque sentiments of the lyrics are satire but with lines as brutally unforgiving as the following, it makes it somewhat hard to agree with:
A bloody vessel for your peace
If man makes death then death makes man
Tear the torso with horses and chains
The song should not be viewed as a political musing but rather as a dissection of the inherent duality of human nature: while we try to reason with ourselves to not execute a child killer, our instincts are screaming at us to utterly annihilate him/her from existence. The song picks apart this dichotomy and plays with the consequences. The line, “Give them the respect they deserve” (referencing the killers) is telling, as the song implies they should be given no respect at all and rather should be put to death. The “worm” of the soul hinted at in Of Walking Abortion remains at the forefront of the track as that is what defines the capabilities of man to commit such heinous crimes. Should we discover a murderer who has succumbed to the “worm”, we need to harness the “worm” in us to kill the killer – or at least, that seems to be the song’s logical conclusion. The track is truly an unsettling foray into the minds that enact justice and a terrifying dive headfirst into innate human nature.
The strangest track on the album, at least lyrically, has to be Revol. I’ve spent years listening to this and I still can’t truly make head or tail of the words. Musically speaking, it’s a fairly straight-forward punk rocker with distorted guitars (and vocals) along with muddy drums and bass buried in the mix. The song also happens to be the shortest one on the album and perhaps also the weakest. Lyrically, many (often controversial) political leaders are cited followed by musings that are usually about sex, youth, love, and even narcissism. It seems to me that perhaps Richey was experimenting with an idea that never became truly full-formed. If you spell the title of the track backwards, you get “lover”. Instead of simply writing a song about his experience with love and relationships, he paired up short, fragmented, seemingly autobiographical statements with the names of political figureheads simply for the purpose of being oblique. The chorus even finds shouts of “Raus! Raus!” (German for ‘out’) and “Fila! Fila!” (Italian for ‘line up’). In accordance to the song, this probably represents both the German Nazi Party and Italian Fascist Party of World War II. In addition, these expressions were used by soldiers to quicken prisoners entering trains headed for concentration camps. The theme of World War II and concentration camps will soon play a larger role in the songs ahead. An incredibly strange track but it does play an important role in giving the listener a somewhat lighthearted break between two of the album’s more emotionally invested songs.
One of these songs is 4st 7lb, in which we get a harrowing autobiographical account of Richey’s anorexia. Scratchily distorted guitar opens the song followed quickly by a sample from a BBC documentary on anorexia. The sample is as follows:
I eat too much to die
And not enough to stay alive
I’m sitting in the middle waiting…
From the beginning sample and the schizophrenic reverb-filled guitar riffs that follow, the listener is cued as to what they are in for. The bridge releases a bit of the tension while the chorus builds the suspense immediately back up:
I want to be so skinny that I rot from view
I want to walk in the snow
And not leave a footprint
I want to walk in the snow
And not soil its purity
Certainly, this song played a large part in strengthening the “Richey” cult portion of the fanbase that had already been drooling ever since they saw the video for “You Love Us”. There is a beautiful break in the song where the guitar and bass combine to create an elongated moment of catharsis; an eye of clear thought in a tumultuous tornado of torment and emaciated torpor. This break lasts until the end of the song and positions it as an outro. Metaphorically, it signifies the last bit of energy the anorexic has before, like Karen Carpenter before them, they simply can’t physiologically live any longer. Likewise, the title of the song represents the minimum weight (63 lbs for my fellow Americans) a human body can survive at – any lower and death is unavoidable in a medical sense. The song remains one of the most disturbed and distressing songs crafted in rock music evoking a sense of despair and twisted superiority that truly displays how brilliant Richey was:
I choose, my choice, I starve to a frenzy
Hunger soon passes and sickness soon tires
Legs bend, stocky I am twiggy
And I don’t mind the horror that surrounds me
Self-worth scatters, self-esteem’s a bore
I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau
This discipline’s so rare so please applaud
Mausoleum was inspired by a trip the band took to the Dachau Memorial Site. In addition, the Manics took a visit to the Paris catacombs comprised of femurs and skulls lining the grimy and musty walls. In the ’80s, punks used to have parties down there and consequently a few skulls are missing and are probably now lying on some goth’s nightstand. The band, at the time, were understandably taken aback. Richey seemed to be the most stricken and he lagged behind the rest of the band. Eventually when they turned to look at him he was smiling and kissed one of the skulls on its pallid forehead. Was Richey fooling around in an attempt to cope with the situation or was that indicative of his mental state at the time? Probably irrelevant, but the question is an interesting one. Regardless, the song takes off again with a crushing and crunchy guitar riff filled with reverb. The lyrics detail the atrocities of the holocaust, although it remains somewhat subtle about the specifics. Richey showcased in this song how much can be said with just a single line. For example:
But so mediocre when there’s no air, no light and no hope – a likely reference to the gas chambers and the housing of the concentration camps
Prejudice burns brighter when it’s all we have to burn – likely referencing the terrible economic state that Germany was in prior to World War II consequently causing the population to be easily led by a charismatic leader (Hitler) to believe in his terrible and sadistic ideals and goals.
Come and walk down memory lane
No one sees a thing but they can pretend – the effects and consequences of the holocaust are often treated as TV entertainment or fodder for movies nowadays; it’s gotten to the point where some people (delusional historical revisionists) deny that the holocaust even occurred.
The chorus of the song is absolutely monumental in both its execution and its lyrics. It is easily one of the best examples of how driven Bradfield was at this point. He sounds like it’s life or death on the chorus and the epilogue of the track. The chorus describes the German situation after World War II/Holocaust, the consequences of their actions, political retribution, and the countless innocents who died in their wake:
Regained your self-control
And regained your self-esteem
And blind your success inspires
And analyse, despise and scrutinise
Never knowing what you hoped for
And safe and warm but life is so silent
For the victims who have no speech
In their shapeless guilty remorse
Obliterates your meaning
Faster. A bold assertion of self-worth. A scathing disregard for humanity. An abrasive attack on how others view you. A vicious proclamation that everything that may be perceived as weaknesses or vices are actually strengths and virtues. Pure energy and hubris encapsulated in song. It’s truly hard to do this song justice in words. The guitar riffs are shearing, the drums confident and conveying pugnaciousness, the bass warm and warlike. The lyrics are truly some of Richey’s most memorable with examples being:
I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing…
I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer,
I spat out Plath and Pinter,
I am all the things that you regret,
A truth that washes that learned how to spell…
Sleep can’t hide the thoughts splitting through my mind
Shadows aren’t clean, false mirrors too many people awake
If you stand up like a nail then you will be knocked down
I’ve been too honest with myself I should have lied like everybody else
Of course, the song begins indelibly with a sample from the film adaption of George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, spoken by actor John Hurt:
I hate purity,
I don’t want virtue to exist anywhere,
I want everyone corrupt
What a fitting sample it is to open this career-defining song on the band’s magnum opus! At the time, the Manics were unsure of releasing the track as the lead single but they overcame their doubts and the single was released June 6th, 1994. There’s not much else you can truly say about the track that hasn’t already been said, it’s pure brilliance!
So damn easy to cave in, man kills everything
The second sonic reprieve of the album comes with This Is Yesterday, a song written by Nicky. The track is incredibly melancholy and somewhat austere – the bittersweet guitar riffs and inviting bass work pull the listener immediately in as James whispers a tale of nostalgia, regret, memories, and fear. As he looks to the sky in contemplation for answers, he doesn’t find any, losing himself in nostalgia for the sole purpose that it’s significantly more comforting than the unsure future. Perhaps the poppiest song on the album, it’s also the most innocent. It doesn’t sound scarred and hopeless and in its sedentary life philosophy, it doesn’t muse on the problems of the world and is therefore more happy for it. Lyrically, it presents the alternative to confronting the world head on. After the nostalgia and carefree attitude wears off though, the narrator finds himself in the precarious position that they were in prior and so his suffering will continue, leading into the next song’s logical conclusion.
Probably the most obvious song title on the album, Die In The Summertime is about suicide. The guitar riff is brutally trenchant, the drums are almost tribal as they open and as the song progresses, Moore does a brilliant judge at building the tension and practically foreshadowing the unavoidable conclusion. Bradfield croons in an almost Layne Staley esque fashion about the desire to die and the overwhelming lassitude that has grown an everyday occurrence. The blissful remembrances of youth no longer bring joy, but only act as a reminder to when one was “clean and serene”: innocent and untouched by the world that is so often cruel and unforgiving. Clearly, Richey was in a dark place when he wrote the track and surely many of the feelings exhibited in the song were his own, especially the following line:
Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals
Richey also recognizes within the track that he can’t maintain his standard of purity, perfection, idealism and this has consequentially negative effects on his mental health. The virtues and strengths boasted about in Faster are now crumbling away, as they simply cannot be perpetuated. Medically speaking, this downfall was inevitable. It’s a clear sign of dangerous mental decline when a person starts making ridiculously self-gratifying exaggerations concerning their own capabilities and strong suits and is usually indicative of imminently dangerous behavior – i.e. suicide. As far as the listener knows, these thoughts only possibly reach the point of parasuicide and the song doesn’t actually reach a discernible solution for the narrator; we are left only to ponder and hypothesize.
The hole in my life even stains the soil
My heart shrinks to barely a pulse
A tiny animal curled into a quarter circle
If you really care wash the feet of a beggar
So after long and miserable inward contemplation, the perspective is shifted again outward and we are subjected to The Intense Humming of Evil. The song, like Mausoleum before it, was inspired by the trips to death camps, namely Dachau, that the band took. The title likely comes from Wire and he is quoted as saying the following about the subject: “Dachau is such an evil, quiet place. There’s no grass, and you don’t even see a worm, let alone any birds. All you can hear is this humming of nothing.” No birds indeed. The track opens with an extended quote from a film about the Nuremburg trials in which major members of the Nazi party were prosecuted – those that didn’t commit suicide beforehand, that is.
The song is the first in the Manics career that isn’t built upon a truly sturdy musical foundation. It’s aim is more geared towards sustaining an atmosphere, building tension, and eschewing ambiguities as the band pass judgement against those responsible for the Holocaust. The metallic and inhuman beat that powers the song like some sort of grotesquely alien machine is unmistakably indicative of the subject matter. Rarely does a band try to convey a sense of pure horror in a song and succeed but the Manics somehow manage to pull it off. Much of this success has to do with the Public Image Ltd.-meets-Nine Inch Nails soundscape grounded on Sean Moore’s excellent drumming that is grimly reminiscent of Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition” and of course, the morbid lyrical reminders of history. A few of which are a bit more cryptic, so I’ll try to give some explanations.
“Arbeit mach frei” was a German slogan meaning ‘work makes you free’ inscribed over the entrances to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“Hartheim Castle” was a castle in Upper Austria used as a euthanasia centre during the Nazi era. The Aktion T4 program took place here and nearly 20,000 people were killed.
“Lagerstrasse” is German for ‘camp street’ which refers to the main walkway/avenue in a concentration camp.
“Rascher” refers to Sigmund Rascher, an SS doctor who performed atrociously inhumane experiments on prisoners which included high altitude, freezing, and blood coagulation. Also noteworthy is his death. As he tried to impress and please Himmler by proving the credibility of extending the childbearing age by using his wife as a true example, said wife was caught kidnapping an infant and the couple were found to be partners in kidnapping the other three infants they had as well. They were both subsequently hanged.
“Churchill no different” has always been a favorite line of Manics fans to pick apart. Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the UK, was a known advocate for the use of chemical weapons, specifically with the Bolsheviks in mind. He is quoted as saying: “I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes” – this is equated by Richey to the tactics and mindset of the Nazis.
“Block Five” was a block at the Dachau camp used for medical experimentation, including purposely infecting prisoners with malaria.
Near the end of the song, everything starts slowing down. The guitars trail off, the drums sputter to a stop and the only thing left is the monstrous metallic ringing of the beat which soon dies off as well as the song comes to a close. One could almost make the argument that this kind of closing is a metaphor for the death of millions, the calculated end of a cadaver factory regime, the closure of inhumane atrocity and a reminder of just how out of hand things can get if that little “worm of the soul” is allowed to take over. The horrors of man have no boundaries and the song is that sentiment embodied.
After this bombardment of ideas we are presented with the finale. After the death machine of the previous track is attenuated, the final grand bludgeoning of P.C.P. begins. Rarely are albums capped off by such fitting closers as this. At its musical roots, it’s a raging punk song not dissimilar from many of the tracks here with sawing riffs and a galloping drum intro segueing into the body of the track that ranks as one of my favorite musical moments of the entire Manics discography.
Lyrically, the track centers on political correctness which is one of the many things the title can stand for acronymically; the other implications being Police Constable, the widely known drug, the Portuguese Communist Party and the Conservative Party. The lyrics are highly layered and often times completely cryptic. Admittedly, I still haven’t figured out the true meaning of “King cigarette snuffed out by her midgets”: pondering smoking bans perhaps? But then again, why is King Cigarette a she?
Richey believed that although political correctness was language aimed at the working class, it condemns the very people that it aims to save and that self-censorship was inherently wrong. Nicky Wire described political correctness in an NME interview as something inherently good but without proper care, can be taken to tyrannical extremes and implemented as a means of social control. Therefore, political correctness acts as a barrier to truth. This idea is taken to extremes to predict a grim and controlled Dystopian future. A similar concept was played out by the Dead Kennedys in their widely known track, “California Uber Alles”. Not content with commentary on political correctness, the song also contains sentiments on abortion, sexual surrogates, the macabre nature of Leviticus, the dulling of culture, and prozac. Speaking of which, the album’s last lines are:
Pass the prozac, designer amnesiac
To bookend the album, Richey just desires one thing: an antidepressant which will serve two purposes. After writing an album like this, it’s not surprising that you’d be in the deepest, darkest abyss of acedia and in need of a serotonin boost but the side effects of prozac include memory loss, indicating a desire to wash the painful remembrances entirely away. It’s an oddly sad lyric to end on. It certainly doesn’t stand as a sign of victory for Richey, the pain of his reality being too much to bear, his feelings too much to naturally cope with. Albeit, who really expected a happy ending anyway?
Conclusion: So there you have it. 20 years later and this album is still the one to beat. The impact that it has had upon me personally is nearly unfathomable. From obsessing over the band and reading books about them to researching the literary influences and reading them (Foucault, Plath, Mirbeau, Miller, Mailer, Mishima) to conducting further listening to the bands and artists that inspired the group at the time (Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four, McCarthy, Echo & The Bunnymen), I’ve taken my obsession of this record to near religious levels. I’ve gone on to introduce other people, including my college roommate, to the record with varying degrees of success. In each case though, the person who listened has an opinion – this is the kind of album that forces you to have one.
Albums like this come once every blue moon; the kind of record that inspires, motivates, awes and creates mythology. The kind of record that grows with you and keeps you deep in thought. The kind of record that forces you to go to the library to further your understanding of what the singer is going on about. The kind of record that leaves no stone unturned. The kind of record that will be forever remembered and revered by a cult base of fans. My kind of record.
Best Tracks: Of Walking Abortion, Archives of Pain, Faster, Die In The Summertime, P.C.P, 4st 7lb, This Is Yesterday, Yes, She Is Suffering, Mausoleum