Sunday, 31 August 2014

The 20th anniversay of THE HOLY BIBLE

Yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Holy Bible. No, not that one. This one:

The striking cover art is a painting by Jenny Saville called Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face). Saville's representatives demanded an exorbitant fee for its usage. After Richey Edwards rang Saville and explained the meaning of each track in detail, she let the band use it for free. The typeface and reversed Rs are a nod to Empires and Dance by Simple Minds.

The Holy Bible is the third album (of twelve to date) released by Manic Street Preachers, a rock band from Blackwood, Wales. The band was founded in 1987 by four close childhood friends: James Dean Bradfield (lead vocals, guitars), Sean Moore (drums), Nicky Wire (bass, lyrics) and Richey Edwards (lyrics, rhythm guitar). The foursome came from a working-class background, their community one of many badly affected by the 1984-85 Miners' Strike and the subsequent pit closures that had left the area awash in poverty and unemployment. The group came together with a mission statement to inject intelligence into rock, refusing to write love songs and making sure each track they wrote was about something.

The band released several indie singles (starting with "Suicide Alley" in 1989) but came to more widespread attention in 1990-91 when they released several singles through Heavenly Records, most notably "Motown Junk" and "You Love Us." "Motown Junk" was played on heavy rotation by BBC Radio 1 DJ Steve Lamacq and he championed the band in its early days. However, later that year Lamacq felt that the band had failed to deliver on its initial promise and carried out a challenging interview with Richey Edwards in which he asked if the band were genuine in their artistic intent. An annoyed Edwards pulled out a razor blade and carved the words "4 REAL" into his forearm in front of the horrified journalist.

Incidents like this and the inability of either Edwards or Wire to self-edit in interviews, to the delight of the British music press, soon gave the band a media presence at odds with their ludicrously tiny sales figures. It also helped them win a major record deal, with Rob Stringer of Columbia Records (a subsidiary of Sony) signing up the band. The Manics declared they would sell 16 million copies of their debut album, play Wembley and split up. In the event, they sold about half a million copies of Generation Terrorists (their debut), didn't play Wembley and didn't split up.

By the latter part of 1993, the band seemed to have come to the conclusion that maybe they had surrendered their ideals in the pursuit of commercial success. Wire and Edwards didn't want to be a in a cult band, playing well-received arty tracks to a hardcore few fans. They wanted "mass communication", as Wire said many years later, and to do that they coupled their sometimes challenging lyrics to some fairly standard rock song structures. James Dean Bradfield's astonishing way with a guitar riff (particularly on tracks like "Motorcycle Emptiness" and "La Tristesse Durera") helped the band win over some doubters about their musicianship, but the band also felt a step out of time. Generation Terrorists evoked the feel of Guns N' Roses and late 1980s American rock, a few years past its sell-by date. Its follow-up, Gold Against the Soul, mixed influences from grunge and Madchester - Seattle by way of Salford - to often terrific effect, but again it felt a bit dated by the time it came out.

For their third record, the Manics stopped chasing musical fads, dropped the American influences (instead binging on British acts like Wire, Joy Division and PiL) and decided to record the album close to home in a tiny, cheap studio in Cardiff. The band-members could commute into work and recorded the album in less than two months of tight, disciplined work. They were helped by Richey's incredibly prolific output, as he poured out lyrics (also poems and stream-of-conscious rants) by the dozen. Previously the band had ruthlessly edited the lyrics to fit the songs but Bradfield was so moved by Richey's words that he reversed the process, tailoring the songs around the often dense and complex lyrics. Co-writer Nicky Wire contributed about a quarter of the album's output, helping Richey name some songs and performing rewrites where necessary, but for the most part the album was the work of Richey Edwards by himself.

Manic Street Preachers in 1994: James Dean Bradfield, Richey Edwards, Nicky Wire, Sean Moore.

Almost insanely, the band did not initially pick up that anything was wrong. Ever since the "4 REAL" incident the band had almost perversely played up on Richey's "tortured poet" image (a Welsh Kurt Cobain, an Ian Curtis of the valleys) suggesting they'd top off his previous act by decapitating Richey live on stage. Drummer Sean Moore, known for his laconic sense of humour, told a journalist that Richey did not go to bed to sleep, only "the abyss". Richey spent his time off from writing playing video games (he was a huge Sega fan), reading 2000AD comics - and being delighted when the music-fan writers briefly included a character in the Judge Dredd strip based on him - and brushing up on his reading. During the recording of The Holy Bible he also bought a flat, allowing him the space needed to focus on his writing.

That said, the image was also not without its truth. Richey was a heavy drinker and was often depressed. He also experienced bouts of anorexia and self-harming. The Holy Bible provided an outlet for all of his darker thoughts and interests, with the lyrics reflecting on subjects like the Holocaust, starvation, political correctness, capital punishment, totalitarianism and prostitution. His band-mates didn't notice anything too unusual in this during the recording, when Edwards often came into the studio when he wasn't needed just to provide encouragement. However, during a post-recording tour of Thailand and Portugal Edwards's behaviour deteriorated. He often cried and during one gig cut himself with a knife live on stage. His drinking got out of control and, at the urging of his bandmates and their management, he checked himself into the Priory, London's most famous rehab clinic. This didn't seem to help very much. To pay for the clinic's extravagant bills the band did a string of festival gigs as a three-piece, which left them feeling angry and frustrated. The death of their manager from cancer and the fact that the album was released whilst Richey was still in rehab reduced the band to one of its lowest points.

They weren't helped by the shifting musical climate. Guitar music was increasing in popularity in Britain, propelled by bands like Blur, Suede and Pulp, and in the summer of 1994 suddenly exploded thanks to the arrival of noted Manchester rockers Oasis. Oasis's eagerly-awaited debut album Definitely Maybe was released on the same day as The Holy Bible and ensured that the Manics' album was comprehensively overshadowed, despite a strong critical reception from the music press.

The planned sleeve for the single release of "Yes". It was pulled after Richey's disappearance.

The Holy Bible may have been overlooked by the mass audiences, but nothing could dim its power. It retains a critical reputation amongst British albums of the time few others can match, and has now sold over half a million copies (which is small change to some, but for a record this "difficult", it's impressive). It's a tough album - "We knew people wouldn't play it at parties," as Moore said at the time - and one that s often given the dreaded description of "dark", although it's also not entirely shorn of hope.

The record kicks off with "Yes", the great lost Manics single. It was supposed to be released in early 1995 but other events saw it being cancelled. Instead it gets to lead out the record and does so in a manner that can be best described as "commercial suicide". It opens with a sample from the 1993 documentary film, Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns, which had blown open the lid on the modern prostitution trade. Five words in, Richey drops a c-bomb. The perversely upbeat chorus ponders the merits of castration. Richey's lyrics are so dense that Bradfield has to blast them out like a machine gun of bile to fit them in.

It's an exhausting song and sets the tone for what is to follow: tracks on the merits of American culture ("Ifwhiteamericatoldthetrueforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart"), totalitarianism and feminism ("Of Walking Abortion"), feminism again ("She is Suffering", later disavowed by the band for its apparent advocating of white knighting), capital punishment ("Archives of Pain"), failed relationships ("Revol", kind of), anorexia ("4st 7lb"), the Holocaust ("Mausoleum"), discipline and intelligence ("Faster"), dying of old age ("Die in the Summertime"), the Holocaust again ("The Intense Humming of Evil") and the odd bedfellows of drugs, communism and political correctness ("P.C.P."). It's a ferociously smart and hard-to-parse album, really requiring several listens to take in. And yes, it is a dark album, but one that is also streaked through with rays of hope. "This is Yesterday", a Nicky Wire track, is the album's most positive and uplifting moment, a simple but effective track with a little bit of the feel of the Beatles track it shares a near-name with. Other songs like "Of Walking Abortion" and "Faster" are angry but also defiantly life-affirming in their rage.

Its critical reception was mostly positive, but several writers were concerned about what the record said about its principle creator: Melody Maker declared it as "The sound of a group...hurtling towards a private armageddon." Select fitted the songs to what Richey Edwards was going through and was concerned that "No further gestures are required." The Holy Bible's music stock would also only increase with time, the record continuing to appear in Top 100 lists even when almost all of its near-contemporaries had fallen off the radar. This week, the 20th anniversary of the release of both the record and Oasis's vastly higher-selling debut, has been dominated in the British musical press by coverage of The Holy Bible, not Oasis's gamechanger.

What Happened Next

In the wake of The Holy Bible's release, the band were rejoined by Richey for a final string of shows culminating in an explosive gig at the London Astoria which ended with the band destroying most of their instruments. Walking offstage, the band felt a sense of cathartic release that a very difficult time in their lives was over.

The band had already decided that the band's fourth album would be lighter - or at least more approachable - in tone. Richey's prolific streak had continued and Bradfield had enough material to work out rough demos of several new tracks: "The Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky", "No Surface All Feeling" and the lyrically obtuse "Kevin Carter", a song about the South African photojournalist who had become immensely famous for a photograph he'd taken of a vulture and a young starving child in Sudan, which had won him the Pulitzer Prize. Feeling guilty of how he'd won fame, Carter had committed suicide in early 1994, a story that fascinated Edwards. Early work on the new album was interrupted by the band's management making a breakthrough in their attempts to raise American interest: the US wing of Sony Music had finally taken notice of the band's media profile and had agreed to fund a remix of The Holy Bible for American audiences, not to mention a fairly high-profile tour. Given that the band's only real previous exposure in the States had come from an LA TV station using their track "Slash and Burn" as a backdrop to their coverage of the Rodney King riots (to the band's utter horror), this positive development was a surprise.

The American tour never happened, and the remix would not surface for ten years when it was finally made available as part of a 10th anniversary box set. On 1 February 1995, the date Richey and James were supposed to fly to the States for promotional work, Richey checked out of his London hotel and was never seen again. Two weeks later his car was found abandoned near the Severn Bridge, leading to rushed claims that he'd jumped from the bridge, a known suicide spot. However, nothing was conclusively proven. In 2008 his family finally declared him legally dead, but the truth of the matter remains unknown. He was 27 years old, the so-called "cursed age" at which musicians like Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones had all died, further adding to the rock star mythology.

The band immediately went on hiatus whilst they waited for news. After six months, they spoke to the Edwards family, who suggested that releasing the songs Richey had been working on might encourage him to make contact. The band reformed and struggled to resume work. It was only when Nicky Wire handed James Dean Bradfield a poem about how the working class had been empowered by education that the creative juices started flowing again. The resulting song, "A Design for Life," was released in April 1996 and was an instant smash hit, hitting #2 on the charts (only missing out on the top spot by a couple of hundred sales). The album that followed, Everything Must Go, sold two million copies in its first three years on sale and won the band two Brit Awards. With the near-total collapse of popular acclaim for Oasis following their successful-but-derided third album, Be Here Now, the Manics inherited the position of Britain's premier rock group, a position they would hold until the rise of Coldplay in 2000-01. Most notably, the Manics scored two #1 singles ("If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" in 1998 and "The Masses Against the Classes", the first British #1 song of the 21st Century) and a #1 album with 1998's This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. The Manics peaked with their sell-out show at the Cardiff Millennium Stadium on New Year's Eve 1999 (culminating in a live broadcast of "A Design for Life" on TV).

Subsequently the band underwent a period of unfocused direction. Their next two albums, Know Your Enemy (2001) and Lifeblood (2004) were messy and confused, although between them they produced several decent tracks. The band were also criticised - most stringently by themselves later on - for playing a show in Havana in 2001 meant to express solidarity with the people of Cuba but was spun by Fidel Castro for his own PR purposes. However, in 2007 they released Send Away the Tigers, an album brimming with hummable tunes and pop choruses. Whilst a little cheesy, it won back a lot of public goodwill and allowed them to take on a daunting task they'd been avoiding since Richey's disappearance: using up what was left of Richey's lyrics and poems to fuel a new album. They feared a backlash, but 2009's Journal for Plague Lovers was critically acclaimed and a huge hit with their fans (not so much commercially, as they refused to release any singles from it and did minimal PR for it). 2010's Postcards from a Young Man was described by Nicky Wire as "One last shot at mass communication", again focusing on catchy hooks and big choruses. However, the record did not find as much favour as their previous two records.

More recently, the Manics have enjoyed both their most critically and commercially successful period in many years. In 2013 they released Rewind the Film, a mostly acoustic record that featured several collaborations with other artists. The album was an unexpected hit. Earlier this year they released Futurology, an album recorded in Berlin and driven by European influences and ideas. The critical reception was nothing short of rapturous, making it their most well-received album since Everything Must Go (if not The Holy Bible itself).

But when the Manics do eventually split, it is The Holy Bible that will be namechecked the most, their most defining record and the one that nearly destroyed them. Twenty years on, it remains a remarkable record, the product of a singular and distressing vision.

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