This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… the Manic Street Preachers, The Holy Bible December 15, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
If I thought about the Manic Street Preachers in the early 1990s, which in truth was rarely if at all, it was the words contrived, overblown, naive and self-aggrandising that came to mind. And none of those were entirely inappropriate then. That Clash redux imagery, the sub-metal guitars, the impassioned but unformed politics and the glib and raucous self-promotion. They claimed that they were going to produce a classic debut album and then break up, the template a thousand NME and Melody Maker feted groups had sought to take before them and never had. And neither did they.
They were contrived, though the contrivance was entirely of their own making. Here was a group that seemed, at least initially, to reference all the right influences but somehow was unable to transcend them.
Yet sometime in late 1994 I heard Revol (spell it backwards), one of the singles accompanying the Holy Bible album, on the radio, a snarling, politically knowing update of punk propelled along by Damned/Pistols/Ramones guitars and James Dean Bradfield’s ragged vocals. And that was that. Bought the album, managed to see them live at the Tivoli in Dublin – probably barely a month later and by the end of the year had acquired their earlier albums. A rapid education of sorts, and something that forced a recantation on my part.
Sure, those earlier albums were bombastic, but for me all the negatives flipped to positives, or close enough. They were political, catchy, and referencing a range of influences – from punk onwards – that at that time British guitar based music was leaving well behind as it ran backwards at full speed into the 1960s with the rise of Britpop. And the metallic tinge to first album Generation Terrorists sounded oddly refreshing in a world where metal had gone grunge and overly self-reflective, while second album Gold Against the Soul had its moments (and oddly seems more closely aligned with their post Holy Bible incarnation, with added extra strings) even if it was nowhere close to the sheer brilliance of The Holy Bible.
That Tivoli gig was a revelation. Richey Edwards standing almost isolated on the left of the stage while James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore kept the show on the road. I claim no prescience at all but his disappearance a few months later was somehow no surprise when thinking back to that evening. But then his place in the group was anomalous, famously unable to play much guitar his contribution was as a powerhouse of lyrics and ideas – a sort of ever present muse who provided much of their glam brio.
But this wasn’t without calculation and contrivance, of sorts, too. For the Holy Bible tour they went – if possible – more Clash-like with military uniforms, including a frankly bizarre sailors suit for Bradfield. The album, art-directed – as best as one can make out by Richey Edwards – was an artefact in itself, from Jenny Saville’s cover paintings to the modernist typography, all combined in a carefully fashioned aesthetic that sought to position it as a cultural product above and beyond rock, something not dissimilar to the crisp spare imagery of Joy Division. And this was reflected in the music – or was it vice versa – their lyrical content was disturbing at best and often harrowing. Describing it as a very deliberate meditation on evil is perhaps too trite, though it was quite deliberate. The Intense Humming of Evil dealt with the Holocaust, Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart – well obvious that [Kudos to JB in comments for getting me to mention it], Yes dissected prostitution, Archives of Pain serial killers (and by the by attempting to demythologise the fascination some have with the topic), Of Walking Abortion right totalitarianism, 4st 7lbs anorexia. Samples used throughout drew on various reference points from 1984 to the GOP conference. But if that reads like topics written to a checklist it certainly doesn’t sound it when listening to it – the experience can be bleakly powerful albeit at this remove the focus on general and specific evils and afflictions seems like a sublimation of a closer and very personal misery. All of it delivered with a stark intensity that undercut any hint of insincerity, which was no small achievement. But perhaps part of that achievement was the fact that their own approach was confused, one part leftism, one part nihilism, one part ambiguity. There was no clear message as such, no hint of a solution, let alone redemption.
Even that would be less convincing were the music rubbish. But it wasn’t. Quite the opposite, a sometimes muddy, sometimes crystal clear mix of glam, rock, punk, industrial and pop with hints of Gang of Four, the Pistols, Joy Division, Wire and an host of others without simply echoing their sound – the individual tracks by turns catchy and gruelling.
Sure, the failings of the Manics were also on show, the sometimes clunky compositions, the strained vocals, the barely suppressed rockist leanings, the occasionally too clever by half lyrics. Often, though, this sounded deliberate, a way of underscoring the conceptual content. Listen to the chorus of Yes which rises and rises and then is completely undercut, and yet underlined, by a jagged change of direction. And here those faults combined to make an album that genuinely delivered on their early rhetoric, the one album of theirs that achieved the sort of mythological status that they had once so vociferously claimed for themselves.
They never reached this peak again subsequently – perhaps a function of Richey Edwards departure, but perhaps something more. It’s not that all that came after was negligible, there was the near-brilliant Know Your Enemy from the early 2000s and the good in parts Lifeblood soon after but in the main there have been too many high profile collaborations, too much polish, too many strings.
This, this though is still somehow relevant. It doesn’t just work, it just is. A near perfect grit strewn piece of guitar punk/rock/new wave – whatever category it is, that sweeps the listener up and carries them along until the end. Classic.
The Intense Humming of Evil
Of Walking Abortion
Die in the Summertime