An Absence Made Present

by Thom Cuell

On 1 February 1995 Richey Edwards, guitarist and co-lyricist of the Manic Street Preachers walked out of his hotel room, on the eve of a promotional trip to America with the band’s singer James Dean Bradfield. Although there have been many unofficial sightings reported, none has ever been confirmed and Edwards was declared officially ‘presumed dead’ in 2008. Although his musical contributions, on-stage and on record, were minimal at best, Edwards was in many ways the public face of the band, and his disappearance is a key moment in the band’s history, casting a shadow over everything that came before or since.

Edwards’ struggle with self-harm and anorexia were well known, and had been explored within the band’s work, which mixed outspoken political commentary with themes of depression, alienation and self-loathing. This cocktail reached its peak with their third album, The Holy Bible, released in 1994. Here, densely-packed, at times almost indecipherable lyrics are delivered over a harsh, post-punk backing. Divisive on its release, The Holy Bible is routinely cited in the British music press as one of the greatest albums of all time, and helped to establish an enduring fan cult around the band The album’s musical intensity, and tragic associations, mean it is often viewed alongside Nirvana’s In Utero (1993), and Joy Division’s Closer (1980). Fan identification with the band goes even deeper: the Manics’ referencing of cultural figures through album sleeves, interviews and lyrical quotes has encouraged an enduring subculture of fans, a phenomenon which has been documented by Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller through a book and subsequent exhibition of art inspired by the band.

The band’s CV post-Richey is patchy. Their 1996 comeback album Everything Must Go, which incorporated lyrics left behind by Edwards, was a commercial and critical success; they also achieved the first UK number 1 single of the millennium with the Sartre and Chomsky-quoting ‘Masses Against The Classes’ (2000), and became the first Western band to play in Cuba (and meet with Fidel Castro) in 2001. There have been artistic missteps since, notably the album Lifeblood (2004), but they have maintained a loyal fanbase, recording and touring regularly. The sense remains, though, that The Holy Bible is their defining achievement, and the band frequently allude to it through their use of fonts and other visual references.

In 2014, the band performed a 20th anniversary tour for The Holy Bible, which attempted to reframe the album as a nostalgic entertainment, complete with James Dean Bradfield's sailor suit & Nicky Wire yelling ‘1-2-3-4’ before the chorus of ‘Mausoleum’, a song inspired by the band's visit to Dachau. The album proved strangely resistant: the band were visibly hesitant, at least until the watershed of track seven, ‘4st 7lb', had been passed. The evening didn't have the euphoric sense of justification that the later Everything Must Go anniversary shows inspired: the mood preceding it was tense; it felt almost unnatural for the band to be revisiting songs like ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ and ‘PCP’, so long banished from their set-lists.

Triptych, a collection of three long-form essays examining the album, may be seen as an attempt to reframe The Holy Bible as a reference material, a cultural studies artefact. It remains hard to pin down, yet these essays, which blend personal reflections with academic analysis, demonstrate that the album is extremely fertile ground for study. Echoing the visual of Jenny Saville’s Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) used on the album’s cover, Triptych investigates The Holy Bible from three distinct perspectives: charting its socio-political roots (Rhian E Jones’s essay, ‘Unwritten Diaries: History, Politics and Experience through The Holy Bible’), the literature which inspired it (David Lukes’s ‘Fragments Against Ruin’), and the idea of the album as archive (‘Architecture of Memory: The Holy Bible and the Archive’ by Larissa Wodtke).

Nobody expected the Manics to make an album like The Holy Bible in 1994. After failing to fulfil their promise to ‘sell 18 million albums and then spilt up’ with their 1992 debut, Generation Terrorists, the band had faltered with their follow-up, Gold Against the Soul (1993), which watered down their spiky glam-punk aesthetic into a Bon Jovi-ish MOR sound. In fact, nobody should have been making an album like The Holy Bible in the UK in 1994.

In retrospect, the early 1990s were a strange, liminal time. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the era of mass internet access, between the end of the rave movement and the Poll Tax riots and the rise of Blairism, Britain stumbled along under the increasingly shambolic government of John Major; the country was in a holding pattern. Sensation, Cool Britannia and the feeling that things could only get better were still in the future. The occasional Situationist monster could slip through the net – 1994 was the year when The KLF burned a million pounds on the island of Jura, after dumping a dead sheep on the steps of the Brit Awards afterparty – but it’s important to remember the sheer strangeness of the Manics (defined as 'a speed band in an e age' by NME journalist Steven Wells), compared with the rest of British music at the time. While American bands like Nine Inch Nails were beginning to make artistic headway with songs of morbid introspection, the year’s defining British album was Oasis’s Definitely Maybe, an energetic re-treading of clichés which included a song about lasagne. By contrast, The Holy Bible required its fans to develop a whole new set of references to come to grips with its unique language.

Sonically, the album draws on British post-punk bands, Gang of Four, Public Image Limited and Joy Division in particular, while tonally Rhian E. Jones correctly compares it with Hole’s Live Through This (1994) and more broadly, the genre of female Gothic, defined by notions of 'body horror, self-harm and atrocity obsession' (the album swiftly built up a significant constituency of female fans). The significant difference between The Holy Bible and the dark American rock bands that were attaining critical and commercial recognition is that while Kurt Cobain and Trent Reznor expressed confusion and unnameable pain through their lyrics, the Manics rigorously analysed and dissected the source of their malaise.

In ‘Unwritten Diaries’, Rhian E. Jones investigates the root of this impulse. Crucially, she identifies the lasting psychological impact of the Miners’ Strike on the young Manics, growing up in the depressed community of Blackwood in South Wales. In the post-Cold War ideological wasteland of the early ‘90s, the band knew that ‘history was over’ and that their side had lost. Discussing the band’s artistic manifesto, Bradfield explained that 'we set ourselves a rule that we would never write a love song because we just felt that everybody knew what it was like to fall in love . . . but not everybody necessarily knew what it was like to hate something or to really hate somebody'. The Manics, in contrast to the unifying, everymanish impulses of Britpop, have always been aware of the fault lines of British culture, explored further in songs like ‘Ready for Drowning’ and ’30 Years War’, but The Holy Bible is the album which encapsulates this political stance more than any other.

So, what is The Holy Bible? More than anything, it is a contradictory album: stark and hateful, but also ridiculous and overblown. (Jones refers to 'the grand guignol grandstanding of titles like Archives of Pain and The Intense Humming of Evil’.) The band were driven by twin, seemingly conflicting, impulses: a personal desire to forget, to return to childish innocence, or disappear ('I walk in the snow and not leave a footprint', 'why do anything when you can forget everything', 'no thoughts to forget when we were children') versus a political need to detail obsessively the horrors of the 20th century (referencing figures like Horthy and Tiso) and confront the listener (‘Who's responsible? You fucking are’). This recognition and reflection of humanity's contradictory nature, and the resulting frustration, give the album its jagged core.

Reflecting on the album, Bradfield noted, 'I really enjoyed how The Holy Bible confronts the audience. But that album confronts us too.’ In some ways, it is a more personal album than the two which came before, because it addresses universal horror and forces the listener to confront their place within it. ‘Mausoleum’ and ‘Intense Humming…’ in particular investigate the troubling experience of good failing to triumph over evil. Inhumanity is examined on a global and an individual scale: the exploitation inherent in capitalist production, exemplified by the ‘“x" baseball shoes’ in ‘Of Walking Abortion’, is laid at the feet of the consumer (‘no-one cares / everyone is guilty’). The suffering of wars and genocides has no redemptive purpose (‘lives that wouldn’t have changed a thing / never counted’). The response veers from self-abrogation (‘I starve to frenzy . . . and I don’t mind the horror that surrounds me‘) to vengeful fury (‘sterilise rapists / all I preach is destruction’) and arrogant disdain for cultural icons (‘I spat out Plath and Pinter’).

Maybe it is the sense of direct confrontation between band and audience which encourages such a strong identification between the Manics and their fans. Jones writes excellently about the experience of being a Manics fan. (’I knew I had chosen to waste my time in pretentious and preposterous obsession with exactly the right band.’) Occurring for the most part in the pre-digital age, the footprint of Manics fandom is somewhat ephemeral, as Jones notes: 'It can be difficult to reconstruct the texture of 90s fandom, particularly compared to the level of activity now possible among contemporary fans.’ Looking back, it still seems extraordinary, remembering the scorn that Manics fandom involved, abuse from men in the street and Melody Maker columnists alike, and even the occasionally snarling hostility between old and new fans, a cult within a cult. This was contrasted with the sense of intense belonging and togetherness encountered at conventions, in the long pre-gig queues and at Manics-specific club nights. Manics fans were astoundingly creative, producing masses of fanzines, artworks, customised clothes and, of course, very bad poetry. Recognising the subcultural significance of this unconventional creative output, Jeremy Deller organised an exhibition in Cardiff to commemorate this work.

As with any fandom, there were shared cultural reference points. The band’s choice of album quotes and reading lists acted a gateway to the likes of Mirbeau, Ballard, Solanos, Foucault and Plath – 'a little library for dark times', in Daniel Lukes’ words. The result was a group of people ‘tied together not only by being fans of the band, but also via a shared set of texts . . . a literary and cultural canon.’

Analysing this unofficial canon in depth, Lukes observes that Richey’s reading in particular largely belongs to 'the genre of books about self-obsessed and miserable young men . . . very white and very male.’ This seems surprising, for a band who identified so strongly with their female fans and who revered Public Enemy as a cultural touchstone, but possibly reflects the level of morbid self-analysis contained within their work during this period. This section of Triptych focuses almost entirely on the figure of Richey Edwards, and the surrounding myth, possibly to its detriment. Lukes’ fandom is more isolated than that described by Jones, and maybe this is why he looks less at the experiences of fans who followed the Manics’ cultural path, instead treating The Holy Bible as Richey Edwards’ roman à clef. With hindsight, it is tempting to see Richey’s disappearance as inevitable, but it leads to the entire album being filtered through Richey’s psyche – even songs authored by Nicky Wire, such as ‘This Is Yesterday’, become clues to Edwards’ disappearance.

The final essay, Larissa Wodtke’s ‘Architecture of Memory’, looks at the legacy of The Holy Bible particularly in terms of its lasting impact on the band’s career. Wodtke notes the band’s keen sense of 'self-memorialization': as music press fanatics, they knew how legends were made, and employed this knowledge. Some acts of artistic creation (and destruction) leave a permanent impact on their creators. As friends of The KLF explain that Drummond and Cauty were permanently damaged by the act of burning a million pounds, there is a sense that the remaining Manics never recovered from making The Holy Bible.

Wodtke borrows the concept of ‘archive fever’ from Jacques Derrida to explain the band’s post-Holy Bible career: 'a compulsive, repetitive and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.’ This has been characterised by their use of archive video footage in videos for later singles ‘Judge Yr’self’ and ‘This is the Day’, and self-referential lyrics (‘in the beginning, when we were winning / when our smiles were genuine’ from ‘The Everlasting’, or ‘One day we will return no matter how much it hurts / and it hurts’ from ‘Futurology’). The title track from Everything Must Go expressed a desire to ‘escape from our history’, but ‘Australia’, from the same album, was more pessimistic: ‘I’ve been here for much too long / this is the past that’s mine.’ Touring in 1996, the band had to choose how to present themselves as a three-piece; their decision not to fill the area of stage where Richey once stood created a 'consecrated space . . . like Rachel Whiteread's Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. An absence made present.’

Wodtke also examines the link between self-harm, eating disorders, language and ‘the other’, suggesting that an outpouring of language replaces food in the psyche of anorexics and hunger strikers, whilst harming the self may act as a means of creating a border between self and other. Clearly, the torrent of words, and outright hostile tone, which predominates on the album, reinforces this connection. Personally, when I self-harmed and starved, it was to compensate for a linguistic difficulty: wanting an obviously damaged body to communicate the truth about myself which I could not do verbally; nevertheless, the impulses were still linked.

Finally, Wodtke is the only one of the three contributors to explore the 2009 album Journal for Plague Lovers, a follow-up of sorts to The Holy Bible. In examining the band’s decision to present Richey’s lyrics in full, unabridged form within the liner notes, to be contrasted with the edited version performed by the band, and by highlighting James’s anxiety about reconnecting with the part of himself which wrote The Holy Bible’s music, Wodtke brilliantly illustrates the band’s twin urges to own and to question their own collective history.

After the band performed The Holy Bible as a three-piece, they took a break, changed into their regular clothes, and returned bolstered by auxiliary musicians to perform songs from their current incarnation; their most recent album, 2014’s Futurology, employs the same typeface as The Holy Bible, and shares some of the claustrophobia, but has radically different goals. Songs like ‘Europe Geht Durch Mich’ are expansively outward-looking, while Nicky’s self-critique in ‘Misguided Missile’ is auto-parody rather than self-laceration. After the Everything Must Go anniversary show in Swansea, Manics fans took over a local club, dancing into the early hours; after The Holy Bible gigs, the crowds fragmented.

With The Holy Bible the Manics created a myth that would haunt their future. This extraordinary album will be the band’s legacy, one which they can never fully embrace nor truly escape from. It has been re-released twice in special editions, for the 10th and 20th anniversaries of its release; they have also vowed never to perform songs from it again. When I first encountered the Manics, in the downtime between The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go, they were a band on hiatus, with no definite sign they would return – the madwoman in the attic of British rock. Since then, they have enjoyed commercial success, fallen in and out of fashion, and created eight albums. Fans have grown up, left, returned. Borrowing from Joseph Heller, if they were charged with not writing anything as good since The Holy Bible, they could justifiably respond with ‘no, but neither has anyone else’. It’s only fitting that an album driven by a need for analysis, whose very verbiage is a symptom of psychological trauma, and which demands answers of its audience, is itself subjected to intense interrogation. Triptych delivers this with affection, attention, sharpness and intelligence.

Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers' The Holy Bible by Rhian E. Jones, Daniel Lukes & Larissa Wodtke is published by Repeater Books.