Part I: A Search
When I started this blog back in April 2012, I never believed I would own a copy of my favourite album, the Manic Street Preachers’ peerless classic The Holy Bible, on standard black vinyl. It just seemed like it would never happen. On its release in 1995, it only saw a picture disc release on vinyl. And while I have that beautiful piece of wax, it might be nice to look at but it’s a dog to listen to. The only thing worse would be a flexi-disc – and I have that too: NME’s 7” Verses From The Holy Bible.
The album’s tenth anniversary came and went in 2005, but saw no vinyl release – just an interesting and very much welcomed CD / DVD box set, including the very interesting American mix of the album. Things started looking up – finally – in 2015 when the band released a twentieth anniversary box set, which included four CDs of material, a book, and that all-elusive black vinyl. I wavered though. Of course I wanted that slab of vinyl; I just didn’t really want the rest of the set. CD box sets tend to gather dust in my house, and once I’ve listened to all the bonus material, they just get pushed to the back of a shelf and never taken out again. I then found out that the vinyl record housed the four CDs in little pockets on its sleeve. Screw that – my plans of taking the vinyl album out to put with the rest of my MSP vinyl collection were dashed. So I continued to wait…
I waited through all the album’s twentieth anniversary celebrations in 2015. I waited patiently. I waited while I heard the news that the band were going to play the album in its entirety at some live shows in the UK. After seven years living on the other side of the world, here was something that finally made me regret leaving the UK in the first place. Only the amazing 2012 London Olympics had prompted the same feelings. The reasonable part of me knew I was being silly, but the unreasonable part of me wanted to travel back in time to tear up my immigration documents.
It was nice to see the album’s appearance on last year’s Record Store Day list of exclusive vinyl releases. But it was just a picture disc again – two actually – one for the UK mix of the album and one for the US mix. Well, that was something, at least (and I picked those up in no time). But still no standalone black vinyl.
Then in October or November of 2015, I noticed that Amazon was listing a pre-order of the vinyl record – as a standalone release – for the end of December. No details, just a vague description: “vinyl” and “discs = 1”. I was sceptical. I had pre-ordered it before from Amazon, and for some reason the release didn’t happen; my order at that time was ultimately cancelled. Surely the same thing would happen here. Perhaps it was a nasty joke by some Amazon employee, maybe a God-botherer annoyed at the album’s appropriation of the holiest book around.
But then it turned up, the first piece of vinyl to land in my mailbox in 2016. A beautiful piece of black vinyl. No box set. No fancy release. Just a single disc in a minimalist package. No tracklisting on the rear cover; just a photo of the band and a quote by Octave Mirbeau. No lyric sheet on the inside; just an inner sleeve with a CCCP design on one side, and a photo of the band on the other side, overlaid with a quote by Solomon Northup (he of Twelve Years A Slave fame).
It was finally here.
Part II: An Introduction
It was hearing Faster that started it all. Up to that point, I hadn’t noticed the Manics. I had definitely taken a dislike to their name though. Manic Street Preachers? How pretentious! What does that even mean?
It’s dangerous when you haven’t heard any music by a band, and the only thing you have to go on is their name. If the name sounds cool, then you’d be forgiven for expecting the band to be cool. If the name sounds unbelievably pretentious, well…
So I bought a compilation called Danger Zone during my second year at University. I’d heard some of the tracks before, but mostly the CD introduced me to a lot of the rockier indie bands I had avoided up to that point. It was the Manics’ Faster that really got my attention. It was like nothing I’d heard before – edgy, off-kilter, the sound of inertia committed to tape – and with lyrics name-checking Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath and Harold Pinter. Rock songs weren’t supposed to mention writers and poets, and as I was currently studying English literature, they sounded like the kind of lyrics I should probably be listening to. I needed all the academic help I could get.
The other thing that grabbed me about the song was the production. The first few lines with James Dean Bradfield’s vocals switching between a reverb and a clean sound was awesome, especially through a pair of headphones when you can really hear the difference. And guitar-wise, it was refreshing to hear a heap of effects that I just hadn’t heard before in my diet of Aerosmith, AC/DC, and the like.
I rushed out and bought The Holy Bible on CD, expecting to find more of the same. On first listen, I was disappointed. Faster was clearly the best song on the album, but what the hell was all this other stuff? Anorexia, prostitution, the holocaust, mass murderers, American politics, right-wing totalitarianism; to say that it’s a serious album would be a grave understatement.
A casual listener might have been put off by such content, but at that time I had the time and the inclination to fully digest myself in an album, to immerse myself in it until I knew it backwards and could form a valid opinion of it.
Part III: An Obsession
Everyday from that point onwards, for maybe six months or more, The Holy Bible would be on my MiniDisc player (the highly unfashionable pre-cursor to the iPod). I’d listen to it on the long walk into University, sometimes finding myself listening to Archives Of Pain, a song about serial killers, whilst walking through the red-light district where Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe picked up some of his victims.
I’d listen to it between lectures, as I wandered the streets of Huddersfield to kill time. Then I’d listen to it again as I took the same long walk home. The only albums I’d share in my musical diet were the Manics’ earlier albums, Generation Terrorists and Gold Against The Soul. They were good, but they weren’t in the same class as The Holy Bible. I’d listen to them to try and understand their follow-up album; how had this band arrived at producing such a unique piece of art?
Posters of the Holy Bible adorned my bedroom walls, and I sought out everything connected to the album. In particular, in those dark days before the advent of YouTube, I went to great lengths to see a performance of Faster on BBC’s Top Of The Pops – a performance that at the time of broadcast saw a record number of complaints (over 25,000). The reason? Bradfield’s black balaclava (with ‘James’ scrawled on the front of it) and the rest of the band’s military garb prompted comparisons with the IRA. Viewed now, it looks very tame but the troubles were in full swing at the time so it’s not hard to understand how the Mary Whitehouses of the UK were horrified.
My girlfriend at the time wore a handmade necklace adorned with a Holy Bible lyric – I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing, from Faster. I loved it so much she made me one as a gift, featuring another of my favourite lyrics from the album – Why do anything when you can forget everything?, from This Is Yesterday. I wore it every day until it split and the many lettered beads it was made of spilled all over the floor.
Part IV: An Understanding
To fully appreciate what the NME would ultimately call ‘a vile record’, it’s important to provide some context on how these four individuals came to record the album, and it’s impossible not to view the record without considering the unfortunate events that followed during its promotion.
As a band, the Manics are easily divisible into two camps. First, there are the musical writers of the band, vocalist / guitarist James Dean Bradfield and his drumming cousin, Sean Moore. They’re complimented by the lyricists of the group, guitarist Richey Edwards and bass player Nicky Wire.
The way that they approach songwriting is also fairly unique. An existing set of lyrics by Edwards or Wire (or both) is crowbarred into a piece of music written independently by Bradfield or Moore (or both). This is why the band’s lyrics sound strangely wrapped around the music. They don’t think twice about starting a line (or even a single word) at the end of a bar of music, and finishing it on the next bar. Effectively they’re fitting a poem onto a piece of music which might not necessarily have the same metre.
This is why I have major problems deciphering their lyrics. For a while, I though the chorus of their Masses Against The Classes single was ‘Grandma Says, Against Her Glasses’. Talk about mondegreens; I could write my own MSP lyric sheets and they would be filled with the most unintelligible gibberish. I’d have more success deciphering the Super Furry Animals’ welsh lyrics (who might very well be singing ‘Ysbeidiau Heulog’ on Mwng’s song of the same name, but I’ve always heard it as ‘a spidey-eye halo’).
To record their third album, the band decamped back to Wales, to Sound Space Studios, a small studio in Cardiff. Their first two albums had been recorded in London and Oxfordshire respectively, and their last album, Gold Against The Soul, had a hollowness and a commercial sheen they were keen not to repeat.
Manics biographer Simon Price describes The Holy Bible as ‘the sound of a group in extremis, at crisis point, hurtling towards a private armageddon.’ This sums up the album perfectly, but could also be used to describe Richey Edwards himself. Of their first five albums, this is clearly the most ‘Richey’ in tone, and Nicky Wire has confirmed that the lyrics are “30 per cent me, 70 per cent Richey”.
Five months following the release of the album, and on the eve of flying out to tour the record in America, Richey disappeared. Echoing the suicide of Ian Curtis in 1980 – similarly on the eve of Joy Division touring America – this was the culmination of Edward’s deteriorating mental state.
Part V: A Disappearance
Edwards and Bradfield were staying at the Embassy Hotel in West London. They were due to fly out to the U.S.A. in the morning, for a week of interviews to promote the album and the upcoming tour. As they arrived at the hotel in the evening, Bradfield played a demo of Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky, a song with lyrics written by Edwards that would later appear on the band’s ‘comeback’ album Everything Must Go. Richey loved it. In the morning, Richey didn’t show in the lobby at the agreed time.
When Bradfield asked the hotel porter to open Edwards’ room, they found a box wrapped up in paper featuring literary quotes and images, addressed to his girlfriend. Inside the box was an assortment of books and videos. His full suitcase of clothes, toiletries and medication was also found.
The ensuing police investigation found that Richey had driven back to his flat in Cardiff that morning. Here, they found his passport, which he had had with him in London, his remaining medication and his credit card.
Aside from uncomfirmed sightings of Richey in Newport, he had completely vanished. Sixteen days later, his car was found abandoned in the car park of the Severn View motorway services in Aust, close to the English side of the Severn Bridge.
It was impossible to identify how long the car had been parked there, but the battery was dead and it appeared that he’d been sleeping in it, playing cassette tapes though the car stereo.
Despite numerous unconfirmed sightings early on in places as far afield as Goa, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, to this day Edwards is still missing / presumed dead – the Lord Lucan of pop music. In 2002 his family were given the option to declare him legally dead. They chose not to, and he remained a missing person until 2008 when he was officially presumed dead.
The proximity to the bridge – a suicide spot, as most large bridges are – served as a bookend to the situation to some. Many presumed he had taken his own life, but a body was never found. How horrible. It’s one thing for a band member to kill themselves – as had happened to Nirvana the year before – but for a band member to disappear, to have questions but no answers, must be considerably more torturous.
Part VI: An Appreciation
The wise people know. You’ll hear them every now and then, in the toilet of a club, or walking in a mall. All of a sudden, your ears will prick up because you hear the word ‘Manics’ spoken by others; the Cocktail Party Phenomenon in action. If you can eavesdrop further, they’ll be debating which is the best Manics album. The one that’s heard The Holy Bible will be strenuously putting forward an argument that’s it’s better than all the others. The other person, the one who’s not heard The Holy Bible, will be saying something else. But they’ll be wrong of course.
Over time my tastes have changed. I’m not as avid a supporter of the band as I once was. I still follow them, but the standard of their post-Holy Bible output has been patchy to say the least. I’m still smarting over them (or more correctly, their record company) for putting out Know Your Enemy as a single disc of vinyl, despite its 75 minute running time.
The other week, I heard the Manics’ song backing the Wales football team in the 2016 European Championship. I nearly vomited, it was so bad. The Super Furry Animals’ song was much better, just proving that it’s not a missing band member that changes a band beyond comprehension, it’s the band becoming popular, moving into the mainstream, and falling back on tried and tested songwriting formulas that turns them into the opposite of what they started out as.
In 2007, I saw the Manics at Glastonbury; my last Glastonbury festival before I left the UK. I wasn’t excited as we were walking to the stage; instead I was going to see them on auto-pilot, out of a weird sense of duty. But halfway through the opening song, You Love Us, I suddenly remembered what a big fan of the band I was and as a result, I couldn’t stop smiling.
That must have been the fourth or fifth time I had seen the band play, and I noticed that they had added a second guitarist to their touring band. Up to this point they had been doing fine as a three-piece, but now it seemed like they were finally saying goodbye to Richey by filling his part in the band. The new addition to the band stood at the back in the shadows, while stage-right remained empty, as I believe it does to this day, waiting for Richey to return.
Hidden Gem: This Is Yesterday
Note – In the writing of this post, I’m indebted to Simon Price’s wonderful Manics biography Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers) (Virgin Books, 1999) which helped a great deal, particularly with its in-depth report of the police investigation into Richey Edwards’ disappearance. I’ve also recently discovered Andy Johnson’s great blog Manic Street Preachers – A Critical Discography, a great repository for MSP fans, and well worth checking out.