In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘yes’

Before the music begins, a man’s voice is heard. A pimp summarising what’s on offer in the sexual underworld: ‘You can buy her, you can buy her… This one’s here. This one’s here, this one’s here, this one’s here. Everything’s for sale.’ The deadening repetition of the business inheres in these very words. They struggle to express anything other than impersonal commercial exchange. The same old sell. The language of a world emptied of meaning and emotion. It makes for a stark counterpart to the repetitions found in the Christian holy book from which the album takes its name: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ It is the words first of all that make the third Manic Street Preachers record, The Holy Bible, such a remarkable work of popular music. There is also in these opening moments a sense of things to come; the final words of the sample prompting the first words sung by James Dean Bradfield – and almost presaging the title of the band’s subsequent album.

That initial voice, however, belongs to Junior. An aspiring New York pimp and security man at the Midtown Whorehouse, featured in Beeban Kidron’s documentary film Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns, broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4 on Wednesday 29 December, 1993.

Still from Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns (dir. Beeban Kidron, 1993). Produced by Wonderland Films
Still from Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns (dir. Beeban Kidron, 1993). Produced by Wonderland Films

There is an omission in the sample, though. The original dialogue ends: ‘…it is New York, everything’s for sale.’ The specific locale is here obscured, allowing lyricist Richey Edwards to evoke his own disturbing world of licence, lust and suffering. Elsewhere in the song, too, documentary material is recontextualised in order to intensify his dystopian vision. ‘Yes’ immediately casts the listener into a fallen world, in which any divine semblances suggested by the album title belie brutal, secular realities. It is a searing description of a life of sexual exploitation; the words overflowing with explicit images and phrases.

‘Yes’ is a song that not only depicts the unsettling realm of a prostitute. According to the band, it was also intended to suggest a sense of exploitation they had come to feel in the music business. The familiar fear of ‘selling out’ conveyed by such an extreme comparison. A logo designed by the band at the time mimicked a TSB bank advertisement: ‘MSP – The band that likes to say Yes’. Bassist and lyricist, Nicky Wire explained:

‘Basically, we’ve reached a point now where we feel as if we’ve prostituted ourselves so f***ing much, just given and given and given, that we’ve given everything away, and we’ve got absolutely f***ing nothing left of our own. And we played up to that, you know – culture sluts. But these things… these things catch up with you. There’s a song on the album called Yes which is about this, the feeling that you’ve just been completely used up. I mean, I remember dressing up as a sperm for some Italian fashion magazine, do you know what I mean? That was our credo: say yes to everything.’ [1]

The Pop Group had already written ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ (1980), which shares the general sentiment but not the lurid, and even empathetic, detail in ‘Yes’ a physically abused hooker still has the good manners to stand for the elderly on public transport. The lyrics effectively blend social realism with dystopia; the metaphorical and the literal; subjectivity and voyeuristic interest.

Richey Edwards’s tour programme notes are blunt:

‘Prostitution of The Self. The majority of your time is spent doing something you hate to get something you don’t need. Everyone has a price to buy themselves out of freedom.’ [2]

Yet as soon as the first words of the song are uttered, it is clear that Manic Street Preachers have abandoned all desire to concede to those in the music industry who would aspire to profit above all. ‘Yes’ could never be a hit, not least for the explicit language contained in its very first line.

The acknowledgement of the song as a measure of the band’s own frustrations distracts to some extent from the power of the lyrics as an expression of wider social realities, the emotional depth of the characterisation sharpened by the violent, pessimistic imagery. In one promotional interview following the release of The Holy Bible, Bradfield gave equal emphasis to both aspects while talking about the song:

Touring around the world, you go to different places. We went to Thailand. And if you go to Germany, and you went to Holland. Takes those three countries: Thailand, Holland, Germany. They’ve all got, you know, very obvious state-led prostitution, kind of like, services, yeah? Where it’s all quite legal. You go there and you see how people have become numb to it. For them it’s like a way of life; it’s a job; it’s a service industry, especially in Thailand, it’s unbelievable, you know? You think you see everything when you go to Holland, you think you see everything when you go to the Reeperbahn in Germany. And you go to Thailand and that’s it, you’ve seen it. And you see that these people have become numb to it, just like a carpenter becomes numb to his job, or an electrician becomes numb to his job. And so these prostitutes were numb to it. It’s really strange, we looked at them – and this is our third album – and we made some mistakes, working for Sony, and it can get to you, you can be manipulated, and we’d forgotten how to say “No,” basically, as a group. And we thought, God, you know, we never kid ourselves, we’re not in the position of these prostitutes but… so the song Yes is kind of like drawing the parallel between us and prostitutes basically.’ [3]

The identification with a prostitute in ‘Yes’ reaches beyond the often glib stereotype of the kowtowing professional musician, suggesting deeper frameworks of submission. This focused embodiment of wider sociopolitical concerns is key to the style of The Holy Bible. The ideas explored here align with Beeban Kidron’s own. In her introduction to Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns for Channel 4 television she, too, underlined the ways in which her film showed the likeness between the mechanisms of the world of prostitution and the ‘normal’ world:

‘When I started making this film, like for most people, the word “prostitute” conjured up an image of a woman teetering on two high heels, fishnet tights and bright red lips. In making the film I found a world much more complex and diverse. A world that mirrors, almost exactly, the world of our own.’ [4]

While the word ‘yes’ might naturally be taken as a positive affirmation, it is also a warning shot of complicity and moral resignation. As Bradfield declared in a concert at the London Astoria in December 1994, ‘yes’ is “the least progressive word in the English language.” How are we to fathom such contradictory meanings? This is the work of The Holy Bible – an impossible goal perhaps but one that the album explores with unusual intensity.

†††

As the first parable of a Manic testament, it is shocking. Here God is not evidenced by a miraculous virgin birth, as in the familiar nativity story. Here ‘All virgins are liars’ and ‘for $200 anyone can conceive a God on video.’ The body is almost extinguished of spirit, only a common courtesy remains.

In addition to the television material sampled, the lyrics excerpt fragments from a newspaper article. As Wire indicated in an interview with Metal Hammer in September 1994:

Yes, for example: we had just read this article about prostitutes in Nottingham and it was written around that… Prostitutes are derided by society as a very low form of human life, but most people do the same thing every day of their lives – they just don’t do it in a sexual way. But in all honesty, the lyrics are about being in a band and prostituting yourself every day. It completely is. There’s one line in there, There’s not a part of my body that has not been used.We feel like that really, being in a band – there’s not much left with any purity.’ [5]

‘Children for sale on the streets of UK cities’, written by journalist Nick Davies, appeared in The Mail on Sunday in November 1993 and could equally have suggested the song’s key opening phrase. Edwards certainly used other details of Davies’s article to help shape his startling vision. Davies opens his piece by describing the harrowing activities of two boys, Jamie and Luke, one of whom recounts the first time that he was asked to “T” somebody, explaining that this stands for ‘toss’. Edwards in turn elaborated on this: ‘I “T” them 24/7 all year long’.

Later in the piece, Davies quotes a senior official of Notts County Council who says of the difficulties faced in confronting the issue of child prostitution: ‘Our community homes now contain a combination of the most damaged, deprived, depraved and delinquent children, and they are incredibly difficult to work with. And our problem is that we are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We pick up the pieces when they have been damaged. At best, we may find a remedy. At worst, we are just running a damage-limitation exercise.’ [6, emphasis added] The report also features references to ‘old ladies’, a young girl evading ‘24/7’ watch by her social worker, a child being ‘conceived’ of a pimp and prostitute, a boy being raped ‘on video’.

But, as with the sample from Kidron’s film, the original social context is elided by Edwards in order to convey a distinct, nightmarish world by means of original, at times hallucinatory writing, and multimedia collaging. As much as it signals a distinct period for the band in terms of content and style, it can also be seen as a development of the cut-up approach – inspired by the Beat writers such as William Burroughs and the sampling of hip hop groups, especially Public Enemy – that inspired the writing of some of the band’s earlier songs. [7]

For listeners who readily associate Manic Street Preachers with a left-wing political perspective, it might seem surprising that a conservative tabloid newspaper such as The Mail on Sunday could provide a feature of such interest – eliciting artistic engagement, rather than knee-jerk hostility. But it is precisely the wide-ranging cultural interests that the band have reflected from their beginnings that lends more complexity and ambiguity to certain of their work, The Holy Bible above all. As closer attention to the contents will show, the album repeatedly blurs distinctions between left and right-wing perspectives, particularly on the songs ‘Archives of Pain’ and ‘PCP’, an indication of a sense of confusion that seems to have arisen out of a sustained reflection, in 1994, on the arc of the twentieth century, and the postwar reconfiguration of Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union; which the record tries to articulate and which makes it, in part, so notable among politicised music. Such disparate media and political materials being brought under equal and critical consideration adds a powerful archival and documentary texture to the work too.

Still from Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns (dir. Beeban Kidron, 1993). Produced by Wonderland Films
Still from Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns (dir. Beeban Kidron, 1993). Produced by Wonderland Films

If Edwards was so adept at drawing inspiration from a multitude of media sources in order to help shape the lyrics, the same was true of Bradfield and Moore, tasked with putting such articulate and relentless word streams to music.

The guiding verse riff of ‘Yes’ is based around a repeating note pattern with a subtly varying time signature, suggesting both numbing routine and a sense of vulnerability. Bradfield claims that the idea for the motif came from an unlikely source: Penguin Café Orchestra’s ‘Music for Found Harmonium’. [8] Sean Moore locks onto the riff with a propulsive drum beat that negotiates the shifting measures with brief hesitations and pick-ups. The bridge section sees the sound intensify, Bradfield’s voice shifting from the softer, almost bruised delivery of the verse into more of a howl in the darkness, conveying the disgust and rage that the world described would naturally inspire. The song then opens onto a glacial, drifting chorus of slowly strummed guitar chords spread out over the tightly kept bass and drum rhythm, as if Eliot’s ‘patient etherised upon a table’ were instead in a drugged daze on a mattress. There is another nod here, acknowledged by Wire, to the British group Wire’s 1978 song ‘Outdoor Miner’. [9]

A storm of emotions, intense anger and a feeling of resignation. The final guitar notes resemble nothing less than the theme to the Twilight Zone, somehow fitting for an immersion into this ‘sunless’ realm of horror. (And there was another, just outside the door of the recording studio; Soundspace being located at the time in a red light district in Cardiff.)

The first person viewpoint of the song cuts against the norms of what was still a male-dominated rock music industry in 1994. On The Holy Bible and even as early as ‘Little Baby Nothing’, on Generation Terrorists, Edwards and Wire were attempting to write from a female perspective. An even stronger example of this vicarious identification is contributed by Edwards with ‘4st 7lb’, which conveys to the listener the feelings of an anorexic girl. The voice in ‘Yes’, however, as in ‘Faster’, is somewhat ambiguous, neither strictly male nor female – whatever you want, that is what it can be: ‘He’s a boy. You want a girl, so tear off his cock/Tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him “Rita” if you want.’ The concession to the buyer, the listener, as just another consumer, is posited up front. (The name Rita also lends a particularly English quality to this nightmare, as if transmuting an unconscious association with Alan Clarke’s film Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987), about the sexual escapades of two young female friends in Bradford, into a more sordid, crepuscular picture of child abuse and devastating prostitution.)

Within the first five minutes of the record, then, a mood of defeat threatens any vestiges of dignity, here manifested in simple acts of politeness (‘Puking – shaking – sinking I still stand for old ladies’). Conclusions have already been reached: ‘The only certain thing that is left about me…’; ‘Everyone I’ve loved or hated always seems to leave.’ The world into which we are thrown is one without hope of true communion. In line with the band’s initial intentions in writing the record, a new commandment is issued for the world: ‘Solitude, solitude, the 11th commandment.’

Wire told Kerrang: ‘In the modern age, the 10 Commandments have crumbled away. We wanted to reflect how the world’s changed and rewrite the 10 Commandments. It’s not anti-religious as such, it’s just us saying how we think the world has become and how human nature  has been destroyed.’ [10]

The song ends with another sample from Kidron’s film. Junior again, at a peep show: ‘$2 you can rub her tits, $3 you can rub her ass, $5 you can play with her pussy, or you can lick her tits. Choice is yours.’

With ‘Yes’, Manic Street Preachers achieved one of the most astonishing opening songs of any rock music album, collaging both a lyrical and musical style to create a vivid and urgent sound. Taking cues from barbed post-punk, the dynamics of grunge and introducing extreme images, with excerpts from documentary television and newspaper journalism, as well as personal experiences, the aesthetic of The Holy Bible is established. And with references to ‘virgins’, ‘plagued streets’, ‘purgatory’, a ‘commandment’ and a ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ that ‘smell the same’ a world divested of divinity, with a scripture all its own, is made palpable.

Notes:

[1] Parkes, Taylor ‘Manic Depression’, Melody Maker, 20 August 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Manic_Depression_-_Melody_Maker,_20th_August_1994 (12 February 2018)

[2] Edwards, Richey The Holy Bible tour programme, 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=The_Holy_Bible_Tour_Programme (12 February 2018)

[3] ‘James Dean Bradfield 1995 US interview’. This interview can be heard online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIuTV8xesjg. The following comment accompanies the video: ‘The date on this is likely wrong. The title is copied from the title of the original audio file from an old manics fan site’. [updated 25 June 2020]

[4] Hustlers, Hookers, Pimps and Their Johns (dir. Beeban Kidron, 1993) accessed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMFIbQSShYE (12 February 2018)

[5] Marlowe, Chris ‘The New Testament’, Metal Hammer, September 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=The_New_Testament_-_Metal_Hammer,_September_1994 (12 February 2018)

[6] Davies, Nick ‘Children for sale on the streets of UK cities’, The Mail on Sunday, 21 November 1993. Accessed online at https://www.nickdavies.net/1993/11/21/children-for-sale-in-nottingham/ (2 November 2019) The lyric ‘just an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff’ has previously been incorrectly attributed to Neverstreaming: Preventing Learning Disabilities by Robert E. Slavin on the online band encyclopedias manics.nl and http://www.removables.co.uk

[7] There is perhaps another obscured inspiration for the writing here. The line ‘all virgins are liars honey’ nearly echoes ‘Writers are liars, my dear, surely you know that by now?’, which appears in the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, of whose graphic novels Richey Edwards was a keen reader. In a 1993 interview with Simon Price, while discussing his interest in the work of Pete Milligan, Edwards commented: ‘It isn’t often a comic strikes you as truly great, but along with Neil Gaiman, he’s the only person doing anything good in the genre at the moment.’ Source: ‘Richey Edwards Of Manic Street Preachers Chooses His Men Of The Year’, Melody Maker, 25 December 1993/1 January 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Richey_Edwards_Of_Manic_Street_Preachers_Chooses_His_Men_Of_The_Year_-_Melody_Maker,_25th_December_1993 (2 November 2019).

[8] Cameron, Keith ‘Chapter and verse. Track by track. 13 Reasons to believe in The Holy Bible’, liner notes in The Holy Bible 20 (2014)

[9] Marlowe, ‘The New Testament’

[10] Magnusson, Ulf ‘Holy Shit – It’s The Manics’, Kerrang, 6 August 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Holy_Shit_-_It%27s_The_Manics!_-_Kerrang,_6th_August_1994 (updated 25 June 2020)

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