Faster (Precursor)

‘The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.’ – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Manic Street Preachers performing ‘Faster’ on Top of the Pops, 1994. BBC Television

‘Is this the IRA?’

Following a performance by Manic Street Preachers on Top of the Pops in June 1994, the BBC reportedly received a record number of complaints. The exact figure (thought to exceed 25,000) and nature of the complaints have never been confirmed by the broadcaster. Many fans suppose that anxieties were stirred by the balaclava worn by lead singer James Dean Bradfield, and the military surplus clothing chosen by the band’s members. ‘Is this the IRA?’ viewers may have wondered, with the ceasefire still a few months away. Such an impression would not survive scrutiny.

The band performed in mismatched army, navy and peacekeeping outfits adorned with various medals and stripes. Behind Bradfield’s steadfast, muscle-man posturing, the rhythm guitarist and bassist appeared hollow-cheeked, their skinny figures jerking and bouncing along with the music. The stage, partly decked out with camo netting, was flanked by two torches belching flames – more pagan than paramilitary. And the mysterious, confrontational effect of that black mask was lent a baffling, surreal aspect: the large white lettering painted across it: JAMES. Confusing signals, amid the surging and assertive music – no ordinary spectacle on the flagship British music programme.

Some might have heard something familiar in the first words of the song, barked in staccato bursts above the driving verse rhythm, their force matched by Bradfield’s repeated guitar stabs:

‘I am an architect… I am… I am…’

Echoes of another song, sung years before, by another group who had similarly provoked the nation with their first television appearances:

‘I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist…’

‘Anarchy in the UK’ by the Sex Pistols was performed on TV for the first time during an episode of Granada Television’s So It Goes in 1976, Johnny Rotten’s scorching diatribe igniting the small screen in living rooms across the north of England. Just as he contorted the final syllable of ‘anarchist’ to approximate that of ‘antichrist’, so there was something twisted and unhinged about the voice now yelling ‘I am an architect’ with an unusual ferocity and sense of threat. Just what kind of personality could be behind such a statement, delivered with such urgency?

Architect, Antichrist, Anarchist: Heard back to back these two songs could make you believe that they had a shared DNA.

Sex Pistols performing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ on So It Goes, 1976. Granada Television

Ten years after the Pistols’ debut, a So It Goes anniversary special looking back at the punk era was aired on Channel 4. Watching in Blackwood, South Wales the teenage James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire were first inspired to form a band, which would later also include Bradfield’s cousin Sean Moore and another friend, Richey Edwards. By the time of their performance of ‘Faster’, as Manic Street Preachers, in 1994 they had condensed the ferocity of punk, and other artistic expressions of ‘culture, alienation, boredom and despair’ into a dizzying, definitive three-and-a-half-minute single.

‘Faster’ is the signature song of that era of the band (which still included Edwards as lyricist, designer and compelling interviewee); the cornerstone of The Holy Bible. Decades on, its music and lyrics can be seen to extend beyond punk tropes, across history, shoring fragments of literature, psychoanalysis and philosophy against a maniacal and fragile sense of self. Just as the music writer Greil Marcus unpacked centuries of cultural and political references in the apparent brute matter of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in his book Lipstick Traces (itself another touchstone for Manic Street Preachers), so ‘Faster’ is worthy of closer attention, of a slower reading. By becoming acclimatised to its visceral sweep, more attuned to its specific language, it becomes both more mysterious and more clear.

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The first single to be released ahead of The Holy Bible, the song was the last on which Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards collaborated as lyricists, as they had done since the early days of the band. The rigorous attack, the more abrasive sound, as elsewhere on The Holy Bible, contrasts with the song arrangements on the band’s first two studio albums, Generation Terrorists and Gold Against the Soul. But it does bear a close resemblance to the first B-side that would indicate the aesthetic of the third album to come.

Biographer Simon Price has described ‘Faster’ as ‘[E]ssentially the earlier B-side ‘Comfort Comes’ turned upside-down’. [1] ‘Comfort Comes’ appeared on the Life Becoming a Landslide EP released in February 1994, with promotion for Gold Against the Soul coming to an end and just as work on recording The Holy Bible was underway at Soundspace Studios in Cardiff. Despite the similarity of the songs’ rhythmic bases, James Dean Bradfield has described the process of writing ‘Faster’ as the most difficult of the album, with the final version taking shape only after numerous failed attempts. Drummer Sean Moore revealed an altogether different musical starting point in a 2017 interview with Team Rock:

‘The template for that song was Faith No More’s “From Out Of Nowhere”. The lyrics weren’t in the form that they ended up in, but just that bit ‘stronger than Mensa’ was enough for us.’ [2]

In the same interview, James adds:

‘It was the hardest one to write music to by a million miles. I was worried, as I knew it was the key to everything on the record. So I stomped around, and then put Never Mind The Bollocks on and that was it. Sometimes the way Johnny Rotten’s voice goes down the middle of a song and barely changes, it’s about the twists and phrases and the commitment to the words. And that’s exactly what it needed, that straight line through the middle.’

The music is preceded by a reverberating whistle of feedback – modulating, unstable – heard under an audio excerpt from a film adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. The voice of John Hurt, playing Winston Smith, establishes an ominous tone: ‘I hate purity. I hate goodness. I don’t want virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone corrupt.’

John Hurt as Winston Smith in 1984 (dir. Michael Radford, 1984). Virgin Cinema Films Limited

These lines set the lyrical style of the opening verse, ‘I hate purity’ almost repeated as ‘I am purity’. The blunt declarations of the sample belie an ambiguity that any listeners familiar with Orwell’s story will recognise. Far from a juvenile desire for anarchy and moral deviance, Winston’s words are an expression of resistance to totalitarianism; to a political regime that enforces its sense of ‘purity’, ‘goodness’ and ‘virtue’ in the form of coerced rituals and threats of violence for transgression. It is an urge to reclaim personal freedom – a freedom according to which one’s own idea of purity might be perversion to those in power.

There is no build-up. After the word ‘corrupt’ is uttered, the music bursts out of the speakers; hammering, distorted, all down strummed; a wave rushing at the listener before it is marshalled by Moore’s punctuating snare hits into brutal, brief, repeated articulations. It doesn’t invite the listener in: it reaches out and hits them.

And then:

‘I am an architect.

They call me a butcher.’

The voice assumes a defensive, raging, oppositional, posture. It sets up an uneasy tension between self and other, between self-perception and the judgement of onlookers – or as another song on The Holy Bible might have it, putting more Christian imagery to use: spectator and crucified.

Speaking about his impression on reading the lyrics for the tenth anniversary reissue of The Holy Bible, Bradfield explained that he felt the voice to be ‘cold’ and ‘disembodied’. [3] Rather than follow in the tradition of heavy rock music as a basis for an overly expressive, even operatic performance, ‘Faster’ assumes a machinic quality as a starting point, only allowing a sensitivity to break through as the song progresses, and even as it finds human emotion imperiled in the face of torment.

In Lipstick Traces, Marcus writes: ‘Like its rhythm, the punk voice was always unnatural: speeded up past personality into anonymity, pinched, reduced, artificial. It called attention to its own artificiality for more than one reason: as a rejection of mainstream pop humanism in favor of resentment and dread; as a reflection of the fear of not being understood. But the voice was unnatural most of all out of its fear of losing the chance to speak – a chance, every good punk singer understood, that was not only certain to vanish, but might not even be deserved.’ [4]

Bradfield’s approach seems in tune with this idea. There is in ‘Faster’ a desired clarity that feels so encompassing, yet also an admission of futility and decay. But it is not the only sense that cuts through in the music.

Multiple voices

‘Faster’ is a song of many perspectives. Speaking on BBC Radio 4 in November 2014 for the programme Mastertapes, Wire explained:

‘It’s pretty much the last lyric I ever co-wrote with Richey. I’ve been doing a boxset for The Holy Bible twenty years… in my notebooks is these repeated phrases of: ‘So damn easy to cave in, man kills everything’; ‘If you stand up like a nail you will be knocked down’; ‘I’ve been too honest with myself I should have lied like everyone else’, and the title. And then Richey filled in everything else, which is still mostly his obviously. But it was the last really that we ever, sort of, swapped lines shall we say.’

This shared authorship not only creates disjunctions in the lyrical content but is further affected by the role of Bradfield and Moore as interpreters – especially Bradfield, whose choice of vocal delivery, both on the recorded album version and during live performances, shapes the effects and interpretations possible with regard to the lyrics.

‘Faster’ breaks out of the grasp of a stable interpretation and it is finally unclear just how many personalities can be heard among the words. In keeping with the band’s early preference for cut-ups and collaged slogans, inspired by the Situationists and Beat writers, the song’s lyrics juxtapose observation, personal confession and righteous judgement without a straightforward narrative or single coherent voice. It is the music that gives a coherence to all these fragments, a sense of utter control for the duration of the listening experience.

Music journalist Taylor Parkes has described The Holy Bible as a ‘sudden eruption of magic, this lightning-fast articulation of broken perspectives, this acceleration, those tangled and terrifying lines scrambling over each other to make themselves heard, as though time were running out.’ [5] This captures the thrill and bewilderment of ‘Faster’ in particular, better than his summation of much of the song as ‘navel-gazing gibberish’. Because the song also sounds like a distillation of lived experience into some kind of ultimate truth.

Introducing ‘Faster’ in 2011 for another BBC show, Songwriters’ Circle, Bradfield, said: ‘I remember [Richey] giving me this lyric and… it felt like a set of sarcastic commandments for the modern age.’

(The repeated use of ‘I am’ perhaps playing on the voice of the God of the Old Testament, the great ‘I am’.)

Richey and Nicky’s individual comments on the song in interviews and the 1994 tour programme notes shed little light on the specific meaning behind its epigrammatic lines:

‘Frankly, a lot of it is all Richey again, and I was always completely confused by it. But when he wrote it he told me it was about self-abuse. The opening line is: ‘I am an architect/They call me a butcher’ – and of course, he’s been carving into his arm and all that… I think it’s the most confusing song on the album. I added some stuff about the regurgitation of 20th Century culture, and the way that everything’s speeded up to such an extent that nobody knows if they’ve got any meaning any more. It’s probably the first time that we’ve written a song and not completely understood what we’ve written.’ [6]

‘It’s about the sort of people who like to take their frustrations out on other people, particularly those who can’t defend themselves.’ [7]

‘Strength through weakness. All morality sown in the soil of the ruling caste. Self-abuse is anti-social, aggression still natural. Society speeding up – finds worth in failure.’ [8]

The opening lines are often assumed to be written from the perspective of Edwards, in light of the lyricist’s intellectual ambition and his history of self-harm. This would seem to be supported by his observation that society considers ‘Self-abuse is anti-social’, perhaps a comment on the perception of his own behaviour, such as the notorious ‘4 Real’ incident in May 1991 (the shocked reactions to which, at the offices of the NME, were captured on tape).

Yet they equally suggest the cold justification of a serial killer; at odds with the rest of society, even one in which ‘aggression [is] still natural’. It sounds like the type of person who might ‘like to take their frustrations out on other people, particularly those who can’t defend themselves’.

‘I am an architect. They call me a butcher.

I am a pioneer. They call me primitive.

I am purity. They call me perverted.’

They read like lines from a diary, or a testimony, in response to the sort of media depiction and public condemnation one might imagine in the wake of certain, horrific crimes. In one, undated interview following the release of The Holy Bible, Bradfield explained the song in the following terms:

‘The song “Faster” came from…basically it was just a song about…we’re a civilisation where we’re constantly trying to find a cure, cures for death, we’re constantly trying to find cures for diseases. But also, we’re a civilisation that’s grown up with an obsession with death. Or, we’re a civilisation that’s grown up with an obsession with, like, mass murderers. How the hell do we function when we’re obsessed with prolonging life, and we’re obsessed with people who kill? It’s about the strength to believe in life and death.’ [9]

This would seem to connect the song with another track on the album, ‘Archives of Pain’, which adopts not the perspective of a serial killer but a defender of the death penalty. What we find among the disparate voices of The Holy Bible are extreme ends of the psychological and political spectrum, and points at which such extremities begin to mirror one another uneasily. 

But the claim to absolute power that begins ‘Faster’ is disrupted by a line that suggests dependence and emotional involvement: ‘Holding you but I only miss these things when they leave.’ This marks a sudden shift.

There is suddenly a ‘you’ to mediate the strict I/They opposition of the opening lines. And the sense begins to strain. Unspecified ‘things’ are mentioned, things which are only missed in their absence – which raises the curious question as to how something could be missed in its presence. (Possibly the sense, or importance of a thing, can be missed in its presence.) Or can ‘these things’ only be missed when ‘they’, as distinct from the ‘I’ and ‘you’, leave the scene. Is this simply meant as an expression of the longing that accompanies the loss of intimacy? Remember the voice in ‘Yes’: ‘Everyone I’ve loved or hated always seems to leave’.

There is ambiguity and confusion in ‘Faster’ despite its axiomatic and aphoristic style, and the blunt clarity of the music. For the rest of the song, the Nietzschean will to power is not enough to escape vulnerability and the encounter with the rest of human society. The rational Cartesian schema fails, Bradfield’s ‘disembodied’ voice returns to faltering flesh and bone.

The second part of this essay can be read here

Notes:

[1] Price, Simon Everything (Virgin Books, 1999)

[2] Wilding, Philip ‘The Manic Street Preachers: Their best songs in their own words’, Louder, 12 December 2017. Accessed online at https://www.loudersound.com/features/the-manic-street-preachers-their-best-songs-in-their-own-words (12 November 2019)

[3] These comments appear in the interview featured on the DVD that accompanies the 2004 reissue of The Holy Bible.

[4] Marcus, Greil Lipstick Traces (Faber & Faber, 2011)

[5] Parkes, Taylor ‘There Are No Horizons: The Holy Bible at 20’, The Quietus, 9 December 2014. Accessed online at https://thequietus.com/articles/16863-manic-street-preachers-holy-bible-20 (8 March 2018)

[6] Comment by Nicky Wire in ‘Manics’ New Testament’, Melody Maker, 27 August 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Manics%27_New_Testament_-_Melody_Maker,_27th_August_1994 (8 March 2018)

[7] Wall, Mick ‘Rant For Cover’, Raw, 8 June 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Rant_For_Cover_-_RAW,_8th_June_1994 (8 March 2018)

[8] 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 (8 March 2018)

[9] ‘James Dean Bradfield 1995 US interview’. This interview can be heard online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIuTV8xesjg.

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