Word Limits

Gas Drill – 13 March 1937: A gas drill for London police officers at East Ham Police Station. Photo by David Savill (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Warning: this article contains language some readers might find offensive. Derogatory references to race are contextualised and have not been edited as they are material to the subject under discussion.

‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ – George Orwell

‘Indeed, as I write, I can hear the thumbscrews being unpacked, the guillotine sharpened, the pages of the Dictionary of Political Correctness being shuffled, the tumbrils beginning to roll…’ – Stuart Hall

It is not controversial to say that The Holy Bible would be nothing without Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire’s words – the words themselves, of course, are often provocative and even shocking. ‘P.C.P.’ encapsulates the central role of language in the music of Manic Street Preachers, and the group’s desire to express unvarnished truths about the world through their songwriting. The final track on the album, it was also the first single to be released (forming a double A-side with ‘Faster’) and a regular opening salvo on the band’s autumn 1994 tour. Despite being one of the defining songs of the Holy Bible, this breathless critique of a society in thrall to political correctness has continued to raise eyebrows among critics and fans.

Mindful of the fact that being ‘anti-PC’ has often been seen to go hand in hand with conservative, bigoted views – and so likely to jar with the band’s iconoclastic image and their upbringing amid the Miners’ Strike in Wales – Edwards and Wire articulated their thinking behind ‘P.C.P.’ with a mixture of self-assurance and frustration. Speaking with Time Out in December 1994, Edwards said:

“That’s an important song in understanding what we do… It could be construed as quite a right-wing point of view, but then at the same time, every left-wing party seems to be advocating censorship of some kind. Which I [can’t] really agree with.” [1]

When NME journalist Barbara Ellen reported on the Manics’ trip to Bangkok in April that year, she described conversations with Edwards in which he shared his stance on ‘PC-ness’, and on censorship in any form, with a stark example. Referring to the far-right British National Party, which at that time had recently won its first elected representative in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Edwards told Ellen: “…shutting down the BNP could lead to so much. If you give any government the power to silence a political power, however dodgy, they will end up abusing that power.” [2] Far from ignoring the seriousness of the rising support for fascist politics, the band appeared on the bill at London’s Carnival Against the Nazis shortly after their return from Thailand, penning an equally foreboding statement for the concert programme: ‘Fascism is blindness, intolerance, ignorance – a refusal to believe or learn from history. Those who doubt this must realise concentration camps are the only conclusion fascism is capable of.’ Neither the electoral gains of such a party, nor the desire to silence them would do. In an interview for Melody Maker publicising the Brockwell Park event, Edwards refused any platitudes when explaining the Manics’ decision to play:

“The idea that rock bands can change anything has been defunct for about two decades now, but just for us personally, it’s important to show where we stand. We’re quite an apolitical band, in the sense that we’ve never been impressed by stuff like Red Wedge. But something like this is an issue which is much broader than politics.” [3]

While willing to join the chorus of protest against resurgent nationalism alongside other acts, the band were somewhat out of step on the question of political correctness, which is also widely understood to be broader in its implications – reaching beyond the wish to avoid derogatory or marginalising language towards minority groups, opening out onto questions of censorship and the limits of free speech. The Manics have never sounded so forthright in their views on the subject as on ‘P.C.P.’. While more recent songs lament the divisions that have been brought about by the misuse of words fuelled by online platforms, ‘P.C.P.’ indicts those who would curb the use of language at all, as if denouncing puritans of a new religious movement.

Although PC (rather than media censorship in the Mary Whitehouse mode) has long been seen as a result of concerted efforts on the liberal left, it was not through any inspiration from the right that the Manics were compelled to tackle the matter on The Holy Bible. In a 1994 book chapter, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall reflected on the way in which the concept of PC has mutated across the political spectrum: from being an in-joke among radical students of the 1960s, to a means of defending the American Constitution by the Moral Majority in the 1980s, to being a consequence of the spreading out of ‘the political’ into more and more aspects of the individual’s private life in the 1990s with the increased focus on ‘identity politics’. Hall remarks: ‘What seemed most characteristic of the PC issue was the way it cut across the traditional left/right divide, and divided some sections of the left from others.’ [4]

As with ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart’, at least one line of the lyrics to ‘P.C.P.’ was adapted from an article which appeared in Living Marxism, edited by Mick Hume. Titled ‘The right to be offensive’ and published in February 1994, the piece claims that ‘bans are for bigots and Big Brother’. It also argues:

‘The traditional puritans of the back-to-basics right and the new puritans of the politically correct left are both calling for more censorship.

‘And everywhere from the universities to the workplace, it seems that criticism and strong arguments are now condemned as unacceptably ‘offensive’ to one group or another…

‘The idea that we should not be offensive may sound like a call for sensitivity. In fact it is another demand for censorship. It is a not-in-front-of-the-children attitude towards public debate, which insists that we either say nothing controversial or nothing at all.’ [5]

The magazine represented a contrarian fringe element of left-wing politics: not only vehemently opposed to Western imperialism but also other Marxist organisations, promoting a libertarian attitude and publishing controversial opinion pieces on AIDS, Irish republicanism and the Yugoslav Wars. Richey Edwards appears never to have referred publicly to this influence on The Holy Bible and as such journalists and fans have overlooked the possibility of its inspiration for the title of the song ‘P.C.P.’ too: Living Marxism being the in-house magazine of the Revolutionary Communist Party, or ‘RCP’. [6] Edwards might have been playing with the idea, imagining instead a nightmarish ‘Political Correctness Party’. An alternative reference mentioned in the band’s 1994 tour programme, to the Portuguese Revolutionary Party (Partido Comunista Português), is not immediately explicable but it does serve as a reminder of the decades-long resistance to censorship by left-wing revolutionaries under the Salazar regime – not least the PCP’s Avante! magazine – and so underlining the association of anti-censorship and anti-authoritarianism. Edwards wrote:

‘Links PC + PCP + New Moral Certainty. Language aimed at the working class. Condemns the very people it aims to save. Self-censorship wrong…

Also PCP the Revolutionary Portuguese Communist [sic].’ [7]

Commenting on the song in an interview with Japan’s Music Life, Edwards also made the lyrical association with the mind-altering drug phencyclidine – commonly known as PCP or ‘angel dust’, and explained his concern about the effects of PC on the working-class in particular:

“Named after a drug and as well as ‘Political Correctness’. Both are related to the working class. PC is essentially the search for and censorship of politically incorrect words. Some people think they can attain power by censoring language. In fact, if you repeat certain controversial words 20 times, the words lose their impact. In England there’s Page 3… being cited as an example of gender inequality, but the biggest example in this country is actually the gender inequality in employment conditions, being male-dominated. Page 3 is merely a visual representation of this inequality. The nonsensical part of PC culture is the torture over insignificant words. What a boring, petty sense of values.” [8]

Given the explicit content that runs through The Holy Bible, and its preoccupation with extremes, the libertarian perspective of ‘P.C.P.’ should not be surprising. ‘The band that likes to say yes’ also wants to be able to say ‘cunt’ on a commercial rock record. Rather than revealing a tedious, chauvinistic streak, the band transcends predictable anti-PC sentiments achieving a wild, surrealistic poetry of their own. While the unswerving pro-free speech views of Living Marxism clearly shaped the lyric to some degree, it is hard to accept Edwards as an RCP acolyte. Sympathetic to certain arguments, captivated by some turns of phrase, yes – but the same issue which features Hume’s tract on political correctness also includes criticism of the Western media’s worried response to the rise of the Russian right-wing politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky – the same Zhirinovsky for whom the ultimate punishment is called on ‘Archives of Pain’. Long interested in subversive literature, music and films, the band had already written one of their most extreme lyrics, a precursor of sorts to the conceptual masterpiece to come, before work on The Holy Bible began: on the B-side ‘Patrick Bateman’, inspired by the novel American Psycho. In the chorus, Bradfield sings ‘I fucked God up the ass’.

Álvaro Cunhal (1913-2005), secretary-general of the Portuguese Communist Party 1961-1992, was first arrested for his political activities in 1937. He completed a thesis on abortion while in prison and obtained his law degree. Detail from the PIDE (Portuguese International and State Defence Police) file, General Registry of Prisoners

In July 1993 Cutting Edge found Edwards in a particularly acerbic mood as he discussed the topic of censorship:

‘BBC2 lays a guilt trip every Newsnight. They say ‘ban Romper Stomper’ and think they’ve saved the fucking planet. Just scraps of words. Censorshit. All rooms are the same temperature these days. All air smells the same. I never hear about that on the Late Show. So the only difference between you and the multitude egg shell white and antiseptic seats is what’s playing in your head. You can’t even pretend to read anymore. Someone always finds Dennis Cooper or Easton Ellis offensive. Or scorns you for buying the [S]un – Liberals are so fun and free these days.’ [9]

Earlier in the same piece, he is more ambivalent, showing a general disillusionment that seems far from any hope of meaningful change:

‘Agree with stupidity. Be politically in-correct. Whatever it takes to shut them up. Or forever argue. No one likes each other anyway. Admit it. If you can’t respect yourself how can you respect a single living thing?’

There is a frustration that comes across here, that there is little true communication anyway, that the issue of political correctness might well be moot. Beyond simply falling back on the criticisms of PC associated with the ‘old left’, as described by Stuart Hall (‘that PC concerns itself with irrelevant and trivial issues as compared with the ‘real’ questions of poverty, unemployment and economic disadvantage…’) Edwards’ misanthropy sometimes took over. In June 1994, just as the Faster/P.C.P. single was released, Edwards reflected again on the problem of intentions and consequences:

“In principle, I think the idea of PC is actually okay… But where it might be good at qualifying the big things – racism is bad, prejudice of any kind is despicable, and so on – the so-called minorities it’s supposed to protect end up being victimised by these restraints to the point where they have no identity left at all. Not being able to say exactly what you mean, even if it’s hurtful to someone else’s feelings, is an important part of free speech. Without it, you’re not protecting anything, you’re censoring it! And that’s a whole different thing to think about.” [10]

Nicky Wire shared his thoughts on the matter when talking to Metal Hammer about the album, only running up against the problem of using highly offensive language to discuss the way that same language has been used by members of the group it is judged to be denigrating:

“A lot of people have got sort of warped minds about liberalism. They think liberalism means you can’t say certain words – you can’t describe a black person as a nigger and you can’t describe a gay person as a faggot. I think it’s interesting that Niggers With Attitude refer to themselves as niggers, that they’d have to be described as that because they’d been oppressed, you know? Enslaved for like 150 years, they got a definition. And to get rid of a word like that is quite dangerous, I think. It’s Orwellian.” [11]

The manipulation of language for political ends and its disastrous effects clearly continues to preoccupy the band. Though Wire is unlikely to use such slurs to articulate his ideas today, his last comment signals, twenty-seven years in advance, one of his most recent lyrics. On 2021’s ‘Orwellian’, Wire laments how ‘Words wage war, meanings being missed’ but ultimately claims, ‘It feels impossible to pick a side’. The uncharacteristic, racially charged language Wire introduces in the Metal Hammer interview and his references to the failings of ‘liberalism’ were clearly prompted by another key source for ‘P.C.P.’s lyrics. Both Edwards and Wire explained that they had taken inspiration from the film Lenny, Bob Fosse’s 1974 biopic of the US comedian Lenny Bruce, in particular an unflinching stand-up routine re-enacted by actor Dustin Hoffman in the film:

“The Dustin Hoffman film of the Lenny Bruce story was a big inspiration on that song. When he gets up and does that speech about “every spic in here, every nigger…” it’s just fantastic, because that’s what gives a word its power and its violence – when you supress it.” [12]

Wire is paraphrasing Bruce himself in his analysis of the scene. It is one of the comedian’s most famous lines on the question of free speech and obscenity. In another he compares the world to a hospital patient, with an ailing body: “…I’m not sick, the world is sick, and I’m a doctor, I’m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values.” In his foreword to Bruce’s autobiography, on the other hand, critic Kenneth Tynan saw the comedian as a necessary illness: ‘…Lenny Bruce is a disease of America. The very existence of comedy like his is evidence of unease in the body politic.’ [13] Likewise it is possible to interpret The Holy Bible in these opposing ways, only here music rather than comedy provides the context.

Richey Edwards spoke with an increasingly blunt tone as 1994 wore on, seeming to come down even more firmly on the side of free speech by the time that The Holy Bible was complete, again mentioning Bruce.

“Political correctness is more sinister than anything anyone can ever accuse us of… It’s all about language. It’s all aimed at the working class. I read the Guardian and the Times. I also read the Sun – it uses language which is accessible. Lenny Bruce said that being scared of words is also what gives them their power. The word ‘nigger’ is not frightening. You know, his famous quote where he just says, “Nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger”? PC just builds more walls.” [14]

Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) was arrested in Philadelphia on 29 September 1961 for possession of narcotics. The following month, he was arrested for the first time on obscenity charges after a performance at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco.

Following the advent of social media it is easier for many more people to be targeted by unwanted, ugly epithets and, conversely, it is harder to avoid the pressure to apologise publicly for words deemed offensive or harmful by others. And so it is easy to say nothing at all. The boundaries between free speech and incitement have been tested in new ways as virtual spats and viral tweets threaten consequences offline. Decades after The Holy Bible, questions of blasphemy have repeatedly been brought back to the centre of politics – only with regard to Islam rather than Christianity. Those in favour of political correctness and those opposed to it have shown an equal sense of urgency, in reaffirming their points of view. The subject remains undeniably relevant.

An uptempo, galloping punk-metal spree, ‘P.C.P.’ presents a bleak satirical vision of a future England held in obeisance to political correctness. It describes restrictions placed on language under the pretences of purity and vigilance, as in Orwell’s Oceania; even Shakespeare is feared. [15] The interference of the state and legal system in matters of personal health, responsibility and sexual relationships is conveyed in a frenetic reportage style (‘doctors arrested for euthanasia’; ‘if you’re fat don’t get ill’; ‘lawyers before love, surrogate sex’). In the memorable chorus of the song, PC is equated with policing – its prevalence is deemed to be a victory at too great a cost:

‘PCP – a P.C. police victory

PCP – a P.C. pyrrhic victory

when I was young P.C. meant Police Constable

nowadays I can’t seem to tell the difference.’

In the lyric booklet, the words are printed alongside a detail from a photograph taken by David Savill on 13th March 1937, showing a gas drill for London bobbies at East Ham Police Station. It neatly illustrates the way ‘P.C.P.’ identifies political correctness with police constables from days gone by, and also the image of PC seeking to ‘bring fresh air’ – as against allowing for individual lifestyle choices such as smoking (again implying how the constraints on speech will extend unavoidably to personal freedom in general). But rather than portraying PC as an Orwellian Big Brother with his Thought Police, here political correctness is personified as a female authoritarian – and so extends the range of depictions of femininity on The Holy Bible: between the extremes of an anorexic girl, desperate to gain a sense of self-control through refusing to eat (‘4st 7lb’) and the repressive and even deadly power of ‘She Is Suffering’ and ‘P.C.P.’. Just as the sentiment ‘she is suffering’ is liable to give the wrong impression on a casual first listen, here the line ‘P.C. she speaks impotent, sterile…’ paradoxically suggests not that ‘she’ is powerless, but that ‘her’ power is that of spreading impotence and sterility through the language – comparable to the ‘virtue’, ‘purity’ and ‘goodness’ of ‘Faster’, so hated by Orwell’s Winston Smith.

The Holy Bible cuts against the historical depictions of women as seen in statuary and sculpted figures, on legal and governmental institutions across Europe, standing in for ‘Liberty’ or ‘Justice’; against the unrealistic standards of beauty found in magazines, on billboards, in movies. Instead it presents obese and skeletal, sick and grieving women and allows for the feminine to be representative of more than a stock of readymade ideals – ‘P.C.P.’ offers a monumental counterpoint to what Marina Warner describes as the ‘metal-bound bodies of the Britannias and Virtues who familiarly surround us’. [16] This subversion of cliched imagery is also partly inspired by another comic book strip that Edwards read. Nemesis the Warlock, written by Pat Mills with art by Kevin O’Neill, was first published in 2000AD in July 1980. Drawing on the history of the Spanish Inquisition, the supreme villain of the series is Torquemada, the leader of a savage and murderous human race. ‘P.C.P.’ envisions a ‘ten-foot sign in Oxford Street’ with Torquemada’s motto: ‘Be pure! Be vigilant! Behave!’

The music has a relentless, frantic energy shaped in large part, according to Bradfield, by Therapy?, who would tour with Manic Street Preachers in 1994. He told journalist Keith Cameron: “At this point, they were managing all these reference points that I liked – metal, some post-punk, and delivering it in a really tight, condensed pop way.” [17] It is another indication of the way that the band would engage with other music in analytical, sometimes contrary ways when writing The Holy Bible. The emphasis on the toms and rapid-fire snare hits in the drumming, and the heavily distorted, driving guitar playing on the Therapy? track ‘Trigger Inside’ shows the sort of sonic template that Bradfield speaks of. The song’s lyrics, however, were criticised by Wire, who saw ‘Archives of Pain’ as a reaction to its identification with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

Just as ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ works as a response of sorts to one of the band’s foremost inspirations, McCarthy, and their song ‘Antiamericancretin’, so too ‘P.C.P.’ updates the 80s group’s ‘Keep An Open Mind Or Else’, which imagines a character who is in favour of the right to disagreement and seeing things from another’s perspective, yet flies between aggression and defensiveness when challenged: ‘Oh shut your trap/Or I’ll shut it up for you/Say anything/I will never be convinced’. ‘P.C.P.’ is reminiscent too – in its pace, its lyrical glut, its dizzying imagery and exuberant, melodic expression of gloom – of another unconventional 80s indie song: REM’s ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’. Not only does frontman Michael Stipe sing of Lenny Bruce’s fearlessness but there is also a passing mention of Leonid Brezhnev (mentioned on The Holy Bible, in ‘Revol’) and the agricultural policy of ‘Slash and burn’ that the Manics used as a critical metaphor on their debut album. Indeed, Generation Terrorists does at times prefigure the lyrical style of The Holy Bible in its use of extreme physical and biblical imagery to express contemporary concerns: ‘Christen me führer nazarene’ sings Bradfield on ‘Crucifix Kiss’, before warning ‘Censorship’ll stop your excess thought’.

‘P.C.P.’ begins with a metaphor that exemplifies The Holy Bible‘s preoccupation with the body, power and language: ‘Teacher starve your child, P.C. approved/as long as the right words are used/systemised atrocity ignored/as long as bi-lingual signs on view’. [18] As if in violent response to the efforts to reduce the force of words, what follows is a rush of imagery – which writer Larissa Wodtke describes as ‘a series of lyrics that are equivalent to a linguistic binge’. [19] Whereas the human body is literally depicted as starved on ‘4st 7lb’, here the sense is of intellectual starvation. Later in the song, though, still more descriptions of ill-health and injury are introduced – in keeping with the album’s gallery of ailing, exploited, wounded and dead bodies – as it rails against the extension of political control into private lives and individual choice.

The overarching sense is one of dystopia. The journalistic detail, personal reflections and historical judgements that dominate much of The Holy Bible give way to a more surreal vision of the future. The phrase ‘systemised atrocity’ calls to mind JG Ballard’s violent, pornographic predictions of the road ahead – while the opening track ‘Yes’ draws on journalist Nick Davies’ contemporary newspaper report of sexual exploitation in Nottingham, here Edwards projects a final image of a future London where alienation from the self and others is the dominant idea. One of the band’s most powerful early expressions of existential despair, ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, describes a culture that ‘sucks down words’ and the ‘neon loneliness’ of modern society. In ‘P.C.P.’ there is only ‘grey not neon, grey not real’. The Holy Bible‘s urgent attention to the recent past, post-war politics and infamous real-life personalities finally gives way to a feeling of unreality, a hallucinatory vision – a disconnect brought about, as the chorus makes clear, by an inability to speak or think freely.

If ‘P.C.P.’ can be linked politically with ‘Archives of Pain’, being the two unexpected, right-leaning statements on The Holy Bible, there seem to be subtle stylistic connections at the level of the lyrics already: ‘life bleeds, death is your birthright’ is almost a logical extension of the brutal axiom ‘the centre of humanity is cruelty’. [20] And as with the repeated reference to starvation, the idea of sterilisation appears for the second time on the album, following the command to ‘sterilise rapists’ on ‘Archives of Pain’. Again the sense is not literal on ‘P.C.P.’ – words are still used by Edwards and Wire for all their rhetorical and figurative possibilities, in resistance to the incursion of political correctness.

This play with the literal, figurative, satirical, demotic, melodic and rhythmic potential of language abounds on The Holy Bible and most appropriately in ‘P.C.P.’. The image of the ‘stiff upper lip’, which here caricatures the call for censorship among liberals using a phrase traditionally associated with English conservatism, returns later as grotesque: ‘liposuction for your bad mouth boy/cut out your tongue, effigies are sold’ – a line whose graphic violence also returns us to the mutilation of ‘Yes’ (‘he’s a boy, you want a girl so tear off his cock’). Elsewhere, ‘words discoloured, bow to the bland/heal yourself with sinner’s salt’ manages to convey succinctly the sense that PC, for all its focus on racism, empties language of all shade and richness; at the same time introducing a striking contrast, between ‘bland’ and ‘salt’, and introducing another religious reference, in keeping with the larger conceptual framework, at the close of the album.

A more explicit Christian reference soon follows: ‘read Liviticus’ [sic]. Edwards explained how particular verses of the holy book have been used by religious conservatives to denounce homosexuality. The bigot demands that behaviour and language be controlled according to their preferences as much as the liberal, to ‘protect’ society. Edwards’s tour book notes for the song offer this summary:

‘Liviticus [sic] used by homophobes to justify their hatred. To take one sentence from the bible to justify views very PC.’

Another provocative comparison between right and left-wing politics then: focusing morality around the strict adherence to a permitted set of words and views, whether that be scripture interpreted literally or the banning of specific phrases and terms in writing and speech – as if what is proscribed could offer no possible intelligent use, analysis or contextualization, such as Lenny Bruce had suggested even the most offensive words might. As if the right words might save us all.

When it comes to language, The Holy Bible portrays a world of absolute distrust – a conflict between what people say and what they think and experience: ‘all virgins are liars’ according to ‘Yes’; ‘any fool can regret yesterday’ claims ‘Archives of Pain’; and in ‘P.C.P.’ love is not possible without a pre-existing legal arrangement. But ultimately, language is what drives the music. The honesty of the words – Edwards and Wire’s untypical, eye-opening descriptions of personal failing and hypocrisy, and the destructive, hateful and murderous impulses of humankind – are what set the album apart.

Despite ‘P.C.P.’s initially bewildering blast of images and slogans; the disjointed snapshots, bizarre turns of phrase and carnivalesque scenes (‘king cigarette snuffed out by her midgets’), there is underneath it all a sense of the whole album coming together in these final moments – made possible by words, in all their violence, intelligence, humour and musicality. But the sense of tension never lessens: this most bravura attempt at a rock lyric speaks with a sense of defeat when it comes to language and freedom. ‘this land bows down to/ yours, unconditional love and hate’ sings Bradfield, the repeated use of the word ‘bow’ (along with ‘bow to the bland’) only intensifies that sense of defeat, of giving way, that has always been there from the beginning – a mirror image of sorts to the prostitute’s polite deferral in ‘Yes’, to ‘stand for old ladies’. And finally there is unconditional action and emotion, following all of the conditional statements that run through the record (‘Ifwhiteamerica…’, ‘If hospitals cure…’, ‘If you stand up…’, ‘If you really care…’, ‘If you’re fat…’). But it rings hollow.

‘P.C.P.’, and The Holy Bible, ends with another audio sample, this time from the 1983 film version of Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser, directed by Peter Yates and starring Albert Finney as an aging Shakespearean actor, alongside Tom Courtenay as his faithful, put-upon dresser. Like the archival gas drill illustration, it sums up elements of the song’s lyrics. Finney, in his role as Sir, says: ‘227 Lears and I can’t remember the first line.’ When one considers that ‘P.C.P.’ has presaged a society which must ‘beware Shakespeare’, and ends resigned to a culture comfortably numbed by ‘designer amnesiac’, Sir’s forgetfulness of the Bard’s words, even after so many performances, leaves a sense of foreboding and melancholia hovering over the end of the track, and the record. A despair that has rarely sounded so invigorating, a cry of defiance in the face of inevitable catastrophe.

Richey Edwards’s writing would move away from such staunch positions on contemporary political issues. At least one later line appears to be vaguely connected to ‘P.C.P.’ thematically (‘PG certificate all cuts unfocused’) and ‘Me And Stephen Hawking’ attempts a subversive joke – as well as adopting the point of view of protesters against animal cloning – but the words on 2009’s Journal For Plague Lovers are often more inscrutable, or else more intensely personal, and in any case lack the commentary that Edwards so readily offered in interviews about the band’s music. Wire took the power of language, and public access to words, as a central theme of the first song written in Edwards’s absence – what has become Manic Street Preachers’ defining single, ‘A Design For Life’. Though the band forged a new identity as a three-piece, the song’s opening lines still carry within them traces of The Holy Bible‘s fascist imagery and ambiguities – ‘Then work came and made us free’ suggestive both of the gates of Dachau (‘Work makes you free’) pictured in the album booklet, and Orwell’s doublethink constructs (‘Freedom is Slavery’) – despite the celebratory, working-class spirit that spurred Wire’s writing. The subject of free speech also arises on the final track on Know Your Enemy, with Wire seeming to draw on some of ‘P.C.P.’s images – ‘Worship obesity as our birthright’, almost a contraction of ‘if you’re fat don’t get ill’ and ‘life bleeds, death is your birthright’ – at the same time as he seems to undermine the earlier song’s fundamentalist attitude as part of a more general critique of the United States, capitalism and the Free Tibet movement: ‘But freedom of speech won’t feed my children/Just brings heart disease and bootleg clothing’.

In February 1997, Living Marxism was restyled as LM and restated its aim of opposing ‘all censorship, bans and codes of conduct’. The first issue of the new magazine led with an article on the treatment of Muslims at the Trnopolje camp early in the Bosnian War. One particular image was the focus of the piece – an image that had made the front pages of newspapers in the UK, and Time magazine in 1992 – showing the appalling, emaciated appearance of one man, Fikret Alić among a crowd of fellow detainees, staring out at ITN news cameras from behind barbed wire. The Daily Mirror had originally printed a still with the headline ‘Belsen 92′, drawing readers’ attention to the horrors that were unfolding in Europe and comparing the situation to the treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust. But LM contributor Thomas Deichmann had an altogether different perspective. His article claimed that the television news team from ITN had misrepresented what they had seen in Bosnia, moreover that they had ‘fooled the world’ with their coverage. The publication of Deichmann’s article prompted ITN to take legal action and a libel trial was held in 2000. The representatives of LM, led by editor Mick Hume, had little evidence to back up their claims and failed to convince the court of the truth of their allegations. The camp doctor also submitted compelling evidence. The ITN reporters were awarded damages and LM ceased publication. Hume was unrepentant:

“The only thing this court case has proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is that English libel law is a disgrace to democracy and a menace to a free press… we will not keep quiet about the concerns that led us to publish Thomas Deichmann’s article and, reluctantly, to fight this case: freedom of speech, journalistic standards, and the exploitation of the Holocaust.” [21]

Detainees at Trnopolje concentration camp, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 7 August 1992. Still from ITN news footage which prompted international outrage during the Bosnian War. The image of the emaciated figure of Fikret Alić (centre left) among his fellow detainees would also feature on the cover of Time magazine. Source: ITN via Getty Images

At the same time, author David Irving appeared in court in pursuit of a separate libel case that he had brought against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, who claimed in her 1993 publication Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, that Irving’s writing on the subject amounted to Holocaust denial. Irving was found to have misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence in his work on Nazi Germany. The judge ruled ‘that [Irving] is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism’. As with the ITN vs LM trial, the case prompted debates around free speech, English libel laws and the potential cost to writers of engaging with difficult subjects in print. When Irving was arrested in 2006 and imprisoned in Austria for comments he had made publicly in 1989, Lipstadt commented: “I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don’t believe in winning battles via censorship… The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth.” [22]

Richey Edwards would take up the subject of the Holocaust in a unique way himself on The Holy Bible. While he had conveyed to journalists his own dismay at the increasing prevalence of Holocaust denial amongst academic writers, and the profound effect that the band’s visits to Dachau and Belsen in 1993 had on him, he still chose to write about the event in a highly provocative manner.

James Dean Bradfield once tried to capture the band’s instinctual approach and conflicting ideas when it came to politics and art, telling the Belfast Telegraph about an occasion on which he and Nicky Wire attended a speech by Labour politician and Militant member Derek Hatton:

“I was buying Living Marxism at the time, which on reflection I’m a bit embarrassed by. We’d seen our Clash clips, and we knew exactly what kind of band we wanted to be. We sat listening to Hatton, but there was a stench of something we didn’t like. I remember Nick nudging me and saying: ‘Look, he’s wearing a Pringle top!’ That designer-label thing wouldn’t matter so much now, but it mattered to us then. We got up and left.” [23]

The Holy Bible sees Manic Street Preachers reaching extreme conclusions, admitting to contradictions, adopting stances that were soon left behind. The album has nevertheless remained a compelling artwork – a permanent, intensified environment in which the listener is forced to feel, to question, to react. This is only enhanced by the visceral sound – the barked commands, the insistent riffs, the martial roll of drums, and the harsh wash of noise across the album. The Holy Bible keeps alive the voices of victims, of those suffering, as much as it provokes – probing sensitive moral and historical questions, choosing vulgarity and vehemence – trying to establish its own commandments for the modern age. Though the band have since been the first to admit to their own misgivings, to explain how their perspective has shifted over time, The Holy Bible is a manifestation of a fierce instinct, an intellectual and musical confidence rarely matched in popular music. It is a snapshot of a conflicted world and the conflicting feelings that run through each of us. It pushes the limits of the medium, and the rock lyric in particular, in remarkable, poetic ways and says as much as it can while it can. It still speaks volumes.


[1] Paphides, Peter ‘Cutting Edge’, Time Out, 7 December 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Cutting_Edge_-_Time_Out,_7th_December_1994 (23 April 2021)

[2] Ellen, Barbara ‘Siamese Animal Men’, NME, 28 May 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Siamese_Animal_Men_-_NME,_28th_May_1994 (14 May 2021)

[3] Watson, Ian ‘Standing Up to the Nazis’, Melody Maker, 28 May 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Standing_Up_To_The_Nazis_-_Melody_Maker,_28th_May_1994 (21 June 2021)

[4] Hall, Stuart ‘Some “politically incorrect” pathways’, in Dunant, Sarah (ed) The War on Words (Virago, 1994)

[5] Hume, Mick ‘The right to be offensive’, Living Marxism 64, February 1994. Accessed online at https://web.archive.org/web/20000610231640/http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM/LM64/LM64_Offensive.html (15 April 2021)

[6] James Dean Bradfield has referred to the magazine on separate occasions. In Kevin Cummins’ photobook Assassinated Beauty (Faber & Faber, 2014), Bradfield comments: “‘Culture sucks down words, itemise loathing and feed yourself smiles’ just made complete sense to me after years of fucking reading Sartre and Living Marxism and stuff like that…”

[7] 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 (23 April 2021)

[8] Akao, Mika, ‘Richey James talks about The Holy Bible‘, Music Life, September 1994. English translation by M. Jun, accessed online at https://solitudegrey.wordpress.com/2020/12/01/richey-james-talks-about-the-holy-bible-music-life-sept-1994/ (20 June 2021)

[9] Edwards, Richey ‘Obscure Objects of Desire’, Cutting Edge, July 1993. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Obscure_Objects_Of_Desire_-_Cutting_Edge,_July_1993 (20 May 2021). This text seems to contain within it an idea (‘All air smells the same’) that would later reappear in the lyrics to ‘Yes’ (‘May as well be heaven this hell smells the same’). ‘Censorshit’ is the title of a then recent song by punk band The Ramones. Its chorus, like the Manics’ ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’, namechecks Tipper Gore – whose censorship campaigns with the PMRC are contrasted with the social, economic and environmental destruction that is brought about by government policies. The track, which appeared on the US band’s 1992 album Mondo Bizarro, is strident in its opposition to artistic censorship:

‘You can stamp out the source

But you can’t stop creative thought…

Before you go preach to me

Your definition of obsenity.

Ah Tipper come on…’

[10] 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

[11] 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 (15 April 2021)

[12] ibid

[13] Tynan, Kenneth foreword in Bruce, Lenny How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (Playboy Enterprises, Inc 1965)

[14] Paphides, Peter ‘Cutting Edge’

[15] Another article on political correctness that featured in Living Marxism in 1994 mentions ‘the hapless Hackney headteacher who sent everyone mad by refusing to let her charges see ‘heterosexist’ Shakespeare’. See Heartfield, James ‘Why PC can damage your health’, Living Marxism 65, March 1994. Accessed online at https://web.archive.org/web/20000302125055/http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM/LM65/LM65_PC.html (15 May 2021)

[16] Warner, Marina Monuments and Maidens (George Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd, 1985)

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

[18] ‘bilingual signs on view’ is likely a reference to the ‘equality of treatment’ intended by the Welsh Language Act 1993: ‘An Act to establish a Board having the function of promoting and facilitating the use of the Welsh language, to provide for the preparation by public bodies of schemes giving effect to the principle that in the conduct of public business and the administration of justice in Wales the English and Welsh languages should be treated on a basis of equality, to make further provision relating to the Welsh language, to repeal certain spent enactments relating to Wales, and for connected purposes.’

[19] Wodtke, Larissa ‘Architecture of Memory: The Holy Bible and the Archive’ in Triptych (Repeater Books, 2017)

[20] ‘P.C.P.’ strikes a Beckettian note here too, recalling one striking pronouncement in Waiting For Godot – ‘They give birth astride of a grave’.

[21] Hume, Mick statement on the verdict of the ITN vs LM libel trial. Accessed online at http://www.informinc.co.uk/ITN-vs-LM/legal_battle/ (20 June 2021)

[22] Quoted in ‘Holocaust denier Irving is jailed’, BBC News, 20 February 2006. Accessed online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4733820.stm (20 June 2021)

[23] McNair, James ‘James Dean Bradfield: Everything must go’, Belfast Telegraph. Originally published 2006. Accessed online at https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/incoming/james-dean-bradfield-everything-must-go-28102207.html (15 June 2021)

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