This World of Negation

‘This was without doubt a new hell, brought to pass by precision craftsmanship. Here everything human had been obliterated…’ – Hara Tamiki

‘People encouraged me: of all people, a writer should go and have a look. And they may have been right. But I was unable to bring myself to go again just to gawk. It made me unhappy to see people going partly to sightsee; in some small way it was insulting to me.’ – Ota Yoko

“I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror-looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.” – Sylvia Plath

A watch stopped at the time the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August, 1945. This image was used as the basis for the 1991 Motown Junk single. Photo: Brian Blake/Science Photo Library

Invited to fill out a questionnaire during Manic Street Preachers’ tour of Japan in 1993, Richey Edwards responded in a characteristically blunt manner, reflecting a mind preoccupied with thoughts and questions beyond the workaday routine of gigging and promotional duties. Asked, ‘After finishing the Japanese tour, what is your feeling when you look back?’ Edwards wrote simply,Hiroshima Memorial Park and Museum’. [1] The band had taken time to visit the sites, seeing first-hand the photos and other materials documenting the development and effects of the atomic bomb dropped on the city in August 1945. While in Germany that same year, they had seen the concentration camps at Belsen and Dachau, newly confronted with the inhumanity of the Nazi regime and the terrible silence left in its wake. These experiences would profoundly shape the writing of the band’s third album. As Nicky Wire told Melody Maker in January 1994: “The human capability to inflict pain on its own race. That’s what we would like to write about.” [2]

The impact of the nuclear age had resonated through the Manics’ words, music and imagery from the beginning. The sleeve of the 1991 Motown Junk single features a charred watch, recovered from the carnage, stopped at 8:15 – the moment of the first blast in Hiroshima. The Heavenly single version of ‘You Love Us’ begins with a sample of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’. And on the band’s debut album Generation Terrorists they sing of the H-bomb being ‘the only thing that will bring a freedom to life’ and depict ‘Nagasaki dolls… burning’. Likewise, no doubt inspired by their punk predecessors, the band fired off a provocative holocaust simile on ‘You Love Us’, and a reference to Buchenwald on B-side ‘We Her Majesty’s Prisoners’. These broadsides were part and parcel of the band’s angry musical reaction to what they saw as a destructive and brutalising modern world; to the complacent culture in which they lived, and in which they were determined to make their mark.

Such iconoclasm gave way to a more solemn engagement with those who had experienced the political violence of the twentieth century. For the back cover of Gold Against The Soul a poem by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi was reprinted in its entirety; while acts of remembrance described in a cynical manner on ‘La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh)’ – ‘wheeled out once a year, a cenotaph souvenir’ – belied Wire and Edwards’s concerns about historical memory and the loss of dignity among the younger generation. On The Holy Bible, this subject matter returns with a different sense of urgency and focus – though its treatment is no more hopeful.

Edwards in particular continued to study these past events through copious reading. For an October 1993 photoshoot in Tokyo, he was captured on his hotel bed with a copy of Japanese author Masuji Ibuse’s celebrated novel about Hiroshima, Black Rain, and an English language collection of survivor testimonies by Hara Tamiki, Ota Yoko and Toge Sankichi, published under the title Hiroshima: Three Witnesses, in plain view. [3] A year later, in October 1994, he explained to NME: “I guess I identify with victims, but that’s just the way I am. Everything I’ve ever studied in my life; at university I specialised in the Holocaust and Nazi/Soviet foreign policy. That’s what I did.” [4] Yet what resulted from this reading and from what the band had seen, in song terms, was both more oblique and ambivalent than might have been expected.

Poetry of Death

While ‘Mausoleum’ borrows one image from Ibuse’s story it is not one that the Japanese author used to convey the horrifying outcome of the atomic bomb. The ‘mass of dead insects’ refers to a rural tradition, a seasonal ritual of thanks performed by farmers, a reminder of life before the ravages of the war and the devastation of the bomb. [5] Nor is there much else within the song’s lyrical content to indicate to listeners that it is ‘about Hiroshima’. Indeed, its imagery largely overlaps with that of its ‘sister’ song, ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’. [6] The way in which Edwards repurposes Ibuse’s material creates not a picture of the fallout but rather a parallel of sorts with the description of ‘little people… like maggots, small, blind and worthless’ described in ‘Of Walking Abortion’ – two ways of distilling misanthropy, or dehumanisation, through language – while at the same time adding to the number of bleak biblical allusions around which the writing on the album coheres.

The working title for ‘Mausoleum’ was ‘No Birds’ – which was later changed, as Wire admitted, to avoid repeating a Public Image Ltd song title – and was described more often as a summation of the German camps rather than Hiroshima: “Dachau is such an evil, quiet place,” Wire told Melody Maker. “There’s no grass, and you don’t even see a worm, let alone any birds. All you can hear is this humming of nothing.” [7] So that the ‘swollen black’ sky Bradfield sings of in the song’s chorus might suggest either the dense smoke from the nuclear attack, the source of the ‘black rain’, or the belching chimneys of the Nazi extermination camps.

Even if Wire and Edwards were mindful to avoid any shared song titles, Bradfield was unapologetic in taking direct inspiration from his favourite post-punk albums. As well as lending the typographic basis for the sleeve of The Holy Bible, Simple Minds provided at least one of the musical cues. Speaking to journalist Keith Cameron in 2014 about ‘Mausoleum’, Bradfield explained:

“In my head was this Simple Minds song called 30 Frames A Second, where the riff is repetitive and Jim Kerr scats over the top. So I went for an updated version of that, more stripped back, more heavy. There’s more lyrics in the bridges than in some people’s entire songs. I remember thinking, ‘The only way I can do this is to try and be [Dead Kennedys singer] Jello Biafra!'” [8]

The song was demoed for manager Philip Hall in late 1993, shortly before his death, along with another new song, ‘Die in the Summertime’. According to Wire, he supported the band’s new direction, even while mocking the cheerless subject matter: “he said… ‘this sounds like you’re doing the right thing.'” [9] The early recording included on the tenth anniversary edition of the album, while lacking the key audio sample of the final version, certainly shows the strength of the album to come, and the stripped down, more aggressive turn of the band’s music.

Detail from Floating Lanterns by Maruki Iri and Maurki Toshi (1969). The image was used as the cover illustration of the English language collection Hiroshima: Three Witnesses (1990)

The stuttering, tremolo-effected guitar intro is punctured by an insistent, repeated rhythm, building a sense of tension, over which Bradfield at first calmly intones Wire and Edwards’s bleak lines, reminding the listener of the inescapability of death: ‘Wherever you go I will be carcass / whatever you see will be rotting flesh.’ This sinister depiction of the world is followed by a fierce bridge section, which pushes Bradfield’s vocal abilities with a run of extraordinary, breathless lines in which individual words take over the rhythmic emphasis: ‘…LIFE is so silent / for the VICtims who have no speech / in THEIR shapeless guilty remorse / OBliterates your meaning…’ Larissa Wodtke hears in the phrasing a ‘liturgical rhythm’. [10] For Bradfield it was hardcore, Dead Kennedys style. While the barked accusation that closes ‘Of Walking Abortion’, and the rapid-fire political screed of ‘PCP’ similarly foreground Bradfield’s vocal power and dexterity, it is on ‘Mausoleum’, as much as ‘Faster, which follows immediately after it, that The Holy Bible reaches its peak of articulacy, dynamics, and shattering force – yet is all the more standout for the way in which the lyric avoids the encyclopaedic tendencies, historical or contemporary references, and quickly abandons the first-person testimonial style, which together characterise much of the album.

‘Mausoleum’ should also be seen as a centrepoint of the album for its inclusion of the voice of author JG Ballard, likely sourced from the Radio 4 series Cult Classics which Edwards recommended in a year-end list for Melody Maker in December 1993. [11] Ballard’s own working method for writing his acclaimed novel Crash doubles as Edwards’s own for The Holy Bible: “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit,” Ballard recalls, “and force it to look in the mirror.” With its focus on bodily decay, despair, the struggle for self-control, and mindful of the murderous legacy of the past, while musically revitalising the frantic, aggressive pulse of the band’s post-punk influences, ‘Mausoleum’, too, is a summary statement of the whole album.

A lyric draft, written in Wire’s hand and included in the twentieth anniversary edition of the album, illustrates the development of the song, comparable with the collaborative effort of ‘Of Walking Abortion’ – and in contrast to lyrics such as ‘Yes’ and ‘4st 7lb’, written by Edwards and largely unedited by Bradfield:

‘No Birds’ lyric draft (Nicky Wire)

Wherever you go I will be your guardian
Whatever you see I will give you
Humanity it can’t recover
We must answer to some crimes

Come and walk down memory lane
Insidious hate nature feel some pain
Life can spring from grass and trees
But its preferred nature is sickness and disease

And life can be important as death
But its [sic] much more depressing
I want to make you crawl with me
Through feathers tar and honey

Regain your self-control
Become what you despise
Become what you analyse
Destroy what you hoped for
Obliterate the meaning
Obliterate the meaning

There is much here that appears in the finished song but the amendments are striking, especially those instances where an initially positive sounding line (even if intended to unnerve – say, as a voice speaking from a tomb) has been definitively transformed into its opposite: ‘Wherever you go I will be your guardian [carcass]’; ‘Life [eternal scorched] can spring from grass and trees’. The emphasis is ultimately placed on the negation of life.

Again, there is not a lot by which the casual listener might link the words with the band’s experiences at Hiroshima, Dachau and Belsen; it is more impressionistic, a vague invitation to share in a general malaise and disgust at humanity and nature, somewhat closer in style to ‘She Is Suffering’ than its companion song ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’. Only with the addition of references to ‘victims who have no speech’, ‘the sky… swollen black’ ‘prejudice’, ‘no birds’ and the ‘holy mass of dead insects’ does the backdrop to the song’s composition become more evident.

There is a sense of misgiving about memorialisation (as on ‘La Tristesse Durera’) and the value of museums when it comes to atrocities; the lines ‘Come and walk down memory lane / No one sees a thing but they can pretend’ seem born out of Wire and Edwards’s frustration of their tourist experiences as much as they convey something of the general futility of remembrance in the face of unceasing political violence – such as was still unfolding in Bosnia at the time. It is almost as if they had to prove the sentiment of the Sex Pistols’ ‘Holidays in the Sun’ to themselves: that in wishing to learn about history they were unwittingly taking a ‘cheap holiday in other people’s misery’. Edwards told the Japanese magazine Music Life:

“When I went to Hiroshima and visited the museum, it was forbidden to take photographs. A reasonable request [out] of respect for the dead. But there were American tourists there who kept saying things like “Hey, look at this dead child’s fingernails”… When I saw that, it made me so embarrassed, “Don’t you have any fucking respect?”, I thought. They had zero interest. I felt the same about the souvenir shops. Also photographing as proof they’ve been there.” [12]

Detail from Ghosts by Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi (1950), from a series of panels depicting the horrors of the atomic bomb

The band seem to be twisting the idea of the museum, prompted by the sound of the word itself, to imagine what it would be like for the murderous past to really speak to the present – a ‘mausoleum’, where the listener might be shown round, guided through the galleries of natural and manmade destruction by the dead. A true ‘atrocity exhibition’.

The final version contains some of the most original and poetic lyrics ever written by the band, with phrases such as ‘humanity recovered glittering etiquette’, and ‘for your love nature has haemorrhaged’ being both effective for their percussive qualities and gothic evocations. The imagery is full of conflicts and inversions of ideals. There are repeated references to the sky on The Holy Bible and as might be expected they offer no expectation of comfort or salvation. There are only extreme contrasts – the ‘sunless afternoons’ of ‘Yes’, and the sky that ‘leaves me blind’ on ‘This Is Yesterday’; while the description in ‘Mausoleum’ presents the sky as if it too has become one of the many victims of Hiroshima, no longer a plane existing above the desolation, but itself physically harmed in the attack: ‘swollen black’. As one witness, writer Ota Yoko recalled: ‘The bomb had its effects not only on the ground but also in the sky.’ Similarly, in his memoir of Auschwitz, Primo Levi speaks of the ‘malevolent clouds’ and of ‘stumbling from one puddle to the other, between the black of the sky and the mud of the road.’ Edwards’s literary interests, as much as his historical knowledge, can continually be seen to feed into the style of The Holy Bible. [13]

The closing moments transcend everything in Wire’s original sketch: ‘prejudice burns brighter when it’s all we have to burn / the world lances youth’s lamblike winter’. Among the most powerful lines on the album, they are all the more impactful for the way that Bradfield cries, then howls them, raging against the hateful light and bringing the music to an abrupt halt on that repeated word of Shakespearean discontent. And they set the tone perfectly for what has come to be the album’s defining song, ‘Faster’, even foreshadowing its cadences, its metrical emphases, with a near-rhyme between ‘lances youth’s lamblike winter’ and ‘spat out Plath and Pinter’.


Despite the triumphant rejection of Sylvia Plath on The Holy Bible, the acclaimed poet was an acknowledged touchstone for Edwards and Wire, and her engagement with the subject of the Holocaust and her own subversive takes on biblical imagery, notably in ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’, can be linked with the Manics’ own writing. [14] Matthew Boswell’s insightful analyses of both artists’ work draws out these parallels. Holocaust Impiety in Literature, Popular Music and Film has been much referenced in critical studies of The Holy Bible for its single short chapter focusing on ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’, and the book remains a brilliantly articulated defence of the use of Holocaust references, stories and imagery in ways that ‘reject redemptory interpretations of genocide and claims of historical ineffability’. [15] It is Boswell’s entire argument, however (which also ranges across works by WD Snodgrass, the Sex Pistols, Joy Division and Alain Resnais among others), and not simply the several pages on the Manics, that bears on the Welsh band’s approach to the Holocaust on ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ – where their experiences at Belsen and Dachau come sharply into the foreground – and is worth weighing against those critics who have been more hesitant in their applause for the use of Holocaust in even the most innovative contemporary art.

The penultimate track on the album, ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ opens with an echoing rhythmic pounding and metallic noise, reminiscent of the stark industrial backdrops of Einstürzende Neubauten’s Kollaps (a favourite of the young Richey Edwards), or the resonant percussion experiments of Z’EV. This is soon overlaid with a sample from a 1946 Soviet documentary about the Nuremberg Trials, which features its own doleful orchestral accompaniment and English narration, describing the necessity of the postwar military tribunal. The atmosphere is simultaneously menacing and mournful, the melancholic string lines intertwining with the hard, regimented hammering and the disembodied voice soberly reciting the sufferings that have been inflicted, and which are to be addressed in a court of law. There are overlaps between the content of the speech and the language of The Holy Bible – ‘the butchers had no pity’ recalling ‘Of Walking Abortion’ and ‘Faster’, and ‘tear’ appearing both within the sample and in the song lyric, though significantly in conflicting ways – that also makes the intro a late focal point of the entire album and a condensation of its themes and overall atmosphere.

One of the many obscure audiovisual materials gathered for the album, the sample is again perfectly suited. The documentary itself (directed by S Svilov and produced by cameraman Roman Karmen) in some ways mirrors The Holy Bible‘s aesthetic and moral response to political tyranny, moving between graphic montages of horror and ruin – the emergence of fascism and ‘massacred innocents’ – and the deliberations of the trials. It pulls in different emotional and moral directions: the narrator explains early in the film that the criminals will be tried “not from motives of vengeance but that the great ends of justice may be served”, but the French prosecutor finishes by reminding the judges that they must: “Hearken to the blood of the innocent, crying for retribution!” There are echoes of ‘Archives of Pain’; there are also elisions that indicate the shortcomings in the narrative. As film scholar John J Michalczyk explains: ‘The Jewish element and genocidal plan of the Fascists have almost no place in the film. The Jewish witnesses in court do not appear in the film to offer their testimony against the Nazis.’ [16] It is such attempts to distort history that motivated Edwards’s writing on ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’.

Feedback pierces the sample, again linking the album sonically with the more extreme electronic and noise music of the 1980s and 90s, specifically that of Whitehouse, who used a myriad of references to atrocity and utilised atonality – pink noise and crude synthesised rhythms – to shape their unflinching, highly confrontational music; but were, unknown to most shocked listeners, in turn referencing a history of experimental sound linking back to John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley and Yoko Ono. That James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore should be working these typically ‘unwanted’ sounds into a major label, commercial rock record further underscores the album’s unique place in modern music and the band’s uncompromising intent – at variance with their own sense, as expressed on The Holy Bible‘s opening song ‘Yes’, that they were merely prostituting themselves to the music industry and press through their art.

Cover of Concentration Camp Dachau 1933-1945, museum catalogue published in 1978 and used as the source for the booklet illustrations for ‘Mausoleum’ and ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’

Sean Moore’s drum pattern is, as Matthew Boswell and David Evans among others have pointed out, evocative of Joy Division’s ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, while James Dean Bradfield’s haunting opening guitar phrase is, Larissa Wodtke notes, reminiscent of The Birthday Party’s ‘Nick the Stripper’. [17] While these comparisons are accurate and in keeping with the collaging of musical, literary and visual references on The Holy Bible, Bradfield has mentioned a somewhat broader range of inspirations beyond the familiar post-punk precursors, brought forward in this case by Moore:

“I struggled with it, so I handed it over to Sean. He presented a verse and a bridge – it was really atonal. Sean is the only one of us who can read music at all, so I was surprised, thinking he would come up with something more florid. He started saying something about Penderecki and John Cage and minimalist delineation of modern song structures, to make more out of less. Of course, it made complete sense.” [18]  

The scene-setting on ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ was in part created with ‘a taped recording of screeching metal, which is looped through an old BEL BD80 hardware sampler’. [19] This relentless scraping continues behind the ratcheting, chromatic musical progression that slowly bears down on the listener as the song heads to its conclusion. Apart from the comparatively exuberant guitar solo, ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ is an unsettled and unsettling musical composition. Evans writes, ‘It’s an appropriate treatment for Richey’s words, the aversion to melodic resolution or harmony matching the lyric’s refusal to draw any redemptive meaning from the Holocaust.’

Edwards had been disturbed by the swelling body of academic literature that questioned the Holocaust, and shared his concerns with a number of journalists while promoting The Holy Bible. In conversation with Stuart Baillie he said:

“I find it… ‘interesting’ isn’t the right word … I find it compulsive that in such a short space of time that the Holocaust is rendered almost obsolete. I find it really frightening. We’ve actually been to places like Dachau. I spent all my life in education studying it, and when you actually go there it means nothing. It’s only when you come back and you realise that there are books by people like Arthur Buntz [sic] and the book [The] Hoax Of The 20th Century that suggest it’s all a lie; it’s somehow a Jewish Christian conspiracy.

“This is being seriously debated by intelligent people. They suggest that some of the death camps were built after the war by the Americans to basically put the blame on Germany, to make them feel bad, when nothing actually happened.

“That’s being debated in universities now, and I feel that really really frightening. Six million lives are worth nothing. If they’re that cheap, then what do you matter? That’s a more serious issue than [British National Party candidate] Derek Beackon getting in. It worries me more, because historically it is more dangerous.” [20]

Foregrounding the facts of history, Edwards selected archival images relating to the Holocaust to illustrate the lyrics to both ‘Mausoleum’ and ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ in the album booklet. The two pictures were taken from the same source, Dachau museum’s own exhibition catalogue Concentration Camp Dachau 1933-1945, a scholarly keepsake of the band’s visit. For ‘Mausoleum’, a plan for the crematorium built at Dachau in 1942, known as ‘Baracke X’, was reprinted; while for ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ a photograph of the entrance gates to the camp, with the phrase ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (which also appears in the song) was chosen. Many of the words and images found in the song lyrics to ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ stand out while reading through the publication, with its account of the ‘Invalid Transports’, of Hartheim Castle, the camp’s ‘malaria’ block and the experiments of Sigmund Rascher, as well as in the plans of Dachau showing the central ‘Lagerstrasse’. [21] But far from a simple, factual riposte to the Holocaust deniers, the lyrics suggest an uncertain perspective, and indicate that Edwards’s writing was becoming increasingly shaped by depression.

Detail from Concentration Camp Dachau 1933-1945. The plan for the ‘Baracke X’ crematorium at Dachau accompanies the lyrics to ‘Mausoleum’

First the lyrics refer to the way in which the new arrivals to the concentration camps were misled by the Nazis. As Nicky Wire noted: “In the museum at Belsen, there’s the original sign which hung there. It says, ‘Welcome to Belsen Recreation Camp’.” [22] The Sex Pistols had blackly satirised the same on the inaccurately titled ‘Belsen Was a Gas’. Edwards’s words might be understood as written from the perspective of a survivor looking back with regret, or a perpetrator with a mocking tone. According to Bradfield, the ambiguities of the initial lyrics had caused him to challenge Edwards at an earlier stage in the songwriting process. As he recalled to Stuart Maconie:

“I didn’t think the first draft of Intense Humming of Evil was judgmental enough. It’s a song about the Holocaust and you can’t be ambivalent about a subject like that. Not even we are stupid enough to be contentious about that.” [23]

Bradfield’s comment would suggest that Edwards ultimately emphasised his condemnation of those responsible for the Final Solution. Yet the judgment does not come down on the criminals as in ‘Archives of Pain’. There is no rehash of Nuremberg, no naming of guilty parties. Instead the despair is directed at the victims in a damning way: ‘6 million screaming souls / maybe misery / maybe nothing at all / lives that wouldn’t have changed a thing / never counted / never mattered / never be.’ The repetitive sermon style at the end of this chorus also misleads, given the utter loss of faith in the value of human lives that is being expressed.

The second verse describes these lives in terms of disease. It uses the details of the medical experimentation in the Dachau camp, under the direction of Rascher, and a reference to Hartheim Castle, near Linz (where prisoners were gassed) to depict the victims themselves as a sort of pestilence – breathed in, ‘butcher bacteria’ ‘infected’ – the first-person perspective accepting of the despicable lies and propaganda of the Nazis against the Jews. Edwards will also have known from the Dachau documentation that Catholic clergymen in particular were selected for the experiments of another doctor, Claus Schilling, who infected the prisoners with malaria. And so the line ‘In block 5 we worship malaria’ both illuminates a dark moment in history and further develops the subversive religious imagery of The Holy Bible in a devastating way – or rather, reinforces the ‘the failure of biblical analogy’ [24] Bradfield said:

“The lyric was a massive part of Richey’s history degree. He hadn’t just watched one episode of World At War – he’d gone deeply into it, very obscure writing. I remember him talking about Holocaust deniers – of the battle between the reality versus the myth of history and how important it was to read as much about it as possible.” [25]

Hunger was also a crucial aspect of the experience of the victims of the Holocaust, as described by Primo Levi in his Auschwitz memoir If This Is A Man: ‘But how could one imagine not being hungry? The Lager is hunger: we ourselves are hunger, living hunger’. [26] It is alluded to, somewhat surprisingly, in an understated way on ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’. Described here as merely ‘a word’, as if to suggest that a threshold has been passed and language finally disconnected from experience, hunger is nevertheless central to The Holy Bible. Between ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ and ‘4st 7lb’, Richey Edwards’s writing evokes in the mind of the listener the emaciated human body as an index of both great suffering and attempted transcendence; a symbol of cruel victimisation and self-empowerment. This uneasy antithesis encompasses the crimes of the past and the struggles of contemporary experience. Through both personal testimony and historical survey, Manic Street Preachers return to the question of human life, value and meaning in the face of exploitative and prejudicial political and economic forces. And it is through the starved, wounded, vulnerable body that this is repeatedly expressed, and through which drastic solutions are attempted. Levi observed little different among his fellow prisoners. Recording one camp inmate’s insight, he writes: ‘The law of the Lager said: ‘eat you own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbour’.

Detail from Concentration Camp Dachau 1933-1945. A cropped version of the top image of the main gate at Dachau accompanies the lyrics to ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’. The phrase ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ also appears within the song

While the dismissal of the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust in the chorus of ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ might be deemed by some as another act of artful provocation, later comments by Edwards suggest that his own mental ill-health was leading him to the most pessimistic conclusions about human life outside of his art. In an interview with Molotov Cocktails Fanzine in December 1994, the judgments of The Holy Bible seemed to have become gospel for him:

“That is the fucking tragedy about human life, that it means so fucking little. Unless you’re like Einstein or Newton, you are just fucking continuous raw cattle that has no control over what it does, that can’t affect its future and yet you live your life when you find some value in it. If a sixty-year-old man came up to me and said “I’ll give you all my experience,” why would I want to take it? What does his life mean? It means bollocks. Now he lived his life, he worked really hard, he struggled, he scrimped and saved, had a couple of children and for two weeks a year he had a good holiday and he fucking died. Big deal. The thought of a six-year-old kid getting smashed down by a car is sad, but it’s not a tragedy. An eighty-year-old man dying of ill health is a tragedy because their lives mean fucking nothing. That is the tragedy of human existence, that it I so fucking pointless… Everything falls apart, you can’t justify anything.” [27]

In writing about Plath’s Holocaust referencing poem ‘Daddy’, the critic George Steiner praised its effect in ‘translating a private, obviously intolerable hurt into a code of plain statement, of instantaneously public images which concern us all.’ [28] At the same time, Steiner questioned the ethics of that same poetry and the right of those unconnected with these events personally to use them to express their own psychological turmoil. The same can be asked of Edwards’s writing across The Holy Bible – as honest as it is about the flaws, hypocrisies and moral responsibilities of the author as it is desperate to remind the wider public of the importance of history. Steiner’s ambivalence towards Plath might well also capture many listeners’ responses to Edwards’s treatment of the Holocaust on ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’. Despite Edwards’s desire to write about ‘the truth’, Bradfield admitted the songs honestly reflected much confusion.

There are signs that Edwards was just as susceptible to the type of skewed historical writing that motivated the lyric in the first place. One of the song’s most discussed lines, one that seems to readily draw out the political sympathies of listeners and critics is ‘Churchill no different / wished the workers bled to a machine’. In her chapter on The Holy Bible in Triptych, Rhian E Jones affirms that Edwards here ‘displays a valid understanding of twentieth-century history, in which Churchill’s views on imperialism and white supremacy were seldom far away from those of many fascists’. [29] David Evans, on the other hand says that while the argument ‘is not a frivolous one’, ‘there clearly is a difference between the exploitation of the miners and the barbarity of the death camps’ – referring specifically to Churchill’s clashes with the working classes, most notably the 1910 Tonypandy Riots, where Welsh miners were confronted by police and Army forces under Churchill’s orders. [30] There is no disputing that aspects of Churchill’s personality, many of his reckless and deadly political actions and repellent beliefs about race are deserving of the harshest criticism – and were subject to such during his lifetime. But that last line is weakened by its simplicity and vagueness, closer to the iconoclasm of Generation Terrorists.

Critical of Hollywood director Steven Spielberg’s depiction of Oskar Schindler, as against the Oscar plaudits, and Arthur Butz’s disgraceful claims about the Holocaust, Edwards here ends up by suggesting that he accepted unquestioningly the assessments of Winston Churchill emerging in such books as Clive Ponting’s biography, that sought to challenge the ‘Churchill myth’, just as enthusiastically as he parroted lines from Living Marxism.

Nicky Wire shared the same one-dimensional view of the wartime leader’s politics when speaking with the press in 1994: “Britain always thinks that it has a superior attitude. But as soon as the war was over, the attitude was: ‘Let’s get back to normal and exploit as many people as we can again. Keep the proles happy, tie them to their machines, and send them out to war again to be killed when we need to'” [31] Yet he later drew on Churchill’s own name for his depressive moods in one of the band’s most affecting songs following Edwards’s disappearance, ‘Black Dog On My Shoulder’, which appeared on 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. While that is an album that unequivocally sides with the working class against injustices perpetrated against them (on songs such as ‘Ready For Drowning’ and ‘S.Y.M.M’ – the latter being as uncharacteristic, musically, as ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’, but not all that far from it stylistically) it also finds a poignant, melodic way of framing another aspect of Winston Churchill’s experience that is altogether human. Differences and meanings and lives that cannot be so simply reduced.


On ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ Manic Street Preachers are as far away from commercial rock music as they would ever be, engaging with lengthy song structures shorn of familiar harmonic progressions, and subject matter that most rock bands seeking popular success wouldn’t dare to take on. On these brother/sister songs they refer to a unique array of culture: Masuji Ibuse, John Cage, Simple Minds, JG Ballard and the Nuremberg Trials. At the same time they wanted to express their own physical, emotional and intellectual reactions to the places and documents they had seen first-hand.

There may be something incompatible between the function of songs – the typically positive emotional bonds and empathy created between musicians and their audience, through music and words – and the attempt to base this dynamic around accounts of mass murder and political tyranny. Or, as Matthew Boswell writes, ‘this self-abusive turn reflects a kind of battle emerging between events which destroyed lives and with them the possibility of meaning in life and a creative process that is inherently generative of meaning.’ [32] Still, this is the challenge the Manics, among other punk, post-punk and avant-garde musical artists, have taken on. To subvert such expectations, and nonetheless create art that retains the affective charge that inspired them to make music in the first place. And to claim popular music as a valid medium, alongside literature, visual art, film and theatre, for exploring controversial topics and questions. Before recording The Holy Bible, Edwards admitted: “I hate having the thought in the back of my head, that we can’t possibly print this in a lyric sheet, because people will misunderstand it.” [33] Whatever the intention, and despite the assertive tone of much of the record, there remains plenty that is open to interpretation, that might be misunderstood, but as a work of art it elicits continued engagement and shows itself to be on the side of learning.

As Boswell says of the many intelligent, provocative, heavily criticised, uses of Holocaust material across popular culture, ‘this unruliness seems to be born from an awareness that the inescapable imperative to remember the Holocaust has not translated into a cultural norm because most people are broadly unwilling to face the horrific content of what happened and the implications that knowledge of these events might have for our own self-understanding.’

In his brief tour notes for ‘Mausoleum’ and ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’, perhaps mindful of the Hollywoodisation of the Final Solution in Schindler’s List, Edwards made an unexpected reference that was certainly closer to a level of common understanding: ‘Visited Dachau and Hiroshima. What reflections should be for everyone. Otherwise we’re all Edward Scissorhands Avon Lady.’ [34] He seems to be speaking of the wish to paint over the terrible consequences of man’s attempt to play God; to smile and pretend everything is fine in an world of prejudice, suspicion and exploitation; to try to conceal deep scars that still show. The Holy Bible is positively at odds with such comfortable, grotesque illusions.

‘We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing.’ – Primo Levi


[1] See Twitter post by Forever Delayed Forum, via aki_21jack on Instagram. Accessed online at (25 November 2021)

[2] Bennun, David ‘All That Glitters’, Melody Maker, 29 January 1994. Accessed online at,_29th_January_1994 (15 November)

[3] See photos taken in Tokyo, 12-14 October by Ray Palmer, at

[4] Bailie, Stuart ‘Manic’s Depressive’, NME, 1 October 1994. Accessed online at,_1st_October_1994 (25 November 2021)

[5] Ibuse, Masuji Black Rain (Kodansha International, 1969)

[6] Edwards described ‘Mausoleum’ and ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ as ‘Brother/sister songs’. See The Holy Bible tour programme, 1994. Accessed online at (5 November 2021)

[7] ‘Manics’ New Testament’, Melody Maker, 27 August 1994. Accessed online at,_27th_August_1994. (25 November 2021) For the song title revision see Cameron, Keith ‘Chapter and verse. Track by track. 13 Reasons to believe in The Holy Bible’, liner notes in The Holy Bible 20 (2014)

[8] Cameron, ibid

[9] Cameron, Keith ‘Classic Album: The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers’, Q, November 2019

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

[11] Price, Simon ‘Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers chooses his Men of the Year’, Melody Maker, 25 December 1993. Accessed online at,_25th_December_1993 (15 November 2021)

[12] Akao, Mika, ‘Richey James talks about The Holy Bible‘, Music Life, September 1994. English translation by M. Jun, accessed online at (10 October 2021)

[13] See Yoko, Ota ‘City of Corpses’ in Minear, Richard H (ed) Hiroshima: Three Witnesses (Princeton University Press, 1990) and Levi, Primo If This Is A Man and The Truce (Abacus, 1987)

[14] ‘The Girl Who Wanted to Be God’, one of the last songs co-credited to Edwards and Wire, and which appears on Everything Must Go, takes its title from Plath. Wire told Loud and Quiet in 2018: ” Richey and I were addicted to the sadness and loneliness of poets like Stevie Smith, Sylvia Plath and Phillip Larkin.” See Younis, Reef ‘Tell Me About’, 30 March 2018. Accessed online at (25 November 2021)

[15] Boswell, Matthew Holocaust Impiety in Literature, Popular Music and Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

[16] Michalczyk, John J Filming the End of the Holocaust (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)

[17] See Evans, David The Holy Bible (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019); Boswell, Holocaust Impiety; Wodtke, Triptych

[18] Cameron, ‘Chapter and verse’

[19] Evans, The Holy Bible

[20] Bailie, ‘Manic’s Depressive’

[21] See Distel, Barbara and Jakusch, Ruth (eds) Concentration Camp Dachau 1933-1945 (Comité International de Dachau, Brussels; Lipp GmbH, Munich, 1978)

[22] ‘Manics’ New Testament’

[23] Maconie, Stuart ‘Smile, It Might Never Happen’, Q, December 1994. Accessed online at,_It_Might_Never_Happen_-_Q_Magazine,_December_1994 (25 November 2021)

[24] The quoted phrase is taken from Boswell’s writing on Plath. Historical note: Block 5 was in fact the location for Sigmund Rascher’s hypothermia experiments, as mentioned in the testimony of Father Leo Miechalowski, who was subjected to both the malaria and aviation experiments at Dachau.

[25] Cameron, ‘Chapter and verse’

[26] Levi, If This Is A Man

[27] See ‘Interview: Richey Edwards’, Molotov Cocktails Fanzine, December 1994. Accessed online at,_December_1994 (20 October 2021)

[28] Steiner, George ‘Dying Is An Art’, Newman, Charles (ed) The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium (Indiana University Press, 1970)

[29] Jones, Rhian E ‘Unwritten Diaries: History, Politics and Experience through The Holy Bible’ in Triptych

[30] Evans, The Holy Bible

[31] ‘Manic’s New Testament’

[32] Boswell, Holocaust Impiety

[33] Bennun, ‘All That Glitters’

[34] Edwards, Richey The Holy Bible tour programme, 1994. Accessed online at (5 November 2021)

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