Interfacing

Detail from Branded, 1992 Artwork © Jenny Saville

Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire first learned about artist Jenny Saville by way of a feature article in a weekend newspaper supplement. Wire told writer Dan Richards in 2010:

“I remember the day vividly because we both bought the Independent on Sunday and in the magazine was a special on Jenny Saville – the first time we’d been exposed to her – and we both phoned each other up and said, ‘Those paintings are amazing.’ It was a sort of psychic thing that me and him had.” [1]

The article, written by critic David Sylvester and published on 20 January 1994, prompted a phone call by Edwards, to enquire about the possibility of using one of Saville’s artworks for the cover of the album. Saville explained to Richards:

“The first time I did the Manics thing, I was living in Glasgow. I’d just done the show at the Saatchi Gallery and Richey Edwards called me up and we had a conversation about anorexia and I wasn’t initially keen on doing an album cover but then, after talking to him, I really wanted to do it because we had a lot of interests that were similar – about technology and the body, writers we liked – and he faxed me the lyrics to ‘4st 7lb’ and I read that and said, ‘I’ll do it. Use the triptych, you can have it.’”

By studying Saville’s work across her career to date, the ways in which her preoccupations and stylistic approach complement The Holy Bible – and especially the themes and aesthetic of Richey Edwards’s writing and art design – becomes all the more apparent. Paying closer attention to Saville’s vast canvases, as well as her insightful commentary on them, can also help to better articulate a number of characteristics that make The Holy Bible such an unusual and enduring work of art.

There is firstly a shared interest in the human figure, and the self, with an emphasis on bodies that are exposed, vulnerable, in a state of transition, oddly positioned or subject to violence. The stripped women, the gunshot victims, those who have undergone gender reassignment and those lying entangled in Jenny Saville’s catalogue. And the images of corpses, the brutalised, the starved and the self-wounded evoked on The Holy Bible. Grounded in reality, these are nevertheless the kinds of bodies still typically obscured in everyday media – where the trade is more often in unrealistic fantasy, where the virtual now predominates – so as to stand out as somewhat alien.

However the impact of centuries of figurative representation, not least the postures and emotional states depicted in religious art are unavoidable. Saville and the Manics offer their own responses to such iconographic commonplaces; a reconsideration of the enduring power, and the limitations, of Christian symbols in particular. There is no simple dismissal of religious concepts but rather a clear-eyed perspective on how long-standing traditions have shaped history, and our conception of the self, and how they resonate today.

There is also a movement between the personal and the impersonal, which writer John Gray has discussed in an essay on Saville, and which not only runs through The Holy Bible, but tends to characterise writing about the record as well – often at one and the same time autobiographical and academic. This shapes both artists’ figurative depictions in complex ways; between embodiment and detachment, autobiography and artifice, alienation and communion, subjection and self-control – or as one lyric would have it, ‘spectator or crucified’.

At the formal level, another key link between the aesthetic of The Holy Bible and Saville’s paintings – more obvious in Saville’s work since 1994 but evident from the beginning – is the use of various combinatory effects, again in unconventional ways. Both Saville and the Manics are adept at repurposing and collaging an array of material – from newspapers, textbooks, literature, art history, and popular culture – to reinvigorate familiar forms.

Ambiguities and paradoxes abound as one begins to scratch beneath the surface and consider any one of these aspects. Expectations are upended. The perspective of the listener or viewer is continually shifting. But even as they represent subjects at a moment of fragility, confusion, or at the brink of extinction, the works themselves appear to be inexhaustible, monolithic, standing up to repeated scrutiny.

Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face), 1993-94 Artwork © Jenny Saville (Image © The Broad Art Foundation)

The figure of the obese woman who features in Saville’s triptych Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face), which was selected as the cover image of The Holy Bible, forms a counterpoint to the recurring images of skinniness throughout album: the anorexic, the catwalk model and the concentration camp prisoner – the ‘Belsenated body’ that dominated Richey Edwards’s lyrics by 1994. [2] As such, it might not be immediately obvious how Strategy encapsulates the album visually.

Speaking on Swedish television in 1994, Edwards explained that The Holy Bible, as with the holy book in any religion, should be about truth, the way the world is. At the time, Saville was making her name as a visual artist who trained her eye keenly on the way of the flesh, capturing the character of real women’s bodies; their pubic hair, their flab and cellulite. Her focus on the nude was at the time a source of contention at her art school in Glasgow, conflicting with feminist concerns, or “dealing with forbidden territory,” as she has said. Yet Saville was fascinated by the details typically erased in the photoshopped false reality of glossy magazines, or ‘corrected’ so as to achieve a perfected geometry of musculature, as in certain classical paintings. Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection was a primary influence, being the subject of Saville’s dissertation. Explaining what motivated her in an Observer interview in 1994, she said:

“I’m painting these kinds of figures because I think it’s important to challenge traditional representations of the female nude. The fleshiness of women’s bodies is something that is never put on display in the 20th century – it’s always airbrushed or suppressed. I’m trying to do it with a certain sympathy and emotion, and also put it in the context of feminist thought.” [3]

Two months later, in a March 1994 interview with the Independent, Saville expanded on what she was going for:

“The history of art has been dominated by men, living in ivory towers, seeing women as sexual objects. I paint women as most women see themselves. I try to catch their identity, their skin, their hair, their heat, their leakiness. I do have this sense with female flesh that things are leaking out. A lot of our flesh is blue, like butcher’s meat. In history, pubic hair has always been perfect, painted by men. In real life, it moves around, up your stomach, or down your legs.” [4]

Yet contrasting so strongly with the fantasies and horrors of the ‘skeletal’ that feature on The Holy Bible, Saville’s Strategy also suggests a subjective point of view. As direct an acceptance of reality as it appears to offer, the image might also represent to the listener the delusional self-perception of a person suffering from anorexia nervosa, or otherwise uncomfortable in their own skin, in keeping with the narrative perspectives of songs like ‘4st 7lb’ and ‘Die in the Summertime’.

Unrealistic images of the body such as those reinforced by commercial advertising are not absent from Saville’s work and that of Manic Street Preachers. The band certainly embraced the glamour of pin-ups like Marilyn Monroe early on. But emphasis is given by Edwards and Saville to the personal experiences of those who live lost among the shadows of such powerful images; whether desperate to transform themselves, creatively or destructively, or else face up to the truth of their own condition. We find in David Sylvester’s early interview with Saville a consideration of the negative effects of ‘agony aunt’ columns, or ‘lifestyle’ advice, the same sort that informs Edwards’s lyric ‘4st 7lb’:

“Women seem to think their legs extend forever. I’ve got a thing in my studio that I found, it was about ‘how you can have great legs, too,’ or something. And it had the perfect leg and ankle measurement. Jerry Hall was fine, but Fiona, who used to do GMTV, her knees were far too big. It went through all these celebrities. ‘Lulu’s Thigh Battle’ and all this stuff you could do to make your legs better. You see, if the majority of women have legs in a certain way, then that’s the way legs are. But this is like the minority of people telling the majority that they are wrong.” [5]

Source material, detail from Jenny Saville (Gagosian and Rizzoli, 2018)

There is on the part of both artists an unflinching attention to trauma as well as beauty, a simultaneous expression of pressure and serenity, a transformation of the conflicting qualities of lived experience into art. This makes Saville’s paintings and The Holy Bible stand apart from the majority of work within the traditions of figurative painting and rock music that have taken on similar, subversive, or ‘ugly’ subject matter – where shock and sacrilege are often seen as ends in themselves; where there is little or no evidence of the type of empathetic engagement with those at the margins, or the simultaneous clinical detachment that creates a heightened tension in these artists’ works – and a degree of hyperreality which would seem to be a necessary effect of existing in an all-enveloping media environment.

Presumably one of the writers Saville and Edwards discussed during their phone conversation was JG Ballard, who explored the intersection of the body and technology, the effects of televisual media, the violent instincts of humankind and the unstable frameworks of civilisation. One of Saville’s most arresting paintings, Witness, was created especially for a 2010 exhibition celebrating Ballard. A long-time admirer of the writer, Saville exchanged correspondence with him before his death in 2009 with the hope of commissioning a catalogue essay.

The themes of urban malaise, sexual experimentation and imagery evocative of the crucifixion and resurrection in his Crash serves as one template for The Holy Bible’s hallucinatory scenes drawn from contemporary life. Compare, too, the way in which Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition involves the collaging of texts and images, celebrity figures, history, horrific violence and personal searching – it also featured on a list of Richey Edwards’s favourite books in 1994. [6] And of course the voice of Ballard himself appears on the track ‘Mausoleum’, delivering the unforgettable author statement: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror.’ Visceral immersion and philosophical reflection.

Witness, 2009 Artwork © Jenny Saville

The borders of the personal and the impersonal are worth considering further here, in the light of John Gray’s comments about the relationship between Saville and Ballard’s work:

“All Ballard’s work is a war against memory, but the intent is not to forget. It is to turn the debris of personal time – such as memories of his childhood in Shanghai – into images that are impersonal and emptied of time. The aim is to short-circuit the normal mechanisms of perception, and the dissolution of the personality that results from this process is imagined as a kind of freedom.” [7]

Gray might just as well be talking about the sort of conflicts that define The Holy Bible; its juxtaposition of history and the present; the desire to forget, to escape pain, as well as the attempt to look with open eyes, and to assert one’s existence in the world.

As Gray points out, Saville is clearly interested in the attempt to seize control of one’s identity through bodily modification and surgery, as articulated especially in her transgender models. At the same time, there is a sense that the crossing of boundaries – not only between one gender and another but between the body and technology, and life and death – makes the contours of the individual, the defining line of identity all the more blurry – and perhaps ultimately leaves only vulnerabilities exposed to the viewer. Speaking with Simon Groom at National Galleries Scotland in 2018, Saville explained:

“I think that on the border of things [has] been a fascination for me all the way through really. I think before I would make a painting of a transgender subject. Now I think the work itself is transgender. So I’ll layer female and male bodies all on top of each other. So the work itself is transgender rather than a depiction of a transgender body…” [8]

There are uncertainties as regards gender, identity and control throughout The Holy Bible, from the prostitute and the offer of sexual mutilation on ‘Yes’, through the anorexic girl whose ‘sex is gone’ on ‘4st 7lb’, to the somewhat ungraspable identity of the narrators of ‘Faster’ and ‘Die in the Summertime’ – typically assumed to be Richey Edwards.

Edwards expressed his own attraction to such ideas concerning the body, nature, technology, sexual desire and desirability, and the crossing of assumed boundaries. He told Select magazine about standout works of culture that had already reflected these interests, again confirming his enthusiasm for Ballard:

“JG Ballard’s ‘Crash’ – which is very sexual all the way through. He dreams of being in a car crash with Elizabeth Taylor: auto-imagery, just piling into Elizabeth Taylor and the tail lights meshing into each other, the bonnet being ripped out. It’s very violent. There’s a Japanese film called ‘Tetsuo, The Iron Man’, I love that film. All it is is a man turning into a machine, and in his mind he’s got a girlfriend and a potential male lover. I find it really sexy. I think people are becoming more machine-like and that’s the imagery I like. Also sex and death are closely linked. Sado-masochistic imagery, bleeding…” [9]

Still from Tetsuo: The Iron Man (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989). Kaijyu Theatre

Beyond these edges there is death. The event of death is looked squarely in the face. Deaths drawn from real life, and from past representations both factor. Where Saville refers to medical encyclopedias and to scenes from earlier paintings, such as Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas for inspiration, Wire and Edwards give us snapshots from twentieth-century political history, in the form of Mussolini’s hanging corpse and Lenin’s body lying in state, while also referring to the millions dead of the Second World War, and the victims of more recent crimes.

Though the subject of the autopsy has featured in such notable masterpieces as Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, Saville’s art is somewhat untypical in the way in which it draws upon source imagery from manuals of plastic surgery – images of the body considered unsightly, the distortions of nature, the corruptions of health, the devastations of assault, the invasive processes of reconstruction. Birthmarks, elephantiasis, disease – of which Saville makes remarkable modern exhibition pieces. On The Holy Bible the memorable character portraits of ‘Yes’, ‘4st 7lb’ and ‘Faster’ in particular are developed by incorporating unglamorous details, many of which undoubtedly draw on Richey Edwards’s own experiences – his mental health worsening, compounded by an eating disorder and alcoholism. The reality of ‘puking’, ‘acne’, ‘foul breath’, ‘fat’ and ‘bone’ he describes intensify the effect of the music on the listener.

Everything bodies forth. The physical precision and energy required to realise these artistic ideas at all – the variety of fine movement, skill and patient labour reflected in Saville’s brushwork, the exertion required to complete her canvases, and the complex instrumental and vocal performances demanded of James Dean Bradfield, and the rest of the band when presenting The Holy Bible in a live setting – amount to a fully embodied response to what the artists have seen, read, heard and felt. [10]

“The danger is that the text or music will lose what physics calls its ‘critical mass’, its implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self.” George Steiner

The significance of language is also crucial. The potential of the voice, and words to transform an audience, reflect error, reconceptualise. Influenced early in her career by French Écriture féminine theorists Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva – writers in whom Edwards was also likely to be interested – Saville was undaunted by the male-dominated art culture. One of her earliest and most famous pieces, Propped, includes a quote by Irigaray, in mirror reverse across the canvas, calling for a pushback against the masculine dominance of language: ‘If we continue to speak in this sameness – speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other. Again words will pass through our bodies, above our heads – disappear, make us disappear…’

Detail from Branded, 1992 Artwork © Jenny Saville

The extreme presentation of bodies in the lyrics and images of The Holy Bible might also be considered as a kind of somatic manifestation of the partisan politics explored in Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire’s lyrics: the perilous states of starvation and excessive consumption as body-doubles for righteous extremes of left and right wing ideologies. James Dean Bradfield has explained the ‘Janus head’ politics which underwrites The Holy Bible; the confusion of left- and right-wing notions that has arisen post-war. [11] A movable metaphor, then. As well as a document of present realities. This makes Strategy all the more fitting – a trinity, its left and right panels almost mirror opposites.

†††

“I pillage information from anywhere. I really don’t care where I get it from.”

Saville develops her figurative paintings using life models and pictures found in miscellaneous publications. People known to her, strangers photographed in textbooks, magazines and newspapers, characters in films whose expressions catch her eye, serve as tonal and compositional inspiration – she also regularly experiments with transposing her own body and face into images. In building her “composites”, Saville has taken cues from classical paintings, notably the Self-Portrait with Two Circles by Rembrandt. At the same time, the brushwork, textural variation and colour combinations of twentieth-century abstract painters further enliven her ostensibly traditional figurative studies.

The Holy Bible, often simply judged to be a thinly veiled portrait of Richey Edwards, draws on the personal testimonies of countless others in its lyrics and in the audio samples included. Anonymous and famous voices, the living and the dead, are compiled into a new archive of a ravaged century. Across the album, snippets of newspaper and journal editorials are mixed with slang from the streets, lines from novels and comics, and first person reflections based on what the band had witnessed on tour promoting Gold Against the Soul – visiting sites of mass killing, seeing the Reeperbahn red light district in Hamburg. Historical personages feature alongside fictional characters, as the band convey their own perspective on reality through the songs. Likewise, the album’s sonic templates are drawn from an array of 1970s post-punk and contemporary music sources, as James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore have openly acknowledged, from Magazine and PiL, to Faith No More and Girls Against Boys. (Jenny Saville’s single-word titles readily conjure up post-punk music too: ‘Plan’, ‘Trace’, ‘Juncture’, ‘Hybrid’, ‘Hyphen’, ‘Still’, ‘Suspension’, ‘Passage’…)

High and low art, past and present, the ephemeral and the iconographic, the journalistic and biographical, are transmuted both lyrically and musically. Both Saville’s pictures of people and the Manics’ rock songs are a mass of references and influences neatly framed for the viewer/listener. A depth of detail, information and vitality responsive to endless interaction.

Left: Source material, detail from Jenny Saville (Gagosian and Rizzoli, 2018). Right: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Bernini

There is a similar forensic attention, manic activity and even amnesia evident in this sort of creative process. A consciousness about certain reference points, as well as a sense that much else has been absorbed ambiently, and subconsciously transformed. Saville has spoken plainly about the influence that Cy Twombly, Titian, Rembrandt, Bacon and de Kooning (the subject of a later Manics song) among others have had on her meticulous, expressive techniques, happily referring the viewer to specific zones of her canvases that show the influence of these artists’ innovations clearly. But she has also explained:

“I’m not very good at, kind of, acknowledging my sources… I love Google Images… it’s collapsed history… I live in Oxford, so I know quite a few academics and they hate Google Images because it takes away their authority… The scale of everything as well becomes the same, so you might see a fertility goddess, you might see a Jeff Koons sculpture: everything’s the same scale. So that you’ve got these thumbnail scales and you don’t know which period in history they’re all from. So time and location and authority has gone. And that, I find that really exciting. So I can, like, print things off, I keep them in my studio, and I actually don’t know where they come from. After a while they’re part of this big sea of imagery that I work from. And that’s exhilarating, you know, because all things get mixed up and they just become kind of human. Just things that are human that I can work with.” [12]

Photos of Saville’s studio spaces over the years confirm this. The walls and floors covered in clippings and postcards, reference books, printouts and colour tests. Photographs of war atrocities, ancient statuary, weekly magazine spreads, reference manuals, modern artistic masterpieces and movie stills. Amongst these, the basis for certain paintings can be glimpsed. Likewise The Holy Bible is made of a glut of source materials, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, from a variety of media. (Edwards and Wire are also known for collaging their work spaces with inspirational pictures and quotes.) And the more attention one pays to the words and illustrations of The Holy Bible – the more one refers to the books, newspapers and other literature that the band were reading at the time of the album’s writing – the more phrases and images can be cited. The intertextual mode predominates.

It is oddly fitting, in the light of Saville’s comment about infidelities of scale, that her Strategy canvas, which measures 9 x 21 ft (the sort of measurement that matters when discussing an album that pays obsessive attention to size) is shrunken down to fit the standardising mechanisms of the commercial music industry – the dimensions of the CD jewel case, 12-inch vinyl sleeve and the cassette. But this trespass on the intrinsic shape and quality of something for the purposes of commercial exchange is already assumed in the writing of The Holy Bible (‘Everything’s for sale’). And it only mirrors, in a way, the magnification of the thumbnail picture to gallery wall proportions that Saville has achieved. Arresting images continue to circulate in different contexts. The tremendous value of discovering masterpieces through the medium of popular culture, which has been a function of the Manic Street Preachers’ art since their beginnings, remains. Saville has said that wherever she is presenting her exhibitions in the world, to this day, she is usually met by someone asking her to sign a copy of The Holy Bible. [13]

In her more recent work, Saville has made prominent use of ancient religious images, and thought about the ways in which such highly symbolic material might be re-viewed in the light of contemporary events. Her self-portraits based on Leonardo’s drawings of The Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist followed her own experience of childbirth and motherhood; and in the wake of the civil war in Syria and the subsequent refugee crisis, Saville has reminded us of the emotional significance of the pietà – in the form of a grieving father carrying his child from the rubble of a collapsed building. Creation, suffering and attempted transcendence in the everyday figured in new ways. Similarly, in writing The Holy Bible, Manic Street Preachers aimed to provide a response to the Ten Commandments for the modern age, paying scrupulous attention to the impact of the Second World War and to events transpiring in the world in 1993-94, not least the high number of religious wars raging then. Both resist the impulse to simply denounce the religious past and reject present spiritual notions. Saville has said that she is interested in exploring the unknown in her own way, speaking for instance of the influence of George Steiner’s text, Real Presences, in which the question is posed: Is making art a wager on the existence of God?

†††

It seems impossible now to imagine The Holy Bible without Saville’s artwork. The band used another of her paintings, Stare, for the cover of Journal For Plague Lovers (2009), maintaining the link to Richey Edwards’s writing and aesthetic. And the capacity to provoke strong reactions has not diminished. Upon the release of Journal, Saville’s cover was the subject of a much-publicised supermarket ban, her design covered by a cardboard slipcase at the same time that she was further confirming her reputation in the gallery and art collectors’ world. Lost in the supermarket, yet commanding prestige alongside history’s most renowned artists. Wire described the almost Ballardian bleakness of the situation:

“You go into a supermarket and can buy computer games with car crashes, death and guns. You can buy porn magazines. But you can’t buy a beautiful piece of art.” [14]

Ironically, Saville has recollected attending surgical demonstrations on cadavers as a member of the Pathology Society in London, part of the first-hand research into her extraordinary work, and finding, “each head was wrapped in a plastic bag, a Sainsbury’s bag or a Tesco bag”. [15]

Saville’s art has only become more prominent and respected since 1994, now fetching record sums. Seeing each new piece unveiled is another reminder for fans of The Holy Bible and Manic Street Preachers of the artist’s connection with the band. By means of visual expression and songwriting, Saville’s paintings and The Holy Bible confront certain difficult themes, and pose urgent questions about human existence, desire, suffering and memory that only seem to resonate more deeply over time – just as these individual works intensify the effect of one another. As Saville explains, speaking about her continual experiments with paint and the human form and trying to achieve new types of representation: “It’s like composing – painting is like playing music, I think”. [16]

Notes:

[1] Richards, Dan The Beechwood Airship Interviews (The Friday Project, 2015)

[2] Gass, William H The Tunnel (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012 – first published 1995)

[3] Kane, Pat ‘A Full Body of Work’, The Observer, 23 January 1994

[4] Davies, Hunter ‘This is Jenny and this is her plan’, Independent, 1 March 1994. Accessed online at https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/interview-this-is-jenny-and-this-is-her-plan-men-paint-female-beauty-in-stereotypes-jenny-saville-1426296.html (5 June 2020)

[5] Sylvester, David original Independent on Sunday article (1994) reprinted as ‘Areas of Flesh’ in Linda Nochlin (ed) Jenny Saville (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2005)

[6] The Atrocity Exhibition also served as inspiration for one of The Holy Bible’s musical forebears, Joy Division.

[7] Gray, John ‘The Landscape of the Body: Ballard, Bacon, and Saville’ in Jenny Saville

[8] ‘Talks & Lectures: Jenny Saville’ (2018), video available to view online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2NQZ5ggYJQ (accessed 30 May 2020)

[9] Sawyer, Miranda ‘Sexy?’, Select, September 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Sexy%3F_-_Select,_September_1994 (5 June 2020)

[10] Discussing Bradfield’s vocal interpretation of Edwards and Wire’s lyrics, Larissa Wodtke describes how, ‘[t]he awkward enjambements reveal a contorted straddling, a posture of evident discomfort for both performer and listener.’ See Wodtke, Larissa ‘Architecture of Memory: The Holy Bible and the Archive’ in Triptych (Repeater Books, 2017)

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

[12] ‘The Un-Private Collection: Jenny Saville + Jennifer Doyle’ (2019), video available to view online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bmp1ILOJFFI (accessed 5 June 2020)

[13] See Richards, The Beechwood Airship Interviews

[14] Hillis, Aaron ‘The Inquisition: Manic Street Preachers’, Spin, November 2009. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=The_Inquisition:_Manic_Street_Preachers_-_Spin,_November_2009 (5 June 2020)

[15] Richards, The Beechwood Airship Interviews

[16] ibid.

Walking Sideways

‘Jung hardly went far enough when he said “Hitler is the unconscious of every German”; he comes uncomfortably near being the unconscious in most of us… The shock of discovering through Freud and Marx that when we thought we were being perfectly responsible, logical, and loving we were nothing of the kind, has led us to believe that responsibility and logic and love are meaningless words; instead of bringing us to repentance, it has brought us to nihilistic despair.’ – WH Auden

Still from Night and Fog (dir. Alain Resnais, 1956)

‘Who’s next – Hitler?’, an article written by Joan Phillips for Living Marxism in November 1993 begins:

‘A burial took place recently in a small country church in Kenderes, Hungary. But it wasn’t any old burial. For a start, the deceased had been dead for nearly half a century. Even more bizarre, the spectacle was broadcast live on government-controlled television in the manner of a British royal wedding. The Hungarian mint issued silver and bronze medals to commemorate the occasion.

The man of the moment was Admiral Miklós Horthy, a nationalist, an anti-Semite and an ally of Hitler.’

Phillips goes on to contemplate the reappraisal of former authoritarian leaders across post-Communist Europe, with capitalist economic models having failed to bring widespread prosperity. Mention is also made of Józef Tiso, ‘president and premier of the Slovak republic between 1939 and 1945, [who] has become a cult figure.’

She concludes: ‘Where will it end? If Hungary can rehabilitate Horthy, if history can be rewritten so easily in Croatia, if the ugliness of the past can be sanitised in Poland, then what is to stop Germany from giving Hitler and the Nazis a clean bill of health?’ [1]

Since the same issue of Living Marxism included an article on the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that undoubtedly provided Richey Edwards with the closing line for ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart’ it is reasonable to assume that Phillips’ piece served as an inspiration for ‘Of Walking Abortion’. The references to wartime dictators seem to be in keeping with Phillips’ warning about the failures of history to improve the present; the image of Horthy’s televised burial directly imported, if rendered in more gruesome terms (‘Horthy’s corpse screened to a million’). The song continues the themes of the album’s preceding track as well. While ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ castigates US and British violence and racism in a blackly ironic mode, ‘Of Walking Abortion’ expresses a deeper misanthropic despair resulting from European fascism, extending the historical political references of The Holy Bible. It is here that the subject of the Holocaust first appears. In the context of a lyric that establishes a mood of depression and desolation, before invoking the names of anti-Semitic leaders, the use of the Hebrew ‘shalom’ only intensifies the falsely upbeat tone of ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’

A handwritten draft of the lyrics, reproduced in the 20th anniversary edition of The Holy Bible, shows that Nicky Wire provided many of the key phrases and references, which Edwards edited and extended. Wire told journalist Dorian Lynskey that the band’s visits to Dachau and Belsen in 1993, which also shaped other lyrics on the album, were probably in his mind. [2]

‘Walking Abortions’ lyric draft (Nicky Wire):

Mussolini lies from a butcher’s hook

Hitler lives with the spectre of the bunker

Half human half animal thrash around to savage

The reek of human blood smiling out

But we are not the spectators

We are the crucifixion

Isolated mouths – open black roads

Fragments of uniform – far pencilled horizons

The massacre of the innocents

The sickness of a bullfight

Trapped in this skin – in this flesh cage

The flowering of our youth

It feels like I’m falling apart

Edwards was paying close attention to the present threat of a return to the disasters of the past. In his tour programme notes for the song, he wrote:

‘East European truths – Horthy+Tisu (anti-Semitic/Fascist) – revived and brought back home. Facts ignored. Carve your mortal certainty there. Should we have been born/still born/walking sideways unable to make a decision of any consequence. Modern life makes thought an embarrassment. Your true reflection=Junkies, winos, whores. Who’s responsible?’ [3]

Speaking to Japanese magazine Music Life in 1994, he reflected further on the resurgence of the far-right in Europe as a basis for the song’s lyrics:

‘The bleakest song [on] the album. Fascism is growing stronger in Eastern European countries now. People are despairing about all sorts of things. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, rivalry between nations has not diminished. Every country has to develop naturally, as have western nations, but with the collapse of Soviet Union these countries are about 50 years behind in setbacks. Perhaps it’s not surprising that strong-willed ideologies such as Juche are being reconsidered. But with the nostalgia that the past was better, fascist ideology is being revived.’ [4]

Miklós Horthy commemorative medal, issued in Hungary, 1993

James Dean Bradfield, in a US interview, also remarked on the worrying signs that the band had picked up on while on the road:

“Touring does have an effect on you because you experience different strains of ideology and failed ideologies… and you go through Europe and there is a certain right-wing resurrection at the moment. Italy, one of the parties is starting to get some power, they’re resurrecting the image of Mussolini, you know, in glorious terms. And, like, you don’t have to be left wing or right wing to realise that that’s wrong. The Second World War’s only like barely forty years ago and if you can resurrect somebody like Mussolini, if you can resurrect his image in glorious terms, then there’s no hope for anybody. And basically you’ve got those problems… in France there’s somebody called Le Pen and he’s a complete and utter…well, he’s a nightmare. He’s a walking nightmare. And in Britain, we had a problem with the National Front, they got a seat in a council in London. They were out straight away, because people realise something bad had happened, and they were out. But it was like thinking, well, if we can’t learn from recent history, how can we learn at all? If we promote ourselves as this civilisation, as this free-thinking civilisation, what’s the point of being born if like if these things come back and come back.” [5]

It is the voice of US novelist Hubert Selby Jr, however, that is heard first of all. He recounts a profound experience of the inevitability of mortality: “I knew that someday I was gonna die. And I knew, before I died, two things would happen to me: that number one I would regret my entire life, and number two I would want to live my life over again.” The choice of sample for this track, as with the use of the portrait of Andrei Chikatilo to accompany the lyrics to ‘Faster’ in the album artwork, seems to add to the diffusive, intratextual effect of the whole; Selby’s ideas mirroring other words, sounds and imagery across The Holy Bible. The author of Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn (a favourite novel of Edwards’), which paint such stark images of American life, may well have provided inspiration for the urban violence of ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ or the dystopic vision of prostitution in ‘Yes’, as writers Rhian E Jones and Daniel Lukes have suggested. The sample might even have suited ‘Die in the Summertime’, given that song’s expression of longing for youth, and frustration at the failure to maintain ‘a fixed ideal’. But, as Lukes writes: ‘In Selby’s old man looking back, childhood is just the beginning; in Richey’s response it is the beginning of the end.’ [6] Just as the sample that opens ‘Yes’ contains an elision, making the pimp’s statement about New York’s sex industry more universal, here the sense of purpose that Selby Jr found in writing is omitted, as Lukes has perceptively noted:

‘By preserving, isolating and looping the anxious pretext of the statement… whilst excluding and rejecting the redemptive component of Selby’s self-preservation narrative, The Holy Bible demonstrates how it picks and chooses, twists its sources to suit and construct its own intransigent tales of self-destruction.’ [7]

Selby repeated the story in other interviews, but it is likely that Edwards sourced the audio from a BBC Radio 4 broadcast, which he selected as a highlight of 1993 for Melody Maker:

“My favourite radio programme this year was about… not cult books, but books which have aroused a lot of displeasure. They started off with Hubert Selby Jr’s ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’, with the author talking about it and reading excerpts, then JG Ballard’s ‘Crash’” [8]

Amid the clashing noise, and the machinic and militaristic rhythms that follow, the post-punk influence is clear. As acknowledged by Bradfield, the music draws heavily on Magazine’s ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’, with a similar probing, circling guitar line in the verses and a burst of ringing chords at the chorus. [9] It is reminiscent, too, of Public Image Limited’s ‘Annalisa’, which shares the song’s insistent snare smacks and scouring guitar riff. Bradfield pushes his playing into another, more caustic zone, with distorted harmonics rising and falling, the final note of each verse figure sustained, provoking shrieks and groans from the instrument. Wire’s bass, swollen and menacing, anticipates the lead-in to ‘Archives of Pain’ while the ‘lead weights’ of life described in the lyrics are matched by the heavy thud of Sean Moore’s drums. Engineer Alex Silva has revealed, in an interview with writer David Evans, that location recordings sourced from steelworks in Wales were also incorporated into the mix, giving the industrial textures of the record a more personal connection with the group’s background, in keeping with their decision to return to their Welsh roots to record the album. [10]

The Manic Street Preachers’ third album builds on many of the ideas and images that fascinated them from the beginning. To be sure, the depth and intensity of both the music and the lyrics of The Holy Bible, its journalistic detail, makes it a far stronger work than those that preceded it but it is not altogether a dramatic move into previously unmined territory. ‘Of Walking Abortion’ takes its title from a quote by feminist Valerie Solanas, which was also used to accompany the song ‘Little Baby Nothing’ on the inner sleeve of Generation Terrorists:

‘The male is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes. In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples.’ [11]

Solanas’ unrelenting, vehement style seems to have inspired Edwards and Wire. Writing on man’s proclivity for war, she said:

‘The male’s normal compensation for not being female, namely, getting his Big Gun off, is grossly inadequate, as he can get it off only a very limited number of times; so he gets it off on a really massive scale, and proves to the entire world that he’s a “Man”. Since he has no compassion or ability to empathize or identify, proving his manhood is worth an endless amount of mutilation and suffering and an endless number of lives, including his own – his own life being worthless, he would rather go out in a blaze of glory than to plod grimly on for fifty more years.’

Also presaging the words of ‘Of Walking Abortion’, in his ‘Seven Days in the Life of Richie Edwards’ diary, written during the recording of the debut LP, Edwards wrote: ‘Rip down my bedroom wall. I don’t want to leave Keith, Johnny, Stalin, Flavor Flav, Axl, Liz Taylor to be as maggots. People are like maggots, small, blind and worthless.’ (my italics) [12] Since this line, a variation of which features in the song, comes by way of David Smith, brother-in-law of Myra Hindley and one-time friend of Ian Brady, it also creates a link to ‘Archives of Pain’, where the Moors murderers appear in the dock, and which takes a comparably extreme view of human justice. [13] (To further illustrate the long-running cultural influences on Richey Edwards, in the same Select article he reports that he has been watching the film adaptation of Last Exit to Brooklyn.)

The first line of the song conveys a sense of time stopped: ‘pendulum died’. The album itself captures a snapshot in history, a fraught pause in the mid-1990s, when the past was under worrying review by revisionist historians and political parties. The chronological is then juxtaposed with the spatial, searching for a moral orientation in a world of accusation: ‘spectator or crucified’; where does one stand in this scene? The religious iconography of The Holy Bible continues, following on from the purgatory, hell and ‘crucified grace’ of the first two tracks on the album. Stranded between two positions, the anxiety that results is shown to lead to bleak consequences.

Dorian Lynskey, in his writing about ‘Of Walking Abortion’, has argued its unique status as a protest song that does not locate hope for social and political change within the listener or wider society. To be a part of modern European or American societies (those shaped by Christianity), according to the song, is to be hopelessly embroiled in their mechanisms of exploitation, abuse and violence, of the type already underlined in the opening track – as well as their historical crimes. Though the content is certainly more specific and provocative, Manic Street Preachers’ songs were already shot through from the start with rejection, not only of capitalism, conservatism and the monarchy, but also the listener as possible co-conspirator. In ‘Stay Beautiful’ they warn: ‘don’t fall in love, ‘cos we hate you still’.

‘Of Walking Abortion’ is a rare instance of the first person plural, ‘we’, on The Holy Bible, an album that otherwise continually moves between first person embodiment and observation from afar. The first and second person extends even to most of the samples too (‘You can buy…’, ‘You’re invited…’, ‘I knew that someday…’, I wonder who you think you are…’, ‘I eat too much to die…’, ‘I wanted to rub…’, ‘I hate purity…’). But the expression of collectivity – once used so forcefully as a sense of group identity on ‘Stay Beautiful’ – is made only in order to denounce, or to mock viciously: ‘We are all of walking abortion’.

The Holy Bible is at once deeply compassionate towards society’s victims and self-absorbed and misanthropic, casting blame upon all who choose to listen to it. There are empathetic portraits and unforgettable images of the most vulnerable individuals, as well as a rejection of pity and penitence in favour of harsh judgement, and morbid self-transformation as a means to transcendence, whether through life or death, as suggested in ‘4st 7lb’ and ‘Faster’. The struggle to reconcile these emotions makes the album compelling and unfailingly human.

†††

Acedia was distinguished from the sadness (tristia) that leads a man back to God and to repentance. Medieval sources are not clear about the role volition plays in this. Was it a sin to let oneself develop acedia? Or was acedia a punishment meted out to those who had committed some other sin?’ Andrew Solomon

‘Acedia’ is defined as a state of listlessness, and by theologian Thomas Aquinas as ‘the sorrow of the world’. The Manics’ familiar boredom, alienation and despair takes on a more archaic, Christian aspect in ‘Of Walking Abortion’ (‘acedia’s blackest hole’) but it is born of a confrontation with the realities of modern life: ‘Junkies winos whores the nation’s moral suicide’: The figures listed here are the sort that populate Selby’s stories. The language is suddenly more American in derivation, specifically ‘wino’, which the following line only reinforces: ‘Loser – liar – fake – phoney [sic]’. The voice of Solanas seems to cut through again, but for Edwards any concerns about authenticity, honesty and social worth are here brutally dismissed: ‘no one cares, everyone is guilty’. The lyrics seem to splice snapshots from Europe and America, with mentions of Mussolini, Hitler, Horthy and Tiso but also ‘X’, which most commentators presume is a reference to Malcolm X. The song cannot be so easily reduced to an editorial on 1990s Europe. The switch to slang, like that found on ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’, enriches the language of the album further, rubbing against the more portentous pronouncements and venting a raw frustration so perfectly embodied by Bradfield’s voice and the music’s aggressive sound: ‘Fucked up, dunno why, you poor little boy.’ Three songs in: ‘fuck’ used in all of them. No fucks given by Manic Street Preachers at this point as regards the commercial implications of the content of The Holy Bible, so assured as they are in their artistic intent.

The second verse of the song is focused around references to twentieth-century European dictators. Graphic images of the dead bodies of Mussolini and Horthy are evoked in contexts of spectatorship. (Mussolini’s body was in fact hung in public following his execution. The restaging of Horthy’s burial, as Joan Phillips reported in 1993, was also a public event.) The lines recall the contrast set up earlier, between ‘spectator’ and ‘crucified’. The vision of ‘Il Duce’, suspended upside down, even figures as a lurid embodiment of ‘lead weights’, the ‘pendulum died’. At the same time the imagery marks the third reference in three songs to televisual images, and abused, mutilated bodies – while foreshadowing the hanging cadaver described in ‘Archives of Pain’ (‘a drained white body hanging from the gallows’). The word ‘butcher’ will also echo through the album. Voyeurism and violence, recurring, obsessive.

‘Tisu [sic] revived, the horror of a bullfight’ meanwhile presents a more oblique juxtaposition; the mention of bullfighting, appearing in Nicky Wire’s draft, evoking Spain, a major European fascist power of the twentieth century not mentioned elsewhere on the album – but which would be returned to on the band’s first number one single, ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’. There are also throughlines that lead to the poetic style found later on Journal For Plague Lovers, for which all of the music was based around Richey Edwards’ remaining lyrics: ‘100,000 watch Giant Haystacks…’ and ‘A dwarf takes his cockerel out of the cockfight’ both chime with the imagery of violent sport and mass spectatorship in ‘Of Walking Abortion’.

From ‘Small Town Bullfight’, by Brian Seed and Peter Anderson. Photography (February 1954)

The listener is implicated in the most uncompromising terms: ‘Hitler reprised in the worm of your soul’. As Wire explained to Lynskey:

‘There’s an overriding philosophy behind the whole album: evil is an essential part of the human condition and the only way to get over it is recognising all hypocrisies, all evils recognising it’s in us all – which I guess is not a liberal view.’ [14]

Still, the capacity for evil in every person – remarked upon strikingly by WH Auden following the outbreak of the Second World War, in a 1940 commencement address at Smith College (see epigraph) – has preoccupied philosophers, poets and novelists through history, and specifically in reference to the horrors of the Holocaust; notably in the work of Gitta Sereny, Hannah Arendt and Christopher Browning. There is ever an attempt at sense-making alongside the catastrophes. By the second bridge, however, the transmission begins to break up, the sense becomes blurred, the murderous past bleeds into the prosaic present.

‘Fragments of uniforms, open black ruins’ appears to have been adapted from Nicky Wire’s original draft, in which one line ends ‘open black roads’ before the next begins ‘Fragments of uniform’. Even if purely coincidentally, Edwards’ revised line alludes to a poem to which The Holy Bible as a whole has previously been compared: TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. (In Triptych, writer Daniel Lukes titles his chapter devoted to the literary sources of the album ‘Fragments Against Ruin’ and explores the connections with Eliot’s writing.) No longer roads that might lead the way out, the final ruins only make manifest what has already been described in spiritual terms earlier in the song, now suggesting the devastated physical landscape of Europe.

The words ‘moral’, ‘morals’ and ‘morality’ appear throughout The Holy Bible, four times in the second track alone, and in the quote by French author Octave Mirbeau that appears on the back sleeve. How can we act morally? What new commandments might be proposed? This was one of the stated bases for writing The Holy Bible, prompted by the religious conflicts, political violence and economic exploitation continuing to shape western politics. ‘Of Walking Abortion’ alerts us to hollow displays of ‘moral conscience’: ‘you’ve no wounds to show, so wash your car in your ‘X’ baseball shoes’. An image is introduced here of the individual who has not been swept up in the ravages of recent history. As if transplanted from ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’, a brilliant picture of ideological affiliation of the least committed kind, expressed through an act of consumerism in a suburban neighbourhood. It anticipates a similar exhortation delivered on ‘Die in the Summertime’, in an altogether more biblical style: ‘if you really care wash the feet of a beggar’.

Though never clarified by Edwards or Wire, the ‘X’ has been widely understood as being a reference to Malcolm X, whose enduring political influence was signalled by a logo which found its way onto baseball caps, T-shirts and other merchandise in the 1990s, coinciding with the release of Spike Lee’s biopic, Malcolm X. Again the suggestion is one of renewed glorification of leaders whose reputation had dissipated. Or as Rhian E Jones writes, ‘through the recuperation of radical icons or imagery… adopting moral or political causes as fashion accessories’. [15] The failures of economics, social cohesion and other factors seems to have opened the ground up for the inglorious dead to be celebrated, for their images to be restored for a new generation.

The penultimate line of the song again leaves no escape for the listener: ‘The massacred innocent blood stains us all’. The idea of staining, and of holes too, is also reprised in ‘Die in the Summertime’ (‘the hole in my life even stains the soil’) forming further repetitions and variations across the album. And then the final refrain, among the most memorable of The Holy Bible, itself emblazoned on the band’s own merchandise. First intoned flatly, then shouted with ferocity – Bradfield’s voice distorted by using the guitar pickup as a microphone, according to Alex Silva. [16] As David Evans notes, the influence of The Pop Group’s ‘There Are No Spectators’ seems to be clear: ‘There are no spectators / You are responsible whether you like it or not’. [17] If not musically, then lyrically; if not intentionally, then by unconscious process. The damning judgement that ends the song clears the ground for the unswerving, accusatory force of ‘Archives of Pain’: ‘Who’s responsible? You fucking are’ even similar to that song’s opening: ‘I wonder who you think you are…’.

The first three tracks of The Holy Bible map out a picture of widespread exploitation, violence, murder and spiritual malaise, before instilling guilt in the listener. The dark pours out of you.

‘Of Walking Abortion’ is another collage: of Solanas, of another Living Marxism article; of lines written before The Holy Bible; of lines that might just as well fit in ‘Archives of Pain’, ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ and ‘Die in the Summertime’; of musical phrases and lyric ideas tuned to the band’s post-punk playlist during the recording sessions. Intertextual and intratextual. But for all its myriad elements, its brutal images, specific historical references, slang and abstractions, the song has a clear theme: the dangers of spiritual and political vacuums as spaces in which a disgraceful past might be reconsidered, opening the way to mass murder. And the threat of nationalism and racism to contaminate the body politic.

The image selected by Edwards to accompany the lyrics in the album booklet is, like the back cover quote by Mirbeau, taken from a RE/Search Publications title, this time Daniel P Mannix’s Freaks: We Who Are Not as Others. The navel of Margarete Clark, the source of a Siamese twin appendage, the graphic representation of a walking abortion; not as a metaphor for men, as Solanas strictly intended, but as a pitiful image of all humankind.

Detail from Freaks: We Who Are Not as Others (Daniel P Mannix, RE/Search Publications, 1976)

A sense of unease is captured in the title alone, which was changed from ‘Walking Abortions’ to ‘Of Walking Abortion’. How unusual the phrasing of the chorus line is too: ‘We are all of walking abortion’. Compare this to another line in ‘Archives of Pain’: ‘Not punish less, rise the pain’. There is something not right in the grammar, in the sound of the thing. The same extends to individual words as well, as Lynskey notes: ‘syllables are unnaturally stretched as if on a rack… and emphasis falls in the wrong places’. [18] It is as if it should be, ‘We are all walking abortions’. But the meaning is shifted to suggest an unavoidable group relationship, all humanity as constituted by, the result of, a ‘walking abortion’. Is the title meant to mimic the essay style of earlier philosophical treatises, such as Spinoza’s Ethics; an appendix to his ‘Of human bondage, or the strength of the emotions’? Here, the potential of reason to guide human action in overcoming the worst natural impulses is again questioned, just as Auden and others have questioned it, in the face of ineradicable hatred and suffering.

Notes:

[1] Phillips, Joan ‘Who’s next – Hitler?’, Living Marxism No. 61, November 1993. Accessed online at https://web.archive.org/web/20000310155611/http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM/LM61/LM61_Hitler.html (15 March 2020)

[2] See Lynskey, Dorian 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs (Faber & Faber, 2012).

[3] 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 (15 March 2020)

[4] Akao, Mika, ‘Richey Edwards talks about The Holy Bible’, Music Life, September 1994. English translation by M. Jun, accessed online at https://juritr.web.fc2.com/manics/94musiclife.html (20 March 2020)

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

[6] Lukes, Daniel ‘Fragments Against Ruin: The Books of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible’ in Jones, Lukes, Wodtke Triptych (Repeater Books, 2017). Note also the coincidental repetition of the phrase ‘number one’, which also features in the lyrics to ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’

[7] ibid

[8] Price, Simon ‘Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers chooses his Men of the Year’, Melody Maker, 25 December 1993, http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Richey_Edwards_Of_Manic_Street_Preachers_Chooses_His_Men_Of_The_Year_-_Melody_Maker,_25th_December_1993 Selby Jr recounts the same experience in an interview with Ellen Burstyn to promote the DVD release of the film adaptation of Requiem For a Dream (2000). See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1Zcf1maJlE (10:10 – 12:01).

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

[10] Evans, David The Holy Bible (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

[11] Solanas, Valerie SCUM Manifesto (Olympia Press, 1971)

[12] ‘Seven Days in the Life of Richie Edwards’, Select, February 1992. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Seven_Days_In_The_Life_Of_Richie_Edwards_-_Select,_February_1992 (15 March 2020)

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

[14] Lynskey, 33 Revolutions Per Minute

[15] Jones, Triptych

[16] Bateman, Steve ‘Interview with Alex Silva’, accessed at http://repeatfanzine.co.uk/interviews/alex%20silva.htm (15 March 2020). ‘With James’ final distorted scream, I think that was actually done through the guitar (pausing), it was while we were doing the guitar takes, as he screamed through the pickups as he reached the end of that particular guitar pass. So that sound was not worked on or manufactured, that was the guitar sound coming out of the cab and that’s what it sounded like when you shouted through the pickups.’

[17] Evans, The Holy Bible. The following lyrical style even mirrors the ‘Conservative say / Democrat say’ chorus of ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’: ‘Some man see things as they are and say, “Why?” / I dream things that never were and say, “Why not?”’

[18] Lynskey, 33 Revolutions Per Minute

National Anathema

‘I use “America” throughout the text to refer to the United States. I choose to use the word America for its resonances as marker of a generic nation and mass-mediated political and cultural condition/terrain.’ – S Paige Baty

Grenada, Operation Urgent Fury
1983
[1]

‘Away shallow USA’

The unusual, compressed typography of the track title ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart’ might possibly be traced back to a song by McCarthy, one of the formative influences on Manic Street Preachers – and whose ‘Charles Windsor’ had appeared alongside that key template for The Holy Bible, ‘Comfort Comes’, on the Life Becoming a Landslide EP. ‘Antiamericancretin’ would at first appear to be a song that opposes the sentiment of the Holy Bible track. Yet McCarthy’s criticism of anti-Americanism, specifically among the political left in Britain in the 1980s, served to highlight the way in which British nationalism was being comparatively overlooked. As singer Malcolm Eden wrote in the accompanying notes to the reissue of the band’s album I Am a Wallet:

‘At the time (and still today) anti-Americanism was a feature of left-wing British thought. It was a purely nationalistic point of view, in that it said that we should “preserve English culture” against the influence of the Americans. In my view, it is more important for English people to combat English nationalism than American nationalism. This is more or less the subject of the song.’

McCarthy’s leftist vision of an England ‘bowed beneath a baseball bat / Beneath an ice-cool Cola can’, a country sold on ‘fast-food chains’ and ‘trivial TV’, are echoed in Manic Street Preachers’ breathless attack on the vacuity and violence of American life on ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ – a song that in fact takes on American and British nationalism as twin menaces.

The song opens with a recorded sample taken from a 1994 television advertisement for the Republican GOP channel’s broadcast of a gala dinner in honour of Ronald Reagan:

‘Next Thursday you’re invited to watch Rising Tide’s live coverage of a gala tribute in salute to Ronald Reagan. Host, Haley Barbour joins special guest Lady Margaret Thatcher, in celebrating the former president’s eighty-third birthday. Tickets are one thousand dollars a plate but you can see the event free on GOP TV.’ [2]

Disillusioned with the reality of corporate America on a visit in 1992, which was covered by the NME, Richey Edwards remarked to journalist Stuart Baillie: ‘Everything just seems for sale’. [3] And not only mass-produced consumer goods and sexual services. As the song advertises: For $1,000, you too can dine with a former president and movie star.

“America is the most important place to us. America is our dream,” Nick confesses. “One thing I’ve always wanted is to get a No.1 album in America…Pitiful!” (Spin, April 1992)

The USA and its political, economic and cultural influence worldwide has been a subject of criticism from the first Manic Street Preachers album. The country is unambiguously denounced on the B-side ‘Dead Yankee Drawl’, which appeared on the Little Baby Nothing single  – and a version of which had been on the setlist at the band’s first London show in 1989. The lyrical contents directly anticipate those of ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’, which writer Rhian E Jones has described as ‘a slightly more sophisticated retread of the same terrain, right down to Moore’s marching-band beat’. [4] There are specific stylistic elements that link the song directly with The Holy Bible in general and its second track in particular: the number of references to real historical figures (Rodney King), places (Indiana Youth Center) and cultural products (Bill and Ted…); and the mesh of pop culture, history and politics in a stream of reportage, critical judgements and extreme imagery. [5] The band had arrived into LA just after the tumult of the riots in 1992 and found little to recommend of the country. But, as Jones and other writers have also underlined, the band have been largely shaped by American bands, films and writers.

‘Dead Yankee Drawl’ has the same slickly produced, heavy rock sound as the lumbering ‘Patrick Bateman’ another underwhelming B-side, this time from the Gold Against the Soul era, which, taking inspiration from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, lambasts the Reagan era yuppie culture, with an intro sample of children singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. While the earlier B-side criticises a culture which ‘Killed off literature for sex and violence’, in Ellis the band found a writer capable of turning that same sex and violence into a formidable, literary satire. Uninspiring musically; too dulled by, of all things, the influence of US mainstream rock music; and the words similarly shoehorned into the rhythm rather than shaping it – neither track matches the lyrical ingenuity and musical complexity of ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ which skips, propels and menaces – and features one of Sean Moore’s most inspired drum tracks. There are overlaps in sentiment and style, though, among the songs. The specific reference to Bateman’s character might easily have sat well within the lyrical contents of either of the other songs. ‘I pretty my face with all this cream and stuff / Ugliness inside much harder to cover up / I lack the thought to care about politics / Just do what I like, ain’t that democratic?’

E Pluribus Unum

As with ‘Faster’, the lyrics to ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ were co-written by Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards, as reproductions of various handwritten drafts in the twentieth anniversary boxset of The Holy Bible show. One page, in Wire’s hand, reads:

White USA

Verse Images of perfection of suntan + napalm

Greneda [sic] Haiti Poland Nicaragua

Who shall we choose for our morality

I’m thinking right now of Hollywood reality

Verse

 A corpse so pretty with its degeneration

Cuba – Mexico it’s all the same fuckin country

Your idols speak so much of seeking the abyss

Yet your morals only run as deep as the surface

A note addressed to ‘Nick’, written by Edwards reads:

  1. If white America told the truth for one day it’s world would fall apart
  2. Junkies and alcoholics are the nation’s moral suicides

This appears out of context within the documentation included as part of the 2014 reissue, but it does point to the crucial thematic links between ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ and ‘Of Walking Abortion’, two songs which are not typically discussed in tandem in writing about the album [6] but whose connection hinges explicitly on the presence of Hubert Selby Jr – author of a requiem for the American Dream – as well as the words of another vehement critic of American society, Valerie Solanas.

The title seems to have changed before the emergence of the final lyric (typed by Edwards), as another draft in Wire’s hand confirms:

If White America told the truth for one day its country would fall apart

Hello Good morning – How are you – fine – cool – great

You look great – I feel great – really cool

Command your impulse and stare

Smile please – shake my hand Hate me in reality

Images of perfection of sun-tan – and napalm

Greneda [sic] – Haiti – we understand Nicaragua

Who shall we choose today or is it too late

So so unhappy with your beautiful tragedy

Your corpse de-generates into ineptitude

Your morals run as deep as the surface

All the lost souls perish under your gun

Who can believe you were once human

Statistics statistics fact or fiction

How many live how many die

Who does it matter to anyway

Sony – a saviour your own [?] it well

Work [?] to do

Wire, then, seems to have lent much of the ironic humour to the song – the skewering of the surface niceties that characterise everyday interactions, and which operate against a backdrop of successive foreign interventions by the USA. An emphasis on the culture’s empty consumerism seems also to have been intended by a sample direction for the song, handwritten by Edwards, which suggests: ‘shopping channel’ – presumably an alternative to the final choice of the political gala dinner advert ultimately used.

Haiti
1959
[7]

‘The centre cannot hold’

After receiving the lyrics from Edwards and Wire, James Dean Bradfield imagined the song as ‘the American musical gone wrong’, referring to West Side Story and the gang rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets as a direct inspiration for the call-and-response chorus lines (‘Conservative say… / Democrat say…’). [8] What resulted was almost their own version of Bernstein and Sondheim’s ‘America’, replete with its own scathing criticisms, ironic humour and, unusually for The Holy Bible, simplistic rhyming phrases. While Bradfield remarks on the political opposition expressed in the chorus, the introduction of the Sharks and Jets comparison also extends the key element of the song’s thematic focus: race and nationalism. The racial element was there too in ‘Dead Yankee Drawl’, with its references to ‘Red Indians’ and the apparent differences of rape trial outcomes between Mike Tyson and William Kennedy Smith (owing to different monetary interests and levels of power). Still another line might have fit ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’: ‘Silent race war of sweet Hollywood lies’.

While ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ zones in on one nation under God in its title, its chorus explicitly likens the political divisions and racism of the USA to that of the UK. The voices that had chanted in unison on McCarthy’s ‘Antiamericancretin’ (‘Englishmen! Rise Again!’ and ‘Britons will never be slaves!’) find their counterpart in ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ Drawing on the title of Paul Gilroy’s study of black identity and national identity, ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ evokes the vicious chants of English football stands. The choice of ‘conservative’ (not ‘republican’) and ‘democrat’ (not ‘Labour’) contribute to this blurring of the two nations. Yet, America remains the focus from beginning to end, with all of the specific biographical, product and geographical references creating a splintered, though to all appearances sunny, state of the nation.

***

In his biography of the band, Simon Price dismisses the track as ‘a disjointed, mock-heroic rocker with a weak, ill-conceived lyric attacking the inherent racism of US gun laws.’ [9] An unfair assessment, when the tone, phrasing, historical references, allusions, overlaps with other songs on the album (and across the band’s catalogue) – and the sheer unlikelihood of the lyric as a possible basis for a rock song at all – are given anything more than the most superficial consideration.

Rhian E Jones, Daniel Lukes and David Evans have each likened the song’s images of urban malaise and violence to those of the album’s first track – Evans even perceptively describing the intro riff to ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ as ‘an inverted version’ of that of ‘Yes’. [10] Beyond the album, The Clash’s ‘I’m So Bored With the USA’ seems another obvious point of reference but interestingly Moore has mentioned a later Clash album as a touchstone while recording ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’:

‘It’s me trying to be Topper Headon, in a strange sort of way… It’s one of those songs where it just happened, The ideas were there, the little fast tom. I was thinking all the time of London Calling. For us it was the end – third album, everything’s bombing, fuck it, let’s do what we want.’ [11]

Wire has described the ease with which the rhythm section fell into place:

‘Sometimes in a band there is a telepathy and even in the rhythm section with me and Sean… that was happening on tracks like “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart”; it was just like speeded up Adam and the Ants! We didn’t need to speak about it. We just felt like we were doing the right thing.’ [12]

Sondheim and Bernstein’s ‘America’, which has the same kind of syllabic insistence as the Manics’ track, derives largely from the Hispanic culture it ostensibly pits itself against. Likewise, there is no small irony in the fact that the Manics’ anti-American songs have derived much inspiration from popular US rock bands, as Stephen Lee Naish remarks in his study of 2001’s Know Your Enemy. [13] But ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ breaks away from the bland mainstream rock mode of its companion songs ‘Dead Yankee Drawl’ and ‘Patrick Bateman’ drawing upon two British precursors. The blast of phased guitar that marks the outro section of the song also shows the band unhesitant in incorporating somewhat unfashionable, strident effects into the music – keeping the emphasis on texture and tone rather than radio airplay (even if the effect does resemble Rush’s ‘Spirit of the Radio’ – a song that, incidentally, would heavily shape the title track on Journal For Plague Lovers, the companion album to The Holy Bible).

The song’s lyrics are delivered in a non-stop wire-service of observations and catchphrases – urgent, scathing and tongue-in-cheek. The cascade of words mixes inventory, satire, debate, advertising slogans and slang – a key example of the album’s hybrid, or collaged, writing style. Wire and Edwards’s words mimic the televisual media’s seamless blend of Hollywood gossip, foreign policy, urban violence, race relations and advertising, creating a frightening flow. Rolling headlines, op-eds and frantic reportage are subverted in bullet points and succinct but surreal soundbites:

‘Big Mac: Smack: Phoenix, R: Please, smile y’all’, ‘Compton – Harlem – a pimp fucked a priest. Vital stats: how white was his skin? Unimportant just another inner-city drive-by thing’.

Here are product, pin-up and pornographic imagery – the first of the song’s two instances of the spiritual and the sexual colliding, almost as lurid and shocking as that in ‘Yes’ – and extending the album’s reference to prostitution (‘pimp’) but with a racialised element, introduced by the references to Compton and Harlem – only to be dismissed with brutal contempt (‘just another inner-city drive-by thing). Note also the unusual choice to reverse surname and forename (‘Phoenix, R’), which both echoes the similar reversal on ‘Dead Yankee Drawl’ (‘King Rodney’), and suggests a particular grammar: that of police/emergency room administration.

Later the song seems to pay homage to the style of JG Ballard (who will appear elsewhere on The Holy Bible), with a reference that combines automobile, film, violence and sexual gratification: ‘Zapruder the first to masturbate’ could be a note from a lost draft of Crash. And just as Ballard introduces celestial and religious imagery into his vision of deviants of the highways seeking new life through physical wounding, so this fictional act of Abraham Zapruder’s is described by Edwards as ‘the world’s first taste of crucified grace’ – the phrase perhaps more specifically referring to the image of the assassinated president, John F Kennedy, in the public imagination; the president whose terrible, final moments were captured on 8mm by Zapruder.

E Unibus Pluram

‘I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis…’ – David Foster Wallace

It seems fitting that the sample that begins ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ is not only sourced from television but is advertising yet another TV broadcast. The central place of television in the lives of Americans and in the transformation of culture in the twentieth century is the subject of a remarkable essay by David Foster Wallace, who traces an all-conquering ironic tone, and an obsessive attention to prettiness, to the influence of the medium.

‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ is steeped in the irony described by Wallace – Edwards and Wire also ‘exploiting gaps between what’s said and what’s meant, between how things try to appear and how they really are…’ in the chorus of the song, reflecting a shallow surface of American life. [14] This will find its uglier mirror image in another song on The Holy Bible, ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’, which evokes the false sense of security that Nazi soldiers created for Jewish victims during the Holocaust (‘Welcome, welcome. Soldier smiling’).

But the band have clearly seen television as a source of information, education and creative influence throughout their lives, as the wide-ranging samples on the album also attest. Recall that definitive experience of hearing The Clash that propelled Bradfield and Wire into songwriting: as seen on TV. In an interview for Canadian television in 1992, Richey explained:

‘I mean it’s a pretty primitive form of writing. Like we’re just ordinary, like any average kid of the twentieth century, our attention spans are so limited. Like we sit in front of the TVs like this [turns channel dial], turn loads of channels all day, different radio stations, different records, read comics, read books, can’t ever… concentrate and we just like scribble down whatever phrases come in our head. And we usually end up giving James like two or three pages of paper and whatever line in it that makes sense or he can make a rhythm from he’ll use in a song. That’s why a lot of our lyrics are very confused.’ [15]

Another characteristic of The Holy Bible that Wallace (with respect to literary fiction), links with the influence of television is the use of ‘pop cultural references’. The band were unafraid to ground the material on The Holy Bible in the political and cultural context of 1993-94 – thereby making the album a work of a particular historical moment, as well as a reflection on history. The recent death of the actor River Phoenix from a drug overdose, and the enactment of a now obscure piece of legislation are mentioned in the song. Alongside these are two figures from other flashpoints of post-Sixties American politics, the satirical appearances by Tipper Gore and Abraham Zapruder, and references to the country’s foreign policy.

This chimes with Wallace’s description of Americans ‘no longer united so much by common beliefs as by common images’ and his criticisms of a former graduate school teacher who was of the view that a work of literary art should avoid “any feature which serves to date it”, believing, as Wallace saw it, that ‘[h]is automobiled Timeless and our MTV’d own [world] were different.’

The moving image – in particular the pain and destruction it captures – is, as much as the word, essential to The Holy Bible.

Poland
1943 – 1944
[16]

‘His heart PMRC. The white man is disease.’

‘They don’t just epater les bourgeois, they rub its face into its own merde. This is music to make the blood run cold, and if only a dimwit would salute its values, only a fool would completely disrespect them.’ – Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack, Village Voice (10 October 1989)

The principle concerns of racism and nationalism that drive ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ will be returned to in other songs on The Holy Bible, notably ‘Of Walking Abortion’ and ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’, where the scourge of anti-Semitism is referred to. And just as the introduction of the history of the Holocaust is liable to throw up questions about the suitability of rock music as a platform for exploring such material, the racial element of ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ has not been without its critics. For Daniel Lukes, the song’s focus on ‘white America’ is part of a lyrical throughline that ‘reifies and fetishizes a monstrous, terribly self-critical whiteness.’

But interwoven with this concern with race and politics is the issue of freedom of speech, which simultaneously links the song with the closing track on the album, ‘PCP’. And it is no coincidence that the political questions of ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’, ‘Of Walking Abortion’ and ‘PCP’ overlap in ways that repay closer analysis, since all three songs derive some of their lyrical contents from the same source, the journal Living Marxism. [17]

The influence of rap music – its depiction of urban violence, its themes of racial prejudice, and its subjection to censorship – seems pertinent here as well. The namechecking of Tipper Gore – known for her connection to the cause of the Parents Resource Music Center (PMRC), which advocated censorship of music albums – also makes the song a companion piece of sorts to Ice-T’s ‘Freedom of Speech’, which directs vehement, sexual insults at Gore. The issue of race was judged by some artists to have played a part in the PMRC’s campaign, with the imagery and language of rap music, performed mostly by black artists being among the key targets of the PMRC, notably the Compton based group N.W.A. [18] Ice-T’s attack on the attempt to curb freedom of expression includes imagery, style and sentiments that come very close to the Manics’ track:

‘You can’t hide the fact, Jack

There’s violence in the streets every day, any fool can recognise that

But you try to lie and lie

And say America’s some motherfuckin’ apple pie’

The PMRC had already been mentioned on one of the first recorded Manic Street Preachers songs, ‘Tennessee’, a version of which appeared on Generation Terrorists. The committee successfully lobbied for albums to be labelled, to warn parents of any potentially explicit material – predominantly the use of strong language and sexual or violent imagery in album artwork. And they attracted the support of right-wing Christian groups in doing so. [19] The Holy Bible itself has in the past been adorned with the familiar sticker that resulted from the campaign: ‘Parental Advisory: Explicit Content’. But across the album Edwards and Wire refuse any constraints that might be placed on their language, trusting their words to point out the abuses, lies and contemptible actions they saw. The pair claimed to have been inspired by comedian Lenny Bruce, as dramatized in the biopic Lenny (1974), in particular his tirade concerning the use of contemptuous terms and their perceived threat to social cohesion. [20]

Nicaragua
1854, 1928, and 1981 – 1990
[21]

We’ll pull that trigger

The most discussed line in ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ is, oddly, ‘Fuck the Brady Bill’. [22] According to all accounts, Edwards was vocal about a particular item of legislation that had been enacted in November 1993 in the United States: The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. James Brady, who was wounded defending the US president against an assassination attempt in 1981, takes us back to the start of the song and Ronald Reagan. Mention of the bill also sustains the racial theme, with Edwards commenting on the inherent discrimination of the policy. What had inspired Edwards’ passionate point of view? The final lines of the song provide the answer.

‘“God made men, Samuel Colt made them equal” so says the old Wild West proverb.’ And so begins the article ‘Gun control in the USA’, written by Kevin Young and published in the November 1993 issue of Living Marxism. [23] In it, Young argues against the implementation of the Brady Bill in a piece of writing that unquestionably shaped Edwards’ contribution on the topic to ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ As Young writes, ‘The new developments in the debate about gun control reflect intensifying hostility towards the inner cities and their black and Latino residents, rather than anything to do with the weapons themselves.’ He goes on to explain:

‘The hysteria about assault rifles is given an added twist today with the fears of gangs spreading out of the inner cities to the white suburbs. A Time magazine cover story notes the danger: ‘Not long ago, many Americans dismissed the slaughter as an inner-city problem. But now the crackle of gunfire echoes from the poor urban neighbourhoods to the suburbs of the heartland.’ (2 August 1993)

‘The ‘crackle of gunfire [which] echoes from the poor urban neighbourhoods’ has now become the focus for fears that American society is out of control. People’s insecurity, bred by the crisis of American capitalism, is being visited upon the inner cities.’

In a conclusion that, coincidentally, calls to mind a sardonic line about nonchalance in the face of public violence from an earlier Manics single, Young says:

‘In spite of the shootings of John Lennon and Ronald Reagan in the early eighties, Reagan’s own vigorous reassertion of American traditions ensured that no federal gun control legislation was even seriously considered during his presidency. In today’s climate, however, fear of black crime has overtaken fear of state incursions on individual rights.’

Young’s summation of the Brady Bill as a measure that ‘gives a liberal edge to an authoritarian crackdown’ is useful in discussing Edwards similar misgivings about political correctness on ‘PCP’, similarly inspired by writing in the same journal.

Portraying an American nightmare rather than the American dream, the Manics’ national anthem is, like ‘Yes’ before it, at once grounded in contemporary social and political matters while clearly owing much to the graphic vision of favourite fiction writers, especially Hubert Selby Jr, whose voice is nevertheless displaced onto the following track on The Holy Bible – sustaining the sentiment of ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ and taking the listener further into the blackest reaches of human life.

***

All artwork by elin o’Hara slavick, from the series/book Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography (Charta Books, 2007). Images reproduced courtesy of the artist. For more information about the series and other work by elin o’Hara slavick visit http://www.elinoharaslavick.com

Notes:

[1] Image caption: The Invasion of Grenada left over one hundred American, Grenadian and Cubans dead. ‘Abuse took on unsuspected proportions in the Caribbean when the US bore down on a tiny country which is less than one twenty-seven-thousandth its size, with an army much smaller than the police force of any US city, with a population which is less than that of a New York City Borough, and on whose land mass it was difficult even to deploy all the military machinery used in the invasion.’ – Raul Castro, Grenada: The World Against the Crime (elin o’Hara slavick)

[2] As advertised: https://egrove.olemiss.edu/barbour/87/ The sample that opens the song has been attributed to Laura Kightlinger’s compilation show United States of Television (further extending the televisual metatextual levels), which aired on Channel 4 in the UK from February to March 1994. (Info from manics.nl via repeatfanzine.co.uk/interviews/alex%20silva.htm) Unavailability of the programme means this cannot be confirmed at the time of writing.

[3] Bailie, Stuart ‘Non-stop Neurotic Cabaret’, NME, 30th May 1992. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Non-Stop_Neurotic_Cabaret_-_NME,_30th_May_1992 (16 January 2020)

[4] Jones, Rhian E ‘Unwritten Diaries: History, Politics and Experience through The Holy Bible’ in Triptych (Repeater Books, 2017)

[5] This stylistic evolution from the B-side to The Holy Bible has also been pointed out by Andy Johnson on his website Manic Street Preachers: A Critical Discography: ‘“Dead Yankee Drawl” contains a sheer weight of references that would go unmatched until The Holy Bible was released in 1994.’ See https://manicsdiscog.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/b39-dead-yankee-drawl/

[6] Rhian E Jones does link the songs, however, referring to Hubert Selby Jr as a key influence on the style of Edwards’ writing. See Jones, Triptych pp.84-85 Both Daniel Lukes (Triptych) and myself also see Selby Jr as a significant influence on the writing and experience of The Holy Bible.

[7] Image caption: For Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Stan Goff, and my father.

‘The US military mission in Haiti, to train the troops of noted dictator Francois Duvalier, used its air, sea and ground power to smash an attempt to overthrow Duvalier by a small group of Haitians aided by some Cubans and other Latin Americans.’ – William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s only Superpower (elin o’Hara slavick)

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

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

[10] Evans, David The Holy Bible (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019)

[11] 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 (16 January 2020)

[12] Doran, John ‘Holy Moly’, 2004. Accessed online at http://www.ireallylovemusic.co.uk/interviews/manic.html (16 January 2020)

[13] See Naish, Stephen Lee Riffs and Meaning (Headpress, 2018)

[14] Wallace, David Foster ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’ (1990). Reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Abacus, 1998)

[15] The interview can be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-ut9ASB3fY

[16] Image caption: Allied aircraft flew over 40 bombing missions in Poland. Over 900 five hundred pound bombs were dropped during one mission alone. (elin o’Hara slavick)

[17] Both Simon Price and Rhian E Jones have remarked on the inspiration of Living Marxism on the writing of ‘PCP’ but no attention has previously been drawn to source materials for other songs on The Holy Bible that can be traced to the journal.

[18] Jones, Triptych

[19] See Marsh, Dave and Pollack, Phyllis ‘The FBI hates this band’, Village Voice, 10 October 1989. Reprinted online at https://www.villagevoice.com/2015/08/20/when-christian-america-and-the-cops-went-insane-over-n-w-a-rap-and-metal/ (Accessed 16 January 2020)

[20] Edwards and Wire specifically referred to Lenny Bruce as an influence on the writing of ‘PCP’. See 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 (16 January 2020) and 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 (16 January 2020). Since the release of The Holy Bible, the title ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ has been repeatedly attributed to Bruce without any clear source for this claim given. It is possible that an error of attribution has arisen as a result of the band’s discussion around Bruce, free speech and ‘PCP’.

[21] Image caption: For the Sandinistas.

In 1854, the American navy bombarded and destroyed the undefended city of San Juan del Norte in Nicaragua and in 1928 the US Air Force bombed guerrilla strongholds of Augusto Cesar Sandino.

‘In January, 1981, Ronald Reagan took office under a Republican platform which asserted that it “deplores the Marxist Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua”. The president moved quickly to cut off virtually all forms of assistance to the Sandinistas, the opening salvos of his war against their revolution.  The contras had their own various motivations for wanting to topple the Sandinista government. They did not need to be instigated by the United States. Then the American big guns began to arrive in 1982, along with the air power, the landing strips, the docks, the radar stations, the communications centers, built under the cover of repeated joint US-Honduran military exercises, while thousands of contras were training in Florida and California.

‘American pilots were flying diverse kinds of combat missions against Nicaraguan troops and carrying supplies to contras inside Nicaraguan territory. Several were shot down and killed. Some flew in civilian clothes, after having been told that they would be disavowed by the Pentagon if captured. Some contras told American congressmen that they were ordered to claim responsibility for a bombing raid organized by the CIA and flown by Agency mercenaries. Honduran troops as well were trained by the US for bloody hit-and-run operations into Nicaragua… and so it went… as in El Salvador, the full extent of American involvement in the fighting will never be known. The contras’ brutality earned them a wide notoriety. They regularly destroyed health centers, schools, agricultural cooperatives, and community centers – symbols of the Sandinistas’ social programs in rural areas.’ – William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (elin o’Hara slavick)

[22] Seldom mentioned is that this is not the only ‘Brady’ to be denounced on the album, creating further unexpected echoes and mirrors across the album.

[23] Young, Kevin ‘Gun control in the USA’, Living Marxism No. 61, November 1993. Accessed online at https://web.archive.org/web/20000310104908/http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM/LM61/LM61_Guns.html (16 January 2020)

Anatomies of Influence

‘By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson

‘[A]ny text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.’ – Julia Kristeva

‘I don’t think people believe I read books.’ – Richey Edwards

During his final tour with Manic Street Preachers, Richey Edwards would typically decorate the setlist for each concert, adding hand drawn circles and a quote, in keeping with the band’s tendency from the beginning to adorn all their single and album artwork with excerpts from their reading – sparks of inspiration, connecting the dots between the ideas and themes that engaged them, and those that preoccupied other writers, living and dead.

Detail from concert setlist, Newcastle University, 6/10/1994. Original photograph by Mitch Ikeda.

The sheet Edwards prepared for a concert in Newcastle in October 1994, which was photographed by the band’s longtime collaborator Mitch Ikeda and which is reproduced in the book Forever Delayed, features a quote attributed to the US poet Marianne Moore:

‘Real toads invade the imaginary gardens.’

Only, Moore did not write this, exactly. It is, rather, an allusion to one of Moore’s most famous lines, from a version of her poem titled simply ‘Poetry’, in which she suggests ‘for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’

Edwards was evidently reading RD Laing’s The Divided Self (1960) at the time. It is Laing’s reference to Moore’s poem – which appears in passing during a discussion of the schizoid individual’s retreat into ‘phantasy’ – that Edwards is quoting word for word. [1] Edwards might never have gotten around to reading Moore’s work prior to his disappearance in 1995. But a closer study of the ways in which she constructed her poems, and her use of quotation in particular, reveals a similarity between her approach and that of Edwards, especially on The Holy Bible. It is helpful in extending the critical analysis of the record beyond what are limited, even if useful, literary reference points.

***

The most obvious text for comparison with The Holy Bible is the Christian holy book. Withholding from quoting verses from the Bible itself on the record (though these, too, would appear on certain setlists during the autumn 1994 tour), Edwards specifically referred to the idea of the holy book in any religion as supposedly expressing “the truth… about the way the world is” as part of the reasoning for the choice of title. [2] The lyrics are full of biblical words and there is one mention of ‘Leviticus’ but the original idea of the album as a response to the Ten Commandments for the modern age seems barely to have been articulated beyond the first song (‘Solitude, solitude the eleventh commandment’). [3] The lyrics co-written by Edwards and Nicky Wire, and the selection of accompanying images to illustrate the album booklet, have been compared to the illustrated manuscripts of the medieval era by academic Daniel Lukes, who likewise studies the album as a collection of texts, like the Bible, or rather more provocatively as an ‘anti- or para-bible’… [a] desacralized book of songs; book of books.’ [4] Lukes is referring specifically to the multiplicity of literary sources that can be identified across the album, not only in the words but in the samples and the sleeve design.

But Lukes’ description of the album as a ‘collage of jarring and disjointed fragments’ is equally pertinent and guides the listener-reader towards a fuller recognition of the style of The Holy Bible, and indeed Manic Street Preachers’ entire artistic output. This collage, or cut-up, aesthetic can be understood to derive most directly from the punk, Situationist and Beat influences on the band, but also indirectly from modernist literature beforehand and the emergence of combinatory, disruptive techniques in visual art from the early twentieth century. Key to this collage style is the use of quotation, perhaps most famously expressed in the band’s first single following The Holy Bible: ‘Libraries gave us power.’ But the canonical, the literature of the past, of the archives, are not the only materials that shape the record’s language.

Lukes follows the second most tempting lead in discussing the album’s literary precursors, that most iconic of modernist poems, The Waste Land by TS Eliot – which suggests itself as a point of comparison for its multiplicity of voices, its non-English phrases, its heteroglossia; its themes of despair and aridity; its religious images, and also the use it makes of Eastern philosophy; its inclusion of demotic speech; of high and low culture alike. Lukes’ chapter in the co-authored Triptych is titled, ‘Fragments Against Ruin: The Books of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible’. Eliot’s poem is listed among ‘Richey’s Favourite Books’, which has circulated on the internet for many years. [5] One line in ‘Of Walking Abortion’ even seems to contain an allusion to Eliot’s language (‘Fragments of uniforms, open black ruins…). [6]

Eliot drew on Dante, Shakespeare, The Bible, Ovid and St Augustine in composing the poem but crucially included non-canonical writers, as his notes to The Waste Land explain (and mislead). Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible offers its own mix of the canonical and non-canonical as far as literature is concerned: JG Ballard, Hubert Selby Jr, George Orwell, Octave Mirbeau, a Buddhist text. But it is narrowing to consider The Holy Bible as mainly a product of high, or even acceptably subversive, literature. Its source references range much wider.

If we follow the idea of ‘Faster’ in particular as a song about ‘the regurgitation of 20th Century culture, and the way that everything’s speeded up’, we can also consider The Holy Bible as a whole as a proto-hypertext; ‘it anticipates,’ as Lukes says ‘the Internet’s encyclopaedic tendencies’. Richey Edwards in particular had a remarkable, voracious appetite for knowledge and information about history, politics and literature that he worked into the lyrics on the album – something it is easy to downplay in a contemporary digital culture that operates reflexively on interlinking, interruption, the juxtaposition of vastly different materials and viewpoints. But in writing positively of Edwards’ openness when it comes to referencing, in comparison to Eliot’s more elitist tendencies, Lukes is not entirely correct in asserting that The Holy Bible ‘shares its sources’.

Beyond the literary references within The Holy Bible’s lyrics and artwork there are audible fragments too, which also range widely in their origin, beyond author interviews, to documentaries, feature films (albeit connected with literature) and news excerpts taped from the television. This is not to forget the careful selection and placement of images in the art design for The Holy Bible. Reading many articles about the album, one can only presume that the writers have not bothered to look at the booklet and consider why Richey Edwards chose certain pictures to accompany the printed lyrics. And by James Dean Bradfield’s own admission, each song seems to have its own, sometimes multiple, musical reference points. Collage is key to the identity and texture of the record. But even restricting the focus to the variety of language, and textual sources will show the heterogeneous materials interwoven in the lyrics.

Another academic, Elizabeth Gregory, unwittingly offers a useful way of looking at The Holy Bible in relation to those two obvious literary predecessors. Not only does Gregory link all quotation in modernist poetry to its origin in scriptural quotation but also compares Eliot’s extensive use of quotation in The Waste Land with that of his contemporaries William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore. Gregory describes what she sees as varying ‘anatomies of influence’ at work in these poets’ work and also describes the stylistic device of quotation in terms of ‘ingestion’, that most fitting of metaphors for writing on and about The Holy Bible. (The more recent idea of the ‘media feed’, in connection with identity, vanity, depression and politics being another.) [7] The connections between Marianne Moore’s approach to quotation and Richey Edwards’ are as illuminating as those drawn between Edwards and Eliot.

Marianne Moore 25c commemorative stamp, issued 18 April 1990 (USA)

Eliot admired Moore’s work and published her Selected Poems under the Faber & Faber imprint in 1935. Her poetry is notable not only for the sheer volume of quotations it contains but for the unusual sources which it encompasses, which Gregory summarises as:

‘popular magazine and newspaper articles, advertisements, lectures, conversation, critical texts, TV shows, mottos, natural history books, and so forth. The mixture of “authorities” on which the poems build suggests that ephemera and standardly unauthoritative texts may claim a new importance as acknowledged sources of poetic inspiration and authority.’

Richey Edwards was struck not only by lines he came across in the twentieth-century fiction he read. Like Moore before him, he weaves into the lyrics of The Holy Bible phrases taken verbatim from newspaper reports, political articles, conversation and that long-dismissed area of literature: comic books. The latter is most famously manifested in the quote ‘Be Pure, Be Vigilant, Behave’, catchphrase of the character of Torquemada, from Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s 2000AD series Nemesis the Warlock which appears in ‘PCP’ – and used again in 2019 as the title of the concert film documenting the 20th anniversary Holy Bible tour. The band had previously adapted the line ‘I must see my reflection to prove I still exist’ from Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth on the track ‘Drug Drug Druggy’ (Gold Against the Soul) and it is possible that Neil Gaiman had some influence on the opening lines of ‘Yes’. [8] Edwards would continue in this multimedia style with his final lyrics, which appear on Journal for Plague Lovers – ‘Marlon JD’, for example, almost entirely comprising descriptions of scenes, and dialogue, from John Huston’s 1967 film adaptation of the Carson McCullers novel Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Detail from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (DC Comics)

Marianne Moore would build her rigorous, syllabic lines – what she described as a ‘hybrid method of composition’ – with the aid of a vast array of source materials. [9] Another of her most significant poems, ‘An Octopus’, for example, lifts materials from the pamphlet of the park reserve at Mount Rainier – the landmark that forms the subject of the poem. Such traditionally ‘secondary’ materials as Moore refers readers to Eliot also works into The Waste Land (nursery rhyme, everyday speech) but only as a means to re-establish a sense of authority for ‘high’ literature, according to Gregory, who also links this turning away from the secondary with a turning away from that which is ‘feminine’. [10]

‘If you must write prose/poems

The words you use should be your own

Don’t plagiarise or take “on loan”

‘Cause there’s always someone, somewhere

With a big nose, who knows…’ (The Smiths, ‘Cemetery Gates’)

Eliot and Moore acknowledged their sources – though scrutiny of their respective notes does reveal obfuscations, possible deceptions, and conscious omissions. In addition to endnotes, Moore would place the relevant lines in speech marks. This citational impulse is not as readily present on The Holy Bible despite the literary acknowledgments that do appear. And yet the growing evidence of such borrowing does nothing to diminish the originality of Edwards’ writing. It connects him with yet another precursor, Alfred Lord Tennyson, many of whose extensive allusions went unacknowledged, left to generations of scholars to piece together. The collaging style was something of which Edwards was conscious from the early days of the band and which he also linked to the influence of newspapers and television:

‘We took the abortion language of the Sun and turned it to our own means. Anyone of our generation isn’t conditioned to think about one thing. You’re always flicking TV channels, always switching radio stations. For us to sit down and write a song about something would be so forced.’ [11]

The recurrent cut-ups, the quoting, extends beyond the sleeve and lyric lines, to song titles, taken from previously referenced texts (Valerie Solanas re: ‘Of Walking Abortion’) and even from chapter headers in books about writers (‘Archives of Pain’, taken from David Macey’s biography The Lives of Michel Foucault). It underlines the preference for the collage, or bricolage, aesthetic that the Manics have embraced since their Situationist-inspired first missives and manifestos, although many of the sources have been traced by fans, not offered by the band as signposts to follow.

Detail from Nemesis the Warlock Volume 2 (Rebellion)

And as conscientious as Edwards was in writing up and editing his lyrics there remains the possibility that some of the album’s allusions are the result of what Julia Kristeva – the literary theorist who introduced the term ‘intertextuality’ into the English language – calls ‘mnemic traces’, or memories. [12] Of interest, Lukes and another recent commentator of the album, David Evans, offer different possible sources for one of ‘4st 7lb’s most memorable lines, which is often judged as encapsulating Edwards’ power as a writer: ‘I wanna walk in the snow and not leave a footprint’. [13] Both suggestions refer us to authors Edwards read and admired: Hubert Selby Jr and Tennessee Williams. And both suggestions direct the listener to lesser known texts. Evans’ would seem to be the more convincing citation; more so, if we remember that Edwards wrote, in a feature article for Select magazine in February 1992, ‘Tennessee Williams as Bible’. [14]

Edwards was a keen visual artist too and it was through the medium of collage that he decorated the walls of his home (also photographed by Ikeda) and even his room at the recording studio during the production of Generation Terrorists. In describing the process of taking the images he had amassed down at the end of the sessions, Edwards remarked, in his seven-day diary for Select:

‘Rip down my bedroom wall. I don’t want to leave Keith, Johnny, Stalin, Flavor Flav, Axl, Liz Taylor to be as maggots. People are like maggots. Small, blind, worthless.’

So Edwards would quote himself,  it seems. But as Rhian E Jones has identified, Myra Hindley’s brother-in-law (and one-time friend of Ian Brady), David Smith, is the originator of the lines, which appear in a book on serial killers authored by Colin Wilson: ‘God is a superstition, a cancer that eats the brain / People are like maggots, small, blind and worthless.’ [15] An articulation of the type of dismissive, murderous judgement that, along with the image of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo that illustrates the lyric to ‘Faster’ in the album booklet, would seem like dispersed counterpoints to the voice of ‘Archives of Pain’, and an indication of the record as a whole as an intertext that turns on itself. Real maggots invade the imaginary gardens.  

The source of Moore’s famous quote about gardens, toads and the imagination, indicated as having been borrowed by her characteristic use of speech marks, still has not been identified among the hundreds of citations provided by her, and others unearthed by avid archivists. Edwards’ writing, too, features the words of others, some of which have only recently been identified (see my essay on ‘Yes’ and forthcoming texts of A Manic Body Politic). There may be more to recognise.

The Holy Bible is characterised by its insistence on memory, and literary memory in particular – its last line, a sample from The Dresser, commanding the listener to remember the first words of King Lear – even as it forgets to note its own appropriations, and cannot finally recall the requisite Shakespeare. As if in response to the album itself, a few of the autumn 1994 setlists were adorned with lines from the Bard’s tragedy.

‘[A] good stealer is ipso-facto a good inventor,’ wrote Marianne Moore in her Notebooks. Only, Moore probably took the line from Samuel Butler, who wrote: ‘A good stealer, a good user of what he takes, is ipso facto a good inventor.’ [16]

The scholarly interest in identifying and confirming such wide-ranging references on The Holy Bible shows the album to be an even richer work lyrically than even many complimentary critics have given it credit for – but it ought not to supersede a more perceptive engagement with the way Richey Edwards’ and Nicky Wire’s choice of words, and the manner in which those words are sung by James Dean Bradfield and underscored by Sean Moore’s percussion, create their own web of emphases, repetitions and echoes that encapsulate the album’s character, its obsessions, its inner life.

Notes:

[1] Laing, R D The Divided Self (Penguin Books, 2010). Another quote from Laing’s book would appear on the following night’s setlist that autumn: ‘The truth is past all commiseration – Maxim Gorky’, which forms the epigraph to chapter 11 in The Divided Self.

[2] Richey Edwards’ last television interview, available to view online (in poor quality) at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnJ5nkju0gQ. Better quality footage of this interview appears in No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers (2015, dir. Elizabeth Marcus).

[3] See Magnusson, Ulf ‘Holy Shit – It’s The Manics’, Kerrang, 6th August 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Holy_Shit_-_It%27s_The_Manics!_-_Kerrang,_6th_August_1994 (1 December 2019)

[4] Lukes, Daniel ‘Fragments Against Ruin: The Books of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible’ in Jones, Lukes, Wodtke Triptych (Repeater Books, 2017). All further quotes from Lukes are taken from the same book chapter.

[5] See ‘Richey’s Favourite Books’, http://www.richeyedwards.net/richeybooks.html

[6] More recently, Nicky Wire has adapted a line from the poem (‘The heap of broken images’) for the song ‘Broken Algorithms’, on the album Resistance Is Futile (2018). Perhaps a reading of Lukes’ text in turn prompted Wire to return to Eliot.

[7] Gregory, Elizabeth Quotation and Modern American Poetry: Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads (Rice University Press, 1996). Gregory writes, ‘Though the borrowing of the words of others has a history that extends back at least as far as Plato, and no doubt an extensive prehistory as well, quotation was pivotally defined for modern use by Christian scriptural commentary and homily’. See also: Gregory’s comment on Eliot’s use of Ezekiel 2:1 in The Waste Land, ‘a clear image of quotation as ingestion of prior texts, and a nice figure for what goes on in The Waste Land…’ All further quotes from Gregory are taken from the same book.

[8] For evidence of Richey Edwards’ earlier transcription of lines from Morrison’s graphic novel, see the Japanese monograph Manic Street Preachers (Crossbeat Special Edition, 2018) which reproduces a handwritten page of extracts from Arkham Asylum. For the possible connection between Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and ‘Yes’, see my essay ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was “Yes”’.

[9] Quoted in Gregory, p.164

[10] While The Holy Bible’s depictions of femininity are deserving of more careful consideration than this brief text can offer, it is worth noting (following the terms of Gregory’s argument) the way in which Edwards is closer to Moore, a woman poet.

[11] Quoted in Jovanovic, Rob A Version of Reason: The Search for Richey Edwards (Orion Books, 2009)

[12] Kristeva, Julia Desire in Language (Columbia University Press, 1980)

[13] Lukes refers to Hubert Selby Jr’s short story ‘Song of the Silent Snow’ as the source of Edwards’ line. David Evans, however, points to the resemblance to part of the dialogue in Tennessee Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale. See Evans, David The Holy Bible (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

[14] ‘Seven Days in the Life of Richie Edwards’, Select, February 1992. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Seven_Days_In_The_Life_Of_Richie_Edwards_-_Select,_February_1992 (3 December 2019)

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

[16] Moore, as quoted by Leonard Diepeveen in Changing Voices: The Modern Quoting Poem (1993). See also Butler, Samuel Notebooks transcribed for the web at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6173/6173-h/6173-h.htm

Faster (Further Downwards)

This is the second part of an essay on the song ‘Faster’. The first part can be read here.

‘Faster’ may well have sent James Dean Bradfield in the direction of the Sex Pistols because of those traces of ‘Anarchy in the UK’. The words written by Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire contain an extraordinary number of allusions, referring listeners not only to musical predecessors but also to philosophy and literature. These connections deepen the interest and ambiguity of the song on repeat listening, and never diminish the captivating blast of the music as first experienced, with its insistent, rhythmic punctuation.

The band have always acknowledged their literary and musical debts in interviews and artwork but ‘Faster’ goes beyond the type of conscious homage familiar right from the band’s first album, fogging certain conscious reference points and finding others seemingly by chance.

The poem ‘I Am’ by John Clare would seem to be an example of the latter. Published in 1848, but believed to have been written a few years earlier, the poem was composed while Clare was a patient at the Northampton County Asylum. There are curious surface similarities in the poem’s depiction of isolation, turmoil and disrupted sleep — and that key phrase that gives the poem its title. Clare writes of his introspection, ‘I am the self-consumer of my woes’, a line that almost mirrors Edwards’s ‘Self-disgust is self-obsession’. In another poem of the same name, written in sonnet form, Clare describes a natural desire to be like a creator, free from the constraints of terrestrial limitation:

‘I was a being created in the race

Of men disdaining bounds of place and time:

A spirit that could travel o’er the space

Of earth and heaven — like a thought sublime’ [1]

This imaginative energy, the desire to conquer known bounds, disembodied, characterises ‘Faster’ too. Clare’s sonnet, however, ends with an ultimate admission of limitation: ‘But now I only know I am — that’s all.’ This understanding is not framed as necessarily disappointing. Clare yearns for the consolations of religion. On The Holy Bible, no hope is placed in the redemptive power of a God. There are descriptions of purgatory, and a hell that ‘may as well be heaven’. But the Christian God is absent.

John Clare by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820

There is, understandably, a tendency among listeners to see Richey Edwards’s personal experiences reflected in the words of ‘Faster’. During the touring and promotion of The Holy Bible, Edwards was first admitted to Cardiff’s Whitchurch Hospital, an NHS psychiatric unit, before being relocated to The Priory for treatment for alcoholism, anorexia and depression. The song is certainly one of the clearest examples of Edwards’s creative ingenuity and it would seem obtuse to overlook the way in which the lyrics resonate with the feelings that he remarked upon openly in interviews. [2] But other figures and voices can be heard besides.

By the time the song admits of a more emotional register during the bridge – finally leaving behind the cold, clinical strictures of the opening verse – it is as if another voice breaks in; more vulnerable, looking on from the perspective not of an aggressive outsider but a withdrawn, marginal figure who cannot find their place in a hostile world: ‘I am idiot drug hive, the virgin, the tattered and the torn’. Can this voice be trusted, given that the first lines of the album, sung from a similar vantage point on the social horizon, have warned: ‘All virgins are liars’.

There is an ambiguity too in that standout line: ‘Self-disgust is self-obsession, honey’. Is the ego here admitting a psychic trap to an interlocutor? Or has another voice spoken in response? [3] That added ‘honey’ lends an unexpected note of endearment, of familiarity, the sense of an everyday conversation between people, as against the detached character Bradfield establishes at the beginning. And it hints of a return of whoever told us on ‘Yes’ that ‘all virgins are liars’. Are these all aspects of the same, confused personality?

Or just another country?

The sense splinters into greater abstraction as ‘Faster’ progresses beyond those first lines, but there is a renewed hubris. The bold chorus has become representative of the ambition of The Holy Bible:

‘I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer.

I spat out Plath and Pinter.’

The voice is, then, of this world – specifically the world of arts and letters – even if claiming superiority to it. Spitting is of course a signature punk gesture, a ritual of every Pistols gig. But it is also in keeping with the preoccupation with eating and its refusal throughout The Holy Bible; specifically here, it suggests an unwillingness to digest the ideas of the world as given – a knowledge that in the Christian story was first learned by a forbidden act of eating – even as the album scrambles to remember everything it can about the crimes and abuses of the twentieth century. It is often noted how the title of the song itself bears a double meaning: a person who abstains from food, and a speeding up of activity. It is an approach to thinking further about The Holy Bible that has been taken up with much insight by Larissa Wodtke:

‘Not only is the refusal of food an exercise in discipline and control, but it can also be read as a metaphorical refusal, and ultimately and inability, to assimilate difficult knowledge, to make it so unpalatable as to draw attention to itself.’ [4]

As with several other songs on the album, ‘Faster’ namechecks historical figures. It has inspired countless listeners to make a reading list. And those who have done the reading, and the reading around Norman Mailer in particular, will find that that first chorus line seems to be a manic response to another text.

Gore Vidal by Juan F Bastos

In his 1971 article ‘In Another Country’, a review of Eva Figes’s book Patriarchal Attitudes, Gore Vidal outlined what he saw as an insidious, misogynistic tendency among certain of his male contemporaries in the literary world:

‘There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression. The Miller-Mailer-Manson man (or M3 for short) has been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons; at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed.’ [5]

Replacing Manson with Mensa, Edwards constructs an alternative composite for attack: the Mensa-Miller-Mailer man. Vidal’s judgement of Mailer sparked a feud in writing that culminated in a joint television appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. [6] This head-to-head was a flashpoint of a culture in which the arts directed the public conversation; when culture could grip or outrage a general public – cf. Sex Pistols (So It Goes, 1976); Manic Street Preachers (Top of the Pops, 1994). Wrenched from the context of Vidal’s original article and tempered with a reference to the world’s oldest high IQ society, the chorus becomes more a general statement of intellectual bravado. Yet, that which is missing still haunts the song with a sense of the murderous lurking beneath the surface and almost acts as a confirmation in absentia of the opening lines’ cold-blooded tone.

It is there, too, in the image chosen to accompany the lyric in the inner sleeve of The Holy Bible: a portrait of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, the ‘Butcher of Rostov’ as it appeared in a series of True Crime trading cards released by Eclipse in the US in 1992, to much notoriety. (The image might have been equally apt as an illustration for ‘Archives of Pain’, and Chikatilo included among the condemned in that song’s notorious chorus).

True Crime trading card #202 (Eclipse, 1992). Art by Paul Lee

And of course there is that final summation, contributed by Wire: ‘So damn easy to cave in. Man kills everything.’ [7] During a concert at the London Astoria in December 1994, at the end of the UK tour in support of The Holy Bible, Bradfield introduced the song with a brief dedication to filmmaker Oliver Stone. That year, Stone’s film Natural Born Killers, which follows the brutal killing spree of two lovers whose crimes are glorified by the mass media and filled with comic and overly stylised, violent set pieces, was causing huge controversy.

The rest of the chorus to ‘Faster’ has been given less attention in writing about the song but suggests further connections and ambiguities along these lines:

‘I am all the things that you regret’ – words that might inspire dread and sympathy and awe all at once. That someone might confront you with all the regrets you have; that the speaker is the personification of such regrets and thus must endure a dismaying existence; or is it that the avowed strength of the speaker means that they can even bear to be all the things that you regret?

‘A truth that washes that learned how to spell’ – sees the speaker reasserting their essential vitality – and their literary superiority – and again there is both a saintly resonance in the specific verb ‘washes’ (cf. ‘Die in the Summertime’: ‘If you really care, wash the feet of a beggar’) as well as a hint of the vengeful, as associated, for instance, with the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, another controversial film and a band favourite: “One day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the street”.

Orwellian resistance, emotional and physical vulnerability, intellectual ambition, and rampant machismo – all confused and looming into the foreground by turns.

***

The second verse of ‘Faster’ shifts, abruptly, into the second person and further complicates any desired coherence, seeming as it does to be written about, or from the perspective of, an adolescent; either a woman, or homosexual man (‘He loves me truly’ suggesting both); mixing expressions of self-loathing (‘The first time you see yourself naked you cry. Soft skin now acne, foul breath, so broken.’) and loneliness, with (probably failing) romantic involvement. As with ‘Yes’ and ‘4st 7lbs’, the lines between sexes blur here in the figuration of a narrator. And the linguistic sense is blurred, too: the word ‘cry’ suggesting at once ‘emphatic speech’ and ‘inarticulate weeping’. Does the subject cry out, as in pain or despair, or shed tears? The song shatters easy distinctions while urgently trying to cling to certainties. [8]

And then there is the closest thing to a philosophy that the song can manage: ‘I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing.’ It is a downbeat twist on the Cartesian maxim, ‘Cogito ergo sum’, which, as with Clare’s despairing poems, tries to underwrite that barest of assertions: ‘I am.’ The voice of man as much as any Old Testament God. A variation on the Marxian ‘I am nothing and should be everything’ heard already on the Generation Terrorists’ track ‘Methadone Pretty’. Closer to nihilism than the Pistols’ anarchy, it is given a strangely affectionate quality: ‘my nothing’. Yet, as Simon Price points out, it follows the almost paradoxical logic of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ on which Rotten spits: ‘Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it’ (implication: by anarchic means, whatever it is.) [9]

This uneasy relationship to existence is described succinctly by DW Winnicott, in his landmark psychoanalytic study Playing and Reality, when considering the case of a patient who had told him: “All I have got is what I have not got.” A sentiment remarkably close to Edwards’s, to which Winnicott responds:

‘There is a desperate attempt here to turn the negative into a last-ditch defence against the end of everything. The negative is the only positive.’ [10]

Elsewhere in his analysis, Winnicott states: ‘“I am” must precede “I do”, otherwise “I do” has no meaning for the individual… There is still, of course, vulnerability in the sense that gross environmental failure can result in a loss of the individual’s new capacity for maintaining integration in independence.’

The harsh reality that the song cannot mask ultimately invites the individual to resign to anonymity – an impulse at odds with the bravado of the opening lines and chorus: ‘If you stand up like a nail then you will be knocked down.’ As has been noted elsewhere in writing about The Holy Bible, this sounds like a variation on the Japanese proverb, ‘The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down’. [11] The perspective seems to have switched yet again, to that of the crucified (the reference to a ‘nail’ carrying a suitably Christian tone too) rather than a spectator.

For all of the song’s aggrandisement there is at its core a recognition of a final futility. As much as there is an outsized faith in one’s abilities, there is a persistent trouble, a root discontentment: ‘Sleep can’t hide the thoughts splitting through my mind.’ Again, this could easily be a simple report of Edwards’s mental state, or a narrative voice adopted for the song. And again, these sound somewhat like the agonised words of a criminal desperate to stop the violent (‘splitting’) thoughts that make daily life impossible. Still, the confused signals, the crossed wires, are held together in the rigorous musical delivery.

‘Faster’ is one of several songs on The Holy Bible which are sung from a first-person perspective; although, as we have seen, it is less straightforwardly so than the others. These songs together express a desire for perfection, an ideal of purity, and the narrator’s subjective view of how they live up to their ideal. This is most obviously the case in ‘4st 7lb’, in which the frailty of the body deepens as the narrator’s mental strength is said to be sharpening. There is an extreme contrast between how the individual appears to those around them and how they judge their own capacities. In ‘Die in the Summertime’ the voice describes repeated attempts to perfect external appearances and the disappointment that comes with the contingencies of reality (‘Colour my hair but the dye grows out/I can’t seem to stay a fixed ideal’). There is a nail that moves through that song too, dragged across the skin. And in ‘Yes’, the prostitute from whose point of view the song is sung retains pride: ‘puking, sinking, shaking, I still stand for old ladies’. But it ultimately means little in the face of history, and in the face of a modern world that is rife with violence and exploitation. Edwards’s writing is remarkable for the way in which mental experience is embodied, creating a tension between physical suffering and the turbulence of critical thinking.

The speed and delirium of the present era, contorting the individual’s sense of self, and worth, is channelled into a guitar solo of frantic, overdriven energy. No comfort comes, the drums force home with syllabic clarity the last shouted refrain of ‘Faster’: ‘So damn easy to cave in/Man kills everything.’ There is a final split: between perpetrating violence and submitting to power; whether to read ‘cave in’ as a destructive act so easily performed, or a concession so easily given.

The architecture will inevitably collapse. Recall The Sex Pistols, again, and the final cry of ‘Anarchy in the UK’: ‘Destroy!’

Historical vectors converge, references multiply, voices overlap, for only a few minutes – all these elements are compressed to the point of ecstatic instability. ‘Faster’ encapsulates and complicates The Holy Bible, its allusions and voices ricocheting throughout other songs and images on the album, and out into the wider culture. It is a compelling picture of the individual, desperate for dignity and strength yet haunted, hopeless and confused by their own worst impulses and adrift in a world that all around conspires towards isolation and dissolution.

‘There is no trace of ‘I’ in the act of preserving. There is in that of destroying. The ‘I’ leaves its mark on the world as it destroys.’ – Simone Weil

Notes:

[1] See Clare, John ‘Lines: “I Am”’ and ‘Sonnet: “I Am”’ in Jonathan Bate (ed), John Clare Selected Poems (Faber & Faber, 2004), pp. 282-283. There is also a remarkable similarity between Clare’s ‘Even the dearest that I love best/Are strange – nay, rather, stranger than the rest’ and Edwards’s still more devastating line from ‘Yes’: ‘Everyone I’ve loved or hated always seems to leave’.  

[2] Consider, for example, the following comment in his last British interview, with Peter Paphides: ‘There’s a certain kind of beauty in taking complete control of every aspect of your life. Purifying or hurting your body to achieve a balance in your mind is tremendously disciplined.’ In Price, Everything p.167

[3] Other band histories claim that this line was inspired by a conversation between Edwards and Hall or Nothing press officer, Gillian Porter. See, Price, Everything p.125

[4] Wodtke, Larissa ‘Architecture of Memory: The Holy Bible and the Archive’ in Jones, Lukes and Wodtke Triptych (Repeater Books, 2017), p.283

[5] Vidal, Gore ‘In Another Country’, The New York Review of Books 22 July, 1971. Accessed online at https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/07/22/in-another-country/ (12 February 2018)

[6] The episode is available to watch online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb1w_qoioOk (Nicky Wire would later re-purpose one of Vidal’s most memorable quotes, ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail’, for ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’, the opening track on Rewind the Film (2013).

[7] That ‘Faster’ and ‘Archives of Pain’ share an underlying thematic preoccupation with death, guilt, the individual and society also shows in the similar language used in each: ‘nail’/‘nail’, ‘drained’/‘draining’, ‘tear’/‘torn’, ‘man makes death’/‘man kills everything’, ‘redemption’/‘repented’, ‘regret’/‘regret’.

[8] This distinction is made in a discussion of the poetry of William Blake, in Goldsmith, Steven Blake’s Agitation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), p.186

[9] Price, Everything p.125

[10] Winnicott, D W Playing and Reality (Routledge Classics, 2005), p.32

[11] Price, Everything p.125

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.

***

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richey Edwards’s tour programme notes are blunt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

†††

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Marlowe, ‘The New Testament’

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