“The court has come. The court of the nations. And into the courtroom will come the martyrs of Majdanek and Oswiecim. From the ditch of Kersh the dead will rise, they will arise from the graves, they will arise from flames bringing with them the acrid smoke and the deathly odour of scorched and martyred Europe…”
..so speaks a documentary reporter from the Nuremburg Trials throughout the Wolverhampton Civic as the Manic Street Preachers start track 11 of their third album, The Holy Bible, an album they are currently performing in full, from start to finish, in recognition of its 20th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of its prime lyricist, Richey Edwards.
Bands who have been around too long have recently gained a tendency to dig up full albums from their back catalogue. It’s usually a mixture of reliving old glories, either for the fans or the band, evoking the memory of days now gone when things were more exciting and their music actually meant something. (If the band stick an extra tenner on the ticket price, as they usually do, then they can finally buy that second kitchen they always wanted through the rehash.)
In that sense, it’s a work of history, and it’s the same type of history of those guys who were born in the 70’s but love to talk to you about D-Day or 1966. It’s history for nostalgia’s sake; it’s Village Green Preservation. And when you see it live, it feels the same as if you’re seeing a tribute act; it’s not quite the real thing, as a song used to mean something different when it was first released, to you as a fan, and to the band as performer.
With the Manics, and with The Holy Bible as source material, this would never be the case. The Observer’s Dorian Lynsky wrote of the December leg of the tour, that, “too thorny for mere nostalgia”, it felt “neither lazy nor exploitative but a serious, even necessary, reckoning with the past.” The Manics are not, nor have they ever been, a band who tour out of decadence; they aren’t a Rolling Stones or U2 who reform endlessly to furnish their luxury, but a band that follows in the tradition of The Clash or of Public Enemy. They are certainly nostalgic, but in the desire of not forgetting their musical or social origins. They are definitely not a band that likes to repeat themselves.
The biggest feeling of walking down Memory Lane was in the obvious absence of Richey, who disappeared on 1st February 1995, and is now presumed dead. They lined up, just the three of them, as they would have done 20 years ago, James Dean Bradfield in the middle, Nicky Wire on the right, and a big hole on the left, where Nicky pointed as he acknowledged his absence. (In New York, he said, “we know Richey is here”.)
The Holy Bible is Richey’s album, lyrically, a stark window into a troubled mind that was losing a battle. There are some deeply personal moments; everyone in the crowd knows that 4st. 7lb is rooted in Richey’s anorexia, and the fans are band historians too – James belts out “self-disgust is self-obsession honey” and we all know what it evokes. But this isn’t a ritual of denial, the band have moved on from 1995, as have many of the fans.
And on the whole, this is music that takes on society as a whole, and only rarely is autobiographical. It is a scathing assessment of 20th Century European history and the political outlook of the 1990s that it bred. It presents a view of the European 20th Century as one of massive human cruelty and destruction.
The taught narrative in British schools is one of Euro-America rising up to defeat fascism, heroic figures of Churchill, Montgomery, de Gaulle et al vanquishing the evils of Mussolini and Hitler. These European heroes are removed from the historical canon of The Holy Bible, replaced by the serial killers Hindley, Brady and Sutcliffe, mixed with ex-FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and Slobodan Milosovic. With them, the fascists remain; in Of Walking Abortion Mussolini remains only “hanging from a butcher’s hook”, but Hitler has become “reprised, in the worm of your soul.” Churchill remains only to join the pantheon, as “no different” for his attitude towards the British working class.
Unfair? Maybe. Discomforting? Certainly. It’s all to argue that 20th Century Europe was, and remains, a cruel and unforgiving place. The Holocaust features strongly as source material, notably on the tracks The Intense Humming of Evil and Mausoleum; the former struggling to come to terms with the horror, whilst the latter rages against the silence that followed (“obliterates your meaning”). But much like Arendt, its significance lies in that the cruelty was mass-sponsored, and not the work of a few fanatical psychopaths.
“Everyone is guilty” screeches James in Of Walking Abortion. The thesis of Archives of Pain is that the capacity for cruelty lies in humanity and its institutions, written jarringly from the perspective of a torture and death-penalty advocate. “If hospitals cure, then prisons must bring their pain,” it opens. “If god makes death that makes man tear up the corpse with horses and chains.”
As the title suggests, in Archives and the entire album history is the evidence, to sit alongside the sickening triumphalism of the Euro-American 1990s. As Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”, Richey baulked. He saw no triumph anywhere. In response, and in clear desperation, he, following the words of J. G. Ballard (who speaks over Mauseleum) aimed to “rub the human race in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” The songs are difficult and head-first descents into the agony of 1990s society, furious at sexual violence and exploitation (Yes), body-shaming and self-harm (4st 7lb, Faster), and what in Greece has recently been called “the extremism of the centre” (PCP).
But somehow it never descends into pure nihilism, hinted to in the rueful conclusion of Mauseleum, “life can be as important as death, but [it’s] so mediocre.” I would not go nearly as far as the Sunday Times in saying it’s “an album that celebrates life as much as it details despair”, but there is hope in tiny doses, although that is not the point of The Holy Bible. Instead, it aims to stand in stark contrast to the conservative celebration of the 1990s, of American and European exceptionalism, and to constantly remind us of its lies.
And therein lies the point of its reprisal. In 2015, those who still listen to the record can’t help but feel that parts of the album hit even harder than they used to. Revol is undeniably a ridiculous song, a weird upbeat track that decides that all of history’s autocrats were influenced by some simplistic Freudian nonsense. I think it’s Richey’s attempt at being light-hearted. But underneath is the resignation that history has the tendency to repeat itself, over and over, for the same reasons. These days, that is a feeling that is hard to escape.
Take Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwillfallapart, the Manics’ razor-sharp takedown of ‘90s triumphalism, dismantling American hypocrisy under the guise of a pseudo-positive punk-pop. The first verse deals with foreign affairs.
“Images of perfection, suntan and napalm, Grenada, Haiti, Poland Nicaragua”
Slip Iraq and Afghanistan into that. Haiti twice more. Colombia and the War on Drugs, Cuba and Guantanamo Bay…
The second verse moved to the domestic, following decades of urban decline, the LAPD assault of Rodney King in 1991 and the subsequent outrage.
“Vital stats: how white was his skin? Unimportant just another inner-city drive-by thing”
Living through the police murders of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and the violence inflicted on many black people in the US and elsewhere, the anger only grows. In this album, the history justifies the assessment of the present, and it still feels pertinent. This is a record that must be played in full.
Live, James and Nicky were almost apologetic at subjecting the fans to The Holy Bible in its entirety. They felt it necessary to perform, simultaneously to honour Richey’s memory and resurrect the power of its music. But this is music that isn’t for everybody, and they were aware that it can be difficult. Sometimes, like in Archives of Pain, it goes too far, and the metaphor becomes so lost it reads as a hawkish revenge fantasy. Some of it, like PCP is politically all over the shop; it comes across (part-intentionally, perhaps) as a series of mad ramblings.
James and Sean gave Richey’s work a backing track to suit the music; strange changes from minor to major, screeching guitar solos on top of simple bass, adrenaline-fueled tempo mixed with slow moments where some fans felt so confused they tried to wave their arms, before realising that this was 4st 7lb, not Coldplay. It is visceral, immediate stuff, and as such only gains power live. You could hear every note and twang of James’ guitar, nothing sounds like the studio.
The fans, of course, knew exactly what they were in for. Some were misery tourists; I could not quite work out how one girl found the urge to groove to The Intense Humming of Evil when most of the crowd were stunned in silence. But it was “enjoyable”. In this left-leaning audience there was a catharsis in belting out the lyrics to ifwhiteamerica after feeling so helpless for so long. To collectively chant “so damn easy to cave in, man kills everything” at the end of Faster was to articulate and release so much frustration.
It didn’t end there – the second half of the set, the “party songs” as James put it, is not devoid of this feeling. Nicky, taking over lyric duty, writes in a more diluted way (and can be occasionally dreadful) but the message remains. James first sung The Everlasting (that song of strange pronunciation), that begins with “the gap that grows between our lives, the gap our parents never had.” Depression remains a topic; the cheerful-on-the-surface number You Stole the Sun from my Heart concludes with “I have got to stop smiling, if gives the wrong impression…” The set concludes with the searing 1996 eulogy to a dead welfare state, A Design for Life, as moving as ever nearly twenty years on as the Chancellor of the Exchequer sells off the public sector.
David Nicholls (this one) once wrote that each generation needs to write its own histories. Twenty years later, The Holy Bible resurrected live is something new in itself; part-tribute, part-protest, with a bit of group therapy thrown in. There are newer radical artists about, with new things to say, but none can claim the following of this Gwent rock trio. It’s a tougher musical landscape nowadays, this band’s first No. 1 was the Spanish Civil War track If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next, and it’s hard to imagine something so with the line “if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists” topping the charts today.
The Manics are not trying to be the voice of 2015 with material from 1994. Nor are they stuck in the past. Instead, like the album itself, they are using history to make an impassioned comment on the present. Twenty years later, European and American society is still masquerading under the guise of a post-racist, post-sexist “end of history” triumphalism, whilst social inequality grows, and racial and sexual violence persists.
Or, to show “houses as ruins and gardens as weeds” (quoting This is Yesterday) is to push for greater awareness of the past, and greater urgency in changing the present.