FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Manic Street Preachers, “The Holy Bible”

2016 has been a terrifyingly surreal political rollercoaster. Brexit brought chaos to the UK, Australia’s seemingly endless rotation of political leaders continues, and now, Donald Trump is the President of the United States. And that’s just three countries.

Politics and music constantly intertwine, with countless songs, albums and entire genres rising from the flames that sociopolitical unrest inspires. If anything – if there’s one single positive thing that will come out of Trump’s presidency – it’s the inevitable flurry of good art. From Beyoncé, Solange and Common to Radiohead, Squarepusher and ANOHNI, to A.B. Original on our own turf, to Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Run The Jewels and Eminem and many more, music has been unleashed in direct response to 2016.

Be it visual arts, theatre, music or literature, the art world reacts to political chaos, racial injustice and social disarray with creative ferocity, often producing art imbued with a sense of urgency, even aggression, in its intent and necessity.

I thought to use this week’s Flashback Friday to reflect on some of the many, many anti-Donald Trump songs out there, but there’s enough Trump discourse circulating right now, so I have instead chosen to focus on a less specific, but eternally affecting political album. I’ve chosen this album not only for my personal connection to it, but as an example of how a record can both be so beautifully crafted out of the raw, vile carcass that is global politics and society, and how it can retain and exude relevance and vitality by having a message, having purpose. The album I would like to talk about today is The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers.

The history of Manic Street Preachers is as interesting as any; the Welsh four-piece formed in 1986 and quickly developed a loyal cult following as their albums grew more punky and more conscious, sometimes painfully so. The group delivered songs about a massive range of issues from global capitalism and American consumerism to mental illness and drug abuse, from dictatorships and serial killers to the Holocaust, abortion and suicide.

Image: The Guardian

Image: The Guardian

The Holy Bible is their third album, released around six months before the now-mythological event that was the disappearance of lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards, who was never found, and only declared presumably dead in 2008, 13 years later.

Edwards was known for being a tumultuous, troubled and volatile artist, and by the time The Holy Bible came out, he was living with drug addiction, alcoholism, anorexia nervosa, and several related mental health concerns including self-harm.
At the same time, he remained one of the greatest lyricists of the era. Of this album, Edwards reportedly coined around 75% of the lyrics; the rest were composed by bassist Nicky Wire. The record is so detailed, relentless, and unfalteringly aware of so, so, so many socio-political issues, almost to a fault; the lyrics are often more difficult to digest than the fastest rap verses in hip-hop history.

My personal favourite song on the album, and the most relevant to today, is track 2: IfWhiteAmericaToldTheTruthForOneDayIt’sWorldWouldFallApart. It’s also the best example of how much information the Manics managed to smash into a single song; this album genuinely taught me more about politics than any other record or even school class I’d had at the time.

Here are a few non-consecutive lines as an example:

“Images of perfection, suntan and napalm, Granada, Haiti, Poland, Nicaragua”

“Big Mac, smack, Phoenix R, please smile y’all, Cuba Mexico can’t cauterise our discipline”

“Conservatives say ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’, Democrats say, ‘There ain’t enough white in the Stars and Stripes’”

“Compton, Harlem, a pump fucked a priest, the white man has just found a new moral savior”

“Fuck the Brady bill! If god made man they say Sam Colt made him equal.”

The album delivers a powerful message against American consumerism and privilege in a way that feels incredibly relevant right now. This song could have been released a week ago, and would sound as vital.

I first heard this album when I was 15 or 16 years old and I doubt I understood a single one of those references – and that’s just one part of one song. I looked through the album sleeve (yes, young folks, I owned – still own – this on an actual CD) and read through all the lyrics. Suddenly, this wildly dramatic alt-punk album became a textbook.

I would research every lyric on the album that I didn’t understand. It was the greatest global society and politics lesson I’ve ever had. 

The album stretched much further than politics. It captured the pulse of not one, but around thirteen devastating and dark aspects of humanity and society, and turned it into an album that has had a remarkably deep impact on my perception of these issues. As such, it is excellent proof of good art coming from bad humanity.

The following track is titled Of Walking Abortion. It references Hitler and Mussolini, while the song title is drawn from the S.C.U.M Manifesto by Valerie Solanis, a scathing vitriol against the male gender. Speaking about the X and Y chromosomes, Solanis writes, “the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage.”

Archives of Pain is a song about serial killers, capital punishment and extreme violence in politics. Again, the relevant atmosphere is kind of uncanny. It opens with a sample of the mother of a victim of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, or The Yorkshire Ripper. “I wonder who you think you are. You damn well think you’re god or something? God give life, god taketh it away, not you. I think you are the Devil itself.”

The ironically pro-death penalty track then goes on; “Kill Yeltsin, Hussein, Zhirinovsky, Le Pen, Hindley and Brady, Ireland, Allitt, Sutcliffe, Dahmer, Nilsen, Yoshinori Ueda, Blanch and Pickles, Amin and Milosevic.”

How many of those references can you pick? They are a collection of violent politicians, torturers, serial killers, rapists and dictators. Learning about the origins of this song was a dark day for a 16 year old.

4st 7lb is one of the most heartbreaking songs on the album. It’s about anorexia. The title refers to the weight (29 kg) at which an anorexia sufferer will inevitably die. That Edwards was living with anorexia at the time makes this tremendously powerful; his lyrics take the illness out of his body and into that of a young girl, the most typical demographic, and portrays her unending, proud obsession, feebly marching toward her death. Some say that it glorifies anorexia but I’ve never considered it so; it simply provides an insight into how it feels from the perspective of a sufferer; many personas are taken on throughout this album to achieve this, but this is perhaps the most obvious.

Singer James Dean Bradfield takes on the young girl persona in the brilliant and striking song. “See my third rib appear, a week later all my flesh disappears, Stretch taut, cling-film on bone, I’m getting better.”

The chorus is one of the darkest, and most beautiful lines on the album. “I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint; I want to walk in the snow and not soil its purity.”

The final track I will mention is The Intense Humming of Evil. As you can likely judge by the title, it is a beast of a song, centred on the horrors of the Holocaust and its death camps. The song begins with a lengthy sample of a quote read out during the Nuremberg trials (if you haven’t heard the album, look up all the samples too – nearly every track opens with one out of history.) The verses and chorus are then characterised by two personas, one of a prisoner, and one of a Nazi soldier.

“6 Million screaming souls, maybe misery – maybe nothing at all. Lives that wouldn’t have changed a thing, never counted – never mattered – never be.”

“Arbeit macht frei, transports of invalids. Hartheim Castle breathes us in, in block 5 we worship malaria.”

Music can have an intense influence with tremendous longevity and impact. This album taught me so much, about so many things. It’s different to, say, To Pimp A Butterfly, which takes the listener through Kendrick Lamar’s own struggles with injustice and racism; of course the Manics were not involved in all of the topics on the album. But in some ways, to a 15-year-old me anyway, that made this knowledge and these opinions even more accessible, because I didn’t have to have lived through it to understand why it was so destructive. It was simply an onslaught of information and awareness – many of which feels as pertinent to this very week as it did back in 1994.

Music has the power to simultaneously provide insight into, and solace from, the world’s terrors. 

At the time of writing this, it’s about 24 hours after Donald Trump has been elected to be President of the United States. It’s difficult to conjure hope or faith, but one thing I can do is turn to the artists and musicians who have the power to grasp devastating events and reshape them into something beautiful, and something important.

The Holy Bible had a huge impact on my understanding of the world, and I have no doubt that the next four years will, if nothing else, produce many more records that are just as sobering, insightful, and important as this one.