AUGUST 10, 2017
TITLES DON’T COME MUCH more hubristic than The Holy Bible, the third album by the Welsh post-punk rock band Manic Street Preachers; but for many, this record has indeed attained the status of a sacred text. Daniel Lukes, one of three authors of Triptych, a lengthy and erudite dissection of the 1994 album, puts it nicely: “The Holy Bible was my awakening, in many ways, my education. It set the ball rolling: it was a gateway drug.” I grew up (in a way) in a small village in Lincolnshire on the eastern edge of England, and the album ― copied onto cassette for me by a proselytizing school friend ― was my gateway drug as well. It’s no exaggeration to say that it gave me the foundations for a new identity, refashioning how I saw myself and the world by way of its many literary, artistic, historical, and political reference points.
To be an adolescent Manics fan was to be truly fanatical — to worship at their altar. Many of us underwent a process of radicalization as we lay in our bedrooms, contemplating self-harm and wishing we were somewhere else while listening to songs with titles like “Revol,” “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart,” and “The Intense Humming of Evil,” which all spoke to our explosive premillennial unease. Indeed, when The Holy Bible was released, the band members portrayed themselves as a kind of terrorist faction. In an infamous appearance on Top of the Pops to promote the lead single “Faster,” singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield caused a public outcry by appearing in an IRA-style balaclava. The band’s amps were decked in camouflage netting while medieval torches burned at either side of the stage. To Bradfield’s left, the androgynous and demure Richey Edwards ― chief lyrical and conceptual architect of The Holy Bible ― pretended to play guitar while sporting a sailor suit with “slough of despond” scrawled on the back of his neckerchief. Down the front of the stage, teenage girls went mad for this beguiling and bizarre South Wales post-punk version of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
In many ways I missed the boat, as I was slightly too young and innocent to catch all this the first time around. The cassette only reached me during the emotional maelstrom that separated the release of The Holy Bible from its successor, Everything Must Go, in 1996, by which point Edwards was missing, widely presumed dead after his car was discovered abandoned close to the Severn Bridge. This was all well before YouTube, but I plugged the gaps in my education by bunking off school in the afternoons to listen to the albums, read the sleeve notes, and watch a pile of VHS tapes that another Manics devotee had copied for me, consisting of hours of bootlegged live shows, interviews, and documentaries. These afternoons seemed far more significant than my A levels, with the band introducing me to writers whom I’d no chance of encountering on the official syllabus. The chorus of “Faster” alone referenced Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Sylvia Plath, and Harold Pinter. Much like the Martin Amis novels that I was also starting to read avidly at the time, The Holy Bible had me rifling through my dog-eared Concise Oxford English Dictionary in an effort to expand my vocabulary into new and often disturbing territory: acedia, crochet, Lebensraum.
Those VHS tapes were also how I came to understand the full scale of the backdrop to the summer of 1994 and the sequence of events and forms of affliction ― depression, alcoholism, self-harm, hospitalization ― that led to Edwards’s eventual breakdown and disappearance. In the opening section of Triptych, Rhian E. Jones tells this story through an intimate description of what it felt like to be a fan of the band at the time ― in Jones’s case, a fan from the same South Wales valleys that had been thrown into terminal decline by the demise of the coal-mining industry. Her account personalizes what her co-author, Larissa Wodtke, identifies as the “grand narrative” of the album. Jones insightfully explores the relationship between fans and bands in an era when a drama like that of the Manics unfolded through the weekly music press rather than social media: an era when kids could even stumble on these pop-stars-cum-art-terrorists by reading teen magazine Smash Hits or watching them being interviewed on Saturday-morning TV by Nobby the Sheep.
While Jones’s probing reflections on the cultural contexts that shaped The Holy Bible and Lukes’s reflections on Edwards’s reading are both highly engaging, for me, the highlight of Triptych is Wodtke’s ambitious and staunchly academic final section. To be sure, Wodtke’s prose is at times rather dense, and she may be somewhat too dogged in her application of poststructuralism and trauma theory. Yet the band’s own academic tendencies have often been noted, with Lukes describing the album as a “seminar in album form.” Indeed, Manic Street Preachers have always been so brimming with ideas, so engaged with questions of meaning and knowledge, that they are highly susceptible to this type of theoretical analysis.
Wodtke’s great achievement is that her use of theory is almost always illuminating and her critique has helped me to see an album that is more familiar to me than any other in completely new ways. What might at first seem like slightly outlandish theoretical claims are consistently supported through perceptive analysis of the lyrics and music, and I found myself fully agreeing with Wodtke’s insistence on reading Manic Street Preachers as a band who were obsessed, from the very beginning, with the temporal themes she identifies: memory and amnesia, archives and emptiness, repetition and trauma, history and futurity. And time, for this band, as for Derrida (by way of Hamlet), is out of joint. While it is obvious that Journal for Plague Lovers looks back to The Holy Bible ― notably, through its artwork and use of Edwards’s lyrics ― it was fascinating to think about the way that features of The Holy Bible anticipate Journal for Plague Lovers, such as the Hubert Selby Jr. sample that opens “Of Walking Abortion”: “I knew that someday I was gonna die. And I knew that 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.”
Wodtke’s central argument is that The Holy Bible constitutes an archive for what Deborah Britzman and Alice Pitt term “difficult knowledge,” a concept that describes the way we encounter various forms of atrocity and violence. Wodtke then persuasively links this to such things as the album’s representations of the human body, so that a track like “4st 7lb,” which assumes the perspective of an anorexic girl, is animated by an overarching metaphor wherein the rejection of food represents a refusal to ingest unpalatable knowledge about the world. The title and structure of Triptych allude to both the painting that’s used on the cover of The Holy Bible ― Jenny Saville’s Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) ― and the deformed bodies of Francis Bacon’s triptychs. For Wodtke, Saville’s depiction of an obese woman suggests an aesthetic of disgust that is itself indigestible, though in the context of her argument about difficult knowledge I’d be tempted to read the band’s use of Saville slightly differently. To me, the cover suggests that difficult knowledge is all too digestible and that she who digests it (read The Holy Bible) is perceived by society to be grotesque. And it is precisely for this reason that Manic Street Preachers would wish us to see beauty in such a body ― as would Saville, I guess.
While the authors of Triptych do an admirable job of not divorcing the lyrics from the music, remaining fully appreciative of the important contribution that James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore make to the album’s sound and sense, Wodtke’s commentary highlights how spectacularly well Edwards’s lyrics work on the page. (Here it is also important to acknowledge the support that Edwards received from Nicky Wire throughout the writing process, with the bassist contributing a couple of his own songs to the album, as well as helping Edwards with editing and with titles.) Wodtke is the only author to quote the lyrics as they appear in the liner notes, with units of sense separated by dots rather than conventional grammatical marks, thereby acknowledging the band’s ambitious modernist aesthetic. I often find that reading critically revered music lyrics on the page can be a disappointing experience, and I tend to disagree with those, such as the critic Christopher Ricks, who claim that pop lyrics written by the likes of Bob Dylan are poetry on a par with the verse of Yeats. But for me, Edwards is right up there with his hero, Chuck D of Public Enemy, as someone whose lyrics warrant close analysis in their written form.
Lukes’s chapters are also overtly concerned with the literariness of the album, addressing its expansive intertextuality. And in one well-judged chapter titled “Reading Too Much into The Holy Bible,” he even responds, with good humor, to the obvious ― and unfounded ― criticism of such an enterprise. Like his co-authors, Lukes draws on his own autobiography in a candid way, exploring what is clearly a deeply personal and heartfelt relationship with the band. However, Lukes also confesses that the experience of researching the book and working his way through Edwards’s recommended reading had been traumatic, describing it as “kind of a nightmare.” Revisiting one’s teenage self is often an excruciating experience. Yet for those who feel themselves to have been personally transformed by The Holy Bible, listening to the album may also remind us of a part of ourselves that we never wish to lose or forget, however troubled, damaged, or depressed it may have been.
One problem for Lukes is that this group of listeners probably constitutes a significant portion of his readership, and his newfound dislike for Edwards’s reading ― he notes his particular distaste for J. G. Ballard and Hubert Selby Jr. ― intimates that he has outgrown not only the books and “feeling tone” (to borrow a phrase from Amis) of adolescence but also the artwork that Triptych is all about. And this leads to a rather jarring dismissal of Edwards’s “angst-ridden white man canon,” when a brief chapter on “The Unbearable Whiteness of The Holy Bible” could have done far more to explore the album’s complex engagement with questions of race and whiteness. Jones is also occasionally suspicious of Edwards’s sexual politics, and it probably says more about my own inability to think anything ill of an artist to whom I feel so much admiration that I slightly bristle at such critiques. Routinely citing black artists such as Chuck D and radical feminists such as Valerie Solanas and Andrea Dworkin, Edwards’s take on race and gender still seems to me to be as thoughtful as anything out there in pop.
Triptych ends with Wodtke’s account of attending all three of the back-to-back Holy Bible 20th anniversary shows at the London Roundhouse in 2014. Wodtke finds herself queuing for hours each night to get to the front of the stage. What emerges is an endearing portrait of a thirtysomething still connecting with her teenage feeling tone — while also guarding her “unthinkingly purchased” vinyl, being used as a tripod, and getting accidentally punched in the face by a girl trying to wave to Wire. In this way, Triptych ends with an affirmation of an album that begins with a song called “Yes” and takes affirmation as one of its abiding concerns — though not, of course, in a straightforward kind of way. After all, “Yes” is a song about prostitution, and The Holy Bible repeatedly characterizes self-punishment as a form of empowerment, of bodily encoded mental discipline, making it tempting to speculate that Edwards may have seen his own (presumed) suicide as an act of defiance, recalling Amis’s characterization of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s suicide, in the afterword to Time’s Arrow, “as an act of ironic heroism, an act that asserts something like: My life is mine and mine alone to take.” It is perhaps for this reason that “Die in the Summertime” has always seemed to me to be one of the album’s definitive statements, both musically and lyrically, with its creepy intro exploding into the band at their most ferocious, and with its lyrics ― appearing in the sleeve notes alongside childhood photographs of the band members ― describing the pursuit of some unattainable “fixed ideal” that may be lying in wait after the cymbal’s quick fade and the chillingly unequivocal last line: “I wanna die.”
The first time I saw Manic Street Preachers live was at the Cambridge Corn Exchange in 1996 on the Everything Must Go tour, the year after Edwards’s disappearance. It was exhilarating enough, with Edwards’s absence on the left-hand side of the stage ― what Wire has termed “the visual and emotional gap” ― serving as a palpable presence alongside the gangly bassist’s stamps, splits, and kicks, Bradfield’s wild spinning, and the trademark projections of riots, slogans, and bombs. And yet, that gig mainly made me wish I’d seen the band live when Edwards was still around. Now Wodtke’s account of the Roadhouse made me wish I’d gone to more of the later shows too, or at least these ones, with the band’s masterpiece played from start to finish, the stage “draped in Apocalypse Now red light and camouflage netting,” the three remaining members back in full military regalia, and a Soviet hammer and sickle on the drum kit for good measure. It’s fitting that Wodtke’s analysis of the workings of cultural memory in The Holy Bible draws to a close with personal memories of back-to-back gigs that are understandably hazy but full of rich details, such as Wire spurting something brilliantly bitchy about the band “knowing The Holy Bible was good when it wasn’t nominated for the Mercury Prize.” Sweating in a writhing mosh pit ― flesh touching, eyeliner dripping ― Wodtke’s coda captures the visceral thrill of Manic Street Preachers playing live, which, in my VHS video archive, always seemed like the perfect counterpart to the intellectual thrill of their lyrics.
Matthew Boswell is a University Academic Fellow at the School of English at the University of Leeds. He is the author of Holocaust Impiety in Literature, Popular Music and Film (2012), and his reviews and essays have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Fifth Day, Coney’s Loft, Arts Professional, and other periodicals.