Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Writer Rockstar: Richey Edwards and The Holy Bible

Holy Bible-period Manics

"Remnants of Uniforms"

I'm not the biggest Manic Street Preachers fan. Let's get that out of the way now. Their recordings before The Holy Bible I find, at best, a clutch of curate's eggs, with a few stand out tracks adrift among many miscalculations. Post-Bible... well, I haven't even bothered to hunt them down.

But The Holy Bible? Good god.

This being the WWW with the accent on 'world wide', perhaps it's best I give a little background.

The Manics exploded onto the post-cold war British music scene in a flash of eyeliner, power chords and literary quotes. In a three-pronged attack of style, bite and intelligence they scored a record contract after only eight gigs and proceeded to be the L'Enfant terribles of the national music press*. Three of them went on to be a chart topping act. The fourth, Richey James Edwards, simply disappeared. He hasn't returned.

RicheyEdwards couldn't play an instrument and couldn't sing. Aside from a scratchy piece of rhythm guitar buried deep in the mix of Gold against the Soul, he never appears on any Manics album. And yet this man was fundamental to it all.

He wrote the lyrics--dense, formidable things--and pioneered the band's image, both sartorially and in terms of sleeve design. His 'fierce panda' looks, far more beautiful than anyone in even the most pre-planned of boy bands, drew cohorts of love-stricken fans but, for me, he is the writer’s rock star.

Because, stripped of transitory fame, devoid of recorded presence, that's what he remains:  a writer. He's rarely considered as such.

"For $200 anyone can conceive a god on video"

I am an architect/ They call me a butcher

They're the opening lines of the single Faster, but they are also the greatest opening of any and all novels that don't exist. Richey wasn't a novelist of course, however the hypothetical possibility of him being one in his thirties or forties compels. As a writer, he is best understood as a historian-essayist poet... thing.

Which brings us to The Holy Bible. Commercially disappointing, critically vaunted (It's no stranger to best albums of all time charts), no other album stares the twentieth century so starkly in the face**.
This album's mission statement is best encapsulated by a sample of J.G. Ballard talking that sits in the middle-eighth of Mausoleum--

"I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit... and force it to look in the mirror."

The Holocaust, American consumerism, British imperialism, prostitution, media-kissed serial killers, lost childhood and self-harm; The Holy Bible's most upbeat song is about an anorexic girl ecstatic to reach four stone seven pounds- the alleged weight the human body can tolerate before terminal failure***.

Edwards was himself anorexic at the point of penning these lyrics. Alcoholic and self-mutilating too. Not a happy bunny. HB might be called a howl from the depths, much like many other fractious rock albums of note. But unlike those other albums it's far less self-absorbed, engaging with history and politics as it does (It even merges both- occasionally, one senses an implied mirroring of totalitarianism with puberty's corruption of innocence).

Even its moments of self-absorption are of a different breed to your typical 'screw the world, no one cares' fare. Puking, shaking, admit the lyrics of Yes, the album's opener, I still stand for old ladies. There's an awareness, quite singular in rock lyrics, of how depression affects those around the sufferer, and a pride in the fact he can still function with decency.

The construction of HB's songs is fairly unique (mirrored, to my knowledge, only by , er, Elton John and Bernie Taupin) and deserve attention. The lyrics came first and at Edward's and bassist Nicky Wire's (Responsible for some 20% of the material and the majority of the song titles) request, were inviolate. James Dean Bradfield--the under-sung hero of the project--had to structure the music entirely around them.

Consequently, the ten songs sound like compressed epics, often shifting into new riffs with abrupt spikiness. Some lines are stretched over several bars, while others are crowded into a single bar like families in a 1930's slum house.  It can be disorientating on first exposure, indistinct even, but some line or other--'I should have lied like everybody else', say, or 'Zapbruder, the first to masturbate' will hook into your psyche and you'll need to listen again. Even if it's only to be sure you heard it right.

The cover; designed by Richey Edwards with portraits by artist Jenny Saville. Saville's agent originally asked for £30,000 for the triptych's use but, after a meeting in a cafe where Edwards laid out the album's mission statement, she eventually gave it for free.

"I Know I Believe In Nothing, But It Is My Nothing"

Politically speaking, The Holy Bible has a real independence of thought, as opposed to earlier albums that often borrowed the used clothes of The Clash and Public Enemy. It's a facet that's mostly refreshing, if occasionally infuriating. The Manics were, and are, an avowedly socialist group and HB reflects that for the main.

The Intense Humming of Evil, for instance, mourns the Holocaust yet in its last verse berates the UK establishment for not learning from the horror ('Churchill no different/ Wished the workers bled to a machine'). Revol lists autocratic (or autocratically inclined) leaders (Lenin, Chamberlain, Farrakhan etc) and their sexual failures. Humanity's urge to abase itself before brutal authority ('Hitler revived in the worm of your soul') despite our better nature, is the subject of Of Walking Abortion. Edward's implies the roots of this may lay in the family unit:  Shalom, shalom, we all love our children.

P.C.P, on the other hand, makes a surprisingly good fist of criticizing the extremes of political correctness (Liposuction for your bad mouth, boy), elevating the argument far above the tiresome repetitions of The Daily Mail and, latterly, the comments roll bore.

The infuriating element of HB's outlook is mainly to be found in Archives of Pain. Nowadays, liberal-minded bloggers would deem the song's lyrics 'problematic' (the sort of quasi-coercive euphemism the author of P.C.P would spit nails at). Though it's anger at the celebritisation of serial killers is noble enough, it soon degenerates into a call, not only for capital punishment, but for public punishment of all kinds, as if this is a missing factor in the modern world.

One has to wonder what Edward's perfect society would be like- something humanist and progressive as per Sweden or Amsterdam, presumably, yet with a swift injection of sharia law at any hint of misdemeanor. Some have argued, and I reluctantly tend to agree, that Archives... is a product of Edward's declining mental health, especially as the chorus (All I preach is extinction) appears to disparage the verses. Whatever, today's Manics make a policy of never performing it.

"A Pity You Can Buy Anything"

Ironically, intent as Ritchey Edwards was on defining the 20th century, he couldn't predict the cultural essence of the 21st. The Holy Bible, perhaps more than any album, suffers from the way we listen to music now.

On the album's sleeve notes Edwards is credited as 'Lyrics, design'. The two functions are indivisible. To truly, fully engage with this music, one needs not only the lyrics on the album sleeve, but the album sleeve as well, with its considered offering of quotes and images. The incorporeality of the MP3 and the shuffle of the i-Pod, despite all the good they've brought us, are not these songs' friends. 'The butchers had no mercy on them', as one of HB's samples (taken from a Pathe wartime newsreel) unwittingly puts it. 

Can The Holy Bible--and, by extension, Richey Edwards,--have anything to say about this online, global age we now live in, given that both art and artist are unflinching cameras on the horrors of the last century?

I would like to think yes, but I'm probably the wrong person to ask, seeing as I'm as much of a cold war kid as my subject. The music that we might consider Generation Y's equivalent--Emo and such--generally stretches for an emotional universality, rather than the concrete (and often obscure) detail this album presents. Perhaps The Holy Bible is merely a document.

I'll leave on a story. Of sorts.
Three years ago--and fifteen years since Edwards' disappearance--I heard the much-celebrated academic and political critic Noam Chomsky being interviewed on the radio.

"But surely," the reporter asked him, "you must agree there's a difference between Obama and Bush?"

Chomsky chuckled, treating the reporter's question as if it had been asked by the most naive child. There was no difference, both men were different faces of the same military industrial combine. Never mind either Presidents' stance on abortion or welfare, it seemed.

The smug disingenuousness of it wound me up. The next day, however, Radio 1 debuted the track Peeled Apples, taken form the new Manics album Journal For Plague Lovers. It's lyrics were Richey Edwards', left in a notebook these last fifteen years.

Sat nodding by my radio, I heard the refrain: "Riderless horses in Chomsky's Camelot."

Nice work, young man, I thought. You nailed that bastard in one.

Edwards backstage, rocking the band's initial breakout look.

*-Much has been made of the mind-boggling unlikelihood of four guys so aesthetically like-minded being born in the same Welsh mining town at roughly the same time, to the point where the word 'destiny' lurks around the mind of anyone considering the matter.

**- I think I came up with this line, but I can't shake the feeling it may have come from an ancient nineties NME article or somewhere. If so, apologies for my plagiarism.

***- No, it makes no sense to me either. Clearly, different bodies would have different minimal survival weights. Perhaps it was the approximate survival weight of the girl in the documentary that inspired it. Kurt Cobain, however, wrote an entire song about the actress Frances Farmer, his facts coming from a vastly distorted TV film, so comparatively we could cut Edwards some slack here. Arguably, both songs say much about early nineties veracity. Today, both lyricists could lean on Google.

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