A decade on, the Manics' visceral masterpiece is more powerful than ever…
Midway through the song ‘Mausoleum’, there’s a sample from author JG Ballard where he explains the thinking behind his 1973 novel Crash, in which the main characters get themselves off by crashing cars into each other. “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit”, he says, “and force it to look in the mirror”. And that’s what ‘ ‘The Holy Bible’ did. If you only discovered the Manic Street Preachers when they briefly became our biggest band, this is the album they’ve never been forgiven for moving on from. It’s also one of the best we’ve ever known.
Like most works of genuine genius, it’s a world away from anything else its creators ever set their hands to. Born as a reaction to the failure of their early bid to become a Valley Guns N’Roses, its white, seething fury at absolutely everything meant they could never go to such terrifying depths again.
What this tenth anniversary fantasy package should do is undo the damage of more recent years and reinstate them in the canon of greats – however awkward company they’d make for The Beatles or the Stones. Musically, ‘The Holy Bible’ is incredible, the result of James Dean Bradfield’s decision to rein the band back into a shitty studio in Cardiff’s red light district. Abandoning stadium dynamics and embracing new wave, industrial, art rock and goth, the likes of ‘Faster’ and ‘Yes’ stand up as furious mutant metal hybrids.
The deluxe package digitally remasters the original along with a DVD of TV performances and concert footage (although, puzzlingly, none of the videos) that are a pure ghoulish, almost pornographic delight. But the real interest here comes with the unreleased US edition, remixed as an attempt to break the band in the States. The wiry original is given the
full mid-’90s US rock treatment, coming over like an amphetamine-charged Nine Inch Nails that teases you with what might have been. In particular, the slower tracks, like ‘She Is Suffering’ and ‘This Is Yesterday’, sound like buffed-up radio monsters that never were. You wonder how this vision would have gone down in the superleague, but you certainly suspect that the band wouldn’t have coped.
All four of them, at this point, were damaged, but of course this record’s dark heart is that of Richey Edwards. Ravaged by depression, alcoholism, self-harm and anorexia, alongside Kurt, he was the most brilliant, insightful rock prophet of his generation. ‘The Holy Bible’ was the diary of his final breakdown, and his masterwork. Witness ‘Archives Of Pain’, the neurotic tribute to the victims of serial murder that appears to call for the death penalty. “There is never redemption”, spits Richey through the medium of James, “any fool can regret yesterday”. See the cold detachment of ‘Faster’’s personal manifesto as he explains his self-harm thus: “I am an architect, they call me a butcher”, he chokes. His first-person account of a teenage girl in the advanced stages of anorexia, ‘4st 7lb’, always felt far too plausible to be any of our business in the first place. It’s not especially easy to listen to considering what was lost. Certainly, every single thing that James, Nicky and Sean have done since is thrown into relief here as a way of coming to terms with loss.
It actually feels older than its ten years when you think about what’s changed. Even our nearest comparable psychological car crash of a band, The Libertines, live in a comfortably numb world of heroin and Tony Hancock DVDs where the purpose of music is an escape from life’s grim realities. The idea that somebody would want to wallow so intently in such sheer, abject misery – let alone that a major label would fund the whole endeavour – seems almost quaint. It’s hard to see what good can ever come from this record, until you try to think of how many albums since have managed to pack in this blood and sweat and life. And then you remember just how pretty much every adult instinct you’ve ever had came from things that this record opened your eyes to. And then all you can do is marvel at how this incredible piece of work was able to wake so much in so many of us.
There’s ghoulish magic in the concert footage of Richey at Glastonbury. But watching the interview footage of the three survivors, trying to make sense and soundbites out of the most traumatic year of their lives, is just as moving. After all, as the Manics themselves once observed, survival’s as natural as sorrow.