Just An Ambulance, At The Bottom Of A Cliff : 20 Years Of "The Holy Bible".
Where to start? Where it ends. 227 Lears, and I can't remember the first line.
Where to start? Where everything ends. A coffin.
Because “The Holy Bible” is the most important record I own. Lots of records mean a lot, but this one is everything. As if someone ripped the thoughts from my mind before I could even think them, and forced them to music.
Even if “The Holy Bible” were a mere palimpisest of poetry, it would be the most meaningful art I own.
“The Holy Bible” was released on August 28th 1994. 20 years seems like no time at all, and yet also a lifetime. In those days, bank holidays were the days shops simply did not open. The Our Price in Northfield was closed. I went on the 45 bus to Birmingham City Centre, went to the Our Price in the Pallasades, and handed over my £13.99 from my measly unemployment benefit, and bought the new CD by The Manic Street Preachers, called “The Holy Bible” on picture disc CD. I still have it upstairs. I'm on my fourth CD copy of “The Holy Bible”, (as well as having bought, and then sold on Ebay for about £80, the original 1994 picture disc vinyl). I have never owned it on cassette, because even in 1994, I knew cassettes were only for the car.
I couldn't wait the thought of not having that record for one extra night. I'd bought every single as it came out on every format bar the hated cassingle. I bought ludicrously expensive CD singles from Belgium for an acoustic “she is suffering” recorded for MTV. I already had it on VHS, but that was hissy. I managed to obtain an original copy of the American mix CD, that was released in Canada for around 3 weeks and sold a handful of copies, and got a friend, in the pre internet days, to post me it. I absorbed the gatefold sleeves and quotes on the covers. I transcribed lyrics. I read the double spread advert in the NME the week before it came out, memorising all words - obliterates all meaning – obliterates all meaning – obliterates all meaning – obliterates -
Even now, if I had long enough – say 54 minutes, I could probably recite the whole album. Word for word. For sale? Dumb cunts saying same dumb questions. Virgins? All virgins are liars, honey.
Every. Damn. Word.
Pass the prozac, designer amnesiac.
Even now, I can slip a line from one of the songs in to some of my friends, and they know what I'm talking about – or at the very least that I'm quoting that bloody record again. Most days whilst I go through some daily ritual, a shave, eating, walking to a desk, it occurs to me. “I eat and I dress and I wash and I still can say thank you”. The obdient voice in your head as we compromise, day by day, minute by minute, as we try to keep hold of who we are but also as we try to blend in. As we become secret agents playing roles in everyday life in order to integrate and survive. Which of course, we all do to an extent. I play a role. I don't say what I think sometimes. At some points in my career, not, thankfully, for many years, I've sat in meetings with human beings who are so incompetent they don't even have the skills to realise they are incompetent, yet powerful, and have the power to destroy lives, and said nothing. Normally when I'm on public transport stuck in a queue behind a dunderhead. Don't hurt, just obey, lie down, do as they say. Because, as I have learned to my detriment over the years, sometimes you never know who is the enemy. You never know who may have shared a womb with you, or a room, and been the enemy, who is working against you even if they are merely acting with their own selfish agenda, treating other people as disposable objects to be used for their own gratification, who regards the lives of others as collateral damage or no importance. For sale? Everyone's for sale.
Lyrically, it's an extremely bleak record : but for me, it isn't a resignation, but a statement of defiance. More a case that, on the logic of things, all things are bleak. But that there is a virtue in resistance.
And I don't think I will mention the music once. It's great music, but it's not just the music that makes me come back to this again and again. If the music were 56 minutes of Ukranian folk tunes, I'd never have listened to it.
For years this record was a creed. Sure, for some of you it may be sixth form poetry. But to forget who we were is to insult our younger self. As a child I felt the serrated edge of the world as harsh as sandpaper. If anything I still do, and my outside self is merely a hardened shell. As I explain below, whilst my childhood was unexceptional in many ways, neither driven by bountiful riches or extreme poverty, it wasn't easy for me. Nor was it a comfortable reality, existing in a world that I felt I didn't quite fit into. As a child – even aged 10 when newspapers were full of burning Argentinian battlecruisers and riots and people being attacked by the police because they wanted their jobs. At the age of 10, a world like this felt like me to be total madness. If you really care wash the feet of a beggar. And I know, how close any of us could be to that. And also, how guilty I feel about living in a world that allows other humans to be homeless.
In many ways, this record informed me. It changed the way I think. My whole career – and the fact that I work in an world where my work can be seen to better the society around me. I will never meet most of the people who benefit from my work ; but I know that I walk past them every day – people who have replacement hips, battered wives who safely left abusive relationships, the disabled who cannot live alone, the poor who would otherwise be unable to afford to live in their home towns, the victims of crime who, even now, are protected from criminals due to convictions I had a role in in the last millenia. I could've made a lot more money building a better bomb ; but chose not to. Although I already knew it, this record taught me that the world is a cruel place, we are who we choose to be through our actions. And we can make the world a better place. We are who we choose to be, through our actions, our words, our deeds.
I mentioned a coffin earlier. Six months after this record was released, I came back from a night out, and held my mother hands as she screamed I'm dying! I'm dying! after having her second heart attack, at 3am in the morning. I went to bed at 8am that day. I listened to this record as I sat alone and ate breakfast having been awake for long over 24 hours. My mother lived a little longer, but did not outlive the year. This record was there, forever. I remember talking with her in the last year of her life, at the bedroom door one evening, whilst this record played. I turned the music down, because, I kind of knew she wouldn't always be there to chat for an hour with her 21 year old son.
So many of the songs on this record changed me.
“The Holy Bible” is a great album, but also an albatross that sits round the neck, a shadow burned into the wall of what used to be that can never be removed from memory. If this record were a moment in history, it would be a Hiroshima shadow. The stopped clock. Etched forever. I've taken it with me, not a reminder of what was, nor clinging to the past, but because it still feels very relevant to the world we live in today. If it weren't it would be juvenalia, and as relevant to me as the 1994 FA Cup Final. I'm a very different person now, but in many ways, that person is still in me, the foundations of a building, and the years since have built on top of him, and that boy is still in there.
“Motown Junk” was my entry point. The bands entire discography consisted of nine songs. I was the shy, scared virgin. Lost in a world I neither liked, nor understood. A cruel land that was made of poverty and little joy. A typical teenage world then.
I wanted to rub the worlds face in it's own vomit. I was unexceptional as a teenager. I needed no reminding of the casual cruelty of humans to others. I was bullied at school, like millions of other kids. I felt acutely every punch and every jibe, and there were a lot of them. I felt every rejection from every girl. After all, I was 16, with little money, and not much to offer. I existed in the world that so few records acknowledged existed. I had lived many years of being surrounded by a world I thought cruel, and in many ways repulsive. The kids that bullied me went on to work in car factories, and probably married the overweight girl next door. To me, growing up was an endurance test of stamina for half a decade, to get away from the prison that was my school, where I was surrounded by 75% idiots for the next five years, and frequently assaulted by people who weren't even half as clever as me, but twice as strong. I hated school for being an institionalised form of impotent cruelty. And, being a kid, you can't just quit schools like you would jobs, and being a kid at school, the authorities pretty much saw bullies as as natural, and inescapable as air and water, and really didn't care. Any situation you cannot escape, and wish to, is a prison. In this situation, school was a prison. And everyday I relived the horror of a bullfight. Most of my time at school was pretty shit, and aside from the song “Playground Brutality” by Kingmaker, nothing in culture ever seemed to even recognise its existence. No thoughts to forget when we were children.
My relationship to the record is on a line by line basis : and deeply personal. Life is lead weights, pendulum died. This occurred to me, walking up the stairs of an unhappy office sometime. Mussolini hangs on a butchers hook. This image won't leave my head. How little some things changed over decades. At least you can change jobs if there are attempts to intimidate, coerce, force, threaten. It still remains. (And let us not forget the line “little people in little houses, like maggots, small, blind and worthless” comes from a Richey comment from their 1992 Japanese tour).
The third song, “Of Walking Abortion”, again means so much, but in a very individual way : I doubt anyone else would read the lyrics the way I do. We all bring our own experiences, all our moments, which are individual to us, to everything we see, and no can experience any work of art exactly the same way we do, but sometimes lovers, friends – those who have been there at the same moment – come close.
It occurred me, not long after that “X Baseball Shoes” - the subsequent line – was probably a dig at the Spike Lee Malcolm X merchandise popular at the time, the commercialisation of politics and profit that also ties in later on with “Revol” ; explicitly highlighted with the line “Lebensraum – Kulturkampf – Raus Raus! - Fila Fila” (translated “Living Room – Culture War – Out Out – Form A Line” ; the last sharing a name with a shoe brand cannot be a coincidence).
That everything can be commercialised, sold, and printed as a logo onto shoes. Baseball shoes with the sole print cut into the pattern of the cover of Joy Divisions Unknown Pleasures exist. Shoes lost control. So wash your car in your Joy Division shoes would have seemed a fanciful extrapolation at the time. Now it is reality.
Conceptually, the record moves beyond addressing the political – social – cultural into the heart of relationships, another basis on which humans can be cruel or beautiful to each other, with “She is Suffering”. Love, the great redeemer, and the crucial black hole, the void at the heart of the album up to this point, could be see as the thing that we cling to, our talisman of belief in a world gone mad, and here, it is already destroyed by the second line : Lovers wrapped inside each others lies.
Beauty is such a terrible thing. And there's a world alone in those single six words : that beauty corrupts, both the beholder, who may debase themselves to possess it, buying drinks, cars, and so on to win a fragile heart – and the owner, who by being objectified by those who see a beautiful thing and wish to possess it, becomes corrupted by the sad nature of humanity. A flower attracting lust, vice and sin. The way dipshit guys always try to buy drinks and houses for the thin blonde, and the way someone as simple and wonderful as a human becomes objectified, they end up thinking everyone wants to take them to bed, and since there seems to be an unending line of potential suitors.... well. We've all met the prince and princess for whom only the very best will ever do, and the thing that they think makes them beautiful is the very thing that makes them not beautiful. Beauty is such a terrible thing.
I could write paragraphs about every line on every song. But on the other hand, I have to eat and sleep and sometimes, talk to other people, and so on. Shaking, puking, sinking, I still stand for old ladies.
The sad nature of humanity is the album in a nutshell. There's little hope in this record. It's sadness, and its nihlism is a source of comfort : insomuch as there's a sense that you are not alone in this record. In fact the core lyric on the albums harsh centrepiece - “Archives Of Pain” states clearly that centre of humanity is cruelty, before linking a large tick-list of serial killers. Bookending it with “Revol” is simple genius : it draws a line between serial killers and politicans, Yeltsin and Hindley and Brady and Le Pen and Dahmer all merging into one long litany. Throw in “Revol” and all of sudden, we're dealing with a whole different dynamic, a list of major political leaders linked to sexual imagery, which to me indicate both that politicians and mass murderers are somewhat interchangable (except by scale), and then the line “Mr Lenin – Awake The Boy”, and we're in a world where politics has become sexualised, and ideals are merely baggage. Politics is, and always has been a popularity contest, but linked with the sexualisation of ideology. Revol may be an unpopular song with some, but to me, it's one of the finest post punk songs there has ever been. What seems strange to me is that this was released 17 years after “Never Mind The Bollocks”, and and the gap between now – and then – is longer than that. ”The Holy Bible” is now at the mid point in history between “Tales Of Topographic Oceans” and “1989”.
Whew. And thats just Side One. Flip the album over, and you're into the land of “4st 7lb”, an unflinching look at anorexia. I remember watching compulsively the original documentary : even now I can instantly recall the skeletal visage of the speaker. It's the weight at which most adult humans cannot reverse the death spiral of weight loss : if you weight 4st 7lbs, you cannot escape the black hole of mortality. The lyric is so dense, I don't even know where I can start to unravel it. However, there's two telling clues : the only true area of power even the most powerless have in the world is over their own body, and the ability to starve, because every bite is a conscious choice to feed the engine of survival. And sometimes even that choice is taken away through abject poverty.
There are people starving to death in this country. Right now. The perspective I have on this album has changed now that there are food banks that exist to (don't always) prevent the poor from starving to death. There is a new layer on this record : that of a class war. Chamberlain - you see God in you. You must damn well think you're God or something...
Beyond that, this song presents an ideological layer : a statement of defiance against gluttonery in modern capitalism and ideological poverty ; which reflects the zen approach of freeing one self of suffering by rejecting all desire. Including that of hunger. There's a buried quote on the beginnng of the American LP mix of “She is Suffering”, which I always heard as “the only way to free oneself of suffering is to free oneself of desire”, which to me, parallels She is Suffering, free of the desire to eat, one could no longer exist, and therefore, no longer feel. As the song moves into its second part, an extended coda of exhaustion, he sings "I choose, my choice." And sometimes the only choice is complete withdrawl.
I long since moved to a higher plateau. That's how I sometimes feel when I move through certain situations. I hate being the smartest person in the queue at Tesco's, but then I overhear people gossiping, and realise I eclipse them. And I can do mundane smalltalk as good as the best of them.
The next song is “Mausoleum” and the one I have the hardest relationship with. It's also the only song from the record I haven't seen them play live at some point, admittedly I only know of one live performance – at the Cardiff Astoria, in October 1994. It's now known as Vision 2K, on 43 Queens Street.
At the time the record came out, from November 1991 to October 1998, I was in a relationship with a girl from Cardiff. I'd occasionally see members of the band in the town centre. I walked past the venue on my way to HMV, and had the bizarrest moment, in early 1995, knowing they'd played there fve months earlier,with Richey in the band. At 22, that seemed important. At 22, I also remember telling her that I wanted to visit Auschwitz for my birthday. In retrospect, I have no idea why I suggested this. But maybe this song, and it's sister number “The Intense Humming of Evil”, had a role in it. In the same way, when I come across places of importance in songs, I tend to listen to the song in the place that inspired it : in 2006, I stood inside Battersea Power Station and listened to Pink Floyd's “Animals”. Three months ago, I listened to Karl Bartos “Atomium” at the Atomium, in Brussels.
I wanted to experience the place where no birds do sing. To see if it was real. To see if there are humans that eschew human values and what I may be like to live in a world where there is an eternal battle between the virtuous and the wicked. I know we live in that world, and always have.
And then – in the tradtional lull that is the middle of side two – we slam into “Faster”, the first song released from the album as a single in May 1994. This is probably the single most important song on the record. There have been great moments around this song, such as seeing the O2 “National Treasures” show where a corporate sports arena was festooned with the lyrics running on every visible video screen read words : “If you stand up like a nail then you will be knocked down / I've been too honest with myself I should have lied like everybody else”. Another line, “Soft skin now acne, foul breath so broken”. I can't talk for anyone else but this – which also harks back to a lament for the loss of youth (no thoughts to forget when we were children), always reminds me of adolesence : how at a certain age I grew hair in places I hadn't got hair, where soft skin became a sea of acne and pimples and pus, where I became aware of things like brushing teeth and shaving, and ultimately how boring and timesapping simple physical maintenance is. My fuckwit brother used to tell me that “all is vanity” when he saw me shaving ; an insult so dunderheaded I can't even think down to that level. How sweet to be an idiot. I can't seem to stay a fixed ideal. Acne often ruined lives, because it made people look like – to the eyes of some – monsters. Beauty is such a terrible thing.
I could probably write 1,000 words about any single line in that particular song. I'm already on 4,000 words, so I better not. SO DAMN EASY TO CAVE IN – MAN KILLS EVERYTHING. Which is probably another pivotal line for me. It is easy to cave in. To collapse into the sofa, and let the world wash over you, drowning you in a wave. And man may be clever, but man is still an animal, and as a species, has a habit of unintentionally destroying anything it touches by mans inhumanity to man. That combined with the accumulated toll of the entire lyric of the song, demonstrates a battle for individuality in a world which seeks to make you like everyone else, judges you for your appearance, and fights and endless war of attrition. I am stronger than Mensa, Miller, Mailer. If “Faster” were an image, it would probably by Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange”.
That the last line of “Faster” is “Man kills everything”, and its then followed by the cheery “This Is Yesterday”. The sole lyric written in the majority by Nicky Wire, it's also the only one that, were I to have any lyric tattooed on my skin, would be the opening two lines of this song. It's a moment of calm in a sea of despair ; but even that sums up a moment of calm resignation. (Incidentally, the first time I saw it was in Leeds in 1996 : only the third time The Manics have ever done an encore at a show, and as far as I can tell, one of only five 'encores' in their entire lives). Like every other song on this album, there is a core theme through the song, I close my eyes, and it leaves me blind, and this is yesterday. And at the time, I tells me that history is circular, that one day is replacable like the next and the last, and the thousand before and the thousand after, and every day is a chance to begin again, and yet the sun sets and the sun rises and we must eat, and we must sleep, and all of it begins again tomorrow. And we get the same bus to the same desk, and I close my eyes and this is yesterday.
“The only way to get approval is by exploiting the very thing that cheapens me.” And anyone who has ever found themselves working in a job or career they don't like knows this line inside out. Me? I haven't done a job I haven't enjoyed in 18 years. But 18 years ago, I knew that feeling. You don't forget these things.
Three songs left, and the album begins to run to a form of closure, with “Die In The Summertime”. It's a song made of fractions of images, such as “A tiny animal curled into a quarter circle”, geared around a yearning for a lost past, about the corrupting and inexorable march of time that can never be stopped. There is no perfect moment, day, week, month, year. As soon as you realise its perfect, the moment is corrupted with the knowledge of the imperfect. The closing lines “I have crawled so far sideways / I recognise dim traces of creation” to me remind me of one who has lived a life corrupted by reality, perhaps, if writing in the third person, a survivour of a concentration camp who has done many questionable things – such as a Judas Goat in Dachau. I might be overthinking this, but also, I might not.
The penultimate song is “The Intense Humming Of Evil”. A song that, I must confess, when I saw it performed live in 1994, simply did not connect with me. It's not a bad song, but that I was not in the place where I could reach the song the way it was meant to be reached. Over time, of course, as I instantly grasped it, it was an unflinching look at the Holocaust. But who would ever expect that from a simple rock band? As if the whole record were leading to this conclusion, the culmination of what E.E.Cummings called Manunkind – the industrialisation of genocide on the grounds of racial cleansing. At the time of release, Eastern Europe – Bosnia, Kosovo, Sarajevo, and many other former communist countries were in the depths of ethic cleansing, concentration camps of their own, and mass murder, much like Rwanda. As if Hitler were not an abhorrence, but an underachiever. History repeats itself. I close my eyes, and this is yesterday.
The last song of the record, and the second song released from it, in the old days of a AA Side 7” single, was “P.C.P.”. The final target is the modern society (as well as a sly reference to 2000 AD : a comic I used to read with religious fervour until I discovered music, alcohol, and human females), a damning indictment of a world where heroes are bland, where someone is offended by everything and anything, where personality seems crushed, and a state, as indicated in many of the other songs, a position of confusion : the whole thing eschews traditional album 'end states' by refuting a slow paced elegaic anthem, and instead going for a last gasp, hands-around-my-neck vomit of words that end with the punishing sentence, that mocks the fact that the record will finish, and will need to get another – equating the whole of entertainment with thought control : “Pass The Prozac / Designer Amnesiac.”
Pass me another record.
You can't turn the clock back. You can't go back to 1994 and pretend we're all twenty somethings anymore, where the future was unwritten and full of promise and hope that was never fufilled. We're all older now, and our lives have moved on, and yet we're drawn back to these songs, these musicians, the soundtrack to the age of being angry and discontent and still now, a decade on, we feel the same. The future is slightly dimmer, the open paths of the past now closed by time, but we are still the same people, yet different.
And yet these songs remain.
And its not just the record. I saw the band three times in 1994, including the first time either “Faster” or “PCP” were played live (two days before release) at Brockwell Park, supporting the goddamn Levellers. I was about a mile away from the stage, but they were immense.
Four months later, and I was at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall, (support including Sleeper), and the stage was covered in netting and camoflague, and I remember being so hot I watched “4st 7lb” from behind the stage as I poured bottles of water over my steaming head. It was an insane show, a unforgettable but barely memorable rush of 90 minutes. It was also, sadly, the last time I saw Richey Edwards.
Goddamn. The Manics were, and are, as they always have been, a band that ascribed a meaning to this essentially random existence - as is human nature to recognise familiar shapes and patterns and meaning in the essential nothingness : a musical Rosarch Ink Blot, if you like. These songs and these words kept me alive and made me feel like life was something worth living. And that’s all the best art can even hope and aspire to achieving.
note : Over the years, I tinkered with the record, and rearranged the running order. In the end I settled on this :
White America /
Of Walking Abortion /
She Is Suffering /
Archives Of Pain /
Intense Humming Of Evil /
Die In The Summertime /
4st 7lb /
This Is Yesterday.