10 thoughts whilst watching Manic Street Preachers play the Holy Bible…LTW boss and Membranes frontman John Robb (whose the band Goldblade wrote a song about Richey- youtube of it here) gets lost in the Holy Bible.
(Also a live review of the Manic Street Preachers Holy Bible gig at manchester Albert Hall here )
1. The ghost of of Richey past
Here’s my tape loop to start my 10 thoughts just like at the start of the tracks on the Holy Bible…
It’s Alan Ginsberg’s gravel voice intoning his beautiful and dark wisdom that has come true over and over in the rock n roll wars.
‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,starving hysterical naked…’
Those lines seem so perfect for the show tonight and ring through my mind on a blustery evening that sees the band revisit the Holy Bible – the genius record that saw the Manics deliver their promise and release a classic that saw them turn inwards and create rock n roll from the heart of darkness and create the ‘Richey album’ with all the intensity and urgency in those powerful songs that are delivered with perfect balance between solemnity and power.
Tonight is about memories and ghosts and firebrand rock n roll scoured with a fragile beauty and sensitivity so rare in a form full of chest beating swagger. From the start you feel a misty eyed emotion as these strange and personal songs are played out like a heartbreak psychodrama and a high decibel eulogy to a lost guitar player whose disappearance almost exactly 20 years ago hangs in the air like a quicksilver memory.
2. And the space on stage left is still there for Richey Edwards.
It’s still there.
Aching and empty.
You can still sense the charismatic guitar player darting around in his corner with his Telecaster. It suddenly snaps you back to a different time zone. A time when the Manics were taking on the world with their first three albums as they veered from their idealistic dream of the Clash guttersnipe anthems and the Guns n Roses LA anthem sheen to the gritty melancholia of the UK underground and when they somehow combine the two they are at their very best like on current album Futurology.
Like Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd or New Order the band will always have the shadow of their former member hanging over them. For the Manics it was the sensitive soul who was a walking, talking manifesto whose star flew too close to the sun and whose fierce aesthetic was burned by the white heat glare of life that was amplified by rock and roll. No matter how good they have been since then it’s all reflected in Richey and is shared with him wherever he is.
Not that this was ever the Richey Edwards show, Nicky Wire was the other terror twin with media slicing quotes, a deep intelligence and an equal lyrical capability, James Dean Bradfield is a brilliant musician with that great voice unravaged by time and pubs- an angelic and powerful voice that makers sense of the lyric writers dreams and demons whilst Sean Moore is still the powerhouse drummer and consummate musician.
The Manics have dealt with the whole situation with such a dignity. It can never be easy and you wonder what it’s like to unpick these songs again, songs that were so close to the psych of their long lost guitar player who drove to the Severn bridge near Bristol 20 years ago via few days in South Wales and never returned. He sat there in his car with cassettes and bits of paper in a motorway service station as his car battery ran down with his mind fogged up by the gripping depression, lost in an internal argument with himself and a dialogue that had been intensifying for the past few years before who knows what happened.
When they start playing you feel the claustrophobia and emotion of these remarkable and powerful songs on the Holy Bible with their strange lyrical shards and snippets- most of which came from the guitar player who was entering the vortex of depression, anorexia nervosa, drinking and self harm. Attracted to the dark side of humanity by his fragile mental state Richey was writing about concentration camps, prostitution, the death penalty. It was worrying about anorexia, the Holocaust, PC, rampant American consumerism and British imperialism. There was concerns about freedom of speech,serial killers, fascism, revolution, childhood, and suicide. It was angry and resigned and neither right on or right off- it was a trip into the dark side of the human psyche— a fascination with the madness – a metaphor for a fragile mental state and a reflection of the black clouds of depression flaoting around Richey’s head. It was the kind of dark side that the underground was also dealing with at the time but rarely had it been concentrated together in such a desperate and intelligent manner and then somehow turned into a top ten album but the band’s talented singer.
The lyrics could have been metaphors to his sadness, they could have been a cut and paste of what interested him at the time as he tried to put markers on his and the world’s fragile state but they left more question marks than answers, question marks that will never be answered and are left hanging in the air like a dark mystery.
Perhaps it was all a logical conclusion to the nihilism that was part of the initial punk thing in the UK that anyone who wanted to walk this lonely road was going to get consumed by it. The fragile youth had been attracted to the possibilities of rock n roll and moulded it in their own way. Depression was something that was not really talked about then and the tragic stories of Richey and Kurt Cobain brought it to the forefront. Richey himself had detailed it in interviews with a bleak humour and disarming politeness- it was this openness and sensitivity that was part of his and the band’s appeal. You could sense that when even rock n roll stardom with all its perceived glow was not an escape route either that he began to give up.
This stuff swirls round your mind as the band thunder though these unique songs making total sense of the playing an old album format that has become so cliched. the manics grab the opportunity to make sense of a crucial record in their canon and underline its brilliant adventure.
Rock n roll can be so many things to so many people. It can be a very insensitive slobbering beast, it can be the ultimate escape, it can be the endless party, it can be an intellectual detachment but ultimately it can never be the escape you want. You can dress up or dress down, you can become the ubermensch or dress pretty in blouses and hairspray but you can never escape yourself.
Sometimes it can be a vehicle for extraordinary sensitivity in a cruel and uncaring world- a place where poetry and art can be compressed into three minutes of high decibel beauty. For all the young poets like Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain and Richey Edwards who felt too much and saw through the charade and got burned. For the rest of the Manics – equal in creative fire and passion- they dug in deeper and hung on. Tonight Nicky says he feels more depressed than ever and you can’t tell if he’s tongue in cheek or the heavyweight songs are drip dripping into his own psyche- it’s the tightrope walk they have been on since they came out of Wales all those years ago.
As I type I have their first demo in front of me- still with its handwritten letter from Richey- sent in hope when he was the band’s hustler and driver. The one with the drive to make the connections whilst his even shyer comrades got on with the music. Odd to think of it now but he was the practical one, the one who could drive and find addresses to post stuff to. The one who was a bit more together and could articulate the band’s unique manifesto.
By the time we get to the Holy Bible he was already fading away. He was looking pale and withdrawn, like a ghost already but his creative powers were in overdrive. He dressed stranger and his gaunt expression stared out from the then powerful music press as he talked about the dark side of humanity.
When it came to recording the Holy Bible he had a new manifesto. He had sheets of these strange words, shamanic missives from the dark side and ideas of how the music should sound. God knows how James and Sean could translate this into music but somehow they did- pealing back from the ramalama rock n roll and back into the UK post punk, genius gloom of Wire and PiL and the other bands dealing with the damp of the UK after the firestorm of punk.
Not that Holy Bible was ever an avant garde record, or even as Blixa Bargeld from Einsturzende Neubauten would call a deserter’s record. It was still dealing with a perfectly executed trad rock but with a twist of darkness, a curve of strangeness- a place where post punk bands like Wire and their unsettling death to trad rock pop was cranked through a Marshall. This was the perfect contradiction of the band- anti rock and rock all at once!
Tonight it still feels like a rock band in terms of volume and power but there are plenty of curveballs and non 12 bar linear arrangements and odd looping bass lines in there to remind you that this was a band that was pushing itself and rock into new spaces and all the time with that dark side, that dealing with the demons of depression and having too much too think.
3.Rock n roll should always matter too much
In the early nineties depression was not talked about much.
Men were men and feelings were difficult to articulate even in an art form that hinted at the underlying sadness and surfed varying emotions. Maybe Richey articulated too much and it brought him down. That year was already a bumpy ride, in fact it had been a bumpy ride since he had slashed ‘4real’ into his arm in front of Steve Lamacq at Norwich Arts Centre after Steve had challenged the band on their punk authenticity whilst still championing them. At that time the Manics were considered a hype by the cynics – the sort of thing only the lunatic journalist fringe like your good author or the late and great Swells liked. Their gigs were often empty affairs except for their early nineties mini Bromley contingents of dressed up youth turning out – the cute coterie of leopard skin and eyeliner and that was just the boys! dressing up when everyone else was dressing down. These were the well read, the over smart, high IQ glamsters. The 20th century foxes who were living too much and too fast- where did they all go!
Richey and Nicky were their totems- the glamour twins who darted around the sides of the stage doing the important stuff like looking good more than playing right, leaving the band’s powerful engine room to poor old James and Sean. Like all great bands, though, they had that interdependence, that arm in arm New York Dolls, last gang in town style closeness, that hang with a gang with a fistful of napalm thing down – they were playing mere rock n roll but were already elevating it to an art form.
Tonight Nicky still looks great- all smudged camouflage and he still daintily bounces around his stage of the side- it’s always looked sorta odd without his comrade in arms on the other side of the stage but he he has the charisma to make it work.
Motorcycle Emptiness on the first album had been the first sign of the super sensitive Manics, a brooding and achingly beautiful song where their take on the Guns n Roses was suddenly elevated to a place that Axl Rose could never imagine or articulate. The song somehow combined the iconography of classic rock n roll with the melancholy of the inclement UK and was the harbinger to the Manics at their very best that they explored on Holy Bible. They play the song in the second set tonight which comes after a ten minute break and it fits perfectly with the previous Holy Bible work out.
Looking back now was Richey destroyed by all that he loved? or a victim of the media’s endless hunger for the story. Did we all encourage him too much? the media, the fans and his own expectations? were the band prodded into this corner by the clattering typewriters of the press and expectations of the disciples. The relationship with the media had always been close- this was a band that seemed to study the journalists they were doing interviews with and were very clear about their agenda and manifesto. Was Richey trapped into the helter skelter by living up to his public image like later day Sid Vicious without the vicious part?
4. the 10 commandments….
In front of us tonight is a rock band playing a supremely tight set of rock songs. They sound fantastic – this is rock music delivered to a perfection and brimful of energy and ideas and killer hooks and playing but there is something else- an emotional rush that is almost unique. On one level there is the rush of the high octane of electric rock n roll and on the other the deep sadness of a band who went into the heart of darkness and interlaced their songs with the heart breaking sensitivity and deep intelligence of true art.
When you strip away the intensity and you strip away the pathos, the sadness, the darkness in rock you don’t have much left- just usually some blokes hitting guitars, The Manics were on a different trip right from the start and they infused rock with a new level of sensitivity and they had a plan.
I always loved a band with a manifesto.
They walked it and they talked it right from the first demo that hit my door mat when they were just a hopeful local band.
I go back a long way with the Manics- I still have that first demo with the one side of A4 letter from Richey detailing what they hated and what they were- that made it stand out from the normal tapes of the day with their polite introductions – this one came with a home made manifesto and that mattered.
This was always going to be a different journey. In that classic Manics way of one hand doing the traditional and the other the anti rock that they somehow collided. Ever pragmatic they have marked the 20th anniversary of their most fervently loved album by their partisan fan base by dusting it down for a faithfully fierce and emotional psychodrama that is being played out in front of us that reminds you starkly of how important this stuff can really be.
5. And then there was three
On stage tonight you feel the gap – the stage right where Richey would have once run around. It’s odd watching a band playing something as visceral and thrilling as rock n roll and feel this desolate and sad and elated all at the same time and with your mind rushing through the endless ‘what ifs’. Where the fuck is the panda eyed one? the one who wrote 75 per cent of this album’s lyrical content and vision- and that’s not belittling the mighty contributions from the rest of the band- Jeez James sings and plays brilliantly on Holy Bible making sense of those scraps of doggerel from his fast unwinding mate- the skinny one with the creaking skin and beautiful face who became the heartbreak idol of the leopard skin generation.
I think back to that first interview in the freezing cold back of the van outside Heavenly Records when the band had driven up to London for a Sounds front cover and how Richey had laid the manifesto on the line with his unfaltering quiet voice as the rest of the band sat on their amps chipping in and I perched on the wheel base. I think of the times I would bump into him running around London, or the next interview that we did was in a beat up motel in Birmingham during the Gold Against the Soul tour when it was just starting to get odder – Nicky complaining about Richey’s endless girls who came and went and kept him awake at night as they shared a room. Richey talking of the emptiness of the road and life. In the motel room the glamour twins also shared clothes and make up and high octane ideas at the height of the band’s glammed up phase. The next interview was in the eerily dull concrete of the Embassy hotel where Richey sat next to James in a double bed sipping vodka and talking of numbing the pain- quite a contrast in a few years to the firebrand soul in the van
6. Nostalgia for an age that never was
Time hasn’t ravaged the band- they oddly look almost exactly the same as their days in the indie war zone, days when stuff like this really mattered and their trip into a personal apocalypse now was both intriguing and terrifying. No-one dares to go there now – it’s about being mildly bothered like Coldplay these days – emotion lite music to mope to.
Live, as they start their journey back in time and the songs that made up the Holy Bible ring out around the fitting surroundings of the Albert Halls former church grandeur- a Holy Bible in a holy place, they bring them to a terrifying life like so few other bands do when the revisit their back catalogue. They wander around their own museum like high decibel curators bringing the past back to life and transcending the nostalgia cat calls.
I start to remember those early gigs in Manchester Boardwalk when they bounced around the stage in their Clash whites and the audience looked bemused hissing the word ‘hype’ at me because of my enthusiasm for them at Sounds. I remember the hate mail I would get at Sounds itself for writing about them and the obsession with the band wearing eye liner and looking pretty in a time when men were men and blokes were blokes.
I remember seeing them in soulless concrete halls of beat up colleges on the edge of London with ten people in the room and the band oblivious to it all wrapped up in their hometown dreams of escape and desire. I can still see Nicky Wire’s white pumps zigzagging on the stage, James telling me I was the Nick Kent of his generation (not something I wanted), Richey’s quiet intensity and smiling politeness, Sean’s silence and the small crew of fans and mates. I remember obscure TV shows in Deptford were we hung out with them as they were filmed. I remember sitting in the Heavenly office as they debated You Love Us artwork. I remember going to some club with the band after their first Manchester gig and Nicky being a spot bothered hypochondriac and Richey seeming like the rock in the band, I remember that first trip to Paris for the Heavenly band night and watching the band get their photo taken on the streets of Montmartre – an iconic location for a band who had created their own iconography out of nothing, I remember it all…
7. She Is Suffering
To the surprise of people, seemingly, this remains my favourite song from the album- it may not have the rabid punk intensity of PCP or the swirling rush of REVOL and its John Mcgeoch guitar rush. They are both songs which I also dearly love but She Is Suffering has an introverted melancholy to it and a stunningly beautiful melody and drips a mystery in in its cyclical mournfulness. Somehow the song still sounds super modern and would not be out of place on the current Manics Futurology album which works very well as a companion piece to the Holy Bible.
She Is Suffering is a song about desire, it’s obtuse words are typical of Richey’s lyrics on the album that are packed with a dense and strange imagery and sometimes contradictory message- saying so much all at once – lyrical shards and snippets that fly past like his cut and paste collages. these are lyrics that are like pre tweet tweets – where you are forced to cut all the flab out- the dread flab that even towards the end in that hotel room at the Embassy when I interviewed him in that dread autumn before he disappeared and he was drinking vodka to numb the pain he whispered that he would never drink beer as it was bad for his body shape. Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse – it’s all very old school romantic but also very tragic and it’s these kind of thougts that make you feel misty eyed as you watch the band deliver their classic album.
8. cut and paste culture
The Manics cut and paste collage of pop culture was British punk taken to its furthest extreme. I always loved the way they created their own little empire from newspaper clippings and records played over and over- learning the nuances and the shrapnel as they sat there in Blackwood stunned by the fierce bright light of the electricity of rock. I loved the way they clashed with the current culture of the time- attempting a skinny kid insurrection and a statement of their version of punk rock against the high velocity wind tunnel of the predominant baggy culture (which they were closer to than the imagined at the time) . I loved their naivety and the way they believed that they could cause a revolution with electric guitars. I loved their old school socialism- the belief in people, I loved their contradictions and I loved their intelligence and desperation and I loved their homemade DIY dreams and the idea they could change the world with a few songs. It helped that at least half the band were already brilliant musicians- tonight I watch James Dean Bradfield and he is one killer guitar player singing and playing complex brilliance at the same time but the years have seen Nicky Wire become a great bass player as well with nimble runs along the fretboard and not just across the stage.
Holy Bible, itself, is odd musically- it’s claustrophobic sound reflects that tiny Cardiff studio is was recorded in and is all the better for it. There is enough power in this band without the bombastic sheen! You can feel the heat and the tension in the music and the room like on all great rock n roll records.
9. The Holy Bible
It’s a gig and album like few others. A short sharp shock of what rock n roll can be when it tries. A gothic masterpiece. Ultimately though it’s a moving spectacle, a lament to a lost friend who caught a raw nerve at the time with his soul bearing honesty. Many survive the rock n roll rollercoaster and some get lost on the way and there can be no more fitting tribute than this gig from his three closest friends who STILL make a 20 year old album sound like it really matters instead of the usual run through of old glory moments these affairs can be.
10. Born To End
The gig is proof that rock n roll can be a vehicle for so much feeling. It’s proof that going backwards can still go forwards. It’s proof that sometimes these revisits can still pack the emotive power of the original. It’s draining and drenching and thrilling a blow torch reminder of how deeply intelligent music can still be thrilling, of how poetry and the dark stuff can still really matter and how much we miss Richey.