Friday, 26 September 2014

Why The Holy Bible is (and probably always will be) My Favourite Album

I love this album so much I had it grafted to my FACE.

When people talk about their favourite albums, you don't generally expect to hear the words "it features songs about the death penalty, prostitution and the Holocaust."  But my favourite album really does feature those things.  Maybe some readers of this blog will be surprised by that - after all, I gush over McBusted (be glad I didn't make a sex joke there) and other much cheerier pop/pop-rock music.  I'm an ABBA fan.  I love the Beatles.  I've seen Take That live four times and if they tour again as a three-piece now that Jason has left, I have every intention of making it five.  But the Manic Street Preachers have always been the band that changed my life.  And The Holy Bible is their masterpiece.

 I first heard the band's third album - released in 1994 - back in 1998, when I was 15, going on 16 years old.  I hated it.  It was stark and scary and not my cup of tea in the slightest.  My younger sister had recently gotten into the Manics and she thought the album was incredible.  I couldn't have disagreed more.  In fact, I made her switch it off before the end, because it was "hurting my ears."

The previous year, when the Manics had released Everything Must Go, I had listened to every single from it and loved each one.  Although I didn't buy the album, I used to play Design For Life every Saturday on the jukebox at our local bowling alley.  That and The Universal by Blur and, slightly less cool, Someday by Eternal...

So as you can imagine, I was a little perplexed that the band whose most recent singles I had really liked, had previously released an album that, to my 15 year old ears, was almost totally un-listenable.

Fast forward to May 1999.  I was on study leave, cramming for my GCSEs.  I was 16 and going through all the typical angst of that age; the world was cruel, life was unfair and someone really needed to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  But not me, because I was too busy trying to decide which of the male members of the cast of Friends I fancied the most.

For the record, it was ALL OF THEM.

Bored of my revision and even more bored of listening to the same CDs over and over, I did what all older siblings do - decided to nick something from my sister.  After browsing her CDs for a while, I couldn't quite settle on anything and decided to sit on the edge of her bed and stare at the wall.  Told you I was a hormonal teen...

Anyway, she had this poster on her wall with a picture of the Manics on it.  The picture looked like this:

It ate my soul.  Or something.

For reasons I'd like to say were above teenage lust, I couldn't take my eyes off it.  And given that it was a Holy Bible poster, I decided to give that bloody awful album another try.

What happened next was genuinely (and I say this with no irony whatsoever) life-changing.

Here was this band I thought were pretty good and they were singing about the world.  And not cutesy little ditties about fancying a girl or going on a night out; these were songs that weren't afraid to tackle massive, uncomfortable subjects.  Anorexia, political corruption, the world's worst atrocities...  No subject was off-limits.  That little voice in my head I mentioned earlier, shrieking "the world is unfair and someone should do something" was stunned into silence by a band who were, in their own way, just by taking issues and forcing them to music.  They were standing up and saying "music shouldn't shy away from talking about this stuff."  That was, to me, utterly revolutionary.

That's not to say that my second listen was a comfortable one.  The album was the aural equivalent of being smacked around the head.  It makes your skin prickle.  It invades your comfort zone and fills it with anger and bleakness.  It affected me more than any other album ever has and that is why it's my favourite album in the world.  Nothing has ever done that to me before or since.  Sure, I've heard albums that have blown me away, musically.  I've listened to lyrics that have made me think.  But nothing - nothing - has ever bashed me in the face the way The Holy Bible did on that second listen.

The songs are furious (with notable exceptions in She Is Suffering and This Is Yesterday).  The stark, industrial sounds on something like The Intense Humming of Evil force you to sit up and take notice, whilst becoming increasing aware of your own sense of unease.  It's not an easy listen.  It's something that grabs you by the balls - whether you own a pair or not.


Of course the album is largely the lyrical work of Richey James Edwards, the Manics' co-lyricist, mouthpiece and (when his amp was plugged in) rhythm guitarist.  Ravaged by alcoholism and depression, his words on The Holy Bible are as stark as they are ferociously intelligent.  "I am an architect, they call me a butcher.  I am a pioneer, they call me primitive.  I am purity, they call me perverted..."  Arguably one of the greatest, most insightful lyricists of the modern age, The Holy Bible is Richey's masterpiece, although some of the more personal subjects the album broaches only serve to increase your discomfort at listening.  4st 7lbs, for example, may be written from the viewpoint of a girl, but Richey's issues with food/weight have been well documented and at times, listening to his words feels like prying on something deeply private.

It's hard not to listen to the Manics' third album without taking note of the fact that it was their last with Richey, before he disappeared on February 1st 1995 and was never seen again.  Listening to the band's next release, Everything Must Go, directly afterwards is like a strange combination of relief, triumph over adversity and crushing loss.  For the record, Everything Must Go is quite probably my second favourite album of all time...

Everything changed for me, that day in 1999.  I researched politicians I'd never given head-space to before.  I thought about various issues in new and challenging ways.  To this day, The Holy Bible remains a reference point for me when it comes to a whole raft of subjects, from personal issues, to war, to modern-day politics.  Words can't express how utterly vital that album has been to my development into the person I am now.  It's the album that took me from being a casual listener of the Manics' music, to being the fully fledged obsessive I am now.  It's the album that made me realise that no subject is too big to be tackled in music or writing.  When you think of more recent albums that broach big issues - political or otherwise - it's hard not to see The Holy Bible as a trailblazer; light years before its time and yet an album which couldn't have been borne out of any other time, or by any other band.

The Holy Bible is now twenty years old, but it has lost none of its rage or potency.  When I heard that the Manics had decided to celebrate the album's 20th anniversary by playing it in full, for the first time ever, there was no question in my mind:  I had be there.  Needed to be there.

Thankfully, my brilliant gig-buddy and fellow obsessive, Kirstie, was able to secure us two tickets for the band's second night at London Roundhouse in December, before tickets ran out for the entire tour.

THANK YOU, KIRST!  And yes, I will be wearing this outfit again...

I am pretty sure that hearing this beast of an album live, in full, for the first and only time in my life is going to be an emotional experience.  I expect to cry at This Is Yesterday, because... Well, I always do when they play it live.  This time, though, it will have an extra layer of emotional depth.  Here's an album featuring the furious, intelligent, often deeply moving words of a man who is no longer here to participate in its anniversary.  I wonder what Richey would have made of the fact that his masterpiece has the ability to sell-out an entire tour within minutes (don't get me started on touts already selling tickets at extortionate prices - touts are SCUM, ruining live music for those who genuinely love it)?  I wonder how he'd react to the knowledge that a few years ago, viewers of BBC's Newsnight voted The Holy Bible the best album of all time?  He's not here to answer that, but I can tell you how it makes me feel as a Manics fan:  Immensely proud.

So happy birthday, The Holy Bible (belated, since it was released in August).  You're a life-changing album.  You're a scary, uncomfortable smack in the face.  And I love you.

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