Adam Steiner explores Repeater’s new profound and visceral exploration of the Manic Street Preachers.
Rhian E Jones, Daniel Lukes & Larissa Wodtke, Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible (Repeater, 2017) 330pp.
Having found notoriety and commercial success with the rive gauche publication of his novel Lolita, the tale of a middle-aged man who seduces and is seduced-by the eponymous nymph-like teen, Vladimir Nabokov argued that while his novel was certainly controversial, it was ultimately a moral book. That Nabokov was exploring a moral dead-end was not the real issue. What upset the self-appointed judges and the moral majority was the exposure of their own hypocrisies. These were ‘civilised’ citizens who could not accept that such things were at the heart of a society such as theirs. Nabokov art’s brought home ugly truths that many would prefer to ignore – and so it is with The Holy Bible.
At its dark and difficult heart lies the same pure contradiction of moral and ethical double-think, but Triptych is an apt and unique approach that goes far beyond the confines of the standard hack biopic. This book is a definitive analysis of one of the densest, most sprawling and allusive sets of songs ever put on record, performed without the cod-psychology of trying to force certain interpretations into the band’s collective mouth.
The three authors tackle distinct areas while highlighting the connections and dependencies between them. Rhian E. Jones focuses upon the album’s politics through the prism of perceptions of Welsh identity [and Welsh-ness]; Daniel Lukes dissects the stream of artistic influences and moral commentary that fuel the album’s sense of rage; and Larissa Wodtke considers the album as a living archive for the band at the time, along with the metaphysics of monumentalism and preservation in the light of the recent 20th anniversary tours.
Each author displays great skill in seeking out and driving forward new thoughts and conjunctions from the album’s breathlessly obscure referencing. Alongside each argument for a particular interpretation is a counter-argument, making this an acute commentary of what can be a maddening abyss of a challenging album. I am reminded of the Ballard quote – “I wanted to cover the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror” – on THB – it is a broken mirror – fragmented – variously bending time and distorting perceptions – there are no good guys, only flawed individuals. Truth is the intention, but remains a bitter pill to swallow.
Jones digs through her personal history of growing up with the Manics records and being a fellow resident of the Welsh mining valleys, devastated by pit closure and mass unemployment – the bitter taste of defeat, loss of hope and isolation stayed with the Manics – and as much as they have always proudly emphasised their Welsh roots, in the early 90s they suffered much casual racism from the lazy journos that plagued the Britpop-era and stood out like sore thumbs, only to be embraced in a saccharin tide of Welsh caricature tourism – an era that Rhian has written about so well on her blog, Velvet Coalmine, and in her previous book, Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender.
Manic Street Preachers were forever the unofficial Fuck You Party, forever entrenched in opposition and clarity of vision. This attitude was forged in the Miner’s Strike spirit of resistance, and kept their identity secure from the vagaries of pop fashion. Perhaps this early grounding in oppression informs the backs to the wall mentality:
“Schoolboys do what is done to them.” – W. H. Auden
Jones rightly calls out ‘She Is Suffering’ as the most out-of-step, bland rock lazy lyrics on the album, although the “dogshit” (JDB) of ‘Revol’ is a close second. What is profound is how the album could have collapsed under the weight of its ideas, tied-to James Dean Bradfield’s near-impossible task of communicating on Richey’s behalf through haze of compacted syntax and machine-gun diction. But as Jones points out – in some ways – this was the point. The lyrical (and mental) overload is part of the sonic assault that bludgeons the listener into submission.
Daniel Lukes approaches the album like a Foucauldian explorer – his short snappy sections are best read as a form of day-by-day diary, leaping from idea to idea, he argues the album could be considered as a palimpsest text, a bibliographic screed of influences and agitations forming: “a moral compass in a mad world”. Industrial – in sound and production method – the business-like methodology of the Holocaust is all over the record. Lukes connects Richey’s lyrics about holocaust death tolls with the contemporary conflict of the Bosnian war – 1994 – and ethnic cleansing- the “lessons” and esteem of survivors is nullified by repetition of process and echoes throughout history – some of this strained rigidity comes through in the mechanical riffs and marching drums.
As severe as the statements contained in the record, the Manics are univocal on the truth of the Holocaust as event or situation, it displays a moral reflexivity – and is hard to pin down – almost to the point of amorality – while there is frequent and harsh judgement – this predominantly Nietschean (a revaluation of all values); a critique of self-righteous judgement (hypocrisy) it is always from a quicksand standpoint of uncertainty – as Richey Edwards is quoted in response to Simon Price – “I am at a distance” – all foundation are false.
Lukes discusses the cultish mode of fans – and rightly so, the Manics are band to love and live by – but he identifies a downside to THB’s banner of miserabilism. Larissa Wotdke explores the concept of lovely knowledge – an almost self-pitying gratification when some of our worst fears and beliefs are confirmed by evidence, ironically generating feelings of security. The phrase from one reviewer of the record: “A triumph of art over logic” – springs to mind. But the cult of the individual risk, in the adoration of Richey as rock star, as opposed to poet and critical autodidact, to become an idee fixe self-harm anorexia martyr. An album of misanthropic isolationism and solitude – it unites wallowers, in sharing pain, there is the danger of it becoming misappropriated and internalised – hence the number of copycat self-harmers. But, by contrast it is proven that talking helps – and Richey’s very-public breakdown and personal expositions must have helped bring to light the enduring statistic of young men displaying the highest suicide rates.
So extreme is much of the material, that even for all the pervasive nostalgia of friendship, just short of sentimentality – there is rarely a reprieve that begs the question: in a world such as this – what is worth saving? But there is little hope of a way out and I can’t help but think of the crushing evolution from Socrates’ – “I know I know nothing” – to Richey’s line from Faster: “I know I believe in nothing/but it is my nothing”, reflecting the profound – but dizzying spin into the terminal line of black hole reasoning – and nihilism.
Yet Wodtke wrests some positivity from this bleak endeavour; positing the manifest status of the album as archive, and ongoing preservation order exemplified by the anniversary tour. As much as it offers no clear endings, it also makes its themes seem prescient, and as with the moral dilemmas of the New Testament; liberating, perennial questions of humanity, embedding the album with a kind of brave futurity.
The design of the book is to be commended, with the backwards R typefaces, bravely impressionistic and intriguing artwork – cutely shadowing the wild and muddy dirges of a Francis Bacon triptych – and echoing the holy trinity of the Christian faith – while hinting at the perpetual absence of Richey that haunts and continues to inspire the band’s remaining members – in fact – the cover is allusive genius!
Like all great philosophy, the book does not so much answer questions as expose and re-examine what we are being asked, confronting the inquiry – for some, this might prove a brick wall of impossibility, but that was THB’s default position. As a young listener, this was a thrilling mind-fuck, brilliantly uncompromising in era of declining integrity – but as band it must have been claustrophobic to be working your way as a team into a deep, dark place. Subsequently, the band were still walled-in as prisoners of history, but also served to consecrate their own eternal fire, having defined the era in their own way – as few other bands could.
The band that started from the ground zero of Nothing, and for so many became Everything – knew they could never be the same band of The Holy Bible, but Triptych is a brilliant and brave exposition that invites the reader to step inside, to take a long hard look, and look again.
Adam Steiner‘s poetry and fiction appear in Proletarian Poetry, The Next Review, Fractured Nuance zine, BoscRev: 4 – and other publications. Adam was selected for the 2014 Ó Bhéal Coventry-Cork Twin Cities Poetry Exchange and was part of the Coventry SHOOT Festival. He is former Co-Editor of Here Comes Everyone magazine and his current project is www.disappear-here.org. His novel about the NHS, Politics of the Asylum, is forthcoming.