The Holy Bible by David Evans
The Holy Bible, the controversial 1994 album by the Manic Street Preachers, was never part of my musical vocabulary growing up. My dad was a fan of Scottish post-punk, notably Simple Minds, and it was that sound I heard as a child. I came to the Manics later, encouraged by one of my school teachers and a violinist I knew who later worked on albums as part of the Vulcan Quartet – my Manics experience began with ‘A Design For Life’ and the more accessible sound of the post-Richey This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. The only Richey-era song I knew well as a result was ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ – still one of my favourites. I listened to the album for the first time recently, around the twenty-fifth anniversary of its release and read David Evans’s study shortly afterwards – learning that I was not alone in having come to the Manics late. Having read the book, and returned to it for this review, I find the album far more accessible than I did on the first listen, although my first impression – that it becomes more listen-to-able as it progresses towards ‘P.C.P.’ – remains unshaken.
Evans teases out of the album a Welshness easily missed amongst discussions of self-harm, anorexia, Auschwitz, adolescent aguish, and so forth. This is entirely convincing, and Evans is quite right to point out that there is ‘a certain unacknowledged Welshness to The Holy Bible’ (p. 6). Wisely, he narrows this difficult concept down to a Valleys Welshness, itself nearly impossible to define comfortably without falling into stereotypes. I’m not sure I necessarily go along entirely with hwyl and hiraeth, which seem to me to be concepts less apparent in the Valleys than in the coastal centres such as Dylan Thomas’s Swansea, or in the rural wastelands of the North and West, where R. S. Thomas grumped around and Kyffin Williams stuck some grey paint on a canvas and the middle classes – sorry, dosbarth canol – went wild, but the argument is well-made and persuasive.
Separating the lyrics from the music, a logical step for me, if not immediately so for other reviewers, such as Rhian E. Jones, this book restores the role of James Dean Bradfield in creating The Holy Bible – if it is a ‘fiercely intelligent album’ (and it is), that intelligence is as much musical as it is lyrical. In my view, more so – but that is perhaps because there is a more direct lineage between the music on the album and the Manics albums that I grew to love, than is evident in the band’s lyrical material. There is no way Richey would have penned a song like ‘Anthem For A Lost Cause’, for instance. It’s too Welsh, too driven by hiraeth. At about the same time Evans was listening to Q Anthems in the early years of the twenty first century, navigating being a ‘spotty swot’, displaced from Wales into England, I was in the valleys undergoing almost the exact same process but in reverse. I began to yearn for an England that, in truth, I only really knew from holidays spent with my grandparents. Looking back, though, I am quite glad I didn’t find The Holy Bible at fourteen: the twin effects of mum dying and recognising homosexuality would have probably tipped me right over the edge.
Luckily I discovered the Manic Street Leftists instead, encouraged by the snippet of ‘The Internationale’ on ‘If You Tolerate This’, for instance. To cope with the impact of being told about mum’s diagnosis, coupled with watching her decline in front of me, I began reading a lot of left-leaning literature. (I can’t explain it either.) I heard in the Manics lyrics referencing the Spanish Civil War, socialism, and lots of the other things about which I was then reading. The Manics reinforced, then, rather than introduced. But it wasn’t so easy as nostalgic memory makes it out to be – the band were introduced as ‘Welsh Music’ and I rejected them at first. What did I want to know about Wales for when there’s a whole world out there which I want to learn about? Truth be told, as soon as I actually listened to the lyrics of ‘A Design For Life’, I was hooked. This wasn’t Welshness of the Welsh School (the sort that now runs the place), this was internationalist, socialist, and above all sounded like people like me.
Anyway, I digress, although in drawing this review to a close I cannot help but nodding enthusiastically to Evans’s wry observation that ‘most people grow out of their teenage obsessions, eventually. For whatever reason I didn’t’ (p. 101). Me either! But the fact that a short book such as this can prompt deep reflections of that kind is a testament to its intellectual power. Unless something tremendous comes along in the next few months, this will struggle to fall off the top spot on my list of books of the year. For the non-academic reader who happens to love the Manics, this book is absorbing and highly readable; for the specialist there are the sprinklings of ivory towerism – like chilli flakes on a fine risotto, just enough. In this wonderful world of purchase power, I hope you will all go and find a copy. You won’t regret it.