Defiance Never Ages: The Manics’ Holy Bible Live

Late last year Tom Hawking flew across the Atlantic just to see the Manic Street Preachers play The Holy Bible at the Camden Roundhouse. Here he reflects on a record that had the power to change his life. Thanks to the Manics for the use of images.

Adolescence is the most romanticised era of human life, and when you’re an actual adolescent, you can’t for the life of you understand why. You feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, or what you’re supposed to be doing, or where you’re going, or how to get there. You feel like you’re just sort of charging forth blindly into darkness. You feel lost. And you are lost.

But, of course, this is why adolescence is so romanticised – because when you’re lost, you just might find… something. A way. An idea. When everything is open, everything is possible; it’s what Patti Smith called "the sea of possibility," although another metaphor you could use for it is an open plain, with no shelter or suggestion of which direction you should be heading. We’re fundamentally agoraphobic creatures, us humans. We feel unsafe outside, so we spend our lives building structures around ourselves – families, jobs, societies. But there’s part of us that misses the thrill of just being out in the open, trying to find your way. And so we look back on it, and idealise it, and we call it youth.

It’s for this reason, perhaps, that we form such strong bonds with culture in our youth: that album, or that book, or that poem, is something to grab onto. It’s something tangible in the great emptiness, something that perhaps reflects your own experience, or perhaps points to some way forward, a way to orient yourself so that at least you can start moving in some general direction. The most powerful art does both: it’s something that you see yourself in, and also something that suggests a way of approaching the world, a philosophy on which you can construct a world view.

All of which brings us to the fact that the Manic Street Preachers performed The Holy Bible in its entirety last last year, three nights in a row at the Roundhouse. As you’ve probably guessed, this record was one of those defining pieces of adolescent culture for me, and judging by the gusto with which the 1,700 people in the crowd shouted every single word of the album’s dense, tongue-twisting, arrhythmic lyrics along with James Dean Bradfield, I’m not the only one. But it’s almost beside the point, because everyone – if they’re lucky, anyway – has something like this in their lives. For me, it starts with a nameless pimp whispering "You can buy her…" and ends nearly an hour later with Albert Finney sighing "227 Lears… and I can’t remember the first line." For you, it’s probably something else.

And it’s a strange, strange feeling, watching something that was the most important thing in the world at a certain time in your life, being performed two decades later. You find yourself thinking about how the album’s influence on your life is very much part of the reason why you’re here, right now, watching. Not just because you like this album, really like it, love it, adore it, and you’ve flown across the fucking Atlantic to see it being performed tonight (which is surely the most extravagant thing you’ve ever done, and worth every penny, goddammit.) No, it’s because there’s a strange and wonderful thread of causation that runs right through getting your import copy of the album from Gaslight Records, taking it home and reading all the lyrics first, actually trembling with excitement when you hit play… from that to the fact that you’re standing here, now, half a world away, 20 years older.

You start to thinking about how different the you who discovered this record was, the 18-year-old kid in suburban Melbourne who had an ill-defined feeling that there must be something more. You think about your own relationship with this album over the years, how it’s something you’ve pulled out when you needed its rage, its intelligence, its fire. How there are times you’ve not listened to it for years, but always returned to it. And you start to think about how strange it is that the band are here, right now, 20 years older but looking from a distance like they’ve stepped straight out of 1994 – James in what may well be Richey’s sailor outfit, Sean in his UN beret, Nicky in his camouflage jacket and rockstar sunglasses. They’re in their mid-40s now, but if you squint they look just like they did in the posters on your wall, in the grainy footage you’ve seen from the Astoria in December 1994, in the photo on the back on the album sleeve.

And here they are again, in 2014. There are valid criticisms of the whole playing-an-album-from-start-to-finish idea being part of the nostalgia machine. I’m sure the Manics know that as well as anyone – after all, we’re talking about a band here who once gleefully proclaimed that "Radio nostalgia is radio death… Hard rock nostalgia, the Stones on CD/ Tranquilised icons for the sweet paralysed." But these shows didn’t feel like nostalgia – as Dorian Lynskey wrote in The Observer, they felt like a "necessary reckoning with the past.’

The band have clearly had a difficult relationship with this record, and understandably so – I can’t even begin to imagine how you must process a loss like that of Richey Edwards, with its attendant uncertainty and decades of publicity. If it’s taken them 20 years to want to play The Holy Bible, I don’t blame them. Watching them do so, I start to think how the meaning of art is fluid, not just to its consumers, but to its creators. How must it feel for James Dean Bradfield to sing ‘4st 7lb’ today? How must it have felt then, watching his bandmate writing with almost unbearable clarity about the fact that he was slowly wasting away?

Even if this album does evoke nostalgia, I can’t imagine that it has particularly rosy connotations for anyone who’s loved it – it’s hard to imagine ‘Of Walking Abortion’ or ‘Archives Of Pain’ summoning up sepiatone memories of happy afternoons passed on the beach in the sun. Revisiting The Holy Bible means revisiting everything the album evokes – its darkness is as inclusive and compassionate as it is bleak. When James sings "I hurt myself to get pain out" on ‘Yes’, you get the sense that it’s not just his own pain that Richey was writing about – the songs here address the darkest aspects of humanity, from the Holocaust to the whorehouse, from serial killers to the sexual failings of a bunch of dictators and political leaders. This album was a shriek of shared pain as much as anything, a howl of empathy. You can’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, but you can feel it nonetheless.

Hearing it now is like stepping back into being another you, which of course is the same you, with 20 years’ less experience and memories. We don’t change fundamentally as people; we grow, and learn, and accumulate experience. We get older and tireder. We go to bed earlier, don’t get out to see shows as much as we used to. We get jobs. We build structures, and on the whole, that’s a thing that’s necessary. You can’t stay out in the open forever. You need something, anything, to shield you against the world.

But still, it’s exhilarating to step out into the open and shriek against the howling wind. And perhaps the most surprising thing about this show is just how exuberant it feels. To be standing a couple of rows from the front, screaming every word in an environment so loud that you can feel rather than hear your own voice cracking… it feels like a celebration, both of the art that has had such a profound effect on your life, and also of that effect. I didn’t discover the Manics until about 1996, by which stage Richey Edwards was already gone and the band were already being subsumed by their own mythology. But it was because of them that I discovered a huge number of things that have been important to me, from Guy Debord to Rumble Fish.

And as an album, The Holy Bible is also defiant. There were various moments during the shows when James just let the crowd sing the lyrics themselves – particularly on Monday, when his voice was failing – but I don’t think I could tell you whether he actually stepped to the mic to end the second verse of ‘Faster’, because he was just one of a thousand voices screaming "I KNOW I BELIEVE IN NOTHING BUT IT IS MY NOTHING." There’s probably an interesting essay to be written on the way that Richey’s lyrics on this record took on the character of political sloganeering – short, sharp, memorable statements, strung together in a way that isn’t so much a narrative as a catalog of evocation – and it’s an idea that reached its apogee in ‘Faster’, a series of barked sentences that aren’t so much a narrative as a manifesto.

Those characteristics – the bitter defiance and the bitter compassion – they don’t age. If nostalgia is mourning the past against an uncertain future, then this isn’t nostalgia, not at all. It’s an acknowledgement of where we’ve come from, where we’re going, what we’ve learned along the way. Art can keep time for you, and art can cast it away. And at its best, it can become part of your own life.

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