I don’t like having regrets. So when the latest call for proposals for the 33 1/3 book series came up, I decided I had to make an attempt. After mulling the possibilities over for at least a couple of months and then conducting a bit of research, I ultimately pulled the writing of the proposal together over a few days leading up to the deadline. The call was a bit vague as to how academic the proposal had to be, especially since many of the previous books in the series wouldn’t fall into that kind of categorization. Since I’m both a bit academic and a bit crazy fan, I figured I might be able to blend the two worlds relatively effectively. I decided to write about my favourite album from my favourite band: The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers. To me, it is enough of a seminal album to be included in the series, and the more I thought about it, it seemed to be a key element to the essence of the Manics. Whilst there had been many pieces written about the Manics in the context of their politics, gender, Welshness, and fans, there seems to be an absence of work about their relation to archive and memory. The more I probed the idea, the more I realized how much of their art depended on their memory work, and that this work could be traced back to The Holy Bible, which was representative of what makes the Manics unique and so appealing to me. After submitting my proposal, it made me a bit nervous to discover that two other people decided to submit proposals for The Holy Bible, and one person chose to submit one for Journal for Plague Lovers, but at the same time, I knew that I had a promising angle and that I had put in a lot of effort and thought.
After an anxious wait, I received a rejection email today, and saw the posted long-list of 94 proposals making it through the first hurdle. One of them is for The Holy Bible. I’m fairly disappointed, but knowing how many factors could be at play here, I accept their decision. I’ve asked for some more detailed feedback beyond the generic rejection – it’s always useful to have some comments in order to improve, and it seems fair to ask since I feel as though I’ve put in more work than I’ve noticed in previous proposals to this series. David Barker, the series editor, encourages those who were rejected to post their proposals online, so I’m going to do that. Here’s the draft introduction:
Many claim that The Holy Bible is the Manic Street Preachers’ masterpiece. I argue that it’s their Gesamtkunstwerk. It is the beginning and the end, the moment the Manics split their identity into two, the watershed at which the shadow of memory flows in different directions. It condensed and intensified everything the Manics were to that point and became the touchstone for what they could ever be. It finally made them authentic, but it also made them impossible. The Manics are polarizing, even amongst fans. Fans speak of the Generation Terrorist era, the Holy Bible era, the Everything Must Go era, and they often rally behind one of them. There aren’t too many bands that have such distinct eras, or can even be described as having eras. For better, and sometimes worse, memory and the archive came to define the Manic Street Preachers.
The Holy Bible has been called the sound of intolerance and body horror, bleak, pressurized, contorted, nihilist, vile. To me, it is the sound of a monument being built for the sole purpose of its wreckage and ruin, endlessly perpetuating the significance of its own archive. It sounds monolithic and monochrome, beautiful and frightful in its symmetry. It is the cover art of Jenny Saville’s Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) made sonic. The music has the intensity of a silent scream, throwing razor-sharp, post-punk angles and white noise around a dark distillation of trauma. There are few reprieves, and when they come, they are funereal and just as damning. The grind and knell of the low register and the metallic clang and scratch of the guitar and percussion create a claustrophobic anxiety and relentless, righteous fury. The lyrics range over totalitarianism, genocide, serial killers, prostitution, anorexia, self-harm, racial violence, class war, discipline, censorship, and self-obsession; they have been broken and malformed into a scansion that James Dean Bradfield has somehow managed to fashion into speech in twisted tongues. Just as The Holy Bible confronts you with everything humanity would like to forget, it also desires its own annihilation. It’s hard not to make comparisons between the album and the band itself. Having written seventy percent of the lyrics for The Holy Bible and having lived through a highly public breakdown in the year leading up to the record’s release, this 1994 album will always be inextricably bound to Richey Edwards’s disappearance the following year.
The Manics have built an identity around an intensely present absence and acts of memorialization. Their position is unique: a band that had lost a member who was simultaneously nothing and everything. As a guitarist who couldn’t really play guitar and thus had only played a couple of small parts on recordings, and as a prominent lyricist who had the ability to generate intelligent and provocative soundbites and thus had most often been the public face of the band, Richey Edwards was an odd entity. The consecrated space at stage right where Edwards once stood is like Rachel Whiteread’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. An absence made present. A negative index.
The self-memorialization began well before The Holy Bible. It is well-known that the Manics plotted their ascendancy with researched precision and strategy; they were planners, especially Edwards who became their “Minister of Information.” With self-consciously “iconic” photos and outrageous soundbites, it seemed that the Manics were intent on devising their own celebrity myth. The death drive of vowing to break up after selling sixteen million copies of their debut album is a case in point. Their idolization of those defined by the Pop Art death drive, such as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, reaffirmed their desire to become legendary, but also ephemeral. They reveled in the idea of short-lived glamour and immortality through the media archive. This conflict between wanting to live on in memory and to completely destroy that which made you famous may have an interesting precedent in Andreas Huyssen’s book Present Pasts.
Huyssen writes of Richard Wagner’s first thoughts about a performance of his opera Siegfried to be mounted near Zurich. Wagner intended for the theatre to be dismantled three days after the performance and for the score to be burned. At the same time, Wagner’s work was inherently Romantic and has unfortunately become bound up with the fascist tendency towards epic monumentalism. This tension between Wagner’s wish to be hugely memorable and everlasting, and his consciousness of the transitory, which may, too, contribute to monumentalism, creates a friction at the heart of memory studies. A comparison between Wagner’s incongruous, yet somehow compatible, attitudes and those of the Manic Street Preachers is striking, and can begin to explain the contentious composition of the band’s identity and of The Holy Bible itself.
Derision of and desire for nostalgia were also already a part of the Manic Street Preachers’ repertoire before The Holy Bible. Songs like “New Art Riot,” “Motown Junk,” “Methadone Pretty,” and “Nostalgic Pushead,” condemned society’s inclination to immerse itself in complacent, comfortable nostalgia, to anesthetize with the familiar and shallow. They often pledged to destroy history and the art that came before them, and if they destroyed themselves in the process, so much the better. In spite of these denials of the past and accusations against history itself, the Manics also longed for youth and childhood, too. In “Life Becoming a Landslide” and “From Despair to Where,” the assumption is that childhood was a more innocent time, now corrupted by age and the passing of time into adulthood. These ideas of modern, swift self-destruction and Romantic, nostalgic myths of childhood innocence then tumbled into the event horizon that is The Holy Bible.
Why did the Manic Street Preachers become my lifestyle choice? Why was I so attracted to them and their music? Yes, it had a lot to do with their intelligence, anger, and politics. And their unabashed anthems. And their androgyny. But I think it was also how they worked with memory. That preemptive nostalgia. The bittersweet consciousness of never really being in the moment because you’re already haunting your own future. The self-fulfilling mythology of them. Their grandiose desire both to preserve and to destroy in epic proportions. Andreas Huyssen’s statement that “the only monument that counts is the one already imagined as ruin” seems apt here. I’ve always been one to anticipate loss, to get some sort of perverse joy from imagining how sweetly sad this moment will be as a memory in the future. I was profoundly terrified of leaving childhood; my tenth birthday heralded anxiety because I knew I could never return to a single-digit age. The temporality of the world outside was equally as unsettling; at seven years old, I felt a sense of loss when the year turned from 1989 to 1990. This nostalgia fever likely influenced by own archival tendencies, which manifested in the many different obsessive collections I developed throughout childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. Despite being intrigued by the Manics as early as 1998, they didn’t become my favourite band until several years later. In a sense, I was recruited by Richey Edwards, his present absence drawing me into the band’s origins from a short glimpse of an old performance on British television and from the cover of a magazine commemorating the decade since his disappearance. The Manics reinforce my desperation to make memories involving them, to make my life a soundtracked narrative with poignant nostalgia for the future, and to make meaning from their art while applying it to my own. My Manics collection becomes intimately tied to my sense of recollection. For better or worse, the Manics and their archive have come to define me.
The Manic Street Preachers’ grand narrative is tempting. Hindsight provides the best foreshadowing. As Simon Price has noted, their story begs to be narrativized. The Holy Bible became the apotheosis of their memory work by intensifying the private made public, the personal made political. Edwards’s disappearance, crucially not a visible suicide, heightened its effect. Perhaps due to the self-memorializing that had already been intrinsic to the Manics’ presentation of themselves, the sense of impending drastic change was already being taken up by the media before Edwards went missing. At the time of The Holy Bible’s release, the music press was heralding the end of a chapter. Many regard The Holy Bible to be the Manics’ truly authentic moment, the critically acclaimed cult success. People will persist in comparing everything that follows to the myth of that album. The Manics have also used it in a myriad of ways, including kicking against it to produce their next most acclaimed album, Everything Must Go, and returning to it in full to make Journal for Plague Lovers. As the band who pronounced “Libraries gave us power,” their strength and worth seemed to keep springing from the archive.
Their story and music are palimpsests, inscribed and reinscribed, self-referential and self-reverential. Their past is inescapable and the way they work with it and within it time after time is fascinating. Repeat after me, death sentence heritage.
The combination of an extraordinary album with an extraordinary act of self-mythologization has irrevocably shaped the Manic Street Preachers. The Manics haunted their own future, and their past continues to bleed into their present; time has been particularly malleable for them. The phrase “forever delayed” first appeared in the Manics’ history as a lyric on “Roses in the Hospital,” a song from their second album Gold Against the Soul, and then it became the title for their first greatest hits collection in 2002. A single called “4 Ever Delayed,” which was originally planned for this greatest hits collection but then scrapped, resurfaced on the b-side collection Lipstick Traces the following year. The phrase implies infinite stasis. And there have been times when the Manics could be accused of stagnating or becoming stultified by their own nostalgia. But another way of looking at “forever delayed” is “always becoming.” The Manics will never reach a real completion, nor will they lose sight of the potential in their own traces.
The Holy Bible proved that their eyes were set on a memorable ruin, born to end before they began. And it put them in the perfect position to be the band that meant everything and nothing.
If you’re interested in the rest of the proposal, feel free to download it at the link below. I’ve removed the CV information, but otherwise left the full proposal intact.
Download my full 33 1/3 proposal.
Archives of Pain – Manic Street Preachers
Mausoleum – Manic Street Preachers