Secret Meeting score: 95
by Phil Scarisbrick
Richard James Edwards may officially have been a guitarist in the Manic Street Preachers. But it was his masterful use of words that defined his role in the band. Ask anyone about ‘Richey’ – as he is known – and if they know who he is, they will probably tell you that he is the one that went missing. On 1st February 1995, he was seen for the last time (save unconfirmed fan sightings in places like Bali and Fuerteventura). He had been due to fly to the United States with front man, James Dean Bradfield the same day but was a no show at the airport. His Vauxhall Cavalier was later found abandoned at a service station on the banks of the River Severn, leading many to believe he had taken his own life by jumping from the nearby Severn Bridge. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he didn’t take his own life. He had a fascination with people who disappeared and, despite some diagnosed mental health issues, had always said that thoughts of suicide had never entered his head. Even to this day, no body has ever been found, although he was officially pronounced ‘presumed dead’ in 2008.
The trip to the US that he was due to take with Bradfield was to promote the Manics’ third studio album (and final with Richey), The Holy Bible. The Manics had always been a band who focused on issues of politics and human suffering. Their 1992 debut, Generation Terrorists, felt like an 18-song manifesto and reflected a sense of intellectual anarchy that had been missing from British guitar music for over a decade. By 1994, Edwards was in the throes of alcohol abuse, anorexia and self-harm. He had infamously carved the words ‘4 REAL’ into his arm in a bid to prove to journalist Steve Lamacq that the band were genuine in what they were. The only positive from his issues were that he was able to channel them into his writing. Previously, he had equally shared lyric duties with bassist Nicky Wire. For The Holy Bible though, Wire made a conscious decision not to dilute Edwards’ creative flow. The result is an album that is dark, deep, heartbreaking, anger-inducing and movingly wonderful.
Following the release of their second album, Gold Against The Soul, the band felt like they were losing focus of what they wanted to be. Their label, Epic Records, had wanted them to record The Holy Bible in Barbados, but this didn’t work for the band. They wanted to avoid “all that rock star rubbish” as Bradfield put it, and get back to their roots. They stopped listening to American bands and returned to the influences that had shaped them in their adolescence – bands like Magazine, PiL and Wire. They decamped to the tiny Sound Space Studios in Cardiff, with just sound engineer Alex Silva for help. The recording sessions were long and brutal. There was no time for a social life and Silva even attributed the break-up of his relationship with his then girlfriend to being in the studio for such long hours.
Though Edwards’ lyrics were the driving force of the record, he did very little recording himself. He would often be seen getting drunk, drunk or passed out because of being drunk on a sofa in the studio. Because he wasn’t really a musician, his words were structured like essays rather than prose and led the band to approach recording in a different manner. Bradfield called this ‘academic discipline’, but really he and fellow music writer, drummer Sean Moore, were fitting square pegs in round holes. Normally the result of this approach would feel at best contrived. But here it added to the mayhem of the lyrics’ content and enhanced their disturbing qualities. Subjects such as fascism, childhood, revolution, the death penalty, anorexia, bulimia, the Holocaust, freedom of speech, British imperialism and American consumerism are seared through this record. This means a simple verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structures would be selling the words short.
Opening with dialogue from Beeban Kidron’s 1993 documentary about the prostitution trade Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and their Johns, Yes sets the dark tone of the record from the off. This observation on the horrors of prostitution is a rapid-fire, Wire-influenced rocker. As James Dean Bradfield sounds almost exacerbated trying to force out the lyrics ‘In these plagued streets of pity you can buy anything/for $200 anyone can conceive a God on video’, you get a sense that this is no ordinary record.
As Q magazine put it at the time, “even a cursory glance at the titles will confirm that this is not the new Gloria Estefan album.” Where Yes would be a vague enough title to fit onto any record, Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart, certainly would not. Starting with another piece of recorded dialogue, this time from GOP TV’s Rising Tide show, the song reflects on the negative impact of American consumerism, the growing wealth gap and the impact on race relations. This song is as near as we get to the Manics of Generation Terrorists, except with more vitriol and disdain.
We walk further into the rabbit hole of Edwards’ psyche with Of Walking Abortion, this resignation of life’s worthlessness that ends with a repeated, screaming proclamation ‘Who’s responsible, you fucking are’. By now, if you aren’t on this journey with them, you’d surely be out of the car.
She is Suffering was the fourth single and fits in as the fourth track here. According to Edwards it is about desire. He said, “In other bibles and holy books, no truth is possible until you empty yourself of desire. All commitment otherwise is fake/lies/economic convenience.” The warbling guitar notes emanating from Bradfield’s hands underpin these fragile words as he sings ‘Beauty she is scarred into man’s soul/A flower attracting lust, vice and sin’. Given Edwards’ frail state of mind, this could have been a reflection on his own sense of worth or his abilities to control his demons. Either way, it is hauntingly brilliant.
Embedded right in the heart of this album is the starkest insight to the issues that dominate it. 4st 7lb tells the tale of someone suffering with advanced-stage anorexia. The song’s title is said to be the weight at which, if you fall below, death is unavoidable. The song’s narrator is a teenage girl who wants ‘to be so skinny, that I rot from view’. This thinly-veiled account of Edwards’ own troubles, pronounced over a distinct, reverb-heavy guitar riff is both breathtaking and chilling in equal measure, which makes it all the more disturbing.
Probably the most familiar song from the album is Faster, a post-punk rocker co-authored by Edwards with Nicky Wire that provides a commentary on self-abuse. Opening with the quote ‘I hate purity. Hate Goodness. I don’t want virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone corrupt’, taken from the cinematic adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the song rushes at break-neck speed and adds the urgency to the second half of the record. Full of proclamations from the demons in their head, the narrator is ‘stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer’, ‘spat out Plath and Pinter’ and is‘all the things that you regret’. There’s no wonder that this was the album’s lead single and has the feel of a call-to-arms, despite being anything but.
While it sounds like the only bit of sunshine on the album, This is Yesterday is more about resignation than anything else. The narrator’s despair and envy has beaten the life out of him and he is coming to terms with the fact that his demons have won. It’s interesting that the seemingly brightest sounding piece of music on the record underpins Edwards’ darkest feelings.
Final track P.C.P., sees Edwards and Wire co-write again. The track is about how people who consider themselves ‘PC’ and liberal end up undermining their own arguments by behaving in a way that flies in the face of being either. ‘When I was young, PC meant police constable/Nowadays I can’t seem to tell the difference’ an exacerbated sounding Bradfield sings. Anyone who is familiar with the Manics knows that politically, they lean to the left. Both Edwards and Wire (real name Nicholas Jones), graduated with degrees in politics from Swansea University, so they understand their subjects in great detail. You can hear in the language used here how disheartened they are by the behaviour of people who supposedly share their views. Almost a quarter of a decade later, the same problems persist on how the media covers the left with the rise of the so-called ‘Antifa’, and social-media users who take offence to things without a second thought. At a time when the political landscape is so unstable, maybe these people need to listen to the lessons learned here and realise the damage they’re doing to their cause. Only then might a truly progressive movement reach its potential.
I first heard this record after I’d bought the CD from Woolworths in Rhyl as a 13-year-old. I’d worn my cassette copy of 1998’s This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours to the bones. That didn’t prepare me for what I was about to hear on my new acquisition though. After playing half of it at my grandparents house, it didn’t see the light of day again in until a couple of years later. It was only then that I was able to understand what it was and the seismic beauty in despair. The language expresses ideas far richer than we’re accustomed to hearing on rock records. It sounds like nobody else before or since, including the Manics themselves. It stands alone as a testimony of depression and addiction, of the sickness of individuals and societies. This open-wound was Edwards’ parting gift and although it is hard to enjoy it the way you would a conventional record, few are as captivating.