Whilst every great band is known best for the quality of their music, and today the Manic Street Preachers are one of the largest, with music in punk, Britpop and now modern, the Manics are renowned also for their lyrical brilliance – in a career spanning over 25 years, they have stayed true to their original ideals and delved lyrically into figures such as Churchill, Jackie Collins, Richard Nixon, Pablo Picasso, Elvis and Lenin, produced a number one single about the Spanish civil war and on The Holy Bible, early on in their musical career, the troubled mind of long-missing and sorely-missed lyricist Richard Edwards was heavily explored through his own words – anorexia, depression and self-harm lie amongst songs about the Holocaust, American consumerism, freedom of speech and the death penalty. Richey went missing soon after this album’s release in 1994 (now presumed dead) It makes for a deeply fascinating record, with these dark words sung on musically strong tunes.
Warning: some of these lyrics are at times explicit. They are mostly too long to fit them fully into the article, but all of the songs analysed below are available on www.youtube.com and you can read the full lyrics at www.azlyrics.com, if you’re so interested."4st 7lb"
4st 7lb refers to the weight at which death is medically unavoidable for an anorexic sufferer. These particular lyrics were written by Richey Edwards about his own experiences. Allmusic wrote "the diary of anorexia '4st 7lb' is one of the most chilling songs in rock & roll”. The song diarises someone's losing struggle against anorexia nervosa. The opening quote summarises a common problem with anorexics: thinking decaying on the outside, believing to be improving both physically and mentally, but really having a problem with both. Throughout, the narrator is obsessed with their current physical state: constantly measuring their weight, seeing ribs appear and “cling-film on bone” – and constantly convinced “I’m getting better”.
The loss of weight becomes increasingly obsessive (“mother tries to choke me with roast beef…), finding more desperate ways at self-justification (…and sits savouring her sole Ryvita”). But still there is a small resistance amongst the pain, staring longingly at Kit Kats – yet only looking, and there is a greater desire to “walk in snow and not leave a footprint”.
Eventually the narrator reaches the auto destructive weight of 4st 7lb, yet appears to be mentally calm, like the ordeal has been almost spiritual – “such beautiful dignity in self-abuse”. Truly chilling lyrics, set to raw guitars and screams. The final verses are set to a slower tempo, drained of the original energy – screams are replaced with knowing words sung with conviction. It is odd how such depressive lyrics are able to make such great music, though it is something to, in many ways, marvel at.
It doesn’t take a great deal of insight to see exactly what this song is angry about. The opening quote of Ronald Regan being celebrated sets the tone for the rest of the song: not completely anti-American, but "how the most empty culture in the world can dominate in such a total sense".
Every stereotypical reason that is normally used against American culture seems to be represented here: racism (“Democrat say: there ain't enough white in the stars and stripes”), gun laws (“If God made man they say, Sam Colt made him equal”), war, obesity and the general attitude (shown by the language: “morning – fine”, “number one – the best”).
In the verses, James Dean Bradfield sounds as though he is coolly accusing America via a list of crimes – these build up to sarcastic screams of rage in the chorus, set to a military-esque drum roll giving the overall effect of patrotic sounding music – i.e. like the rest of the song it is mocking. This is a song filled with anger, hate and disgust – these were written however not by Richey but by Nicky Wire, the band’s bassist. They are no less powerful, however, and the twisted patriotic tune of the track brings the words further to life.
"The intense humming of evil"
The Holocaust is directly dealt with in this song, taking an anti-war, even anti-Churchill stand point. The opening quote is an extract from the Nuremberg trials, and in itself says most of what needs to be said: poignantly remembering the dead, graphically describing Hitler’s cruel impact on the world – “Today the tear of the child is the judge” is deeply moving.
The opening lines describe the intial view of the Nazis: how people were tricked into thinking concentration camps were actually “recreation” camps, and their violence was misinterpreted for kindness. ‘Welcome to Belsen Recreation Camp’ is a sign from an original concentration camp, and the “soldier smiling” at the gates to welcome. It is quickly corrected by “6 million screaming souls”, referring to the number of Jews murdered by the Nazi regime.
“Arbeit macht frei” – "Work sets you free", hung again as a sign at concentration camps.
Hartheim Castle was one of the extermination centres for the disabled.
“We worship malaria” and “Rascher surveys us butcher bacteria” refer to Nazi experiments on concentration camp detainees, of attempting to find a malaria cure and cutting off limbs to see how long the victim bled for (respectively).
The final verse is not anti the actions of the Allies, but rather the reasons for them – it is a claim that the Allies wanted to stop Germany not to stop the Nazi’s genocides but rather to defend their own interests. You may think this is controversial, but Churchill was in fact a huge supporter of eugenics – which (in case you were wondering) is the idea that in order to create a superior race of people, those who are considered weaker should be discouraged from breeding or sterilized – the “feeble-minded”, as he put it himself. This is, as the name suggests, an intense song to listen to – instead of trying to describe it, it would be a lot easier for you yourselves to give it a listen.
Oddly enough, this song is dominated throughout by a strangely hummable rift, given the constant sexual swearing and subject material. Lead guitarist and vocalist for the Manics, James Dean Bradfield, writes, “I remember getting the lyrics to 'Yes' and thinking, 'You crazy f***** (Richey), how do I write music for this?'".
Initially, this would appear to be a track attempting to show the very real world of prostitution – the beginning and end quotes (something which frequent in this album) are obviously explicit, and the chorus talking of anything you like being freely available tries to reveal a certain horror (the quotes are from the 1993 documentary Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and their Johns, by Beeban Kidron, about the prostitution trade).
However, looking deeper, this is a journey into the darkest parts of the mind – “hurt myself to get pain out”, “everyone… always seems to leave”. The actions, the possession of desires and lust is seen as shameful by the narrator (“power produces desire, the weak have none… there’s no lust in this coma” are truly disturbing lines), and the song is as much about his self-hatred as it is about the most brutal parts of extreme prostitution.
Ultimately, this song is about the inability to say no – i.e. everything and anything is a “Yes” (at a given price). People sell out, lose their dignity seemingly willingly in many aspects of life, including the music industry for example. And they often do it for short term gain, often financial, and normally with long term morality loss.
"Faster"The opening quote comes from the film adaption of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (read by John Hurt). When the Manics performed this live on Top of the Pops wearing balaclavas, it was taken to be support for the IRA - the performance earned the band the most complaints ever on the show (25,000). Ironically, "Faster" became the best-selling single of the record, and hence the most commercially friendly of the lot. It has a great punk feel to it, with rapid drumming at times, raw chords and an often contradicting, high-pitched note-heavy guitar in the background, showing the contrast between society and the narrator which the lyrics discuss.
According to Richey however, this is actually a song about self-abuse – now legendary is the photo from an NME interview with Richey, where the interviewer claimed the band weren’t serious, causing Richey to take out a razor and carve “4REAL” into his arm (only just missing a major artery). Lyrically, this song is difficult to make sense of – the opening three lines of lyrics may well indicate self-cutting, with the narrator believing this acts to be purifying. Richey said he would cut himself not because he was suicidal but because it focused him, the pain sharpened his mind.
For the narrator, it sounds as though the self-abuse makes them better than most – “an architect” of his own body, making him “stronger than mensa… plath and pinter” and other intellectuals. There is a feeling he believes he is above them, summarised perfectly in the powerful line “I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing”. He doesn’t want to conform, adapt himself to the views of others (“life is made for the cold made warm and they are just lizards”). This lyric shares much with “Yes” (which has the line “hurt myself to get pain out”) and once again the narrator is presumably Richey.
I have only covered 5/13 of the songs, but hopefully you now have a feel for the power of this album. It is an intense record to listen to at times, but there is still a wide mix of songs, with genres in British punk, alternative, rock, new-wave and industrial. There are some astounding solos (listen to the last minute and a half of “Archives of Pain”, below), as well as technically excellent drumming and brilliant bass lines, cumulating into a well-produced, amazing sounding record, which gives further meaning to the lyrics they are based around.