Is This The Darkest Record Ever?

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Twenty years ago, the Manic Street Preachers released an album that would not only define their career, but act as an epitaph for the genius in their ranks. Mark Sutherland and Nicky Wire remember The Holy Bible, and the life of Richey Edwards...

At 7am on Wednesday, February 1, 1995, Richey Edwards walked out of the Embassy Hotel in Bayswater, West London. The Manic Street Preachers guitarist left behind a packed suitcase, and so much more besides.

That morning, Richey also walked out on three bewildered bandmates, dozens of concerned family members and friends, and thousands of obsessed fans. None of them would ever see Richey again. But, almost 20 years on, he maintains a towering influence, not only on the Manic Street Preachers' unique career, but also on the wider world of rock

That he does so is largely due to The Holy Bible, the album for which he provided the all-encompassing vision and the lion's share of lyrics, released six months prior to his disappearance. An album that still stands, two decades later, as one of the most harrowing and deeply personal monuments to human misery ever recorded.

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Richard James Edwards was born on December 22, 1967. He grew up in Blackwood, South Wales, attending the local Oakdale Comprehensive school. Fiercely intelligence and hilariously funny, between 1986 and 1989 he was at Swansea University, earning a 2:1 in Political History and a reputation as a hard-working student, with little time for the typical drunken undergraduate antics.

His reputation in the Manic Street Preachers, however, was rather different. Over the band's first two albums, 1992's glam-punk Generation Terrorists and 1993's wannabe stadium-rock opus Gold Against The Soul, he proved hugely important in shaping the band's lyrics, sound and image, as well as being massively popular with the band's fanbase.

But the fact that his guitar contributions were rarely audible led some to view him as, at best, a provocateur, and at worst, a poser. Even his most notorious act - carving the phrase '4Real' into his arm with a razor blade during an interview with journalist Steve Lamacq in May 1991 - was dismissed by some as a publicity stunt.

With an irony that Richey himself would no doubt have appreciated, The Holy Bible would convince far more people of his authenticity than that brutally compelling act of self-harm ever did.

Even 20 years on, The Holy Bible still sounds remarkable: a staggeringly intense journey through universal frustration and personal despair that manages to address everything from anorexia, capital punishment for serial killers, the Holocaust, revolution, prostitution and suicide without ever sounding trite.

No wonder bassist Nicky Wire told Kerrang! in December 1993 that the album would be either "50 minutes of misery or complete and utter punk".

Reminded of the quote today, Nicky laughs.

"It turned out to be both..."

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Despite the lyrical subject matter, Nicky remembers the early-'94 album recording, in Cardiff's spartan Sound Space Studios, as a happy time for the band. Prostitutes and glue-sniffers gave a lawless feel to the streets outside, but, inside, a newly married Nicky, proud new flat-owner Richey and the band's musical core of singer/guitarist James Dan Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore were fully in control. Richey would sometimes snooze on the sofa during sessions, but his mind was razor-sharp, poring over files crammed with literary and political references.

"in a pre-digital world, his brain was accelerating," says Nicky. "The amount of information he was taking in and regurgitating was just stunning."

While recording, the occasional foray to awards ceremonies made the band aware of just how out of step with the prevailing musical mood they were in the early days of Britpop. But it wasn't until the album was finished that its enormity sank in.

In April 1994, the band undertook an ill-fated tour of Thailand, where Richey took to cutting himself onstage.

"Richey was never the same after Thailand," says Nicky ruefully. "We realised what we'd done and it was just hard work after that."

Such hard work that Richey's personal problems - a complex Yahtzee of depression, self-harm, alcohol abuse and anorexia - soon spiralled. By the time the album was released on August 29, he was in The Priory, the band forced to play Reading '94 as a three-piece in order to pay his hospital bills. Nicky spoke to K! that month, saying, "[Richey's] always tried to push himself to the limit. But he's reached the limit and he's got to step back."

Initially, he did. Richey returned for the Manics' autumn European tour, and seemed on the road to recovery, playing Sega and listening to Portishead on the tour bus with Nicky. The band returned to the UK for a December tour, culminating with three shows at the London Astoria.

The third, on December 21, the day before Richey's 27th birthday, is remembered by those who were there - including this writer - as one of the greatest gigs ever, culminating in the band's gleeful smashing of every last piece of their gear. As Richey led the wanton destruction, it certainly seemed like the end of something. As it turned out, none of us knew the half of it.

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As 1994 slipped into 1995, the Manic Street Preachers were optimistic about the future. The Holy Bible had not sold well, but it had strengthened the affections of their fanbase to the point of obsession.

A low-key demo session produced early versions of Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky, Kevin Carter and No Surface All Feeling, less brutal songs that would surface on 1996's triple-platinum Everything Must Go. The only thing nagging at the back of Nicky's mind was the lengthy American tour booked for early 1995.

"I can't say I ever felt we were going to do that tour," he says. "I didn't think it would be [because of] Richey disappearing, I just didn't feel that we could do another tour promoting The Holy Bible."

And they never did. The discovery of Richey's abandoned car near the Severn Bridge on February 17 lead many to speculate he took his own life, though to this day no body has ever been found.

Nicky dismisses the idea he'll ever have closure on the subject ("I don't want any, really") and the Manics have never sought to gloss over that painful period in their history. Nicky is proud that the album once branded "commercial suicide" has now sold over 600,000 worldwide, and still moves 5-10,000 copies every year. He's now compiling a 20th anniversary box set edition, while contemplating some gigs where they play Richey's masterpiece in full ("If we're ever going to do it, it will be now").

Nicky hasn't seen his lifelong friend since he walked out that February day. But he also believes the world hasn't seen anyone quite like Richey Edwards since then, either.

"He can be remembered in different ways," says Nicky. "As a brother, a son, an amazing writer, a forensic intellect and a phenomenal, brilliant rockstar, the like of which we simply don't have anymore."

And in the sad, sensational story of Richey Edwards and The Holy Bible, that's the one that can't ever be left behind.

What Happened Next...

Charting the Manics' life, post Richey Edwards

29/12/95: The Manics play their first gig since Richey's disappearance, supporting The Stone Roses at London's Wembley Arena.

20/05/96: Everything Must Go, featuring several of Richey's lyrics, is released. It goes on to sell 2,000,000 copies worldwide.

30/08/98: The Manics score their first Number One single with If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.

06/12/04: The 10th Anniversary edition of The Holy Bible is released, featuring the rare U.S. mix, which the band prefer.

23/11/08: Richey's parents are granted a court order for the missing guitarist to be declared presumed dead.

18/05/09: The band release Journal For Plague Lovers, featuring lyrics Richey left behind when he disappeared.

07/07/14: The band released their 12th album, Futurology. The song Walk Me to The Bridge is assumed by many to be about Richey, although Nicky insists it's "about feeling crushed by our own history".

[Originally published: Kerrang!, 20 August 2014]

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