Released on: The Holy Bible (Album #3) Epic Records, 29 August 1994
Few songs in the Manics catalogue, if any, have inspired as much fervent argument over lyrical meanings as ‘Archives of Pain’. Written perhaps entirely by Edwards, this buzzsaw track on the subject of capital punishment, serial killers and authoritarianism was named after a chapter in a biography of French philosopher Michel Foucault (not, as is often stated, a chapter in one of Foucault’s own books).
The song’s savage lyrics have been interpreted in a wide variety of ways, many of which are conditional on the listener’s perspective on Edwards’ beliefs and state of mind while he was writing. As a result, ‘Archives of Pain’ has been variously described as a frank advocacy of capital punishment on Edwards’ part, an argument for capital punishment from a third party perspective with which Edwards did not agree, a contemplation on a subject on which Edwards had not made up his mind, and various others. Speaking to Melody Maker in 1994, Wire described the song as “not a right-wing statement” but rather an argument “against this fascination with people who kill”. It’s clear that this fairly offhand comment does not go far enough to explain this troubled and troubling song, which has caused so much confusion over the years.
Whatever Edwards’ on views on capital punishment – he told Simon Price that the idea of a return to 19th century criminal justice “appealed” to him – the song takes advocacy of retributive killing to apocalyptic extremes. Lines like “all I preach is extinction”, “man makes death, death makes man” and the sheer brutality of the punishments the song “endorses” all imply that it is a madman speaking. All in all, ‘Archives of Pain’ reads very much like a song by McCarthy, the major influences on the Manics who wrote songs from the perspective of their ideological opponents more often than not. Like ‘Archives of Pain’, their songs could often be confusing for this reason.
Further confusing the situation is the assertion from the authors of Manics.nl that Edwards’ belief that Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish advocated more brutal forms of criminal punishment was “absolutely wrong”. Instead, the site goes on to say
“Foucault rejects nineteenth-century ways of punishment. He just describes them in his analysis of the development of punishment to show that our modern system of punishment is not as humane and right as we all think. It is a totally different sort of punishment, but as wrong as the nineteenth-century way. ‘Archives of Pain’ is not a right-wing song about the ‘eye for an eye’ concept, but is a statement against the glorification of serial killers.“
Ultimately, we will probably never understand the song any better than we do currently, given Edwards’ disappearance. However, while we are on the subject here is a somewhat more off-the-wall partial explanation: ‘Archives of Pain’ cannot be understood without reference to [T66] ‘Of Walking Abortion’, which posits that everyone must bear a degree of responsibility for the evil in the world. This makes sense of the “all I preach is extinction” line, because everyone is guilty of horrific atrocities and the reasonable penalty in the mind of our narrator is death. This brings to mind the Dark Judges from the comics anthology 2000 AD – in their warped logic, all crime is committed by the living, therefore life is a crime and the apt penalty is death. The Dark Judges – evil equivalents of the comic’s hero Judge Dredd – went on to wipe out the whole population of their home planet, located in an alternate dimension and known as Deadworld. After all, we know that Edwards was a fan of 2000 AD thanks to his references to it in [A60] ‘P.C.P.’…
Thankfully, the musical side of ‘Archives of Pain’ is much easier to process. It opens with a supremely evil-sounding bass line which is by far Wire’s most celebrated instrumental work. He has often been referred to as a mediocre bassist but this is a truly singular moment as far as his contribution to the Manics discography is concerned. Later, the whole band can take credit for the song’s incredible conclusion, during which the whole affair simply burns up before our very ears.
‘Archives of Pain’ is unique in that it is the only Manics song in which the band reference their own band by name.
Choice Lyric (Full Lyrics)
“there is never redemption / any fool can regret yesterday”
The House of Lords – upper house of the UK parliament, based at the Palace of Westminster in London.
Yeltsin – Boris Yeltsin (1931 – 2007), first president of the Russian Federation from 1991 to 1999, at which point he resigned with extremely low popularity ratings. Spearheaded “shock therapy” and the extremely rapid economic liberalisation which led to concentration of wealth in the hands of oligarchs and criminals.
Zhirinovsky – Vladimir Zhirinovsky (1946 -) rightist Russian politician and activist.
Le Pen – Jean-Marie Le Pen (1928 -), French far-right politician and longtime leader of the National Front (now led by his youngest daughter Marine).
Hindley and Brady – Myra Hindley (1942 – 2002) and Ian Brady (1938 -) also known as the “Moors murderers” for the killing of five children in Greater Manchester, UK between 1963 and 1965.
Ireland – Colin Ireland (1954 – 2012), known as the “Gay Slayer” for his murder of five homosexual men in London in 1993. Obsessed with becoming a serial killer and thereby attaining fame, he died in prison.
Allitt – Beverley Allitt (1968 -) murdered four children and attacked several others while working as a student nurse in 1991. Currently imprisoned.
Sutcliffe – Peter Sutcliffe (1946 -) also known as the “Yorkshire Ripper”. Convicted in 1971 of murdering thirteen women and attempting to murder seven others. Currently imprisoned.
Dahmer – Jeffrey Dahmer (1960 – 1994), infamous American serial killer who preyed on young men and practised rape, cannibalism, dismemberment, etc. Was himself murdered in prison in 1994.
Nilsen – Dennis Andrew Nilsen (1945 -) British serial killer who murdered fifteen men between 1978 and 1983. Known as the “Muswell Hill murderer” or the “Kindly Killer”, the latter due to what Nilsen believed was his “humane” methods of killing. Currently imprisoned.
Yoshinori Ueda – (?) Japanese man believed to have killed five people using overdoses of muscle relaxants in the early 1990s. Apparently released after pleading insanity.
Blanche – Eugene Terre’Blanche (1941 – 2010), South African politician and white supremacist. Murdered at his farm in 2010.
Pickles – Judge James Pickles (1925 – 2010), British judge who became famed for his controversial decisions and statements, such as claiming that rape victims were “asking for it”. Subsequently became a writer.
Amin – Idi Amin (mid-1920s – 2003) Ugandan soldier in the British colonial army there and subsequently brutal dictator of that country during the 1970s. Fled to Libya and then Saudi Arabia, where he died, after war with Tanzania forced him from Uganda.
Milosevic – Slobodan Milosevic (1941 – 2006), Serbian and Yugoslav politician charged with war crimes during the Yugoslav Wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. Died in the UN war crimes detention centre in the Hague, Netherlands.
Nail it to the House of Lords – this is probably an allusion to German monk Martin Luther, who in 1517 nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, a document opposing the spectacular wealth of the Catholic church and the sale of indulgences, to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Note: for another possible explanation of this line, see Chris’ comment below.