Manic Street Preachers rededicates to the Cause
Emerging in 1991 wearing heavy liner on their eyelids and even heavier political rhetoric on their sleeves, Manic Street Preachers was a band of leftist outsiders at a time when most others were content to be rebels without a cause. Influenced greatly by their heroes the Clash, this Welsh foursome built a fanatical U.K. and European audience enamored with and intrigued by the group's immutable ethos and staunch commitment to keeping it "4 Real" – the very words that former lyricist and guitarist Richey James once etched into his arm during an interview.
For a group that began as self-styled Generation Terrorists, it has been an understandably eccentric career, one fraught with as many blockbuster successes as sobering tragedies – the most bizarre of which being the sudden and strange disappearance of James in early 1995 following the release of the harrowing The Holy Bible. "It's a complete and utter modern-day mystery," vocalist and guitarist James Dean Bradfield says of his former bandmate, who was known to have suffered from alcoholism, anorexia and depression. "All we know is that he planned it to a certain degree. But nobody knows where he's gone since he went missing."
Still, it's a career that's not over yet. In 1998 the Manics released This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, a recording that despite winning the Brit Awards' Best British Album was not as treasured by the group and many of its hardcore fans because of its overly glossy production and its somewhat softened political posture. With the release of Know Your Enemy, their sixth album, Bradfield along with bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore have come roaring back with a more scabrous (but still eclectic) sound and vision.
I spoke recently with Bradfield, a candid, lively and articulate conversationalist who talked about his cohorts with respect and his music and politics with passion.
The title of your new album is Know Your Enemy. Who exactly is the enemy?
"Following the release of This Is My Truth, we had massive success in Europe. We were playing to about 10,000 people a night, which is a big deal in Europe, and at the New Year's Eve Millennium show we played to 65,000 people in Cardiff, Wales. You can't go through all of that and just not feel as if you're some kind of king. But we just realized that at one point you're your own worst enemy. That's why we titled the album Know Your Enemy. We were reacting against the complacency we found in our success."
You've talked about this possibly being your last album. Are you still thinking that way?
"Sometimes you feel as if you've got lots of things left to say but you don't know if you can find new ways to say them. We were such massive fans of the Clash when we were young and we were aware that they finished at the right time. We don't want to become like some kind of punch-drunk boxer who's not aware the magic's gone forever. We've done six albums now and don't want to start putting in below-par performances."
But there are groups like R.E.M. and U2 who've released countless records and yet continue to find new and interesting ways to reinvent themselves.
"I have to admire them. Those two bands go through old cycles and come back fresh and new. But I'm not sure if we can do that. We're a band that's forever tied to a political period in the '80s, when it was "us" against Margaret Thatcher. We look at the world in very black-and-white ways, and I'm not sure if the audience that's growing up now can actually understand where we're coming from."
Speaking of politics, in February you visited Cuba and got to talk to Fidel Castro.
"When we played Cuba, a lot of people said we went there with an itinerary, like Friday: play gig; Saturday: see Fidel. It was nothing like that! What happened was we were introduced to him quite unexpectedly just as we were about to go onstage. They were like, 'Can you please come and meet somebody?' And we were like, well, that somebody must be Fidel Castro! We met him for 10 minutes before we went onstage. He stayed the whole concert and watched. Meeting him was not the reason why we went there. We went there because we loved the idea of going somewhere where there was a new audience that knew nothing about us and we didn't know anything about them. It was just like starting over again. We weren't there to promote an album. It was liberating just going there for musical reasons. And then of course all the other things happened like meeting Castro, which was insanity, basically."
What was it like talking with him? Did he seem clear-headed and with-it?
"We saw him again after the show, and it was funny because he made a lot of militaristic analogies with our music. He said to our drummer Sean, 'You played all night like the artillery bombing the hillsides!' And then he said to me: 'You're such a short man, but you have such a big voice. Where does it come from?' And I said: 'I've got that Napoleon complex. You know, short people.' And he was like, 'Oh, you're so much a bigger man than Napoleon!' He said all this with a lot of humor. He definitely confounded that image of himself being this really earnest, po-faced guy who would just launch into a speech at the drop of a hat."
Did you cop any cigars?
(Laughs) "He said he was going to send some over but we left a day early, so perhaps they are still languishing in the hotel room."
You've yet to really break through in the America. Do you think your politics might be getting in the way of people hearing your music?
"In the States we've been labeled as some sort of absolute pedantic Communists. Whereas just because we played Cuba doesn't mean we believe everything that Cuba stands for. If I play a gig in Texas, does that mean I support the death penalty?"
Moving from the political to the personal, the song 'Ocean Spray' has a special meaning for you. It's also your first attempt at being a lyricist.
"I'd never written lyrics in the band because Nick and Richey were just streets ahead of me. They're just amazing lyricists. I thought, I'm not going to try to compete with those two because I'll just fail. But writing the lyrics for "Ocean Spray" just came round from a very personal point of view. My mother had a long battle with cancer, and she died about two years ago. I don't want to sound corny, but it was cathartic for me to write the song for myself. When Nick heard it he wanted to include it on the album. It felt a bit awkward for me to put it on the album at first. I thought that perhaps I might be exploiting the situation. But Nick said: 'They're beautiful lyrics and you should just put it on there. Forget about the guilt, put it on because you've expressed yourself; it should see the light of day'. The lyric is about the human spirit, basically. In Britain, when somebody's in hospital, they always advise you to drink lots of cranberry juice to keep infections away. My mother would send me to the shop five times a day, saying, 'Go and get me some Ocean Spray cranberry juice.' The fact that she put so much faith in such a little thing like cranberry juice was inspiring to me."
Tell me about "Let Robeson Sing" (a track from Know Your Enemy about the outspoken African American singer who was also branded a radical during the Cold War era).
"We've been told that there are so many anti-American sentiments on the album, but they ignore 'Let Robeson Sing', which is completely in awe of somebody - and he's an American. I've got to admit that when I was performing it in the studio I just felt humbled. I've got a lot of Paul Robeson's CDs, and I know his voice inside out - he had an amazing singing voice. When I was singing those lyrics I kind of felt inadequate in every way in terms of the way he lived his life and the way he sang and the way he performed. He tried to give inspiration to the powerless."
Would you like your music to do the same thing?
(Pause, and then quietly) "I'm sorry, but talking about Paul Robeson and then being seen in the same light - I'm much more humble than that."
You mentioned that the Clash was another huge influence on you.
"When we were young we saw a Clash concert, and it was the one thing that changed all of us immediately. It changed Nick, Sean, Richey and myself. The Clash was a band that showed that you could be political and it didn't have to be boring, and that you didn't have to be wrong or right, you just had to try to raise issues that affected your life. We thought that if we could just change four people the way that the Clash changed us and the way that we looked at things, then that would be enough."