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Eyewitness: Manic Street Preachers Play Havana, Meet Castro - Q Magazine, August 2020

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Title: Eyewitness: Manic Street Preachers Play Havana, Meet Castro
Publication: Q Magazine
Date: August 2020
Writer: Robin Turner
Photos: Tom Sheehan

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As the band’s tour DJ since 1996, the chance to play records before Manic Street Preachers’ historic gig in Havana, Cuba in 2001 was irresistible for Robin Turner. Here, he tracks down everyone from the trip to gather a 360-degree view of it. For some, it was a dream. For others, a nightmare...

After the multi-platinum success of Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, as well as seeing in the millennium at a sold-old stadium show in Cardiff, Manic Street Preachers were getting restless. Sat in Spain working on a sprawling album [2001’s Know Your Enemy], they set their sights on becoming the first Western band to ever play in Cuba.


James Dean Bradfield: Manic Street Preachers’ singer and guitarist.
Nicky Wire: Manic Street Preachers’ bass player and lyricist.
Martin Hall: The band’s long-standing, long-suffering manager.
Scott Thomas: Founding partner of X-Ray Touring, Manic Street Preachers’ live agent.
Caffy St Luce: Former PR at Hall or Nothing.
Simon Price: Journalist and author of best-selling Manics biography Everything.
John Niven: Author, former Q columnist and friend of band.
Robin Turner: PR/writer, Manics tour DJ since Everything Must Go.
Tom Sheehan: Veteran photographer/mature lensman.
Rob Stringer: CEO Sony Music Entertainment, signed Manic Street Preachers in 1991.

1: Underdogs

James Dean Bradfield: There was always going to be a knee-jerk reaction coming out of TIMTTMY. We’d won four Brits and we’d sold close to 10 million records worldwide. Lots of bands have a dynamic where they massively react to themselves. You can’t stop it, no matter how smart you are. With us, that meant Nick was beginning to pick his targets again. The country was coming towards the end of the New Labour honeymoon. There’d been initiatives every other week - Sure Start, minimum wage, Good Friday Agreement, devolution - but recording Know Your Enemy, we could feel that slightly tepid breeze of American influence blowing into British affairs. Little did we know what was to come. So Nick started using other scratching posts. Then the idea arrived. “Why don’t we launch the record somewhere totally alien to the music industry? Somewhere we have no chance of selling any records?”

Nicky Wire: It was all my idea and my fault. Rob Stringer and Martin Hall came over to El Cortijo Studios in Spain to listen to recordings. The lyrics on the record had connections everywhere - Cuba was referenced in Baby Elian, The Convalescent and Let Robeson Sing. And the cover of Masses had been a Cuban flag. Sat around the pool, I said, “Let’s launch the record in

Rob Stringer: Nick felt uncomfortable with their level of populist success and wanted to deconstruct it. He wanted to disrupt the connection. Financially, it wasn’t exactly a gig at the Hammersmith Working Men’s Club with free bar ’til 11pm. Making a documentary about the trip allowed me to spend promotion money. It was possibly a little irresponsible but they had just come off a huge record and a Number 1 single.

Nicky Wire: There was no financial gain to be had out of playing Havana. Because of the embargo, Sony didn’t deal with Cuba at all. Fair play to Rob for pushing it through. It cost an absolute fortune and took us decades to pay it back, somewhere near half a million quid.

Scott Thomas: I’m used to dealing with promoters and bands. Now I had to approach a quite sequestered foreign government, famously not the easiest people to deal with. It was obviously a wild folly but if we could pull it off, what an absolutely amazing statement. There was a lot of legwork involved in making it a reality. Peter Hain [then Welsh Secretary] was instrumental in getting us set up with the Cuban Minister for Culture, Abel Jiménez. It meant we were dealing directly with the government from the off. And luckily, Abel was an old rocker. Curly perm, jeans in the office. Myself, Martin and production manager Chris Vaughn went over in November 2000 to look at sites. Even then, it felt like it might fall apart. But the Cubans were on board. I don’t think we fully realised at that point that if you had Castro’s ear, everything will happen.

Simon Price: We’re talking about a time when the most politically engaged any of their contemporaries got was champagne at Number 10 with Tony Blair. The next wave of arena-sized rock bands - Travis, Coldplay - seemed almost entirely apolitical. The Manics aligning themselves with one of the world’s last communist republics was totally anticonsensus. But that’s what they’d always been.

Scott Thomas: The government wanted us to do a 20,000-capacity open square in front of the US Embassy, which would have been a total fuck-you to the CIA. But as soon as we heard about the Teatro Karl Marx, we knew that was our venue.

2: “Went To Cuba To Meet Castro...”

Nicky Wire: By the time we got there, I wished I’d never had the idea. I’d backed myself into a corner. We were unbelievably under-rehearsed. It took us ages to get through customs, it was very tense. Our mobiles didn’t work, you had to hire phones off the government. Trying to call home on a land line, you heard this beep the whole time like you were being monitored. We were convinced James’s phone was tapped in London for months before the gig, but we didn’t fucking moan about it. It did mean paranoia set in quickly. That said, looking out of the hotel window over Havana, you couldn’t help be floored by how unique and special a place it was.

James Dean Bradfield: When we got to the Hotel Nacional in Havana, there was a mariachi band playing Chan Chan [the song popularised by Buena Vista Social Club] in the lobby. That song was everywhere. In my room I thought, “I don’t quite know how to do this.” It felt very alien. I loved being there but I kept thinking I don’t know how to do this as a band. It was awkward and strange.

Nicky Wire: We did a big press conference on the first morning and it was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. There were nearly 100 journalists and the general gist was, “Why are you endorsing a communist state?” It was a proper mind roast.

Simon Price: At the press conference, Wire was already irritable at having to justify the trip and having to answer obvious questions from a Western liberal media asking about playing a hard line communist state. That criticism didn’t let up after they played the gig, it followed them home. In fact the band reference it on The Next Jet To Leave Moscow on 2014’s Futurology (“So you played in Cuba did you like it brother?/I bet you felt proud you silly little fucker”).

Caffy St Luce: It wasn’t at all like work. I was looking after the press entourage. There was also a big Sony entourage and then loads of mates who came over for a laugh. And who could blame them - it was obviously going to be brill. It was the least corporate album launch ever.

John Niven: I decided to go at the very last minute. I checked into the Nacional, walked out onto the terrace, and the first thing I saw was this massive party of Brits who’d gone for the gig. Everyone smoking enormous Havana cigars and drinking tureens of mojitos.

Scott Thomas: The day before the show, I got this very conspiratorial, John le Carré type call from Abel saying, “We may have a special guest at the concert, we wanted to check that would be OK.” I replied that would very much be OK if it was who I was thinking of. They wouldn’t elaborate as I presume they thought the phones were bugged. I called Martin and said, “We’re on. El Presidente is coming!”

Nicky Wire: On the morning of the gig, we got to the venue and it felt huge. The only security was a set of massive potted plants in front of the stage. Someone from the government asked if we were playing Baby Elian that night. We hadn’t bothered to learn it and Martin said so. It came back, “You are doing Baby Elian?” It kept coming back, more pointedly. “You are doing Baby Elian”. So I just deployed our usual tactic which is, “Get James to do it acoustic.” I called him up and he was fast asleep. He just said, “Put it on the setlist, I’ll sort it out.”

James Dean Bradfield: Castro coming to the gig seemed unlikely, like the rumours we’d get in the early days of the band where some musician you loved was meant to be coming to check you out. Ten minutes before the show, I stuck my head out of the curtains and the entire audience was looking away from the stage. Castro was sat in the balcony and everyone had turned to him like sunflowers turning to the sun. That’s when my nerves kicked in.

Robin Turner: Myself and Nick [Dewey] were almost at the end of our set when a roar went up. Castro had arrived and the whole venue was going bonkers. There was a load more volume left in our mixer so I put on Regular John by Queens Of The Stone Age and turned everything on full as he walked towards his seat. The whole place went potty. Years later, I met Josh Homme and told him that story. He was so mind-blown he went to get the rest of the band so I could tell them too.

3: Louder Than War

Nicky Wire: After a demoralising build up, the actual gig felt like something from the ’70s. There was a natural abandonment in the crowd who let out a proper roar. And they were gorgeous to look at. I found myself transfixed. I wasn’t concentrating on playing at all, I was watching these beautiful people experiencing the music.

Simon Price: The audience were clearly rock fans. There were a lot of bootleg Metallica and Guns N’ Roses T-shirts. They were familiar with the type of music, but they didn’t know how to act. Or they didn’t know how much they could get away. Polite ripples of applause eventually give way to wild abandon. The review the next day in the Cuban communist newspaper Granma referred to the audience’s “strange revolving motion of the head”, which was their way of saying headbanging.

Scott Thomas: It had that “Let’s put the show on right here!” feeling. For the audience, the sheer glee of having anyone play in front of them was obvious, and their response was electric. I don’t think any of us had really expected that reaction before the band walked on.

Caffy St Luce: In the photo pit during the gig, I was pinching myself looking up at all these Manic Street Preachers flags and Castro on the balcony. And when the band played, you couldn’t write a better rock’n’roll movie scene. The audience started off nodding their heads and got wilder and wilder. They were building as the gig built. You could literally feel the energy, like the love hysteria 13-year-olds get over pop bands. And they were just the most beautiful looking people.

John Niven: The place had gone berserk when Castro came in, about five rows behind us. Mind you, the Cubans could probably all feel the red dot of the fucking laser sight hovering on their chests if they weren’t at least applauding. One image of that show burned into my mind: Wire, mid-air during Kevin Carter, James behind him, pointing the Telecaster at the crowd and stamping out the riff.

Nicky Wire: Before the encore, Martin told us Castro was there. He didn’t say we were going to meet him. Fifteen minutes later, there he was. He was incredibly sharp. Everything was through a translator. It’s said he could understand English perfectly, he just doesn’t speak it. He said that the drums were louder than war and he asked whether the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish dislike the English. It wasn’t awkward at all, he was very well briefed. Unlike today’s politicians, he was able to take that brief and develop it.

Tom Sheehan: After the show there was a massive hoo-ha about Castro being there. There was a procession of people going backstage but by the time I got there, he was making to leave. I couldn’t miss this, so I whipped round the sofa, shooting as I went. I got a load of happy snaps, nothing posed but they had the band and Castro together. In my previous life at CBS, I shot a lot of the greats - Johnny Cash, ABBA, Springsteen - but no one that’s that famous. Thank God he didn’t ask for approval.

James Dean Bradfield: In all of the pictures of us with Castro in the dressing room, I look like something out of Forrest Gump.

Rob Stringer: The sheer electricity of Castro actually being there was dramatic. He had the aura of a rock star. Whatever anyone thought of his politics, he was the most charismatic person in the room by some stretch. The fact that he came to the show was mental. With the greatest of respect to the Manics, they weren’t The Beatles or Nelson Mandela.

Martin Hall: After the show, I got really emotional. I don’t normally react like that, no matter what scale the gig is, but this one got me. The band thought I’d gone mad.

Robin Turner: I missed Castro backstage because I was trying to help this one-legged guy who was the spit of a very dishevelled Che Guevara. He’d been manically dancing all night. He produced an old, battered Spanish magazine with a poster of the band he wanted signed. I sorted everyone for him but he was genuinely furious I hadn’t got him Richey’s autograph.

Nicky Wire: There was an incredible party back at the hotel that went on really late. Alberto Juantorena [Olympic medal-winning runner] and the boxer Félix Savón were there. Juantorena was blown away that I knew so much about him. I got both of their autographs like a proper fan.

4: Life’s A Drag

Nicky Wire: We were drained, but first thing the next day we had to get up for a bus ride to Santa Clara, which is three hours outside Havana, to see Castro giving a two-hour speech. I’d had enough by then but we still had so much to do, photos and filming and talking. The day after, they snuck us in to meet [Baby] Elián González. That was very weird - a covert meeting with a seven-year-old kid in the secure complex where he was being kept. There was so much pressure to do things, to meet people.

Rob Stringer: On the bus to Santa Clara, my job was club comedian, trying to keep Wire cheerful. I’ve played that roll a lot over the years, but this was a tough gig.

Nicky Wire: I ended up having a real wobble. I bought this dress in the shop in the hotel lobby which fitted me perfectly. I didn’t think there was any way I could get away with wearing it out so I sealed myself in the room, put it on and slapped on loads of make-up. I looked absolutely gorgeous so I got Mitch [Ikeda, longtime Manics photographer] to come and take some photos. I hadn’t been able to call home and I was getting increasingly agitated about that. Then we got invited to Castro’s private residence for dinner. They obviously wouldn’t tell us where it was as it was top secret. At that point I walked into Martin’s room and said, “I’ll pay whatever it costs, I just want to get out of here.” Me and James got an Iberia flight to Valencia. Even at the airport, we were getting calls about going to see Castro. They said, “Don’t worry, he can hold the plane.” The flight seemed like it was just me and James. A ghost ship, like something retired in the ’70s brought back for one night only. I convinced myself it was going to go down and that would be the end of it all.

5: “That Was Quite A Thing!”

Nicky Wire: I know Cuba was a rock’n’roll moment but the truth is, the whole trip feels like I was never there. Like I was outside my body, living in a film. The only thing that feels real now is the hotel notepaper.

James Dean Bradfield: There was a lot of press to do when we got back and it felt that we’d put ourselves in a direct line of fire. We were quizzed about political standpoints, human rights, freedom of speech. And I thought, “I’m not very good at this.” It was the first time that I felt unqualified to answer the questions being asked of us.

Caffy St Luce: The Cuba trip is one of the reasons I stopped doing PR. It made me realise that my head was in a different place. I can’t thank the Manics enough for that.

Scott Thomas: It’s one of the highlights of my career. Doing something that no one had ever tried before. It might all seem like folly but if you can’t have those kinds of ambitions, why be a rock’n’roll band?

Rob Stringer: It was definitely a financial folly. You could argue that it was a creative and a political folly. But, crazy as the idea was, the very fact we’re still talking about it tells me it had cultural relevance.

Simon Price: The Manics had got about as big as they were ever going to get, they’d played stadiums and headlined Glastonbury. This was their moment to make a grand statement while they still had the world’s media looking at them. The fact that they used that position to go and meet Castro was absolutely brilliant.

James Dean Bradfield: After Cuba, I realised the most important thing. Make the best record you can. I failed to do that on Know Your Enemy. Everything starts and ends with the record that you make. This was the launch for an album that was a glorious mess. Maybe not even glorious. An interesting mess.

Nicky Wire: Back home, straight away we were struggling to justify ourselves and struggling to justify going to a communist state. We did Later... when Know Your Enemy came out and Nick Cave was on there. He stopped me and said, “That Cuba trip... that was quite a thing!” At last, someone had something nice to say about it.