On the eve of the release of their sixth album Know Your Enemy, the Manic Street Preachers met Fidel Castro. They told Louis Pattison the story.
On Saturday 17th February, 2001, deep in the belly of the Karl Marx Theatre in Cuba, three angry once-young men
from Blackwood came face to face with one of the most notorious revolutionaries that the world has ever known. Through the aid of an interpreter, the four made small talk. chatted about international politics, the power of music, and the importance of ideology.
The dictator said he'd like to make it to the gig, and although there was some important state business to attend to, he'd try and be
"It might be a bit noisy," blushed Nicky Wire, rock'n'roll firebrand, scourge of the bleeding-heart liberal, bass-player for the Manic Street Preachers.
"I will try to adapt my ears," replied Fidel Castro, communist icon, thorn in the American capitalist heel, Cuban premier of forty years standing. "It cannot be more noisy than war, can it?"
Rest assured, El Presidente, think the Manics. Rest assured, we'll do our best.
Nineteen days later, and Nicky Wire is sprawled on a sofa in a king-sized suite on the seventh floor of the Marriott Hotel in Cardiff, picking at his teeth distractedly with a splintered cocktail stick, and constantly, compulsively removing and replacing a pair of large, green - dare we say it? - slightly Bono-esque sunglasses. Tonight marks the return of the Manics to British shores; in mere hours, they head off to soundcheck for their homecoming gig in Cardiff Coal Exchange, to be broadcast nationally on Radio 1's Evening Session.
James Dean Bradfield has sworn off press duties, choosing instead to recording acoustic session tracks for Cardiff radio station Red Dragon, leaving Wire and drummer Sean Moore to fill the breach. The last few days of press - five days in Scandinavia - have left them "a bit frazzled", but Cuba has put them on an ideological high, and Wire talks cheerfully and at length about his favourite bands (Texan punks At The Drive-In, Marilyn Manson), his politics ("As Lenin said: 'We shall have toilets made of gold!,'), and the Manics' Cuban experience.
"Castro was like the biggest rock star you could ever meet," he froths. "He still does these speeches, where he'll talk to someone for over an hour and then he'll listen it back, edit it, and go through it again. He still does speeches for five hours, sometimes. His power over words is just awesome."
It doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to draw parallels between Manic Street Preachers and Castro's Cuba in the year 2001. Both boast a history chequered with thwarted idealism, defiant individualism, bravery, bullshit
and betrayal - yet despite their status as pariahs, they both boast an admirable tenacity, a desperate, burning urge to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.
Sure, the Manics are well aware that their patronage of Cuba may seem a little rosy-eyed; lest we forget, it's a dictatorship with a dubious human rights record, a history of persecuting homosexuals, and a lingering but ever-dubious history as every ham-fisted revolution-rocker's spiritual home.
"There is rock'n'roll chic around Cuba, and I'm very aware of that," agrees Wire. "But we're fed an image of Cuba that's actually not accurate; there's a higher literacy rate in Cuba, more kids can read and write than kids here. And people live longer in Cuba than they do in America, which is a pretty stunning achievement for a Latin-American country. "Obviously, there's a lot wrong - the whole freedom of speech thing but there's aspects to it that I find very important. And I have to say that there's more homeless people here in Cardiff than on the streets of Cuba. It's all at a price, I know. But the point is, there are other ways of doing things."
There Are Other Ways Of Doing Things: that, essentially, is the gist of the Manics' long-awaited sixth album, Know Your Enemy. It stands alone in the Manic: canon - an unusually spontaneous-sounding record, stripped of unnecessary string-sections, billowing epics, or studio gloss. "It's about rediscovering why we wanted to form a band in the first place, " explains Wire. "My favourite bands have changed. remember Shaun Ryder once said that all his favourite bands were mess-ups, and fuck-ups, and sometimes went off and made Shit for a year. But if you just keep on one level, and never change, and keep the same audience all the way through your career - to me, that's the most depressing thing on earth."
The Most Depressing Thing On Earth: that sounds quite a lot like the Manics' fifth album - the overlong misery-tract of This Is My Truth, Tell My Yours which pored long over the legacy of the Manics Street Preachers, but opted to fester in melancholy and nostalgia. Sean Moore, for one, is dismissive of its memory: "Looking back on This Is My Truth..., going to all the award ceremonies, all the shows - it definitely wasn't what we're all about. We don't regret it; there's some great lyrics, some great moments. But maybe there was a little too much influence
from outside, and not enough corning from inside the band."
Sean is hardly the devilish orator that Nicky clearly is; perhaps why, in the eyes of the press, he's often relegated to mute drummer-boy status. But his quiet demeanour is misleading. In conversation with Castro, Bradfield described Moore's role in the band as "the artillery", and he wasn't just referring to a thunder of kick-drum. In comparison to Nicky's mischievous rabble-rousing ("I've always admitted that fifty percent of what I say is rubbish, basically," Wire later grins), Moore thoughtfully outlines his vision of what he believes the Manics should be; he expresses his fear of becoming "a boy-band equivalent", lets off dryly comical broadsides
against the state of pop music ("Masses Against The Classes was much more significant than people gave it credit for, especially on the back of Pondlife - sorry, Westlife," he quips at one point), and ponders the blandification of culture in general. "Just look at the way things have gone, even in the last year," he sighs. "People are lazy, and complacent about politics and society in general. Politics can be boring to a lot of people, but unless you get involved, get involved on a community level, then things are going to disintegrate."
Moore does not want the Manics to succumb to this complacency. "Our first album was called Generation Terrorists, you know?" he shrugs. "It was all about attacking youth culture, attacking the mainstream. And what's happened to us over the last year has fuelled our fire once again."
The Manic Antidote to Complacency came in the shape of the first new Number One of the third millennium: a shrieking punk-rock squall titled Masses Against The Classes. which sold 72,000 records in one week, and was deleted the next ("That's what people want sometimes" ponders Nicky. "Just this fuck-off noisy record"). James, Nicky, and Sean had planned to take a year off to plan their next move - but as it happened, the rip-it-up-and-start-again ethos of Masses... was exactly the spur they needed, and by the end of February, the Manics had re-entered the studio.
"We felt the need to exorcise our demons once again," explains Sean. "Go and purge ourselves. And as soon as we got back in the studio and saw how things were working out, we thought well, if we don't get this down and out
now, we probably won't have an album out for another two or three years."
If not an out-and-out brilliant record, Know Your Enemy is certainly a good one. It's the Manics' most eclectic album to date, reconciling anger with respect, nostalgia with iconoclasm: there's the taut, explosive new-wave of
Intravenous Agnostic - save Masses..., the rawest white-knuckle rock song that the Manics have penned since the days of The Holy Bible; Miss Europa Disco Dancer - essentially, Modjo's Lady, with Wire murmuring "braindead motherfuckers" over the run-out groove; Wire's first barked lead vocal, in the shape of scabrous Fall-a-like Wattsville Blues; and the much-anticipated Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children, a vicious call-and-response attack on the wishy-washy liberal rock consensus: "We love to kiss the Dali Lama's ass / Because he is such a holy
man," snarls James, "Little boys with dangerous toys All bow down to the Beastie Boys..."
Back with guns ablazing, then. But in this Age of the Bland, are they not worried that this new campaign of generation terrorism will fall on deaf ears? The album's first two singles - the simultaneously-released So Why So Sad and Found That Soul - bombed, charting at eight and nine respectively. Nicky hardly seems fussed. "I'm sure it seems that way to other people," he grins. "But we've beaten Steps to Number One before. We don't need to do it again. "
In fact, he's more stung by the anticipation of critical derision; he's particularly irked by a review in Uncut magazine that claims the lyric to Intravenous Agnostic, ("Cosmetic polemic/ Distinguished by relics/Destructive aesthetic/ Intravenous agnostic") is basically nonsensical, "You know, the fact is, I've got a degree in politics. and the fact is, I'm more intelligent - in an academic way - than a lot of people that will actually read the lyrics," he bristles, with consummate Wire arrogance. "When people say they don't understand a certain lyric, well, it's not my fucking problem. It was the same with Richey, a song on The Holy Bible called Archives Of Pain, and I didn't know what the fuck it was about, but I respected him for it. I don't see why I should censor myself for the sake of some people's understanding."
Simply, the Manics are doing it their way again. Know Your Enemy proudly brandishes a middle finger towards sanctimonious do-gooders like Billy Bragg, who think that just because the Manics are 'socialist', they intend to stand as some sort of rock'n'roll conscience.
Nicky giggles. "Oh, exactly. We'd make a pretty warped rock conscience. My conscience, Richey's conscience - we've always been a fucking gigantic dichotomy of hatred, and contradiction, and everything else. The important thing for us is that if you try to say something, it's better than not saying anything at all. It's like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - all the way through the film he's trying to pull the sink up, and then, at the end, he's braindead, but he just thinks 'well, at least I tried'. That's the important thing - especially at the moment - just to try."
Earlier, worried that every gig after their Cuban triumph would seem "an anticlimax" But as the Manic Street Preachers take to the stage, all fears of a dud performance shrivel before ones eyes. Several million Radio 1 listeners hear Nicky call the Welsh-baiting Anne Robinson a dog, but they miss his tasteful ladies' tennis slip, James throwing shapes from the drum-riser during the Wire-sung Wattsville Blues, and the gig's stunning, heart-stopping climax. At the end of a rousing Design For Life, all hell breaks loose, with Bradders shattering his guitar, Nicky hurling mike stands wildly at the speakers, and The Artillery hurling his drum-sticks to the floor and skulking offstage in silent victory.
The crowd bay their appreciation. But there will be no encore. Louder than war, del famoso grupo de rock britänico, the Manic Street Preachers: long may their revolution continue.