On the eve of the release of their sixth album, Know Your Enemy, the Manic Street Preachers met and played infront of Fidel Castro in Cuba...
One Saturday last month, deep in the belly of the Karl Marx Theatre in Cuba, three angry once-young men from Blackwood, Gwent, came face to face with Fidel Castro, one of the most notorious revolutionaries the world has ever known.
"Castro was like the biggest rock star you could ever meet," enthuses bass player Nicky Wire of the meeting. Back in Britain, Wire is sprawled on a sofa in a Cardiff hotel, before the band head off to soundcheck for their home coming gig in Cardiff Coal Exchange. Manics frontman and guitarist James Dean Bradfield has sworn off press duties, choosing instead to record acoustic session tracks for a Cardiff radio station, leaving Wire and drummer Sean Moore to fill the breach.
Wire recalls how, in Cuba, the three band members and the revolutionary Cuban premiere of the last 40 years, made small talk, chatted about international politics, the power of music and the importance of ideology. The dictator indicated he'd like to make it to their gig that night. "It might be a bit noisy," Wire warned. "I will try to adapt my ears," replied Castro. "It cannot be more noisy than war, can it?"
Wire's impression of Castro has left the guitarist suitably in awe: "He still does these speeches where he'll talk to someone for over an hour and then he'll listen back to it, edit it, and go through it again. He still does speeches for five hours sometimes. His power over words is just awesome."
"I don't see why I should censor myself for the sake of some people's understanding"
The Cuban experience has put the band on an ideological high and Wire talks cheerfully 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 Castro. The Manics are well aware their patronage of Cuba may seem a little rose-tinted; it is, after all, a dictatorship with a dubious human rights record, a history of persecuting homosexuals and a lingering reputation as the spiritual home of every revolutionary rocker.
"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 there 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 there's more homeless people here in Cardiff than on the streets of Cuba. It's all at the price, I know. But the point is, there are other ways of doing things."
The band's long-awaited sixth album, Know your enemy, stands alone in the Manics' canon - an unusually spontaneous-sounding record, stripped of unnecessary string-sections, billowing spics, or studio gloss. "It's about rediscovering why we wanted to form a band in the first place," explains Wire. "We felt the need to exorcise our demons once again," adds Moore. 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 Agnositc - one of the rawest, white-knuckle rock song the Manics have penned since the days of 1994's album The Holy Bible; there's Miss Europa Disco Dancer with Wire murmuring "braindead motherfuckers" over the run-out groove; Wire's debut lead vocal on the scabrous, Fall-a-like Wattsville Blues; and the much-anticipated Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children.
Back with guns a-blazing, then. But, with the UK music scene lacking any real, hard-edged rock bands, are they not worried 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 - only charted at eight and nine respectively. Wire's not too concerned.
"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 irked by a recent review in a magazine which claimed the lyric to Intravenous Agnostic, ("Cosmetic polemic/distinguished by relics/destructive aesthetic/intravenous agnostic") is basically nonsensical.
"When people say they don't understand a certain lyric, well, it's not my fucking problem. It was the same with Richey (Edwards - the band's original frontman and lyricist who has been missing since 1995). There's 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. My favourite bands have changed. I remember Shaun Ryder once said 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 keep the same audience all the way through your career - to me, that's the most depressing thing on earth."
"Unless you get involved, get involved on a community level, then things are going to disintegrate"
"Depressing" is a term which perfectly sums up the Manics' last album - the overlong misery-tract of This is my Truth, tell me Yours which opted to fester in melancholy and nostalgia. Moore, fore 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 coming from inside the band."
Although described to Castro as the band's "artillery" Moore's quiet demenaour contrasts with Wire's mischieveous rabble-rousing ("I've always admitted that 50 per cent of what I say is rubbish, basically," Wire grins). Moore thoughfully 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." So, Know your Enemy proudly brandishes a middle finger towards sanctimonious do-gooders who think just because the Manics are "socialist", they intend to stand as some sort of rock 'n' roll conscience?
Wire laughs. "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 thinks "well, at least I tried". That's the important thing - just to try."