The Manics return to challenge fans, again, finds Cameron Adams.
Welsh trio the Manic Street Preachers have made a career out of politically charged songs but, for their past two albums, have managed the difficult trick of also being a million-selling stadium rock act.
But success cost them. Their latest album, Know Your Enemy, is so titled because they had become their own enemy. The album features a deliberately tougher, more political sound designed to shake off casual fans drawn in by previous radio-friendly singles.
And though they welcomed the new millennium with a sold-out show of 60,000 in their home town of Cardiff, they chose to launch Know Your Enemy at a gig in Havana, Cuba, where they were not only unknown but the first major Western rock band to visit.
They sold tickets for next-to-nothing, and met Cuban leader Fidel Castro. "It was a very surreal experience," says Manics bassist Nicky Wire. "He came to our gig. He was very witty and charming. He invited us to dinner."
In England, many dismissed the Cuban show as a publicity stunt, particularly because of the presence of British journos and a documentary crew.
Know Your Enemy has seen the Manics receive some of their harshest reviews for years, which has not escaped Wire. "We're on our sixth album now, and you have to be careful you don't become irrelevant...We wanted to get back that spirit of when we started the group," he says. "Bands like Primal Scream or At the Drive In or Rage Against the Machine - who stand up and say something - even if it's not particularly eloquent, they tend to get more criticism than bands who say nothing." Know Your Enemy follows This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, the record that consolidated them as a stadium act, and brought them to Australia. But, with millions of sales and dollars, Wire says making music for the masses isn't all roses: "We always wanted success from the start, but it gets to the point of saturation."
When they released their debut, 1992's double album Generation Terrorists, they claimed they'd sell 15 million then split. They didn't and they didn't. Their previous album, Everything Must Go, was their most personal (written after the disappearance of guitarist Richey Edwards, who remains missing), and their most successful. Know Your Enemy, recorded quickly minus rehearsals, has also trimmed back their sales, as the chart-savvy Wire expected.
"I know a record like Know Your Enemy can't really sell that many...(but) with this album, a lot of people have come back to us," Wire says. "In today's music, the most challenging thing is something like Coldplay or Travis, which is all very nice, but it's not challenging whatsoever. Unless it's a fluke, it's impossible for a record with lyrical meaning to get through these days. It is frustrating."
The Manics will release a greatest-hits album next year, and aren't secretive about plans to split soon after.