As soon as the doors to London's Brixton Academy opened one recent spring night, hundreds of maniacal fans-there to see their headlining heroes the Manic Street Preachers-stampeded straight for that most holy of rock meccas, the merchandise booth, which proffered everything from coffee mugs to windbreakers, button sets to embroidered hoodies. It's not as if the acolytes weren't already dressed for the occasion-some had home-stenciled key Manics lyrics onto school dress shirts; others were sporting elaborate feather boas a la their idol, band bassist Nicky Wire; still others wore ripped, safety-pinned tour T's dating back to gritty early work like Generation Terrorists and The Holy Bible, before proto-punk group guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared without a trace in '95. But they all gasped at one item that was quickly outselling the rest: An olive-green T-shirt that read, simply, Braindead Motherfucker. Followers dutifully shelled out $16, pulled Braindead on over their concert togs, and ran whoop-whooping into the auditorium.
What an irony, then, for this rabidly political Welsh trio to take the stage before a crowd clothed in Braindead Motherfucker uniforms. Because status-quo apathy-and sheeplike uniformity, in general-are the absolute last lessons these Manics are preaching. And they succinctly state their take-charge case in the set's opening number, the punk-fueled rave-up "Found That Soul" (which also kicks off their latest thought-provoking manifesto for Virgin Records, Know Your Enemy). While the lanky, elastic-limbed Wire jumping-jacks around his boa-draped mic stand in knee socks and a skimpy cheerleader's skirt, stocky black-garbed frontman James Dean Bradfield pogos in place, center stage, and chimes in with his chum on the anthemic chorus: "But I found that soul/ Yeah I found that home, I found that soul ..." A few minutes later, Bradfield softly strums into another new track, the acoustic-anchored "Let Robeson Sing," which tells the tragic tale of the late McCarthy-hounded actor/activist Paul Robeson. "Can anyone make a difference anymore/ Can anyone write a protest song?" Bradfield trills, in a glittering tenor that's become not only the Manics' signature, but one of modern rock's most distinctive voices. The Braindeads all cock their heads as a sample of Robeson's poetry booms through the hall during the bridge, rich and historically resonant. This is why they worship at the Wire/Bradfield temple, why they wear their hearts on their logo-stamped sleeves. They've come here to learn.
And if anyone can pen a protest song these days, it's the wickedly insightful wordsmith Wire, who tacked on a chanted "Braindead motherfuckers/ Braindead motherfuckers" outro to Enemy's faux-dance sendup "Miss Europa Disco Dancer" before jokingly inking the phrase onto T-shirts. Manics loyalists dig irony, he reckons, as they do solid, well-informed social commentary. And his work is brimming with both. Know Your Enemy (for which Wire wrote every lyric save one, "Ocean Spray"-Bradfield's heartfelt ode to his mother, who passed away from cancer) shakes its fist at so many villains, you'll need a good-vs.-evil scorecard: According to Wire, the soaring "Baby Elian" was scripted to show different sides of the Elian Gonzalez story; the punchier "Royal Correspondent" is "a complete piss-take on people whose whole goal in life is to become the BBC's correspondent for the Royals, sitting outside Buckingham Palace to see if one of 'em's had a stroke"; the sha-la-la-ed Beach Boys tribute "So Why So Sad" becomes a "West Coast dream gone wrong"; metal-heavy "Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children" is told "from the perspective of the old Soviet Union countries that collapsed."
Wire could delve into the psychology of "Dead Martyrs," he admits. "But let's just say that's our most Joy Division-y dark number. And you can hear the musical influences on this record-we don't deny them. You can hear the Beach Boys-James has always been a huge fan-and you can hear Joy Division, the Clash, the Saints. All the music we loved when we were young comes out here. And the music is genuinely full of love, but the lyrics are meant to be, uhhh ... quite spiteful at times." Hence, "Found That Soul" is more than just a set/CD starter. "It's a total affirmation of rediscovery, and it just really suits where we are at the moment-we found our reality again," Wire smirks. "We want to annoy people."
Wire, 32, is outfitted in track pants, Diesel shirt and Stan Smith sneakers. Compared to his girlish getup at Brixton the night before, he looks downright Terminator masculine. The morning paper is strewn across his desk, with horrified English headlines denouncing President Bush for his casual nixing of the Kyoto greenhouse emissions agreement. Wire rails at length on the subject, finally settling on an exasperated "Bush thinks American economy comes first, and that just sums it all up, really." It's all about perspective, he sighs. And Wire should know. After the overwhelming chart-topping U.K./European popularity of their last two post-Richey efforts-Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours-the Manics found themselves in an unusual situation. "Success breeds everyone telling you you're brilliant," scowls Wire. "And you get caught in a bit of a bubble and become more of a tabloid entity than an actual band. If you go to Helsinki, Finland or to Japan and perform in front of 5-10,000 people, it's just really hard to keep a grasp on reality."
A surreal problem. And the trio decided on a fittingly surreal solution. Sans any backing from their nervous overseas label Sony, they arranged and financed a trip last February to Cuba, where they performed a 20-song set at Havana's Karl Marx Theatre. The audience of 5,000 included Fidel Castro himself, who gave the group a standing ovation after "Baby Elian." "We weren't aligning ourselves with anything politically," explains Bradfield. "We just loved the idea of going somewhere and not meeting a Sony representative, not having some agent tell you 'You've sold 10,000 records here, so you can do a gig for 2,000 people.' Nobody knew any of our songs there, and we did it to take ourselves outside of the comfort zone-we hadn't been in that position in a long time, where we felt like we had to collectively convert an audience."
Through an interpreter, Wire actually had lengthy conversations with Castro, who invited the Manics to meet Elian and his father, and to the opening ceremony of a new Cuban arts university. "I think that in order to judge Cuba, you've gotta experience it," Wire swears. "And that's the main thing our album is about, really-the fallacy of judging other people rather than looking at yourself. Obviously, you have a right to judge, but unless you know your own history, your own culture first ... Such as, Britain invented the first concentration camp in the Boer War. And only five years ago, France was conducting nuclear tests off Tahiti. I'm not saying you can't judge a bad regime, but the West, especially, just groups together and focuses on a certain country and beats it with a stick to cover up its own inadequacies. But you've gotta know your enemy before you reject him."
Bradfield and Wire (and drummer Sean Moore) hail from working-class Welsh backgrounds. They're the first members of their families to attend college, the first to make it out of the minuscule mining town of Blackwood. When This Is My Truth won two '99 Brit Awards (for Best Album, Best Group), Bradfield, 32, recalls being prodded by journalists with "'You're 30 years old-do you feel as if your anger is gone, as if you're irrelevant and completely out of step now?' And if you're asked that for a whole year, you start believing a bit of it. So when we started writing this album, there was a subconscious reaction-we wanted to prove to ourselves that we were still the same people, quintessentially."
And not some braindead motherfuckers. Wire starts chuckling over the Braindead T-shirt turning into such a hot-selling promotional tool. "The 'Miss Europa' coda is just me doing this puny white-boy Welsh rap," he concludes. "But I can't pretend that everything I say, or every bit of irony and politics is coherent, or that people should understand all of it. And that there's nothing wrong with being argumentative." Other bands may coast along on whatever political current is popular, Wire believes. "But at least the Manic Street Preachers have a fucking opinion!"