Their new album Know Your Enemy signals a change in direction.
31st December, 2000. As the 20th century became the 21st, many remarkable events were taking place across the world to mark this unique moment in history. In Cardiff, Wales, 60,000 people were gathered in the newly-built Millennium Stadium to cross the millennial precipice in the company of the Manic Street Preachers.
It was an emotional evening as the band once again under-lined that they - not Oasis or the Stereophonics - were the people's champions. The following month, the Manics issued a new, stand-alone single. "The Masses Against The Classes" was an incendiary blast of indignation that recalled their early days of punk riffs and radical rhetoric. "We're the only thing left to believe in," screamed James Dean Bradfield - thereby reaffirming the band's stance as outsiders, a position which their recent mainstream success had threatened to undermine.
The single wore its influences on its sleeve (which, incidentally, bore the Cuban flag) - right down to it being deleted after only a week on the shelves. Remarkably, it still topped the charts. Their credentials regained, the band reconvened to record their sixth album determined to strip away the excesses of their sound.
The band's first live show since the Manic Millennium extravaganza was announced as taking place at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, Cuba. It was designed, the band admitted, as a tribute to the Castro administration. The communist leader himself even found time to come and watch the spectacle of the first western artists to play in the country since Billy Joel in 1979, with tickets priced at the local equivalent of 7p each.
Equally audaciously, two new singles were released on the same day. Designed to represent the "different sounds and textures" of the new album, the choice of tracks certainly achieved that. "Found That Soul" is a bruising rocker with impassioned Bradfield vocals, while "So Why So Sad" is almost the flip of the musical coin. Sounding like an homage to Phil Spector's production - complete with high harmonies, bells and a theremin solo - it's possibly the Manics' boldest release since "A Design For Life".
There was a feeding frenzy on the internet when four of the tracks were stolen from Sony's server and posted on the Napster file-swapping site. Within hours, Sony had managed to remove the files from fan sites but the furore just underlined the fans' desire to be the first to hear the new material.
And now "Know Your Enemy" has finally been released. Like any good album, it took a couple of listens to fathom, but soon revealed itself to be the richest musical landscape the Manics have ever produced. The "different sounds and textures" claim is certainly well-founded, with tracks ranging from the disco of the Ibiza-trashing "Miss Europa Disco Dancer" to the acoustic melancholy of "Ocean Spray" (Bradfield's first lyrical composition) to the to-ff "Wattsville Blues' (featuring another first: a vocal performance from bassist Nicky Wire).
Meanwhile, the discernible influences range from familiar sources such as the Clash and Joy Division to Spector and even the Stones and the Byrds (particularly the gentle 60s-stylings of "Let Robeson Sing"). There's even a secret track at the end - a cover of "We Are All Bourgeois Now" by McCarthy (the B-side of their "Should The Bible Be Banned"). Yet another throwback to their earlier selves - they covered the 80s agit-rockers' "Charles Windsor" on the CD version of the "Life Becoming A Landslide" single back in 1994.
In all, "Know Your Enemy" is almost the antithesis of their debut, "Generation Terrorists". But then it's hard to reconcile the mouthy young politicised punks who emerged from Blackwood at the beginning of the 90s with their current incarnation. Most obviously, the loss of guitarist Richey Edwards has changed the band irrevocably. That much was evident as they went from the white-noise oblivion of 1994's "The Holy Bible to 1996's polished but passionate "Everything Must Go".
The very fact that there was a Manic Street Preachers in the wake of Edwards' disappearance is, in one sense, nothing short of miraculous. The band has stated since that it was the closest they have ever come to breaking up. That they returned with the most critically and commercially acclaimed album of their career is a testament to their strength of character.
They cleaned up at the 1997 Brit Awards and became arena-straddling giants on the back of four successive Top 10 hits. 1998's "This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours" built on the success of its predecessor, with "If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next' becoming their first No. 1 single. The album also topped the charts.
Yet it seemed as if the band were being dragged inexorably into the very mainstream they once derided. Despite the controversy surrounding the closing track, "S.Y.M.M.", which pointedly fingered the police with the blame for the Hillsborough tragedy, the Manics seemed to embody the listening choice of the coffee-table classes. Despite its obvious high points, the album was dragged down by too many ordinary songs like the single "Tsunami' and the well-intentioned but trite "Born A Girl". "Know Your Enemy" is a riposte to those who say the Maoist finally cashed in their credibility chips.
It was sad yet strangely fitting that the final show of the original Richey line-up ended in a hail of instrument-smashing at the close of the last of three nights at London's Astoria in 1994. Talking about his hospitalisation for depression during his last interview in Japan in 1995, Edwards remarked that "I got lost somewhere". Within a matter of weeks, he'd ensured he couldn't be found again.
Ever since the release of the "Suicide Alley" single back in 1988 (handmade copies of which are now worth a impressive £600) right up to Edwards' disappearance, there was a definite sense of a grand masterplan. Despite the band's much-vaunted claim that if their debut album didn't sell as many copies as Guns N' Roses' "Appetite For Destruction" they would split up, they remained. Successive albums - the lush "Gold Against The Soul' and the angst-ridden "The Holy Bible" - revealed that they weren't about to go away quietly.
The early Manics were definitely iconic - getting porn star Traci Lords to sing on "Little Baby Nothing". dressing in guerrilla gear while blasting through "Faster' on Top Of The Pops, deriding Glastonbury as a "shithole". Theirs was a cut'n'paste assimilation of influences - from Kafka to the Clash, and from Guns N'Roses to Che Guevera. Even the packaging of their early material was arguably an homage to their punk roots - their first three albums were all released as picture discs.
Often, the music seemed to be overlooked in deference to their image, which was a criminal shame as the band made some of the best singles of the decade. From the sneering "You Love Us' through the aching "Motorcycle Emptiness" right up to the bitter resignation of "The Everlasting", they melded their lyrical ideal-ism with an acute pop culture sensibility. The band are also almost unique in the sense that each successive album has brought on board a new cross-section of followers, while alienating a proportion of their hardcore supporters. Yet the fact that the prices of their early singles continue to rise is testament to the fierce devotion they inspire.
Their early days were characterised by heart-on-sleeve moments. Richey carving '4 Real' into his arm after having his credibility questioned by then-NME journalist Steve Lamacq is the most notorious. But there were other less-publicised events. For instance, their embracing of fanzine culture, which even led to the donation of the track "UK Channel Boredom" to a flexidisc single given away with Hopelessly Devoted. Interestingly, Nicky said in a recent internet webchat that he still prefers fanzines to their online counterparts.
Their next recorded output was founded on a handshake deal with the punk-ethos indie Damaged Goods. The "New Art Riot" EP was the result, and original white labels of which there were only 100) now change hands for £35. The band's early "one-off' deals meant that five different labels released their material within the space of two years. Indeed, the rarest Manics item from 1991 is a 7" released on Bob Stanley's Caff label, entitled "Feminine Is Beautiful", which couples "Repeat After Me" (which later surfaced on their debut album as simply "Repeat") and "New Art Riot".
Once they had inked a major deal with Columbia, sceptics envisaged that their outrageous tendencies would be curbed. Instead, they were exacerbated, with Richey's self-mutilation and Nicky's proclamation from the stage of the Kilburn National in December 1992 that "in this season of goodwill, let's hope that Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury".
Musically, the band was still a living, breathing example of the punk ethic - both Wire and Edwards never bothered to fully master their instruments while their live shows were splenetic blurs of punk high-kicks, sloganeering, feather boas and no encores. With the loss of Edwards, some of the original reactionary spirit seemed to disappear as well. "Know Your Enemy" has the Manics sounding vital again.
However, the album will no doubt polarise the fans once again. Some will complain about the inclusion of more experimental tracks like "So Why So Sad" and "Miss Europa Disco Dancer". Others will doubtless bemoan the return to a harder sound at the expense of more radio-friendly fare. Indeed, it's interesting to note that "Found That Soul", despite being released on the same day as "So Why So Sad", has received virtually no airplay.
It's been a long, hard road from Blackwood to Havana, but ultimately the Manics have survived because they believe in what they are doing. That much is evident by examining two quotes from polar ends of their history. Back in 1991, following their signing to Columbia, the fanzine Spiral Scratch asked them if they were going to stick to their plan of just releasing one album. Their reply: "Our first LP is going to be the most important benchmark for rock this decade". Two months ago in Q, Nicky Wire declared that "Know Your Enemy" was "one of the best albums of all time". Welcome to a new chapter in this unique band's enthralling history.