Wales's fab three have just become the first major western rock act ever to play in Cuba. Simon Price went with them
There's something very strange about Havana. It isn't just the obvious totems of foreignness, which are disorientating for any Brit abroad (the palms, the chirruping cicadas, the air which, even at midnight in the Antillean winter, feels as hot and humid as a warm bath). It isn't the sensation of having been teleported into a museum of the 1950s, complete with elegantly peeling pastel-coloured mansions and vintage Chevrolets that fight for road space with more recent, smog-belching Ladas. It's the fact that there are no adverts.
In 13 years crammed with bizarre incidents and vainglorious ventures, electing to launch their sixth album in the capital of one of the world's last remaining communist republics surely ranks as the strangest move the Manic Street Preachers have ever made. And yet, on a symbolic level, it could be regarded as highly appropriate. Cuba is to the US what the Manics are to the music business: a thorn in the side, an island of dissent. A pain in the ass.
And then there is the politics. The Manics demonstrated their affection for Fidel Castro's communist outpost a year ago, when they put the Cuban flag on the sleeve of their hit single, Masses Against the Classes. Their forthcoming album, Know Your Enemy, is their most politicised and musically varied for years, picking up pro-Castro themes with tracks entitled Baby Elian and Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children. It's a clenched fist, a call to arms against creeping Americanisation. Or it's a sophisticated and well-worked publicity stunt. What would the band say to people who suggested it was the latter?
"I'd tell them they were stupid," the Manics' bassist, Nicky Wire, snaps at a press conference on Friday February 16, the day before the gig. Half of London's music media and several documentary crews have flown 5,000 miles across the Atlantic to be here - to watch the first major western rock band play Cuba. "Cuba has been a major influence on me," Wire says. "Not just in politics, but in sport. There's a myth that in order to succeed you have to have the best coaches and technical facilities, but Romania and Cuba win more gold than the UK. This is not like a student Che Guevara thing - it's just that Cuba for me is the last great symbol that really fights against the Americanisation of the world."
What about the band's apparent endorsement of a dictatorship, of a state that an estimated 83,000 people have died trying to leave? Wire has been anticipating this one, and replies with venom. "Every sad Lonely Planet cunt who travels 1,000 miles before they think they've seen the 'real' Cuba believes that every [Cuban] they see is gazing across the Gulf of Mexico wishing deep down that they were on a boat...if that was true, there wouldn't be anyone here."
The Hotel Nacional is a grandiose seafront edifice oozing old-school high-roller glamour. It is a relic of the days when Havana served as America's local casino, brothel and suntan parlour. This is where, before the revolution, Sinatra would stay when he was in town for Mob reunions, Ava Gardner in tow. In recent years it has been recovering some of its old glitz, accommodating the supermodels and movie stars who come to catch a glimpse of heritage Cuba before the old man dies and everything changes. When the Manics arrived, they were greeted - and followed to their rooms - by a mariachi band in white suits, playing Guantanamera and Besame Mucho in constant rotation.
I find Wire and Manics singer James Dean Bradfield reclining in the Nacional's courtyard. Wire is sipping a mojito - a powerful rum cocktail that looks like lemonade with a nettle in it - and he's tipsy after two. Bradfield picks up where the press conference left off. "No one has any qualms about playing Thailand, where the police went fucking mental when Wire started attacking the king and queen. No one has any qualms about visiting Goa and coming face to face with their recent colonial past."
"What about the human rights of the 5,000 people who lost their jobs in south Wales last week?" asks Wire. "Who are now having to work in call centres? No one talks about that." It may be imperfect, he says, but Cuba is "the nearest thing we have on this planet to a true socialist state...it has higher literacy levels than the UK. There's a decent health service available to all, and the average life expectancy is 76, which is higher than in the US."
The hole in the socialist paradise theory of Cuba is, of course, the fact that an average of 3,000 balseros (raft people) die every year trying to escape. Wire blames the trickling exodus on the false hopes raised by the US's Cuban Adjustment Act, which guarantees entry-visas and work-permits to Cuban refugees, and the propaganda of the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation. "The same thing happened with the break-up of the eastern bloc," he says. "All these people thinking they were being liberated, when they were only being delivered into the arms of the multinationals. We're trying to raise the issue of the trade blockade, and it is a blockade, not an embargo."
I mention that, not so long ago, during a period of Castro paranoia, Wire, with his penchant for make-up and transvestism, would have been thrown into a Siberia-style UMAP camp (Unidad Militar de Ayuda a la Produccion) along with all the other dissidents, decadents, homosexuals, eccentrics and HIV sufferers. "Do you really think I don't know that?" he snorts. "I'm not stupid."
On a flip-top DVD player, Wire plays me the new track Baby Elian and gazes out over the Gulf of Mexico in his Versace shades. He points out the line about Operation Peter Pan, the 1960 initiative where babies were taken illegally from Cuba to the United States after the US had spread panic about Castro's intentions towards parents' rights.
"I was glad I'd done my homework on that one. For this album I used a folder like that [he mimes a pile one-foot high] of paintings and articles. When I hear people like Brian Molko [Placebo's lead singer] saying that putting a mohican on Winston Churchill is a great political statement, I'm embarrassed. That's what happens when you put alternative bands on a pedestal when they don't actually know what they're talking about. I was watching that John Lennon tribute on Channel 4, with all the usual glad-handing idiots. John Lennon soaked up so much culture - Mao and cubist art, everything. Now, what do bands soak up? John Lennon. That's the trouble with our country - all surface."
He plays me some more selections from Know Your Enemy (the title is "partly a Red Indian thing my dad found - I pick up things from all over the place"). And who is the enemy? "Us! What we'd done in the past. When you reach contentment in life, it's difficult to express anything. It had just got boring. It's like when a political party finally achieves power, they often forget what they wanted to do with it. And I've always said I'm a one-man political party . . . if a very dysfunctional one. We'd achieved what we'd wanted to, in that we can go to . . . you know . . . Helsinki and play to 10,000 people, but without compromising. We're too intelligent for that. Now we've made an album that achieves what we want." He's on a roll now. "I've been telling people that this isn't just our best album ever. It's one of the best albums ever."
Pop has been used to break down political barriers before. The most obvious precedent to the Manics' Cuban crusade is Wham!'s 1985 gig at the Peking Workers' Gymnasium, when George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley became the first westerners to play the People's Republic of China. It would not have been possible to play Cuba back then. From 1959 - the Year Zero of the Cuban Revolution - until 1972, musical freedom was more or less absolute. But in that year, Silvio Rodrigues, the "Cuban Bob Dylan", was imprisoned for protesting against the government, and rock music was banned. In its place, Afro-Cuban rumba was encouraged as an example of a specifically Cuban (and, more importantly, "non-American") form.
The first sign that the times were changing came in 1979, when a jazz/ country/easy-listening line-up featuring Billy Joel, Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson and Weather Report played in Havana. In 1980, Castro permitted a handful of approved western artists to be heard on state radio, including, oddly (and a good decade too late), Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.
The same year, Castro opened the borders to America, and was shocked when 125,000 Cubans chose to leave. Another clampdown began, and rock music resumed its outlaw status until the late 1990s, when Cuba became both a fashionable holiday destination for Europeans and a popular backdrop for British music videos.
Alexis Lafargue Duran, a Cuban reggae musician who has toured Europe, and whose own father fled in the 1980 exodus, predicts that "Castro will use the Manics' visit to show to the outside world that Cuba is changing. It's also important that the Manics are vocally anti-imperialist and anti-American."
There is a handful of indigenous rock bands now - such as Joker, Zeus, Synthesi and Mezcla, and Pablo Menendes - a 15-year-old American guitar prodigy who, in another coup for Castro, has moved to Cuba to live. "But if any of them says anything anti-government," says Duran, "they are silenced."
A t 3pm in the Teatro Karl Marx - a 5,000-capacity concert hall in the 1960s brutalist style - Wire, reclining in a stalls seat and dreaming of all the historic Comecon summits that must have taken place here, is feeling the nerves. "It's going to be a bit of a weird one tonight," he says. "It won't be our normal show. No make-up or anything. I'm in sensible mode. When in Rome . . ."
Chris Griffiths, the Manics' tour manager, informs Wire that he can't do his usual trick of standing on the monitors either, because they are stacked in such a way that they would topple. "I'm not doing any of that tonight," Wire tells him. "No trashing the equipment. That would be the ultimate disrespect."
Bradfield, meanwhile, is soundchecking with a bit of AC/DC, a snatch of Michael Jackson's Beat It, and Paradise City by Guns N'Roses. He takes time out to jam some 12-bar blues with a Cuban rock musician, who, as you might expect, is gifted but a good three decades out of date. The soundcheck completed, Bradfield wanders over and repeats Wire word for word: "It's going to be a bit of a weird one tonight."
By 6pm, there's a police roadblock on Avenue Uno, and a rumour wends its way through the crowd: Fidel himself may be about to show. After all, a Cuban journalist at the press conference had asked how they would react if Castro were to attend, and Wire replied, "It would be the greatest honour of my life." Was this a sounding-out exercise? Has word filtered back?
An hour and a half later, the doors have opened and the theatre is filled with a mainly adolescent audience, some of whom have paid the equivalent of 17p for their tickets; others have been"asked" by the authorities to go to make sure the venue is filled. (" El famoso grupo de rock británico ", as they are advertised, are clearly not yet as famoso as they might hope.)
Suddenly, there are some muffled screams directed towards the balcony. A bearded septuagenarian is making his way into the arena, waving at us with an almost papal air, and flashbulbs start popping. If seeing one of the most famous living figures of the last century in the flesh - as mythical and iconic as Lenin or Kennedy - is disorientating, it is stranger still to see 5,000 Cubans saluting their leader with little red Manic Street Preachers flags that have been handed out in the foyer. (The Manics, with neat symmetry, are performing in front of an enormous Cuban flag the size of a house.)
Word spreads that Castro has visited the Manics backstage. Reportedly, Wire, fearing for the old man's hearing, told him: "It might be a bit loud tonight," to which Castro replied: "Will it be as loud as war?"
As the band - Wire in white (a couple of feather boas wrapped around the microphone stand as his only concession to glam); Moore in red; Bradfield in Cuban-army green - launch into Found That Soul, their Stooges-esque new single proclaiming their rediscovered sense of purpose, it occurs to me that they will go down in history as the band who refused to perform in front of the Queen (at the opening of the Welsh Assembly), but instead played for Primer Ministro Fidel Castro. "I'm not a subject," sings Bradfield, "Not a subject am I . . ."
The Cubans had installed only a row of potted palms as crash barriers, concerned that a steel fence might give the wrong impression to the outside world, but the Manics' security chief, Steve Head, quickly saw to it that the fence was reinstated. It soon transpires, however, that the palms would have sufficed. There is no danger of a stage invasion tonight. It is fascinating to watch a room full of young people who have almost no idea of how to behave at a rock gig learn, song by song, what to do. For the first number, there's polite applause. For the second, isolated dancing. After the third, there's a technical hitch and a long pause. The delay meets with total silence - no sarcastic handclaps, no chanting, just respectful patience.
During Kevin Carter, something changes. Wire, perhaps forgetting he is in Cuba and not Cardiff, executes a scissor jump and prompts a thrilled scream from the cheap seats. Despite officials tapping them on the shoulders and exhorting them to remain seated, people begin to stand up in waves, even starting to headbang, an activity that is described later in an official Cuban news report as "the peculiar revolving and rotatory movement of head".
From this moment on, the Manics can do no wrong. Several Cuban-related or politically pertinent songs are chosen, including the Spanish civil war-inspired If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next (introduced as "an old traditional Welsh folk song") and the rabidly anti-American Freedom of Speech Won't Feed My Children ("Freedom of speech won't feed my children/Just brings heart disease and bootleg clothing"); but particularly warm applause is reserved for the ballad Baby Elian, written about Elian Gonzales, the balsero infant who became the focus of an unseemly tug-of-war between Havana and Miami. On the balcony, Castro rises from his seat in ovation.
After the gig, the mood in the dressing room is triumphal. I ask Wire, still buzzing from the show and grinning his shark's grin, what Castro was like. "He's 76, but he's so sharp and so physically fit. I'll tell you one thing, he has an enormous cock!"
How could he tell? "Oh, you just could. They call him the Horse."
On the morning after the night before, the hungover band boards a bus for a six-hour round trip to Santa Clara, the central-Cuban city that is home to Che Guevara's ashes, and where Castro has invited the band to be guests of honour at the opening of a new state university, la Escuela de Instructores de Arte Manuel Domenech, taking in a visit to the Che Guevara monument.
All the way there, Wire complains that he is about to faint, but the 15 minutes he spends in Castro's company are worth it. "Other bands go to see Tony Blair," he says, "but we go to see Fidel Castro! Everyone who visited Blair is now acting surprised that he has let them down. Like, duh! I've always thought that you should never meet your heroes, but Fidel didn't disappoint at all."
Wire says he is aware the band is being used. The Manics' visit makes the front page of Granma, the daily newspaper of the Cuban communist party. "It's a mutual contract," says Wire. "He's getting some propaganda out of it, we're getting a DVD." The trip is being filmed for a promotional video and a Channel 4 documentary.
I ask him who he identifies with more - the romantic, photogenic Guevara, or Castro, the man who stuck around to finish the job. (There is a parallel here - a percentage of Manics fans will never forgive Wire for not being Richey Edwards, the guitarist whose disappearance in 1995 remains a mystery. If Wire is their Castro, Edwards is their Che.) Wire answers instantly: "Castro. Che Guevara was an absolute disaster when he tried to handle the economy. You have to understand that the Cuban revolution was the most showbiz revolution in history. When you go to the Che monument, they've got the actual leather jacket he wears in all those photos, and it's fantastic! He had such good taste. It looks like that Gucci thing that rock stars try to do and fail."
And what did the great leader say to the Manics? Wire says Castro asked if the Scots, Irish and Welsh dislike the English.
"Yeah, it is a bit like that," answered Bradfield.
"Don't even start me on the English," said Castro.
"You should come to see us play in England," said Wire.
"I couldn't get a visa to England. Maybe a visa to Wales?"
The party line on the Manics' gig
The following is extracted from a review published in Granma, the official organ of the central committee of the Communist party of Cuba:
Solidarity came with music. Clearly in favour of sharing their loud experience with the Cubans, on Saturday night in the Karl Marx theatre, the British rock band the Manic Street Preachers showed the musical credentials that have reserved them a place on the crest of a musical wave.
Among those attending the concert was the Commander in Chief, Fidel Castro. When he took his seat, he was cheered by the 4,000 spectators, most of them teenagers. The day before, the group had declared: "The greatest honour for us would be that Fidel listen to our music." The dream was fulfilled.
The language barrier didn't prevent an appreciation of the confidence, irony and poetic force of the songs. The one which most explains their connection with Cuba is Baby Elian, in which the singer, James Dean Bradfield, plays the acoustic guitar with great ability. The song is a dart thrown against the manipulation of consciences by a culture that, from a position of hegemony, aims to make the world a uniform place.