"If you want to meet someone, you must come with me now...." Ominous words, mysterious and unexpected, but the Manic Street Preachers understood their meaning. The band was in Havana, just 20 minutes away from showtime in front of a crowd of 5,000, and this junior cultural minister was leading the British rock trio to an unscheduled meeting with Fidel Castro. Right now.
In moments they were in a quiet room with the bearded old man in the green fatigues, engaging the Cuban president in a little chitchat before the gig, trading light comments about their trip, their music, their song "Baby Elian." Then the Street Preachers suggested Castro wear earplugs during the night's concert at the Karl Marx Theatre.
"Do not worry," Castro replied. "You could never be louder than war."
This six-day visit to Cuba wasn't the usual trip to promote a new pop album. There were no record company parties waiting for them, no handshakes and photo ops with the local radio DJs. Just the locals and about 70 UK journalists and fans shipped in for the show. The Manic Street Preachers also knew the February 2001 trip could alienate some of the mainstream pop listeners drawn to the recent albums Everything Must Go and This is My Truth. But political content has always had a place in the band's repertoire. The new Know Your Enemy is no different.
While continuing to expand on their early punk sound with such embellishments as strings, horns and rich pop melodies, the Street Preachers celebrate African-American entertainer Paul Robeson in "Let Robeson Sing" and take a critical view of America's handling of the Elian Gonzales international custody battle in Florida on "Baby Elian." The political content has its roots in the year-long miner's strike in the mid-'80s, which profoundly affected the band's home country of Wales.
Singer-guitarist James Dean Bradfield still remembers the protest marches outside his house, and giving food to families affected by the strike. "You can either ignore it or it will have a massive influence on you," says Bradfield. "That's why there's always been those things in our lyrics, because it was indelibly scarred on us. We were amidst all that political turmoil right in the middle of our community. Those things shaped us. It woke us up when we were turning into teenagers."
A compelling blend of noise and polish, the new album offers far more than politics. Bradfield, bassist-lyricist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore recorded 26 new songs during typically prolific sessions in Wales and Spain last year. The final 16 chosen for Know Your Enemy, the band's sixth album, begins with the explosive "Found That Soul" and "Ocean Spray" — a two-song eruption not unlike the frantic, euphoric opening of Blur's 1997 self-titled album.
"Ocean Spray" also marks Bradfield's first time as a lyricist, inspired by the death of his mother two years ago. The title refers to the cranberry juice his mother drank in her final days. Moore plays a trumpet solo. "I like performing the song. It means that when I'm on tour those three minutes at least are completely about my mother," Bradfield says. "I kind of like that. I find it consoling."
The band's growing musical sophistication has touched a nerve in pop listeners across the UK and Europe. But as their popularity has only increased there, the Street Preachers' low profile in the United States seems more profound by comparison.
"It kind of confuses me, because we've taken a lot of inspiration - whether it be positive or negative - from America, and we've never made a connection there whatsoever," Bradfield says. "So, as I'm forced to admit for the first time in 12 years, I'm a bit sad about it."
It's something the Manics have grown used to, ever since first arriving in the US in 1991 to mostly positive reviews but few sales. The band had some momentum in 1995 with its Holy Bible album and an impending US tour with Sponge. Then guitarist Richey James disappeared from his London hotel room and was never seen again. A subsequent high-profile tour scheduled with Oasis was cancelled as a result of yet another feud between that band's Gallagher brothers.
"Perhaps that was another sign that it wasn't to be," says Bradfield.
Not that the band is likely to give up on America anytime soon. Bradfield expects to begin a US tour by the end of the year, after spending this summer playing the various European festivals. The surviving three Street Preachers grew up together, went to the same school, played on same soccer teams. It's a relationship that will continue.
"It's made it easier to not be fed up with each other," Bradfield says. "Some bands - after being on tour for a year and a half - have no inclination to speak or be with each other. We're a bit different. Once we finish a tour we take a break and actually like the idea of working together again. The fact that we were all best friends before we were in a band has helped."