Flying in the face of the Stars And Stripes, the Manic Street Preachers launched their latest album with the first rock concert in two decades to be held in communist-run Cuba. The radical left-wing rockers met with cheers from Castro, writes Brian Boyd
The Manics don't want to wreck Fidel's Marxist-Leninist buzz. Our lippy Welsh trio are backstage at the bit-too-obviously named Teatro Karl Marx moments before they become the first rock band ever to play in the people's republic of Cuba. They're trying to convince olive-green-uniform-clad Castro that he probably won't enjoy the gig, what with Fidel not being much of an indie head. "It's going to be very loud," says lanky bass player Nicky Wire by way of caution. Fidel stares deep into Wire's eyes and replies "It can't be louder than war". Beautiful.
About an hour into the gig.James Dean Bradfield dons his acoustic guitar, approaches the mic and says "this next song is for Elian Gonzalez". Solo on stage, he croons his way through Baby Elian, pausing briefly before he delivers the lines "Kidnapped to the promised land/ A Bay Of Pigs for Baby Elian/ Operation Peter Pan/ America: The Devil's
Playground". Fidel is on his feet cheering. Hell, we all are. And can somebody please call The Guinness Book of Records and tell them we've got something for their "Amazing Moments In Rock 'n' Roll" category
And they just keep on kicking out the jams. A teeth-grinding version of the powerfully poetic Motorcycle Emptiness has the local kids wigging-out down the front; there's a huge barrio cheer for the opening notes of If You Tolerate
This Then Your Children Will Be Next and some cheeky smiles when Bradfield sings the line "If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists"; an impromptu singalong accompanies an oddly affecting version of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head (and how appropriate those lyrics are in a country under an illegal US economic and cultural embargo)
and then we're back in agit-prop land as the band dedicate a song to the black US communist singer, Paul Robeson. "Will we ever see the like of him again?" sings Bradfield, "Can anyone make a difference anymore? Can anyone write a protest song?"
Don't know about that, but do know protest gigs like this should be compulsory "Yeah. it is a protest gig." says James Dean Bradfield sitting down for an interview. "It's a gesture of solidarity with a country we've a lot of respect for, and it's a protest against the Americanisation of the world. Cuba is still holding out and that should be respected."
So no stunt, no gimmick? "No, the obvious thing here would be to view the whole thing as a Che Guevara student-type episode, but that's not the case with us," he says. "Anyone who is familiar with our work is familiar with our politics and speaking personally. I grew up idolising Cuban sporting heroes like the boxer Felix Savon and the
runner Alberto Juantareno, so that played a part too. We're not naive, we know what Amnesty International has to say
about the human rights abuses in Cuba. But this just seemed like the right choice. "
But with the whole Naomi Klein No Logo/anti-globalisation thing going on, do you think there's a new bandwagon in town? "Not at all. We knew what Naomi Klein is now writing about many years ago. When I was 13 I was into all that Situationist sloganeering thing. I like to think we're somehow ahead of that argument."
The decision to launch the Manics sixth album, Know Your Enemy With a gig in Havana, was taken a year ago and involved a mountain of faxes between the band's management office in London and the Ministry of Culture in Cuba. The Labour Party MP Peter Hain, a friend of the band, helped ease the passage by convincing the Cuban government that the Manics were the real deal in terms of left-wing politics and weren't jetting in for a glorified photo op. As it transpired, Havana was always up for the gig and the only worry they had, rather bizarrely, was bass player Nicky Wire's penchant for wearing dresses on stage. "What exactly do you mean when you say he wears a dress?" ran one of the faxes from the Cubans, "what significance does this have?" "Absolutely none, that's just the way our Nick is." came the reply
And always has been. When the Manics emerged from the small South Wales mining town of Blackwood at the beginning of
the they were all mascara, dresses and pose - it was all about "challenging perceived notions of masculinity and femininity" back then. Their three main musical influences were The Clash, The Clash and The Clash, and further down the list lay Sylvia Plath, Rimbaud, Camus, Philip Larkin and Nabokov. That's right, not quite Oasis "The Beatles are
Buying a bunch of furcoats and sunglasses, they arrived in London in search of a record deal and with an inkling that they wanted to change the world. Telling any journalist who would listen to their post-graduate rhetoric that they planned to be the biggest band in the world and would split up after selling 18 million copies Of their debut album, they were taken for cartoon punks. All surface and no feeling.
Slowly though the music evolved, even if at one point they were, as Elvis Costello once said Of Morrissey, in danger of having better song titles than songs. Who now remembers the early Manics ditty If White America Told The Truth For One Day Its World Would Fall Apart?
Their world fell apart when fonder member and chief ideologue, Richey Edwards, went missing on the eve a US tour in 1995. Edwards had a history or self-mutilation, various eating disorders and substance abuse problems. He is presumed dead, and the only thing Bradfield has to say about the situation is: "I just don't know about Richey. I really don't. I do wonder, though, what he would think of the band now if he were still around. There's no anger, no resentment there. I know what I feel about and Richey...and they're all good feelings.
Believed by many to be destined for footnote status in the history of the post-punk music reference book, the Manics astonished everyone but themselves by coming back, post-Richey with their biggest selling album, Everything Must Go.
The follow-up album, This Is My Truth. Me Yours(a favourite expression of the Welsh Labour MP and founder of the welfare state, Nye Bevan) while disappointing the critics ("stadium rock" was the consensus) still shifted by the million load.
And now Know Your Enemy. "I'm shitting myself," says Bradfield. "It's not just to do with coming back with the new album and having to face all the critics going 'well, This is My Truth was crap, hope this is better' but just the idea of playing in Cuba made me so nervous. Cuba's got a great musical heritage, particularly in salsa and those people can really play live. I've spent a lot of the last few weeks wondering if they would be in the audience criticising our technique."
As it happens, the Buena Vista boys are away on tour when the Manics hit town, but sitting in the audience are 6,000 Cubans (the tickets for the gig were sold at 25 pesos (about 18 pence) to ensure local access and not just the travelling world-wide fan club) who only know The Manics' music from what the Cuban version of Dave Fanning has been
playing on his show in the weeks running up to the show - Manics albums are unavailable in the country due to the embargo.
A weird mix of twin-set grannies, middle aged couples looking a bit apprehensive and. down in the mosh. the local rockers in their hopelessly out of date t-shirts (Saxon anyone?) greet James Dean Bradfield (dressed all in brown) Nicky Wire (no dress, decked nut all in white) and drummer Sean Moore (all black) when they stroll nut on the stage,
which is decked out with a massive Cuban flag backdrop. As always a space is left to the right of Bradfield for the missing Richey Edwards. The pre-gig music was a bunch of Stone Roses records, appropriate enough because The Roses were the first band to approach the Manics to support them on tour after Richey Edwards' disappearance.
The audience, more used to sexy salsa than riff-heavy rock, are with them from the start (the new single Found That Soul) and under the grinning gaze of their President, they get a bit of a mosh going for Motorcycle Emptiness. First huge cheer of the night is for the local trumpet player who the band invite on to play on Kevin Carter; second huge cheer is for Bradfield's dancing-on-one-leg-guitar solo during Masses Against The Classes and by the time they
get to Baby Elian, it's in the bag.
Obviously thrilled by the response (they were in bits backstage before they went out), the Manics do two things they've never done before - let Nicky Wire sing a song (Wattsville Blues) and play an encore - Australia. They're so into it that they even deviate from the set list and throw in one of their first ever songs, Motown Junk.
"We couldn't have expected more, this has been the best night of our careers," says Bradfield at the end and the crowd claps so loud that they even come back for another encore, a punk run through of Rock 'n' Roll Music.
At the after-show in the grandiose surrounds of the Hotel Nacional, Cuba Libres and Mojitas are the order of the night. Felix Savon and Alberto Juantareno turn up and the three Manics duly form an orderly queue to get their autographs. "This is the wrong way around," says Savon.
Amid the celebratory cacophony, a shrill American accent makes itself heard: "Great gig James, but do you think playing here will damage any chance you have of breaking the US?" (Reuters reporters, they get everywhere). Without missing a beat, Bradfield turns, raises his glass Of Cuba Libre and says "I certainly hope so".