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Rendezvous With Our Manics In Havana - New Zealand Herald, 8th April 2001

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Title: Rendezvous With Our Manics In Havana
Publication: New Zealand Herald
Date: Sunday 8th April 2001
Writer: Stephen Dowling

James Dean Bradfield is a chain smoker in the nervous style of an out-of-his-depth 1940s private dick; he's sitting in the lamplit garden of his hotel, puffing away like smoking's about to be made illegal.

Not here it won't - the Manic Street Preachers' stocky singer is only a few hours off the stage but this time it's not one of Britain's soulless arenas: Bradfield and company are in Cuba. The Atlantic is lapping at the edge of Hotel Nacional's opulent gardens.

A few hours ago, the Manic Street Preachers became the first Western band to play Fidel Castro's tropical Communist republic since the late 1970s, the opening shot in the campaign for their sixth album, the clattering epic Know Your Enemy.

Part of the reason Bradfield is puffing away nervously is that Castro himself has invited him, bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore to lunch the next day.

Castro not only turned up at the gig but met the band beforehand. When Bradfield tried to apologise about the possible live volume, he was dismissed with "nothing can be as loud as war."

"Cool response," Bradfield smiles.

Ever since the band burst on to a stagnant British music scene in the 90s, their scattergun politicising carried cartoonish hallmarks of left-wing revolutionaries - with their combat fatigues, leopardskin coats and makeup, they were like Shining Path guerrillas sponsored by Revlon.

Many people have seen this as a cynical attention-getting ploy. Arguably, the Manics became household names in Britain only after the disappearance of guitarist Richey Edwards, the sensitive, tortured lyricist behind the band's worryingly dark 1994 album The Holy Bible.

So, no wonder some believe the Cuban expedition was an attempt to get out from under the shadow of Edwards' myth-making vanishing act. The Manics' decision to play Cuba brought as many brickbats as bouquets.

James Dean Bradfield, cigarette in hand, is ready to deal with them. "We didn't say we were coming here like revolutionary chic boys. I just ask journalists, 'Have you been to Canada?' - I've been about nine times and been pulled in by customs three times and it's been the scariest thing in my life.

"We never said this was the perfect country, it's not a perfect political agenda. But a lot of these journalists are happy going to Goa, where some of the biggest crimes under the flag of the British Empire were committed."

Bristling is something that Bradfield does well.

The accusation that Cuba was an obvious reference point for them is also met with indignation.

"Well it's so obvious that none of our peer group has done it before us, none of the groups I admired or took direct influence from when I was younger did it. Do you think it would be a lot more tasteful for us to do a gig back in Wembley Arena?"

The Manics, after all, have become the kind of group that they used to seemingly despise - a big rock band that trundles out an album every few years, hits the stadiums, and then gets back to the hard graft of being millionaires.

On the last night of 1999, 60,000 people chose to celebrate with the Manics at the new Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. After Cuba, they play the city again, but in a venue holding only 600.

The Manics, all now past 30, are looking back on their younger days, not with the faint embarrassment that other bands seem to do a decade into their career, but with a kind of longing.

Know Your Enemy resembles their first album Generation Terrorists. Although not quite a double LP, it has 17 tracks, and takes in Beach Boys wall-of-sound on Why So Sad, Stooges-like rock on Found That Soul, New Order-esque anthemic grace on Baby Elian (one of two songs specifically about Cuba) and the Studio 54 dancefloor pastiche of Miss Europa Disco Dancer. In true Manics style, it's overambitious. It is also, on occasions, brilliant.

In his latest interviews Nicky Wire has mooted the possibility of the Manics calling it a day - an idea that was never broached even after the disappearance of Edwards in 1995 and the soul-searching of the remaining trio.

There is serious discussion about a Manics best-of, one that might, Wire believes, be the perfect way to bow out.

Bradfield can't quite bring himself to talk of the end, but "we are closer to the end than we are the beginning. That's true. It's a quote that's been used before, but I don't think it is healthy for a band to be around forever. You lose the context.

"Already, it seems as if our ideals are a bit quaint. It might be endearing at the moment, but I think it might make us seem ludicrous before too long."

The Manics' aura as one of the biggest bands in Britain is undimmed, and playing Cuba (which they did out of their own pockets) is merely one of the group's other bloody-minded decisions this year.

They released singles Why So Sad and Found That Soul on the same day, but hit only No 8 and 9 in the British charts and last week Know Your Enemy failed to take the No 1 spot in the albums charts.

Music magazines such as Q and daily tabloids such as the Mirror have lined up to have a pop at their sixth-form politics and Wire trying to relive his revolutionary youth.

As has happened with every zeitgeist-defining band, the Manics' lofty status has slipped down a peg or two. At least this potential beginning of the end has brought with it one of the most talked-about gigs in rock history, a genuinely surreal cultural event.

Fidel Castro clapping away at a gig by a Welsh trio who once banned Billy Bragg from using their toilet at Glastonbury? It sure beats the Gallaghers having drinks with Tony Blair.