The Manic Street Preachers have always been masters of self-publicity, but with their new album, Know Your Enemy, they have a product to back up the hype
If the Manic Street Preachers learnt anything from punk rock, it was how to provoke. When the band emerged from Wales in 1991, they knew that their music alone would not get them noticed, so they dressed in outrageous street chic and wore too much of their mums’ black eyeliner. Like the Sex Pistols, they spouted an anti-establishment manifesto (the early single Repeat boasted the line, “Repeat after me, f Queen and country”). They even claimed that they would split up after their debut album, Generation Terrorists, which they said would sell 16 million copies. A decade on, the Manic Street Preachers remain Britrock’s best self-publicists. In February the band launched their sixth album, Know Your Enemy (see review, page 13), with a gig in Cuba, at which the country’s leader, Fidel Castro, was guest of honour (see Our Manics in Havana, Channel 4, Mar 24, 11.30pm). The Manics’ bassist, Nicky Wire, went on television to express his admiration for Cuba’s fight for independence, while on stage the singer James Dean Bradfield performed a solo acoustic version of their new song Baby Elian, an ode to Elián Gonzalez, the Cuban boy at the centre of a tug-of-war with the Cuban American community in Miami last year.
The gig attracted worldwide media attention and also reinforced the band’s anti-establishment credentials, somewhat lost after their bloated album, This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours (1998), had turned them into a mainstream rock act. However, in Cuba Bradfield voiced his concern at the band’s latest bid for attention.
“We’ll get good publicity from the gig and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But I’m a bit wary of the juxtaposition of us and Revolutionary Square. I remember seeing the Clash photographed at the barricades in Belfast.”
Nevertheless, back home, the Manic Street Preachers were at it again. Rather than release one single from the new album, they put out two - So Why So Sad and Found That Soul - on the same day. The reason, they claimed, was to show two different sides of Know Your Enemy. Nonsense. Lots of artists skip between musical styles, yet none feels the need to release simultaneous singles.
Know Your Enemy, however, is good enough not to need such calculated hype. Recorded in Spain over just six weeks last summer, it sees the lyricist Wire try to capture some of Richey Edwards’s angry, political edge. (It was when Edwards, their former lyricist and guitarist, mysteriously disappeared on February 1, 1995, that the band began to mellow out, much to the dismay of their early fans.) There are digs at Marilyn Manson and Brian Molko and songs about consumerism, Blair’s Britain and bad television. Bradfield even writes his first lyrics on Ocean Spray, a song about his mother, who died from cancer in 1999.
Musically too, Know Your Enemy is the Manics’ most adventurous album in years. There are shades of both the Beach Boys and Nirvana, some punk rock and pure pop and even blasts of funk and disco, courtesy of the Irish DJ David Holmes and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. It won’t sell as well as their double Brit award winner This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours (which was conceived mainly to break the band in America, but failed when its release there was delayed for almost a year), but the Manics don’t seem to mind. Bradfield says he is now bored with playing that album live, while the more outspoken Wire has called the album “a cataclysmic disaster” and said that he wished it was “one of those things we could write off”. What the Manics don’t mention, of course, is that This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours made them enough money to retire. With all of the band having just passed 30, they have probably given up hope of breaking into the American market and decided to have some fun. The band can talk about honesty and socialism all they want, but, as Wire has admitted, you can bet that they prefer playing in front of Castro or selling out Brixton Academy in London to opening a tour at Kettering Leisure Centre.
Manic Street Preachers play the Apollo, Manchester, Mar 27 & 28; Brixton Academy, London SW9, Mar 30 & 31; and Barrowland, Glasgow, Apr 2 & 3