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Sun! Sea! Sand! Cigars!, Playlouder.com, March 2001

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SUN! Sea! Sand! Cigars! Um... socialism! You have to agree with Mr Wire, this place sure beats Kettering

Yes - we chased the Manic Street Preachers to Cuba and back, and had a simply divine time supping rum and worrying the peacocks on the Hotel Nacionale lawn, thank you very much.

It was a blast for the Manics too, of course. It's not everyday you get to make history by playing the first major rock gig in Cuba since Weather Report's still-talked-about visit in 1978, AND get to press the Castro flesh. The Havanan locals, though, were pretty dazed and confused by the capitalist circus that had rolled into their communist town.

At the Karl Marx Theatre, a 5,000-seater lecture hall built specifically for Fidel to rant in, the first few rows of kids were so nervous about the impending racket that they had their fingers stuffed in their ears before the band came on. Bless.

Watching these kids - a bizarre mixture of long-hair Castro rebels, wannabe-stoners and mulleted rock virgins - was a curious and humbling experience... enough to quiver the bottom lip and bruise the throat of many a jaded, blase, seen-it, done-it, blagged-the-T-shirt muso hack.

The rudimentary, untrained moshing and wide-eyed wonder exuding from these suntanned nippers was akin to watching your nephew or niece at their first Steps gig. But there's an added poignancy, of course, in the very real possibility that this could just as easily be their last gig, too.

Kids today - we really don't know how lucky we are, you know. Sure, the Castro administration allows music to be played. Marilyn Manson and Eminem might have a struggle on their hands, but the majority of bands could probably get past customs to shake their stuff if they asked nicely enough. It's just that the dual economy and bureaucratic nightmare of this beautiful island makes it a tough and very pricey party to crash.

Sony, having recently shelled out a small mint in settlement for the Charlotte Church management wrangle, had already had "it up to here" with their Welsh signings - and they swiftly ducked out of the Manics' pinko scheme when it was first tabled last summer. But to the band's eternal credit, they eventually got it past the suits somehow. They won't be drawn on the final tab - the Wire merely stating "a lot" - but when you consider that the whole PA and lighting rig had to be sent from Blighty on a bloody great big ship, there can't have been much change out of a couple of hundred grand.

Nicky, speaking to PlayLouder in his hotel room before the gig, confirmed that the whole deal hadn't been an easy one to put together.

"Even Sony, who don't really want anything to do with it, can see the reason behind this. I'm not going to sit here and deny that it is going to help us in terms of publicity as well, but that's only because we've got the balls to do it. Let's face it, we could have played a stadium in the UK to start everything off, made loads of money, and everything would have been hunky dory. But we could be losing a fortune. Just to get a front cover, you know?"

There's a statue to John Lennon in Havana. When somebody asked Fidel Castro why he would support one of the longhairs, he famously replied: "Because he's a revolutionary." This has Nicky roaring with laughter.

"Cool as fuck! There are a lot of people who feel quite a lot of respect for what Cuba has done. Every country has its rights and wrongs, there's no two ways about it. Human rights are sacrificed in varying forms all around the world, whether it's fucking Llanwern steelworks in Newport losing 3,000 jobs, not being able to wear a dress or whatever."

Ah yes, the dress. The Cuban Minister of Culture was shown a video of the Manic Millennium gig in Cardiff, which featured Nicky in a very fetching floral number and a LOT of eye shadow. That - surely - must have been been classed as "undesirable" by the Cuban authorities. Si?

"Maybe ten years ago," says the Wire. "They're a lot more chilled out about stuff like that now. They have a Mardi Gras. But I'm not intending to do that on this campaign anyway, so it was never really an issue."


Around the gig, the Manics spent a week on the island. They didn't get round to swimming with the dolphins, but they did get to drive around in a big old American car, and Nicky got to meet some of his Cuban boxer heroes - like Felix Savon. "A bit different from meeting Chris Smith" was the eventual verdict.

The results of the Wales-Scotland game from that weekend were phoned over to the sports-mad bass player as well. He didn't like the heat too much, but with a pool to dip into and with the whole world of anti-Americanism at his fingertips, the whole excursion was something of a dream come true for the ex-politics student from Swansea Uni.

"Some people expect us to be experts on Cuba, you know, but we're just trying to take as much in as we can. Whatever we do here we can never say we know the country. There are none of our records on sale here and there probably never will be, so it's not like some sort of evil organisation trying to get its foot in the new world economy, you know. That's never going to happen."

He added: "If you lived in America you'd think Cuba was a complete shanty town with no electricity and nothing at all. And it's not like that. Obviously, there's pockets of poverty like there are anywhere but I think generally the overall impression is of a country that's moving forward in a good way."

Been mixing it up with the locals much then?

"We did some mad radio interviews and the stuff around that was probably the most feedback we've had with people. They were just being so nice. It was very gratifying. it makes you very humble. More than anything else, they're really impressed with James' guitar playing. They really love guitars. Have you noticed all the musicians that come round the bars serenading you with guitars all the time? James keeps picking up the guitar and playing along with them. If I did that there would just be an almighty racket!"

Down to the nitty-gritty, then. This is all just a gesture isn't it?

"Yes, and it's all we can do. If people expect we're going to start a revolution in Wales by coming to Cuba, we're not. It's not about that. It is about a gesture. People can be very cynical about gestures these days. But that's why they don't occur any more because people can't be bothered. We can."

Speaking of gestures, there's the two-singles-on-one-day thing. There's the rant against Napster. Whatever next?

"Through the summer there'll be lots. We might even be busking on the streets of Swansea or something. That's the sort of thing we want to do, to be honest. Just turn up with a guitar somewhere, all those kinds of things - don't tell anyone, just do it."

Andy Barding