Archive for February, 2001

Tuesday, February 13th, 2001

Cuba, The Manics And Rock Music


Cuba, The Manics And Rock Music

(This piece, considered and balanced, appeared in NME in February 2001, when the Manics visited Cuba. I append it with a rather more satirical view I took in the funny pages a week later . . . )

So, Manic Street Preachers are to breach one of the last territories forbidden to rock’n’roll and play Cuba. Nicky Wire admits that it could be “a disaster – there might be no PA.” but states that the band are making this journey in a spirit of “adventure” and to defy the usual cliches of the rock comeback. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis concentrated the minds of the US folk-rock protest movement (Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan), Cuban has exerted a magentic pull on rock music – whether it be the ardent politics of The Clash, on ”Washington Bullets’ from Sandinista! Havana for the playboys in the Cuban sun/For Castro is a colour, redder than red/Those Washington Bullets want Castro dead.” or the more superficial vogue for Cuban heels or musical salsa trappings (very popular in the cocktail-swigging early Eighties), or the radical chic of bands ranging from Rage Against The Machine to The Go -Betweens, posing in front of images of the late revolutionary icon Che Guevara. However, The Manics have gone a step further than their radical forbears in actually setting foot on the much-idealised Communist Caribbean island and playing there.

The relationship between rock’n’roll and the impassioned iconography of the Cuban revolution, however, has always been ambivalent. One appeal of Cuba is that, despite its perilous proximity to America, despite the supposed end of the Cold War and collapse of its Soviet patrons, its “revolution” has held, as personified in its ageing but defiant leader Fidel Castro. Here was a man who bought a rickety 50 foot yacht, and, gathering together a handful of rebels, made the journey from Mexico to Cuba to raise a guerrilla revolt against that country’s odious President Batista.

In the Fifties, Cuba was a playground for the American decadent elite, a paradise of Salsa, sun, sea, Bacardi and betting, a high life for lowlives. It was a haven for the Mafia, a hangout for Frank Sinatra and his ratpack boys, a Cuba Libre immortalised in movies like Guys And Dolls and later, The Godfather II. Castro, however, routed the venal regime in 1959 and swiftly ejected such Capitalist stalwarts as the Bacardi family, nationalising American business concerns, erasing the carnival colours of the old regime to the drab uniform olive of the new.

The Americans were enraged but ineffectual. Ineptly advised by the CIA, President Kennedy launched a bungled counter-revolutionary offensive on the Bay Of Pigs in 1961 which was easily squashed by Castro. It was this failure which prompted Russian leader Kruschev to attempt to install nuclear missile bases in Cuba. The crisis which followed almost led to World War III, as Kruschev sent ships to Cuba containing arms supplies and Kennedy moved to blockade the island. After seven excruciatingly tense days, Kruschev finally blinked and called back his ships – catastrophe was averted but Castro was still in place.

Further plans to rout Castro included a preposterous one to slip him a poisoned cigar, though long-term trade embargoes have been the main weapon used against the country these past four decades. Nonetheless, Castro survives, still delivering long and windy raspberries to Uncle Sam from his perch across the 160 km of water that separate him from the States. To rock’s left-field, from The Clash to Rage Against The Machine, from Primal Scream to The Manics (whose single, ‘Masses Against The Classes’ featured the Cuban flag on its sleeve), America is the author of all global evil, the enemy of international socialism. Cuba’s continued defiance, coupled, ironically, with the leftover aroma of Latino decadence Castro hasn’t yet expunged, makes the country, in Nicky Wire’s words, “one of the last symbols that really fights against the Americanisation of the world.”

All well and good, all very Fuck You G.I. However, there are clear contradictions when trying to reconcile this ardent socialist ethos with rock’n’roll which is, after all, as Simon Frith put it, essentially about “fascination with America.” There is little or no contemporary rock from The Beatles onwards that doesn’t owe its origin to Motown, Elvis, Buddy Holly and rock dreamers still dream of America – The Primals themselves used the Confederate flag on a sleeve during their “Rocks Off” Period, U2 combine ten gallon hats and shades, even rabid Anglophiles Blur eventually submitted to a Seattle-style slacker sound. Castro instinctively knew that rock music is fundamentally as insidiously American as McDonalds, which is why he instigated a clampdown against rock music in revolutionary Cuba. The Beatles in particular were severely repressed, their music condemned as “ideological diversionism”. Anyone caught in possession of a Fab Four record could expect to receive at least a lump on the head in the Sixties.

To make a reality of the revolution, Castro felt it his joyless task to suppress the natural passion of his countrymen for music and hedonism. Even visitor Jean Paul Sartre, cerebral French leftie and Castro sympatico, couldn’t suppress a sigh of dismay that victory had been won at the expense of “gaiety” in the country. There would be little gaiety of any sort tolerated in Cuba. Castro’s loathing of homosexuals is lifelong and, in a 1980 incident which inspired the remake of Scarface, he banished homosexuals, alongside criminals and other deviant elements deemed out of kilter with the revolution, dispatching them by leaky boats to Miami.

While Western rock bands like The Clash longed for the Cuban idyll, professing themselves bored with the USA, one has to spare a thought for the poor fuckers actually forced to live out this experiment in makeshift socialism. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, more and more young people became roqueros (rock fans), illicitly importing the trappings of punk, Goth, hippiedom, their sense of being misfits far more urgently felt than their Western brat counterparts. The culmination of this came in the Nineties, as documented by film maker Vladimir Ceballos, who tells the astounding, harrowing tale of rock fans deliberately injecting themselves with the HIV virus, rather than endure a long life in Castro’s regime. (In a further twist, they also wished to enjoy the relatively comfortable facilities enjoyed by HIV sufferers, a backhanded tribute to Cuba’s social planning).

And so, when Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream shook his maracas onstage during their Vanishing Point period (1997) and looked up longingly at a backdrop of Che Guevara, shouting “Sayonora!” in tribute, you can’t help thinking what his fate might have been if he’d been born in Havana. Chances are, he’d have been out on the first boat to Miami in 1980.

In fairness, most left-field rockers are not unaware of these contradictions. There are few toe-curling paeans to dear old Fidel in the rock canon. However, when it comes to Che Guevara, whom Fidel appointed Commandante of the Revolutionary Army, it’s a different matter. Whereas Castro is an Eric Clapton, long since fossilised, there merely to cultivate a grizzly beard, guilty of all manner of dubious career-serving atrocities, Guevara is the revolution’s Hendrix, a beautiful icon of youthful idealism, a forever frozen image of romantic tragedy, the dreamer of an impossible dream. Spectular failure of the sort Che eventually suffered, rather than the grey squalor of pragmatic “success” is far more rock’n’roll.

Argentinian born, Guevara enjoyed a wayward, Kerouac-style existence before joining up with Castro, travelling across South America by motorcycle. However, fired up by the revolution and infatuated with Fidel, he embodied the spirit of the revolution, suppressing his own ill-health, Bohemian proclivities and even natural human sympathies for the sake of the Cause. He could be unbelievably cold-hearted and had many men executed without fair trial. He was also driven by a dream of unity and egalitarianism. Castro knew he had a firebrand on his hands and, while he preferred such a comrade at arm’s length for domestic political purposes, was disinclined to do away with him, the way Stalin did with his former ideological comrade Trotsky, assassinated with an ice-pick in Mexico.

Guevara was dispatched on numerous international errands; he went to ostensibly Socialist states such as India, China and The Soviet Union and in each case was disillusioned by the gap between ideal and reality. However, such disillusion only inflamed his visions of world socialism. He travelled to the African Congo to aid the rebels there but was again disappointed by the tribal infighting he encountered.

By now, Guevera had selflessly abandoned a safe political career in the cause of international Socialist guerilla warfare. Sponsored by Castro, he led a final rebel expedition into the Bolivian jungle, but was defeated, betrayed by everyone from the local peasants to the CIA and, in 1967, executed by the Bolivian militar. “Victory or death”, had been Guevara’s rallying cry – yet it was in death that he attained his ultimate victory. An Italian publisher named Feltrinelli obtained a striking photo of Guevara in Havana from a young photographer, Korda, in which Guevara, long-haired, high-cheekboned, seems to stare longingly at some radical Utopia glowing beyond the foothills of guerilla combat. (Actually, he was probably just startled by the camera). Korda, poor lad, handed Feltrinelli the pic for free, since he was a “friend of the revolution”. Feltrinelli, who sensed Guevara’s posthumous potential as a symbol of struggle, had posters of the revolutionary drawn up, which, in that era of counter-cultural insurgence against Vietnam, racism, US imperialism, etc, became an instant best-seller (in six months it sold 2 million copies), a permanent fixture on every student wall and in rock iconography.

It was Phil Ochs, a folk contemporary of Bob Dylan’s, who first said that the ideal rock band should be a cross between Elvis Presley and Che Guevara and since his death, he has become a touchstone for rock’n’roll radicalism. Rage Against The Machine coupled their own logo with his image on their most famous t-shirt – they more than anyone have invoked his image, in their kamikaze, often clumsy and derided and ultimately, doomed and contradictory assault on US imperialism.

What Guevara would have made of his rock’n’roll status we shall never know. His iconic influence endures, however – Mick Jagger plans to executive-produce a biopic of the man, perhaps starring Antonio Banderas, exploring his relationship with an East German female agent in the Bolivian jungle. Meanwhile, Che’s image is used nowadays to sell everything from beer to Swiss Watches. (Everything but rock’n’roll is ‘the new rock’n’roll’ nowadays). As the Manics enter Cuba, however, some things have changed. There is some sanctioned rock music – a Cubarock festival now takes place, while Rage Against The Blockade were invited by the Union of Young Communists to bring over a sound system for the dance-starved youth. And recently, Castro himself endorsed a statue and park commemorating John Lennon of the once-despised Beatles, hailing him as a “true revolutionary”.

That said, they’re entering a country whose people are thoroughly pissed off, where doctors are forced to take jobs as cabbies to supplement their living, where the material comforts of the evil West that make life worth living are a short but tantalising distance away. They don’t give a shit about Guevara. They hate Castro. They want to have fun. And, if they weren’t in danger of being drowned by Castro’s coastguards, they’d be out of there. By all accounts, the Manics were greeted ecstatically, both by Castro himself and by the Cuban rock fans, many of whom were wearing heavy metal t-shirts, whom he for so long attempted to repress. A blast of guitars, some shouting in a foreign language, tributes to a local boxer and Baby Elian, everybody happy. But you have to wonder if everyone caught the full nuances and irony of the situation.

Do the Cuban youth really approve of The Manics’ somewhat misty-eyed reverence for Castro (“meeting him was the greatest honour of our lives”) and their unqualified view of the revolution, which is pleasing to their own, peculiarly austere aesthetic but less so to most rock tastes? Maybe they arrived at the right time, catching a relaxed, post-Elian mood of universal patriotism. Or maybe it’s churlish to point up these contradictions amid the general euphoria of the occasion. At least, like Che Guevera, the Manics entered jungles of potential uncertainty and had a go for that, at least, one, maybe two cheers.

MANICS MEET CASTRO – The Uncut Version

In exchange for three pairs of faded jeans and a set of Bazooka Joe cards, we managed to get its hands on unbroadcast segments of the meeting between Fidel Castro and Manic Street Preachers from the Cuban authorities.

(Scene: El Presidente’s Quarters)

SEAN (quietly, to JAMES): I’m starved, me. I couldn’t eat that breakfast. Looked like some old cigar ends covered in pasteurized milk, it did.

JAMES: I know. (Looks on table) Bloody hell, no biscuits.

NICKY: Shut up, you two! This is the greatest honour of our lives, this!

CASTRO (entering, with entourage): Ah! El Manico! You make boom boom music, yes! Ha ha! Ringo Starr! Aha!

NICKY: It’s an – honour to meet you, sir. Vive Les – er – workers. Che Guevara!

CASTRO: Ah! Yes! Very good. You are English student, yes?

NICKY (indignantly): English?? Student? But I hate . . I mean . . .

CASTRO: Yes, of course you are English student. El Che! Good! Ringo Starr! Haha!

NICKY: Haha . . . it is good to be in your country.

CASTRO: Is it? What you like best, eh, my gringo English student friend, the poverty, the food shortage, the non-existent plumbing, or zer collapsing infrastructure? Ha ha! You are funny guys! I bet you cannot wait to get back to your Piccadilly Circus with the flash lights, jiggling girls and boom-boom music, hot dog! Hahahaha!

NICKY: No! Not at all. The struggle continues!

CASTRO: Does it? Not for me it doesn’t. I won! And I have been sitting here for 42 years taking it easy smoking many big cigars and telling your Yankee friends to kiss my big rump and eat my farts! Of course, for the people it is different, it is how you say, shit! But too bad, that is revolucion. Good for Fidel! Many cigars!

SEAN (hissing to JAMES): You ask.

JAMES: No, you ask him!

SEAN: But you’re lead singer.

JAMES: All right: Er . . . Presidente? Mr Castrol? Er . . . we were wondering – do you have any . . . er – pies?


JAMES: No. Pies. Y’know. Grub. Food. Anything, really. See, we – er – missed breakfast and –

NICKY: James! Bloody hell!

CASTRO: What are these ‘pies’ you speak of?

SEAN: Oh, y’know – steak and kidney, pork, pasties, we’re not fussed.

CASTRO: Ah! Pies! Like your Desperate Dan and his Cow Pies! Hahaha!

JAMES: One of them’d go down a treat, like.

CASTRO: Excellent! (Claps hand) Dominguez! Have the men slaughter the regimental goat! There will be enough for many pies for our excellent English friends! Ringo Starr! Hahaha!

NICKY: Oh but really, Presidente, you shouldn’t . . . (glowers at JAMES)

CASTRO: And you, my tall friend, you have no request of Fidel?

NICKY: Eh? Oh. Well, er . . .actually, there was one thing.

CASTRO: Speak up, Englishman!

NICKY: Well, er – I was wondering – see, I’ve run a bit short of mascara. Left some on the hotel balcony and it melted. I was wondering if . . . maybe Mrs Castro’s got some going spare, she could see her way to . . .

CASTRO: MASCARA! MAKE-UP?? El Presidente thought El Manico were men – not women who cry of mascara! Out! Out of my sight each and all of you!

NICKY: But Mr Castro, I . . .


SEAN: Er – Mr Fidel – could you have the pies sent on to our hotel rooms? I’m in 303, James is in 304 and . . . . (exit MANICS at gunpoint) . . .

Thursday, February 1st, 2001

Best Singles 1976-2000

(This is the intro to a list I compiled of the best singles since the advent of punk and disco for Uncut – it appeared in February 2001, prior, I should point out, to the publication of Garry Mulholland’s This Is Uncool, which, coincidentally, covers similar terrain)

Back in 1976, almost a quarter of a century after they first started printing the singles charts, the NME polled its readers to determine the 100 greatest 45 rpms of all time. When the votes, dimpled or otherwise, were finally cast, the candidates were duly sifted and the result solemnly declared. And the winner was: “Layla”, by Derek And The Dominoes.

The list as a whole reflected the prejudices of its day – “serious” music was white, guitar-oriented, technically proficient and preferably bearded. Punk, just then coming round the mountain to blast away this complacency like dandruff, couldn’t arrive quickly enough. The NME’s list not only highlights the danger inherent in such exercises of looking extremely silly to posterity but also indicates the extraordinary changes wrought in music over the past quarter of a century.

Punk’s arrival in 1976/77 created a schism in rock history whose impact was barely recognised even as it happened. Whether it was a roar of working class (or should that be art school?) discontent, a Situationist prank with surprisingly long-lasting implications, a “back to basics” after the excessive colonic investigations of prog-rock, the cultural product of a profound sense of boredom, alienation and economic gloom in British society, it transformed everything.

Its simple proposition that “anyone can do it” meant that music was no longer about proficiency but about ideas. All channels were now open – post-modern irony, feminism, agit-pop, multiculturalism, all came bustling through the door, throwing up all kinds of unlikely musical permutations.

1977, however, would be pivotal for another reason – the electrification of dance music. Donna Summer’s brilliant “I Feel Love” introduced the sequencer to disco, while Kraftwerk’s electronic epic 12-inch “Trans-Europe Express” would trigger off an electric storm of chain reactions that would impact on everyone from Bowie to Bambaata.

Just about every great single of the past 25 years has been determined by these two revolutionary occurrences. Punk and electronica have made a melting pot of rock culture, breeding supersonic hybrids, feeding off each other, synthesising, colliding and mutating. Which is where this list comes in – a much-needed celebration of our own, incendiary era. Because in spite of the increasing prevalence of All-Time 100 lists of this type, most of them repeat the same old subtext – that we should cringe in shame and awe at the Grand Old Masters of yesteryear, the Soul Legends, the Rock Behemoths. Hence, an anthology of Beatles singles duly ascends to Number One, a reminder of the days of “Proper” music. This point is irradiated into our psyches by adverts, film and TV soundtracks, all of which are crammed with “classic” retro-pop – and a general culture of retro-chic that reminds us that such “class” ceased to be issued in music after about 1968.

In short, this generation is labouring under an unwarranted musical inferiority complex. Not to denigrate the old masters, or indeed negate the formidable argument put forward in some quarters (including our own Ian MacDonald) that analogue recording methods in the Sixties enabled the singles of those time to “breathe” in the way they no longer can in this digital era. Only a crazed Philistine would argue against the immortality, the unreachable uniqueness of great Sixties music. But since 1976, the emancipating opportunities of new technology, the increasingly rich heritage of past music to feast upon and fuck around with, the continuing loosening and liberalisation of cultural attitudes, and the overall expansion of the universe of ideas and sounds has enabled post-punk generations to produce work which frankly would have done the heads in of the Old Masters, had them curse the mono limitations of their era.

Trouble is, modern music has been the victim of its own staggering eclecticism. The dreary retro-chic of the mid-Nineties was almost a subconscious response to the sheer mass and technoid sampladelic diversity of these sonic times. Too much, the public seemed to say a few years back. “We” just want a common talking point, like in the good old days when it was just The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and “we” all knew where “we” stood. Hence the worst excesses of Britpop (Oasis’s “Wonderwall”) culminating in the timid AOR tunesmithery of the likes of Travis, a return to an agreed-upon sensibleness and again, reflecting a pining for some Tory musical notion of the “classical”, reducing rock from a convulsive, revolutionary plastic art to a cottage craft.

If the singles charts today seem devoid of quality, then it’s not due to a “dearth” of new ideas but, in a complex way, to a surfeit of them which resulted in a relapse into conservatism. Which means practically the only left field incursion into the charts you’ll get nowadays, from all the bubbling babble of possible contenders, is the plodding, emotional sobriety of Coldplay’s “Trouble”, a single guided to pre-eminence by a conspiracy of marketers and Radio 1 playlisters who decided there should be “at least one indie-style” band broken into the charts this year.

And there’s your second problem – the Pyhrric triumph of the science of marketing, into which so much “creative” energy is channelled nowadays. Such wasn’t the case in the immediate aftermath of punk. Then, as Jon Savage put it, “a door opened – briefly.” Record companies, ensure of what the hell was flying around in the air, adopted an “Oh well, I expect you know what you’re doing” attitude towards new acts, an attitude which has always proven fertile in the art v commerce stakes. The single, previously scorned by the likes of Zeppelin, Genesis and Floyd, came into its own. The Buzzcocks, Costello, XTC, Siouxsie, all stormed the ramparts.

And there was a sense of a storm too – you could see the fear in Noel Edmonds’ eyes as he affected a glazed look of forced jollity at these Visigoth-like gatecrashers on TOTP. This was to say nothing of those – and younger readers may find this concept hard to grasp – like Magazine, The Clash and The Gang Of Four who, though offered the chance, refused to go on TOTP simply because it ran counter to their principles and they thought it was shit.

Then came the great wave of avant-Pop in the early Eighties, from ABC to Adam to Simple Minds to The Associates, once-and-forever punks now working in primary colours but informed by a romantic excitement that pop music could be more than just wallpaper but somehow a collective revelation, culminating in the glory that was Frankie. More prosaic but equally vital was the 2-Tone surge, headed by The Specials and Madness, three-minute black and white studies in social realism.

Economic boom years tend to be indifferent pop years and so it proved in the mid-to- late Eighties before the recession-hit early Nineties brought a new crop of disaffected insurgents over the wall – Happy Mondays, The Primals and Stone Roses, ripped to the tits on punk, rave and acid, as well as the likes of Suede, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Manics, Dinosaur Jr and Radiohead, each in their own way beneficiaries of the reinvention and resurgence of rock in the late Eighties.

Later came Britpop, with its occasional moments of nation-uniting magnificence such as Pulp’s “Common People”. But this list isn’t merely about the crossover successes. Many of the singles listed here didn’t even chart but rocked the world at a deeper, more seismic level nonetheless, in terms of their power and influence and later reputation – Pere Ubu, Wire, The Fall. Primal Scream’s “Higher And The Sun” failed to breach the top 30 in 1991 but who now remembers the sort of fluff that kept it bay that week – Chesney Hawkes, Beverley Craven, Omar, Sonia, Driza Bone? So what? Even New Order’s “Blue Monday” never made it to the “coveted” Number One spot yet it was the best-selling 12-inch of all time in the long term.

This list is about records that rocked the world not those that popped the world. It is sternly anti-kitsch – no Bee Gees, no Abba, no Duran, no Spice Girls, no George Michael, no Madonna even – and certainly none of that big, boisterous blank Robbie Williams. Drawn as we all increasingly are into the spectacle and gawping vortex of celebrity, you almost have to snap your fingers to remind yourself that for all their zillions, people like Williams Are Not Actually Happening, that their historical impact is, like that of The Osmonds, nil.

This list is about what Did Happen – from the Saints right through the Eminem, the music that left scorch marks, is still smouldering. This is the music that is in danger of being written out of those potted TV retro-histories of pop, in which the Seventies mean Elton John and Queen, the Eighties Live Aid and the Nineties more Elton John and Queen. Of course, as you scan the list you’ll soon be scribbling furiously in the margins the platters we have overlooked here in our high-handed gormlessness. (Wot, no Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash? No Afghan Whigs’ “Uptown Avondale”? No Village People’s “YMCA?”). Scribble hard – but regard this list as the possible tip of an undoubted iceberg.This is the music of our very own, very recent times and it is Gigantic.