By the end of the nineties it seemed that the Manic Street Preachers finally had the world in its hand. Having spent the better part of a decade antagonising the press, the band had finally found commercial acceptance in 1996 with their Britpop anthem A Design for Life, yet this would pale in comparison to the number one hit If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next and their legendary Millennium show. In just a few short years they had transcended from arrogant outcasts to mainstream darlings with two multi-platinum-selling albums and now as a new era dawned the Manics faced the impossible task of following the unanimous acclaim of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours with an album that would eclipse the success of its predecessors. For a group that had always set the bar higher than they were able to reach, having promised to release one album that sold sixteen million before self-destructing in spectacular fashion, following on from such a phenomenal achievement proved to be a burden they had little interest in entertaining.
In truth the Manic Street Preachers had begun to feel like they had somehow lost their way. They had always despised mainstream artists that offered safe, radio-friendly hits to the masses, but since their reinvention in the mid-nineties they had unwittingly allowed themselves to be transformed into a corporate act. And the lack of angst or sincerity on display in their latest offering had left the threesome barely able to recognise the superstars that they had become. ‘We always wanted success from the start but it gets to the point of saturation, where you get caught in such a bubble and people keep telling you you’re great all the time; sometimes you’re not,’ explained frontman James Dean Bradfield. ‘Playing in Cardiff for the Millennium show, it was our hometown, our country, sixty-thousand people. You realise it’s not going to get any bigger or better than that, it’s time to go a different way. That was the peak. There’s no point chasing that again.’
With the decade having come to an end with the most successful show of their career, the Manic Street Preachers now faced the task of rediscovering the band they used to be and so opted to turn their back on the commercial pop rock sound of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours and once again embrace their punk roots. While the media began to speculate whether the show had been intended as a farewell to their fans, they returned to the studio with producer Dave Eringa to record three new tracks that they intended to issue as a limited edition single. Deleted on the day of release, the publicity that surrounded The Masses Against the Classes succeeded in bringing the Manics their second number one hit. ‘I sometimes feel that as you get older, you should strive to get into other things. But sometimes you’ve just got to go back to your roots,’ declared bassist Nicky Wire, while elsewhere he stated, ‘We had a ball making it. It was like a riot in the studio.’
Feeling re-energised with a song that hearkened back to the days of their angst-fuelled debut, at the dawn of the new Millennium the Manic Street Preachers decided that the overproduced and disciplined approach that they had taken on their last album was an ill-advised attempt to be accepted and so opted to move forward employing a similar mind-set that they had employed a decade earlier. The decision to distance themselves from their corporate offering by rediscovering their inner rage would somewhat echo the creation of 1994’s seminal classic The Holy Bible, the band’s unflinching reaction to their polished sophomore release Gold Against the Soul, an album that many felt betrayed their anti-establishment ethos. And now, barely half a decade later, they once again found that they had ventured too far into mainstream acceptance and so a statement as bold and unapologetic as The Holy Bible was the only way they could claw back some credibility. But that album had been recorded at a point when they were close to self-destruction and with each member having since found a certain amount of peace in their personal lives, the anger and frustration that had driven their nihilist masterpiece had now been replaced with disillusionment at their own vanity and lust for fame and fortune.
As with the two previous albums, the lyrics for what would become Know Your Enemy, their sixth record in less than ten years, would come from the mind of Wire, while the music was once again composed by Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore. This time, however, the band decided to take a new approach to songwriting by developing only a handful of songs at a time which they would follow through to completion, before returning to the drawing board to write another batch. And unlike the impeccably arranged material on This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, this time the Manics decided to forgo the usual rehearsal sessions and make their way to the studio with little preparation, guided instead by a naïve spontaneity and renewed passion to create raw, uncompromised music. ‘The premise was set we wouldn’t rehearse the songs, so when we started in the studio that was the first time we played the songs,’ revealed Bradfield to NME. ‘So there are songs on the album which haven’t been rehearsed and there are songs on the album which have only been played about four times.’
While the Manics had previously avoided recording in picturesque or luxurious surroundings, following the experience in making Gold Against the Soul, for the sessions that would take place for Know Your Enemy the band relocated to El Cortijo, a beautiful estate located among the hills of Puerto Banús in southern Spain. A facility recently populated by the likes of INXS, Björk and Ash, the band was surrounded by such relaxing distractions as a swimming pool. Although they had found themselves far from home, the producer selected to oversee the sessions was a familiar face, one that had helped to develop their sound during the early years. Dave Eringa had first crossed paths with the Manic Street Preachers a decade earlier during the band’s brief tenure with Heavenly Recordings, assisting producer Robin Evans on the recording of 1991’s Motown Junk and You Love Us. Following this experience, the Manics had lobbied for Eringa, then an inexperienced producer, to helm the sessions for Gold Against the Soul.
‘Know Your Enemy was a time of transition for the band, I think they were reacting to this big success they had. They felt they may have lost touch with their indie credentials and roots,’ recalled Eringa who, since the experience of working with the Manics on their second album, had offered his production talents on both of their number one hits. ‘So they were forcing themselves into production decisions that maybe, with retrospect, we would have done differently. Maybe we should have waited for ‘the single’ to come along. I often ruefully think, ‘What if they’d released Send Away the Tigers after This Is My Truth? What would have happened?’’ And while 2007’s Send Away the Tigers would mark the commercial rebirth of the Manics, when the band ventured to Spain in the summer of 2000 they had little interest in chart positions and record sales, instead focused on recapturing their lost youth.
As with their previous work, the songs that would make up Know Your Enemy were overtly political and at times deeply personal, referencing various famous figures and events that had taken place during the latter half of the Twentieth Century. The album’s highlight, Let Robeson Sing, documented the harassment and condemnation of African American musician and actor Paul Robeson at the hands of both the FBI and CIA. A noted activist for civil rights and a sympathiser of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, Robeson was accused of communism and was subsequently blacklisted by the American entertainment industry. The song, with lyrics once again written by Wire, charted the government’s attempts to withhold Robeson’s passport to keep him from travelling to Britain and the Soviet Union and his poor treatment by the media during the McCarthy era.
Travel the world reminding people of United States-style segregation
‘The determination of the State Department to keep Robeson in the United States, denying him an international stage on which to express his views, came out, as we have seen, through the hearings and court cases brought by Robeson,’ detailed author Jordan Goodman in his biography Paul Robeson: A Watched Man. ‘In public statements, the department never said anything more than allowing Robeson to travel would not be in the country’s best interest. In the hearing, however, it emerged that the State Department considered Robeson a ‘political meddler’ and did not want him to travel the world reminding people of United States-style segregation, lynching, Jim Crow laws, poverty and social injustice.’ Eventually retiring from the world of both entertainment and activism, Robeson withdrew from the public and following a decline in health, he passed away in January 1976 at the age of seventy-seven.
Another song that was a statement on a highly publicised trial that took place on American soil was Baby Elián. Barely six months before recording had commenced on Know Your Enemy, a young boy called Elián Gonzalez was discovered off the coast of Florida, having survived a dangerous boat ride from Cuba that had claimed the lives of his mother and several other passengers. While he was eventually released into the custody of his family, Gonzalez’s father in Cuba had been unaware that his son had been taken without his permission and insisted that the child be returned to his own country. The following summer, as the Manics arrived in Puerto Banús, the American courts decided in favour of the father. ‘Elián Gonzalez, the six-year-old boy found off the Florida coast last Thanksgiving Day, returned to Cuba last night after the Supreme Court rejected an emergency request from the child’s relatives in Miami to keep him in the country,’ revealed the New York Times in their 29 June 2000 edition. ‘It was the proper legal conclusions to a bitter family dispute that dragged on for months and drew international attention.’
While both Let Robeson Sing and Baby Elián were savage criticisms of the American government, the most personal song to emerge from the sessions would mark the lyrical debut of Bradfield. The previous year the frontman had watched as his mother lost her seven-year battle to cancer and his tribute to her memory – featuring drummer and cousin Moore on trumpet – would be Ocean Spray. ‘When you’re very ill and you’ve had lots of operations, they always make you drink a lot of cranberry juice. It’s one of the best things to keep infections away,’ he explained to Pause and Play. ‘Every day she would say, ‘Can you get me some Ocean Spray?’ Five times a day I’d be going up and down these lifts with bottles of Ocean Spray. The fact that she was so obsessed with drinking it just showed how much spirit she still had left, that she put so much faith in something so small, that drinking cranberry juice would keep her alive.’
Arguably the album’s most controversial moment would come with closing track Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children, Wire’s attack on the hypocrisy of liberalism. ‘There’s a track called Freedom of Speech about forcing freedom on societies that says everything we ever needed to say,’ claimed Wire in an interview with the Scotsman. While discussing the song with Pop Culture Times he said, ‘Freedom of Speech especially is a self-critical song. It’s not just a song about society. I include myself. Sometimes people miss the point with us. They think we’re quite preachy, but first and foremost we’re examining ourselves. But I really wanted to say something that would annoy people and make them think because it’s too easy to say that freedom just lies in democracy. Sometimes democracies can be the biggest tyrants of all.’
While most of the production duties would be undertaken by Eringa, several other notable participants would cast their influence over the sessions. Mike Hedges had launched his career during the early eighties through acclaimed collaborations with The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees but it would be with Everything Must Go, the 1996 commercial breakthrough of the Manic Street Preachers, that he would first join forces with the band. Following this success, they recaptured its winning formula two years later with This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours which, much like Know Your Enemy, was spearheaded by Eringa. David Holmes had proved his worth to the Manics in another way, having provided remixes for both If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next and You Stole the Sun from My Heart, another UK Top Ten hit for the band.
With each of the tracks Eringa had been the driving force but for Freedom of Speech Won’t Feel My Children, another participant would take the reins. A fellow veteran of This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, Greg Haver had also performed drums for Bradfield on I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone, the latter’s collaboration with Tom Jones on the acclaimed duet album Reload in 1999. ‘I have known the band for quite a few years now and have done lots of different work for them,’ Haver told the South Wales Echo. ‘The experience was amazing; absolutely fantastic. It was a nightmare to get out there though, the journey from Cardiff took forty-nine hours and I was stranded in Madrid for twenty-four. I got there the night before the gig and the next day was frantic. It was complete bedlam with people running in all directions, but the gig itself was amazing.’
For Eringa, who would continue to work with the Manic Street Preachers throughout their career, the album would prove to be a gruelling experience but one that he would find enjoyable. ‘Recording Know Your Enemy in Spain was just fantastic,’ he admitted to Delirium on Helium in 2004. ‘The studio was nestled in the mountains of Puerto Banús and it was the most beautiful location. We still worked really hard fourteen-hour days, but at four in the afternoon we would take forty-five minutes pool time and the difference that short time made to your mindspace was incredible. Dinner was also a big event and the food was fantastic and then when we finished work each night at about 2am, me, James and Nick Nasmyth would sit down and work our way through The Sopranos Series One box-set. It was idyllic!’
The prolific sessions would result in twenty-seven songs being recorded during both their time at El Cortijo and Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, Wales, prompting the band to consider releasing two albums on the same date. This had previously been achieved a decade earlier when Guns N’ Roses, an early influence on the Manics, released Use Your Illusion I and II at the same time. Finally, however, the decision was made to reduce the tracklist to just sixteen songs, with an additional hidden as a secret track at the end of the album. As a compromise, they instead opted to release two singles of vastly different styles simultaneously. Coincidentally, when the band returned to Rockfield in 2013, having recently spent time at a studio in Berlin, the wealth of material that was recorded during those sessions would be released over two albums; the ambient Rewind the Film and the krautrock-esque Futurology.
‘Now that we have our own studio it is very easy to record all the music that we feel like and on the other hand we did not want to release an album as confusing as Know Your Enemy,’ explained Moore during the promotion of Futurology in 2014. ‘What happened with that album was that the songs were conceived to be part of two different albums.’ Eringa, too, would agree that condensing the material that had been recorded in Spain into one album was a mistake. ‘I certainly think that the decisions that were made weren’t the right ones,’ he confessed. ‘Like two singles in a week did confuse people and some thought that was an arrogant thing to do. I’m not sure So Why So Sad was the right one either. It’s difficult to say if there were a swathe of extraordinary B-sides that should have been on the album. We could have done things differently.’
Although Eringa would cite So Why So Sad, a pop rock song in the vein of the Beach Boys, as an ill-advised lead single, Moore maintained that this was intentional. ‘Releasing it as a single was a deliberately perverse move to see how the hardcore fans reacted,’ he claimed. ‘We had twenty-seven songs done very quickly. One reason we did two singles on the same day is that we initially wanted to put out two albums on the same day; like Sad and Soul. They would have been extremely different in style.’ While The Masses Against the Classes had proved to be an unexpected number one hit a year earlier, when So Why So Sad and its companion piece Found That Soul were released on 28 February 2001 they barely scraped into the Top Ten. ‘The songs are separate entities,’ insisted Wire. ‘With double A-sides you’re going into Spice Girls territory. Found That Soul is a statement of rediscovery; we’ve found out what made us want to be in a band in the first place.’
We wanted to attack youth culture and what we had become
Even as Eringa completed post-production on the album, the Manic Street Preachers began their promotional campaign in support of Know Your Enemy, yet unlike media appearances of old, this time they lacked their trademark arrogance. ‘It’s really strange. We feel a bit more scared than usual,’ confessed Bradfield to NME. ‘We are press addicts and when I read the press these days there are so many young journalists who take a pop at us just because we’re older…I think we work better when we feel a bit scared. We haven’t sat down and said, ‘We’ve had two million-selling albums in Britain and now we have to do it again.’ If we did that we’d fail on every level.’ Elsewhere, Moore stated, ‘In the same way as when we wrote If You Tolerate This and the first album, Generation Terrorists, we wanted to attack youth culture and what we had become. It seems there is such a quick turnover of media events these days that the onus becomes superfluous and meaningless and nothing is everlasting anymore.’
Described by Wire as ‘a tribute to our youth,’ when Know Your Enemy was released on 19 March 2001 the album may have left the Manics feeling renewed and once again in touch with their roots, but the reaction that it would receive often bordered on hostile. ‘Nowhere amidst all the confusion is there even a worthwhile tune to be salvaged,’ declared Rolling Stone, while the Guardian insisted that ‘this record is the most directionless and baffling Manics album thus far.’ Yet some critics were willing to overlook the flaws in order to appreciate the positive attributes that Know Your Enemy had to offer. ‘While it provides the band with almost an album’s worth of classic material, by purpose alone it also provides them with more than half a dozen songs to prove their lack of worth,’ concluded Sputnik Music’s summary of the record.
While the Manic Street Preachers had insisted during the promotion that Know Your Enemy was arguably their strongest album to date, in later years they would admit that it had failed to reach its full potential. ‘Know Your Enemy is such a sketchy record,’ admitted Wire to Music Week in 2018. ‘There are moments on it that I truly love, but we weren’t at our most disciplined, we were quite lazy on it. And then to spend all the moment going to Cuba and launching it there. I do wonder how we got away with it!’ Two years later he added, ‘I think it’s a really misunderstood record…We were working nonstop across different studios. Know Your Enemy was meant to be two separate albums. One was supposed to be the harder side like Found That Soul and the other was meant to be the sixties side like So Why So Sad.’
Once again, following the release of Know Your Enemy and their historic show in front of Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, rumours began to circulate through the media that the Manic Street Preachers were preparing to call it a day. ‘We’ve always had something to talk about but you don’t worry about what you have to say next time,’ claimed Bradfield prior to the album’s release. Moore, however, was more upfront when addressing the question. ‘We’re ever more conscious of the end of the band,’ he admitted to Planet Sound. ‘It gets harder and harder to find things for us to say. At the moment, we’re thinking of doing a Greatest Hits and then doing an album we’d want to be our grand farewell. One of the things keeping us going is that there still aren’t any bands we feel are worthy of taking over from us!’