24
Jun 14

THE MANIC STREET PREACHERS – “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”

Popular119 comments • 9,907 views

#799, 5th September 1998

tolerate “You can interpret the lyrics,” huffed a Nazi goon caught nicking this song for the BNP’s website, “any way you want.” The specific double meaning of “if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists” eludes me, but it’s true enough that the Manic Street Preachers’ lyricists had a taste for the oblique. Simple polemic was rarely their style: on their early records they favoured harsh, dense word-blocks, crushed by the transition to song into something barely singable, their uneasy imagery delivered by James Dean Bradfield as a compressed bark. But for all their rough treatment, the words mattered – for The Holy Bible the band took out double-page ads printing the record’s scorched, self-lacerating lyrics in full. They made records About Things, things number ones only occasionally break bread with: self-harm, depression, the decline of class consciousness. And here, apparently, the Spanish Civil War.

But one of those things is not like the others. Why on earth make, in 1998, a record about the Spanish Civil War? Old battles had never been the Manics’ territory: they preferred live issues, current problems of culture and psychology. A song praising the Republicans in the Spanish conflict is not addressing a live issue: and, to be honest, there weren’t a lot of obvious 1998 analogies you could make for it. “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” is a magnificent title, but tolerate what? What line were the band drawing? Was it all a better-read version of Father Ted’s omniprotest: Down With This Sort Of Thing?

So I’d like to suggest that something more is going on here, but before digging into what, it’s worth asking how we got to this in the first place. “If You Tolerate This” is a fanbase record, as surely as anything by Boyzone is. The Manics had been the most startling beneficiaries of the post-Oasis interest in British bands, hitting form and accessibility at just the right time for big, gestural rock to succeed. And to be horribly cynical about it, the tragedy of Richey Edwards established their bona fides as a serious band at the same time as his absence meant they could stumble into the mainstream without lyrics like “He’s a boy / You want a girl so cut off his cock” chewing up their column inches. “A Design For Life” was a remarkable single, a band pushed by guilt and circumstance into speaking plainly, seizing their platform and using it. They released it as a group with sympathy and a small, utterly devoted audience: they left it a band with a huge, solid fanbase.

It made “If You Tolerate This…” – first single off the follow-up album – into a big moment, the kind of release other singles shuffle out the way of. But as is often the case, the fanbase flexed its muscles a record too late. “If You Tolerate This…” has none of the painful confidence of “A Design For Life”. It opens brilliantly – cold, Radiohead-style bursts of treated guitar, pulsing out and back like the respiration of some great, dying machine. But once it gets going and the strings and solos kick off, it’s the band settling into the cement shoes of lugubrious arena rock – footwear they found all too comfortable.

So while it’s lovely to see them at Number One, what’s initially disappointing is that for the first time in their career, it didn’t feel like the group were over-reaching themselves. That had been a large part of their appeal. The earliest Manics made much of a love for Public Enemy and Guns’n’Roses, but the process they applied to those influences was pure indie pop: make a Quixotic attempt to match your idols with a tenth of their budget and technique, and trust that something inspiring comes out of it. They stood in relation to glam metal as Orange Juice stood to Chic and disco – a doomed, glorious tilt at a form that might end up wonderful in a different way.

Everything Must Go took the same trick and used it for stadium rock – gambling, successfully, that rough-hewn attempts at anthemic rock and thoughtful, sorrowful lyrics would rub well together. But it meant that when “If You Tolerate This…” came out, the surprise had become expectation. The band, inevitably, chortled about “subverting the mainstream”. But the idea of the Manic Street Preachers having a hit with a single about the Spanish Civil War felt right: was, instead, instantly comfortable and appealing enough by itself that the weary reality of it could be shrugged off.

What redeems the record – lets it wring dignity from tedium – is that this gap between reputation and reality is exactly what the song is wrestling with. The crucial moment in “If You Tolerate This…” is the breakdown before the final chorus – “And on the street tonight an old man prays / With newspaper cuttings of his glory days”. It’s picking up on the “monuments put from pen to paper” part earlier – the way remembrance of heroism, even well-meant remembrance, turns into romance and abandons the messy subjectivity of the lives in question. And even as it acknowledges this, the song has been playing around in that romance – the title slogan, the rabbits quote, the totems of a long-gone, righteous struggle.

It’s easy to see why this might resonate with the Manic Street Preachers. They had become a group defined by a gap: a vanished friend who was turning into stories and slogans himself. In a season of youth in the charts, “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” was less a subversive gesture, more a memento mori from a band that had finally found their place and were settling into a dependable success. Listen to Bradfield’s despairing, exhausted “aaaand” as he slides into the chorus – “If you tolerate this then your children will be next” is a warning, but not an avoidable one. History itself – the process of sorting and discarding, of turning fighters into forgotten men while their words survive – is the “this” that cannot be tolerated. But always is.

7

Comments

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  1. 31
    Tom on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #27 This gets at my slight wariness at the idea that the SCW subject matter relates to an “it could stand for Kosovo / Bosnia / Rwanda” reading, definitely. It just seems a bit pat for them (though maybe that’s still the fairest way to look at the record). It’s not like they weren’t happy to do specific songs. I think you’re right about the crux of the probem – is it a good thing in itself for the Manics to get a song about the Spanish Civil War to #1? Nicky Wire’s answer, according to a lot of interviews, is “yes, it’s subversive”*. And my answer (like yours) would be “it depends whether it’s got anything interesting to say about the Spanish Civil War”. (I think it DOES have something interesting to say about the reception and use of the SCW – whether it fully intends to say that is open to question, obviously).

    *more on the Manics’ conception of the charts as a venue for subversive theatre to come in 2000, of course!

  2. 32
    MikeMCSG on 25 Jun 2014 #

    A couple of penultimates here- the last but one number one I bought as a single ( some years later from a charity shop but still ) and it got to number one on the last but one Sunday chart show I listened to ( just beating Steps I seem to recall ) driving back from walking stage two of the Lancashire Coastal Way.

    Two random memories

    I also remember making a horrible mess of this at a karaoke night at Oscar’s in Manchester which can’t have been too long after its reign as it’s not the sort of thing that would stay on the selection list for very long. Indeed the guy running it gave me a filthy look throughout for killing the party vibe.

    This was also near the start of the third and final season of Graham Barrow’s unhappy reign at Rochdale and I remember trying to put together a chant of “If You Tolerate This The Conference Will Be Next ” but it didn’t catch on.

    # 9 There was also a suggestion at the time that it referenced the massive ongoing paedophilia scandal in Belgium which the band denied.

  3. 33
    Tom on 25 Jun 2014 #

    The later Manics single – and I’ve not heard a lot of them – that snuck up on me and became a favourite is “Postcards From A Young Man”. It’s a partial resolution of one of the hidden issues with this song and “La Tristessa Durera” – i.e. there’s always a certain gaucheness or projection in very young men singing about how older men feel, a tendency to conceive age only in contrast to youth, even sympathetically. The dogged persistence of “Postcards” is a rather more seasoned take. (Though the song improves dramatically if you hear its chorus not as the anodyne “They may never be written or posted again” but as “You may never be reading our bullshit again”)

  4. 34
    fivelongdays on 25 Jun 2014 #

    @33 – it is a terrible, terrible shame that none of the songs on the masterful Journal For Plague Lovers were released as a single. Peeled Apples, Pretension/Revulsion, All Is Vanity and William’s Last Words (Wire vocals or no) would have been worthy entries into the MSP Canon. More on that later, though.

  5. 35
    Garry on 25 Jun 2014 #

    I came to the Manics via the combination of football and the net. I got the Internet around 95/96 – around the same time as Manchester City begining to through the divisions. There was a lot of talk online was about whether the Gallaghers were going to step in and save that club. The Forest fan email list I had just joined was thus inspired to search around for our own celebrity Forest fan who wasn’t a Tory MP. The name they came up with was James Dean Bradfield. The Manic’s were duly discussed at length.

    The first song I can remember was this, and the first album Know Your Enemy, the only Manic’s album I own and love.

    I’m completely ignorant of the Edwards era stuff, but Tolerate still gets a spin around here. I never knew the Spanish War link, but I’ve always been more drawn to the sound of his voice on this as a instrument over the sea of other instruments – I hear it as an emotional instrumental.

  6. 36
    chelovek na lune on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #34. I quite, quite agree. “…Plague Lovers” is masterful indeed. I’d add “This Joke Sport Severed” to the list of its highlights. In general, the process of watching the Manics mature has been, mostly, pleasing (though there was always an element of inconsistent quality control there…): they were SO, spiky and adolescent in their heartfelt intensity early on…as well as reflective. That they managed (poor Richey apart, of course) not to burn out, and still produce material, that was, mostly, at least, interesting, is a tribute to their talent and group dynamics.

    My top singles would include: Motorcycle Emptiness, Life Becoming A Landslide, Faster/PCP, Little Baby Nothing (with its extraordinarily busy, insane, video: and using the hammer and sickle as a symbol of liberation – ever – but in 1992 of all years?) , Motown Junk, From Despair to Where, A Design For Life, There But For The Grace of God .
    Quite a lot of the post-1996 stuff isn’t far behind these (Although we have a further chance, later on, to discuss what may have worked less well…), but I am very firrmly in the Richey camp… Tortured, beautiful, insane, genius. Oh God.

  7. 37
    Mark G on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #34, will they ever release a single again?

  8. 38
    Rory on 25 Jun 2014 #

    This struck me in 1998 – and still does – as a perfectly valid response to the 1990s, not as some historical artifact. Just because the band says it’s about the Spanish Civil War doesn’t mean we have to restrict our interpretation of the song to that. The only lyric that specifically ties this song to Spain is “I’ve walked La Ramblas, but not with real intent”. I could say that, and I was born thirty years after Homage to Catalonia. Thousands of people have walked La Ramblas as tourists, but have no idea what once happened there; we travel and shop and play our way through our lives, so young and so vain, forgetting the wars of the past and the wars happening elsewhere: gutless wonders, tolerating the intolerable.

    (I hope it’s obvious that I’m interpolating lyrics there.)

    I’m not saying the band didn’t want this to be about the legacy of the Spanish Civil War – the La Ramblas mention and Sukrat’s source @28 for the “rabbits” quote certainly confirm that – but it seems ungenerous to me to suppose that they didn’t mean to tie it into contemporary issues and to speak to larger, more timeless concerns. Or even if they didn’t, to think that the song doesn’t benefit from those possible readings.

  9. 39
    chelovek na lune on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #37 I think they’ve released three (all of which missed the top 75) in the last year, alone… (possibly only as downloads in each case, but such are the times)

  10. 40
    Rory on 25 Jun 2014 #

    I feel I need to keep justifying the point… I’m not trying to have a go at anyone else’s interpretation, least of all Tom’s. But there were good reasons why the title of this song resonated with the public in the supposedly peaceful 1990s.

    Anyway. I gave the album a fresh spin last night, and had quite forgotten “You Stole the Sun from My Heart”, and other tracks like “My Little Empire” and “Nobody Loved You”… there’s a lot of focus on their lyrics, but it’s their music that draws me in. And “Tolerate” is no exception; that intro is fantastic.

    Tom @33, Postcards is a great album.

  11. 41
    anto on 25 Jun 2014 #

    If ever there was a Popular entry where I could think of a million different things to say then it’s this one so let’s stick with the song itself. Although ‘If You Tolerate This….’ is some distance from being The Manics best single, it is nontheless the kind of single that could only belong to them. Not so much because of the subject matter but more because of it’s tone – that midway point between dejection and defiance that seems inherent in so many of their songs. On this occassion there is an affinity with one of the songs main sources – George Orwell’s ‘Homage To Catalonia’ where the experience of fighting fascism was recalled with regret, resignation and dark humour before the author returns home in some dejection and focuses his underlying anger on ‘the deep, deep sleep of England’. Behind Orwell’s words however there is always a clear pride that although he and his comrades in Spain were poorly equipped and barely trained compared to Franco’s men as well as being burdened by in-fighting (the passage in the book that lists the various organisations, groups and splinter-groups who considered themselves the true voice of Republicanism – a list that takes up virtually a whole page), they were at least fighting with moral right on their side.
    Nicky Wire looks at that sense of sacrifice from an awestruck perspective, putting himself forward to represent ‘the useless generation’. There is something unweildy about this track – another Manics trait and not one I’d want to be without. If their approach was smug and smooth I don’t think it would be the same. It’s also why I think the song works – that dragging rhythm and those eerie, futuristic gutiars might seem like a mismatch but together they gather a mood of stasis – a kind of anxious poise.
    James Dean Bradfield’s vocal emphasises the shame within the words rather than any attempt to invoke heroism, and is all the more effective for that.

    Why are they my favourite band? – They’re the band who I feel the most affection for, that always seems to be the answer.

  12. 42
    Tom on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #38 Also the title of the song is from a Republican propaganda poster from 1936!

    I’m not trying to take away your right to interpret either, Rory. I prefer to avoid a “horrors of the 90s” reading but of course it’s there – there are always human cruelties that would justify the title. I just think that this band, of any, would have been capable of doing a more specific and better one.

    But I would raise an eyebrow at “resonated with the public” – I’m not sure how much it did. As pointed out in the review, this is a fanbase #1 – as with “Beetlebum” it got to #1 because the first single from a new album by one of the country’s biggest bands was always likely to. It spent a measly second week in the Top 10 – a better measure of resonance – and then vanished. It sold well though, and is fairly well remembered I think. But I don’t see it as one of the years landmark singles – it’s (yet another) after-echo of 1996 (and of 1936 in this case…)

  13. 43
    Rory on 25 Jun 2014 #

    Tom @42, re “resonated”, I’m thinking of the way the title has entered the language in a modest way – to the point where, as you opened with in your review, the BNP felt they could co-opt it. I don’t doubt it’s a fanbase number one, but once it got there it will have lodged in the public’s awareness in a way that a number 5 or 15 wouldn’t have. If you asked a bunch of random people to name a Manics song this would be in the top three responses, I’d wager, because it has such a memorable title.

  14. 44
    wichitalineman on 25 Jun 2014 #

    The vagueness of the subject matter doesn’t bother me. I’d always taken “I am an architect, they call me a butcher” as a reference to Milosevic and Karadjic and their ‘Greater Serbia’ project, though the rest of the lyric is clearly more personal. This also felt like a reflection on the Yugoslav wars (still ongoing at this point). The power of the Manics lyrics, for me, isn’t in their direct meaning.

    Musically, though, I find IYTTTYCWBN a chore. It desperately needs a chord change, some switch of pace or mood – think of the change onto the chorus of A Design For Life, that extraordinary lift, or the heart-into-stomach drop as the chorus of Motorcycle Emptiness begins. The strings here sound big but thin, and are basically superfluous. Without the marvels and the strength of what had gone before, I’m sure I’d think a lot more of this.

  15. 45
    Kinitawowi on 25 Jun 2014 #

    Eurgh… I don’t know. I get the horrible impression that the Manics are one of Those bands that you either have to worship or despise, and fitting neither leaves me without a way into this song. I mean, I picked up the Everything Must Go album (seriously, A Design For Life) and Forever Delayed (this album’s other singles), but I just can’t put this one together.

    So the song’s about the Spanish Civil War, apparently (an event about which I could tell you very little other than “it happened”, it was in Spain, it probably wasn’t all that civil, and The Manics made a song about it), and it’s got a video riffing on Gattaca, and for me this is when their apparently determined attempts at Meaningfulness started to become a bit… well, meaningless. I’d never followed the RJE era, so it’s a bit like the previously discussed Tori Amos and David Bowie; I’m coming at this without having followed the artist’s Story, and I’m just left finding this song very, very bland.

    My mate Jess on the other hand, who has been following the Story, could probably write a forty-page essay on why this song is the greatest thing to ever happen to humanity. I remember a blog entry she wrote about her world stopping dead when she saw the *cover art* of Journal For Plague Lovers, never mind actually listening to it. The Manics are that sort of band.

    4 (real).

  16. 46
    Kat but logged out in on 25 Jun 2014 #

    I was gobsmacked when Schoolchum Kirst first revealed she was a big Manics fan (other favourite bands at the time: Steps, ABBA, Black Lace) – but I had no idea in 1998 about the feather boas and glittery motorcycles, only the serious political anthems. But, as mentioned above, many of the FMFs I’ve met since then have indeed been big pop fans. However Kirst’s claim that Gold Against The Soul was the best album was clearly bullshit of the highest order.

    Also ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ is TOO LONG an album title to fit along the top of the Side B half of a C90 inlay (I have big handwriting) (god knows what was on side A, probably the Smashing Pumpkins…)

  17. 47
    alexcornetto on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #46 – isn’t TIMTTMY too long an ALBUM to fit onto Side B of a C90 to begin with? Then again, lop off SYMM. No one minds. (GATS is so much better than everyone gives it credit for though!)

    #36 – the Little Baby Nothing video, as I recall, was directed by the late, lamented Steven Wells. Which may explain its somewhat chaotic nature.

    Sidebar: of all the singles the Manics would release post-Tolerate, I would probably say their 2000 Bunny is probably in the top 3 I would have least expected to get to #1. More on which later, of course.

  18. 48
    Tom on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #47 “South Yorkshire Mass Murderer” is a classic example of About-ism, a familiar music press phenomenon of my youth.

    1. Band mentions in interview they are writing song inspired by something.
    2. NME reports this as news, fixing what the song is “about”.
    3. Tabloids – if the band is big enough – pick up on this.
    4. Tabloids or NME ask someone likely to disapprove to disapprove. They do, without hearing song.
    5. Reviews make knowing references to “the controversial [song]”
    6. Song is released, generally disappoints. World spins on.

    This used to happen to Morrissey a lot, and to Carter USM and The Wonder Stuff all the time (minus the tabloid interest, admittedly). The Manics mostly avoided Aboutism, but not entirely.

  19. 49
    James BC on 25 Jun 2014 #

    Pulp got hit with about-ism a lot, Help The Aged and Sorted for Es and Wizz being two examples (maybe the only two actually, so maybe ‘a lot’ is pushing it). I suppose anyone who writes intelligent and thoughtful lyrics about non-standard subjects is going to be prey to it, except maybe the Beautiful South.

    As for IYTYCTTWBN, I like it a lot. Wichita is right that the mood never changes or goes anywhere (very easy to play on acoustic guitar if you can do an F), but it’s a strong mood that stays with you. I can’t have heard it for years but I can call it to mind instantly and get slightly moved from memory.

    Good drumming, too.

  20. 50
    skpow on 25 Jun 2014 #

    @ #38 the line“I’ve walked La Ramblas, but not with real intent” is to my mind the key to the song. The problem with being an old school fan (I remember them on snub TV) is we tend to relate everything to Richey. And I always thought that song was Nicky admitting he couldn’t walk the walk Richey did. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but survivor grief plays a big part in the Manics mythos and this is in part about survivor grief. It definitely relates to the Loach film, they’ll later do a song on Richard Nixon to coincide with a film about Nixon. Nicky always liked to believe he had his finger on the Zeitgeist to the point of claiming he killed it on a solo album. The other key line is Gravity keeps my head down or is it maybe shame… Again you wonder how hard it must be to have so much success without Richey, how you deal with the shame of looking his parents in the eye. Not that you should feel ashamed, but success has always sat uncomfortable with the band.

    What adds to the myth is the b-side, prologue to history. A lot of fans preferred this to the a-side, but you can’t help wondering what the band were doing putting this on the flip. This is a band who invested everything they did with meaning. So what’s the prologue to history? The Spanish civil war, lost because of its subsuming into WWII, now regarded as the just war the way those in the international brigade saw their war? Are they talking about Richey? Missing out on the success? Is it the band, always missing out on the party, always slightly out of step? Hard to say. But they make good copy and they have an investment most other bands lack. Only the Manics could get a song about the Spanish civil war to number one because nobody else cared enough to try. I guess that’s why I love them. Pop can be empty and beautiful, but it can be clever and awkward and beautiful too. Personally I still feel spectators of suicide (heavenly) should have been their first number one!

  21. 51
    Tom on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #50 – I always hear it as “but NOW with real intent”, which doesn’t actually change the meaning at all…

  22. 52
    fivelongdays on 25 Jun 2014 #

    I’m in a minority, but I prefer the GT version of Spectators of Suicide, despite (or rather, because) it sounds like Every Rose Has Its Thorn.

    (Yet another reason why the Manics are fundamentally a glam metal band – every album has at least one power ballad.)

  23. 53
    mapman132 on 25 Jun 2014 #

    Rory @38/40 etc: This is what I was attempting to articulate, and not doing a great job at, back @14. For me as an American who has never heard the song until now, but has seen the *title* before in the list of number ones, this is what I take from it now. The 90’s in retrospect were a very good time, at least superficially, but somehow it felt like there were dark clouds on the horizon, and unfortunately there were.

    But Tom’s probably right that for most people this was a fanbase record about the Spanish Civil War.

  24. 54
    skpow on 25 Jun 2014 #

    Now works better actually. I’d have to check the lyrics because I have a long history of mishearing them. I had a spell curating the misheard lyrics list on alt.music.Manics in my youth!

  25. 55
    skpow on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #52 the album version is gorgeous but the heavenly one is the one I heard first so to me it’s the true version. The Manics used to say something about nodding to glam on every album out of respect to the welsh workers in the pot noodle factory who were all metal fans. I think there’s a lot going on with this song the more I think about it. Surprised no one has mentioned the miner’s strike yet. Like I said on the previous entry, they used this in Ireland to protest against a former mine becoming a landfill site. The juxtaposition of this and boyzone worked there but also the mining history. There’s some that see the closing of the mines and Thatcher’s use of the Met as a british civil war. That the song gestated at the end of that long Tory rule is another theme that could be pulled at, this is a band who used to collect for the miners.

  26. 56
    MikeMCSG on 25 Jun 2014 #

    I remember my friend playing “TIMTTMY” in the car on some away trip and nothing but this one really registering. He never put it on again ( unlike Belle and Sebastian and Yo La Tengo ad nauseam) so I guess he was disappointed too. And that pretty much ended my interest in them; I don’t know the bunnied song at all. Where do they get played now ? 6 Music ?

  27. 57
    Chelovek na lune on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #53 I’m sure this did not then have any influence on this song at all, but It was precisely in 1998 that Al-Qaeda really started to make their presence and intentions felt, first, with the publication (in February) of their “declaration of jihad against Jews and Crusaders”; and then, in the summer, with the simultaneous bomb attacks on the embassies of the US in Kenya (this being a particularly large-scale and horrific attack, and one that mostly killed Kenyans) and Tanzania. If ever a song title fitted something, it’s here…

  28. 58
    skpow on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #56 they get played on radio 2 absolute and radio Wales as well as 6 music looking at the latest studio tours they’ve done. They had an distance on strictly a couple of years so as well. I keep waiting for someone to do one of their songs on x-factor just to see if wire still has his rentaquote side working but if it’s happened I’ve missed it.

  29. 59
    wichitalineman on 25 Jun 2014 #

    Re 56: The Manics get played on Radio 2 – A Design For Life came straight out of a news bulletin about “British values” a couple of weeks ago, which was sweet. Someone else might confirm, but I think IYTT was played on Radio 2 when it came out – I can’t think why else I’d have heard it so much at the time.

  30. 60
    Kat but logged out innit on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #47 Almost certainly! There are a whole bunch of mid-to-late-90s albums where I’ve never heard the last couple of tracks despite being super-familiar with the first 80%.

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