24
Jun 14

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

Popular119 comments • 9,897 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.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    fivelongdays on 25 Jun 2014 #

    @55 – I’d argue that is a classic bit of Pricest Indie Kiddery designed to appeal to NME readers – the Manics do not nod to glam metal, they headbang to it.

    Listen to Generation Terrorists, and discover a band who worship/rip off GnR, Poison, Motley Crue, Hanoi Rocks and Tigertailz to name but five. Listen to The Holy Bible – is that the sound of The Smiths, or a compressed, despairing, Skid Row (This Is Yesterday=I Remember You), consider how you’d respond if Faster Pussycat released a song called Condemned to Rock’N’Roll, or if Dogs D’Amour wrote a song which went ‘People like you need to fuck people like me’…the list goes on.

    Pastiche? This is not the work of a jangleist cool indie ‘ Oh we always liked dance, yah’ public schoolboys, this is rock’n’roll, the glory of glamour, the last gang in town stance of G’n’R (and – yes! – The Clash), the masculinity of Public Enemy fused through the androgynous aggression of glam metal. Statement beyond Statement, no neshness here (even La Tristesse Durera – their alleged nod to baggy – sounds to my ears like they’re ripping off Bon Jovi’s Keep The Faith, a second hand nod to The Only One I Know), just pure Rock’n’Roll with brains. And they are at their best when they embrace their fundamental Rock’n’Roll, no matter what the IndieChildren say.

    (TL;DR – When the Manics rock, they are supreme. When they don’t – parts of TTMIT, the entirety of the dire Lifeblood, most of MSP Lies, they’re a bit blegh).

  2. 62
    skpow on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #61 you’re talking to someone who owns records by Cinderella and the Quireboys and saw the Manics support Jovi in Milton Keynes. I may have not been clear or you may have misunderstood me, but my point was that in their heart they know they could have been those glam metal fans in the pot noodle factory. Isn’t that where flicker ended up, of memory serves. And I think flicker has said he’d never have fit in with what the band became, that they did move on from those roots. But I’m old now. My heart’s like a wheel and my head’s just a stone i got my memories ain’t got no home. Falling apart at the seams.

  3. 63
    Tom on 25 Jun 2014 #

    How was their reception in the metal press, FiveLongDays?

  4. 64
    Mark M on 25 Jun 2014 #

    So about the Spanish Civil War… for a chunk of the British (and American) left, it’s remained a touchpoint, mostly because of that idea that idealistic young men of all classes went over there and made a stand in fight that wasn’t theirs – or rather (as the song title suggests) wasn’t theirs yet. Even if that fight turned out to be extremely messy, as described in Homage To Catalonia (the only George Orwell book I’ve ever liked).
    I certainly remember having discussions about with people in the 1990s, who wanted a moment like that for our generation, and suggesting (intolerantly) to them that they could go to East Timor or Sarajevo if they really felt that strongly. In the ’80s, as recounted in another Ken Loach film, some did go to Nicaragua, and many came back predictably disillusioned.

    Now, of course, we’ve got members of another generation slipping off to fight in distant civil wars, and we’re mostly pretty uncomfortable with that.

    For me, La Guerra Civil is rather more personal, because my grandfather was an officer in the Spanish army who was killed on the third day by colleagues from his own regiment who had risen against the republic and were trying to seize the barracks and its arms. My uncles, then teenagers, joined the Socialist militias, and both ended up spending years in prison. Being on the losing side shaped the family history, it’s fair to say. And for a lot of people in Spain, it’s not a dead issue at all – Franco was still alive in my lifetime, and a significant number of Spanish novels and films still deal with the war and its aftermath. And there are still survivors, like one of my uncles.

  5. 65
    skpow on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #63 holy bible review by kerrang is herehttp://www.thisisyesterday.com/ints/thb-kerr.htm

  6. 66
    fivelongdays on 25 Jun 2014 #

    @63 Unrelentingly positive! TIMT’s best review was a 5k from Kerrang!, while the likes of Metal Hammer et al very supportive throughout their career

    @62 – Pretty sure Flicker was a punk – major into The Clash, I understand the bands love of Glam Metal is what pissed him off. (Still makes me giggle when the NME talk J&MC about early Manics when they were Glam Metal in every way (IIRC Nick Wire is credited as Nikki – as in Sixx – on the back cover of New Art Riot)

  7. 67
    wichitalineman on 25 Jun 2014 #

    re 66: Well… Nicky Wire has also said that him and Richey wanted the Manics to sound like McCarthy, James and Sean wanted them to sound like GnR, so they settled on McCarthy’s lyrics (and indeed their rotten scanning) with GnR’s music.

    I rememember “stoneswhopistolsclash” as their quickfire list of inflences, maybe on Snub, later amended to to “stoneswhoaxlslash… not the Clash anymore”.

  8. 68
    fivelongdays on 25 Jun 2014 #

    The point is that the Manics influences were ROCK, rather than the Beatles/Byrds/Beach Boys trinity that sustained Indie. And the Manics are – unlike, say The Verve – an Actual Rock Band Who Rocked.

  9. 69
    skpow on 25 Jun 2014 #

    #68 god yeah, you’ve only got to listen to GT. Slash and burn is a glorious metal track full of great rock guitar licks. Where the Manics and Indie crossed over was the Rolling Stones. But yeah, they rock. One of the best live acts of their (our) generation. Only bad gig I’ve seen from them was Glastonbury 94, the sound was awful and the crowd was worse.

  10. 70
    23 Daves on 25 Jun 2014 #

    Well, this is a pain in the arse. I’ve been looking forward to discussing this entry for ages, but it’s finally cropped up right at the very point where I’m so snowed under with work I can barely think straight (apologies in advance for any typos, poorly expressed ideas or incoherence) and a lot of the points I wanted to make have been made already.

    But still, the most recent comments above do cover one issue I wanted to get on to. That’s the fact that the Richey-era Manics never really sat easily with me. I liked the IDEA of them enormously, the lyrical subject matters, the interviews, the slogans… to a slightly depressive teenage boy fascinated by left-wing political literature (so much so that I’d stick around at college after hours just to stay in the library and read stuff that wasn’t otherwise easily available) they seemed so much as if they should have been a revelation. In reality, though, musically they were too Rock for me, and not even Rock in the scuzzed up Pixies sense of the word, just ROCK as in the kind of stuff you might have heard on FM/Revolver records, only with better lyrics. I got into enormous trouble with a Manics fan I once knew for comparing the cheapest and trashiest of their output (“Repeat”) to “The Comic Strip’s Bad News with two Colin Gregsons in the line-up”.
    “THEY SOUND NOTHING LIKE THAT!” he thundered.
    They bloody did at times, to me anyway. But then I never really understood the appeal of that kind of music.

    Still, my faith in them was enough that I did actually buy “Generation Terrorists” and “The Holy Bible”. I can’t remember the last time I ever actually listened to either, and I probably should give them away to a charity shop, but I don’t quite have the heart to.

    The Manics at their commercial peak slotted in much more neatly for me. The sweeping, melodramatic strings reminded me of the epic parts of the best Northern Soul ballads (think “Drifter” by Ray Pollard), the lyrics were still interesting enough (initially, at least) and the songs less swathed in soft rock worship. It all finally clicked together for me, the kind of person old school Manics fans probably wouldn’t welcome to a party.

    To be potentially even more controversial, this is probably my favourite single of theirs. Tom and numerous other commenters have pointed out that the emotions of the song seem to pull in two directions, and it’s mainly because of this that I’d stop short of tagging it with the catch-all “stadium anthem” description. It’s a head-hung-low, confused and neurotic sound, tugging back and forth. You can’t punch your fist in the air to this.

    In fact, it’s so conflicting that the first few listens were almost unrewarding. I can remember it being received at the time as a “slow burner”, and that’s exactly how it felt. The first four times I heard it, I was only mildly impressed, but then the fifth listen was the one that opened it up to me completely, and it happened under the most absurd circumstances. I was wandering along Southsea promenade by myself when it blasted out from a radio inside one of the shops (I think that’s right. It sure as hell didn’t come from the funfair, anyway). It was on the last weekend of the year when the weather was hot enough to warrant solo seafront wandering, and I stood and listened to the song while children played on the beach and a bit of a chill developed on the wind. Just the perfect moment to finally have a song making sense, the uncertain feel of weather on the cusp of Summer and Autumn matching the song’s mood perfectly.

    I still play this song regularly, and it’s a 9 from me, I think. Actually, a 10. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me on most of the points I’ve made above, and it’s difficult to have my particular perspective on a band whose fans are often insistent that they peaked on the third album… but so be it.

  11. 71
    swanstep on 26 Jun 2014 #

    The Manics weren’t characters in my world until this entry, so it’s been interesting for me to listen to a whole bunch of their stuff over the past few days. ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ has been the definite standout track and its parent, GT (or at least its first half; their records all seem to be too long!) is the pick of the albums I’ve listened to.

    GT is very revealing – lots of Van Halen and (pre-Mutt Lange) Def Leppard in their sound at that point. I wonder whether making a designed-to-be US- and world-conquering record with Lange was ever in the cards (and exisst for the Manics now as their great ‘road not taken’)?

    Anyhow, its actual big production notwithstanding there’s something deeply unpolished about all the Manics stuff I’ve listened to: even Motorcycle Emptiness has a weak middle eight that could be a lot better, ‘A Design for Life’ manages to make ‘for’ polysyllabic and just generally needs work on its vocals (some rewriting, more takes, etc.). And so on. It’s all rather frustrating listening really – the Manics’ songs are good but could have been better; the band’s really *got* something but it needed to be worked harder is how it sounds to me. Perhaps they never found their George Martin or Bob Ezrin or Eno who could push them…

    Anyhow, IYTHYCWBN. First few listens, it sounded like a vocally and instrumentally under-powered version of a Muse track such as ‘Sing For Absolution’. On subsequent listens, ‘Sleeping Satellites’ has seemed like a more fitting comparison in the context of Popular, i.e., as something that, like IYTHYCWBN is pretty contemplative for a #1 and but yet also has hooks and surprises in it so you can hear ‘Ah, yes, that’s why it went to #1, and that’s why it’s a damned good record’. IYTHYCWBN doesn’t do that to a listener hence it *is* a UK fanbase record (hence it only made it into the 40s in both Australia and NZ) and not a true win-the-people-over #1 in the vein of Sleeping Satellites.

    So, this is a 6 for me, but I’m very happy to have been finally introduced to the Manics and will continue to explore their discography in the coming months. Yay.

  12. 72
    Shannon on 26 Jun 2014 #

    Great analysis of the Manics! Came over from Phil Sandifer’s Tumblr because I’m a huge Manics fan and they helped me get through a lot of college. I’m an American fan, so I often have a really different perspective on it than the Brits. While I love their earlier stuff, I find I relate much more to their later stuff like Everything Must Go and this whole album as I get older. There’s something about that worn-outness that I can relate to.

    Now, if you want to get into fan base records, that’s Send Away the Tigers, but I love it anyway.

  13. 73
    wichitalineman on 26 Jun 2014 #

    Did they ever consider changing their name? There’s an obvious Joy Division/New Order comparison, with A Design For Life as Ceremony.

  14. 74
    Rory on 26 Jun 2014 #

    Fascinating to hear from people who are new to the Manics, Swanstep @71. Re “manages to make ‘for’ polysyllabic and just generally needs work on its vocals”: the forced scansion of their lyrics used to annoy me, even as an admirer of their work, but eventually I realised that it was one of the key hooks of their songs, drawing my attention every time. In a roundabout way, it might help explain why I’m a fan, at least of their later stuff: the orchestral flourishes and epic sweep of their best late-90s work sounds so odd next to that mangled metre and admittedly sometimes routine rock guitar that the whole feels more interesting than it ought to. Perhaps it’s also why I haven’t got into the early albums, with their G’n’R influences and the rest – a less interesting setting for those vocal tics, maybe. I’m going to take this entry as a cue to go back to those early albums and try them again, though, along with the later ones that didn’t click for me. Send Away the Tigers and Journal for Plague Lovers are probably a lot better than I remember them: they just came out when I was too distracted by new fatherhood to listen to new music properly (even as I habitually kept buying it).

    Looking through their singles discography, I was surprised to see that they missed out on the top spot three times after their next number one. And missed out on the thousandth number one to a reissue! Booo.

    @73 But when could they do it? Would have been embarrassing if Richey had walked through the door refreshed from three years in the wilds of Patagonia.

  15. 75
    BT on 26 Jun 2014 #

    Choruses have never really been an MSP strongpoint, have they? I can think of few that go far beyond the song title sung twice.

  16. 76
    James BC on 26 Jun 2014 #

    #75 They’re slogans! That’s what you do with a slogan, repeat it.

    I was thinking myself, listening to the chorus of this one, that a young Ryan Tedder might have been a fan.

  17. 77
    Rory on 26 Jun 2014 #

    Just realised/wondered: why no Manics pic in the FT banner to go with this?

  18. 78
    Tom on 26 Jun 2014 #

    Steve does the pics when he has time – I looked for a Manics one but I couldn’t find it. So treat them as a delightful bonus (or a way of finding out what obscuro pop stars looked like) rather than a feature :)

    I am sure we’ll have one ready for next time.

  19. 79
    Rory on 26 Jun 2014 #

    Ah, right; they’d been so regular I’d thought you must have done a few years’ worth in advance as part of the recent redesign.

  20. 80
    fivelongdays on 26 Jun 2014 #

    @75

    “I am stronger than mensa, Miller and Mailer/I spat out Plath and Pinter/I am all the things that you regret/A truth that washes, that learned how to spell”

    That’s a chorus.

  21. 81
    weej on 26 Jun 2014 #

    Agreed completely with this review. A song I still like and might even put on from time to time, yet it marks the end point of my relationship with the group. A few years later I saw them play at Reading, and just walked away, they were so dull. It didn’t matter, they had tens of thousands of new fans.

    I’d always had a weirdly ambivalent relationship with them though. Generation Terrorists was fantastically exciting, but at the same time bloated and patchy (and sorry to say I still don’t get Motorcycle Emptiness or Little Baby Nothing). Gold Against The Soul was much more consistent – those first three tracks are unbeatable, but it gets hopelessly mired on side B. Then The Holy Bible, of course, which still sounds thrilling, but it’s spoiled a little by Nicky Wire trying to keep up with Richey (for example in Archives of Pain, one of my favourite tracks until I read the stupid lyrics, and PCP – “nowadays I can’t seem to tell the difference” – it’s one thing to skewer left-wing complacency but that just sounds like a guffawing Mail On Sunday columnist.) Nicky was always up to this sort of pointless contrariness – “let’s build a flyover over this shithole,” etc – and it was never appealing. He upped his game after Richey disappeared, but it’s never been enough to get me back into the fold.

    Early-Manics fans were an interesting bunch, I still have a few fanzines somewhere in the loft, generally very interesting, thoughtful, well-read teenagers, much more political and confrontational than goths. A friend went to a fan convention a bit later on and complained that it was a bit too “Have you read The Bell Jar?” “Yes” “It’s good, isn’t it?” “Yes, it is” – but pretentiousness is at least better than lad culture, so that doesn’t sound too bad to me.

  22. 82
    swanstep on 26 Jun 2014 #

    @rory, 74. I’m not sure that it’s the scansion I’m having problems with, but I find I mostly can’t make head nor tails of their lyrics as I hear them in songs – consonants just completely vanish. And without looking up the lyrics online I’d be lost. Yet their lyrics are very meaningful once you track them down! It’s frustrating that they didn’t work on this problem, and, say, get enunciation at least up to Dylan or Joe Strummer or even Thom Yorke standards. I know it sounds slightly patronizing to make such remarks, but it honestly strikes me as a bummer for rock that an evidently really good band ended up not finding the audience world-wide that they could have had.

  23. 83
    Chelovek na lune on 26 Jun 2014 #

    #82 I quite agree with all of that. I think I must have listened to “Yes” dozens of times before I could catch a grip of the lyrics (again: another stunning, unforgettable, chorus, once you’ve heard what they are singing – “ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart is another memorable chorus, and one that is readily comprehensible).

    The combination of slurred enunciation with quite strong valleys accents (found not just in “Yes”, but not uncommonly) means it is easy for the intended meaning to pass the listener by – a great pity, as it is usually worth making the effort…

  24. 84
    wichitalineman on 26 Jun 2014 #

    Re scanning: the Manics were huge fans of McCarthy whose lyrics were always political and scanned badly (see Charles Windsor, which the Manics covered). So I imagine it was intentional, though slightly maddening.

  25. 85
    Rory on 26 Jun 2014 #

    #82 I agree too, the lyrics can be hard to make out. Scansion can be part of that, though. We expect to hear words and sentences stressed in certain ways, and when they’re stressed differently – either to crowbar the lyrics into the music, or because they’re being sung in an unfamiliar accent – they can be harder to make sense of.

  26. 86
    Andrew Farrell on 26 Jun 2014 #

    This discussion makes a lot more sense once I realise that McCarthy and Mclusky are different bands.

  27. 87
    Chelovek na lune on 26 Jun 2014 #

    “Should The Holy Bible Be Banned?”

  28. 88
    23 Daves on 26 Jun 2014 #

    #84 – I was a bit of a fan of McCarthy in my teens. The vinyl gatefold sleeve for “The Enraged Will Inherit The Earth” is interesting in that it present the lyrics as blocks of prose, making no attempt to pretend they’re anything else. When I tried to read the lyrics as the record played, it was a faintly peculiar experience, like listening to someone singing stories from a newspaper or political pamphlet. The breaks in the lines just seemed to crop up as and when the music dictated a pause was necessary. Blew my adolescent mind, it did.

    These days, of course, I tend to think “That would have been an interesting approach to scansion for a few songs, but it seems odd and absurdly restricting to base your entire style around it”.

    FWIW, I don’t think the Manics take it to anything like those lengths.

  29. 89
    Tom on 26 Jun 2014 #

    The only McCarthy song I still own is their attempt to GO BAGGY, “Get A Knife Between Your Teeth”, which I really enjoy partly despite partly because of it’s incredible awkwardness. The issue there isn’t exactly scansion, it’s the sheer discomfort the band seem to have with the genre they’re playing. But I owned The Enraged… too and frankly have played “Get A Knife” about a hundred times more often.

  30. 90
    ace inhibitor on 26 Jun 2014 #

    @88, rhythmically awkward lyrics visually presented as blocks of prose = an old Wire trick (not Nicky)

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