Released On: If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next (Single #21) Epic Records, 24 August 1998
Also On: This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours (Album #5) Epic Records, 14 September 1998
Peak UK Chart Position: #1
Band Ranking: #5
Is this the most important Manics recording of all time? There is certainly a case to be made, and there is simply no doubting that it is within the top five achievements of their career. The band’s first UK #1 single, a world record holder (for the #1 with the longest non-bracketed title), one of their foremost songs in the public consciousness, and – wonderfully – their one hundredth released studio recording.
By 1998, Manic Street Preachers were already on the top rung of British rock bands. Both Everything Must Go and its singles had performed extremely well commercially, and they had won two Brit Awards at the 1997 ceremony. The success of ‘If You Tolerate…’ proved that the Manics being big hitters had not just been a blip in 1996, and helped its parent album power to #1 in the album chart upon its release in September 1998, where it remained for three weeks (‘If You Tolerate…’ was #1 for just one week). Not bad for a song which lifted its title from a Republican Spanish Civil War poster and which was heavily inspired by The Clash’s ‘Spanish Bombs’ and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia… (the Manics would return to the topic of the Civil War with the song ‘My Guernica’)
The song is in some ways contradictory because while in a lyrical sense it returns to the Manics’ roots to some extent – dealing with politics and history, rather than with the loss of Edwards – but it was also a radical departure from their musical history and opened up a new chapter for them in terms of sound. The lyrics are wonderful – among Wire’s best and a devastating end to his period of writer’s block, especially the famous opening lines and the superb “and on the streets tonight an old man plays / with newspaper cutting of his glory days” – but it is really the sound which makes this A-side so remarkable.
Without a doubt, ‘If You Tolerate…’ is cut largely from the same cloth as much of Everything Must Go; it has the same acoustic and electric guitars, scaled-up stadium-ready sound and cleanly soaring Bradfield vocals. However, the addition of plentiful keyboards (including the famous “swoosh” sound, achieved using an organ which was filtered and layered with feedback) and electronic elements give the song its real sense of grandeur and melancholy, the likes of which the Manics just hadn’t recorded before. It is, moreso than anything that had recorded up to this point, beautiful in the truest sense of the word, from the vocal delivery to the superb guitar solo and everything in between. Wire described the overall effect as being “organically futuristic”.
Within the Beatles discography, ‘Get Back’ is the most well-understood song because of its well-documented production through several iterations. At least from a technical perspective, ‘If You Tolerate…’ is the equivalent within the Manic Street Preachers’ body of work. This has much to do with an in-depth feature published in the music technology magazine Sound on Sound in April 1999 (and available online). In it, producer Dave Eringa goes into great detail on how the recording was put together – reproducing the piece here would be pointless, but it is worth picking out a few crucial nuggets.
Most significantly, Eringa reveals that the song was “barely written” when the Manics entered Rockfield Studios in January 1998 and it was originally thought of as potential B-side material (!). Another song that was later to appear on the album, [T111] ‘Be Natural’, was provoking more excitement amongst the band members at the time. Bradfield recorded his vocals not using the conventional hanging microphone set up, but rather by walking around the room with a Shure handheld mic instead – the vocals were done in just three takes. In an example of what you might call record company interference, the third chorus was only added to the song because Epic executives requested it; whether anything like this has ever happened on other Manics recordings is unknown.
The single sold a massive 156,000 copies in its first week of release and has held an enduringly positive reputation among many fans (although those fans who enjoy only the Manics’ faster and heavier material see little in it) and the band themselves. In the 2011 NME singles feature, Wire said of the song, “there’s not a thing any of us would change”. The Manics have only very rarely been covered by other artists, but due to its massive success and notoriety one or two versions of this track do exist. Although it is not a full cover, Thom Yorke of Radiohead once sang the song’s chorus during a live show.
Wire was also full of deserved praise for the single’s surreal, mildly disturbing video which has a clinical, suffocating feel to it despite its brightness. The director was W.I.Z., returning for his fourth and final effort with the band.
Choice Lyric (Full Lyrics)
“and on the streets tonight an old man plays / with newspaper cutting of his glory days”
“so if I can shoot rabbits / then I can shoot fascists” – purportedly a quote from a Welsh farmer who joined the International Brigades, a group of foreign volunteers from around the world who travelled to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 39).
Las Ramblas – a generic name for main avenues in a number of Spanish cities but most often used to refer (as in this case) to the one in Barcelona. George Orwell made specific reference to Las Ramblas in his book Homage to Catalonia, which documented his experiences during the Spanish Civil War.