Released On: If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next (Single #21) Epic Records, 24 August 1998
Peak UK Chart Position: #1
Band Ranking: #5
It says a lot about ‘Prologue to History’ that it was chosen as the all-important opening track on the Lipstick Traces compilation. You could say that the reason was because it had been the first B-side on one of the Manics’ most successful singles, but it’s more likely that the song was chosen for its sheer quality and its ability to provide an explosive start to the record; whichever way you slice it, this song is undoubtedly one of the strongest B-sides the Manics made in the 1990s.
If a few of the album tracks and B-sides from Everything Must Go had shown the emergence of Nicky Wire as a solo lyricist, the three new songs on the If You Tolerate single cemented his specific style much further. Maybe even moreso than the single’s A-side, ‘Prologue to History’ has a lyric that no-one else could have written, containing as it does references to politicians, musicians, sporting figures and several more mundane aspects of life in its onslaught of words (it wasn’t just Edwards who could be verbose). Additionally, the song features the emergence of quite strongly autobiographical lyrics about Wire’s own life, a theme which recur occasionally over the following years, especially during B-sides.
In particular, the song contains a moment of self-deprecation with the line “today a poet who can’t play guitar”, which references the low esteem in which Wire’s instrumental abilities have often been held by other musicians and the fact that lyrics – as opposed to his bass playing – are his primary contribution to the band. The song also covers Wire’s apparent love of the small and mundane things in life, from housework to managing finances, as well as his love of sport (previously alluded to in [B77] ‘Mr. Carbohydrate’).
Musically, ‘Prologue to History’ is a surprising departure by the band into what might be described as piano rock; the hammering piano is the dominant instrumentation on a song which is part of the opening salvo of a period for the band during which keyboards in general would become much more important to the sound. As with the single’s A-side, electronic effects are also significant, particularly after the ends of the verses, which feature their own distinctive sound effect. For his part, Moore makes heavy and rapid use of the bass drum during the chorus, over which he plays some excellent fills. Bradfield has a comparatively smaller role, but he is clearly growing into becoming the mouthpiece for Wire’s lyrics – something he would continue doing for many years to come.
The Manics have been accused of throwing together B-sides a little too carelessly from time to time, having them last only long enough to cover the lyrics and then briskly disappearing. ‘Prologue to History’, by contrast, is actually longer than most Manics album tracks at 4:47, with a fairly luxuriant and accomplished outro section where listeners might expect an abrupt stop. This shows very clearly that the recording of the track was important to the band; they were willing to see the full potential of this surging slab of piano-driven rock made real. In so doing, they re-affirmed their strengths as a B-sides band and signposted the increasingly sophisticated sound that would be showcased on This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours.
Choice Lyric (Full Lyrics)
“I’m talking rubbish to cover up the cracks / an empty vessel who can’t make contact”
Kinnock – Neil Kinnock (1942 -) British politician and former leader of the Labour Party. Born in Tredegar, Wales.
Sean William Ryder – (1962 – ) English musician best known as the frontman of the bands Happy Mondays and Black Grape.
Steve Ovett – (1955 -) an English former middle-distance runner who won Gold in the 800m at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. The line “Steve Ovett has injured his calf” is a reference to his struggles with injuries after 1982.
Evian – brand of mineral water obtained from sources on the south shore of Lake Geneva.
Dyson – British technology company founded in 1993 by James Dyson, known primarily for their vacuum cleaners.
TESSAs – tax-exempt special savings account, a type of savings account in the UK introduced by John Major (while Chancellor of the Exchequer) in 1990. Subsequently replaced with the ISA or Individual Savings Account in 1999.
Ethnic cleansing in the Highlands – a reference to the depopulation of the Scottish highlands between roughly 1785 and the late 1850s. Small landowners were forcefully evicted in order to make way for massive sheep farms in a scheme orchestrated by Britain’s then richest man, the Duke of Sutherland.
Phil Bennett – (1948 -) Welsh former rugby union player who played for Wales from 1969 to 1978.