I was sorting out my iTunes recently, making playlists of my most played artists. To my surprise, at the top of my Manic Street Preachers was their first number one from September 1998 “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”. Now this definitely isn’t my favourite song by the band, but once I started thinking about it, I realized why it was the top of my most played list. This song is possibly one of the most important songs they have ever made. It is everything they wanted to be, with or without Richey.
As most fans would know, the song is about the Spanish Civil War – the title being a slogan from a propaganda poster I think. I’m not going to pretend to be a history expert on this war as I’ve never studied it, but I understand that it was war against fascism, hence the line “If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists”. The lyrics seem to also mourn the apathy of current generation and their ignorance towards history in general. It is indeed quite frightening how the last century contained the worst conflicts in human history (some of which continue as we speak) yet today most of us live in comfort with no knowledge of what war is like. The only thing we have left is what is recorded of it “monuments put from pen to paper” which only serve to make us think and analyse, but never experience the truth.
There is a sense of shame about our apathy towards the whole subject. We are prepared for solitude so are never really taught to stand up for anything that affects all of us, such as a war on the scale of the Spanish Civil War, about something that violates democracy (fascism),instead moving through life with little purpose “I’ve walked Las Ramblas, but not with real intent”. One of my favourite lines is “Gravity keeps my head down, or is it maybe shame? / At being so young and being so vain”. It sums up the feeling of being ashamed of what you are and how you feel powerless to do much about it. The juxtaposition of lines such as “Holes in your head today / But I’m a pacifist” are powerful as in they couldn’t get more different; just like the war generation and now ours.
Aside from the lyrics, the music complements it beautifully. If the words were set to an angry punk backing track along the lines of “The Masses Against The Classes”, it would run the risk of sounding loud, clumsy, and (excuse the pun) preachy. But set with the subdued but sonic sounding music, it comes across powerfully, but in the sense that it leaves you thinking, not jumping up and down with adrenaline. The climatic last 90 seconds are particularly impressive; James Dean Bradfield’s harmonizing is melancholic but also soaring and uplifting. The most subtle thing they’ve ever done, but consequently the most affecting.
Most Manics songs have a political undertone to some extent, but this is where it has been most fully realized I think. I remember reading a Richey Edwards quote where he said something about wanting to make a song like Motorcycle Emptiness, one that was shorter and more radio friendly but still got their ideas across. Even though he had no part in writing this, you can see his influence. And his wish came true – it’s a shame he wasn’t around to see it happen. No other band could get a song about war to Number One in the UK and around the world. Although a lot of the listeners probably wouldn’t connect with the meaning of the song (as I have interpreted it, of course this could all be wrong), it’s good to know that some would, and take the message that if we continue to act so unaware and apathetically, then there is not much hope for the next generation.