In which Pete and Ed listen to something by The Fall and then write about it.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Perverted By Language (Album) / The Man Whose Head Expanded (Single) / Kicker Conspiracy (Single) (1983)

Pete says:


There have been many pithy and quotable things said about change.  For example - a change is as good as a rest.  Clearly nonsense, because if you're lifting 25kg, and then you change to 225kg, I suspect you're unlikely to feel rested.  Also - the only constant is change, which is a quote that seems sensible, then paradoxical, and then sort of flits between the two extremes, dithering about like a prat.

These days change is something to be studied, like biology, or Kilingon.  Invariably you will find analysis of how change effects people, or groups of people, and of course, the findings of these studies are often so blindingly obvious that people who's whole careers depend on them appearing more clever than they are nod their heads sagely, gently exhaling and maintaining their cool demeanour, whilst inside their minds race and quiver and scream "I HAVEN'T A FUCKING CLUE WHAT I'M DOING!  WHAT IS THIS JOB!?  WHAT IS MY PURPOSE?!  WHO THE FUCK AM I?!".

So change is a tangible thing, at least if one defines 'a tangible thing' as something that people can make money out of.  And yes, people's responses to change can be examined and understood, and most of the time fall into recognisable patterns.  But change in relation to The Fall is different.  Whereas in most situations change is a reaction to outside stimuli, or internal ennui, in The Fall change - in personnel, sound, outlook - is a weapon yielded by the boss in order to maintain an edge, both in terms of his authority and their product.  To borrow from the changeologists for one moment, the Fall's change cycle looks like this...

So you maybe wondering what this little diversion is all about, as am I really.  I suppose in essence its a manifestation of my response to Perverted By Language - on one hand, a satisfied understanding of where we're at, and on the other a gaping lack of comprehension.  Perverted is an album of two halves, all muddled together.  One one hand we've got Fall-pop, hooky tunes that breeze along, dragging you in with an exuberant demonstration of whatever particular vibe they are purveying.  And on the other hand we have a set of long, repetitious songs, with lyrics that go on and on, music and voice unrelenting in its intent to convey something seriously difficult to ascertain.  And before we get into the nitty gritty we have to ask why.  Why is it that a stylistic division so clear has occurred?  Well, its that 'C' word banded about so wantonly above.  Perverted, it is clear to me now, is an album born from creative uncertainty though not a lack of confidence.  Post Riley, and with this new woman Brix who's influence is starting to seep into the corners of Fallworld, it seems to me that the band are audibly working out which way to go, and there are two feasible paths that have opened up to them - the long, drawn out performance poerty like dirges (a word not used pejoratively), or the snappy tunes with choruses and other discernible features.

The former category consists of Neighbourhood of Infinity, Garden, Smile, and Tempo House.  Each of these groovy little numbers has a single, or couple of sections, which pretty much repeat themselves up until MES has done rambling... and that is an oversimplification (there's texture, variety, dynamics and whatnot) but its a fair assessment.  Now on paper, at least to this listener, that doesn't sound like much to write home about, and Neighbourhood is merely alright - it's certainly got some balls - but by the time the final line "we are the Fall" comes around it feels a bit like stating the obvious.  However, the other three are fascinating and at moments breathtaking (though let me state here and now that they just aren't the kind of schnizzle to inhabit my iPod).  Garden, over a chiming guitar, is a meander into mythology, but I'm at a total loss to explain much more than that, aside from the fact that at the end of the song, when MES proclaims "He's here / He's here at last / I saw him / I swear / Jew on a motorbike / Jew on a motorbike / Jew on a motorbike..." there's a tangible sense of it meaning something very, very personally important.  Now let me be clear, I suspect it doesn't - I really don't think that Garden is MES exploring his pang for religion lying deep, deep in his heart (because I don't think he has one... a pang that is, I assume he has a heart...), but I think that's the power of this shape of song when you have a writer as enigmatically gifted with his words.

Smile is, I think, another character study though it's very hard to tell with MES at the minute.  Never has the word 'smile' seemed so terrifying as it's screeched out again and again psychotically, with the band being whipped up, up, up, UP, UP into a frenzy... in an unusual 10/4 time signature I believe... as yet another faker gets shot down:
Tight faded male arse
Decadence and Anarchy
He said, he smiled
Something to dance to
A certain style
... its a song which takes me by surprise every time I hear it.  But it's Tempo House which really takes the biscuit in this little subsection of Fall output.  A lollopy Fallfunk backing, which goes on and on and on and when it finally changes just alters how long the changes change, and with MES clearly enjoying some of the smartest one-liners he's ever come up with all in one song - "God damn the pedantic Welsh", "the Dutch are weeping in four languages at least", "Winston Churchill had a speech imp-p-p-pediment, and look what he did - he razed half of London".  It's such a weird piece of music 'cos it never launches off, it never tries to do more that it must, it just rolls long and happens.  As with all four of these tunes its an odd listening experience.  They all feel very 'arty', all determined to exist on their own terms.  The Fall of the past seemed to subvert popular music by aping it (and often doing it better), or analysing themselves as it happened (cf Dragnet), but here on Perverted - taking a cue perhaps from Winter, New Puritan, Iceland etc - they have moved beyond such frippery, and instead perhaps are sincerely creating, arts-for-arts-saking.  And this could have been the future...

... but its not going to be, and that's because of a little thing about to become massive - Brix Smith.  It's dangerous to personify, but let's do it anyway - Brix = pop and showbiz and fun and style.  And though I am jumping the gun here - after all, she's hardly on this record - the other side of Perverted, also demonstrated by the singles released around the time, is poppy and snappy and dammit, no matter how cool I'd like to pretend to be, at heart that's what I want from my music most of the time.  I want hooks all over the place, I want grooves and licks, I want words that snap and spark and giggle.

Let's gloss the dross.  Ironically, the epoch making moment that is Brix's first clear and upfront vocal on a Fall record is Hotel Bloedel, and its shit.  Don't let Ed tell you any different, it lets down the record, it's a shame.  But mercy me - hearing such a prominent female, American vocal on a Fall song is really quite shocking when up until now its been beery Mancunians.  And the final track, Hexen Definitive-Strife Knot is pretty naff too, a weird twist on country riffs that only picks up toward the end during the Strife Knot bit... and on reflection it isn't really that poppy at all, so might bridge the gap.  Badly.  So pop isn't doing so well so far really...

But the two final tracks here, especially when considered alongside the singles, point the way magnificently.  Opener Eat Y'Self Fitter, a mish-mash of observational comedy, judders along with a dumb riff, an acapella chorus, and enough verve to sink a ship.  Like Tempo House it has far more than its fair share of quotable lines, and is one of those Fall songs that pops into your head when you're not really expecting it - stuff like 'the centimetre square said it purged fear' shouldn't really stick, but it just does.  And also its worth noting that when we heard this live last time out we didn't have Brix gleefully joining in with the chorus refrain, and it makes such a difference to the song, an added element, a wash of colour.  And in my opinion, the standout track here is I Feel Voxish, a funky, groovy pop beast, which sounds a simple little thing but which is actually deceptively clever with sneaky verses and choruses, and a lovely Scanlon guitar riff that sounds like a clown, and two grumbly basses doing odd things to your bowels.  MES is on top form, shamelessly employing hooky melody and smart, sassy words:
I've been sharpening a knife in the bathroom
On a brick I got from the garden
No one will fuck with me again
And yet another Fall lyric that refuses to budge from the mind - 'Offer, offer it was more than a reasonable offer / But it made me hungry'.

Why so many quotable lines on this record, from a group that's rarely been in short supply of them?  If anything, MES is getting more and more ambiguous generally (certainly, post Grotesque and Dragnet we've not had many lyrics one could describe as straight), and I suppose that perhaps the vocals are much clearer in the mix now than they were.  Having said that, the two singles seem to have more narrative or sense in them than anything on Perverted - The Man Who's Head Expanded being some sort of horror story mixed with self-agrandisement of a sort, and Kicker Conspiracy being a state of the footballing nation address.  Even here though MES is toying with meaning and whatnot - the former has the line 'sounds like my head, trying to unravel this lot' and the accusation that t'he soap opera writer, would follow him around
and use his jewels for T.V. prime time'.  Anyway, in short its the thankful return of the mighty Fall single, and even the B-sides are ace.

So, given that to my mind Perverted is a product of a band trying to work out where to go next its an unqualified success.  It stands alone really, like Witch Trials does, not as a stopgap, but as a marker on the road.  While never the first Fall album I'd leap for, repeated listens in the right frame of mind reveal an engrossing body of work, and a band (or at least a leader) thriving off change, though maybe not uncertainty, as MES sounds a clear and focused as ever.  Let's see what happens when he gets married.

Ed says:

To begin with, apologies for the delay in getting this one together, there’s been a lot of (positive) upheaval in my life during the last month and time has been at a premium. So, I’m trying to give this the attention it deserves, but forgive me if there are elements in what follows that are somewhat perfunctory.

With its ramshackle, tinny, claustrophobic aesthetic, Perverted By Language would probably not be described as one of The Fall’s most accessible albums, but then why should that be such a bad thing? It shouldn’t be a bad thing, he says, answering his own self serving rhetorical question.

This is the post-Riley album and it is now the dawning of the age of Brix Smith, improbable new spouse of MES and improbable new Fall member. Inspired casting and a great catalyst to propel The Fall off in an interesting new direction, improbably resulting in daytime radio airplay and actual non-indie chart positions. Some people, or course, see this as being most definitely a bad thing - these people are incorrect. The Fall thrive on upheaval.

Anyway. Brix is on the scene. Glamorous, blond, American and fantastically incongruous amid the rest of the, lets face it, pretty dour looking Fall line up. Her influence on PBL is there, but compared with later releases, slight. It’s a bit early in the game really.

I struggled for a while when it came to working out how to begin with this record. For all its immediate impression of sonic murk, repeated listens yield plenty of subtlety. I realised the best course of action would to be to call in a non-Fall fan to provide an impartial assessment of the opening track, Eat Y’Self Fitter, so I asked my friend Mike who has a varied music taste but has never really got that into The Fall. This was his response:

‘Listened to the track two and a half times. I enjoyed it.

The weedy guitar and bass lead suited my tastes. It struck me that musically it was sort of a jerky track, if it was a breakbeat or sampled loop I would have thought it was chopped in half and we were only hearing the first half.

Start-stop start-stop.

Vocals. I enjoyed. Particular enjoyed the bit mid way through when he talked about panic in granada-land followed by the eat each other chorus. For me it conjured up imagery of working man being caught up in some sort of cannibal outbreak.’

Which was great because Mike has already hit on a few things that are particularly interesting about PBL. Thanks Mike!

First - the bass. One of the exciting things about this record is the sheer prominence given to the bass, either by design or happy accident, and that the actual music that Steve Hanley is wringing from it it is compelling. ‘Wringing’ almost feels like the right word - as Mr Hanley sounds, and when you see gig footage, looks, like a man who puts so much controlled force and precision into playing the bass that he is in danger of dismantling it in the process. The bass really drives this record. It wanders, it pushes, it controls.

Secondly - the weedy guitar. As mentioned before, we are now in the Brix era, but at this stage it sounds like it’s mainly (or totally) Scanlon on guitar. Its thin, skeletal, jarring, trebly and just works. There’s a nice sense of space created by the absence of Riley, although I think this actually works better on the Live in Iceland recording from last time as there is a certain crispness that is missing in the aesthetic of the PBL recording.

Thirdly - the broken loop of Eat Y’Self Fitter. We’re still in the realm of repetition, as we will always be to a certain extent, but new and sometimes more punishing exercises in the art seem to be afforded by the double drummer line up. Harsh, pounding tom assaults and late night hypnotic interweaving figures.

Finally, the vocals and the lyrics. A slight move away from the story songs, the novellas, and more towards impressions and snippets, notebook scraps and weird dream scenarios. Presented in possibly the most confident manner yet.

So, Mike’s thoughts on Eat Y’Self Fitter got the ball rolling quite nicely. To me its a particularly stern - at least at first - entry test, disorientating whirligig experimental theatre. An unrelenting hammering (the ‘broken loop’) with a combination of scenarios involving renting videos, operating early home computers and meeting your heroes, all resolving to catchy anti-hook ‘Eat Y’self Fitter!’. Its a total racket and I love it. Also, one of my favourite music videos of all time:

‘I used to have this thing about Link Wray, I’d listen to play him every Saturday. God bless Saturday’ already seems like the reminisces of an old man, or someone who’s already clocked up a lot of mileage. Neighbourhood of Infinity has that kind of motorik (argh!) buzzing ranting. Triumphantly (?) ‘We are The Fall!’. Its OK, but not particularly exciting.

And then, casually, The Fall drop one of the all time greats, the preposterously stunning Garden. A beautiful, intricate ringing simple guitar riff. A kind of reel. Weirdly folky. A great performance that is then elevated even higher by MES’ input. A sprawling, proper metaphysical fantasy narrative, touching on weird religious imagery and perhaps the second coming of ‘a Jew on a motorbike’.
‘The first god had in his garden
From the back looked like a household pet
When it twirled round was revealed to be
A three-legged black-grey hog’
A dream?

Brix pops up properly for the first time on Hotel Bloedel. Taking lead vocals with MES intoning over the top:
2013 Philippsburg Confederate graves
Are uncovered, throwing new light on
This 19th century conflict, sparking a repeat
These southern spectres were disease ridden, dusty, organic
And psychic
A slow sombre acoustic strum. Brix’s vocals are extremely out of tune and yet it works for me. (Question: do ‘we’ expect women to be tuneful when they sing but are much more tolerant of wayward notes when men do it?). And images such as:
Gregor, satiated walking thru' capitol
Stumbles on two thousand dead Thai monks in SS uniforms
get me big style. A highlight.

Smile is one of those full on martial snare heavy numbers that could fit in well during Hex era Fall, but works here too where it’s all about the drums , the bass and the changes in dynamic. An animated, barking MES presenting a picture of internal turmoil - ‘repeal gun laws in my brain’ in a claustrophobic ‘designed from above club’. Short, intense, excoriating. Although, I prefer the Peel session version.

I Feel Voxish has that slightly motorik (argh!) vibe of Neighbourhood of Infinity, but again fails to really connect with me.

Finishing up, we have Tempo House, a stunning slomo lumbering bass lead opus crowned with a commanding vocal performance from MES which seems to alternate between authoritative, whimsical (yes) and sarcastic. Also contains one of my favourite all time Fall lines: ‘The Dutch are weeping in four languages at least’ and the weird ‘God-damn the pedantic Welsh!’.

In addition, a couple of brilliant non-album singles from the same time.

The Man Whose Head Expanded. A good old fashioned Fall story song in the vein of How I Wrote Elastic Man or New Face In Hell... the grinding bass is killer. Set to an out of control Casiotone preset. Everything is right. It slows down in the middle. ‘Turn that bloody blimey space invader off’. A man is being stalked by a soap opera writer who is plagiarising his life for prime time:
The scriptwriter would follow him around,
of this he was convinced. It was no coincidence.
The lager seemed poisoned.
On the other side we have the bludgeoning charm, if that’s a thing, of Ludd Gang. Which is weirdly catchy for a piece of music of that finds a chord it likes and sticks to it. Bonus points for having a pop at Welsh Elvis, Shakin’ Stevens. Shakin’ Stevens seems like some sort of fucking weird group hallucination now.

The other double A sided single is even better. Kicker Conspiracy - rumination on football, the incompetence of the FA and ‘how flair is punished’. Includes the excellent:
Pat McGatt. Pat McGatt, the very famous sports reporter is
FANS! "Remember, you are abroad!
Remember the police are rough!
Remember the unemployed!
Remember my expense account!
A catchy, driving awkward pop song. I love it, but Northern types with who grew up with eighties football will probably get even more out of it.  The other A is the even better Wings. A tale of purchasing ‘a pair of flabby wings’ that facilitate time travel, where unfortunately due to a mishap the owner ends up getting stuck in the 1860s. Its pretty much one of the best things ever in the history of things, but I’m not sure if I could relate exactly why I think that. A combination of musical and lyrical ideas that might not gel with the right performance, delivery and recording. The chemistry is just bang on. Listen:

That’s it for this time. I hope it hasn’t been too perfunctory. However, listen to Perverted By Language. It is one of those records that actually improves with repeated listens, imperfect but full of substance. Plenty to chew on.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Austurbæjarbíó: Live in Reykjavík (Live Album) (1983)

Ed says:

I don’t believe there is such a thing as the definitive Fall. Such is the nature of the group that often even their most together and clear headed releases seem like snapshots of an ever evolving, never settling entity. Much is made of the ever changing Fall line up, and even though we have already gone through a few members, the core - give or take a drummer, has not changed since Dragnet, way back in the mists of time.

However, a key personnel change has occurred - Marc Riley has left the building, the final shedding of a vestigial limb. Exiting in some acrimony, perhaps you feel, due to the desire to be more of a personality than being a Fall ‘musik arbeiter’ allowed. The ‘Happy Fall Guitarist’ has the temerity to dance to ‘Rock The Casbah’ in a NZ disco, prompting a physical altercation with MES and a steep decline in relations. Anyway, regardless of the soap opera stuff, The Fall has lost a key member.

Change represents opportunity if you embrace it. What makes Austurbæjarbíó: Live in Reykjavík fascinating, is it’s a glimpse at a very short lived incarnation of the band - post-Riley and just pre-Brix (more on her next edition). A brittler Fall, Scanlon’s sparse guitar set against the double drummer and bass onslaught. It’s ace, and what’s more a unique Fall Sound. A lot of the tracks are new and will be appearing on an album that we’ll be getting to next, and perversely, or appropriately, this soundboard recording taken from a 1983 club show in the far, far north contains the superior versions.

Sparse, stripped down, but there’s less noise and more clarity. Precision - not the Hex onslaught, or the Room To Live murk, everything breathes, everything sits in it’s space. Particularly the vocals of MES - he intones, he’s direct, he make that clipped shrieking noise, buzzing noises, stretches our syllables, builds and releases tension in a what is essentially an very impressive vocal performance. There’s an element of drunk-myself-sober weariness to his tone, but with a very specific commanding directness. Intimate even.

So, personally, I love this recording - for its oddness, for performance and for the generally rather exciting nature of the music. I don’t want to talk about individual tracks too much because I’d rather look at them in the album context next time. However, some specific highlights:

The ‘best British attention to the wrong detail’ is expanded on, in what is possibly my favourite version of The Classical:

Dear Customer. Prior to delivery, this fine Ford Kawasaki XL Escort was given a thorough inspection by Fred here in the white coat. Please note - the coin slot on the dashboard. Please note - the fuel exhaustion limit reader. Please note the elephant house aroma of the dashboard.
Pete’s perennial hate object, Look Know. Well I love it, but this version is particularly pointed, aggressive, sarcastic - ‘He was the first to wear an idiotic jacket in a club...There’s a microbe attached to their brains which itches...’. The sardonic backing vocals of the Fall workers at the back.

Backdrop. This occurs occasionally on live recordings but as far as I know never got a ‘proper’ recorded release, which is a shame because it is, in the words of Melvyn Bragg on the In Our Time Fall episode, ‘fucking immense’. I could imagine this as a full on balls to the wall Hex number, but this version simmers away, building up for a full 12 minutes. A twisting, conspiracy laden narrative that takes on the Leciester YOP instructor who may be having some issues with reality, time, place and military history. Set against a backdrop which ‘shifted and changed’:

It's about time you started thinking
About the black dog on your back
Said it's about time you started thinking
About the rerun which is your life
Moveable backdrop
Five minutes in - there’s maniacal hollow laughing. Everytime I hear it I find it hard not to join in, before the admonishment - ‘You wouldn’t laugh! You wouldn’t laugh’. Marvellous. So really, give this live album a listen, it is is essential, even for the casual listener.

Pete says:

Ok, I confess, I have an akward relationship with live albums. As a music fan this is something that I try to ignore, try to swallow away, but ultimately to my shame I know deep deep down that whereas I think I ought to enjoy a document a document of a gig, generally I struggle to engage with them. There are exceptions of course (many of them by Bob Dylan), but here's the thing - unless a band rip up the template and significantly veer away from the studio recording, I more often than not just begin to pine for the 'original'. I think that my band mates will already know this, but when many musicians thirst for the stage, I get very giddy when I've a glass of wine, a multitude of instruments around me, Andy Wood ready to press record, and a licence to play. This is quite possibly a hangover of my first musical obsession - some obscure 60s band who eschewed the stage and saw the studio as an instrument - but unfortunately it remains with me, meaning that more often than not live albums slip from under my gaze when I'm selecting what I want to listen to. For me, a live performance is a individual, unique thing. Wherever you may be, whoever you may be seeing, you'll be the only person to get the exact view that you had, the only person to experience that hour or two exactly the way you experienced it. The people you went with, the beer you drank, the randoms you danced next to, the sweat that you… sweated - it is these things that make your gig, these things that garnish the memory of the music. The moment that that music is crystallised then that uniqueness is diluted, and I find myself unable to tune into the 'energy', the 'mood', all the things that normal people seem to find enthralling. So I confess ladies and gentlemen - in general I find it difficult to truly dig recordings of live music. I'm sorry. However, I'm no fool, and when something worthwhile pricks my ears then I know that its worth tuning in, and Live In Reykjavik is indeed very worthwhile indeed. Well recorded, very well played, and with what sounds like a reasonably large and appreciative audience, this time's offering is not only brand new to me, but allows us an insight into the Fall at this potentially difficult post-Riley moment. And lets be honest here, The Fall seem to be a band that thrives on 'potentially difficult', to the extent that sometimes sacking a pretty much founding member of the band serves as a tonic. There's very little MES chit-chat here, and you get a sense while listening that its baton down the hatches time, retreat to to each other and come out as a unified fighting force. The twin drums and singular guitar attack form a scathing, spiky sonic space (though I feel sure that at points - I Feel Voxish most clearly - someone, presumably Karl Burns, has moved onto some instrument or other to provide a bit more harmony. Though quite what that instrument is I'm really not sure), and MES is very, very focused, enunciating clearly, and reveling in yet another pretty brand new set of tunes which lyrically are a clear step up from Room To Live. This angular sound reminds me at points of early Talking Heads, a connection only reinforced by MES's vocal tics and affectations which feel very fresh. I don't want to go into detail about the songs, as almost all of them will crop up on the next album, suffice to say that The Classical is tight and huge, Look, Know as good as its ever going to be, and Backdrop brand new top my ears I think, which is always a nice surprise. The rest are often long, invariably brilliant, and sometimes very, very funny. So, thought this is a short contribution from me do not be fooled - Live at Reykjavik is a superb document of the outset of this new Fall and highly recommended.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Look Know (Single) (1982) / Room To Live (Album) (1982)

Pete says:

Right - I don't have time for this right now.  Bored of the Internet and all its myriad opportunities for speedy and seamless communication, mobile phones and their oppressive mobility, and even face-to-face communication which requires me to wash and shit, I've decided the way forward - yes, I'm into C.B.  Inspired by my grandmothers worries about my Uncle 25 odd years ago I've decided that the real new way forward is hooking up with Container Drivers and adolescents with spotty exteriors, all code names and lingo, static over everything.  Who needs 'lola' and 'stalks'?  Who needs irritating use of punctuation to make faces which help the reader understand the tone and intent of a message (as the writer often cannot make full use of those handy tools - words - to do the job independently)?  Yes, I'm whacking a whopping ariel on my roof, and am going to spend the rest of my days gibbering and increasing my use of the word 'over'. Magic.

So clearly, I'm Into CB, B-Side to that dreadful song that I shan't even name, is my favourite thing this week.  Why?  Well, its funny, clever, and doesn't sound like it was recorded in a Mancunians arse - a healthy dose of unremitting repetition, and a MES lyric which pleases the ear and the mind:
This is Happy Harry Plank
from the land of waving palms
calling out to Cedar Plank
477 CC
There's no Code 13
In the home of chocolate city
I'm having trouble with the terminology
But I'm into CB
Triffic.  Will that do Ed?

No - ok then.  Room To Live is such a let down.  I've tried hard to get past this, but its proved to be impossible.  With hindsight, and you know my feelings about this approach but its the only way with this oddity, it's the Fall equivalent of a dose of salts - thankfully, its over reasonably quickly, and clears you out ready for the next thing.  To whit - post Hex its clear that the band were perilously close to making a name for themselves in something of a conventional manner by making wilfully unconventional music.  The songs, sounds and sense of Hex are all so off the scale that contemporaneously you could't have foreseen this band do anything else than get more and more off the piste - the Radiohead approach post OK Computer, if you will.  But The Fall, it has become clear, just refuse to pander to expectation, so if you're expecting weird from them they'll go elsewhere - Hard Life In Country could have come straight off Witch Trials, and Solicitor in Studio is poptastic.  In addition, this is the last we'll see of Mark Riley.  Now, aside from honking backing vocals, I think Riley has probably been a massive architect of The Fall thus far.  I say 'probably' because in all honesty I find it very hard to ascertain quite who brought what to the party.  Regardless, we'll see no more of him, and maybe we'll be better placed to work out what this means when we start to hear his replacement in the mix…

So anyway the most fundamental issue with Room To Live is that it is recorded so dreadfully that even for a seasoned Fall-listener the sonics of it prove to detract from the music, and even with the idiosyncratic production we've had thus far, this is the fist time is bothered me to such an extent that it spoils the songs.  But having said that, aside from two I'm not even sure the songs are up to much.  The aforementioned Hard Life In Country is dull, its portentous music failing to gel with its 'muss types hit rural England' lyric.  You're never sure where your sympathies or concern should lie, no words spark the ear, and '[getting] a terrible urge to drink isn't far wrong.  The title track just burbles along (though the sax is a nice addition to the Fall-sound) never really doing anything exciting, shifting up a key or two just to kill time, and by the time MES espouses that 'there's no hate to the point I give / I just want room to live' you start to wish there was some more aggression to alleviate the boredom.  And though I know Ed is keen, Solicitor in the Studio is flat, especially which you realise that it opens with the same chords of 'Slates, Slags, Etc.', and you can't help but recall how vibrant and thrilling that whole collection of tunes was.

On the up side, Detective Instinct has some nice moments, its bass-heavy flat-foot suspicious guitar creep backing some playful notions about a naff suburban dick:
Two thugs knocked down an old tree for an old lady's whim
Detective instinct
They were reasonable at first, it seemed…
The man at the bar had a v-neck vest on
No, it was a v-neck waistcoat
Detective instinct
… but even this pales after a while.  The opening two tracks are by far the strongest things here - Joker Hysterical Face showcasing yet another 'best Fall riff ever' contenter, a lovely lollopy thing with a silly grin and the song manages to match up to it (though to my suporise, the line 'Ted Roger's brains burn in hell' which used to make me smile just irritates me know, especially as it's repeated), but the jewel in the real plastic gold crown is Marquis Cha Cha, a clear sign that even with the weakest production true class shines through.  It's a daft little spin on Lord Haw Haw, with MES never being able to go home.  In three chunky sections which plop in and around each other Room To Live saves itself.  Still could be better recorded though.

Oh - final track is Papal Visit.  Its shit.  Just noise and nonsense.  I suspect Ed likes it a bit.  He is wrong.

Gah - sorry.  Very negative I know, but necessary.  Room To Live, in my opinion marks the true end of The Fall's early period.  Which therefore means something new… exciting this, isn't it?

Ed says:

I have to admit, the last few reviews have been difficult to write. I’ve been tying myself in knots trying to convey the brilliance of the classic run of output from Dragnet through to Hex using the blunt tool that is my own vocabulary. This week has been a little easier because what we are dealing with is a little flawed, a little imperfect - although I must add not, without its substantial charms.

So - tortuous analogy time now - if Hex Enduction Hour is Thelma and Louise gunning that Thunderbird off the cliff, going out in one final blaze of glory in the expectation of being dashed to pieces on the rocks below, Room To Live is The Fall, er I mean Thelma and Louise, finding themselves bruised but miraculously alive at the bottom. And them the question is - where do you go from there after such a definitive total and final statement?

(Tune in for later installments for my Briget Jones’ Diary theory of Bend Sinister)

How do you follow up the head down single minded intensity of Hex? You don’t. You kick back, regroup, ease off, recharge. To paraphrase - get some fucking respite.

Room to Live - essentially the overspill from an extended weekend recording session for a single, we have a odd assortment of experiments collected together in a mini-album.

Don’t start improvising for god’s sake!

The line up is fracturing in unspoken anticipation of one of the more major shifts in Fall personnel since Dragnet. Marc Riley is on the way out and this will be his last appearance. This will also be the last appearance of secret weapon Kay Carroll, who is listed as the producer of most of the tracks on this album, with the exception of the two poorest ones. Credits on this record are confused - who plays what? It’s hard to know, musicians were encouraged to chop and change. There are a couple of guest players, one of whom is Arthur Cadman of Ludus, who plays for 16 seconds on a track, and gains the honour of being the shortest lived member of The Fall.

In terms of personnel, things are shifting and changing, we’ve had a solid few years and Room To Live could be viewed as snapshot of a band in flux. Possibly like the bit when Doctor Who regenerates and he’s half his predecessor and half his new incarnation and he’s going all mental and flailing around the TARDIS and gibbering and shit. See the record as half a capping off of the previous incarnation of The Fall and part a tentative searching for the new identity.

Well that’s some background and a few bits of half baked speculation. Now the music. Opener, Joker Hysterical Face is a cheeky lolloping, as oddly jaunty number. All swaggering bass, twanging guitar and swinging drums. Offsetting a depressing domestic scene of simmering resentment over the breakfast table. Notable for the marvellous line ‘Ted Rodgers’ brains burn in hell’:

A certain shortcut to a certain drab early 1980s mediocrity - crap food, rubbish TV, woodchip wallpaper, un-ironic moustaches and now defunct brands of lager. It’s a tasty little number, but it is lacking a certain something and never really takes off.

Marquis Cha-Cha is a highlight. A character study, an alter ego. The Lord Haw-Haw of the Argentines, of the Falklands War. Rumpled linen suit traitor trapped at the bar in some god forsaken South American dive. Broadcasting on behalf of his paymasters from the junta to his compatriots back home:
Hey you people over there
And those in sea and air
It has been theirs for years
It is a good life here
Football and beer much superior
Gringo gets cheap servant staff
Low tax and a dusky wife
A rumbling, awkward funk number with marvellous bellowed hook - ‘Marquis! Cha cha!”

He can never go home. This is again The Fall doing something brilliant with a well imagined character study, spotting weird tangents to jump off from, avoid the well trodden.

Hard Life In The Country. Musically it comes through like a Dragnet retread and so feels a little misplaced. Musically, I find it hard to get that excited about it. The lyrics however, are great, drawing perhaps on that vein of horror where the country can do you no good and is full of malice. What The League of Gentlemen did so well. The country is always years behind - the car parks are full of David Bowie clones. A malevolent pitchfork wielding mob of Aladdin Sanes?
The villagers
Are surrounding the house
The locals have come for their due
It's hard to live in the country
Title track Room to Live fails to hit the mark too. Evoking some of the more pastoral moments of Slates, it goes nowhere. Some words about wanting ‘Room to Live’. No can’t get into it. A misfire.

Detective Instinct, however, has real substance and real weirdness. Another character study - a character conducting character studies?
You can tell by his fashion
That boy's been in prison
Detective instinct
The Dragnet closing in. Hard boiled detective monologue? The bass is insistent, the guitar creepy sliding in from the periphery, and the percussion hap hazard. Case notes muttered into a tape recorder, in a back room, over a bottle of whisky? There is the touch of the noir. Paranoia hangs thick. Who knows what the case is, or if there is indeed a case? In short a study in uneasiness and stifling atmosphere. Which is a good thing. Alongside Marquis Cha-Cha, a highlight.

And one final highlight is Solicitor In Studio. There’s this enthusiastic exuberant bouncy bassline with the touch of the wideboy about it - there’s the feel of the more anarchic end of kids TV around the whole thing. Although the subject is a more grown up panel show, tedious point/counterpoint talking heads, the likes of Patrick Moore and Magnus Pike - ‘Scientists and their bloody childish reading habits’. I don’t think it would be too much of a leap to imagine this is MES on the sofa, observing and making notes. Inspiration can come from anywhere. Again, a great song derived from the mundane, and of course the same-as-it-ever-was observation that ‘Young and old dicks make TV’. Also, another one of those world collapsing in on itself anti-choruses. If I recall correctly, Pete can’t stand this song, so I’d be quite interesting in hearing why - to my mind there’s nothing not to like.

The set closes with Papal Visit, which is, to be frank, totally fucking ridiculous. How ridiculous? Mark E Smith plays the violin. I’m guessing he’s had no formal training, no decades ensconced in the conservatory. Essentially it is the sound of a man who can’t play the violin scraping the strings for five minutes under a bed of thumping toms. With a pretty good poem about the Pope’s 1982 UK visit over the top of it that’s probably best off read from the page.

That’s Room to Live. A mixed bag - more good than bad and certainly nothing awful - even Papal Visit, which by the nature of it being so very ridiculous makes it is hard not to have some sort of affection for. The catharsis of Hex has in a way wiped the slate clean.Things are moving on, and a new set up is beginning to evolve. Instead of sticking to a formula that has given them success, they are going somewhere new, changing up both the music and some of the personnel in search of the new thing.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Hex Enduction Hour (Album) (1982)

Ed Says:

It has been a few weeks since the last entry. This has been partly down to being incredibly busy and partly down to procrastination. Procrastination because the idea of writing about Hex Enduction Hour is pretty daunting. Its a work of epic proportions in a world where the currency of the word ‘epic’ is at an all time low. A particularly good sandwich, a mobile phone call plan or a video of a cat falling off a slippery work surface are not epic. Epic is big, expansive in idea, ambition and execution. It dwarves its contemporaries and proves them to be wanting. As a quality, it is rare - it has to be, because we are talking about scale.

That’s one thing then, the epic nature of Hex makes it a difficult subject to get started on because in some way you have to translate the scale and the way it hits you into some sort of sensible collection of words. Back to the old cliche of dancing about architecture.

I’ve made some notes. Looking back on them I find I’ve seemed to favour World War II military terminology, suggesting the impact and sound of the record might be analogous to blitzkrieg or the assault of a Panzer division, or full on total war conducted by the Wehrmacht. I’ve gone even further down this particular metaphorical cul-de-sac to suggest that there is very much a last days in the bunker, fight to the very last man, bombs falling, barbarians at the gate sort of scenario. However, that’s a bit one dimensional.

1982, but it may be at any time - there’s no frame of reference to mark it as contemporary to anything much. Nothing stylistic speaking, and where lyrics hit on known reference points, the framing is abstract. The music is an extreme final gasp - a dinosaur cackle, a pterodactyl cackle, before extinction. Back to the bunker. Presentation - angry, measured, sardonic. The Fall never sound this gloriously deranged again, but that’s OK, there’s many more avenues to explore in the future.

Some background - supposedly this was supposed to be the last Fall record. The one where they bowed out to mainly indifference with a final, totally uncompromising fuck you. They made the record they wanted to make, but luckily for us, the rest of the plan failed - unexpected success - 71 in the mainstream album charts. No mean feat.

After spending a large proportion of my life listening to music too loud in headphones, I’ve fallen foul to tinnitus. The high pitched whining in my ear is a tedious nisance, but I can live with it, the ear doctor advises that the best thing to do is not listen to music at an ear splitting volume and to take regular breaks from standing in front of amps etc. As I am a lot more sensible that I used to be, I follow this advice - with a couple of exceptions - listening to Hex Enduction Hour being one of them. If there is ever an album that should be listened to at a very loud volume it is this, it is almost feels disrespectful,  if that makes any sense whatsoever. The other exception is Raw Power - for the same reason.

Jesus. That’s some meandering preamble. I apologise. Summing up so far at this waypoint - intense, angry, extreme, sardonic (so therefore humorous, darkly) and should be played loud.

A word on personnel - this is the one where The Fall make like the glorious and unfairly maligned by association Glitter Band by utilising two drummers. Karl Burns is back and he’s beating the living crap out of those drums in tandem with Paul Hanley. What a team! Hold tight - I’ve been misleading you a little, Hex isn’t all full assault - there are also quieter, more trancier moments where the drummers get intricate and do some cool intertwining complex stuff.

The album, opens with the bombastic The Classical, which is one of the best openers to any album I’ve heard, on a par with the marching boots that announce Never Mind The Bollocks. Booom! We’re in - a funky, scathing tirade. An exasperation with the great British tolerance of mediocrity perhaps:

You won’t find anything more ridiculous than this new high profile razor unit - made with the best British attention to the wrong detail.

‘Hey there fuck face!’ - another Fall state of the union, pearls before swine. Anyway, it’s big, brash, poppy and it has a fucking bass solo in it.

Jawbone and the Air Rifle - which we’ve visited before, honed over a series of years, the version on here is great - still retaining the weird lysergic Chas and Davisms, but with increased confidence in the delivery and story telling.

Which brings us on to the classic Hip Priest. I don’t think it’s autobiographical, but its a tempting conclusion to come to - ‘He is not appreciated’. He hits motorway services. ‘All the young groups know they can imitate, but I teach’. Seething and shimmering, pulsing, ringing harmonics. All enveloping with a hint of menace, narration up front, right in the ears. Hip, hip, hip, hip, hip hip priest! ‘Clean as a packet of chocolate treats’

And in a series of high points, Deer Park is now prepended with Fortress, a tale about a humdrum BBC radio panel assignment in a the dreary warrens of one of the broadcasters buildings:
And here on the Vitamin B glandular show...
Much discussion in boiled beef and carrots
Room C-H-1-O-C-H-2-O-11
This almost throwaway, but like everything else on the record, it works - stateliness heralded with Casiotone preset.

A pause. I am growing dissatisfied with just running through the tracks like this, it seems that by breaking down the constituent parts we fail to do justice to the whole. I’ve attempted to outline a general feeling of what this record is about, but it is a complex, slippery beast, which is part of its appeal. It continues to yield treasures for over repeated listens and its a different album everytime. At the risk of pretension, how you see it depends on where the light is settling on that particular day. Oof- that’s tortuous.

A word on Iceland. This record was part recorded in Iceland, and I like to imagine that this is where the more hypnotic, inwardly contemplative part of this record stems from. You can definitely hear it in the song Iceland, written on the fly with the band running through a something delicate, repetitive, ancient, a plinky piano figure running through it. A general air of finding a spiritual home in the desolate edge of the arctic. Incantations:
What the goddamn fuck is it?
That played the pipes of aluminum
A Memorex for the Krakens
That induces this rough text
And casts the runes against the self-soul
And humbles in Iceland
Incidentally, the rest of this record was recorded in Hitchin, which having lived there for some of my teenage years, I can confirm is an absolute shithole. Perhaps this album wasn't going to be so angry until the group had spent a couple of days in this backward little market town. I digress...

Backing up to Just Step S’ways. More garage, but made super-huge and magnificent by the double drum attack. Most importantly:
Just step outside this futurist world today
Just step right round
The Eastern Bloc rocks to Elton John.
So just step sideways from this place today
To be a celebrity you've gotta eat the past, nowadays
and then the killer:
But who wants to be in a Hovis advert, anyway?
I’m tying myself in knots here really, so going to wrap up, hopefully Pete has been a little more lucid. And This Day, the piece of music the record ends on is ridiculous and extraordinary. Excerpted from some point in the middle of a 26 minute recording, this is a slice of extreme strait-jacketed bonkers in an industrial unit business, where it’s all cranked up, pummelling onslaught with sick on the waltzer woozy fairground organ. Taking the repetition to the logical extreme, with ranting, hectoring vocals -
‘Everywhere no fucking respite!’
And just when you think there isn’t, it ends. And then you want to listen to it again.

In conclusion - Hex Enduction Hour. It is extremely good, but I’ll be damned if I can convey how good it is. So I suggest you listen to it.

Pete says

In my experience, there are certain albums that, when you even simply go to pick them off the shelf, seem to spark and fizz under your fingertips.  They have an electrical, tactile quality even before that physical moment - they seem to loom large in the mind, to pulse expectantly next to their peers, seemingly knowing of their own power and weight.  It isn't just that they are exceptional - though for me such albums as 'Kid A' and 'Blood On The Tracks' undoubtedly are - and very occasionally they're just ('just' he says, with a wry smile) really good - for example 'Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space'.  No, its something more.  That sense of magic, that notion that this little sliver disk represents something greater than mere notes and words and rhythms.  Its a slippery sort of intangible kind of weird potency.  It can almost be overbearing.  Its clearly impossible to define.  It can be unpleasant, like riding on a roller-coaster in the dark again and again.  And for me at least, in the whole of The Fall's cannon, only one album truly encapsulates this illusive quality, and that album is Hex Enduction Hour.

If Dragnet were a grimy flat with angry dreamers inside, and Grotesque a run-down council house with the fantasist working class, then Hex is a skyscraper, all glass and steel, defying vision, defying light even.  You stare at it for ages trying to comprehend, and then realise your gaze has slipped to your own feet as you remain there, abashed and dumb.  Inside, myriad people, a city's worth of people, so many people that individuality has become meaningless, even meaning has almost become meaningless.  There's just recurring, vague, angry trends of thought that bubble through the legion.  They could be aliens for all I know, as the reality of Hex seems just so far removed from anything I perceive, and while you can try to latch onto a train of thought, but the time you have the train has left the solar system.  It feels paradoxically like 'essence of fall' while also feeling quite removed from anything else by the band ever, like the way that a tomato glances over at tomato puree and goes 'what the fuck?,,,'.

Let's illustrate this by looking at the two weakest things here (and let's get our terms of reference right - we're talking 'weakest' as in 'still can lift those huge round rocks, and almost made the finals of world's strongest man' weak).  When we thought about 'Jawbone and The Air-rifle' some time ago there was a latent sense that it was, for whatever reason, destined to end up on Hex.  It just seemed to condense the HP Lovecraftisms of MES with that pounding rhythm section, clanging guitars, meshing together words and song in a way that felt like the bastard son of 'J. Temperance', 'Spector vs. Rector' and all the great singles we've had  - it just seemed to be a call from the future, a sign-post to the heart of Fall-land.  But now its here, proudly sitting as track two, my god, doesn't it feel like a throwback?  I mean, surrounded by all this noise and sense, and nonsense, and everything in-between, strike me down but doesn't it feel... well, twee?  It's a cheeky tale of a curse with a proper old-fashioned narrative, the driving and grinding is comparatively one-dimensional, the vocal delivery is (in Hex terms at least) very straight.  What we thought sometime ago was the calling card of the future is merely the man at the gate.  And yes, I am overstating the facts to make a point - its a great tune, its a good choice at track two, and anywhere else in the Fall's early cannon it would standout - but there is something very functional about it.

Compare that with And This Day - fucking hell, if ever there was a 'song' that defied you actually hearing it its this one.  Its pretty clear that each instrument has a sense of where it is in the song, which bit it should be playing, but as to how everything fits together its a blimmin mystery.  It just whomps along, sustained primarily in its own obstinate belief in itself, with hooks falling as it goes, shot down in isolation - a bass one hits the ground, a drum one rises above the parapet, another Tommy with a inevitable look in its eye and a prayer on its lips.  Bang.  Gone.  And yet not gone, 'cos on and on it rolls, whipping the listener up into an emotional state best described as terrified bewilderment, "The whole Earth shudders / The surroundings are screaming on the roads" and don't we just know it, and yet another lurching riff on that insescent organ smacks you in the ear.  And yet, after everything that has gone before you can't help but feel this is an appropriate end to the listening experience that is Hex - I mean, what else could come here?  I don't resent And This Day for being hard, I'm not complaining about the way it makes me feel, as you can't finish something as powerful as Hex with anything less than a hammer.  If in this instance we're being pulled about by our expectations of how a song should feel then I'm a better listener because of it.  And Hex deserves a significant send off.

So we have two extremes - Jawbone (though top) feeling like a trad. Fall song (a concept that, in itself, is so ridiculous, and suggests perhaps just how indoctrinated I have become) and And This Day being the most extreme example so far of how hard The Fall can push you while still being artistically/musically valid (there will be gibber at some pointin the coming weeks, I am sure).  Everything else here doesn't feel like it can truly exist, like those elements at the end of the periodic table which fall apart before they actually formed.  All the other songs should never have been able to drag themselves out of the swamp because in so many aspects they stray so far from the norm, from convention, that conceptually I cannot even begin to imagine how they got from head, to guitar, to ear.  To even begin to picture a song like Hip Priest causes the brain to give in and die, and lets be honest, this does not bode well for whatever I am to write next...
Let's mop up a couple of bits before more strangled gushing.  Two drummers - Hanley, who in my head is just a solid, tuned in drummer, and Karl Burns, who I know was mental and I like to think drummed like it.  It's this unusual arrangement that creates the musical template for Hex - rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.  Beats and strums and sounds crashing in and over each other, fighting their way out of the murk.  Also, please don't ask me how, but while the production values here would cause an audiophile to weep the sound is perfect in every way, and whether through intent or accident the nature of the sound goes a long way to lending Hex the otherworldliness that befits the lyrics and songs.  Even before you get into the nitty gritty of what is being said and how its being presented, Hex just seems to be one of those records when everything got nailed all at once.

We've already looked at a number of songs here beforehand, so lets just recap - Deer Park, which impressive left me a little tiny bit nonplussed in its Peel Session outing is made here by a simplest of tricks - The Fall whack a whole other song at the start of it.  'Fortress' is far shorter than Deer Park, a little more expansive in its riffage, but when prefacing it provides the perfect scene setter.  Lyrically the two seem to rub up against each other without really making too much literal sense, which in microcosm is exactly like the rest of Hex.  Who Makes The Nazis allows itself to be a little more musically bonkers with tapes and goodness knows what else cluttering up the sound, but I still stand by my analysis of what its doing lyrically - using the power of nonsense to undermine our labelling of the world.  And Winter is just achingly wonderful - my only criticism of it is that due to the fact that we've moved from a musical medium which you actually have to get up and interact with to hear the second half of the record the splitting of the song into two parts (last track of side one and the first of side two) doesn't work quite as magically as it should do.  But that's hardly The Fall's fault - Hex lives and breathes in a world of its own creation, so who would think of future-proofing it?

There are five tracks remaining that I haven't mentioned, three of which are easily among the greatest songs that The Fall have ever done, while the remaining two are merely phenomenal.  Iceland is a companion piece to Winter, so much so in fact that the weird ennui that infects the latter tune in Salford almost moves lock stock over to Reykjavik.  A jammed meditation with the startling opening "A plate steel object was fired / And I did not feel for my compatriots" it almost, almost matches its chilly partner.  And with Jus Step S'Ways we have a strong contender for best Fall riff ever, with everything slaved to it and MES entertaining us with such weighty insights as "the eastern bloc rocks to Elton John" and "who wants to be in a Hovis advert anyway?"  Simply marvellous.

… I've three songs left to write about.  I have just reread their lyrics yet again, and thought really hard about the whole of Hex to try and start to pull this together, but this record defies any sort of analysis, pinning down.  I suppose the bottom line is this - for a lyricist that was already off piste Hex sees MES just going fucking off on one, and when combined with the focused, yet clattery music, it just leave this listener an awestruck mess.  The words here just sweep and judder,with as many odd phrases that catch the ear on one album as the Fall have had in total so far…
"Hey there fuckface"
"There's been no war for forty years / And getting drunk fills me with guilt"
"I got my last clean dirty shirt outta the wardrobe"
"Much discussion in boiled beef and carrots"

And, of course Mere Pseud Mag Editor's Father which is fucking fantastic.  You have to read it times to actually work out what it means, and then in the context of the song it seems utterly irrelevant anyway.  Anyway, basically, its a character study.  It's Fiery Jack turned up to nine hundred and eleven.  It's about a bloke who sounds a bit of a twat really.  But thats not the point.  The point is, for a pop song (and deep down, its a pop song), its a right fucking mess.  It's the same rhythm over and over again, with various instruments playing the same thing over and over again, occasionally on the 'right' notes though its actually anyones goes what those notes really ought to be.  It's a lurching monster of a tune that comes and goes without much fuss, apart from the fucking chaos, with MES just oodling away one the top, aside from when he gets a bit excited about watching Rowan Atkinson.  It's even got a middle eight that exists to reiterate how punishing the main body of it is, and - get this - a weird, strummed intro which he fucking croons over like some demented Dean Martin type.  It is brilliantly pointless, dazzlingly inconsequential.

And then there's The Classical which as opener sets the tone perfectly.  Two drum kits whacking away, thudding Hanley bass (and even a solo of sorts) and those scabrous guitars that we've come to know and love, but a light year - a fucking light decade - on from anything before, even maybe New Puritan which in hindsight pointed the way much more accurately than Jawbone did.  Lord only knows what its all about - something to do with creativity possibly, highbrow verses low - but all viewed from a Fallian prism, all mashed up and spewed back at you, unrelenting, unforgiving:
Too much reliance on girl here
On girls here, behind every shell-actor
Snobbier Snobbier
Too much romantic here
I destroy romantics, actors,
Kill it!
Kill it!
… and finally, goodness me.  How to describe the genius that is Hip Priest.

Y'know all those rappers that dedicate so much time and rhyme to self-aggrandisement?  Both Ed and I have a soft spot for such things, but really its a dirty, cheap little habit isn't it?  You know - "I've got a bigger vocabulary/gun/cock than you".  Childish.  Well, lets bow down to the master.  MES not only manages in one song to declare himself the greatest… whatever he is, but wraps it all up in a little fantasy that teases and delights, is equally as boastful as it is knowingly pathetic. This weird little character study is so perfectly put together that we can feel this hip priest, we know him, even though we can't really say why or how (though, of course, being so blatantly autobiographical helps)… and you know, I could quote any number of lines at you.  Lord knows, I've been quoting this song since the day I heard it, often straight in bemused people's faces, who have no idea who Dan is, nor why someone is not appreciated, nor why they can imitate, but I teach.  But what's the point.  This is a vocal tour de force, an insanely rare perfect combination of writer and singer, showman and artist.  This is someone demonstrating exactly what he's talking about by doing it amazingly - for those of us that get MES, that buy into it, this is like a fucking mantra.

But lets hold on one moment.  If there is any song that we need to redress the MES = The Fall balance, then maybe this is the one.  Yes, I and a many others like (and unlike) me believe MES to be a genius, a unique talent in music that should be celebrated (though that would ruin him), honoured (though he would hate it, probably), bought by every single red-blooded Britishman (… that'd go down OK I suspect).  But while he must take plenty of credit for shaping them, MES would be the bloke in the corner of the pub spouting rubbish were it not for his team - The Fall.  Hip Priest is such a strange musical experience, and he must pay homage to our aforementioned drummers, Riley and Scanlon playing guitars and maybe keyboards, and the might Hanley on bass.  The tangled mesh of music that these people weave, which builds for so long with plucked strings and taps, creating a sparse and lonely landscape with nowhere to hide, just the right environment for MES to unleash the full force of his talent.  The way the song builds for so, so long, the level of control and understanding required to keep things in check before the inevitable, yet still unnerving rush of the loud bits.  Go back to the Peel session and then listen to this - there's no doubt that MES has pushed and moulded, but that little guitar noodle, those bass drops, the way the keyboard can knowingly, perfectly just belt out whatever so long as the rhythm is right, the fact that so many little things have grown and been flooded into the melee must mean that there are skilful players here, and I utterly refute any fool who considers The Fall to be that Smith bloke and his backing band.  Hip Priest is both the best thing that The Fall have done up until this point, and it is a perfect demonstration of just what makes Hex sublime - everybody on the absolute top of their game, and everything else just falling into place as everyone must hope it does when they open the door to the recording studio.

And I write so much, and convey so little.  Hex astounds and delights and you get to the end flustered and sweaty and short of breath.  It says so much but doesn't allow you the dignity of comprehension.  It breaks you down as a music listener, and disdainfully walks away leaving you shattered but aching to learn.  Its astounding… and yet, I still prefer Grotesque!  For all the magic of it, the unyielding invention, there's something about its supreme confidence in itself that makes you think back to NWRA, to S Mithering, those snotty tunes that at least patted you on the back as they prepared to fuck you up.  It's splitting hairs, and really, truly, its nothing more than personal preference, but of these two astounding records the earlier one just manages to tick the boxes that I need filled.

… but having said that, Hex is there on my shelf right now, humming, buzzing to itself, dominating the space, jutting its elbows into its neighbours and waiting expectantly for the next time...

Monday, 2 April 2012

Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul (Single) & Peel Session #5 (1981)

Pete says:

This week – “The Good, The Bad, and The Before Its Time”, a.k.a.“Welcome Back Karl Burns (Do You Actually Play Anything)”, a.k.a. “There’s A Storm Coming”.

I just can’t shake it, though it breaks all my own rules, so I’m going to get it out of the way now – next week already feels massive.  Not necessarily good (though the chances are high), but sun-blockingly significant.  So as a result we’ve ended up this week with a cheeky single and an important Peel session.  We’ve also ended up – in my opinion – with something of a mixed bag, and to be frank this is the most inconsistent group of tunes we’ve had since Witch Trials, and to be perfectly honest, there’s even an element of dullness.  Oh, and I've decided to be hypercritical this week simply due to the fact that otherwise I'd be carping on about 'oh, how wonderful, how innovative', and that'd be super boring for you Mariah.

So, Peel session 5 – we’re rattling through them aren’t we?  That’s 5 in threeish years, and lets not forget the amount of progress that is evident in just this one example of The Fall’s output, especially when you compare it to today’s standards, when it seems to take years for a band to record yet another album that sounds like the last one (it’s just noise, you can’t heard the words, get off my lawn, etc etc).  We begin with Deer Park, which is a prime example of something The Fall do better than any other band I know – sustained, unreleased tension. As in, the same thing over and over again.  Now, this is fine, and in the context of Deer Park it works pretty well really, nice scabrous guitar, thudding along bass line, all well and good.  And that buzzing, incessant electric piano thing, all on two notes - nice, in a nasty sort of way.  But there's something about the performance that just leaves me a little cold.  I can appreciate it, and certainly enjoy it, but it doesn't quite hit the heights that one feels it ought to.  Perhaps this is due to my frustration at the lyrics, as while moments of it buzz me (I like "See the A&R civil servants / They get a sex thrill out of a sixteenth of Moroccan" and "Spare a thought for the sleeping promo dept. / They haven't had an idea in two years") as a whole I feel a little lost in meaning... and its worth saying that this has never fussed me generally about The Fall (or most other bands), and when it happens I often revel in the nonsense or view it as a challenge.  Maybe its the fact I've not read Mailer's 'The Deer Park' which would probably have helped, maybe its just not what I want from this song, or maybe even its been my mood over the last few days, but there's something not quite here for me to hear.  Humm...

And for me at least, things get a whole lot worse with 'Look, Know'. Okay, there should be nothing here for me not to like really, a typical Fall-funk bas line which has a bit of swagger and swing, a nice considered vocal, guitars, meh meh meh... lets be honest with each other, Look, Know is dull.  MES knew it was dull.  Steve Hanley forgets himself at one point and plays few bum notes, but bum notes that come not from the usual place of being so into it you loose yourself, but bum notes from surprise at how dull the not-bum notes are.  Its a dead-end of a track, a half-arsed exploration into a type of song that The Fall have no real reason to be playing, but what is most frustrating is the fact that that repeated, creepy little refrain 'Do you know what you look like / before you go out' could spin off into something really interesting, when in fact after a while you realise that its just an 'end of the affair' song, and even worse there's an element of self-pity that has no place on a song by The Fall (I am prepared to be corrected on this point at a later date). Things like:
But I say happy memories leave a bitter taste
I need a good brainwash agent to cut out this present shout of:
Do y'know what you look like before you go out?
That's why you eat crap food
That's why nobody talks to you
That's why you messed up everything you do
I'm sorry - 'messed up everything you do'?  Well, that's just lazy for any number of reasons, and the stuff that precedes it isn't much better, and I could be an arse and start to bang on about mess/do or
messed/did, but then we get "He was the first one to wear a flying jacket and go to a club / And she has the general policy of not being seen dead in a pub" which is just a nothing, nothing bit of lyrical nothingness.  By the time the lyrics start nudging toward Satre (which in turn starts to make the title a little more interesting) the song is a dead fish on the end of a dead fisherman's cock.  And what I find most frustrating about it all is that I know this song will be a single release, which if its not drastically better than this performance will be the slow bakers cheese flan which breaks a consistently ace run of singles since whatever came after It's The New Thing.  Just poor, and I'm honestly amazed that MES allowed this to bumble along.

Now - please bear in mind my hypercritical stance this week.  Deer Park is at the very least alright, and Look, Know is at the very best poor. Winter is undoubtably amazing. In fact, potentially the
most beautiful thing I've heard by The Fall thus far.  In fact, in the continual yet slightly engineered debate that I'm having in my brain about The Fall/lyrics/poetry it represents the finest example of how
exceptional poetry and music can coexist, and through doing so create a whole new form of meaning, and eschew any concrete sense of 'real' without delving into the likely blind alley of 'surreal' (thought having said that, see below...).  Let's break this down - effectively (after a clugging introduction at least) we have drums, bass, guitar, electric piano all playing pretty much the same thing all the way through (key note - 'pretty much'... there's so much room to manoeuvre within 'pretty much' isn't there?  Classy musicians, really good musical peeps who play without self-consciousness, who drive forward without watching out for the trappings of fame, those types can find whole albums in 'pretty much'.  Elgar wrote the Enigma Variations out of 'pretty much'.)  And musically that's it - but then again, oh! that syncopated arpeggio on the electric piano and oh!  the thuddy riff on the bass that ends each phrase and oh!  all of the sodding thing basically.  Like a runty, dirty four-year old singing something that just causes you to weep uncontrollably, musically Winter inexplicably whacks you right in the heart and will not let you ignore it.  There's no rhyme or reason to this, you can't really explain it, it's just a base fist of a piece. Bang - listen.

But over and above all this, its the most sublime, exceptional piece of poetry this side of Bob Dylan.  The poetry I like the best is usually one of two things, and the stuff I like most is often both - something that says something about something in a smart way that perhaps changes what you thought you felt, and/or something beautiful that uses English in a way that is perhaps unexpected, perhaps rhythmic, perhaps shocking, but always, always beautiful.  Winter scores well on the first and supremely well on the second, though in all honesty to say what its about would be over-reaching myself.  But clearly the mad kid is at the heart of it, and the fact that he demands three times 'gimmie the lead' of the black dog suggests that his tangible unruliness and yet the air of sadness seems to define the emotional timbre of the song.  And that's a fairly potent mix, especially when the refrain seems so perfectly constructed, so well considered, so that its literal ambiguity ('what the fuck does it mean?') is mirrored by its emotional nullness, where positive words immediately get balanced out by darker ones.
Entrances uncovered
Street-signs you never saw
All entrances delivered
Courtesy Winter.
It feels very very Alan Bennet, it feels very very Dennis Potter. It's bliss.  'Two white doves cross the sky' sounds like it should lift you up, but the gentle weariness of it all makes the line doubly sad, Manny in the library who appears only briefly is forever crystallised in time at the moment just before your stomach unravels and a hangover gets slightly better and I know better than most that feeling in that place, and the mad kid's "black cardboard Archbishop's hat / With a green-fuzz skull and crossbones" is so ridiculous but so pathetic... everything that is wrong with Look, Know is flipped on its head here, but most pertinently the general sense of pointlessness that infects Look, Know is harnessed by Winter, is thrown right back at the listener, is turned into something beautiful and sad. It's almost too much to bear to be honest.

... okay, so I don't think its up to my to decode it.  But I really want to.  But using words to do so seems to miss the point - I mean, if the mad kid has 4 lights, and genius only three, yet the rest of us have 2.5 (bar the mediocre) then am I illuminated enough to even try? And the mad kid has more lights than genius, what does that make him? Too insightful to even realise, to bear knowing?  Here's where music and words together can strike even more pointedly into the brain, into the 'heart'.  I can feel Winter, even though I don't know why.  And as if by magic, as if I actually plan this gibberish ineffectual garbage which I write, now is the moment to point out a lovely little coincidence that occurred today.

I have, for some time now, been taking photos of my daughter with CDs that we've listened to, and this is the one I took today.

Winnie very much enjoyed Abbey Road, and I don't blame her as its class, but let us for a moment consider its opening track 'Come Together'.  I don't have my copy of the seminal 'Revolution In The
Head' to hand, but I seem to recall that Ian MacDonald talks about 'Come Together' as being a song that (excuse my paraphrasing and potential misinterpretation) uses words and specifically nonsensicality as a tactic in the counter cultural revolution, crystallising something begun with 'I Am The Walrus' and others. Actually breaking down meaning and yet saying something regardless about how pointlessness and artificiality.  'Come Together' is powerful beyond words precisely due to its lyrical content being beyond sense, to the point where that is the point.  Now, consider who makes the Nazis...

... I mean, who does make the NAZIs?  It seems a daft question, but really, think about it, and don't answer Hitler.  It's who 'makes', not 'made'.

... and who decided that 'fuck' upsets people?

... and why are you reading this?  It's just words.  It's just words about words and music, written by someone who's opinion is only as relevant as you make it.  I'm nobody.  Seriously - I'm a 34 year old
librarian.  I take pictures of my daughter with the CDs of other people's bands.  I write songs that virtually nobody hears.  But those that do think they are pretty good.  But what do they know?  I could
write my achievements and make myself sound like a superman or a waster.  You might think I've striven hard against adversity to achieve something noble, or squandered my talents when I could have changed the world.  If indeed you consider my talents to be anything like worth speaking of.  I could spin words back and forth and make anybody reading this believe anything.  Or nothing.  Or everything.

So, who makes the nazis?

Over a scatty couple of riffs MES essentially takes apart the horror and the artifice of 'nazis'.  It's like that Lenny Bruce bit of standup where he goes through the audience naming them by the most offensive racial stereotypes there are, and keeps saying this words over and over again, but here its almost gibberish that smacks the power of words to bits:
Who makes the Nazis?
Motels like three split-level mirages
Who makes the Nazis?
Buffalo lips on toast, smiling
Who makes the Nazis?
I put a finger on the weird.
This was real Irish know.
Joe was then good as gold
And told of the rapists in the Spa Motel.
The real mould.
Who makes the Nazis?
Here we are 35ish years after the end of the second world war, and MES is illustrating to us that these archetypes are nothing more that empty vessels that we fill with meaning.  This is not to say that he's
undermining evil and terror - far from it - but the evil men do need not be labeled and indexed.  I am sure that there are many interpretations of this song that take images and eek out meanings, that demonstrate connections between The Fall and history, but that's not what I hear.  I hear a remarkable deconstruction of sense, which takes as its subject nazis, but it could be anything really.  Who makes the Beatles?  Who makes The Fall?

Phew.  Heavy.  Anyway, lets just touch upon probably the last great Fall single in a remarkable run Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul all thump and chippy and joyous, with a proper bridge thing and pop greatness
spilling over - we salute you Rowche-Lie Dream, good times.  And before finishing up, Fantastic Life... humm... well, it's alright isn't it, but already I'm starting to hear spaces that need to be filled by something a bit more clear and clean, to cut against the mess and noise.  I mean, its well played, interesting enough, but it needs a bit more spark, a bit more glamour maybe, a something to add to the brix and mortar. Wonder what that's going to be?  But before that... what's this I see before me, blocking out the light, uncompromisable, scary, big...

Ed says:

Once upon a time there was Northen - an odd, semi-secretive regional subculture with esoteric rituals, serious fanatics and distinctive uniform. Seven inch singles as sacred relics that had somehow become weirdly divorced from their original Motor City context and transplanted to the North. Specifically Lancashire and more Specifically still, Wigan. Of course, these days where every single sub-sub genre has been mined for the reissues market, a lot of the mystique has been removed. On the plus side, anyone can now hear Frank Wilson’s incredibly rare (two known copies), and incredibly beautiful ‘Do I Love You’, but on the down side it is now forever in my head indelibly associated with a popular brand of fried chicken. Families thrust their gaping maws in bargain buckets while the soul man expounds. So it seems you can have familiarity and chicken ads or you can have obscurity and an opaque mystique.

Lie Dream of a Casino Soul does nothing to dent the mystique but it leaves us with more questions. An insight into the deranged sleep deprived Sunday mind of the 48 hour chemically assisted dancefloor athlete.
I'm a bit jagged right now
In a tongue-tired, wired state
Cause Sunday morning dancing
I had an awake dream
I was in the supervision dept.
Of a big town store
Security floors one to four
They had cameras in the clothes dummies.
‘And that just goes to show, the lie dream of the casino scene’. Ambivalent, but ready to do it again next week no doubt. Musically, we’ve immediately picked up where Slates left off. Leaning to the abrasive side of that release, we have bopping drums, and wonky, creepy keys/kazoo. From the intro we could almost be dealing with some sort of northern soul pastiche, but this is neatly side stepped by the song becoming totally fucking willfully awkward - a good thing in case you were in doubt. Yet it is still poppy in a nagging way - repetition. MES is in strong form, commanding, although a bit more serious in tone, which is at odds with the surrealism of the lyrics. Oh yes, and the thing I love most about this is the pronunciation of ‘dept’ - exactly as it is written.

The B Side, Fantastic Life is even better, at least I think it is - I’m flip flopping on this one - at the moment I am all in favour. Again following in the vein of Slates, but this time the poppy Leave the Capital side of things. Driving, repetitive, shiny, with some shimmering keys and a nice bit of understated but cooly melodic guitar, where Fantastic Life really stands out for me is lyrically, in as much as I’ve got very little idea what Mark is actually banging on about, but there’s some great snippets:
The Siberian mushroom Santa
Was in fact Rasputin's brother
And he didst walk round Whitechapel
To further the religion of forgiven sin murder
which feels like the beginning of some insane shamanic conspiracy theory that takes in the Romanovs and Jack the Ripper. Anyway, a hard one to get a handle on but I do like it, despite, or maybe because of its intangibility. Sometimes it is good to resist the urge to know something inside out and to struggle for some sort of definitive interpretation, sometimes none is available - don’t let the untidiness jar, accept it. Join us.

Onto Peel Session #5, which is a cracker. Now, in past posts I’ve been inclined not to go too mad with songs that reappear in the studio form in the following week, but here we have some new songs that will do just that, but in interesting and different enough forms to give the session versions a bit of attention in their own right.

Right then - Peel Session. You know the drill. The Fall come in, record four songs of quality and distinction which we then get to enjoy for perpetuity. Thank you The Fall and thank you John Peel, even if your love of gabba was a bit trying sometimes. They never play any gabba when the BBC wheel out Zane Lowe or Lamacq to eulogise him once a year, and what we hear is the standard indie disco Love Will Tear Us Apart/This Charming Man/Blue Monday revisionism with maybe a sprinkling of The Wedding Present and maybe our heroes’ recording of Mr Pharmacist to spice things up a little. Never any gabba, Scouse house, King Sunny Ade, Bogshed, dusty old 78s and the like. We just get a Factory/Rough Trade oriented indie theme park that bears very little relation to the late Mr Peel’s incredibly varied, often delightful  and on occasion slightly irritating radio show.

Major digression - back on track - it must have been great hearing these on the radio for the first time in March of 1981. This is, in my opionion, a really special Peel Session. Let’s dive in.

Deer Park. Sometimes listening to The Fall is like being given a massive reading list. Does the hook allude to Mailer's 'Deer Park'? I've read it and am none the wiser. Keeping up with Mark’s literary references can be a full time job. In previous weeks we’ve had H P Lovecraft, M R James, William Blake. Add to the list this week Colin Wilson’s ‘Ritual In The Dark’, which I’m yet to get round to. A full on drone, head down thumper. A sketch of some sort of London squat scene. ‘The English Deer Park - a large type artist ranch’, patrolled by ‘Captain Beefheart imitators with zits’ where ‘young rastas...get a sex thrill out of a sixteenth of Morrocan’.  Grubby, improverished post-punk (chronologically, that it) scene. A keyboard all the way through - all on one crash victim’s head mashed against horn honking note.

It’s hard being unique and it’s very difficult creating original work that sounds unlike anything that’s gone before it. Look Know makes it look easy. Its greatness is in its insouciance. Repetitive circling bass, snare with vocal mantra breaking out into exquisite longing jangling that is perhaps reminiscent of The Cure’s more poppy moments before returning to the mantra, leading out into a more lovely jangle that harks back to Dragnet, which seems like ancient history now, but was in fact less released only around 18 months previously. Ridiculous. Lyrically weak and concerned with, I don’t know, the ritual of how you display yourself on a night out. Not amongst the best, but in a way irrelevant, as what makes this great is the delivery. A triumph of style over substance, which needn't always be a bad thing.

Winter. How to approach about writing about this? Its beautiful, shimmering, throbbing, brittle, hypnotic and again, true to the mission built on repetition. Peaks and troughs, build ups and slow downs, shifts in gear. Over the weeks we’ve had these many moments where there’s a musical bed with poetry over the top, ‘CnC Stop Mithering’, ‘Spectre Vs Rector’, ‘The NWRA’ - this is the moment where they nail it, where the words, mood, music work together in such a way as to create something really rather special.
The mad kid walked left-side south-side towards me
He was about 7
His mother was a cleaning lady
She had a large black dog
And the mad kid said:
"Gimme the lead
Gimme the lead
Gimme the lead"
I'd just walked past the alcoholics' dry-out house
The lawn was littered with cans of Barbican
There was a feminist's Austin Maxi parked outside
With anti-nicotine anti-nuclear stickers on the side
Anyway two weeks before the mad kid had said to me
"I'll take both of you on,
I'll take both of you on"
A snapshot of a scene, a neighbourhood, characters rubbing against each other. Again - signifiers, what the Austin Maxi tells you, a very specific early to mid eighties form of radicalism, like my mum’s friends from the the Poly who used to give the seven year old me Greenpeace T Shirts with pictures of whales on and read New Internationalist. We also have a bit of weird pulp science stuff which also harks back to the ongoing thematic obsession with there being something else behind the curtain that the more attuned mind can latch onto:
The mad kid had 4 lights, the average is 2.5 lights
The mediocre has 2 lights, the sign of genius is three lights
Again, marvellous.

With its heavy quotation, you could say that Totally Wired was The Fall’s big old Hunter S Thompson influenced song, but to me Who Makes The Nazis really evokes the late Doctor’s style. Short, clipped, hallucinatory, buzzing away, paranoid journalistic phrases barked into a dictaphone. Over some extreme anti-music - out of tune uke, thumping non-swinging toms, glorious dictaphonic tape hiss, serious twangs, sparseness. If you don’t make music you might say that it is completely without skill or planning, but you’d be wrong. This is a piece of music full of images - conjured up by the words and by the gaps in the music as the listener’s mind attempts, by default, to pin down some meaning or reference point. A heat haze song for dried out, brains frazzled by sun and acid.
Mark: Here’s a word from Bobby 
Unidentified Fall Member: When you're out of rocks, just give them real soul (salt?)
Hate’s not your enemy, love's your enemy
Murder all bush monkeys 
Yes. Me neither, but what I love about this exchange is the complicit deadpan delivery of Unidentified Fall Member. There’s a surrealist cabaret vibe to the whole thing. Or an aside in the script for a some sort of weird play. Unsettling. Who makes the Nazis? We all are all complicit...

So - no straight answers, no easy narratives, no simple tunes, but many interesting facets and a high hit rate when it comes to hairs on the back of the neck moments. The single’s great, but the Peel Session is stunning - consolidating but innovating, perhaps more than they’ve ever done at this point.