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

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Rowche Rumble (Single) and Dragnet (Album) (1979)

Pete says:

Okay, it's shocking to do this, but quickly…

Rowche Rumble is a classic Fall single, and neatly bridges the gap between the debut and what is to follow (faster, faster).  Pounding drums, heavy, heavy bass and the soon to be forgotten (for a bit) plinky plonk of a keyboard back MES who sounds ten-times more confident, more strident, more MES than anything on LIve at the Witch Trials.  Apparently 'Rowche' is a play on 'Roche' which is a pharmaceutical company, but regardless - this song feels like its more real, more pointed than anything that's come before.  But even this is merely a transition - a stepping stone on to…

(Oh, and In My Area, the B-side is very good, nice keys, lyrics, blah blah anyway…)

Ladies and Gentlemen, come in.  Sit down.  Leave your woes and travails behind you.  Welcome to The Fall.

There is so much to say about Dragnet.  I mean, it's class.  Surprisingly class for me - I'd forgotten just how marvellous it is.  So it would be very easy for me to just list each track and tell you how good it is, and ramble on about this bit of guitar, this poppy chorus, this marvellous mangling of instrument and voice, this turn of phrase.  Instead, I'll limit myself to two thoughts that keep recurring to me when I listen.  Hopefully Ed will do the proper stuff this week…

Firstly, there is something very interesting happening here regarding… well, I suppose the artifice of popular music, and writing and performing popular music, and all that brings with it, and as a result where The Fall sit within that artifice.  A couple of tunes have already hinted that The Fall will become as important a subject for The Fall to sing about as anything else (see Crap Rap, and even the aforementioned but criminally overlooked - by me - In My Area, both of which refer to The Fall).  But this doesn't feel like some Clash-like self-mythologising, which in reinforcing the classic rock 'n roll outsiderness that Strummer et al wanted to engender simply reinforced how conventional they actually where (though wonderful - I'm not knocking The Clash).  Rather, 'The Fall' are increasingly being presented by MES as something, somebody, that sits well away from the norm.  So far away, in fact, that they almost inhabit a whole different realm, picking holes in music.

If it's true that MES = The Fall it's here that it starts to happen - there's nobody left from the original lineup, and the guys that he's got around him now (including Scanlon and Hanley - you'll be hearing much more about these pair) seem here to be perfectly in tune with his vision.  Even Riley's held off the prima donna backing vox thank fuck.  Anyway, so if we accept that MES's lyrics and the music are joined in a fantastically sympathetic marriage (which, with hindsight, maybe wasn't always the case with Witch Trials) what does that mean?  Well, a sound which comes from a cupboard, but with enough clarity to demonstrate the fine, tight, inventive playing (even with the odd fluff and out of tune bass - get used to it, there's years before they sort this out), but which seems to provide a perfect environment for MES's voice and also of what he says here, which whether explicitly or not is often about music, and writing, and writing music, and writing about music.

'Pshychic Dancehall', bonkers rockabilly excitement that it is, begins with the cry 'Is anybody there?' to which the band (?) reply 'yeeessssss!'.  But who is the question for?  If for the audience, then obviously you're there at that moment - you've just popped the needle down and you've actively made this noise happen.  When combined with aspects of the lyrics such as "When I'm dead and gone / My vibrations will live on / In vibes on vinyl through the years / People will dance to my waves" that act of putting the needle on (or CD in, or iPod, or whatever) suddenly becomes a much more significant act.  We've unwittingly become part of a game, or a scheme, and MES is already one step ahead.

Casting a disparaging view over the music press is hardly groundbreaking territory, but 'Printhead' takes this further, deconstructing itself as it goes  - "End of catch-line / End of hook-line" - offering the confusing but intriguing insight "there's a barrier between writer and singer", and even going so far to explicitly quote a review of the band:

The singer is a neurotic drinker
The band little more than a big crashing beat.
Instruments collide and we all get drunk
The last two lines
Were a quote, yeah
When we read them
We went to pieces

… and all this allied to a thrilling pop-punk, conventionalish tune that could mistakenly be mistaken for something dumb.  Anything but.

The glorious 'Diceman' paints MES as a true maverick to a standard, you've-heard-this-a-million-times-before Bo Diddly beat.  'Your Heart Out' - probably my favourite thing here - has him deconstructing his own performance 'I don't sing I just shout / All on one note', while also pointlessly, yet very amusingly, taking a swipe at another songwriter "don't cry for me / Mexicooooooo!".  And 'Before The Moon Falls", perhaps the brooding, beating heart of the album, begins with a terrific spoken word bit which I must quote verbatim as its so ruddy marvellous -

We are private detectives onward back from a musical pilgrimage
We work under the name of the Fall.
Who would suspect this?  It is too obvious.
Our office is secluded.
Those there to suspect would not see the wood for the trees
We were six like dice but we're back to five
Up here in the North there are no wage packet jobs for us, thank Christ
While young married couples discuss the poverties of their self-built traps
And the junior clergy demand more cash
We spit in their plate and wait for the ice to melt

And then manages to sum up the whole sentiment I think I'm driving toward with the opening (sung) lines "I must create a new regime / Or live by another man's".

So what am I getting to here?  One of the implicit questions posed during the retrospective must be 'why do I like this stuff so much that its become not just music for me, but something more important than that?'  For some fans of the Fall their obsession with MES's stuff manages to completely undermine their enjoyment of other music, rendering it shallow and pointless.  I'm not quite at that stage, but certainly the effect The Fall has on me has raised the bar very, very high for other guitar groups, indie bands, whatever.  And I think that one important reason for that is expressed through Dragnet - the intelligence in The Fall's music, the ability to look beyond that which your usual band's would consider 'the point', the bravery through a combination of music, words and performance to challenge the listener, to make him or her think about what they are hearing outside of ones usual framework, is enthralling.  Dragnet makes it very clear that your usual expectations of music just aren't up to scratch when it comes to this band, and in working to keep up you're engaging with something dramatic, scary, and simply fucking brilliant.

Secondly, and I won't ramble on quite as much now - there is a wonderful, wonderful book by Nabakov called Ada and Ardor.  It's one of the finest things I have ever read, and I highly recommend it.  However, be warned, to begin with for about 50 pages it's a seriously hard and taxing read.  It makes sense, but the sense is deeply obscured, fascinating (if not strictly speaking vital) plot points are presented buried in plain sight, the breadth of its lexicon is thrilling yet renders even an intelligent reader feeling a bit under-educated.  One theory why Nabakov did this is that any reader that can wade through those opening pages is ready and equipped to deal with what follows, which though more straight is so nakedly beautiful and playful and emotional that you really have to be set-up to tackle it.

Whether this theory is 'true' or not - i.e. whether the author actively intended it to be so - I feel that a similar sort of thing happens on track ten of Dragnet.  Preceded but the poppy, intentionally ephemeral Choc-Stock (you'll have to listen to see what I mean - already gone on for far too long) which lulls the listener into a bouncy frame of mind, Spectre vs. Rector is perhaps the oddest song (for it is a song, definitely - there are instances in The Falls oeuvre when this is debatable) they recorded.  A long, winding, thrilling story of possession and fear, the first half was recorded in a garage or something, features two MESs ranting away, goes on and on in many parts which are grandly announced by the singer, and even when the song suddenly settles into a more conventional studio setting, it suddenly falls apart on itself if to reiterate that you cannot rest with this band - they're one step ahead and can play you like a puppet.  Essentially, if you listen to Spectre vs. Rector and enjoy it, you can approach this massive body of work and everything in it, and what is more - odds are you'll be a Fall fan my son.

Ed says:

Welcome to the world of para-psychic investigation, before the latter day table rappers Derek Acorah and Pyschic Sally normalised the weird for the consumers of supermarket magazines. Is there anybody there? Yeah! Step aboard with ESP medium of dis-chord. There is the feeblest veil that separates the world we experience from the supernatural. This is touched upon by the handful of case studies that the private detectives who work under the name of The Fall investigate in the collection, ‘Dragnet’. This is the second album, recorded in two days and released in the same year as ‘Live At The Witch Trials’, already a completely different band, both in terms of line up and attitude. Quite frankly they are taking the piss. Here’s a few of the parameters.

1. Replace all the band members who recorded the debut album earlier in the same year, with the exception Marc Riley, who’s been around for the shortest time.

2. Oh yes, the drummer. He’s pretty damn good, but what would be better would be to replace him with a teddy boy from a rock and roll revival band, who still insists on dressing like 1950s cinema trashing enthusiast

3. Studio time - two days should do it? There’s only eleven songs after all

4. Production - well clearly everything else is in place, so what we need is a guy who’s got no studio experience at all. That will work.

Dragnet has a very murky sound, mainly due to the inexperience of the people involved in its production. In a way, there’s a reminder to me of Lee Scratch Perry’s Black Ark work - murky, smoky, no quarter given to producing a shiny product. Already we’ve lost the hi-fidelity purists, but we didn’t need them anyway - sipping their ale and discussing the merits of gold plated phono plugs, screw them.

So Dragnet - second album we’ve reached that critical point. Everything I love about the music of the Fall is already present on the disc.

Principally, there’s a couple of strong themes running through this record - the supernatural world a the dread it inspires (‘A Figure Walks’, ‘Spectre Vs Rector), the Fall mission statements/distaste with the music scene (‘Printhead’, ‘Dice Man’). A couple of diversions thrown in for good measure. Some of the Fall’s poppiest moments sitting happily alongside some of there murkiest. There’s no dead wood either, there is no filler in amongst the killer. So broadly, I’m going to take this fucker track by track.

A seance - ‘Is there anybody there? Yeah!’. Psykick Dancehall. For one thing, they’ve ditched the keyboard, which is unfortunate as there were plenty of ace moments involving it. I would like to know what a Dragnet with Yvonne Pawlett’s keyboard on would be like, but my fear is the answer would be ‘samey’. Still we lose Pawlett and we gain Scanlon and Hanley. Steve Hanley’s bass is preposterous - he’s pretty much gone disco for the opening track, and it’s gorgeous. Riley’s on guitar now, joined by Craig Scanlon and we have something which is intricate, abrasive, intertwining. Don’t know who’s doing what, doesn’t matter. Psykick Dancehall sets it all up and combines the twin concerns of the record. ‘I saw a monster on the roof - its colours glowed on the roof’ and ‘When I'm dead and gone, my vibrations will live on, in vibes on vinyl through the years. People will dance to my waves’ - we are forever living with the imprints of the past, which indelibly imprint themselves in the ether, and this musical document is apparently powerful enough to achieve this.

Dragnet feels ‘old’ like an artefact that’s recently been dug up. Partly due to the sonic murkiness and partly because it feels a few steps out from conventional music. It also feels nocturnal. All the ingredients of a rock and roll band are there, but mixed up in a completely different way.

A Figure Walks. New drummer, Mike Leigh (not that one) has got a fantastic tom ting going on. Trance like, repetitive. What goes on just out of the corner of your eye? I think that this may be another MR James inspired number (see Spectre vs Rector later), but my friend Mike Whaley thinks I’m labouring the point who says - “Repeatedly singing about knowing a spooky ghost is behind you and how you plan to kick it, misses the confusion and dreaded building of anxiety that I feel with MR James”. He may have a point. For me though its the ‘if he grabs my coat tails’ which kind of transports this back towards a Victorian time frame.

Print Head - a proper good rant. a garage band. Weirdly meta with its quoting of music paper reviews of the band. The singer is a neurotic drunk. ‘The last two lines were a quote yeah’. There’s a guitar solo of sorts, which is certainly an extremely rare occurrence. It works. A little bit of showing off - its been earned.

Dice Man. The very popular novel of the 1970s. Luke Rheinhart. Never made it through the first few pages. Found it very irritating. Anyway, this is a fantastic Bo Diddley-esque romp. Where MES nails his colours to the mast and skewers his opponents. ‘They say music should be fun, like reading a story of love - but I wanna read a horror story’. Take a chance, create some art don’t become another ‘branch on the tree of show business’

Before the Moon Falls. Shhhh! We are being let on in a secret, lean in:

We are private detectives back from a musical pilgrimage
We work under the name of the Fall.
Who would suspect this?
It is too obvious.
Our offices secluded.
Those there to suspect
Would not see the wood for the trees
We were six like dice but we're back to five
Up here in the North there are no wage packet jobs for us
Thank Christ
While young married couples discuss the poverties
Of their self-built traps
And the junior clergy demand more cash
We spit in their plate and wait for the ice to melt

Unseen knowledge is being imparted. Paraphrasing William Blake - ‘I must create a new regime, or live by another man’s’. A field of one ploughing their own unique and revelatory furrow in the face of mainly indifference from the world in general. Blake was only really appreciated in his life time by a foppish group of young romantic artists who dubbed themselves ‘The Ancients’. The Fall have a similar following, but more bald. Its an angry song, raging at the music business - ‘I could use some pure criminals and get my hands on some royalties’ and the hilarious ‘A problem of this new scheme is answering obscene phone calls’. The intensity and the weird framing elevate a frustrated complaint about business and admin to the realms of something magical.

You’re Heart Out - featuring the excellent backing vocals of front man’s partner and general managerial hard ass, Kay Carroll. This is totally pop. Lovely lolloping bass line, tasty twisty guitar lines. Simplicity. ‘Don’t cry for me! Mexico!’. Lyrically its fairly opaque - but it who cares, its delivered in such a joyful way. ‘I don’t sing, I just shout, all on one note! Sing! Sing! Sing! Sing!’. This is fun! Love it. Its kind of indiepop, but with all the twee surgically removed.

Muzorewi's Daughter - big old tribal drums, a funereal, ceremonial guitar. MES doing that squeaky yelp thing that he employs so well. Have no idea what’s its about - something to do with some long forgotten aspect of Rhodesian politics, there is the hint of sacrifice and a touch of weird colonial hysteria about cannibalism. Intense. Eerie. Probably best not put this on that seduction playlist you keep on your ipod.

Flat of Angles - man kills wife, hides out in flat, which may or may not have some curious geometric idiosyncrasies. Tasty bit of what may or may not be slide guitar. Vague Americana punctuated by the return of the cheesy organ we know and love from previous episodes, which makes the occasional pass by to buzz the ears.

Choc-Stock - no! Haven’t got a clue. Its fun, jaunty, repetitive and loopy though. Softens you up in preparation for what’s coming next.

Spectre vs Rector. The hulking, malevolent centerpiece of the record. Remember earlier when MES said - ‘They say music should be fun, like reading a story of love - but I wanna read a horror story’? Here is the horror story. The perfect soundtrack for complete mental collapse. A relentless industrial guitar grind, half recorded in an extremely lo-fi manner in some warehouse somewhere. This is the most fully realised Fall narrative yet. Massively influenced by spooky Oxford don MR James, who if you’ve never read, I greatly recommend. They are mainly tales of supernatural possession and/or hauntings, where the characters, often clerical types or academics, experience some sort of horrific primordial terror that robs them of their sanity and leaves them broken men. At the heart the song is a straightforward story of Rector meets Spectre, Spectre possesses Rector, an Inspector attempts to exorcise the Rector, Spectre tries to possesses Inspector but the possession is ineffectual, but effective enough to leave the Inspector insane by what he’s seen. Its extremely meaty and full of great lines like the following:

"Those flowers, take them away," he said.
"They're only funeral decorations.
And O this is a tragic nation
A nation of no imagination.
A stupid dead man is their ideal
They shook me and they think me unclean."

Essentially eight minutes of trance like grinding, robotic rhythm with a great story over the top.

Following this, we have the hilariously incongruous contrast of Put Away, the album’s chirpy kazoo lead closer (with a baa-baa-baa-baa intro from MES), which first surfaced on a Peel session a while back. This version really rattles away. The band is really cooking.

So in conclusion, I’ve enjoyed this week a lot. Been great to revisit Dragnet and soak up its brilliance. The first Fall classic I’d say. All the pieces are in place - MES is hitting a serious stride lyrically and the band really work together well. The Fall are positioning themselves as a band apart - literary, an autonomous unit, experimental, darkly funny, supremely confident. So - listen to this - its freaking awesome and my blathering on about doesn’t do justice to the experience of listening to it.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Live At The Witch Trials (1979)

Ed says:

This week it’s the debut album - ‘Live at the Witch Trials’, which is not, as eMusic would have you believe, a live album. An assured piece of work in itself, it also feels like a psychic clearing of the decks in preparation for a great leap forward. This may of course be something that I’m applying retrospectively, which is always a temptation. A short one after last week's extended tract - some of these songs have already popped up when talking about last week’s Peel Sessions, and in most cases the sessions have a slight edge on the album versions - so for a few of these songs, I’m already all worded out.

Live at the Witch Trials has all the urgency you might expect of an album that was recorded in five days. A snapshot of a band at a moment in time. A tight unit with a supremely confident front man. A great guitarist on his way out. On drums particularly, Karl Burns is on fire*. In one of the weirder/more interesting/potentially irritating aspects of the production on this record, he’s panned curiously across the speakers, so he’s going back and forth left to right as he goes through the toms (which he does a lot). I like this immensely, but I imagine others might find this a little gimmicky and/or annoying. Well, they’d be wrong. The fools.

We open with an absolute killer, ‘Frightened’. A slo-mo ode to amphetamine psychosis, and the world’s slowest garage tune (sadly this remained unverified by the late Roy Castle). “I’ve got shears pointed straight at my chest and time moves slow when you count it...I appear at midnight when the films close”. The peripheral bedsitter. Keyed up, tense, paranoid, enveloping - the nervousness of the racing mind. Lyrically, the strongest moment on the record. I feel highly strung when listening to this right now, and I’ve had nothing stronger than a cup of tea, some toast and a multivitamin.

‘We are The Fall - Northern white crap that talks back’. Crap Rap 2. ‘Do not fuck us, we are frigid stars’. More mission statement/stall setting out business. No cap doffing here.  Segue into an OK version of ‘Like to Blow’, Not Bad, But The Peel Session Is Better (NBBTPSIB). I’m not in the mood to rehash that here, but we covered these sessions last week for if you’d like more information .

Rebellious Jukebox/No Xmas For John Quays/Mother-Sister/Industrial Estate - each and everyone of them is NBBTPSIB.

(Mother-Sister does however have the great little intro: “Errr what’s this song about?”, “Errrr, nothing”.)

I knew it!

Actually, on reflection, remove Mother-Sister from the NBBTPSIB pile and place it in its own Actually, The Album Version Is Better (ATAVIB) pile. This version is less sonically abrasive, but ups the doom quotient by a significant factor and increases the amount of dread per square inch to a dangerous level. I still don’t know what its about, but there’s a lot of disembodied poetry in the lines:

Reach or preach
It's all a diminished return

‘Underground Medicin’ opens nicely with a brilliant chanted intro, but fails to live up the initial promise, instead opting for bit of brisk murky noddling.

‘Two Steps Back’ though is a beautiful VU-esque dirge and a highlight, dense and taken in a twisted psychedelic direction with that lovely cheapo keyboard that we mentioned last week, played by the excellent Yvonne Pawlett, who will shortly leave, if I recall correctly, to become a vet. Deep, meditative, repetitive.

‘I still believe in the R and R dream, R and R as primal scream’ - a diamond in the lyrical rough of the title track - a musical snippet, which feels more of an afterthought.

Futures and Pasts - NBBTPSIB

We close with the excellent ‘Music Scene’, which is funky. Well it is to funk what photofit photographs are to passport photos - uncanny, wrong but there’s definitely a grain of resemblance. And of course there’s the Repetition. The narrative - another disjointed impression, venom spat out at an unnamed victim. Someone in the studio yells ‘Six minutes’, clearly wanting to get home to his fishfingers and chips. The band play on anyway - ‘Six Forty’. Chips will be getting cold. To quote The Clash - “it’s fucking long, innit?”, and musically at least, ‘Music Scene’ is the weird, squat dwelling, pasty faced, amphetamine dependent second cousin of the ‘Magnificent Seven’.

To summarise - a good album, not yet reaching the heights of excellence they will soon achieve, but miles better than most debut albums. A record that I like, but not one I love. A weirdo warped record that sonically owes more to more psychedelic sounds than to three chord punk orthodoxy.

* Which is a fine opportunity to relate the fact that Karl Burns was rumoured to have been literally on fire during his stint at PiL, when it was alleged that Jah Wobble had ignited his bed as he lay sleeping. However, this was apparently the misreporting of a simple "LSD fuelled live re-enactment of Space Invaders" (

Pete says:

Rightio - The Fall are a pop band.  Yes, they owe a massive debt to punk.  Yes, their hooks are unconventional - not melodic very often, but utilising rhythm, instrumentation, impact to catch the ear.  Yes, their lead singer's lyrics - though not top drawer here it has to be said - feel more like poetry at times… gah, no, scrap that… hold on -

OK - MES is clearly a cut above most other writers of lyrics.  Perhaps that's simply because he is wilfully different and therefore the attentive and curious listener will get dragged along in this tide of 'new', but more likely he just seems to snatch phrases and juxtapositions and images and turns of phrase and wrap them all up in a way that looks askance at the mirror with the listener on the other side…

… but to reiterate, and get back on track, lyrically this album is a little let-downish.  Yes, 'No Xmas For John Quays' combines a cheeky pun with a swish of character, which when offset with a frankly bonkers musical backing incorporating frenetic punk, stuttering stop/start confidence, and a brazen yet oddly indecipherable Christmasyness ends up a surprisingly bold sketch of a song.  Yes, Industrial Estate is a concise and clear evocation of concrete manual working mundanity.  It's probably the best song here to be honest, tight and clear and all hanging on a rhythm that provides it with propulsion, charm, and hook all in one go.  The spoken word track 'Live At The Witch Trials' impresses not only for its curiously poetic nature (and it really is pretty convincing as poetry), but also because MES is clearly a good performer of poetry.  And yes, the 'Crap Rap' that prefixes 'Like To Blow' is as good a statement of identity as any band has presented us:

We are the Fall
Northern white crap that talks back
We are not black. Tall.
No boxes for us.
Do not fuck us.
We are frigid stars.
We were spitting, we were snapping "Cop Out, Cop Out!"
as if from heaven.

… but over and above these standouts, the rest of the album's words, though never less than interesting, struggle to catch the ear too much.

However, don't get me wrong, its a good album.  Sonically we have big bass, spindly, wiry guitar that for the most part wins through with its eerie discords, and occasionally OTT drums (toms are mixed a wee bit high which can irritate).  And while the keyboard on track one sounds top, it's blippyness driving these tunes toward pop with wide, white, bloodshot eyes, by the final track you would gladly put your head through it.  Twice.  The only really painful musical misstep is Marc Riley's backing vocals - good lord - cf 'Two Steps Back' a dull, repetitive wander through vague drug-culture references which just manages to stay the right side of 'ok' until just before the end when Riley starts honking away with more enthusiasm than sense.  Urgh.

The good stuff lingers in the memory - 'Like To Blow', propelled along with a heartfelt 'sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker' has a real funky fiddly jerk to it, with a chorus that revels in its own leeriness.  'Frightened' makes for a marvellous opener, brooding and prowling.  It also acts as an indication that MES is no mere shouter - his phrasing in the chorus forces a hook out of something that otherwise would be simple recitation - though these 'I'm addled on drugs and really, it's not all that great' tunes aren't really going to last him forever.  And 'Rebellious Jukebox', as well as a terrific title, is a fairly belting number, catching the ear with odd changes.  And, again, MES knows exactly what he's doing… its clear that his vocals are unconventional (really?!  No shit?!) but it's controlled, considered…

The rest of the album is a collection of spirited nearly-greats.  'Underground Medecin' has a dull, cliched chorus but a terrific verse, 'Music Scene' has a very different feel to it, but the lyrics fail to inspire and there's more Riley honking.  It's all often fun, but hardly catches fire.

So basically, as an indication of the sort of thing that we might come to expect from The Fall, Live At The Witch Trials is both fascinating and essential.  We can sense MES growing in stature, using his intellect and his musical sense to force this band into something in his own image.  We can hear the bass beginning to dominate, and the music push at the edges of all sorts of things whilst retaining that essential hook 'o pop.  We can feel this lyrical outlook starting to coalesce into a new, exciting force in music.    We can hear a band searching for the now, looking for the real thing, yeah?

But they've not quite found it. Not quite.  And maybe its not this set of personnel who can do the job - all change on the good ship Fall?

Monday, 9 January 2012


... including -
Bingo Masters Breakout single
It's The New Thing Single
The '78 June and December Peel sessions
Dresden Dolls
and any live stuff we might get around to cramming in.

Pete says -

If one were to listen to the first five tracks released by the Fall you would think they were a fey/aggressive punk/pop/new-waveish band, focusing their lyrical attentions on character studies/really seriously dark ruminations/comedy. You'd think that they didn't care about the playing, which might be truly, truly punk, but some of the song structures are actually pretty peculiar and must have taken a little bit of work. You'd think the playing was pretty loose, but there are some bits that are so impressively tight that you wonder what the chuff was going on with all the duff notes. And you'd think "who the fuck is this guy… singing? talking? shouting?"

You'd think all this, and then some more, and still wind up unclear, sometimes unnerved, and at points pretty unimpressed. However, there's always something interesting, and even at its worst you think there's something under the surface waiting to establish itself. The recording of 'Psycho Mafia' is limp, but a live cut shows it not only to have balls, but also be a pretty propulsive bit of punk-pop. 'Bingo Masters Break-Out' leaves a sort of pointless taste in the mouth, but it has character and isn't afraid to be a bit silly (I approve). 'It's The New Thing' is an odd choice for a second single - it's bitty and a bit too clever musically - but has some brilliant lyrics -

The Worst died because of you
Along with some others too
Erasing off our rainbows
We are men, we have big toes!
It's the new leather thing
Crash smash crash ring

… well, brilliant lyrics if you dig non-sequiturs like I do.

The good stuff though is really good. 'Repetition' still stands up as genuinely funny, and fun, and bouncy goodness, with some properly good jokes -

This is the three R's
The three R's:
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

… and 'Various Times', though maybe overlong, and maybe a bit too pretentious for its own good, is really quite eerie and creeping, not being afraid to labour and let the music become a bedrock for the lyrics to jump from, and when those lyrics start brushing the quality that (we may well suspect) might be awaiting this band it really hits home. Little lines like "But I'm the sort that gets out of the bath with a dirty face" and "My head is full of lead / and the beer is so week/ since they got rid of time around here" might not seem like much on paper, but they have some sort of power in context and resonate, zinging around your brain… hummm, some of this stuff is actually really good.

Right, so the singles are a mixed bag, but show promise. The live stuff is scratchy, sometimes amateur, but as a document of a band finding its voice, illuminating. MES (oh! First time I've mentioned him by name here - for some reason I was holding off doing it) has already got that sneery, snotty, kid with anorak attitude though I doubt ever again will we hear him sounding even slightly apologetic ("another slow one" he says between tunes) - we even get banter! Marc Riley snaps a bass string - MES says 'this is the avant garde bit of the set' to which Riley chips in 'avant grarde a third sting'… and MES laughs! Christ, clearly early days…

Before I finish up, clearly for whatever reason The Fall enjoy the environment a Peel session can bring - the two 1978 one's have more beef to them than anything else here (all but one of the songs appear on next week's listening, so I'll speak a little more specifically about them then). Basically, if one is prepared to invest a bit of effort in eking out the glory of these songs its probably worth it (with the exception of Repetition, which is just class, and Various Times which is worthy of merit), but hardly the most inspiring opening slavo of a band's career.

Ed says -

I’m in a hotel on the outskirts of Brussels. It's the evening and I’m whiling it away before tomorrow’s conference. I undertake said whiling by drinking beer and flicking through the local television stations. There’s what appears to be a three hour panel show where local Flemish big shots discuss the day’s events, punctuated occasionally by live performances from local beat groups, lounge jazz ensembles and a satirist with large, ironic glasses who I must assume is casting a sideways glance with his wry Belgian eye over the day’s events. Boring! But I alight on it every few minutes as I cycle through the 11 available channels. There’s also a flashy Dutch import, a police procedural about a maverick detective from the Maastricht art fraud unit who shoots first and asks questions later. Unfortunately, the plot is incomprehensible - something to do with the a badly authenticated Mondrian and the accidental shooting of an art dealer at a gallery opening.

I continue to cycle through the channels until something remarkable does catch my eye - some sort of game show. Grown men dressed as penguins skitter about on a slippery rotating dais, desperately attempting to mark up points in a complicated scoring system, while flailing around in exactly the way you’d imagine disorientated grown men to flail around in when attired as large flightless, flippered birds. What really interests me though, is that all this is happening to a demented, claustrophobic soundtrack that to my ears sounds like it is played untutored, on a child’s keyboard operated by oven-mitted hands. This childish keyboard is backed with a bassline that appears not so much picked, as gouged. Spidery meandering guitar that never quite resolves. Toms are thumped tribally. Ranting over the top, is a voice somewhat between children’s puppet favourite Zippy from Rainbow and the people’s favourite large eyeballed urchin, Johnny from the Sex Pistols. This is tense, claustrophobic, irritable music that threatens but never delivers release. It suits the scene of penguin carnage perfectly. Instantly I am won over. The song, I discover is ‘Psycho Mafia’ and this is the first time I am exposed to the music of The Fall.

This is, of course, a massive lie. Although I’ve been to Brussels, it was never for a conference. My pitch for the Maastricht art fraud detective who doesn’t play by the rules never made it past the development stage, despite some strong words of encouragement from Channel Nederland 1.

Before you accuse me of wasting your time, this untruth actually has a dual purpose:

a) as a device for introducing the subject of The Fall in 77/78 - which is quite a slippery thing and affords few cracks in which to obtain a foothold

b) as a convoluted attempt to describe how the song ‘Psycho Mafia’ from The Fall’s debut single, ‘Bingo Master’s Breakout’ calls to my mind at least an aural equivalent of the sort of deranged, frenetic, uncontrollable and unpredictable ping-ponging one might see best exemplified in the weird televisual tournaments of the likes of ‘Its A Knock Out’ or ‘Jeux San Frontiers’.

And so we’re running. We’ve established there’s the song called ‘Psycho Mafia’, its by The Fall and it is off their first single. Additionally, I’ve established a long, unwieldy and slightly stupid set of comparisons in an attempt to describe said recording and my reactions to it. I don’t want to go too much in chronology or into trivia, as there are plenty of places you can read about that if you want to know more. Cold, hard facts are available should you want them. You can learn these and impress your friends by repeating them verbatim in pub conversation.

Psycho Mafia is also the most punky, in genre terms, that they’ll ever get. It’s also, as ‘they’ say, a proper good tune. Lyrically, it’s so-so. There is this idea, which is the promise and potential of punk. On paper, naiive outsider music performed by non-musicians who form in a day, put a single out the following week and disband within a month. Often, but not always, in practice a rough and ready rehash of the work of Chuck Berry, The Who and the other beat groups. The same R’n’R DNA - three power chords, four boys. One note guitar solos that are, however primitive, still guitar solos. Music of the fond reminiscence of Tony Parsons with which he no doubt bores his children silly with, before embarrassing himself by writing another tedious book about fatherhood or another tortured treatise about how difficult it is to be a man in the 21st century, or some other balls.

So - ‘Bingo Master’s Breakout’ - a collection of three songs. The music sounds terrifyingly sober, although the personnel who recorded it almost certainly were not. Its not completely naive - its not The Shaggs (, building rock and roll from the ground up with the assembly instructions missing from the box and no reference points, but its also in no way your grandfather’s rock and roll.

We haven’t yet mentioned by name Mark Edward Smith (hereon referred to as MES), which is pretty ridiculous, right? If you’re coming at this retrospective (eurgh) with little prior knowledge, let me assure that this is indeed ridiculous. Just take it for granted. In future posts its pretty clear that MES = The Fall. Sure he will be ably assisted by personnel with varying levels of utility and more importantly, the sheer mental strength of character to survive the privilege/ordeal of being a member of The Fall group, but be in no doubt that there is only room for one commandant in this unit. However, at this point in time we have a situation that looks dangerously like a democracy - there’s a general lack of focus and clarity of ideas that begins to resolve once the more dictatorial business begins to appear. And you don’t really have to wait too long for said dictatorial business.

They’re a band that are still trying to find a sound, which is why ‘Psycho Mafia’ is kind of half cocked. A great couple of minutes, but a bit one dimensional lyrically. Above average, dumb punk rock. Its the other two songs that serve to establish musical and lyrical ideas that are ‘Fall-like’ and to push MES to the forefront, where he will remain and still remains to this day. Very importantly, they also sound genuinely unique.

One of these two songs is the title track ‘Bingo Master’s Breakout’. Musically, its a nursery rhyme played by a heavily medicated cabaret band. More importantly, it is the first of the many stories and character studies that run through the group’s output. MES intones the tale of a bingo master, worn down by the drudgery of his monotonous and wasted life who finally flipped out when his ‘holiday in Spain fell through’ and so he ended his life ‘with wine and pills’. Its a character no doubt recognisable from a WMC roll call and it’s a tight little vignette. The singsong nursery rhyme nature of the song only serves to heighten the ridiculous existence the bingo caller.

The other of these songs is ‘Repetition’, a manifesto if ever there was one. Chairman Mao dug repetition. President Carter loves repetition. I myself am extremely partial to repetition and also to ‘Repetition’. Perhaps its the influence of all those forward thinking German groups? Or its a way to prevent showing off, the fear of becoming King Crimson? Maybe to really get inside an idea, you have to loop it round a few times, adding, subtracting and comparing iterations. Possibly the best thing about ‘Repetition’ is that its a excellent wheat/chaff separator. By the third listen, I’d suggest that you will either think this is one of the finest pieces of recorded music that you will ever have the pleasure to hear, or that now is the ideal time to plough the car you are driving into a brick wall - anything to make the racket stop. Knowing your luck, you’ll be trapped in the mangled wreckage for a good thirty minutes while the still functioning CD player continues to play. Maybe at this point you’ll have a little chuckle at the bit where Smith delivers the killer line: ‘These are the three Rs, the three Rs - repetition, repetition, repetition’ and realise that hold on, this isn’t bad at all. Before passing out from massive blood loss.

If you stayed awake though, and if you were listening to this on the extended ‘Live At The Witch Trials’ CD (actual album review coming next week I think), then the next song you’d be hearing as you wait for the paramedics to arrive would be ‘Its The New Thing’. Sucks to be you - all smashed up and having to listen to this half-arsed jingle. This one’s a bit of a misfire, starting promisingly with a nice bit of jaunty Woolworths organ before degenerating into something a bit Buzzcock-y that would have been better realised by actually being performed by Buzzcocks (but maybe they could leave the organ in as its rather good). Lose the self-regarding music scene sniping lyrics too - this mini-genre pops up a bit in early Fall and generally doesn’t work in my opinion.  There’s also some extremely irritating ooh-wee-oohs at the end from Marc Riley, who seems to mistakenly believe he’s in the Modern Lovers. He’s not and he should stop showing off. In short, not good.

What is good though, extremely good, is the b-side, ‘Various Times’. You might have to request that a fireman turns it up so you can hear it over the noise of the cutting gear. An intensely claustrophobic, dense, almost dubby, tight seething little number. A little bit PiL. A little bit of the vibe of the porridge and amphetamine fuelled Scritti rhythm section perhaps. MES sounds very much in command now, conversational, although perhaps there’s still a final level of confidence to achieve as the band have stuck this gem on the B side of a very wack A side. Nevertheless, something’s coalescing here. Here we have a nice set of narrative snapshots - past, present, future, but slightly impenetrable as if we’re being shown an a scrap from a larger whole. We have a disillusioned German camp guard, a drop out from the late 70s, and then the future - 1980. Allusions to the banality of evil in 1940s and 1970s fascism. In 1980: “My head is full of lead/And the beer is so weak/Since they got rid of time around here...Time mistaken/Three places at once”. Some sort of temporal displacement? Listen to the whole thing, I think there’s a weird sci-fi thing going on. A distant cousin of ‘Wings’, which we will be dealing with in about six weeks, when we will be about a fifth of the way through this - bloody hell. Various Times also has the killer line: “But I'm the sort that gets out of the bath with a dirty face”, which feels very hard boiled, film noir, or perhaps an aphorism from a northern matriarch.

In 1978, The Fall also get to record their first two Peel Sessions. These can be found on the Peel Sessions box set, which is marvellous and definitely worth purchasing. The sessions often throw up versions that feel more essential than official album/single releases. There’s a good little booklet that comes with it which tells you the history of it all, so you can either read that or wikipedia/google it. Am attempting in some way to steer around the rehash zone.

Firstly, these sessions show The Fall as a much more dynamic and together unit than the preceding singles, particularly the first one. If I recall correctly its because the single material was quite dated by the time it was release, whereas the two sessions were what was current. I think that’s right. I could be wrong. If I am, then I’m sorry, but only God can judge me.

Session One - June 1978 and Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon’ is number one in the UK and a massive international hit. Its original writer, Brent Dowe of The Melodians, isn’t initially credited, only the German disco cash in puppetmasters . Brent Dowe is living in a fucking hut. It’s a shit business.

Anyway, I digress - its June 1978 and its session number one. OK, this cheap keyboard sound is getting a little wearing now. It was so charming when I started writing this, but now its buzzing around away in my brain. Tense nervous headache. This is what trepanning might be like. ‘I understand but I don't see it’ (Futures Past) a thrash racket, angst - perhaps the railing against being trapped in your allotted space, similar theme to ‘Bingo Masters...’. Mother/Sister - I have no idea what’s it about, its a racket again, but a lovely racket. Premium top of the range deluxe scream from MES at the end - think he might be experimenting with the high pitched yelp he enjoys utilising a little further down the line. Rebellious Jukebox - yes we have something interesting here. ‘Taxi for Mr Nelson’, a sense of urgency, nice little hook, Riley’s backing vocals (I assume its him) this time are restrained and less try-hard. Its urgent but insouciant. How do they do that? ‘Ind Est. Ind Est.’ (Industrial Estate). Another early classic. Anti-glam. The drudgery and danger of labour - ‘the crap in the air will fuck up your face’. Medicate your way through the thankless slog that you’re trapped in - ‘if you get a little depression, ask the doctor for some valium’. A fantastic, sarcastic sing along chorus - ‘Yeah yeah, industrial estate!’. Ace.

By the time we get to the second session, December 1978, changes have occurred. Not yet to the line up but more to the whole attitude. Here we have a sleeker, fitter, tighter Fall, helmed by a captain who has his hands firmly on the tiller. Vocal delivery of supreme confidence while the band propels everything along at a vigorous pace, probably due to the addition of Marc Riley on bass. “Mistaken for sarcasm, even belligerence” - ‘Put Away’ is cryptic, but worms away through repetition, repetition, repetition. ‘Mess of My’ was never released. Seems like more music scene sniping, but with added bite, a sinister every advancing churn with a rant.  The highlight is the terribly punning and beautifully demented ‘No Xmas For John Quays’. ‘Make sure the album this is on is in your Christmas stocking’. To my ears its another one of the frenetic pinballing songs of a similar genus to Psycho Mafia, but with added hilarity in the form of an unhinged Frankie Lymon impersonation in the middle of it - “Tell meee whyyyyyyy, is it sooooooo”. Presumably there was often no X-Mas for Frankie Lymon either, what with his deep appreciation for the horse. A great spoken intro: “The X in X-mas is a substitute cross for Christ” - but you know all this already cause you’re sick to death of hearing this record every bloody December sandwiched in between Slade and Wizzard. Finally ‘Like to Blow’, a punk remnant, a cut off. A short tale of a shut in. A Spurs fan who stays at home all day and who professes to “live on snacks, potatoes in packs".

That’s it for this one. I’m avoiding the live stuff unless I think it particularly notable - so you might get to hear me getting excited about Iceland 1982 in a few weeks. Anyway, what I particularly like about this period in The Fall is the rapid pace of evolution - from a chaotic, slightly better than average punk band into something unique and confident. You can see it happening in front of your eyes and by the end of the next review we’ll be into the beginning of an unparalleled run of excellent work.

Spotify link for this week:

Week One - 1977/78


Week one's listening has begun...

(Well, it may have begun for Ed, but I'm at home with Winnie who isn't too keen on The Fall. Last time I tried to put 'This Nation's Saving Grace' on for us to listen to, she found whatever toys she could that made a noise and repeatedly used them to drown out the CD. Everyone's a critic these days, even 18 month olds).

... and it consists of the earliest Fall stuff we have. So that's -

Bingo Masters Breakout single
It's The New Thing Single
The '78 June and December Peel sessions
Dresden Dolls
and any live stuff we might get around to cramming in.

Our thoughts arrive on Monday.


Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Rules

1) Once riding this crazy train, Ed and Pete must not listen to The Fall out of chronological order (unless they release a new album… and even then we have to confess that we’ve done it).

2) Each week will be assigned the next bit of Fall to listen to – this will probably be the next album chronologically and its associated B-sides, but could be a live recording, or just a collection of stuff that was all recorded about the same time but wasn’t on a single album. Or whatever. We’ll sort this out as we go.

3) Ed and Pete must agree to disagree. Or agree to agree. But basically, bickering is not allowed. Unless Ed is clearly wrong. But he can’t bicker back. Unless it is funny.

4) I am the arbiter of what is funny.

5) As far as is possible, Ed and Pete must ignore the fact that they know what’s coming up. As in, foreknowledge of stuff that happens after the stuff that’s happening when it happened then. As in, we must forget that, let’s say, The Real New Fall LP is coming up and therefore listening to Are You Are Missing Winner is made more bearable (though I quite like Are You Are Missing Winner. Obviously, I reserve the right to change my mind as part of the process).

6) Comments from readers are welcome, and will probably provide blessed relief.

7) Don’t get them smoking the strong pot or all their crackpot viewpoints deny the strong pot.

An Introduction

Some time ago now, back when there seemed to be things around like jobs and free time and money, I embarked upon something called ‘The Dylan Retrospective’. Every week for what seemed like ages and ages I would listen to a couple of Bob Dylan albums and write what was intended to be a pithy review, which then I emailed to friends – by the end of the process I found I had written longer and longer reviews, and sent them to loads of people, some of whom I’d hardly ever met but who expressed an interest. It began as a bit of a laugh, but it soon became clear that it offered multiple rewards – it afforded me an opportunity to complete my collection of Dylan records, prompted discussion amongst my peers, allowed my to flex my writing muscles, and helped me promote and formally explore the development of the greatest singer songwriter that this fair planet has ever seen. It was, in short, a very good thing, and brought a smile to a few people’s faces.

Given that I had such a good time doing it, it’s perhaps a surprise that it hass taken me so long to do another, but this isn’t the sort of thing you indulge in lightly. It takes time, it takes effort and attention, and you know – just know – that there are going to be tough periods. In any body of work there will be average bits and crappy bits, and when you consider the length of time Dylan has been producing stuff that means you’ll have weeks here and there which are dull, and odd ones which are painful. Also, you have to be inspired at the outset by who you’re going to be listening to and writing about for the next however many months – a U2 retrospective is doomed from the outset.

In terms of other forms of artistic expression, I will be embarking on a Doctor Who retrospective this year (this will take me roughly 8 years to complete, and the very thought of it fills me with joy). I’d quite happily do a James Joyce one, would be tempted by The West Wing, or The Wire (were it not for the fact that every Guardian reading pseudo-intellectual has already done those), but in terms of music there’s only one other body of work that’s even worth considering…

I shall not bore you with a potted history of The Fall – there are plenty enough of those around, and besides, that would cut against the grain of the whole project, which is coming at something with fresh ears and an open mind. Suffice to say, I have been a massive fan of The Fall for what must be nearly a decade now, and their music never fails to surprise me. Surprise and delight me most of the time, but sometimes confuse me, repulse me, excite me, inspire me… and that’s sort of the point – the music of The Fall never fails to provoke something tangible in me. Rarely if ever am I bored by The Fall, and if I am I am usually bored and angry for being bored.

So, the time is right for a Fall Retrospective, starting from their earliest recordings up to Erstaz GB or whatever is the most recent thing they’ve produced by the time we finish this… and yes, I said ‘we’. Most pleasingly, my friend and Pisco Sour Hour bandmate Edward Peter Newton Piper is joining me on this little adventure. I am proud to say I am the person who got Ed into The Fall, primarily on our road-trip around Spain, where one of the CDs we had to keep us amused was the greatest hits compilation “50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong”, a highly recommended introduction to this most prolific of groups. And since then we’ve enjoyed learning about this mindbogglingly bizarre music together, being inspired in our own music, and often talking in code at band rehearsals, which is met with bemusement by Andy or Mary until one of us confesses ‘it’s a Fall lyric’.

So there you have it – every Monday, starting from the 19th we will be posting our ramblings about the Fall, chronologically as best we can, and with deep thoughts and insight and joy and occasional annoyance. Enjoy.