Bingo Masters Breakout single
It's The New Thing Single
The '78 June and December Peel sessions
and any live stuff we might get around to cramming in.
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 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XR9d4ESlpHY), 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: http://open.spotify.com/user/edpisco/playlist/2jGrWCHQnM3L6nHu8UeYi0