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

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Grotesque (After The Gramme) (Album) (1980)

Ed says:

In the intro to this project, Pete mentions being proud that he got me into The Fall, and he should be as it is true. He also says that it was the repeated playing of the greatest hits compilation ‘Fifty Thousand Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong’ while on a road trip that did the job . This is partly true, but it was actually the other Fall album he brought along that had the most profound impact. The album happened to be Grotesque (After The Gramme), which we’ve got to this week.

The three of us on this trip, Pete, our friend Adam and myself took it in turns to drive as we escaped the November snow of Sheffield headed for Spain. As is only right and proper, the person driving got to select the music for their shift. By the time we were halfway through France it was Pete’s turn to drive and he put Grotesque on. I’d like to say that I was caught up in it straightaway, but this would be incorrect - Pete likes to sing along and he knew all the words. I find this distracting. However, I heard enough to be intrigued and he kindly shut the fuck up when it came to further listens. By about the third listen I knew that I loved The Fall and I knew that this was a very special album.

A weird one to write this week - this is the Fall album I love the most and it’s quite hard to write this post without just enthusing and gushing and the like. I’ve also had little sleep this weekend so who knows if my thought processes are firing properly. Having said that, I’ve got a large pot of Assam in front of me stewing happily away.

So let’s begin - well I was going to go off into a rant about the heritage rock industry but it was getting a bit incoherent. Anyway, where I was going was this - Grotesque is a stunning piece of work, an artistic high watermark and it certainly doesn’t deserve the obscurity within which it languishes. Its top level, mind blowing, high echelon transcendental shit. To my mind,  it is completely unique, does everything on its own terms and is 100% successful. The rough and ready production veers all over the place, which should be recipe for inconsistency, but perversely does nothing to affect the cohesiveness of the album. There’s no dead weight, no filler and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

There’s a common perception, it would appear, that The Fall are in some way difficult or impenetrable, or that the music is simply nasty or the lyrics willfully obscure. I think in reality that this is rarely true, but that in order to engage with this music you actually have to stop what you are doing and listen to what is going on. Fight the idea of background music as opposed to something you sit down and listen to. Maybe this is because we know, deep down, that with 99% of music out there nothing of any real interest is being said, so we refuse to engage. What would happen if people started listening and really thinking about the cod-profound-reading-Nabokov-in-a-showy-manner-on-public-transport lyrics of Sting, or the extended piano backed empty platitudes of Coldplay? That’s picking some extreme example for the sake of illustration, but you get the gist, People aren’t too stupid to comprehend poetry, they’re just buried under tonnes of anodyne lyrical cardboard. Grotesque is a great album to listen to uninterrupted and undistracted. This may of course be why the enforced imprisonment of a long journey down an autoroute afforded the time to properly engage with and become absorbed by it.

The album opens with a piece of music that is really hard to describe - Pay Your Rates. By turns scratchy, punky bop, then atonal, languid, shambolic collapse. MES demanding -
Pay your rates! Pay your water rates!
If your rate’s too high, write a snotty letter
The ‘snotty letter’ - the English passive aggression, the bureaucracy, the estates - the well meaning but ultimately poor town planning of the ‘neurotic red landscape’. This is all an appropriate setting of tone for the whole record, which although swerving through various narratives seems to have at its centre a highly brutal look at the English culture and psyche. That’s how it feels to me anyway. A state of the nation that a nation would rather not hear. A nation that wants to see itself as keeping calm and carrying on, the self-congratulatory stoicism of Kilping’s ‘If’, but who are in fact ridden with neurosis, class war, ugliness, petty jealousy, prejudice, gross incompetence, stupidity and an excessive trust for authority. This comes in with a vengeance with the almost pastoral English Scheme. Well its half pastoral, half the as Fall cabaret band, with the cheesy organ returning, bringing the shiny foil curtain WMC vibe. Very poppy and almost delicate. Lyrically it is a tour through the English Scheme, where the ‘clever ones tend to emigrate’, like:
Like your psychotic big brother, who left home
For jobs in Holland, Munich, Rome
He's thick but he struck it rich
and Albion’s myriad failings are dipped into, including
Peter Cook's jokes, bad dope, check shirts, lousy groups point their fingers at America
So - love this song. Its a perfect little portrait that says more than the sum of its words - we’re dealing with little English signifiers and cultural cues. I wonder how this translates abroad. I wonder how it translates to people outside of the age it was written in - I was just a toddler when this was release, but I’m just about old enough for most of this not to go over my head.

This picture of right-on middle class political correctness is recognisable today -
He's the greenpeace in us all
He's the creep-creep in us all
Condescends to black men
Very nice to them
They talk of Chile while driving through Haslingden
Maybe today they are less interested in Chile, but might be a member of Respect. You know the type - well meaning and essentially on the side of good, but encumbered with their own prejudices filtered through a gauze of post-colonial guilt, self-loathing and fear of the working class.

New Face In Hell. Another pop gem. With a kazoo. An engaging and comical story of a suburban CB enthusiast who accidentally discovers a secret state operation, tells his neighbour and is then framed by the state for the state’s murder of his neighbour. Again, this shows Smith’s talent for storytelling in a the constrained medium of the song. In just a few lines, he tells you everything you need to know. You can fill in the rest from the archetype of the suburban hobbyist - the drab shed, the mug of tea, the tank top, hours spent there, only emerging to eat the tea rustled up by wife or mother.

C'n’C-S Mithering. This actually looks like one of those droll fake Fall song titles beloved of lazy journos. One of the centrepieces, a tract, or specifically - ‘ a treatise’. There is a hypnotic and hallucinatory quality to it. Another one of these great Fall exercises in repetition - some intertwining all on-one-chord acoustics and a persistent nagging metronomic snare. The perfect bed for MES to unleash a long poem over the top, the musical repetition showcasing the lyrical invention. Delivery wise he’s riding the rhythm, his flow is ridiculous. Basically a very weird hip-hop track, in fact ‘this was going to be called crap rap fourteen’. Again, we have some fantastic state of the union style observations as well as a (fictional?) account of an American trip, where ‘Californians either think of sex or think of death’ and we visit the founder of the Tijuana Brass on his home turf:
Big A&M Herb was there
His offices had fresh air
But his roster was mediocre
US dirge, rock 'n' pop filth
Their material's filched
and castigating the English groups for acting like ‘peasants with free milk’.

I’m not going to relate the entire lyrics, because there are tonnes and because you should listen to it yourself. This is poetry of the highest order. Its better than most of the lyrics you’ll ever hear, its better than most words you’ll ever read. It segues magnificently into Container Drivers, which was covered last week. This version is just as good and as essential as The Peel Session version.

The Impression Of J Temperance - we’re back in Dragnet territory here, but we’re not looking back. That close martial drumming, the erratic buzzing of the keyboard, like a cardboard box of dying insects. The guitar here is amazing, abrasive, scything through the rhythm track, echoing Smith’s melody (yes - melody) lines. The story - its another extremely sinister pulp horror narrative, which also harks back to Dragnet. A vet is called out to deliver the birth of a dog that bears a horrific resemblance to its owner for reasons we perhaps don’t want to go in. The great thing about this is the climatic build up to the reveal of the grotesque beast, and MES frenzied screaming ‘This hideous replica! This hideous replica!’. More Hammer than MR James. Again, lyrically it is economical, but everything is there, either explicitly or implicitly.

In The Park is a straightforward rocker about post closing time shagging, with a few double entendres, which is itself works rather well and segues into the weird, experimental and fun WMC Blob 59. Which consists of a few segments of poetry over what sounds like a badly degraded tape of Nico, or a Nico-esque singer. Anyhow, it sets up the album for the final push.

Gramme Friday. Bedsit Peter Gunn-esque ode to the joys and pitfalls of amphetamines now that the weekend has come - ‘Hitler lost his nerve on it!’, includes the hilarious:
‘I am Robertson Speedo and this is my Gramme Friday!’
Building up and building up, but never reaching resolution - which is typical Fall thing - ramp up the tension, but offer no respite.

Finally, on an album full of essential material is the most essential of them all - The N.W.R.A , the North Will Rise Again. Its an involved, feverish speculative narrative set in the aftermath of a incompetently executed uprising (‘but it has turned out wrong’) - a medicore nation that can’t even conduct a civil war how’s supposed to ne. There’s a fantastic spoken intro which involves an epic Northern journey to Newcastle, shasing off feral children, the West Germans have shipped in trains,  bastardised versions of Fall songs are played on ‘Junior Choice’:
DJs had worsened since the rising. Elaborating on nothing in praise of the track with words they could hardly pronounce, in telephone voices. 
The uprising is a shambles, our embedded reported tells us in lurid, dreamlike detail
But out the window burned the roads
There were men with bees on sticks
The fall had made them sick
A man with butterflies on his face
His brother threw acid in his face
His tattoos were screwed
The streets of Soho did reverberate
With drunken Highland men
Revenge for Culloden dead
The North had rose again
But it would turn out wrong
The North will rise again
Its an epic in the truest sense, musically its cohesive and driving, repetitive but ever evolving. There’s these lovely chiming guitars, that buzzing keyboard, held down by an insistent bass and drums. What The Fall manage to do here, and on the rest of the tracks that precede it on the album is to create a different way of doing things both lyrically and musically, and absorbing you into this world, making you look at your own differently. In doing so they also demonstrate how much scope there is to create art in a traditional rock and roll band set up and additionally highlight the woefull lack of ambition and artistry in most other bands for not doing it. In short, Grotesque is a revelation and every home should have a copy.

Pete says:

I'm at something of a loss at how to approach this this week, purely due to the fact that Grotesque is yet another step up - Dragnet blew me away as I'd forgotten just how class it is, and though I knew Grotesque a lot better it's still taken me aback. Most fundamentally, the unabashed confidence, the sheer verve of this music which really resists definition, eschews pigeonholing... it's really rather remarkable. As ever, its always, clearly, undeniably The Fall, but the way that that 'Fall Sound' mutates and changes and wears different guises is astonishing. And moreover, this is a proper album - well sequenced, recorded with an unconventional (some would say poor, but they would be wrong) yet utterly appropriate sound. It's the sort of record that, if the world were a more grown-up and thoughtful place, would appear on those periodic 'Greatest Albums Of All Time' lists, rubbing shoulders with Abbey Road and OK Computer and all the obvious stuff that 10% of normal people love and take to their hearts, 15% of music fans say isn't as good as their previous album, 5% of naysayers dislike purely because they make that kind of list, 20% of people have never heard of as they are young, or wilfully stupid, or dead, and 50% of people have bought just because everyone else did.

In fact, when you consider Grotesque's constituent elements you could argue that it's a very informative template of how to construct an album that'll stand the test of time - you've got your singles (ok, they weren't actually singles, but 'New Face In Hell' and 'Container Drivers' could easily have been), your energetic poppy album openers, your 'challenging' track (though listen up younger bands - any song that strongly implies dog fucking must be handled with care), and then with that backbone your meander through whatever genre you fancy - bluesy blank-verse-come-rap, sci-fi futurology, twisted surf tunes. Clearly nobody sits down at session one and draws a list of what type of songs to write (though Pisco Sour Hour do come dangerously close to at times), but when you consider the creative decisions that songwriters and musicians make at every step of the process I can think of a fair few bands that could do with a whole heap of Grotesque in their lives and the charts might be more interesting and music might actually do what it can do a lot more often - entertain, yes, and get you moving about of course, but also challenge and confront and delight and play tricks.

And while I'm on the subject (or at least near enough to switch tracks), let's put something to bed right now. MES is no one trick pony - "they say I rip off Johnny Rotten" he says here, and while I'm not confident enough to unpick that observation, the fact that people are accusing MES of
ripping of anybody is a utter joke. And that reminds me - though he says "I shout for the Fall" in the self-interview I told you to listen to last week, that's either working class self-effacement, or an acknowledgement that we really don't have the words to describe what MES does... or maybe we do actually but... erm, can somebody please remind me to return to this idea at some later point? Anyway, there is, I am sure, a great swathe of opinion that goes something like this -

Mark E Smith shouts.

Mark E Smith shouts and puts the suffix '-ah' after words.

Mark E Smith does not sing

Mark E Smith cannot sing.

Okay - one thing I am 100% confident on regarding popular music is this - if you cannot as a listener buy into the lead vocalist, then you're not going to dig their music. The music of The Who is lost to me, as I don't dig Daltry's voice. I yearn to find a way of appreciating Jagger, as if I did I would be able to enjoy a vast array of Rolling Stones which is apparently fucking ace.

The difference with Mark E. Smith though is that you have to put aside any notion that melody is fundamental to singing... we'll go with 'singing' right now until I can think of a better word. For those of you that find that this concept is so difficult to comprehend that you're currently smirking at me then fine - off you pop, there's a whole world of Mariah Carey records to explore though you might want to avoid those nasty rappers she sometimes hooks up with, what are they all about eh, just talking over music?! Anyone can do that?! OK then, cheerio, just pull the door to on the way out, see you...
... good. The two key words I want to get over to those noble few of you who are left are balance and subtlety. Subtlety, because MES does not always shout, does not always stick '-ah' at the end of words, and most times is working the songs, using his voice in ways that benefit that word, in that line, in that verse of that song. And 'balance' because (if we focus on Grotesque at least) he's generally bang on, and yes that does include shouting and '-ah'ing, but also includes talking, reciting, rapping, percussion, story-telling, and even at times melody. And I do mean melody, proper singing, in not the most wonderful voice you've ever heard, but a proper singing, tuneful register.

So since I was unsure how to do this week, lets do it like this - an analysis of MES's vocals on Grotesque, or something like that anyway - I suggest you fire up Spotify and listen along...

And to neatly undermine everything I've just said, opener 'Pay Your Rates' has MES shouting away over buzzy guitars, insisting upon paying your water rates, writing snotty letters (oh hi, back again? Yes 'Always Be My Baby' is very good. Pop back in a paragraph or two). That is until the other bit of the song, where all the instruments collapse in on themselves, and dredge their way through some dense old chords at a slower tempo. At this point we get a seemingly calmer MES ruminating on 'debtors retreat estates', and then tunefully - yes, tunefully Mariah! - proclaiming 'Neuroticred landscape / A socialist state invention / The old government bones working'... it's funny, its daft, so much so that MES sniggers to himself just toward the end before everything hikes up again and we're told to 'PAY TOMORROW!'. But its the contrast - indeed, the balance - between the two sections that provides the humour.

'English Scheme' is funny too, but more satirical than merely daft (the mention of Peter Cook is telling). Its a fabulous lyric, but as with all good jokes its the way you tell it - for example, the drop into a lower, more-spoken register for the 'like your psychotic big brother' bit leading into the fabulous phrasing of 'for jobs in Holland, Munich, Rome'. MES's sense of timing is sensational, and even in something as seemingly spoken as this (and indeed 'New Face In Hell' next and 'C 'n C - S Mithering' after that) he manages to drag hooks out of nowhere. And Mariah - don't you dare suggest to me that the sing-song way that he delivers 'condescends to black men / very nice to them' doesn't make that line an utter triumph, effortlessly ladling scorn and derision on somebody with 8 words and without recourse to shouting or sneering.

As an example of how to take a ostensibly stream of conscious narrative and route it into song (music having a natural propulsion let us not forget, which is often why bad music is better than bad poetry. At least bad music moves itself along to a conclusion, whereas bad poetry either makes you - you! the poor unsuspecting Mariah! - move it along yourself, or affords a orator an opportunity to employ the ponderous pause) 'C-in-C - S Mithering' is supreme. As an example of how that narrative can transcend that rhythm, slave it to its own intentions, I'm not sure I know a better example. The first half of it is as precise an example of phrasing you will hear - split vaguely into three sections the way in which the syllables build up as it goes on, from for example 'three days / three months' to 'there was america / we went there' to 'a mexico revenge it's stollen land / they really get off on "don't hurt me please"', these snatches of life from the supermarkets of Lancashire to over-stimulated California build up, not exactly relentlessly - the bluesy chugging guitar backing doesn't really feel relentless - but inevitably. Having just thought about it in fact, there's an air of 'It's Alright Ma I'm Only Bleeding' (one of my favourite Dylan tunes) about it, but an English, resigned, ironic... oh sod it, a northerness, a jokiness. The second half of the song is great too - and has lent Ed and myself our 'See you mate!' exchange which crops up from time to time - but the first half is class class class.

We touched upon 'Container Drivers' and 'New Face In Hell' last week, but its worth saying in this context that the way that MES sings 'the uh-containeeeers, and their driveeeeers' as if in wonderment is charming and helps the songs unironic, gleeful nature. And as for 'New Face In Hell' -

(well firstly, is it a shaggy dog story? I really want it to be for some reason.)

- the level of detail in this narrative, delivered at great speed but with great clarity, is impressive not only lyrically and technically also. You hear words rush past you but in full colour - 'Aghast goes next door to his neighbour, secretly excited, as aforementioned was a hunter whom radio enthusiast wanted friendship and favour of.', 'muscular, thick-skinned, slit-eyed neighbour', 'cream porches' - all rounded off with the squealed hook of 'a new face in hell!'. You follow a fully rounded little story which means as much or as little as you want. And there's a fucking kazoo.

Are you getting this? There is great skill happening in these vocals. Artistic decisions have been made (whether instinctive or considered is irrelevant), and the way that MES sings isn't a compromise, he's not straining at the bit to do a three octave spanning melody here, he's chosen to do it this way in order to best mesh words, music, and voice together. Consider the amount of voices Bowie has - nasal Ziggy, operatic Station To Station, cockney Be My Wife - and then consider MES who probably hasn't a voice that could charm the birds from the trees, but he's a working man with a tool and by god he's getting good at using it.

Impression Of J. Temperance has dog fucking in it, yes, but don't worry about that - instead, focus upon the second line of each verse. Sung, tunefully, each second line of four. Now, what does that do to this song? Well, in my opinion, there's something very earthy, very base about J.Temperance, very English indeed, and what might be a dirge (I use that word non-pejoratively) is lifted by that line, heralded even. And to go back to something Ed said - if MES = The Fall then we can hear it when the Scanlon's guitar chimes back what Smith just sang. And the same thing happens in Gramme Friday, a proper demented surf number, a tune and everything, this could be busked so its clearly a proper sung song Mariah. But MES singing that melody is almost just a set up for the most severe vocalisation on the whole album when at the end of the song which sort of just falls apart under the weight of its amphetamine fuelled paranoia he begins to shriek - and I mean shriek, its the sort of noise you wake up at night having had a nightmare about - 'I can't relax!'.

Okay - so this is no drunken oaf managing to kid anyone. He might hate the description, but MES is an artist, and his words and his voice are his tools... and his band, of course (can someone remind me to pen something about 'Disposability and The Fall' please). The final track begins with perhaps the calmest bit of vocal on the album, and also probably my favourite moment. The N.W.R.A is essentially a story about a future where the tables have turned in England and in his own inimitable style Smith begins:
When it happened we walked through all the estates, from Manchester right to, er, Newcastle. In Darlington, helped a large man on his own chase off some kids who were chucking bricks and stuff through his flat window. She had a way with people like that. Thanked us and we moved on. 
'Junior Choice' played one morning. The song was 'English Scheme.' Mine. They'd changed it with a grand piano and turned it into a love song. How they did it I don't know. DJs had worsened since the rising. Elaborating on nothing in praise of the track with words they could hardly pronounce, in telephone voices. I was mad, and laughed at the same time. The West German government had brought over large yellow trains on Teeside docks. In Edinburgh. I stayed on my own for a few days, wandering about in the, er, pissing rain, before the Queen Mother hit town.
... I quote all this only to say that this is brilliant scene-setter, a proper little tale being told over some (at that moment) thoughtful chuggy music. And MES has a lovely storytelling voice, a real sense of timbre - the admiring tone for 'she had a way with people like that', the slight edge of steel on 'Mine'. And this is merely a set up for the thrilling moment when MES finds his singing voice (we've really got to work on this terminology) to proclaim:
I'm Joe Totale
The yet unborn son
The North will rise again
The North will rise again
And that's only the start to this behemoth of a lyric, with an air of post-appocalypse, a smidgen of social commentary...

I see that I have written much and possibly conveyed little. Let's recap. Grotesque is a remarkable album. Its a fully realised piece of work, is probably better than Dragnet, and contains more classic Fall songs than it has any right to. And while the band are on top form - my favourite Fall drumming performance thus far by the way, really tuned into what's happening - MES reigns supreme, both lyrically and vocally goddammit! And while I will not deny anybody the right to not get on with his voice, I compel anyone who hasn't given themselves the opportunity to buy into MES to properly listen, and ready yourselves for something which is at times peerless. I cannot recommend this record highly enough.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

How I Wrote Elastic Man (Single) / Totally Wired (Single) / Peel Session #3 (1980)

Pete says:

One of the interesting things about this retrospective (over and above all the quality music we've been listening to) is just how fragmented it has been.  Mainly this is due to how we've organised ourselves, which is basically taking sensible chunks of recorded output, but that in itself reveals a couple of truths regarding The Fall - that they're prolific, that they don't follow your standard pattern of record, release, tour that many bands do, but also that they're moving and developing so fast that your sensible chunk might be an album, or a couple of the many amazing singles they were churning out in the late 70s/early 80s, a session or two, some live stuff.  So you might say that in trying to trace a narrative here, to plot a progression, we've made life tricky for ourselves, because just doing the albums might have been clearer, or doing a year at a time, or something like that.

However, maybe this week can be seen as one were we can see a band that have arrived at a set of sounds that's going to see them good for quite some time.  In this context we can speculate that, whereas Witch Trials was a noble stab in the dark, Dragnet was your leap into a brave new world, and Totale's was a glance back over the shoulder, the various things we're listening to now are the first proper steps in Falltonia.  Now clearly, Falltonia is a place that moves and shifts and does all sorts of crazy things - this is a band that never stays still, and rejects the notion off consolidation (just ask everyone who played on Witch Trials (probably even Riley)) - but even so, there is a Fall Sound (now thats a phrase that I'm going to be typing again before this crazy train stops), and I think this week sees the band starting to confidently make the most of it.

'Fiery Jack' may have instigated the rockabilly Fall, but 'How I Wrote Elastic Man' nails it, and even begins to toy with it from the very first languid guitar riff introduction.  A jaunty verse is offset with a rather more pained chorus, though its MES who shines - his tale of the artist crippled by public expectation (and ignorance too - all the way through 'all the people ask me how I wrote Plastic Man') whips between first and third person, self-loathing and misogyny, the sublime and the ridiculous, resulting in a tangible character, and yet another advance in this mode of lyric writing.  Its B-Side plays with the horror-lyric thing that MES so clearly enjoys, a daftish tale of 'City Hobgoblins' played for laughs (ish) all energy and thrust. In terms of a single encapsulating a band at that moment of time, showing two diverse angles of themselves, yet still, always, revealing in that Fall sound… well, you have ears I suggest you use them.

But then… THEN… the next single, coming only two months later ups the ante again (well, half of it).  'Totally Wired' is probably just a fucking marvellous song, all booming toms and call and response vocals and northern funk, but it could just as well be seen as the updated manifesto of the Fall.  It's taught, its tense, its funny, in just the way that fellow at the bar is seriously funny all night until he twats someone.  It takes from poetry and speech and rock preconceptions in equal measure, embraces daftness, sets out its parameters early and fully mines them for maximum effect.  It's knowing and clever and pure pop goodness:
Can't you see? A butterfly stomach round ground. I drank
a jar of coffee, and I took some of these.  And I'm totally wired.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  The finest Fall single thus far.  The B-Side, however, though impressive in its playing, leave me cold, and therefore I'll move on to…

The Peel Session. Now, we've looked at two of these and they were undoubtedly impressive, suited the band, afforded them good recording facilities and the freedom to explore.  Great.  However, number 3… well, if we hear a better one I'd be very surprised…  Some have said that Peel session versions of tunes are more often than not better than the official recordings, an opinion I've often questioned.  However, there is something very special about this one.  For a start, the four tunes are corkers.  Secondly, the band sound energised and focused, clearly buoyed by their recent (artistic) successes and fully aware that they have an album about to be released which surely - clearly! - will propel them to international stardom and glory.  Finally, I feel that this session is an audible example of a key element of the Fall finding exactly what and how to play - step forward Steve Hanley, bass wrangler extrodinare.

Three of the four tracks here are totally dictated by the bass, and the fourth demonstrates that sometimes the best thing a bass can do is just play the obvious thing and let everything else get on with it.  'Jawbone and The Air-Rifle' is pretty much a bass line with words over it and some other stuff.  It seems odd hearing it now, as it won't be properly recorded for ages, but since we can revisit it, lets just focus on Hanley's contribution.  In the verse he dictates the rhythm entirely, whilst being unafraid to just thud appropriately.  The chorus he dictates the rhythm AND the melody, while again not being afraid to thud.  And in the bridge he shows that thudding isn't just a 'safe place' for him, and that he's quite able to move around, coaxing life into something that might sound add-onish without it.  In 'The Container Drivers' he roots the whole thing down with his stupendously simple playing, which in turn allows other instruments to wander off and be bonkers - owing to the lyrics this song has to be pop, just has to be, or it'd be stupid.  Hanley's playing facilitates Scanlon and Riley to meander off and helps MES's bathetic story of lorry drivers to shine.  And on 'New Face In Hell' Hanley brings da funk.  Again.  More on all this songs soon, suffice to say that I was delighted to rediscover which Fall song it is that has provided the Collins's household with a favourite catchphrase 'you never can tell, you never can tell'.  Doesn't look much on paper, I know.
All hail the new puritan
Righteous maelstrom, cock one
(NB - there is an argument it's 'cook one'.  It isn't, to my ears at least)

But the jewel in the crown of this week, over and above all this class is the Peel session, electrified glory of New Puritan.  From its scratchy, ill-recorded beginnings on Totale's to this monstrous, towering, terrifying thing, embracing chanting - either of the tribal or football terrace variety - discordant scratchy guitars, sparse yet driving drums.  This, seriously, is up there with the very finest of The Fall, and its no wonder that they never managed a proper studio recording of it that topped this effort.

Its the lyrics though which take it into the stratosphere - its a crazy mix of England old and new: "The grotesque peasants stalk the land / And deep down inside you know everybody wants to like big companies".  Sounds seem to cross this mishmash of time and equate with one another in peculiar ways: "It's a dinosaur cackle / A pteradactyl cackle / In LA a drunk is sick on Gene Vincent's star on Hollywood Boulevard".  The listener is never sure quite where to settle, the singer relentless in surging on - this is clearly important dammit, but goodness knows why.  And yet - its not important like some Dylan stuff sounded important, vital, essential.  No, its too self-aware for that, and shuns analysis with stuff like "The conventional is now experimental / The experimental is now conventional" and even manages to undermine itself with "Why don't you ask your local record dealer how many bribes he took today?" which manages to work only because its snottily funny, a throwback to the early live stuff, a knowing acceptance that this music is too dense, too clever for the vast majority of the record buying public.  It's bile, and self-aggrandisement, and pure bollocks, and pure brains.  I don't think I could take a whole album of New Puritan's, but by god I'll surrender willingly to this one.  Perhaps the best thing thus far.

To finish - I have two theories:

1) The 'why the Fall are like the Beatles' theory.  I shall touch upon this some other time.

2) The 'listen to the self-interview' theory at the end of the Grotesque re-release.  And speaking of which...

Ed says:

The following is one of the many ways that art works - little aspects of one thing influence the next, influence the next and so on. Native Lancastrian LS Lowry spends most of his life knocking up his naive paintings, which are clasped to the bosom of both the establishment and the common man. In the late 1960s, bubblegum psychedelia practitioner, Francis Rossi of pre-denim Status Quo seeks refuge from his wife and mother in law in the outside toilet. His forty five minutes on the bog are not squandered, as he pens ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’, a piece of heavily phased daftness that draws on the work of Lowry for its title and has a rather catchy one string one note hook. Thirteen or so years later, The Fall release the single - “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’” which half cribs the melody line and mocks the title. Anyway - influences can and should come from anywhere.

This week we’re looking at eight songs from 1980. Two singles and a Peel Session. This is the good shit:

We’ve already established in previous installments that we’ve been gradually ramping up the quality - words, music, performance - well I won’t keep banging on about it, but we’re in a seriously good period here. I will attempt to do it justice with my weak-ass lit-crit, but I, like the rest, will be found wanting. Instead I can present you with some personal impressions which you may take or leave.

Those idiot acquaintances you barely tolerate will no doubt trot out the lazy tabloid line that all there is to Mark E Smith’s lyrics are a series of non-sequitors with the -ah suffix. And you trust those idiot friends? Well, I imagine they’re harmless, but you - you’re more inquisitive, aren’t you? Listen to this and what you get is literature, poetry - shit that if you clothed it in the finery of Hampstead would be much lauded across the round tables of the Late Review and the like.

Importantly, you get narrative. Lots of narrative. Rich, lush, detailed narrative and characterisation. Fanciful situations, allegories. If you are trying to write - songs or whatever, this is a quality you should aspire to. Tight, edited, expressive, imaginative. Not just banging together vaguely thematic rhyming couplets like some sort of unimaginative tit.

How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’. A tale of artistic entrapment. How to follow a massively popular hit in the face of public approval? Writer’s block. They can’t even get the name right - Plastic Man? Elastic Man? Returning to the role of the jobbing writer devoid of inspiration
His last work was "Space Mystery" in the Daily Mail,
An article in Leather Thighs
The only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes
So I'm resigned to bed
I keep bottles and comics stuffed by its head
Fuck it, let the beard grow
I'm too tired,
I'll do it tomorrow
And one of my favourite Fall lines ever:
The Observer magazine just about sums him up
E.g. self-satisfied, smug
Which has the lovely ambiguity - does the Observer Magazine sum the writer up or is the reader of Observer Magazine summed up by their newspaper choice? I prefer the second one as I guiltily flick through another snotty review of a restaurant i will almost certainly never visit.

However, clearly not autobiographical - the work is both top notch and abundant. Check the guy’s track record.

The B Side, City Hobgoblins further explores MES’ obsession with the supernatural and the spirit world. The spiritual(ist) cousin of Psycick Dancehall. Mark’s house is infested with supernatural energy, the undead are all around, but its not scary, its more manic and midly inconvenient. The ectoplasmic echoes of the past do not restrict themselves to the constraints of class -
Queen Victoria
Is a large black slug in Piccadilly, Manchester
Musically this A/B side follow on nicely from the Dragnet era - its great, super tight. Mike Leigh, the drumming teddy boy who contributed to Dragnet's weird and wonderful atmosphere is out. Ridiculously young Hanley brother Paul is in and promise is shown. I picture him being picked up and bundled into a van outside the school gates before being dragged to another gig. The promise is realised on the next single, Totally Wired, which is muscular tom pounding garage band nirvana.

Speaking of garage bands, which I kind of just was, your local neighbourhood garage band should hang their heads in despair and stop rehashing the work of their forebears forty years back - for what we have here is the last word in the evolution of freaky, brutalist instrument bashing. Modernist and primitive simultaneously - pushing things forward and pulverising everything at the same time. A catchy pop song for the twitchy and chemically enhanced.
You don’t have to be weird to be wired
A Hunter Thompson quote. Tense! Nervous! Headache!
I drank a jar of coffee and I took some of these. Now I’m totally wired!
Watch, because words only augment, look on these works, and despair - because this is some super cool business.

This was a Top 20 hit in New Zealand. New Zealand got it right.

The B side. Well its a kind of collage. We get a bit of last week’s Cary Grant’s Wedding. We get something from the future and we get Putta Block. Essentially a cut and paste tour through some still bubbling ideas or some offcuts that were too good to throw away? "We had salmon on the bus?" I don’t know. It’s compelling though

Two singles. Next the third Peel Session. Bang fucking bang, the mighty Fall.  Just under two years since the last one they return a class act and outfit to be reckoned with. I hate to get all hyperbolic - OK - I actually rather enjoy getting all hyperbolic, but this is grade A Fall. Four essential pieces of music. Confidence. Swagger (or ‘swag’, if you’re an idiot). All bunged through some sort of genre blending apparatus to arrive at something that may contain a few recognisable elements of RnR, country, NYC art rock but that is essentially in a genre of its own.

Container Drivers - I hate to use the word ‘rollicking’ but this is, well, rollicking. A further refinement to the whole Country and Northern thing. Storming white line fever semi-romanticsm of the container drivers who ‘get no thanks from the loading bay ranks’. Intercut with jagged guitars, like somone breaking windows during the most strung out and cranked up trucker hoedown you could imagine. Poetry wrung out of something as simple as ‘RO-RO, roll on-roll off’

Jawbone and the Air Rifle. Another narrative. Hallucinogenic tale of an impotent rabbit hunter who falls under the ‘curse of The Broken Brothers Pentacle Curse’. Visceral, attacking with a werid refrain which strikes me almost as owing a little to a Chas and Dave style singalong. Perhaps in a world where Chas and Dave were rabid occultists. This sequence is the middle:
The rabbit killer did not eat for a week
And no way he can look at meat
No bottle has he anymore
It could be his mangled teeth
He sees jawbones on the street
Advertisements become carnivores
And roadworkers turn into jawbones
And he has visions of islands, heavily covered in slime
The villagers dance round pre-fabs
And laugh through twisted mouths
Don't eat
It's disallowed
Suck on marrowbones and energy from the mainland

New Puritan. We saw the germ of this last time with the Totale’s Turns home demo. Now it returns with an apocalyptic state of the union. Self flagellating monks chant a kind of liturgical quasi latin in unison to introduce the track and the effect is cinematic, specifically it calls to mind the end of the world religious mania and witch burning scenes from The Seventh Seal. Or perhaps its more Monty Python's The Holy Grail. It feels medieval - pre-puritan in fact.The New Puritan curses
the self-copulation
Of your lousy record collection
New puritan says "Coffee table LPs never breathe"
New Puritan wields a rod of correction to the corrupt music industry where ‘bands send tapes to famous apes’ and is prophetic, again apocalyptic:
The conventional is now experimental
The experimental is now conventional
It's a dinosaur cackle
A pteradactyl cackle
In LA a drunk is sick on Gene Vincent's star on Hollywood Boulevard
Ha-ha ha-ha
Stripping takes off in Britain's black spots
The Kensington white rastas run for cabs
This I have seen
Musically it is driving, manic, focussed and staring straight ahead and importantly, massive. Large, widescreen - something new to The Fall and signs of what may be to come.

Finally, New Face In Hell. A story of intrigue with a kazoo. ‘This is off our new LP!’ We’ll be dealing with the LP next week and in more detail, so to some extent I want to keep my powder dry, but in short this is a great way to end the session - more narrative, creative writing and the strong vein of humour that runs through the music. Did I mention the kazoo?

That’s it for now. A great week - more ideas and fantastic music spread over two singles and a radio session than most bands have in their entire discography.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Fiery Jack (Single) & Totale's Turns (Album) (1980)

Ed says

Fiery Jack/2nd Dark Age/Psykick Dancehall #2

Where The Fall follow Dragnet with an absolutely killer single. The A side all chug, chiming harmonics, further exploration of the ‘Country and Northern’ thing, warped rockabilly with a touch a white line fever. Portrait of grizzled pub fixture?

I sat and drank
For three decades
I'm 45
Cause I am Jack
From a burning ring
And my face is slack
And I think think think
I just drink drink drink
Too fast to work
Too fast to write
I just burn burn burn

a working man who lives off hot dogs and pies using himself up. Insidious and worms its way under your skin.

For the B Side, 2nd Dark Age - a rant that feels pretty millennial. Doom! As with a lot of these lyrics, they are opaque and don’t always yield to probing, but you can always just enjoy the poetry of:

It's a second dark age.
No Psalm Sunday or any day.
The city is dead.
Bust. Ghost-dance rite. Tepid

Additionally, we have Psykick Dancehall #2, from a version of the song from last week’s Dragnet. What’s worthwhile here are some additional lyrics in the middle about Helen Duncan - who’s weird story is worth reading about ( This further underlines the medium/ESP/supernatural themes of the song.

Totale’s Turns as a list with bullet points and stuff.

The Fall as smart arse noise cabaret band with MES as master of ceremonies.

1. Mostly a live album, recorded in the Working Mens’ Clubs  of Doncaster, Preston and Bradford during the winter 1979/1980. Clearly as a southerner born in 1980, this is another world to me, but in my head it is more David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet than Peter Kay’s Phonenix Nights - i.e. subtle undercurrent of menace, overflowing ashtrays, yellowing wallpaper, Double Diamond, tough crowds.

2. The band are a well drilled, firing on all cylinders, snarling beast of a group. Further exploring the Country and Northern thing that we’ve seen developing in Fiery Jack, a grimy but surprisingly detailed chug providing the perfect platform from which MES to do his thing. The two guitars in particular chime in and out beautifully. Hanley handling the bass like he is trying to play it and dismantle it at the same time.

3. MES’ ‘thing’ is pretty much compering, controlling the audience, hectoring the audience, admonishing the band, relating tales, telling jokes. Allowing no breathing space to encroach from any outside agencies, moving from front to confidence. Working them like a professional. Vocal tics on display:

  • the yelp
  • the ‘ah’ suffix (beloved of the lazy journalist-ah) 
  • the strangulated scream

4. Excerpts:

  • “The difference between you and us is that we have brains! Bang fucking bang, The Mighty Fall”
  • “Last orders half past ten. This is a groovy number (aghh)!”
  • “This is The Fall and this is the drudge nation. Your decadent sins will reap discipline. Still it is unclean! Unclean”
  • “We’re breaking it in easy for you”
  • “Come on, get a bit of fucking guts into it”
  •  “Can you get it fucking together instead of showing off!”

5. A great live album makes you want to be there, makes you wish you had been there there. This is one of those records.

6. This is all good. Notable highlights however include:

  • groovy number Rowche Rumble - “Valium!” which is full of unresolving manic tension. 
  • Muzoweri’s Daughter - more funereal, more processionary, more heavy bass drone, more dread. Riley pops up towards the end to offer some of his trademark totally pointless backing vocals, but we can live with this.
  • A less caustic but certainly no less demented version of Spectre vs Rector
  • Something new! Cary Grant’s Wedding. Switches erratically between rockabilly and some sort of final reckoning, storm the citadel theme. Ridiculous, in the best possible way.

7. This is not completely a live album. The broadcast interrupted -

  • That Man - a not too shabby pop song, but in the end kind of fails to stick. Accrington and 'Hovis land' get a shout out
  • New Puritan - a home demo, one mic and rattly guitar job. The germ of something great, lyrically strident, sharp poetry and images. Word like this very exciting few lines:

In LA the window opener switch
Is like a dinosaur cackle
A pterodactyl cackle
Jet plane circle
Over imported trees 

8. And back to the previous programming to round things all off with a rousing and combative No Xmas For John Quays. Possibly the best version - closed in, head down, frenetic, focused, a maelstrom. Sound men are berated. The band is berated - ‘Can you get it fucking together instead of showing off!’. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Bang, the end, applause.

9. Sleeve Notes/Title. Right - I have this album only on MP3, legally purchased I might add, so I’ve missed out on some extra stuff that’s relevant. The sleeve notes have MES speaking through the persona of Roman Totale - I think Pete has the CD, so hopefully he can elaborate.

10. To conclude - a thrilling lo-fi collection showcasing a band more than hitting its stride, but hitting on something very special in a very focused, determined, deliberate way.

Pete says...

This week could always have been about another quality single and a budget live album thing.  However, on reflection its actually about a couple of giant leaps forward.  It's also going to be about being concise and focused as I seem to have run completely out of time this week.  Oh well.

… oh, well, concise.  Tight.  Focused.  Compare Fiery Jack to Bingo Masters Breakout - both character studies, but whereas Bingo was all gloss and sheen (lyrically at least) Fiery Jack manages to be both more obscure yet more insightful, and rather than telling a story of a character manages to capture some of their essence.  Stuff like...
And peace is a kite of materials you never catch
Come up for a snatch
Up from hell
Once in a while
… doesn't make much sense, but by the end of the song it all combines so that you really feel you know Jack.  All this lashed to a twisted rockabilly groove.  In terms of singles The Fall are on one hell of a run of form.  B-sides - 2nd Dark Age is pretty clumpy but entertaining, especially the bit about Abba, and the reworking of Psychic Dancehall an uncharacteristically pointless retread.

Totale's Turns was an odd career move.  At lest in hindsight it was - were we back in 1980, but a few months after Dragnet, a budget live offering which proudly proclaimed 'Doncaster! Bradford! Preston! Prestwich!' might well have had me bouncing with anticipation.  But looking back, after the thrill of Dragnet this seems just a little anti-climactic, though none the less essential.  What we have here is not just a live album with a couple of demo-y tracks thorn in for good measure - its also a minor rewriting of the band's short history thus far, and almost a manifesto.  MES has found his live footing, there's none of the slightly coy banter of before, he owns this environment, he owns the band, and quite frankly aside from being a little more verbose between songs and a lot more comprehensible this is exactly the MES that you'll get if you potter off and see the Fall now - clever, sneery, uncompromising, very, very rock and roll.  If he's not taking the band to task in No Xmas, or insulting the promoter during Rowche, he's toying with the audience, mocking them.  Its a very twisted version of what we love from our front-men, and masochistically compulsive.

But its the band who've made the greatest leap forward here… ok, so its an almost totally different band but bear with me.  The tunes utterly thunder along - Muzorewi's Daughter was already meaty, but god almighty it hammers you here, Spector vs Rector may not be as sonically oppressive as on Dragnet, but there's few musicians that could even contemplate this in a live setting, let alone pull it off, and No Xmas suddenly has lost any trace of silly, becoming an utter monster, circling round and round, sounding like a fight that is both happening, and is probably about to happen right in you face.  Cripes.

There is newness here - Cary Grant's Wedding swings from a doom laden chorus to a mainly chipper another chorus, and then another bit.  This is the sort of Fall song that gets your average Fall fan excited - lollopy, heavy, and with lyrical insights such as
Buster Keaton he turned up
He wasn't a woman
He didn't take hallucigens
… what does it mean?  Haven't a clue.  But its good.  I think.  Also new is That Man, which feels a bit like a Dragnet cast-off - bit Your Heart Out, bit Dicemanish.  It feels like a hyped-up 50s boy group + kazoo.  And of course New Puritan which (breaking all of my usual rules) I'll discuss next week.