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 drankYes, 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…
a jar of coffee, and I took some of these. And I'm totally wired.
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(NB - there is an argument it's 'cook one'. It isn't, to my ears at least)
Righteous maelstrom, cock one
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...
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,And one of my favourite Fall lines ever:
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
The Observer magazine just about sums him upWhich 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.
E.g. self-satisfied, smug
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 VictoriaMusically 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.
Is a large black slug in Piccadilly, Manchester
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 wiredA 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 weekYes!
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
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-copulationNew Puritan wields a rod of correction to the corrupt music industry where ‘bands send tapes to famous apes’ and is prophetic, again apocalyptic:
Of your lousy record collection
New puritan says "Coffee table LPs never breathe"
The conventional is now experimentalMusically 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.
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
Stripping takes off in Britain's black spots
The Kensington white rastas run for cabs
This I have seen
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.