The Early Years (1976-1980)
As I noted in my last post, The Fall marked the '80s by switching labels from Step Forward to Rough Trade Records. Originating from a record shop opened in 1976 in Notting Hill that stocked ethnic artists as well as punk up-and-comers, Rough Trade turned the bosses' almost communistic ethos to distribution, resulting in one of the most legendary of early independent labels. And though the band clearly didn't suffer from executive pressures with their abrasive records for Step Forward, the thought of creative control and the slim possibility of a paycheck must have been tempting for MES and co.
But if the group's first release for the label, the live album Totale's Turns, offered an intriguing, if spotty, summary of the band's early sound, they soon moved boldly into the future. My favorite aspect of the punk era is how quickly groups matured from errantly hitting their instruments 'til noise came out to an actual sense of musicianship. Take, for but one example, the Slits. The not-quite-all-girl punk band cut two Peel sessions before they'd even made an album that are among the most rambunctious, defiantly sloppy work the BBC's engineers ever captured, then they turned up in a year's time capable of meshing reggae with punk in, frankly, more convincing fashion than The Clash. The band was already on an upward slope with the relative stabilization of the lineup, but it was at Rough Trade that The Fall as we know them today emerged.
Their first two Rough Trade singles, "How I Wrote Elastic Man" and "Totally Wired," showcase a consolidation of musicianship and lyricism. The latter is the poppiest thing the band had made to that point, with Steve Hanley adding a perfunctory, desperate tone to his descending bassline that sounds like a man always on the verge of crashing before the amphetamines kick back in and send him alert back to the top of his riff in a constant loop of manic and drained energy. The former takes Smith's growing skill with narrative verses and fits them into a shorter timespan. Where previous tales stretched out into epic experiments, here Smith gets a full story out in half the time.
A Rough Breakthrough
The lighter, more agreeably sarcastic tone of these songs informs the band's next long-player and their first essential album, Grotesque (After the Gramme). Immersed fully in the rockabilly that reared its head o Dragnet, Grotesque still plays at punk speeds but makes it clear that whatever thin ties connected the group to that scene had been severed. In the album's liner notes, Smith calls the music "C'n'N," a.k.a. "Country & Northern," acknowledging an influence outside of popular UK music with a fresh twist all the band's own.
This decisive split with trends informs some of the lyrical content. This is especially true of "C'n'C-S Mithering," a rambling rant over a repeated acoustic guitar pattern that throws haymakers at the laziness of so much New Wave. "All the English groups/Act like peasants with free milk/On a route/On a route to the loot," Smith snarls, later describing a round table of such losers as "a circle of low IQs." But even the more socially aware numbers show off a less apocalyptic vision of industrial decay. "Pay Your Rates" gallops out of the gate on Hanley's springing bassline and pokes fun at a socialist system that only ever seems to keep people poor, not spread the wealth, while "English Scheme" jovially concludes, in somewhat Joycean fashion, that the only way to get along in Smith's homeland is to leave it. "The Container Drivers," a driving song about, what else, truck drivers, reads and sounds like a Johnny Cash rave-up, a working-class anthem delivered with relatable panache. It's all still cynical, obviously, but there's a cast-off feel to the playing and delivery that gives the music a more inviting quality than on the last records. That's even taking into account the utter oddity of "New Face in Hell," with its white-hot buzz of a keyboard playing in occasional tandem with Smith's most irritating musical accompaniment, his kazoo—the harmonica is just too tuneful, apparently. But damned if the trudging beat isn't catchy, and Smith's yelped chorus makes for a delirious sing-along.
Lest you get it in your head that The Fall have turned over a whole new leaf, however, Grotesque still sports some doozies of lyrical and musical confrontation that almost gleefully sabotage any potential enjoyment of the record from start to finish. At one end is the brief but alienating "WMC-Blob 59," 90 seconds of buried spoken-word rants over hissing interference and an eventual collapse into something else entirely, as if the song were the result of simply recording a radio frequency in that aural estuary of overlapping broadcast towers, each with a different station. Longer and more abhorrent is "Impression of J. Temperance," a somewhat less than jovial account of a dog fucker marveling at his resultant spawn.
But nothing can approach "The N.W.R.A.," a nine-minute fever dream of an imagined uprising of the North, rebelling against the poshness of London and other environs. It's a growl of rage and defiance from the working class, but one that follows this imagined revolution to its bizarrely logical conclusion. In the haze of this narrative, the North rises against the South, only to crumble in disunity, disorganization, and ignorance. It's one of the funniest things Smith's ever written, an anti-punk manifesto that plays out all the calls for "Anarchy in the U.K." in simulation to demonstrate the futility of such a message. And as with all the other lengthy Fall songs, the band themselves get folded into this nightmare, with their music being appropriated into the revolution, albeit after being covered and twisted into something commercial by someone else. And Smith turns the band into a regiment in this conflict, yelling "Shift!" like a commanding officer instructing a march as the band suddenly switches riffs. The least accessible track on the album, "The N.W.R.A." is nevertheless the most engaging, and when stacked against "Music Scene" or "Spectre vs. Rector," it also displays a coherence of musical playing in its chaos that shows the band even making its ramshackle long jams more disciplined.
Grotesque proved the band's biggest critical smash yet, but the almost Howard Finster-like cover art seemed to anticipate its outside appeal. Nevertheless, the band were on fire, as evidenced in a Peel session from around this time. Featuring storming versions of "Container Drivers" and the yet-unreleased "Jawbone and the Air Rifle," as well as an even more protracted and strange "New Face in Hell," the session's highlight is a full electric version of Totale's Turns' acoustic demo "New Puritan." Backed by this excellent band, "New Puritan" transforms into full-on apocalyptic fury that shows the effortless synergy between this lineup and Smith's musical aims.
Yet the defining moment of the 1979-81 lineup may well be Slates, a curious collection that translates the band's unclassifiable element to the release type itself. A 10" containing six songs, it is neither LP nor EP. But the distinction is meaningless, as this is the most concise, all-killer-no-filler set of songs The Fall ever released. "Prole Art Threat," not even two minutes long, reads like a Joyce excerpt; it strongly reminds me of the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses, all thick, angry politics being punctured for the hot air balloon it is. Despite its short length, "Prole Art Threat" has the density of a dying star, a multi-part play with characters and stage directions shouted at once in a blur of speech and observation. "Leave the Capitol," Smith's most succinct airing of vague political grievance, is equally important for its composition, which pops up every now and then in the band's subsequent works, rearranged slightly to get the riffs for, say, "Cruisers Creek" or "15 Ways." "Slates, Slags, Etc." pulls no punches with the music scene, though its best line may be self-directed when Smith commands, "Don't start improvising, for God's sake."
There's a clarity to Smith's ethos in all these songs, none more clear than the opener, "Middle Mass." It offers the greatest insight to Smith's views on the class system. Smith's politics have always been hard to pin down, though his oscillation between leftist and Tory politics can be explained in this song's first verse: "The evil is not in extremes/It's in the aftermath/The middle mass/After the fact/Vulturous in the aftermath." This resentment of the dominant bourgeoisie can be found in Smith's kind-a sort-a autobiography Renegade: The Life and Tales of Mark E. Smith, in which he defends stereotyping of the working class against the far great threat of the middle class and the supposed moderates:
"[Music writers] can’t abide the proles; they hate to see them get on and it’s worse still if they infiltrate their cozy clan. They couldn’t understand anyway that the left and right were never a threat anyway; that the worst thing is a sanitized society ruled by the middle class. The working class and the real upper class have a lot in common. They know where they’re from, they like a drink, have a sense of humor. It’s the middle you need to look out for."The Fall were at the top of their game, yet even with Grotesque's showing on the indie chart, they were still going over like a lead balloon. Adding to the problems was Smith's contentious relationship with the label. As if to stress the frontman's unfailingly ability to pick a fight with anyone, he found a way to come into conflict with Rough Trade's artist-friendly, utopian atmosphere. The label's liberal approach to artist compensation and musical open-mindedness came at the expense of a political correctness that must have led to much hand-wringing when it came to Smith's grim diatribes. As seen in this printed excerpt from Rob Young's book on the label, Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited, Smith didn't take kindly to having anyone question what he was saying:
“They had a whole meeting over the fact that we mentioned guns in one song,” Smith told journalist David Cavanagh. “And I’d go, ‘What the fuck has it got to do with you? Just fuckin’ sell the fuckin’ record, you fuckin’ hippie.’”The Make-and-Break Record
Smith took advantage of Rough Trade's open policies to jump to Kamera Records to release some material. First up was "Lie Dream of a Casino Soul," a storming tune and my favorite of the band's singles. Yet it, like everything else the band was making, received critical kudos but poor sales. Combined with label disputes proving more trouble than they were worth, Smith was ready to walk away from The Fall, maybe even music, forever. But he decided to make one last go of it and, inspired by a tour of Iceland and its bleak landscapes, brought in the band to record one last album. Such is the legend behind Hex Enduction Hour, and one that, like everything Smith has ever told anyone, may well be a load of bollocks. Yet Hex certainly sounds like one of the greatest kiss-off albums of all-time, with a band musically honed to its greatest power and lyrics that circle around the central notion of, "You punters don't know what you missed."
This is evident in abstract on the opener, "The Classical." Conjuring images of pre-processed scenes and society, of diluted, anti-human political correctness, "The Classical" is ahead of its time in its vague anger against a society that celebrates each individual not as an actual human but as some token representation of Platonic individuality. Near the beginning is the infamous line "Where are the obligatory niggers?" a coherent, non-racist bit in the full context of the song but shocking and alienating to the new listener. Indeed, it's the subject of perhaps the greatest Fall apocrypha of them all, the story of Motown Records, America's #1 hit-making label, inexplicably showing some kind of interest in The Fall to be a flagship band for their UK expansion. Asked for a back catalogue, the band sent this album and promptly received a "thanks but no thanks reply," some would say because of this line.
Their loss. "The Classical" is one of the Fall's finest moments, stomping out on Hanley's bass and the double-drummer backing of his brother Paul and Karl Burns, who rejoined a few months early, apparently having been called back up from reserve duty. Riley and Scanlon, by now a rock-solid duo, complement this pummeling sound with greater unity than ever before. It's a vicious attack on the mediocrity of British culture, and it's not even the most powerful one of the album.
Elsewhere, there's "Mere Pseud Mag. Ed., in which some pretentious magazine editor (and even his father, obliquely) come in for some scorn. Smith is nice enough to suggest that the music writer's "heart organ was where it should be" but that "his brain was in his arse." And then it just turns to total ad-hominem, ignoring whatever taste issues to which Smith might object in favor of a lacerating character study of a man so lonely and despondent that, it is tacitly suggested, it's all the poor sod can do to go into work and unload his pain and hate onto artists. "Fortress/Deer Park" starts out touring old Nazi buildings before bleeding back into Britain, where the Deer Park is as antiquated as the Nazi fortresses. The only difference is that Deer Park is still inhabited by mindless fools. And if the point hadn't been made clearly enough, one need only turn to "Who Makes the Nazis?" which makes the controversy over "The Classical" seem fatuous, stuffed as the song is with deliberate provocations and insults of preening middle class morons.
Yet as angry and pounding and generally anti-New Wave synth and gloom as it all is, Hex Enduction Hour also sports some of Smith's most affecting writing. The two-part "Winter," originally split over LP sides, is so loose that Smith has to get himself back on-track as he gets lost down his narrative road, made bare by the stark, green-killing chill of its chosen season. Smith was always a gifted observational writer, but he checked his own vivid, abstract tableaux with dark humor that made his urban portraits more bitter and furious than sympathetic. That was true even, or maybe especially, when Smith would suggest a link between him and his characters. But there's no snottiness or superiority here, only a haunting elegy for a broken-down country. Even the chorus, which speaks of "Entrances uncovered/street signs you never saw," creates a crushing sense of sadness and grim discovery, previously unknown routes only leading to more visions of national decline. I don't know what the "mad kid" who has a prominent role in the song stands for, but I do know that everything Mark says about and through this child fills me with as much dour regret as I have ever felt in a song. Even the band sounds more respectful, retaining all their clattering din but directing it into a funeral dirge that makes for an oddly endearing sonic eulogy.
"Iceland," recorded in a lava cave-cum-studio in its namesake country, is nearly as affecting as "Winter," with an even more subdued arrangement that feels indebted to the indigenous sounds. Surrounded by the fractal landscapes of volcanic formations, Smith paints a broader yet no less troubling portrait of the end of days, albeit one that ties back into how he feels about his integrity. In the song, he mourns Megas Jonsson, "the last of the god-men." Jonsson was a pivotal figure in Iceland's rock scene, a true artist whose behavior and music made him an outcast rather than a mainstream celebrity. At the time the band knocked out this remarkably unplanned song, Jonsson had retired from music after making his own swan song and become a dock worker (incidentally Smith's old job), which clearly must have made an impression on Smith as he contemplated doing the same thing.
The personal slant of "Iceland" can also be heard, married to the more bullish tone of the rest of the album, in "Hip Priest." If ever there were the Fall song, this surely would be it. Also recorded in Iceland, "Hip Priest" benefits from the same ancient space that lets every muted cymbal crash echo in its brassy hiss even as it halts every kick drum beat into plodding thuds. Dragnet's "Spectre vs. Rector" worked as an extended metaphor for The Fall's music, with Smith himself as the mystic at once part of the possessing evil and the only person capable of harnessing and defeating it, but "Hip Priest" does it one better. With its refrain of "He is not appreciated" and its call to some bloke named Dan to "drink the long draught" in the priest/Smith's memory, "Hip Priest" is as artful, playful and boastful as self-pity gets. Is it any wonder that Jonathan Demme used the song as shorthand for a serial killer's egomaniacal-yet-self-loathing inner thoughts in The Silence of the Lambs?
The other pinnacle of the album is its closer, "And This Day." If Hex as a whole was an upraised middle finger to the listener, nowhere is it more so than on "And This Day." The musicians play in such errant disharmony that the sophistication of their interplay on the preceding 10 songs retrospectively becomes their way of proving to everyone that they could play as a cohesive unit before simply following their own direction in this nightmare. It's no secret that The Fall owe a great deal to the Velvet Underground, and it seems as if everyone has their selection for which Fall tune is the heir apparent to "Sister Ray." (Fall fans seem to agree that whatever it is, it is at least a Fall song.) Ed Piper, whose collaboration with Pete Pisco running through The Fall's discography has become my newest must-read discovery, believes that "Slates, Slags Etc." fits the bill. I myself offered up "Spectre vs. Rector." But now I wonder if I should have picked "And This Day," a song I forgot about by virtue of rarely playing the exceedingly long, defiantly unlistenable travesty and yet one that leaps out at me now. In some ways, it's misplaced on the album, which does such a fine job of proving what a great band was about to pack it in until this number drives one to wish they'd break up if only it meant an end to this agony. But as one last jab at popular music, the middle class, and Britain, it's breathtaking.
The gambit worked. Though some previous singles and Grotesque made a splash on the indie scene, Hex found its way onto the full UK album chart, making for the band's first (relative) hit at 71. They weren't about to make a stadium tour any time soon, but people finally sat up and take notice. Smith, apparently so ready to pack it in, immediately rallied. A disposable holdover single, "Look, Know" (and its much better b-side "I'm Into C.B.") followed, but a meatier release took the form of another 10" mini-album, Room to Live. Not as representatively perfect as Slates but no less direct and focused, it's a damn fine piece of work. "Hard Life in Country," pokes fun at the mainstream appeal of the supposed artiness of the New Romantics, starting with a bog-standard view of rustic country life before noting that "D. Bowie look-alikes/permeate car parks." "Solicitor in Studio" barrels ahead with such abandon that its guitar lines soon sprint straight into feedback. "Marquis Cha-Cha," the highlight, is a character study of a British armchair liberal becoming a radio host in Argentina, broadcasting the Junta's propaganda against his native country during the Falklands. It's a scathing indictment of liberals being so concerned for the imperialistic implications of British militarization against Argentina that they miss the open threat of bowing down to a far-right military dictatorship. Naturally, he was greeted with accusations of Toryism, but as someone who's read Christopher Hitchens for years, this attack on soft leftism is far more recognizable as a disappointment in the left's misguided aims and lack of conviction than a call for renewed imperial conquest.
A New Face in Hell
Listening to Room to Live in the chronological order of the band's output, though, it's difficult to even accept that it exists as a normal release of a band soldiering on. Hex Enduction Hour is such a thundering curtain call that it feels strange to even keep talking about the band from here, much less to consider that Hex finds them a mere sixth of the way through their ongoing history. In fact, the band was on the cusp of its biggest sonic overhaul yet. This major change-up was preceded by Marc Riley departing the group. According to Smith, Riley wanted to capitalize on Hex by playing "the hits" to get crowds on their side, but Smith still liked to try out new material and rework already difficult, knotty pieces tucked away on previous albums. Smith wasted no time tormenting this upstart, allegedly sacking Riley on his wedding day (and this is Smith alleging this), but not before testing out "The Man Whose Head Expanded," a song all-but-openly mocking Riley, with the guitarist on the road. It was, well, not the final insult, but certainly the cruelest, Smith making Riley play his own roast while further skewering the man by, once again, previewing unrecorded material instead of sticking with the more popular, established numbers.
The band didn't bother replacing Riley for a brief time, putting out a single version of "The Man Whose Head Expanded" and the anti-football hooliganism "Kicker Conspiracy" before their next LP, Perverted By Language, introduced a new figure, Laura Elise Smith, a.ka. Smith's new wife Brix. Having met during The Fall's 1983 tour and married that July, the couple made the next logical, hasty step in installing Brix as Riley's replacement. This, of course, could have been an utter disaster, whether on the band's sound, the couple's fresh marriage, or both. Instead, it opened up the next major phase of the band's career.
But that's a story for its own post. First I still have to deal with Perverted By Language, which, in retrospect, sounds like a preemptive reaction to Brix's induction. Compared to the pop styles to come, Perverted is the least accessible album The Fall released to this point, and certainly one of its most difficult ever. Taking Hex's boldness and leaving out the curious listenability of its affronted assault, the album makes even its appealing numbers into something grotesque. "Eat Y'self Fitter" plays out like a cruel parody of a pop song, its call-and-response un-chorus alienating instead of inviting and its lyrics stumbling through several narratives slammed together. Unified by Hanley's rolling bassline, however, the track achieves a tension between accessible listening and grating separation so jarring that when John Peel, who included this song among his "Desert Island Discs," says the song made him faint, I don't disbelieve him. Likewise, Hanley gives "I Feel Voxish" an infectious rhythm made queasy by the slightly sustained notes of the descending guitar pattern.
And these are the easier songs. The playing in "Neighbourhood of Infinity" audibly strains against its mid-tempo speed limitation, the band constantly stopping itself from getting ahead. "Garden" uses a guitar chime reminiscent of Velvet Underground & Nico-era Lou Reed to accompany lyrics that make me think of the story of Eden and man's fall transposed the modern era. "Hexen Definitive/Strife Knot" closes the album on a warped C&W tone that combines rock and country in a way that shreds both. "Hotel Bloedel" features Brix front and center, yet it's the most impenetrable track on the record, her vocals distant and separated harshly from the even more buried music.
It's a fitting end to this stage of The Fall's story, in which they got ever stranger and ever more irresistible. For a band that has put out a number of great records since, they never truly reached this level again. The stable lineup that bounced Riley and Scanlon (and, later, Paul Hanley and Karl Burns) off each other resulted in the deftest musical arrangements Smith ever enjoyed, and the albums they made still sound fresh, immediate, and ruthless today. The band would go in the opposite musical direction for the rest of the '80s, crafting a more radio-friendly sound after the abrasiveness of their early days. But even when The Fall went "pop," they did so in a way that still made them singular and instantly identifiable.
Best Studio Album:
Hex Enduction Hour. Covered above. The band's most ambitious album, yet one of the easiest to listen to once you break that initial barrier.
That would have to be the aforementioned "Lie Dream of a Casino Soul," one of my all-time favorite Fall songs and yet one I have the hardest time explaining. An esoteric parody of the northern soul scene housed in the Wigan Casino discotheque, "Lie Dream" unfolds as the delirious thoughts of some patron who's been on the dance floor for a weekend, sustained on naught but uncut Colombian. Keyboards buzz in horrid disharmony with producer Richard Mazda's saxophone, played like a kazoo in some realm beyond tonality. It's the first time I would describe sound as overlit, and Smith's protagonist is momentarily brought undone by the noise of electric insects crawling all over him. But sobriety doesn't exactly give clarity, and in the man's shame he makes such pronouncements as "And I think I'll cut my dick off/The trouble it got me in." Soon, he's fallen back into the tragic loop of his life, resolving to return the next weekend. But as bleak and mercilessly funny as the song is, it does betray a certain kinship between Smith and this disco-addled sad sack. No stranger to invigorating powders himself, Smith had already written a few tunes about his blinkered emergence from and subsequent retreat back to amphetamines. Perhaps it's that self-recognition that drives the fury of the song, which is more intense and raw in this single version than the subsequent Peel session recording, one of a mere handful of the 97 tracks the band recorded for the DJ's show not superior or at least equal to the "official" version. Joined with a the phenomenally catchy b-side "Fantastic Life," it's the band's best single by a fair margin and well-entrenched in my top five Fall songs.
Best Live Album:
A few live albums came out during this period as well. The Legendary Chaos Tapes uses that l-word with almost reckless flippancy, a decent collection that is more consistent than Totale's Turn but has none of that album's highs. Far better is A Part of America Therein, in which our heroes take their show to the only place big enough to contain their weirdness. And Lord is it ever odd; the announcer introduces the band by howling "From the riot-torn streets of Manchester, England," a declaration of intent as good and honest as "Are you ready for Star Time?" Then the band moves directly into an extended take on "The N.W.R.A." for a crowd that has a very different cultural understanding of a conflict between North and South. Always a hit or miss band, The Fall is on-point here, running through "Totally Wired" and "Lie Dream of a Casino Soul" with vigor. Best of all is a reworking of "C'n'C-S Mithering" called "Cash'n'Carry," which opens with a ringing guitar clang and slamming keyboard chords as the band slowly forms around them, deepening the cacophony. Hilariously, this has the effect of making the "C'nC-S" material sound totally normal by comparison, though fans will enjoy the last two-thirds of the track for Smith's ad-libbed lyrical changes, as well as his shrieking freak-out about six minutes in.
Best Peel Session:
Peel Session 6, broadcast March 23, 1983
It's this version of "Eat Y'Self Fitter" that made Peel faint, and it's not even the choice cut of this session. No, that would be an extended version of "Garden," which generates even more tension in its ostrich guitar riff and adds a punchier bass sound that gives Smith's lyrics more bit than they already enjoyed on Perverted. One of the top five Peel sessions the band ever recorded.