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Saturday, 6 February 2021

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MIGHTY FALL: 2. “...AS IF FROM HEAVEN”

(The first part, covering the original EP, lies here.)


”I still believe in the R & R dream
”R & R as primal scream”

- ‘Live At the Witch Trials’

”We Were Early And We Were Late”

Wikipedia kicks off with the two best-known facts about the Fall’s debut album, ’Live At the Witch Trials’ (1979) – it wasn’t actually a live album, and was recorded in a single day. (More time was booked but Smith fell ill. Though I’ve always suspected he feigned it, preferring the on-your-toes nature of rushed recording. “Tension pulls out the best in us” was one of his maxims.)

'Industrial Estate' seems the closest cousin to ’Bingo-Master’ from the initial EP. Smith once introduced it live by saying "this song was written round here, it's for the people round here.”

Sparking off with the line “Well you started here to earn your pay” it’s sung as if from an old hand to fresh blood, delivered straight from school. It’s jaunty, punchy power-pop and chanted refrains both capture and parody the well-rehearsed consolation and paint-on cheeriness, the sheer awful Englishness captured in that sickeningly familiar phrase “it can’t be as bad as all that, mate”. A particular delight is the reassuring refrain: “And if you get a bit of dee-preshun/ Ask the Doctor for some vaaa-lium”. The fake jauntiness just accentuates the hopelessness.

It's a great song. But there's nothing about it which suggests future decades of great songs. Not wanting to become factory fodder was a common punk theme, and understandably so. (Hapless media pundits portrayed punk as a protest against unemployment, in a vain bid to make it something more palatable. Yet it was more a protest against employment. The Clash had railed against ’Career Opportunities’. Rotten had sung triumphantly on ’Problems’: “You won't find me working nine to five/ It's too much fun being alive.” The Prefects had written ’The Bristol Road Leads to Dachau’, referring to the road in Birmingham that took you to your car plant job. Fortnightly giro cheques were a welcome alternative to forty hour working weeks. But I digress...)

There’s probably a parallel universe where this Fall were the only Fall, where they split up sometime in 1982 and occasionally resurface in pub quizzes and on compilation albums. Fortunately for us, that’s not our world…

And in fact there are signs even there, visible with hindsight of what was to come. While punk was a kitchen sink drama, dramatising and bigging up the lot of the common man, the Fall reversed perspective to positively revel in a pettiness and mundanity normally associated with comedy. (The last straw for the Bingo Master was when “holiday in Spain fell through”, according to the neighbours anyway.)

This went with a recurrent self-referentialism in the Fall, where lyrics just served as reportage. Smith would very often just sing about himself, what he’d been doing and where the band were at. The Fall existed as a vehicle for the songs, which by turn were about the Fall. (A classic example being ’Two Steps Back.’) These frequently spilt over into diatribes against the music scene, habitually populated in Smith’s eyes by idiots, pseuds, chancers and rip-off artists (as in, logically enough, ’Music Scene’), or into general diss tracks. Draw his ire and expect a barbed lyric aimed your way.

In 'Rebellious Jukebox', through not overly elaborated means, a jukebox acquires sentience and decides to “make music for itself.” (At least, when not chatting up the cigarette machine.) The non-plussed regulars do not have their concerns noted. (“Drinkers from the slaughterhouse/ Weren't happy and went out”.) The symbolism’s clear enough, a live band with the temerity not to cover the hits of the day. It’s an overt statement of contrary intent, a band principle embraced with almost religious fervour. In its way it’s a moving on from ’Bingo-Master’, its “break-out” no longer the quiet of the grave but facing stage death and simply not caring.

Martin Bramah confirms that at this time “live... it became a war of attrition against the audience. If we were feeling particularly abused we'd just play 'Repetition' until the audience either walked away or got really violent.” (‘Babylon's Burning’, Clinton Heylin.)

Hence 'Crap Rap', normally their introductory number live, served the twin purpose of introducing the band and insulting the audience. (Smith was also fond of saying “if you don't like us, it's already too late.”) But on the album it's bumped from pole position by 'Frightened'. Which, with the chorus “I don't want to dance, I want to go home” must surely be a(nother) statement of intent...

”Time Moves Slow When You Count It”

It's a track that tells us more about the band the Fall were fast becoming. If 'Repetition' was sluggish, 'Frightened' is literally slowed down - it's the Monkees' 'Stepping Stone' driven in the wrong gear. It’s dominated by keyboards, an instrument most punk bands eschewed as a distraction from their back-to-basics ethic. The result is what Perfect Sounds Forever call “a masterpiece of brooding sensuality.” 

Smith was (citation not needed) something of an avid snorter, and the track evokes the speedfreak's volatile combination of egoism and paranoia, insisting “I'm better than them and I think I'm the best.” While, seeing only antagonism in human company (“I couldn’t live in those peopled places/ They might get to know my actions”), a solo figure stalking the streets after everyone else has gone to bed.

As the Daily Reckless say of ‘Frightened’: “If ever a song reflected its paranoiac message in the music this is it.” Smith intones “time moves slow when you count it”, and from the first few slurry notes you're placed in the same edgy “trance” as the singer. Which means... yes really... they conveyed the effects of speed by slowing everything down.

It’s tempting to call it the Fall’s ’Heroin’. But a less likely comparison might actually come closer. Black Sabbath had opened their first album with a slow-burning signature track, in their case even titled eponymously. In both cases the words describe the music, which itself describes the words – with no way of separating one from the other.

But if ’Frightened’ is the most musically prescient track on the album, lyrically it may be 'Futures and Pasts'. Appropriately enough it's the first track to, in Vonnegut’s famous phrase, become unstuck in time. (‘Various Times’ had followed a chronology.) Literally it may just cross-cut between adult and child memories, as the title suggests. But the dual references to the fog, both times containing a policeman, suggests a blurring of the two.

Fog’s obscuring effects are often used as a signifier for the suspension of the standard rules of time and space. Let’s cross streams with the other great fixation of this blog. David Whitaker’s novelisation of the first Doctor Who story (with the award-baiting title ’Doctor Who In An Exciting New Adventure With the Daleks’) not only stages our first encounter with the Doctor in fog, it brings that fog into its first sentence. And notably 'Rebellious Jukebox’ takes place in “a blue haze”, though presumably rather than fog the fug of a pre-smoking-ban pub.

Overall, the album is split down the middle, between variants of 'Industrial Estate' and of 'Frightened', between short sharp punk songs and far stranger fare. From that first EP, the Fall sounded like embryonically conjoined twins – two bands in one, ready to split apart. Only 'Mother-Sister!', hitching a fast chorus to a slow verse, and self-described as “like a see-saw”, made any attempt to unite the two.

With John Peel's championing of the band, people assume their Peel Sessions were their beating heart. Indeed, their first two sessions bypassed their first two singles, and entirely devoted themselves to material yet unreleased. However, at this stage those sessions still confined themselves to the punkier songs, as if those were the public face of the band.

Yet ultimately things were only going to go one way. Too punk to be punk, the Fall exulted in sounding and looking as anti-punk as they could. Julian Cope recalls: “Mark E Smith, the Fall and the rest were our idols. They all wore flares but they wore them in the right way.” ('Liverpool Explodes', Mark Cooper). Which possibly sums up this era more than anything else.

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