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Saturday, 13 February 2021

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MIGHTY FALL: 3. “THE STREETS ARE FULL OF MERCENARY EYES”

(The previous part, looking at the first album, lies here.



”Those flowers, take them away, he said,
”They’re only funeral decoration”
- ’Spectre vs. Rector’ 


”Stupid faces looking back” 

Despite arriving only eight months after ’Witch Trials’, ’Dragnet’ (1979) brought important developments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you consider the only band member to remain from the original EP was Smith himself. On ’Dice Man’, he made clear this new arrangement was the new normal:

”I push, push, push, push
”Throw the bones and the poison dice
”No time for small moralists”


And significantly just as he took sole charge he took up Blake’s line “I must create my own system or live by another man’s”. From then the band were productive, forward-looking and ever-evolving. New songs were constantly elbowing out old ones, developed on the road, added to the set as soon as written – sometimes while being written. And with the consigning of old songs went with the consigning of old band members...

You could write a book based on Smith sacking anecdotes, except someone already has. Suffice to say he was already singing "Can't remember who I've sacked/ Just stupid faces looking back" on the B side 'In My Area'. It can seem like there was a press gang principle at work, where some poor soul would pop out for a pint somewhere in Salford and wake up with a bass strapped to his chest and the tour bus already half past Antwerp.

As so often with rock music, it's such a good legend it's tempting to just print it. For many years we all believed everything Captain Beefheart told us about the Magic Band, that he'd directed all the music and had taught band members to play from scratch. Which turned out to be nothing but spin.

True enough, ’Dice Man’s tumbling insistence nothing should ever stand still is certainly one of the Fall’s main driving factors. And there’s doubtless some truth in the second-most-common claim, that the ever-present threat of the P45 was Smith’s way of keeping the rank and file in line.

Yet merely totting up the sum of players who passed through the band creates something of a meaningless mean. Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley, both of whom start here, were to remain to 1996 and 1998 respectively. Karl Burns, who had drummed on ’Witch Trials’, skips here but alternates with or plays alongside Paul Hanley throughout the golden age.

And the era when the line-up was at its most fluctuating, the mid Nineties to the mid Noughties, led by some margin to the most uneven output. After which things solidified again. Yes, Smith was central. But the Fall were more than the main man plus his minions.

The paradox of the Fall is that even if they were always Mark E Smith’s band, they were still always a band. Other bands with such a sum total of members, such as Current 93 or the Waterboys, were more solo artists who traded under a band name. Whereas the Fall needed that group mind to function. The most cost-effective and obedience-decreeing model would have been to hire and fire session musicians as and when required. Smith vehemently rejected this idea, despite conceding meagre takings often made it hard to keep the full band running.

Scanlon, Hanley and others made significant contributions to the music, songs often starting with their riffs. Hanley’s book ’The Big Mid-week: Life Inside The Fall’ repeatedly reiterates the paradox. He recounts how classic tracks were written, sometimes without Smith even in the room. Yet he remains an outsider to Smith’s motivations and thought processes. It’s like reading about the Napoleonic Wars from the perspective of an enlisted foot solider, who occasionally gets his orders directly from the General.

So if the Fall didn’t work much like the Magic Band of legend, did they work like the Magic Band of reality? Yes, but with one important variant. Beefheart required accomplished musicians to realise the sounds in his head. While, to hold true to the three R’s rule, what Smith needed was a garage band – and knew it. He insisted “I have never had musicians in the Fall. I don’t like them as people.” (‘The Fall’, Mick Middles) Paul Hanley wrote in his account ’Have a Bleedin Guess’ that the band’s great asset was their ability “to use their non-musicianship to their advantage.”

Johnny Cash’s manager would confiscate the group’s instruments between gigs, figuring that practise might make them too perfect when freshness counted for more. Similarly, Alfred Hitchcock struggled against luvvieness, pronouncing actors to be “cattle”. He didn’t want to be asked what someone’s motivation was to open a door in a scene, he just wanted them to open the door. And Smith’s persistent scorn for musicians was really a disdain for musos, with their mystifying air of self-importance. He wanted a group who’d just play his repetitive, no-frills music without getting clever about it.

But at the same time Smith was always throwing in the unexpected, to keep his recruits alert and responsive. Don’t play what you know, play in the now! Again there’s plenty of precursors to this, such as Miles Davis.

Further, Smith’s dice-rolling was in many ways more an American than a British attitude. Paradoxically, given his avowed Manchester localism. With the American underground scene independence went alongside a work ethic so strong it bordered on Protestant. Music was written and recorded quickly and cheaply, then the band moved on. If there was somewhere the band could play, the band would play there. But if audiences were to be sought out, they should never be appeased. The music industry was best treated as an irrelevance, at its worst an intrusion.

And that method of working created a positive feedback loop with the music, which wasn’t polished or radio-friendly but a work perpetually in progress. The requirement to be prolific meant the music evolved faster than with mainstream bands. Bands otherwise as varied as Black Flag, Big Black and the Butthole Surfers held to that philosophy.

While British bands were often more bohemian in outlook, perhaps because living on the margins was - at least at the time - easier. Mostly, though not entirely, through the dole. There’s the (possibly apocryphal) story that Virgin found Public Image a well-drilled machine for inhaling money and exhaling dope smoke and excuses.

Whereas Smith very much did have this work ethic, and the bulletin-like sound which came with it. He confessed he welcomed the discipline of financial necessity, which meant things had to keep moving to stay viable. In a man chiefly driven by dislikes, laidbackness seems to have been one of his greatest bugbears.

(Yet there’s one big exception to this rule. In the American underground, gobshite punks and freaks often proved surprisingly proficient in business acumen. The Butthole’s Gibby Hayes had studied accountancy, even making student of the year. Not things you would say of Smith. Only the Replacements rivalled him in a loathing of the music industry so deep they were even willing to screw with their own career to confound it.)

”My Vibrations Will Live On” 

But back to ’Dragnet’. Like it’s predecessor, it was split down the middle - punk numbers and sour, surreal parodies at one pole, longer, stranger tracks on the other. In fact the parody numbers, ’Your Heart Out’ and ’Choc-Stock’ were even more blatant, sharply accentuating the distinction between them and the ‘arty’ tracks.

Yet it sounded quite different. Chiefly because the keyboards, so dominant on ’Witch Trials’, are gone. Compare two of the key tracks, last time’s ’Frightened’ to ’A Figure Walks’, which are thematically similar but simply don't sound it. If ‘Witch Trials’ sounded sluggish and smeary, ‘Dragnet’ is scratchy, like sinister runes scrawled into a wall with a knife blade. It’s the most twitchy, most speed-addled Fall album, a scrawny, frazzled street character you’d instinctively avoid. Infamously, the recording studio lobbied to have their name taken off the sleeve, fearing the album could only cost them work.

Much as the first Hawkwind album had few lyrical references to space, ’Witch Trials’ had not particularly delved into the weird. (Perhaps only the brief title track.) Which makes the album opener here - ’Psykick Dancehall’, with its opening séance cry “is anybody there? YEAH!!!” - as much a mission statement as had been ’Frightened’. The sleeve notes stated “this place actually exists”, which it sort of did – even if the punters didn’t really dance to spirit waves. It was based on a 'psychic centre' which replaced a ballroom in Prestwick. With typical derision Smith soon dubbed it “Alcoholics Anonymous for psychics”, but the image was potent.


For, much like Blake spying angels in East End trees, Smith didn’t drop the street-corner subject matter of punk but revelled in colliding the uncanny with the everyday. (“My garden is made of stone/There's a computer centre over the road/ I saw a monster on the roof.”) A later, 1986 B-side was somewhat gloriously titled ’Lucifer Over Lancashire’.

Stewart Lee (him again) described the band as “kitchen sink realists who found Lovecraftian horrors lurking down the U-bend.” The Fall became like Alan Sillitoe and HP Lovecraft superimposed on one another. From this point on they would work as shamans and mediums, Smith spouting psycho-babble over endlessly lumbering basslines and trance-repetitive beats. While simultaneously taking the piss out of pop stars and adverts.

Plus the band’s patented self-referentialism shacked up with the weird and produced some shapeshifting creature you could never classify. ‘Before the Moon Falls’ opens with Smith intoning: “We are private detectives onward back from a musical pilgrimage. We work under the name of the Fall.” There was soon a somewhat bewildering array of pseudonyms and author surrogates in song.

Yet with its group cry of “yeeeah” there's something triumphalist in ’Dancehall’- it really is a kind of dancehall number. Rather than Lovecraftian forces invading our reality and rending it, it reverses the perspective, it’s about being able to bust out of the arbitrary limits to your life. And quite literally your life:

“When I am dead and gone
”My vibrations will live on 
”In vibes not vinyl through the years
”People will dance to my waves”


Whereas 'Figure Walks' not only picks up from where 'Frightened' left off, with the menace of the loner at night, it takes the original opening line (“someone's always on my tracks”) into another dimension. The spectre of street violence was then a common theme, but was either literal and visceral, as in the Specials’ ’Concrete Jungle’ (1979) or made into a manifestation of urban alienation, as in Stiff Little Fingers’ ’Big City Night’ (1982). But here the “something” which “followed me out” becomes (at least in the narrator’s paranoia) supernatural in its horror - “eyes of brown watery/ Nails of pointed yellow/ Hands of black carpet”.

And yet at the same time its the pack instinct personified, society's embodied judgement on its outsiders and scapegoats, disliking the unlike to the point of eliminating it. Its enmity is aroused by the “irascible” or a “genius”, in other words by Smith. The event's compared to the suicide of Socrates, as enforced by “the old golden savages”.




”Spectres Redundant”

And this strange melding of mundane and uncanny may have had it’s roots in Seventies Manchester. Middles has commented of Smith “it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to think of a single living artist, in the rock spectrum at least, where a locality is so deeply embedded within their work.” Joy Division’s Bernie Sumner commented on the city’s deprivation at the time, “it was virtually a ghost town” (‘Rip It Up And Start Again’, Simon Reynolds). If so, the connection was clearest in the track ’Spectre vs. Rector’, which became literally embedded in a locality. A sleeve note confirmed it had been partly recorded in a disused warehouse, with the comment “maybe industrial ghosts are making spectres redundant”.

Mark Fisher finds this “the moment when the Fall really began to sound like themselves…. any vestigial rock presence subsides into hauntology... Steve Hanley’s bass rumbles and thumps like some implacable earth-moving machine invented by a deranged underground race, not so much rising from subterranea as dragging the sound down into a troglodytic goblin kingdom in which ordinary sonic values are inverted.”

We’re used to levels of sound in music, elements neatly placed above each other like theatre flats. This sound has depth, but like peering into a murky pool where you’re never sure how far down it runs. In a sense it’s the band’s ’Sister Ray’, not so much the pinnacle of their career as the point where they got down to the very essence of what made them, their ur-moment. Fisher insists it’s a track (not a song), but in many ways it isn’t even a track – it’s more like a ritual which coincidentally got recorded. Of all the Fall tracks, it’s closest to the industrial sound of Throbbing Gristle. Though it’s their turning point it’s less a template than a crucible, a point where everything to date was boiled down to the bones, and then reforged into something more basic.

Nothing they recorded subsequently ever matched it for pounding extremism. In fact even Smith would concede the track’s ‘challenging’ nature, at the end of the live ’Chaos Tapes’ version thanking “everyone who helped me with my vendetta tonight”. Nevertheless, with pun intended, its spirit permeated every subsequent held-down chord.

And like ’Sister Ray’ the ostensible narrative less degrades into incomprehensible gibberish than barely appears above it. The track’s underlined by what sound like field recordings. Which seems to be because the original warehouse recording was committed to a single-mike cassette, with Smith’s vocals subsequently overdubbed in the studio. (Perhaps more necessity than plan?)

Everyone knows the horror trope where some bunch of berks perform a conjuration, then act all surprised when the resulting demon turns out not to be their idiotically expected obedient servant. They’re almost like those safety films telling kids not to mess about about in electricity substations. Look both ways, just say no, don’t call on Cthulhu. Nothing like that happens here. Rather than wait to be inserted when it’s place in the narrative arrives the incantation kicks off the track, and repeats… well, repeatedly.

Even if we take it as just the chorus, what song ever had the chorus coming first? It becomes like the “evil dust in the air” (a sequel both to the fog and haze of ’Witch Trials'), what Fisher calls “verbal ectoplasm”, taking hold of the listener. The song’s about an exorcism but ultimately is an invocation. You end up succumbing, just as much as the possessed Inspector.

The hero, the “strange man” who lives not among other men, seems another clear stand-in for Smith himself. Unlike the Rector or Inspector his name doesn’t conveniently rhyme with Spector, and he’s the one the Spector can’t possess. It’s not so much that he’s stronger or more virtuous than the others, he’s simply more indigestible. The very stuff which makes him shunned make him unpossessable, assimilatable by neither system, not good or bad but outside. We’re told “selling his soul to the devil” was “his kick from life”, and certainly he seems unconcerned either by the Rector’s death or the Inspector being insane.

And yet through all this the black humour of ’Industrial Estate’, the sense of life’s absurdity, is retained. Is it threateningly deranged or a knowing parody of absurd ghost story tropes? It’s pretty much both. That incantation once (semi) decoded turns out to be a spew of Lovecraftian calls (“Yog-Sothoth, rape me Lord”) and references to MR James but among those literary allusions is King of the B movies Roger Corman. It’s simultaneously trying to draw down the horrors of the netherworld on your head and pointing out its own clichés.

And Smith plays up the absurdity further on the live version (from the follow-up album ’Totale’s Turns’), breaking from the script to reflect “you probably know this if you’ve got the record”, before musing on the incongruity of telling stories through loud amplifiers.

’Frightened’ kicked off ’Witch Trials’. ’Spectre vs. Rector’ didn’t conclude ’Dragnet’, it was succeeded by ’Put Away’. But it upped the ante considerably. Where was there next for the Fall to go..?

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