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Saturday, 20 February 2021

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MIGHTY FALL: 4. “...AND THE FALL HAD BEGUN”

(The previous part, looking at the second album, ‘Dragnet’ lies here.)


”The new-born thing hard to describe”
- ’Impression of J Temperence’

”A Treatise To Explain These”

The immediate follow-up to ’Dragnet’ was 1980’s ’Totale’s Turns'. A live plus offcuts album, it chiefly conveyed the confrontational nature of the band’s performances. Sleeve notes proudly relay the abuse slung their way like badges of honour. (“Everybody knows best groups come from t’ South”.) Though the album itself mostly captures confrontation going on within the band with no need of the audience. But with a cheap cover even by the Fall’s extemporised standards, it was clearly something of an interim release. And indeed later that year they were back...

As it turned out, if ‘Dragnet’ was a bold step forward from ‘Witch Trials’, with ‘Grotesque (After the Gramme)’ the dice man threw his first six. The dark seam they struck by recording 'Spectre vs. Rector' became something malleable and accessible, like a shaman first beset by spirits who slowly becomes able to bargain with them. Little if anything remains of the punk band who saw the Pistols. If history had prevented any further releases this would still be regarded as one of the classic albums. (Consequently there’s a bit more to say than normal. So I’ve split things into a more reader-friendly two bits.)

Overall, if ‘Dragnet’ conveyed the twitchy, paranoid sense of speed ’Grotesque’ has the acrid taste of brown acid. The cover, painted by Smith’s sister Suzanne, suggests this. Both previous sleeves had been in black and white, hippy pastoralism in negative. ’Grotesque’ is in gaudy colour – a shriek of lurid greens and feverish purples, all at war with one another. It looks like a Fall gig transforming into some sort of coven as it unfolds. (The vertical rope motif is, I think, intended to convey the edge of the stage.)

The only number to use both “grotesque” and “post-gramme”, ’New Puritan’ is effectively the title track. (Plus the sleeve part-illustrates the line “fans send tapes to famous apes.”) Yet, bar a demo version on ’Totale’s Turns’, it only appeared on a Peel session of the same year. (A typical Smithian idiosyncrasy.) It was only ever played live seven times, less than the seemingly unreproducible ‘Spectre Vs. Rector’.

As the Fall came into their own, so did their name. Sounding simultaneously righteous and infernal, Smith rants “plagiarism infests the land” like the word’s some synonym for pestilence, and “the whole country is post-gramme” as if what us fools take for daily reality is the world in some fallen state - with the tribulation coming soon. He cries at one point “righteous maelstrom”, at another “your decadent sins will reap discipline”.

Though he may have been a hard-drinking speed-freak who didn’t always treat his band the way the Musician’s Union would have favoured, though he may (as we’ve seen) express disdain for “small moralists”, Smith was in his wayward way a moral crusader – ceaselessly railing against stupidity, cant, careerism, hypocrisy and mere imitation, never settling for second best.

The grotesque is pretty much the collision of the horrific with the humorous by definition, each simultaneously lacing and souring the other. And despite the absence of overt parody songs the humour’s still there, merely darker and less overt. ’Impression of J. Temperence’ seems assembled from Lovecraftian kit parts, quite literally a shaggy dog story down to the gag-like punchline. It even has the much-parodied Lovecraftian trope of the foreign thing being described as indescribable (quoted above), immediately followed by a description. It’s almost absurdly easy to interpret, the Bunyanesque name of the title character underlining how it’s all about the return of the repressed.

And yet it’s delivered with such glowering menace! You couldn’t take the thing seriously, but it’s equally impossible to just laugh it off. It’s not resolvable, there’s no box to put it in. And much of that comes from the sound. Traditionally, in rock ’n’ roll motion was a synonym for freedom – songs would both move and be about things that moved. “Ridin’ along in my automobile” was a classic opener. Whereas this track is slow, ominous, as if frozen by dread.

Remember the old canard about a scream being a 33rpm laugh being played at 45? The Fall played the thing at 16, until you didn’t know where you were. You don’t ride along in this track so much as get mired in it. The line “I was mad, and laughed at the same time”, though from elsewhere on the album, best conveys things.

Meanwhile and by way of contrast he cries on the sleeve notes “C’n’N Music is born!”, a reference to the freshly minted genre of Country and Northern. In ’The Weird and the Eerie’, Mark Fisher contends of the Fall: ”It seems as if the whole record has been constructed as a response to a hypothetical conjecture. What if rock and roll had emerged from the industrial heartlands of England rather than the Mississippi Delta? The rockabilly… is slowed by meat pies and gravy, it’s dreams of escape fatally poisoned by pints of bitter and cups of greasy-spoon tea. It is rock and roll as working man’s club cabaret, performed by a failed Gene Vincent imitator in Prestwich. [But] rock and roll needed the endless open highways: it could never have begun in England’s snarled up ring roads and claustrophobic conurbations”.

Yet ‘Container Drivers’, like ‘Psykick Dancehall’, is a rare example of an up track from this downwardly named band. The opposite bookend to ’Industrial Estate’, it’s a post-punk trans-Pennine ’King of the Road’ performed in an industrial rockabilly style. The Annotated Fall notes Smith was once employed as one of the self-described “customs bastards” the container drivers sail past, no boss breathing down their neck but an open road ahead of them.

But like ’Psykick Dancehall’ this was something of a contrast to the rest of the album. It’s smartly set straight after the ultra-restrained locked-groove of ’C’n’C-S Mithering’, coming on like a break-out. It’s even incorporated in the cover artwork as an insert, the tail end of a lorry hurtling out of the frame.

”His Tattooes Were Screwed”

And speaking of which… ’C’n’C-S Mithering’ (an abbreviation of ’Cash and Carry, Stop Mithering’, Mancunian for bothering) is the first of two long tracks which dominate the album, and is the sequel to ’Spectre vs. Rector’ in the uncompromising stakes.

It’s the first of what Smith would later call “the definitive rants”, a stream-of-consciousness screed of bile with a backbeat, perhaps a successor to Dylan’s ’Highway 61 Revisited’, an ever-expanding shit list. It builds on the original Crap Raps (versions of which appeared on ’Witch Trials’ and ’Totale’s Turns’), but extended into insanity and beyond, stretching for seven and a half minutes. One section makes this basis clear...

”This was supposed to be called crap rap fourteen 
”But it's now Stop Mithering
”The things that drain you off and drive you off the hinge
”Boils, dirty socks, the ceilings collapse
”The Sunday morning loud lawn mower...”

Making ’Repetition’ seem grandiose and orchestral, it’s almost literally stripped down – a guitar strum, some rapping on the drums, a bug in the ear. It’s not even a repetitive beat so much as an isolated phrase, a snatch of a rhythm never resolving – a niggle that attaches itself to your brain.

It’s a variant of that comedy routine where the raconteur gets incandescently irate about crumbs on the kitchen worktop or the unflushed public toilet. A routine which gains its edge by leaving the audience uncertain whether this is part of the act or he’s really that obsessive. (Smith later wrote a furious diatribe about the light bulb going in his flat, when “you need light here even in the morning.”) And indeed it becomes somewhat frightening to witness one man with so much bile to spew over socks.

Notably, it doesn’t end but simply cut out, as if an open-ended shit list Smith will be adding to before too long. Live, Smith would often mix up and vary his lyrics. He said to Middles: "To me, a song's never finished and it's never good enough, that's why I don't write lyrics down. Once they're down on paper, you can't change 'em, and I like to change 'em, even just before I'm going on stage... Lyrics change shape and meaning all the time... Once something is written I like to either change it or just move on."

But never more so than with this track, as whatever was mithering him at that moment would be thrown in. Not only was it never worked into a finished number, it seems antithetical to that notion. Some songs are portraits, some are tableaus. This is an etch-a-sketch, to be wiped down after use and built up again from it’s very basic basics, always in the moment, never fossilising.

Next up! The other major track from ’Grotesque'. (Clue, not ’WMC - Blob 59’…)

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