Saturday, 27 February 2021


(The previous part, which began our look at third album ‘Grotesque’, can be found here.)

”Come, Come, Hear My Story…” 

But if ’C’nC’ was the musical sequel to ’Spectre vs. Rector’, the number that took up and ran with the narrative baton was the album’s closer - the equally acronymic ’The NWRA’. 

If you were allocated one number to demonstrate what the golden-age Fall were all about, this could well be your candidate. The ten-minute track feels epic and, drawing on a number of earlier themes and characters, defining – like the last reel of a film. Indeed the line “and the fall had begun” makes it sound like the song the band were formed to play.

Some contemporary listeners assumed the title spelt out 'North West Republican Army'. Despite it being... er... spelt out endlessly in the song - ‘The North Will Rise Again’. Which is most likely a flip of the American Southern rebel expression “the South will rise again”, perhaps picked up by Smith on tour.

And not long after the LP was released, the North really did rise. In ’81 a wave of riots spread across the country, taking in Manchester. The opening narrated section (“when it happened we walked through all the estates from Manchester right to Newcastle”) suggests touring habits keyed the band in to the powder keg state of the nation. He later commented to Mick Middles, “it was genuinely horrible before we went away. You could really feel the tension, just hanging in the air. It was obvious that something big was going to happen”.

Ironically, just as Britain burnt the band were off touring America. As they launch into the track in Chicago, as captured on the live album 'Part of America Therein', the compere even introduces them as “from the riot-torn streets of Manchester, England!” It’s unlikely that Smith was pleased to be placed with the post-Clash lumpenly literal ‘keepin’ it real’ school of punk, who he dismissed as “condescending French revolutionary bands”. (Hanley has recounted, after supporting the Clash in New York, Smith banned the band from listening to them.) Nevertheless he also commented the riots “should have happened a hundred years ago as far as I’m concerned.”

For let’s remember the easily forgotten - the Fall had once operated as a raggle-taggle collective, playing benefits for Stuff the Jubilee and Rock Against Racism. If legend be true, their original drummer lasted just one gig, ejected after writing the song ‘Landslide Victory’ to celebrate the Thatcher election.

Though Smith had long since begun his Robespierre reign of terror over and against any band egalitarianism, he’d not entirely abandoned notions of proletarian antagonism. The singles compilation 'Early Years', released the next year, had adapted Edgar Varese’s slogan “the present-day composer refuses to die” into “the present-day proletariat refuses to knuckle under”.

And ’The NWRA’ was where such opposed notions went head-to-head. Though Smith would undoubtedly rail against the suggestion, the track works like John Lennon’s 'Revolution' – an apparent polemic which actually comes out of, and is driven by, the author’s own conflicted state of mind on the subject. Smith concocts an array of bizarre characters, some real some imaginary, then sets them against one another in the hope the ensuing war might settle the war in his own mind.

Except Lennon, long-haired, endlessly hopeful and very very stoned, assumed that all this was inevitable, the only choice left being whether we wanted our revolution with violence or without, as if the issue was akin to ordering side salad. Whereas Smith is mulling over whether it will happen at all. Is writing the song some act of sympathetic magic which might make the whole thing come about? Or is a narrative being built because that’s the only way we’ll ever get to talk about it?

In a contemporary interview he stated: "I mean, everybody knows about the split between the north and the south in England, but 'The North Will Rise Again' isn't a political statement, it's a story, like a science-fiction story. The way I wrote it was from a few dreams I had after playing the north a lot - it's about what would happen if there was a revolution. It's purely fantasy, science-fiction stuff... It's just like a sort of document of a revolution that could happen - like somebody writing a book about what would have happened if the Nazis had invaded Britain. It's the same concept as that.”

And the song’s sung quite undemonstratively, in a relentless monotone, not a clarion call to arms but a mere witness to events. Unlike many of the other tracks on the album. In fact Smith got much more worked up over dirty socks.

The character R Totale had already been used by Smith as a pseudonym, on the sleevenotes of ’Totale’s Turns’. Whose press release explained “Roman Totale XVII was born in a coalshed under the buzz of a defective street lamp. From birth he roamed Britain as a self-proclaimed professor of speed speech…. He is the mental manifestation of the Fall camp, and dwells underground while above him trends grind on slowly and sickly.” (“Explained” may not be the most accurate word there.) He also showed up on ’2nd Dark Age’, a B side from the same year, as “the bastard offspring/ Of Charles I and the Great God Pan.”

Perhaps all that matters is that he’s simultaneously a stand-in for Smith and the personification of the North, and so becomes the spirit of the revolt. But his efforts are undermined by the “opportunist… business man” Tony who “seized the controls... [to] set out to corrupt and destroy this future rising”. (This is believed to be Tony Wilson of Factory Records by approximately every single human being alive in the world.)

Tony and Totale are set up as conflicting opposites. Tony’s twice associated with blue, taking a “bluey” (for any American readers, slang for a fiver) and wearing a blue shirt. Initially Totale stains his blue shirt red, presumably by taking a swing at him, as if red’s his totem colour. Though he then seems to give up on the whole thing, taking to “dwell[ing] underground, away from sickly grind, with ostrich head-dress”. And when he retreats underground, his face becomes merely “orange-red with blue-black lines”, as if in his malaise his redness is fading.

Like the Fisher King the personification sports the suffering of the land. So the rising transforms him physically (“face a mess, covered in feathers….”) even though he’s removed himself from the action. Or perhaps he and Tony are rival spirits of the North, at constant war. Whichever, the rising seems inherently self-contradictory. While security guards at the Arndale are hung and Soho pillaged, “DJs have worsened since the rising” and ‘English Scheme’ has metamorphosed into a soppy love song.

But, just as Lennon eventually swung more towards “count me out”, Smith thumbs-down the notion. Like Lennon, it’s the chorus line that lingers:

”The North will rise again?
”Not in ten thousand years
”Too many people cower to criminals
”And Government pap 
”When all it takes is a hard slap”

There’ll only ever be a handful of individuals in the whole of history with defiance enough to deliver that “hard slap”. Smith’s prior commitment, and later lingering dalliance, with collective action is to be laid to rest. From this point on Mark E Smith will have no time for anyone but Mark E Smith.

Which segues neatly into ’English Scheme’. Folk are forever trying to divulge the ‘meaning’ of a track, by abstracting the lyrics from the music and placing them on a web page, as everything that mattered slips through their clutching mitts. And the Fall are a classic example of the absurdity of this approach. Yet with ’English Scheme’ such scholars would get a reasonable notion. The lyrics are straightforward and the musical backing… well, it’s pretty much a musical backing. (Though Hanley claims it was written first.) And the lyrics effectively say “a plague on both your classes”. Smith even commented favourably on the positive response the track engendered in people, a great rarity for him.

And in many ways this isn't very surprising. Joe Strummer of the afore-mentioned Clash, often seen as the prince of punk protest, had once penned insurrectionary provocations such as '1977':

”In 1977
”Knives in West 11
”Ain't so lucky to be rich 
”Sten guns in Knightsbridge”

...but within a year was writing an older, wiser rebuttal of such fantasies with 'White Man in Hammersmith Palais':

”It won't get you anywhere 
”Fooling with your guns
”The British Army is waiting out there 
”An' it weighs fifteen hundred tons”

The faith in insurrection of ’1977’ was itself a weaker echo of the hope for world revolution in 1968, a displaced form of self-belief you could only keep from colliding with reality for so long. The hard-drinking, straight-talking persona Smith played to the music press increasingly became curmudgeonly and provocatively reactionary. I remember reading one screed where he’d dismiss the current crop of star bands one by one, finishing with “no, give me the Royal family any day”.

He once described the shift as ”a real pain for me.” Though he later conceded to Middles “I always used those right-wing comments to wind [the NME] up because I always knew how narrow-minded they were”. How much he’d really shifted, how much this was just a character he’d play and how much he became that character through playing it… it’s doubtful he knew himself.

Like ‘Revolution’, the song’s written to resolve a dilemma in the writer’s head. And, like 'Revolution’, it ends up leaning heavily on one side. But, like ‘Revolution’, it still can’t quite come down on it. Despite that being the ostensible purpose of the song. R Totale effectively exiles himself, yet the song is narrated (as yet partially) by Joe Totale “the yet unborn son”. The father retreats underground, which is often a symbol of pre-birth (as in, for example, the Zeus myth) creating a parallel between the two. But while R Totale counsels inaction, the “as yet” unborn Joe will one day emerge. And yet of course from that point the Totale persona was never used again.

But perhaps in the longer term the unborn son was proven right. Riots recurred in 1985, while the more recent 2011 outbreak soon spread to Manchester. The text of one of the Blackberry messages which triggered them (“to be honest I don't know why its taken so long for us make this happen”), closely echoes Smith's initial response.

”It Would Turn Out Wrong”

‘Grotesque’ might seem to show Mark E Smith split between two writing techniques – narrative and stream-of-consciousness. On ’Printhead’ (from ’Dragnet’) he’d even commented on “a barrier between writer and singer." A barrier many had hit, particularly in the previous prog era. Folk found to their cost that the immediacy of songs and the arcing ambitions of narrative were at odds with one another, that each would fight to displace the other.

But rather than try to resolve this, he exploits the friction. ‘Spectre vs. Rector’ does follow a standard narrative structure – set-up, conflict, resolution. Which was more or less replicated on other narrative songs here, such as ‘New Face In Hell’. Not ‘TNWRA.’

Smith's cryptic writing style can be taken as mere obtuseness, the challenge being to see through it to find the songs' 'meaning'. That's pretty much what was happening earlier, demonstrating how easy a trap it is to fall into. Yet to quote Mark Fisher again: "The temptation, when writing about The Fall’s work of this period, is to too quickly render it tractable."

As ever, how you say it is as important as what you say. Fisher continues that Smith’s writing is “alien to organic wholeness… It is a grotesque concoction, a collage of pieces that do not belong together…. The story is told episodically, from multiple points of views, using a heteroglossic riot of styles and tones.” Just as he married the mundane with the weird, Smith staged a shotgun wedding between grand narratives and stream-of-consciousness. It’s as if he found himself typing out an epic novel with one hand while scrawling random gnomic phrases with the other onto the same page, and resolved to do it more.

Typically for a post-punk band the Fall were as influenced by non-musical sources, with Smith insistent he was at root a writer rather than singer or songwriter. (Even giving himself a very unrockish middle initial.) And modern writers had often come to rebel against the neatly ordered world offered by narrative. It can scarcely be coincidence Smith was an avid reader of the cut-up world of William Burroughs.

But others took from Burroughs the notion that cut-up text could be stuck together to make up a meta-view, like the facets of a Cubist painting. And Smith did once describe this track as “supposedly objective”. Yet in that phrase it’s the “supposedly” which lingers. Overall, he’s much more a Dadaist, taking a Schwitters-style scalpel to meaning.

The sense that narratives are inherently incoherent and fragmentary, that you can’t tell stories with loud amplifiers, that the whole thing doesn’t really work, isn’t contested but placed front and centre. The Falls’ narrative tracks are also simultaneously anti-narratives. Remember his taunt from ’New Puritan’: “What d’ you mean, what’s it mean?/What’s it mean, ‘What’s it mean?’.”

And, not unrelatedly, ’The NWRA’ screws with time more than usual in a Fall song, which is saying something.

“The North had rose again
“But it would turn out wrong
“The North will rise again”

Smith describes it on the sleeve notes as “made up of parts 2, 3 & 1 ie right now, after and during.” It’s less time travel than the separation between time periods being broken down, events collapsing into one. There’s even hints the rising is itself against time, as if temporality itself is part of the political system that needs overthrowing.

“The streets of Soho did reverberate 
“With drunken Highland men
“Revenge for Culloden dead”

Smith would often write in a collage style even at the level of individual lines, skipping pronouns, colliding, compounding and compressing words and phrases rather than combining them. Take for example the opening to the later song ‘Backdrop’:

“The Leicester YOP instructor
“Emerged from corridor
“His state-subsidised cannabis haze
“Moved reptilian”

He’d often pronounce words phonetically or sing acronyms and abbreviations verbatim (eg “get up for ind. est.”, “D. Bowie sound-alikes” or for that matter “eg” itself, as used on the later ‘CREEP’). As if he was reciting not from a novel or poem but by rote from a shorthand transcript or speaker’s notes.

Taylor Parkes points out “It's language used as a tool of attack, but it's also an attack on language, its limitations and inadequacies.” Many a track sounded like a bunch of tape excerpts stuck together. (And often for a good reason.)

It was also there on the album sleeves, before you even got to the music. These were as home-made as punk, but rather than rough and immediate like street graffiti tehy were scrawled over with polemics and gnomic utterances. Smith told ‘Sounds’ magazine “I like the cover to reflect what’s inside.I love all those misspelt posters… those cheap printed cash ‘n’ carry signs with inverted commas where you don’t need them, things like that… a graphic designer would never get it right in years.”

And Smith’s singing, so often mocked by non-fans, worked with this. It shouldn’t be underestimated how much he needed a style of singing for someone who couldn’t actually sing, even by punk standards. Yet he found something which not only worked, but worked well with all of this. Smith was a keen Faust fan, who were themselves influenced by the German Sprechgesang tradition - literally ‘spoken singing’.

(And believe it or not, but there’s even a historical basis for this. Northern dialects of English, such as Smith’s Mancunian, are more influenced by Anglo-Saxon than the Latinised stuff spouted by Southerners such as myself.)

Up to ’Room To Live’, (two albums hence) the track lists come with song explanations, which are of varying usefulness. (One simply says “This is a very funny track. It's a pity you can't hear what's going on." Another pontificates for a while before conceding “this has little to do with song”.) If fellow Mancunians and arch-rivals Joy Division had cultivated a mystique by with-holding information, as typified by their austerely minimal packaging, the Fall took the opposite route to the same result – bombarding fans with semi-complete snippets, until they became a form of indecipherable white noise. Never knowingly understood.

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