Saturday 27 March 2021


”Compound in it’s directness...”
- Sleevenotes, ’Perverted by Language'

”Had forgot what others still tried to grasp...”

Okay, the Fall's last long player might have been a retreat and relative disappointment. But ’Hex’s ‘lava’ tracks such as 'Winter' suggested a different Fall, a Fall which would come to dominance with 1983’s 'Perverted by Language'. The lyrics and even the title of ‘Hexen Definitive’ refer back to ‘Hex’, leapfrogging the album which lay between.

There are self-styled ‘true’ Fall fans who take this as the beginning of the end, partly because it’s the first to feature Brix. (More of her later.) But in many ways it stands alone. It’s the post ’Hex’ direction which Smith previously claimed wasn’t there. It’s a leaner, more laconic Fall, pared down and stretched out, riffs extended past sanity, bass lines like train tracks heading off to the vanishing point. It’s more measured, more mantra-like, the nearest the band ever came to sounding serene and transcendental.

It’s less in thrall to the Velvets than in disciplehood to Can. Smith has said “I've liked Can since I was about 13 or 14.... I like the way it's open-ended.” Precisely hitting on the element picked up here.

It’s like an alternate history where the band had taken up a different template to 'Spectre vs Rector,' and instead of digging for demons had chosen to soar on wings. (Flabby or otherwise.) It’s the least garage-band, the – though Smith would truly spit at this word – artiest Fall album. At times the band even lose their signature lumberingness and become almost majestic.

‘Hex’ had hitched together two fast tracks - ‘Fortress’ and ‘English Deer Park’. This album closes by coupling a slow piece, ‘Hexen Definitive’ with an even slower one, ‘Strife Knot’. Which means that rather than ending the album fades into the ether, summing up much of its spirit. (No pun intended. Oh okay, pun intended.) ’Tempo House’ is another “definitive rant”, which even draws complainers into its complaint. But while ’C+C’ was most definitely a rant, this is more like an incantation, a spell cast over the bothersome.

Where ’Hex Enduction Hour’ had flaunted incoherence a sleevenote here insisted it was “compound in its directness”. Significantly it broke with the standard scrawl-at-a-wall cover ‘design’ of the previous four albums, for something that looked (in its own way) even artistic. For my slender dollar, it’s the finest of Fall albums with ’Garden’ standing as their finest moment. (If closely followed by ’Winter'.)

Except of course no Fall album was ever reducible like that. ’Eat Y’self Fitter’ is the only track which could have been on ’Room To Live’, another rough-edged parody song, taking its title from a Kellogg’s ad. While the incendiary ‘Smile’ burns all the more brightly when surrounded by such serenity, like a volcano suddenly blasting off in the Pacific.

”I got the idea from a book”

Bassist Steve Hanley has called ’Garden’ and ’Smile’ “the great unremitting guitar songs” of the album. True, but they’re bookends. The guitar on ‘Smile’ is intense and incessant, each iteration raising the ante. All tension, no release, it perfectly conveys when rage boils inside you but remains lidded, the rictus grin you fix while some wanker spews his bullshit at you. (Smith wasn’t exactly known for keeping his feelings to himself, but that’s the feeling the song conveys.)

Despite the frequent references to “anarchy” it seems less aimed at anarcho-punks and more those who expressed a fashionable fin-de-siecle feeling through their choice of eyeliner, to who “decadence” and “anarchy” were equivalent terms. “Would ask for lager in the town of Auschwitz” Smith spits in the Peel Session version. He once said it was “about the hypocritical type that says he wants anarchy but are in fact very bourgeois”. (Though ’English Deer Park’ suggested he had no more time for anarcho-punks. I’m not suggesting he liked anyone.)

Whereas on ‘Garden’, though the guitar’s equally dominant, it’s expansive, resounding, each iteration building on what went before rather than reiterating it. It’s as ominous and foreboding as ever but at the same time stately and majestic. Dary Easlea found it “fascinating in its excessive repetition”.

As already said, Fall tracks are not, in the main, works of poetry or literature which just happen to be set to music. Making sense of this band is simply not the way to go. ’Garden’, however, is something of an exception. It’s stuffed with allusions which do form a coherent picture. (Well, sort of.)

The title clearly refers to Eden though, as we’ll come onto and despite the band’s name, it’s more primordial than pre-lapsarian. And this helps us to realise the most fitting thing of all - this timeless track is about timelessness. Remember time had been a fixation of Smith’s since the early days, and ’Hex’ had brought to the mix the mythologised roots of European culture. And these kind of combine here.

The first of the two Gods described is clearly Odin. The Norse God was symbolically associated with the number three, for example with the Horn Triskelon. In the legends he hung himself from the one tree at the world’s centre in order to gain wisdom, depictions of which often show him hanging from one leg. (The same image as the Hanged Man card in the Tarot deck, leading some to infer it derived from the Odin myth.) Which could be said to make him three-limbed, here rendered as “a three-legged, black-grey hog”. (Well he was a shapeshifter.)

“The second God” is represented by way of contrast with images of linear motion - “fountains that flowed”, “blue shiny lit roads”, “the brown baize lift shaft”. If we didn’t guess from “the bells stop on Sunday when he rose”, then the repeated line “Jew on a motorbike” could be said to give the game away. (Slightly presaged by the hooded Friar on a tractor, who shows up in ’The NWRA.’)

As Wikipedia will tell you of Odin “the entire scene, the sacrifice of a god to himself, the execution method by hanging the victim on a tree, and the wound inflicted on the victim by a spear, is often compared to the crucifixion of Christ.” Added to which, both appear dead for a length of time, only to rise again. And if Odin is associated with threes, Jesus is part of the Trinity. All fair enough, but it does stray towards that “all stories are one” bollocks peddled by New Age gurus, suggesting that comparisons that are easy to find are oftenjust as insignificant.

But Smith seems more focused on the differences. Particularly when recited over that measured beat the image of the figure slowly turning, established early in the song, cements itself on the mind’s eye. So when the flowing fountains show up they make for something of a contrast. Why else would Jesus be associated with fountains, lit roads, motorbikes and phones? They’re not exactly Biblical references. It’s because one is the God of circular, the other of linear time.

More widely, the imagery constantly swaps between ancient/arcane and modern/trivial. Even the title could refer either to Eden or a manicured front lawn. In a typical Smithism, Odin’s ancient nature is conveyed through reference to “films on TV, five years back at least”. Because if Jesus can have a second coming, why not Odin as well? (“Wild Bill Hick shaves and charts at last. The second god's sad - he's coming up.”) Two ancient Gods, seemingly consigned to myth, rise from the depths like Godzilla, in a world we had foolishly imagined now belonged to us. Whereupon they seem most likely to ask “who’s been sleeping in my bed?”

It’s perhaps significant that the song segues into ’Hotel Bloedel’, which has the same juxtapositions of ancient and modern as a means to convey the recurrence of the seemingly dead. “Hidden fragments, surface now/ Repetitious history/ One more time for the record”, in it’s layering (with even the vocal lines overlaid on one another), seems connected to the “household pet” twirling to reveal Odin, or the reference to “a Kingdom of Evil book/ Under a German history book”. As Faulkner liked to say: “The past isn’t over. It’s not even past.”

If the theme of ‘Garden’, reduced to a word, is “return”, that of ‘Hotel Bloedel’ is “repeat”. History isn’t linear, a graph by which we can track our progress. Our history is more like the mind of a PTSD sufferer, a stuck record endlessly reliving some primary trauma. Brix’s raw screech repeats the chorus like she’s the Fates, part describing part proscribing, while Smith narrates the incidents which are actually recurrences.

And what’s a hotel but a reiteration of the same thing, stacked repeats of the same room, none of them being where we belong? Smith recites years as if they’re numbers on the doors of the rooms (“Two-oh-one-three”).

”The Place I Made the Purchase No Longer Exists”

“Warning!”, Smith had written on the Press Release for ’Hex’, “there are no blonde birds on the cover or in this record.” (A comment which is possibly a post-feminist statement, but more likely not.) Ironically, just such a character appeared first on 
’Perverted by Language’ and went on to have a greater role in subsequent events. 

And so some came to see Smith’s new wife Brix – glamorous and above all American - as a kind of Yoko Ono, smoothing out and even glamming up the band. The 1984 singles ’Oh Brother’ and ’C.R.E.E.P.’ were even accused of being...sensitive souls look away now... commercial!

And true to tell the Fall did lose something. But they traded it. Their golden age for their silver. Brix didn’t break the Fall. If anything, it was the opposite. Without her, they’d most likely have been unable to match past triumphs and sunk into a half life. She helped create a whole new band from the ashes of an old one.

They lost a sense of precarity, the feeling they were exploring strange and foreign territory. But they gained in horsepower. They’d been like a wild holy man – deranged and unpredictable, incoherent but compelling, turning in several different directions at once. They became disciplined to the point of being well-oiled, locking into a beat like atank regiment crossing open country. The old Fall were like semi-distinct alchemical symbols scrawled on a wall. The new Fall were like a thick coat of emulsion. The old Fall were wayward, the new Fall straight-ahead.

Sometimes it feels like Eighties Britain was full of great music, but due to a booking error it all got front-loaded and was gone before we reached the mid-point. If the Fall had appeared as a new band (which essentially they were) in the desert of those times, they’d have been hailed as saviours.

But Brix's input should be put together with Smith's obstinate and persistent refusal to serve up the oldies live. Gig-goers were lucky to hear anything more than two years old. So the Fall were always starting from Ground Zero, alwayssounding fresh and current. 'Repetition', the mission statement number they'd once played pointedly to piss off audiences, they'd soon started to get requests for. So naturally they'd refuse to play it, Smith deriding anyone who asked for it - “You do not pay us enough to dictate our actions”.

Perhaps Smith was the Dylan of British punk – drawing on influences outside of music, forever changing his style and backing band, refusing to ever look back, pursuing a persona in interviews as much as in song, specialising in vituperative "truth attacks" and never more so then when asked to explain himself. (He repeatedly insisted he had no time for Dylan, surely suggesting there must be something to the comparison.)

But that doesn’t cover the biggest overlap. Nick Southgate has commented “Bob Dylan’s lyrics were simultaneously supersaturated with meaning, while also empty vessels for listeners to import their own issues and interpretations.”(‘The Wire’ 262, Apr. 14)

Smith's songs play a still greater game of chicken, straying further from the brink of lucidity, like jigsaw pieces of concepts and images shaken together. He can show a Dada disdain for meaning which is positively explanation-baiting - “the love of Paris infects the Civil Service”, “God damn the pedantic Welsh”. (Phrases which often migrated from song to song.) 

Yet other lyrics form up into successions of gnomic yet evocative utterances, which seem to suggest at something without ever coming out and saying it – “the blue shiny lit roads”, “everybody hears the hum at 3am”, “the wings rot and curl right under me”. As Marc Burrows (no relation) has pointed out, Fall tracks are “more idea-worms than ear ones.” There's the constant tug of that underlying feeling that somewhere along the line it might add up to something. Better play it one more time.

In short, Smith had the knack for making any nonsense sound like it might make sense somehow. Even when it clearly didn't. Which is the single most important thing to understand about the Fall, head and shoulders above any other.

Not that knowing the trick stops it working on you. In fact it’s just part of the process. If Fall songs are full of magicallycursed objects, perhaps taken together they form one in their own right. We become like addicted gamblers returning to bet on the same rigged deck. As Mark Fisher said “[our] enjoyment involves a frustration – a frustration, precisely, of our attempts to make sense of the songs. Yet… if it is impossible to make sense of the songs, it is also impossible to stop making sense of them – or at least to it is impossible to stop attempting to make sense of them.” He later concluded, quoting ’Wings’, “There’s no way back. The place I made the purchase no longer exists.”

But with Smith it was more than not being able to make sense of the songs, the songs themselves seemed unstable. It was always impossible to work out whether the Fall were a raw-edged garage band, playing what music they could, or some kind of art-rock ensemble affecting primitivism. But it's more than that, even...

Of the classic bands I listened to in that era, only Swans and Throbbing Gristle rivalled the Fall for polarising reaction. It wasn’t even that people couldn’t stand them, they simply refused to believe that I could! It had to be either an elaborate pretence on my part or a symptom of mental illness. Which leads into Paul Morley’s well-know wobble, after one of the many times the band collapsed into acrimony – "what if he wasn't a genius, what if he was an old drunken tramp?" And life might not have to have worked out very differently for him to have become become someone who shouted at parking meters in the street which clutching myriad plastic bags.

It’s not that the Fall had bad tracks. Most bands have bad tracks and they had surprisingly few of them, at least in this era. It's doubting your ability to tell the difference. Even now, I can have my Morley moments and momentarily wonder if I really had just been kidding myself all along. Which seems part of it too. There's another thing Smith said to Middles: "When I started buying records, the ones I liked were the ones I could only half-understand. What I don't like about a lot of records today is that they're too clear. There's really no fascination or mystery left."

Marc Burrows (still no relation) decided to deep-end by listening to nothing but the band for a full month. Sounding surprisingly sane afterwards, he concluded “the Fall, it turns out, are not a band you can merely ‘like’.” Which would be a fitting way to end things. Except there's a better one - Smith's pay-off line at the end of Peel Session track 'Mess of My':

"Fill the rest in yourself."

(Coming Soon! Krautrock ist nicht tot.)

Saturday 20 March 2021


”Yeah, it’s like, it’s a bit sort of reedy, John, somehow, it’s weedy, sort of...”
- Mark E Smith

Diluted Slang Truth

After the unexpected success of ’Hex Enduction Hour’, Smith booked studio time for a single then informed the band they were recording an album. Older readers will recall this is precisely the trick he pulled with ‘Slates’. Ever mischievous, he then shook things up further by excluding some band members from certain sessions. And ever contrary, he effectively devised not a follow-up to ‘Hex’ so much as an anti ‘Hex’. ’Room To Live’ came out later in 1982.

As new numbers were written on the road, there was normally a backlog of material ready to record. But this time much of it was jettisoned. The epic ‘Backdrop’, which had been either opening or closing their set, was never to see a studio recording. The result was their only album to have no tracks featured on a Peel session.

Considering how often Smith shook his dice, he proved a strangely unerring ability to throw sixes. Yet this, the first time he’d bet and throw low, proved that all along he’d been gambling rather than meta-gaming. As time went on, particularly in the Nineties and Noughties, he’d gamble more and more recklessly and more than once lose his shirt. The Fall flew without a safety net. Which meant when the Fall fell, they fell.

And so, straight after the longest Fall album so far, came the briefest. (Discounting ‘Slates’, which was conceived as a mini-album.) It was not well received, with no more of that reaching No. 71 in the charts business. It’s seen as the weak link of their golden age. (Unless you count the live ‘Totale’s Turns’.) ‘Detective Instinct’
is in all honesty near-six minutes of tedium. When four of it’s seven tracks appeared on the subsequent live album ’Fall In a Hole’, arguably all sounded better there.

Paul Hanley, in ’Have A Bleedin Guess’, suggests Smith’s motive was less musical than political, to disrupt the shopfloor unity of the band to make it more malleable. He quotes Smith: “I played the same trick on the group as the people who bought the record. I suppose I’m a contrary bastard”. Yeah, could be, Mark.

Whereas Mick Middles runs with a different Smith quote: “I felt we were in danger of turning into some sort of big band, like the sort of epic rock sound that the Bunnymen were moving towards at the time, and that’s never been the idea of The Fall. That’s why ’Room To Live’ was such a necessary album.” ‘Hex’ had worked not just well but too well, there was simply no space to go further in that direction.

True or not, that may pinpoint the problem. After ‘Hex’ it seemed a step back, a retreat to the already-trod. A fact which gets even stranger when you consider it was sandwiched between their two strongest works.

Strangest of all, it somehow managed to combine feeling regressive with providing something of a sonic challenge. The album closer ‘Papal Visit’ leaves you regretting any ill word you ever said over ’And This Day’. It’s quite possibly the most daunting track of the band’s whole golden age, against which ‘Spectre Vs. Rector’ sounds like a crossover hit.

The Pope really did visit Manchester and, befitting the extemporised nature of the recording, this looks to have been an impromptu reaction. It’s more than usually balanced on the knife-edge between genius and madness. I’m torn whether to liken it to Throbbing Gristle or, another final track on an album, PiL’s notorious self-confessed last-minute quota-filling ‘Fodderstompf’. It also seems one of the two golden age tracks never to have been performed live. (It’s companion, perhaps ironically given the title, is ‘Live At the Witch Trials’. Though that was more of an interlude. Believe it or not, even ‘WMC Blob 59’ got four.)

Yet for all of that there are classic Fall track to be found here. Admittedly two of them do use the full band, 'Joker Hysterical Face’ and the furiously abrasive ‘Solicitor In Studio’, so aren’t subject to Smith’s self-sabotaging.

Though that makes the measured menace of ‘Hard Life In the Country’ all the more interesting. Unlike the other stand-out tracks on the album there’s no record of it being played live beforehand, so presumably it was thrown together in the studio – Smith’s one six among the snake eyes. It’s also the one track which you could best argue has something over the live ’Fall In A Hole’ version. (Though, much like ’Who Makes the Nazis’, the world really needs both versions.)

It feels like a couplet from ‘Jawbone and the Air Rifle’ - “The villagers dance round pre-fabs/ And laugh through twisted mouths” – blown up into song length. Perhaps the most audaciously pared-down track since ‘CnC – S’ Mithering’, its lumbering tempo drips with implied threat, a remorseless inevitability suggesting that ultimately the locals are going to get “their due”. There’s the great line about his defensive garden railings being confiscated “for government campaigns”. And it lays on Smith’s classic black humour:

”It's hard to live in the country
”It has a delicate ring
”Nymphet new romantics come over the hill
”It gets a bit depressing”

Smith recalled leaving his house under someone’s stewardship while touring Australia, “but he let all the scum of the village in and they, like, wrecked the place… so the village did close in on me.”

Though we should always be wary of confusing the (often mundane) impetus for songs with their ‘meaning’. It’s probably more the point that, for a front-man of a band who were almost permanently on the road, and from someone who could probably have powered half of Lancashire by attaching it to his gob, Smith seemed remarkably disposed to sociophobia.

The track conveys the paranoia last distilled this neatly in ‘Frightened’ and ‘A Figure Walks’, where the collective will crowd in on and devour the individual. (And notably the title track is also about your home being invaded by an undifferentiated mass.)

”Day By Day, The Moon Gains On Me”

Happily, things soon picked up again with the successive singles ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’ and the double A-side which gave us ‘Wings’. A track which kicks off with the brilliantly matter-of-fact line “purchased pair of flabby wings”, as if time-travelling wings are for sale in the shops. It’s in some ways an update of ’Various Times’, only with the same character showing up in each episode. And the character seems… wait for it… something of a stand-in for Smith. In fact...

”Recruited some gremlins
”To get me clear of the airline routes…
”They had some fun with those cheapo airline snobs”

...sounds very much like him forming a band and venting over the music industry all over again. And the academic assaulted with “a gust of cheap magazines” always reminds me of Brecht’s dictum: “The masses’ bad taste is rooted more deeply than the intellectual’s good taste.”

But needless to say it all ends in tears. The magic wings turn out to be as much a cursed object as the medallion in ‘Winter’. He has to pay off those gremlins “with stuffing from my wings,” killing himself to live. Before that opening line the track starts with the repeated refrain “Day by day/ The moon gains on me”. And you could parse ‘Wings’ as employing time travel as a means of/metaphor for defying death, zipping about the chronology to present mortality with a moving target - but with it inexorably drawing in on you.

It’s a classic example of the fuzzy logic which powers song lyrics. There’s no actual sense to it, but the mood is so strong it feels like there must be. And so it turns out that the wings can take you anywhere but back again, “the place I made the purchase no longer exists”, “erased” by all that time-rewriting. Inevitably the protagonist ends up sleeping under bridges as “the wings rot and curl right under me”.

The other side was about football.

Saturday 13 March 2021


(The previous part of our run-through the Fall’s history, on the mini-LP ‘Slates’, lies here.)

”When the album comes out, we’re all surprised at how well it does. We even get to No. 71 in the charts.”
- Steve Hanley, ’The Big Midweek’

”Appreciation Half Won...”

The roots of ’Hex Enduction Hour’ (1982) go back to a single released before ‘Grotesque’‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’. It details the trials and tribulations of a writer who’s gone from outsider to celebrity while skipping the success bit you might expect to come in the middle. (Which is pretty much how it worked out. Smith often claimed his songs have proven prophetic, while skipping the one which definitely was.) So he’s haunted by his own history, the gormless public pestering him with inane clueless questions about labours past while blocking his passage through daily life...

“The fridge is sparse
“But in the town
“They'll stop me in the shoppes
“Verily they'll track me down
“Touch my shoulder and ignore my dumb mission

“And sick red faced smile

“And they will ask me
“And they will ask me
“How I wrote ‘Plastic Man’”

Smith was wont to insist the song’s about a writer, so couldn’t be autobiographical. But he’d also say he saw himself as a writer rather than a musician. And anyway he lied a lot.

And from ’Hex’,‘Hip Priest’ was in many ways its successor. The croon of the backing vocalists, which launches the song (“he-e-e-e’s not appre-e-e-ciated”) sounds mocking and self-parodic. But it may have been more heartfelt than it appears. Having already compared ’The NWRA’ to ’Revolution’, perhaps this was Smith’s ’Help’. Its less about the great British public and more about Smith’s reaction to younger groups, who he claimed would steal his thunder while sidling up to him for some kind of indie-cred absolution. (“It's appreciation half won/ And they hate their allegiance to hip preacher one.”) But both songs involve survival through scraping the bottom of the barrel: “I got my last clean dirty shirt outta the wardrobe.”

Despite his always insisting bad reviews and audience antagonism were his food and drink, Smith had come to feel… well, not appreciated for his efforts and was considering jacking things in. He recounted to ‘Sounds’ his feeling that “we’ve done enough, the scene’s crappy and we still can’t make any effect.”

Though as he went on to say, the process was paradoxically “good for me cause I could just go and let rip, which is why it’s a good album.” Figuring it might be his last shot, he resolved to throw everything into it. And the result is considered by many to be his best. While previous sleeve notes had used the pseudonym ‘R. Totale’, this time it’s ‘the BIG P”. (Typically he never spoke about any of this to the band, and in ’Have A Bleedin Guess’, Paul Hanley speculates over whether it’s a post-hoc rationalisation.)

Notably when the Hip Priest makes his appearance, announced in the lyrics, the track kicks in. The model is less tension/release than tension/eruption. It’s like a has-been drunk slumped at the bar suddenly turning back into a prize-fighter.

Much of the sound of the album had come about by accident. Drummer Paul Hanley had been too young to get a working visa for an American tour, so Karl Burns from ‘Witch Trials’ had returned. And when the tour was over the two teamed up. It marshalled them into a mightier, multi-cylindered affair. It was both the epitome of the Golden Age Fall and the birth of their Silver Age sound.

And, perhaps more by luck than judgement, this was the perfect line-up for the moment. The album often sounds like a bowling ball on full strike. Listen no further than the pummelling double-drummer twin-guitar action of opener ‘The Classical’.

Smith told ‘Sounds’ it was “the anthem of the record. I figured: if you want to say it, you might as well do it in the first song…. The ironic thing is that the record was intended as a piss off, but everyone loved it!"

If ostensibly about the music industry, Smith is from the first stating “there is no culture is my brag”, nothing to be spared his wrath. The title’s an ironic reference to a ‘culture’ which is only ersatz, while it builds into a mock-cheer singalong.

While ‘English Deer Park’ (another anti-London diatribe) smears atonal semi-drone keyboards across it’s forward momentum, like tar across the windscreen of a careering car, as if John Cale had joined the Seeds. The Fall were never more of a kick-arse, riff-driven garage band than here, changing chords as often as a broke man spends change.

And that weird title? “Enduction” sounds like a portmanteau of “induction” and “education”. Combine it with hex, let it last an hour and it becomes a self-curing spell Smith’s casting on himself, much as Bowie had with ‘Station To Station’. It was, to quote the album “hypnotic induction process/ His commercial last chance.”

So ‘Just Step S’Ways’ becomes the opposite pole to ’Hip Priest’, and the damning-in-every direction ’Classical’. A cure for what ailed Smith, as if what was intended as career suicide ended up reinvigorating him, a brain-stopping bullet which somehow just got it working again. It’s offer of liminal escape echoes ’Psykick Dancehall’:

”When what used to excite you does not
”Like you've used up all your allowance of experiences
”Head filled with a mass of too-well-known people
”Just step sideways from this world today”

Yet at the same time they piled on the riffs they become more and more influenced by dub’s collage approach to mixing, with track elements overlaid or breaking in from unexpected directions. ‘Who Makes the Nazis’ is one of their more discordant tracks, even by Fall standards. As sounds and voices appear from every angle, it seems less a band pulling together and more a composite of separate tracks. (Which it was, built around a toy plastic guitar and voices Smith has recorded on a dictaphone, a device he’d return to.) Notions of a coherent authorial voice are consistently swapped for a sound almost ferociously fractured, cacophonous and multi-layered.

”Valhalla brochure bit”

There was always a story to a Fall album. And the ‘story’ of ‘Hex’ came from its press release, it was “recorded in an empty cinema [in Hitchin]... in a studio made of lava(!)” in Reykjavik. (A story only slightly spoilt when you discover both venues actually contained fully functional studios.) And just like the drummers there was a dual sound to the album.

They’d visited Reykjavik before Hitchin, originally just to perform but while there had ended up visiting a studio in… as you may have guessed… a lava cave. Only two tracks were ever used – the afore-mentioned ‘Hip Priest’ and ‘Iceland’ - but they’re central. With Smith’s typical perversity, on what was intended as their parting shot, they suddenly take up what’s effectively a whole new direction.

John Peel used to speak of “the mighty Fall”, as if that was their full name. Tracks were normally built around full-on bass or guitar riffs. But here they were something quite different, slower and more incantatory. Yet neither were they reverting to the sluggish, stretched-out tempos of earlier tracks such as ’Frightened’. Lava actually provides quite a potent metaphor.

‘Iceland’ in particular was less built around a beat than a pulse. It was the Fall at their most Can-like to date, something else they’d later build on. ’Hip Priest’ had been written and performed pre-Reykjavik, albeit barely. Whereas this was recorded so quickly it was virtually improvised, with guitarist Craig Scanlon taking to the piano and keyboardist Marc Riley – yes, really - the banjo. The band were unaware of what Smith was going to do until he did it.

With shades of the site-specific recording of ’Spectre vs. Rector’, he starts the track with a tape of the Icelandic wind blowing. You can hear the clicking of the tape buttons clear as day, in fact they become part of the proceedings. It’s partly a stream-of-consciousness diary of his visit (he really did trip up in a local cafe) but partly a more spiritual reaction to his surroundings.

“What the goddamn fuck is it?
“That played the pipes of aluminium
“A Memorex for the Krakens
 “That induces this rough text”

(The inducing Memorex presumably being that recording.) The track’s unostentatious but insistent; not the erupting Lovecraftian horrors of ‘Temperence’ but the MR James chill, being touched by something spooky, not being sure what it is or whether what you sense is even there. At one point he says “make a grab for the book of prayers”, like it has all become too much and retreat’s in order.

On an album called ‘Hex’ it’s the most hex-like number: “Cast the runes against your own soul/ There is not much more time to go”. Yet as the track mades clear, he found Iceland simultaneously strange and familiar. You find, for the first time, your own reflection. Yet you don’t recognise what faces you.

But what’s most striking isn’t that it’s autobiographical but that it’s confessional. Smith, normally so assured, so derisory of others, chants “it was fear of weakness deep in core of myself”, like a shamanic initiate, unsure and uncomprehending of the world he’s suddenly encountering, unsure whether it will make or break him. And it was something of a rite. The track was attempted live once, still in Reykjavik, an attempt Steven Hanley described as so derisory it was abandoned, then never again.

So what was it that Iceland induced? As far back as ‘Crap Rap’ the Fall had been “the white crap who talk back/We are not black”. This was, in it’s way, a rejection of cultural appropriation. Black music, that was already being covered. By black people, in fact. Smith complained cosmopolitan-sounding bands “weren’t being true to their roots”. Perhaps echoing Can, always one of his favourite bands, whose Irmin Schmidt had commented “there were wonderful blues singers. But as a European, it’s a lie to try to play pure blues.” And Iceland seems to have galvanised Smith, with him writing against the track in the sleevenotes “Valhalla brochure bit, White face Finds Roots”. (His EccentRic cAps.)

White acts had long immersed themselves in black culture. Normally because that was quite simply where the best music was. But while social imbalances still exist between races, that’s not going to be a meeting of minds. Like a neighbourhood long neglected then one day found desirable, black culture too easily became white property and its blackness exoticised - just as black people get marginalised.

Ironically, this gained a handy name from it’s own adherents. Following an influential Norman Mailer essay, they were White Negroes. It reduced to the idea you could escape straightlaced white society with a bit of metaphorical blackface. So white artists would surround themselves with black skin in their music videos as a kind of appropriated cool. (Check out this Stones video for one example.) And the best response to this is the most obvious one – you’re not a “white Negro”, you’re just white you gormless prat.

With Mailer’s essay dating back to ‘57, the White Negro had influenced not just hippies but beatniks before them. So it was natural for punk to react against all that, post-punk perhaps more so. As Simon Reynolds has pointed out, this became a widespread feature. Robert Wyatt for example “was the closest there's ever been to an English soul voice... not someone trying to sound black - someone soulful, but English…. Post-punk is all about this play between Englishness... and the black musics that were the kind of source musics.”

On the other hand, that imbalanced encounter is at least an encounter. Talk of ‘white roots’ risks bypassing that play, flipping the mindset rather than escaping it, and landing yourself knee-deep in some stinky ‘white pride’ shit. And punk did that enough times too.

So, yes, we’re segueing backwards into the notorious line from ‘The Classical’: “Where are the obligatory…?” At which point we run into quite a fundamental problem in even talking about this stuff, as if all the words we know have suddenly let us down. If you say something like “the n-word” you sound like some prissy type who asks for directions to “the smallest room”. If you spell it out, you sound like either a seig-heiling scumbag or a gangster rapper. And I’m not sure I could pull off a convincing gangster rapper impression.

Even if things had moved a long way from the politically committed collective who played anti-racist benefits, even if he didn’t always treat those around him with scrupulous fairness, there’s no reason to believe Smith was racist. Whatever is going on in ’Who Makes the Nazis?’, and you would go mad before you got anywhere, it’s clearly not pro-Nazi.

The problem isn’t the intent. It’s that the intent is only obvious in the wider context of Smith’s writing. The other great song from the era to use that work is the Dead Kennedys’ ’Holiday in Cambodia’. Which clearly uses it to pillory the posh white kid bragging about his soul brothers in the black ghettoes. Insofar as I know, there was no controversy over that. Because they ensured their meaning was clear. Smith’s wasn’t. And you need to be sharp when playing with fire.

Though that might well be the game being played. We should also remember this was the very track which Smith intended as his ‘fuck you’ to the music business. Which may have also galvanised his desire to shock and offend. Sometimes you can burn a bunch of bridges with just one word. There’s two well-known stories which involve this word, one the unlikely-sounding tale that it cost the band a contract with Motown.

But the other tale, the one we know is true, is that Smith later revived it minus the offending word. Which kind of proves the point. We can say things we don’t mean when we’re wound up, but we can also calm down afterwards.

”All Entrances Delivered”

Nothing ever being straightforward about the Fall, ‘Winter (Hostel-Maxi)’ sounds like a lava track but was actually cinema. Both literally and metaphorically the album’s centrepiece, on the original vinyl release it was (somewhat inexplicably) split between sides. As the other main slow track it would seem to belong with ’Hip Priest.’ Except while that simmers with tension, which at points would erupt, ’Winter’ remains measured.

Smith was unusually helpful in the press release: "’Winter’ is a tale concerning an insane child who is taken over by a spirit from the mind of a cooped-up alcoholic, and his ravaged viewpoints and theories”. More unusual still, the lyrics back this up. The “mad kid… had just got back from the backwards kids party”, but now has hit a genius-level number of “lights”. While babbling “I’ll take both of you on”, the comedy line of drunks immemorial.

Which of course then just raises the question – why write a song about such a thing? Sex, summertime and cars are more common subjects, aren’t they? Let’s start with a handy hint, when Smith’s singing about a genius you can guarantee he’s singing about himself. And if there’s two geniuses here it’s likely he’s both of them.

We’ve already had John Lennon, let’s now compare Smith to Jim Morrison. Morrison liked to claim that as a child he witnessed a traffic accident, where the soul of a dying Native American went into him. (Feel free to believe that if you want.)

Similarly ’Winter’ is Smith’s mythopoetic account of his own origins – how the young Salford lad, a “backward kid”, was to became the inimitable Mark E Smith. On the album where he nearly stopped music, this is the story of how he started. The “entrances uncovered” line literally refers to street signs re-emerging into readability now foliage has retreated to bare branches, but also his own entrance.

I’ve no idea whether his mother was ever “a cleaning lady” as in the song, but he came from a solidly working class background. Equally, I’ve no idea whether at this point he was – or would have seen himself – as a fully fledged alcoholic. But songs aren’t about mapping neatly onto real life, they’re about throwing up associations. (Craig Scanlon later said “I always thought the mad kid was Mark”, while taking care to point out it was none of his business.)

But the significance of the comparison is its limits. Morrison took up his newly acquired soul much in the way a wealthy white New Ager wears an ethnic pendant. The exoticness is supposed to rub off on him, whitewash out his whiteness, make him cool. To the mad kid possession is more like a genuine shamanic initiation. The inmate’s genius and alcoholism seem to be inseparable, both gift and curse – as spelt out in the lines “please take this medallion/ Please wear this medallion”. (Notably another album track, ’Jawbone and the Air Rifle’, is based around the passing on of a cursed object.) 

Once taken over “he looked like the victim of a pogrom”. And then underlining all this a third time Smith adds himself into the song once more, witnessing his own fall into the Fall as he recounts how “the mad kid walked left-side south-side towards me”. It’s presumably this Smith, Smith the narrator, who recounts “I just looked round/ And my youth it was sold.”

And where could such a scenario come from? Notably the alcoholic genius needs to escape a quasi-benevolent institution, epitomised by (in a classic Smith-ism) a “feminist Austin Maxi”. Original guitarist Martin Bramah later recalled their formative years. “Living on the edge of Prestwich Mental Hospital… a lot of mentally ill people were wandering around Prestwich Village at lunchtime, so it was just part of life…. and so they found their way into the songs… As children we lived in fear of being dragged in there and never coming our again – as you do - ‘cause it’s this place where frightening men were living.” (‘Babylon’s Burning’, Clinton Heylin.)

These environs are thought to have influenced several early Fall songs, such as ‘Repetition’ (where their conforming role is to stop you digging that repetition) or the single ’Rowche Rumble’. And if it doesn’t seem much of a jump from “the alcoholic’s dry-out unit” to the nut house, early live versions of the track contained a reference to the Mental Health Act.

'Hex Enduction Hour' exploits the apparent contradictions of these different recordings by creatively juxtaposing them, ‘Winter’ segueing into ’Just Step S’Ways’ and the pulsing ’Iceland’ into the propulsive ‘And This Day’. And it's the Fall at their most Fall-like. Stewart Lee has said it's "probably the best album of all time".

Me, I'm not quite so sure. 'Jawbone and the Air Rifle', is an old track from a previous year's Peel Session, once considered for 'Grotesque', and sounds like it. (It could have replaced 'In the Park', that album's weakest moment.) But mostly there's something underwhelming about the final track, 'And This Day'. 

It's not a bad track, it's just when you've heard all you've heard and then find you're in for a ten-minute closer... well,you can't help but imagine another 'NWRA' is in the works. I first heard this album later than the others, as the label it had first come out on had gone bust. Which was followed by another delay as I waited for the track to finally click with me. I'm not sure it ever did.

In the liner notes Smith wrote beside it: "Desperate attempt to make bouncy good of 2 drum kit line-up". He was forever describing the Fall as alternately the best and the worst group in the world, like he didn't particularly distinguish between the two. But even so the man himself sounds a little unconvinced. Paul Hanley recalled "everyone just did their own thing, and it showed." Alas, the far finer 'Backdrop', which would have easily filled the slot in both length and quality, didn't receive its live debut until after recording was done and was fated never to make it to vinyl.

Despite which, I'd still say this was my second favourite Fall album. Which means my first choice is still to come. Place your bets. With only two albums to go, you've a fifty-fifty chance...

Saturday 6 March 2021


(Continuing our run-through of the Fall’s back catalogue. The last part, looking at ‘Grotesque’, lies here.)

“Academic male slags
“Reel off names of books and bands
“Kill cultural interest in our land”
- ‘Slates, Slags, Etc’

”It’s De-louse, Safe-house Time”

With ‘Slates’, (1981) the unusual format of a ten inch LP (younger readers, ask your parents) came about by accident. Smith explained “the time was mid-February, the Fall, ORIGINALLY intending to cut 2 tracks [for a single] ended up with many more. As crumbs of nightmare filtered through, they decided to release the lot, as ALL TRACKS ARE RELATED.” (His ECCENTRIC caps.) Naturally, he never got round to explaining just how they were related. In classic fashion some, such as ‘Fit and Working Again’, were created completely from scratch.

It’s another great Fall album. But it was the first which didn’t push the envelope from its predecessor. The album after ‘Grotesque’ is really just the album after ‘Grotesque’. Moreover as the plan here is (more or less) to point out things as they first emerge, ‘Slates’ becomes relatively less promising to write about.

‘Prole Art Threat’ is a multi-character narrative like ‘The NWRA’, only more cut up and compressed. From the opening line (“I’m riding third class on a one class train”) it’s the class war recast as a paranoiac spy movie. And as spy films often take domestic settings - cafes, men reading newspapers in parks - and infuse them with a sense of menace they do become a perfect fit for the Fall.

The result is that working class revolt is not collectivised but individualised – a proletarianised Patrick McGoohan. “Real Bert Finn stuff” recalls Albert Finney snarling “don’t let the bastards grind you down” in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, perhaps crossed with Cockney spy Harry Palmer from ‘The Ipcress File’, more at risk from his toff bosses than his supposed foes. Structured like a garbled play or semi-redacted transcript, it adds to the suggestion that like ‘The NWRA’ this is a conflict really going on inside Smith’s head.

Ever the Northerner, Smith held a longstanding animosity towards London. ’Deer Park’, from the next album, would be a more literal accounting of its crimes. Here, ‘Leave The Capitol’ depicts “Victorian vampiric London” as a kind of luring mirage, an enchanting fairy kingdom which draws you into it only to suffocate you at it’s bosom.

What makes it seductive is the very stuff which makes it dangerous - “the bed’s too clean/ Water’s poison for the system”. Smooth is as abrasive to rough as rough is to smooth. He was a big Wyndham Lewis fan, and I’ve always suspected the inspiration for this track came from the Vorticist magazine ‘Blast’: “Victorian Vampire, the London cloud sucks the Town’s heart... officious mountains keep back drastic winds."

And London is an amassed force (“Hotel maids smile in unison”), society in concentrate form, against which resistance is by necessity solitary. “You know in your brain”, within yourself, you need to leave this place. It’s the Puritan opposition of inner strength to worldly temptation. “Straight home” means not Manchester (by my reckoning, another city) but “one room”, bedsit as monastic cell. (Compare to the earlier ’Flat of Angles’ where the released ex-con discovers “the streets are full of mercenary eyes.”)

”Full Bias Content Guaranteed” 

‘Slags, Slates Etc.’ is a successor to ’C+C’, and the origin of the term “definitive rant”. But while that had been a shopping list of individual gripes given a back-beat, here the slags and slates form an amassed, offensive force against the all-important first-person singer. The repeated diss “slags, slates and tapes” (from which the album gets its title), taken together, suggests an inferior copy. (Slag was originally a waste product, later modified into a term of – or word for - abuse. Slates were what schoolkids used to copy down comprehension before paper. And these were the days where you’d tape albums, trading your saved pennies for degraded sound quality.)

But there’d seem something vampiric about them, even if Smith wasn’t using the term elsewhere. He rages “Everything’s drained by the slates/They are the grey ones of our state, I relate”. (Perhaps in a similar fashion to Priestley’s short story ‘The Grey Ones’.) Like the lifeless feeding on the living, their paradox is that they constantly require the brightly coloured to feed on, but in their feeding inevitably reduce those colours to their own greyness.

So their sucking doesn’t just weaken you, it infects you with their own weakness. Those who can’t drain those who can. (There was a similar image in ‘The NWRA’, when the radio turns another track into an anaemic love song.) Hence as they “ream off names of books and bands” they “kill cultural interest in our land”, poison to all they touch.

The track may seem a rallying cry to resist them. Except Fall songs, though frequently polemics, are rarely delivery systems for messages to the wider world. They’re things in themselves, and they frequently refer to themselves. It’s truer to say the track is the act of resistance, Smith’s wrath is both response to them and defence against them, the more incendiary it gets the more inoculated against greyness it becomes. (In a similar fashion to the Hero making himself indigestible to the Spectre two albums back.)

It’s true the Fall would themselves borrow, openly and often wholesale. We’ve already seen how ’Frightened’ stole from ’Stepping Stone’. Further acts of shameless kleptomania will include filching a keyboard preset (the intro to ’Fortress’, from the next album) and (yes really) ripping off Spinal Tap (on ’Athlete Cured’). This has led some to see hypocrisy in Smith’s stance.

But when he’d rail against bands who he claimed plagiarised him, he’d simultaneously insist they sounded nothing like him. Which isn’t a contradiction. Smith was often respectful of past greats, at various points praising in song Link Wray and castigating no less than Shakin’ Stevens. (For “the massacre of Blue Christmas/ On him I’d like to land one.”) His ire was less against the library loan than the erzatz. Borrow in the spirit of the original, you make more. Those who offer only store-brand substitutes detract, piss in the same well they’re pulling bails from. On the later track ’Elves’, over a blatantly borrowed Stooges riff, Smith lambasted “the new rock scum/ Spitting on what’s good and gone.”

TS Eliot said: “Immature poets imitate, nature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Amen.