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.

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