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...

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