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.

No comments:

Post a Comment