Monday, August 03, 2009

Music Library: The Fall

"They are always different; they are always the same" was how John Peel described the Fall, and he would know. I say this, but one who listens through the whole discography, as I have been doing for the last week, will hear that there is a definite trajectory to their sound. It's significant that the first Fall single was the song "Repetition," which stated "we've repetition in the music, and we're never going to lose it." Most of the songs are built on a single riff or rotating sequence of riffs. There may be a chorus or a second part. There's rarely a third part or bridge. Mark E. Smith's cryptic lyrics and unmistakeable delivery are both the most defining aspect of the Fall sound and the most mutable. I jokingly compared him to a street preacher in a Flannery O'Connor story last year. Bill Ham, who turned me onto The Fall some eight years or so ago, proposed my favorite rejected 33 1/3 pitch, in which he would use the Fall's hyper-literate obscurity to satirize and deflate some of the more self-important aspects of rock criticism. I think that the 33 1/3 people really missed out when they rejected this one. But, as Bill points out, it's hard to get fans to agree on what Mark E. is going on about, but all fans agree that The Fall makes it sound absolutely vital to attempt to find out. This website, which includes a dauntingly complete discography and transcription of lyrics, may be the most valuable resource for Fall fans on the Internet. I mentioned that I was listening to The Fall on my Facebook page, and my pal Gary Dickerson said, "People like to talk about MES's "wit" & his grumpiness, but what drew me to the Fall & what keeps me there, besides the balls-out sonic experimentation in their best work, is Smith's ambivalence toward language. He obviously needs & loves it, but can't help but highlight its failure in everything from poetry to simple human communication." Well said.

One comparison that I couldn't escape while listening to The Fall: how they are alike and different from The Mekons. Both came out of unfashionable areas of England in 1977. Both write intellectually dense lyrics that address the uglier sides of English and world history. Both have a minimalist approach to songwriting that frees their more experimental side. Both love American country music (admittedly, the Mekons more so) and both mix country and rockabilly (and synth-pop and industrial music and garage and krautrock and pretty much everything else that's awesome) in with their post-punk aesthetic. I mention that these bands remind me of each other in that Facebook post, and Chris Estey commented that The Mekons are "sort of the anti-Fall -- iconoclastic collectivism versus nihilistic ego-burst." I agree that the Mekons are a quite different band, but I don't see them as opposites so much as complements. What makes The Mekons The Mekons is that they have any number of different personalities all working together towards a collective aesthetic that is greater than any one of the individuals in the band (sorry, Jonboy, that's why I will always love the Mekons albums better than your solo albums or even the Waco Bros). The Fall is about Mark E. Smith's world and could not exist without him. I don't think that he's nihilistic, though. A crank, yes. Angry, yes. But it seems to me that there's a deep sense of disappointment running through his work, and that disappointment is built on his sense of a better world.

So, I have all of the Fall's studio albums except for the last one, Imperial Wax Solvent. I'll pick it up eventually. If money wasn't tight, I'd pick it up right now, but y'know, food on the table and shoes on the feet. The Fall to follow is listed by date, except for the huge Peel Sessions box, which I slotted at time of release, rather than date of recording.

Early Fall (1977 - 1982).
Number of non-MES members of The Fall: 15. Number left/fired: 10.

The Early Years, 1977 - 1979 (released 1981). Collects the Fall's earliest singles and a few album tracks from 1979. And talk about an aesthetic that arrives fully-formed. Songs like "Psycho Mafia," "Various Times," and, of course, "Rowche Rumble" sound like nothing but the mighty Fall.

Live At The Witch Trials and Dragnet (1979). The former is heavy on the rhythm and almost funky, albeit in the same way that Can was almost funky at times. The two musicians most responsible for the early Fall sound, Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley, were not yet on-board, and Live At The Witch Trials sounds like a slightly gentler version of the Fall aesthetic. After group turnover, when the band went into the studio to record Dragnet, only MES and bassist Mark Riley, who moved to guitar, were left from the version of the Fall that recorded Witch Trials. With Scanlon and Hanley, Dragnet was the first album with the classic Fall strings, although the album is poorly mastered (or poorly recorded) and the sound is far too thin for such powerful music. Most of the songs are built around Hanley's bass with Scanlon's scratchy razor-guitar providing a rhythmic counterpoint.

Totale's Turns (It's Now Or Never) and Grotesque (After The Gramme) (1980). The former is the band's first of many, many live albums (although it also includes a couple of studio tracks). Definitely not as esssential as the prior two or the following album, though. Grotesque, with a better recording sound and a more locked-in band, is fantastic, made better by subsequent re-releases, which add the singles "How I Wrote Elastic Man," "Totally Wired," and "City Hobgoblins." These albums add drummer Paul Hanley (who is Steve's little brother, all of 16 at the time), another key component of the greatest early Fall band.

Slates (1981). A mini-album of 6 songs, too long to be an EP but too short to be an LP, each song a stone classic. Especially "Prole Art Threat" and "Leave The Capital."

Hex Enduction Hour and Room To Live (1982). Then drummer Karl Burns, who had already been in and out of the band, rejoined, and The Fall were suddenly the mightiest band on the planet. Also on board: Kay Carroll for backing vocals and percussion. Yes, that's two drummers and a percussionist. Hex Enduction Hour is my favorite Fall album, hands down. It is among my favorite albums by anyone. It opens with "The Classical," which is perhaps the best song by anyone: offensive, funny, impossible to ignore, impossible to decipher. There's a story, possibly apocryphal, about this album: Motown decided that they needed to get into this punk business and asked MES, of all people, to send them a sample of his work. With nothing else unreleased, MES sent some demos of Hex Enduction Hour, starting with "The Classical," which begins with the following lyrics (verbatim from the Fall website above):

There is no culture is my brag,
Your taste for bullshit reveals a lust for a home of office
Where are the obligatory niggers?
Reportedly, the Motown executives made it to this point, approximately 12 seconds into the song, before they abruptly - perhaps even desperately - stopped the tape and issued Smith a letter stating that The Fall not only had no place in the Motown roster, but also no commercial potential whatsoever. They were wrong, though. Hex Enduction Hour was The Fall's first album to make the charts, and includes such great songs as "Hip Priest" (in which MES, singing in falsetto, invokes medieval chanting), which would later make large waves in public awareness by appearing in the climax of Silence of the Lambs, and "Who Makes The Nazis?," which may be the most danceable track about domestic fascism recorded by anyone. My version adds the excellent tracks "Look, Know" and "I'm Into C.B.!" Room to Live was a quick follow-up that's great without being quite as good. It features approximately 16 seconds of the shortest-tenured Fall member, guitarist Arthur Cadmon, who was fired before completing a single song with the band.

The Brix Years (1983 - 1989).
Number of new non-MES members of The Fall: 5. Number left/fired: 5.

Perverted By Language (1983). Mark Riley left at the end of 1982 and wasn't replaced until September of the following year. His replacement was one Brix Smith, Mark E.'s new wife, dubbed "Brix" after her love of the Clash song "The Guns of Brixton." Brix Smith had several things that The Fall generally lacked: a sense of pop song structure, a sense of fashion, and some influence over MES's mercurial moods. Much of this album was recorded before Brix joined, but her touch is unmistakeable on some of the tracks. The best track, however, is the opening "Eat Y'Self Fitter," which doesn't have Brix on it. As Ned Raggett writes on Allmusic, "The hints of strange beauty that the Fall can sometimes let into its world appear here more than once — whether it's Brix's influence or not isn't clear, and why not?"

The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (1984). Now on the larger Beggar's Banquet label, the Fall made an album that many Fall fans (at that point) would have most likely considered an unabashed stab at commercial success, while fans of commercially successful music would have found it hopeless arcane and inaccessible. Naturally, the truth is that it's a little of both, because it's the Fall. Best songs: "2x4," "Elves" (which steals the riff from "I Wanna Be Your Dog," arguably the most easily identifiable riff in rock music), "C.R.E.E.P." (not on the original release, but included in subsequent re-releases), and "Disney's Dream Debased," about an accident MES and Brix witnessed at Disneyland.

This Nation's Saving Grace (1985). This is my other favorite Fall album. Paul Hanley left the band in early 1985 and Steve took a paternity leave for most of the year. The Fall brought in Simon Rogers to replace Steve Hanley, and when Hanley came back, Rogers moved to guitars and keyboard. Anyway, personnel aside, the music on This Nation's Saving Grace is the most accessible of any in the Fall's career, and it's also as awe-inspiringly great as the best in the Fall's catalog. My favorite tracks: "Spoilt Victorian Child," "Couldn't Get Ahead," "My New House," "I Am Damo Suzuki" (a tribute to Can, natch), and "Cruisers Creek."

Bend Sinister (1986). After this, the Fall would have to take a step down in quality. Karl Burns left, so they needed a new drummer. MES and the new producer didn't get along at all. I mean, this isn't a terrible album - far from it, actually - but the band sounds tired and muted.

"Haf Found Bormann" and Palace Of Swords Reversed (1987). These are a single from the US version of Bend Sinister and a compilation that I picked up before I bought all of these other albums (other than This Nation's Saving Grace). The single's ok, and the compilation would be the one I would give to a friend interested in The Fall, but unsure where to start.

The Frenz Experiment and I Am Kurious Oranj (1988). The former is a fantastic return from the depression of Bend Sinister towards the cheer and bombast of the earlier Brix albums. The cover of the Kink's "Victoria" was the charting single, but also great are "Athlete Cured," which steals the riff from Spinal Tap's "Tonight I'm Going to Rock You Tonight," the title track "Frenz," the silly-but-inspired "Twister," and the funky "Hit The North." The latter album is the result of a collaboration between MES and the dancer Michael Clark. Although I like some of the tracks very much, I don't much like the overall album, which seems like a lot of wasted opportunity. Best tracks: "Dog Is Life/Jerusalem," "Kurious Oranj," and "Van Plague?".

Seminal Live (1989). With MES and Brix's marriage falling apart, MES wanted out of his contract with Beggar's Banquest, and this one is anything but seminal. For fans only.

"No Bulbs 3," "Hey! Luciani," "Jerusalem," and "Dead Beat Descendant" from 458489 A Sides (1990). These are a handful of singles from this period that I didn't have at the time. Three of them are modified versions of album tracks and one ("Hey! Luciani") was on the US release of Bend Sinister. And that's all I have to say about them.

Introspection and Electronica (1990 - 1996).
Number of new non-MES members of The Fall: 5. Number left/fired: 7.

Extricate (1990). No one's going to mistake this album for Shoot Out The Lights or Blood on the Tracks, but it certainly appears to be the Fall's break-up album. Brix is gone, replaced for the time being by original member Martin Bramah. The song take the subjects of sex and death far more seriously than earlier songs, and MES's bitterness, never a mild thing, is amped up to scorching proportions. There's two covers of the seminal garage-punk band The Monks, "I Hate You" and "Oh How To Do Now," both of which have been renamed "Black Monk Theme" with the addendum of Parts 1 and 2. Other highlights: the furious "Sing! Harpy" and "Bill Is Dead" and the devastating "And Therein."

Shift-Work (1991). MES fired Bramah and keyboardist Marcia Schofield while touring Australia and then made the lackluster Shift-Work. This is the first Fall album that utterly fails to interest me.

Code: Selfish (1992). Adding keyboardist/programmer Dave Bush, the Fall attempted to turn up the heat with this album, but it's only marginally better than Shift-Work. The new electronica bleeps and bloops would become a major part of the Fall's sound, though.

The Infotainment Scan (1993). Now this is a fun record. The covers include "I'm Going To Spain," a Eurovision entry, if I remember correctly, "Lost In Music," a Sister Sledge disco number, and "Why Are People Grudgeful?" a mashup of two dub tracks by Lee "Scratch" Perry. Then there's a bunch of great originals, including "Glam-Racket," "Paranoia Man in Cheap Shit Room," and the Neu!-inspired "It's A Curse."

Middle Class Revolt (1994). Aaaand we're halfway back to drudgery. With Karl Burns back as 2nd drummer, this should kick all kinds of complacent ass, and some tracks do, while others sound like The Fall could barely bother to show up for recording sessions. My favorites are "15 Ways," "Hey! Student," and the cover of the Monks' "Shut Up."

Cerebral Caustic (1995). Slightly better than Middle Class Revolt. Made extra-interesting by Brix Smith rejoining the band and by Craig Scanlon, guitarist since 1979 and one of the two most important contributors to the Fall's sound, being fired after its release. MES has publicly regretting firing Scanlon, who refused an offer to return a few years later. Dave Bush also left to join Elastica after the record came out and was replaced by Julia Nagle.

The Light User Syndrome (1996). It's hard to hear this album as anything other than a transitional album. MES apparently wasn't even in the studio for much of the recording, arriving to do the bulk of his vocals on the last day. He shared the microphone with drummer Karl Burns, who sang lead on a cover of Johnny Paycheck's "Stay Away (Old White Train)" and with producer Mike Bennett, who wasn't even in the band. And yet some of the songs are killers. My favorites: "He Pep!," "Spinetrak," and the cover of Gene Pitney's "Last Chance To Turn Around."

Chaos Reigns Supreme (1997 - present)
Number of new non-MES members of The Fall: 29. Number left/fired: 29.

Levitate (1997). Then Brix left. Then Karl Burns. Then Burns came back. Then the other drummer, Steve Wolstencroft, left. And, with Julia Nagle being his primary collaborator, this album sounds like drum & bass, which was one of the prevailing types of dance music in late-90s England. It doesn't really work for me, but I don't hate it, either.

The Marshall Suite (1999). Then the Fall fell apart onstage with a violent argument. Steve Hanley, the longest-serving member of The Fall, was one of the three musicians who quit immediately, along with on-again/off-again drummer Karl Burns and new guitarist Tommy Crooks. MES was arrested the next day for assaulting Julia Nagle in their hotel room. And she was the one who stuck with him. They recruited a new band and put together The Marshall Suite, a reasonably great album anchored by the stunning opening track "Touch Sensitive."

The Unutterable (2000). With the same band as on The Marshall Suite, MES again somehow produced an excellent album. Still more drum & bass, but with a slashing rock sound, too. My favorite here: "Sons of Temperance."

Are You Are Missing Winner (2001). Another complete line-up change, this time including Julia Nagle. And, despite the complaints from some critics, it's actually a barnstormer. Highlight: "My Ex-Classmates' Kids." Lowlight: the bizarre experimentation of "Ibis-Afro Man," a cover of Iggy Pop's "African Man."

(We Wish You) A Protein Christmas EP (2003). More line-up changes. The new Mrs. MES, aka Elena Poulou, added on keyboards. This is an EP from late 2003 with the traditional proteinaceous xmas greeting of the title track.

The New Real Fall LP (2004). The line-up changes continue. After demos of this album leaked on the Internet, MES remixed some tracks, added a few more, and released it under this name. One of my favorites of the latter-day Fall albums. Best track: "Contraflow."

The Complete Peel Sessions 1978 - 2004. 6 discs, 26 years, 97 tracks. The Fall's brilliant output of songs for their greatest benefactor's radio show. Often more awesome than the album tracks. And I especially like the Christmas songs.

Fall Heads Roll (2005). Mostly the same line-up as the last album. Heck, it's practically the same album. I mean, it's different, but it's the same. Y'know? I wonder why no one else has had that revelation.

"Arid Al's Dream," "The Caterer," and "Noel's Chemical Effluence" from A World Bewitched Best of 1990-2000 Vol. 1 (2006). Random tracks from a best-of.

Reformation Post T.L.C. (2007). TLC meaning "traitors, liars, and cunts." Yes yes, another mass band firing in the middle of the tour. Another infusion of new blood. And it sounds like it. This is yet another freakin' brilliant album, almost as great as The New Real Fall LP. It's been suggested that MES has adopted this rip-em-up-and-start-again approach to keep The Fall fresh and new, and it seems to be working. I'm looking forward to hearing Imperial Wax Solvent, which I know will be different yet again and still the same yet again, as well.


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