It might seem odd to talk about a departure in the Fall’s sound but if there ever was such a moment, it came with Dragnet. Yvonne Pawlett had gone through the exit, on possibly the last occasion before the hinges needed fixed, dragging behind her the endearingly spooky organ that had been as central to their early sound as Tony Book had been to Manchester City a decade earlier.
Enter Craig Scanlon and Paul Hanley, neither of whom could ever be described as lieutenants to Mark E Smith- could anyone?- but who, as dramatically outlined in Hanley’s memoir The Big Midweek, stayed for the best part of two decades as the fist-close witnesses, and unceasingly compelling soundtrackers of, Smith’s, well, ownership of a band that previously borne a vague resemblance to a democracy.
It still (a word that always recurs in Fall reviews) stands as one of their most gripping statements, though I’m quite aware Smith is unlikely to take kindly to such a view about a record made as long ago as 1979. A Figure Walks is as terrifying as you’d expect a song about stalking to be and, along with Muzorewi’s Daughter, shows that tom-tom thunder is possibly the most thrilling sound yet discovered by scientists. They had never yet been so downright tuneful as they are on Your Heart Out and Flat Of Angles, despite reliably unsettling lyrics (“Then they take your heart out/ With a sharp knife, it wasn’t fake”) nor as plain brutal as on Spectre Vs Rector, which served notice that this band were probably not in music to make money and certainly weren’t in it to make friends. Before The Moon Falls sounds like the title of a lovely Al Bowlly-crooned ballad from somewhere around 1932. It isn’t. It’s classic Fall.
And what’s classic Fall? It would be more than slightly churlish to say that if you have to ask, you’ll never understand, so one listen to this song – and this album – should give you pretty shrewd idea. (PG)
If I were allowed but one Fall record in my collection I would probably choose Slates. This primordial slab of Salford sludge finds MES at his most cryptically acerbic and blisteringly bewildering and the band making a glorious amphetamine-fuelled racket.
Slates was released in an unusual 10″ format, two years into Thatcher’s premiership at the height of the Brixton Riots of April 1981. It clocks in at a little over 22 minutes. In fact, it’s safer to say that it’s an EP rather than an LP, but with 6 tracks it’s just unclear enough to ignite a discussion on the matter.
The first half kicks off with Middle Mass. Musically, a Velvets-y organ drone breaking into a jaunty Beefheartian guitar break, it is ostensibly a yarn about the drinking habits of football fans during the close season; while others have divined a tirade about Marc Riley (‘The boy is like a tape loop’). More likely the kicking is aimed at Mark’s favourite target the middle classes themselves. Just quite what Mark is getting at with his repeated declaration that ‘The Wermacht never got in here’ is anyone’s guess.
‘An Older Lover etc’ is probably about… well, his older lover (11 years older) at the time, Kay Carroll. Here his cerebral ponderings are rawly laid bare. It’s accompanied by one of those spookily amateurish guitar rumbles, like the Magic Band tuning up, and is punctuated by Mark’s indignant yelps…’Dr. Annabel Lies’ – she being the mythical agony aunt for Mark’s self therapy session
I must have listened to Prole Art Threat around 100 times but I’m none the wiser – one can surmise it has something to do with the surveillance or suppression of working class culture in Thatcher’s new Britain. Or is it? For a more extensive and insightful analysis I refer you to Taylor Parkes’ superb piece in the Quietus (http://thequietus.com/articles/03925-the-fall-and-mark-e-smith-as-a-narrative-lyric-writer) Musically, a magnificent Fall moment – driven by one of those ferocious cyclical riffs, rising, falling, FALL-ing – like only The Fall can – Hanley and Scanlon brutalising their collective ten strings, the groove intermittently suspended by the guitar squealing in protest at its ill treatment. The band were rarely if ever, tighter than on this track – every note sounds both harsh and wild and yet is delivered with military precision.
Mark sounds buoyant on Fit & Working Again, back observing the world around him after an unexplained layoff? For me it’s the slightest musical and lyrical achievement here, Mark chopping away on a solitary piano key over a skiffle-like rockabilly rhythm. But that only makes the final twosome sound even more spectacular.
A million words have been spent attempting to decode and deconstruct The Fall’s ‘definitive rant’ – who or what exactly are the Slags, Slates etc’ of the title? Accountants in suits, the pub bore, plagiarists, ‘dead publisher’s sons, material hardship pawns, The Beat, Wah! Heat – male slags…?’ I’ve even read some analysts identify the slates as vinyl records, particularly 7 inch reggae singles? To be honest one can only ‘have a bleedin’ guess.’ I am sure MES must get a kick out of reading ‘academic male slags’ trying to piece together his cryptic declamations. And their vain attempts no doubt conveniently provide him with useful material for his next rant. So forget the mystery of the subject matter and celebrate instead the vigorous kick in the gonads provided by the huge two chord guitar riff that – combined with Steve Hanley’s bowel bursting bass intro, never seems to relent. It makes for one of the greatest ever Fall tracks, enhanced further by Mark’s immortal interjection to the boys: ‘don’t start improvising for God’s sake’ – demonstrating both a natural flair for tyranny and a sensitive ear for musical purity. Bloody marvellous!
‘Leave The Capitol’ provides a fitting climax. It’s wiry and punchy and bouncily infectious in equal measure, as Mark’s invective spills over in this Arthur Machen inspired tirade at old ‘Lahndan Tahn, (‘this f-ing dump’) where he exhorts himself to ‘Exit this Roman Shell!!’ Holed up in his hotel room where the ‘maids smile in unison’ and where ‘the beds are too clean’ and the water ‘poisonous’ – you can just see him there can’t you? Pining desperately to return north to his fags’n’beer an’ a bit of proper culture…God Bless him!
Selecting one album from The Fall’s extensive repertoire is not a simple task. And the one I’ve picked is not even an album. But with prodigious economy, Slates – more than any other – is a one stop distillation of the Fall sound. Reasonable people may argue with this choice, but perhaps it would be most fitting to let the children of the Wermacht offer the final word on the matter. See below: (JJ)