Monday, May 5, 2008

The Fall: Or How One Philosophizes with a Hammer

Here’s my pre-review before their latest CD, necessary fanfare while I track down “Imperial Wax Solvent” from somewhere in the Commonwealth. There’s no other band for whom I’d contemplate paying, after postage, about $30 for their new CD except The Fall. This sprawling entry assumes you need an introduction, or at least a refresher as their music’s rarely played on any radio station I hear, to what many listeners assert the most original (even when they’re gleefully derivative) band since/from the 1970s. Unclassifiable though they may be; this for me’s their serpentine appeal.

They’re led, or in later years dictated to, by fifty-one-year-old sly genius Mark E. Smith and whomever he marries or dates (it’s wife #3; she’s a lovely lass from Greece, Elena Poupou on the keys). Backed, often ably if anonymously this third decade on—after the last of his longtime stalwarts quit or were axed-- by replaceable recruits summoned to transform his malingering, maddening, mushmouthed, mumbling rants into garage- rockabilly- Krautrock- sneering acidic rock-- wobbly electronics— rumbling K-Tel trucker’s jukebox covers- “Country & Northern” post-punk, always somehow utterly indie music. The truest heir to the spirit of ’76.

What the smarmy Grateful Dead mean to some of my neighboring Californians, The Fall represent for me. Not smarmy although they tend to stay smug. But a taste that you cannot account for having acquired. It seems my own Celtic twilight sensibilities are to blame; the sun on the beach and the utopian bliss simply fail to draw me in the way that Northern damp and the puddles and the post-industrial blues always have. Edge, play the blues? I’d rather get them from a delta closer to the Liffey, if an effluvial tidal flat of stranded cockles and stagnant mussels. All in a row, with Molly Malone a girl of the streets, on a cardboard dawn shuffle, hardly working.

Inland, stranded, far from oceanic escape. Internal exile. You listen, they grab you, it works. Cicero: De gustibus non est disputandum. Songs that bewilder the uninitiated by their refusal to accept convention. For this, Mark E. Smith and his intrepid temps on call (he’s likened his later role to a manager with a team of rotating football squads that he hires and fires, and sometimes re-hires, as he sees fit; a tribute album’s song “Ex-Members of The Fall Club” has as its whole lyric a chanted, chirpy, roster of those nearly half a hundred departed to date, soon out-of-date), contribute much more challenging, enigmatic, irritating, yet satisfying art than far more famed peers of the past fifty years. Another, newer, Manchester band, the intriguingly christened “Working for a Nuclear-Free City,” has a track in which the singer imitates MES down to their municipal accent, phrasing ending in a heavy –uh. I wonder where that came from, and muse about Middle English dialects and their ghosts.

(Inspired by a current student, Bonham and Plant’s classmate from the Black Country, I learned that region near Birmingham preserves Middle English pronunciations and dialects. Unlike the Midlands, for Manchester, I’ve yet to trace any connections that far back; its origins do not seem have been elucidated at least obviously on-line. However,Prof. Andrew Hamer from Liverpool told the BBC how Mancunians took from Merseyside and the Northeast their accents, mingled due to immigration into that city from Scousers and Irish. How this all warped into an identifiable accent for Daphne from “Frazier” (badly)-- or Christopher Eccleston, Liam Gallagher, Pete Shelley, Tony Wilson, or Ian Curtis naturally--- eludes me. This fine query might cock MES’ eyebrow.)

Spirits often haunt his songs. “Spectre vs. Rector.” “Coach & Horses.” “Wings.” “Disney’s Dream Debased.” That one's inspired by his wild ride at the Happiest Place on Earth when a Matterhorn snafu decapitated one thickish thrillseeker. His songs allude elusively: Tarot, Mitteleuropa, time travel, invective at our idols, outbursts at our stupidity, recurring nightmares which often hint of a Fourth Reich. Kafka meets “The Man in the High Castle.” Lovecraft and Machen trip up Smith’s uneasy gait, as he skulks Salford and Macclesfield and Moss Side in his tunes and his travels. Often, I have no idea what he’s nattering on about. Partially my lack of British pop culture. If I asked him about suchlike on his city’s street, from what I’ve read of those who’ve survived the encounter, I’m not sure if he’d regale me autodidactically or if he’d curse me out. As he snipes, critical acclaim doesn’t pay his rates. So, the few of us who actually buy his records (or save up to do so), must spread the tidings as we will.

Sometimes I must hear The Fall. Other times months go by, as they have lately, without me playing them at all. (But writing this spurred me to spinning "Perverted by Language," one of their droniest, dirgiest triumphs.) It depends on my mood. Every year, whatever his mood, a new studio album comes out. For a quarter-century since they became somewhat available here, I’ve hunted down each one. There’s also about fifty compilations of often horribly substandard bootlegs, dodgy live tracks, and endlessly repackaged alternate or already issued (!) versions. I’ve purchased fewer of these, fools and their money soon parting; caveat auditorque emptor.

It’s one struggling band who I’ll admit merits my cash, although it appears the meager profits (39 “Greatest Hits” [sic] title: “50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong,” cover art inspiration as title thanks to Elvis) slip into the pockets of enterprising rip-off labels rather than MES & posse. Not to mention box sets big and small that sell you what you’ve bought. I am saving up for the best and latest anthology, of course. The 1976-2006 five-CD brick-red brick has those rarities speckled in and a disc of dodgy live tracks previously unreleased, if for good reason. “The Peel Sessions,” whose six discs I reviewed on Amazon US when issued two years ago, stands as a posthumous tribute to that d.j. who loved The Fall above any other band— in his estimation, “always different, yet always the same.” And/or vice versa.

Their trademarked (an early single: “Repetition”) hectoring annoys me more than soothes, as is its intention. Often better for driving in traffic, fighting off or encouraging bad moods, or worsening ennui. I smile, too. Rarely does The Fall’s latest disc instantly enchant, but with time, sonic sheep emerge to scamp around my cortex while neighsaying goats bleat if less loudly.

In a rare moment of lucidity, Steve Jones of Sex Pistols fame on his Indie 103.1-FM show once mused about what’s endemic with today’s music: you always know what note you’ll hear next. The Fall, however, baffles you: lyrically and sonically unpredictable. Dull stretches do not only take up considerable stretches of albums, but years of their discography. The newest CD has a banjo buried on one track for the first time; earlier ones had MES on the melodica, or kazoos. Techno, half-assed C&W, keyboard plinks, dual-guitar wankery, synthesizers, two bassists, two drummers: in the myriad manifestations of the band, you can find these all, for better and worse. Ten minute studio goofs, three-minute industrial terror, warbling and whistling and static.

Yet, I know what MES tries to do with us, his patient fans. I show off Nietzsche’s subtitle to his “Twilight of the Idols” as my blog’s title. It fits the yammering, ramming, hamming delivery of MES and his charges. Full of aphorisms, like Friedrich’s own compressed screeds. Against those, however, who brandish a dog-eared "Will to Power" in a coffeehouse as if trendy, we who follow The Fall cautiously close ranks against the tyros of the glossy mag's anointed anti-celebrity.

We have our bullsh*t detectors out, and tend to be the harshest hecklers as well as his loyal choirboys. Comments appear to come from overwhelmingly males on line. They tend to deploy Fall albums to torment spouses and mates who sidle near, or probably stay single. The band he may trot out for this year’s model may disappoint by comparison with an earlier line-up in the same way the classic teams cannot meet the same level of excellence that once gained them an FA Cup or World Series pennant, but if you’re a Fall fan, it’s the same as me being a Dodgers one. Or for MES, refreshingly, cheering on not the over-marketed Red Devils Man U, but a bluer City. Two of the band's best songs tout at fever pitch: “Kicker Conspiracy” and “Sparta F.C.”

The Fall by their refusal to play to the nostalgia circuit as so many other bands from the period who've reformed for what the Pistols justly named their Filthy Lucre tour, flip middle fingers to whatever the retread reissue (although The Fall's own discography.....) music industry packages. They were on to the suits and scams practically from their formation. By 1980's LP “Grotesque” the cover already good-naturedly caricatured (John Brierley's graphics foreshadowing presciently Beavis & Butthead) the new-wave conformity of its fans. When asked in one interview the kind of music he preferred, MES replied with a comment that I’d never heard from a musician. The opposite of Charlie Watts who never bothered to listen to the Stones’ records once they were released. MES responded that he preferred his band's music; he made the kind of songs that he wanted to hear. I like that.

Each album takes on its own stance for mood and impact. Their best-known period commenced when their albums were licensed abroad, from 1984 to around the end of the 80s. A recent guitarist, Brix, married MES. The Fall's atonalism shifted onto an broader scale, if no less quirky. This all ended with their divorce. She’s been back in the band since on and again off. The pre-Brix years found them almost from the start snarling at the punks; the post-Brix decades took them into their city's raves, detouring around into more keyboards until “Levitation” found them with an astonishingly inventive dismantling of their Madchester heirs' samplings, or pilferings. “The Light User Syndrome” embraced a nearly stadium-friendly (one song title: “Coliseum”) textured assault, again with Brix, before the last of the band that had given MES his most consistent roster dissolved acrimoniously. Since then, post-millennial albums tend to be uneven. Still, they rewards we committed lunatics. No fan, however, agrees (see FallNet or Mark Prindle’s reviewers) on what’s uneven.

Millions more gaze at their Beatles or Coltrane, similarly rebarbative Captain Beefheart, or friggin’ manqué- beatnik Tom Waits albums with the same encyclopedic reverence, and like any fan of musicians who remain anathema beyond at best 50,000 devotees, it’s hard to explain why The Fall hit my wavering psychic target. But, they have, and do.

Smith declaims, he chastises, he bettered The Cure by naming not a song but his band after Camus’ “La Chute." From his interviews I learned about Arthur Machen. He’s spoken to a Joyce society about his stream-of-consciousness style. He’s au fait courant with Nabokov (“Bend Sinister” being a LP title luring me back to that novel last month) . He loves Gogol. You know the revolution’s going to happen, he gloats, but those dead souls don’t. Such misanthropy’s catholic, for me contagious. MES can’t quite settle into—judging from manic or sullen encounters in print— his beloved Mancunian routine of a pub and a fag (British varietal) and a pint cozily enough. I hear speed has been the culprit. No matter the cause, the effect impels his action. This disruption keeps him pounding out music, doggedly touring, and taking the piss out of us.

He—as the GodBox entry below narrates well-- nonetheless chronicles his dyspepsia with insight, humor, and intelligence. I hate novelty songs and rarely laugh at comedies. Mark E. Smith’s declamations, contrarily, have elicited more than a chuckle, when I can decipher their stentorian sententiousness. There’s a recent trio of books on the band, and MES’ own “Renegade,” but need I tell you they all remain too published only abroad, at for me an exorbitant tag? Lyric cribs exist, but as with early R.E.M. I prefer my own misheard solutions to his knotty ripostes and imprecatory roilings. His nuggets of wisdom scatter across a palace of excess. Blakean visions, and (Dead)Beat(Descendent) squalor.

If I’d have known earlier about the academically tinged conference in Salford on MES this next weekend, I’d have probably submitted a paper on a lark. Cautionary note: this transcript from when the band debuted in my hometown. I’d have been a freshman in college, but carless, so clubs were beyond me. Drinking age higher, besides. "Sorry we have to be so miserable. This is tribal. This looks like a political club, huh? This is where all the intellectuals go, isn't it?" (during “Muzorewi's Daughter” intro: Dec. 14, 1979, Anti-Club, Los Angeles. From Gigography on the Fall Online, diligently illustrated and annotated.)

Yet, holding out as I am to spring for the luxury of “Imperial Wax Solvent” as the dollar’s pushed the cost ten dollars up from what earlier import CDs went for in the States, I doubt if I could have afforded to fly to, let alone face, his hometown crowd. I’ve never even seen the band play; they last were (as with Wire—the other surviving jokers in the deck from that era who stayed nimble, locked into a parallel incessant, unreadable, nagging groove, and refused to sell out or give in as they’re now on round three of their evolution and dissolution, albeit with their original four members!) in L.A. when I was in Ireland. The tour that edged closest to home last summer again found me off in Hibernia “right place, wrong time.” (Reference to lyrical snatch.) That’s the tour when they imploded somewhere in Arizona, prior to their original show scheduled; the previous U.S. tour they ran out of money before they made it this far west. Now, this latest studio CD gained no domestic distribution.

So, while I lack the mania and ears for blithering obsession with any artist, I understand those who so succumb. Of course, this indulgence usually comes without a wife and two kids and in my case two jobs to pay the bills. On the message boards and in the lecture halls, there’s plenty of fans exponentially with disposable income, without such encumbrances who’d embarrass me with what I lack: not all of his studio LPs save the one I’m saving for, but an encyclopedic recall of lyrics and tracks from what “No Bulbs” typically chortled as “The Biggest Library Yet.”

A rare Fall mention in The Onion (April 19-25, 2007; "Random Rules" column):

English writer Tom McCarthy comments on The Fall's "W.B." which has just come up on his MP3 player.

"I assume the title is a reference to W.B. Yeats, because The Fall are super-literary. Mark E. Smith was basically this working-class boy from Manchester who never had much formal education, but sort of came across Modernist literature in a drug-addled haze and really loved it. Mark E. Smith is like the original classical figure of the poet--he's like Orpheus, you know, who's just halfway dead. He's got one foot in the underworld. He's just picking up some transmission on the threshold between sense and complete nonsense that might contain all these incredible words of wisdom, or might just be complete garbled rubbish. But you know, in Greek plays they have seers and oracles who always talk in riddles. I always get the impression that Mark Smith is like an oracle."

The Fall Online (Stefan Cooke & Conway Paton) with editors’ addendum: ‘"W.B." refers to William Blake, not W.B. Yeats, and as mentioned on the Lyrics Parade the song's lyrics refer to Blake's The Song of Liberty.’

You can see from such a correction that MES and band are not your Ramones or Clash, posing or genuine, with mouths agape posed to push product. September 1 (?),1979, concert: “Good evening, we are The Fall. NWC that talks back.” Northern White Crap. Think about how, when I first scoured that comment in my Onion copy, I figured of course this was Yeats, but now I find it’s Blake. Still, this switch from one seer to another suits MES neatly. A shape-shifting vatic gnome. He’s not putting you on, for once; the possibilities hover between Yeats and Blake bardically yet phantasmogorically. He flits between them. The L.A. Times decades ago (see discussed at blog’s end that LP first gaining them their press here) opined that if James Joyce had started a punk band, they’d sound like The Fall.

When it comes to The Fall, once again, be forewarned. “Slates” featured both “Prole Art” and this mouthful from its title track: Academic male slags/ Ream off names of books and bands/ Kill cultural interest in our land/ Male slates/ With creaky pants and scrubbed hands. (Credit: that infrequently—by me so as to relish the Orphic cult-band’s mystery-- consulted Delphic oracle at The Fall Online’s Lyrics Parade!)

Now, a necessary segue. Mark Prindle’s spirited record reviews on The Fall and hundreds of lesser worthies also make me laugh and cringe. Prindle’s married, somehow, but I bet he’s childless. How can he accumulate even the tinny “From the Vaults” series (Dead-like, Dickless Picks) at their American mark-ups? I bet he gets them gratis from some FallNet admirer. Prindle and his contributing (you can too: I did once) cronies remind me of the necessary balance between fun and commitment demanded by any artist worth his salt/salary and we who—unlike journalists—must pay for our pleasures that we pimp. We’re talking about turning rebellion into money, as The Clash, who should know, did so well. Come to think of it, I saw them since I could bum a ride to the Santa Monica Civic, whereas The Fall banged three chords out at a nightclub way down the hipless end of Melrose— my cruel fate. It’d be years before I heard their songs, instead of only reading about them in fanzines.

We who earn no keep from our passions, to me, perhaps gain critical stature. No Dave Marsh, Kalefa Sanneh, Bob Christgau, but we amateurs merit our own kudos. As Cliff Furnald of opines, you listen to a record much more harshly when you have to pay for it first. A final example of such a careful listener, but the blogger below willingly if after downloading may fork over $30 for his copy of “Imperial Wax Solvent.” With with the VAT added to its twelve quid (the best discount I could Froogle) cost, perhaps he has already.

Despite not wishing to appear overly intelligent, Mark E. Smith can’t seem to help it. His love of language shines through above and beyond any concern with the theory of the high-concept art rock, or the practice of flaunting his ego in front of a melange of clueless fad-shoppers. His attraction to strange sounding, sometimes clunky, sometimes idiotic, sometimes brilliant phrases echoes through his work: strange vocabulary for a rock and roll poet abound: terms such as “itinerant” from Guest Informant, “collusion”, “calvary” from 2006’s Fall Heads Roll et al. asserts his smartness against the irreconcilable odds he often puts against himself during the many self-sabotage experiments he indulges in periodically.

“Paulaysatan” writes much more as insightfully about MES and his band of thousands in a review of their studio LP #27 at the GodBox. Itself titled after a track (as was “No Bulbs”) on “The Wonderful & Frightening World of the Fall,” their breakthrough (that is, you could find it in the U.S.) record that with the swaggering e.p. “Slates” I bought at Rhino Records in Westwood while waiting for a haircut. From Supercuts; you try living as a grad student— accounting early on for my medieval dialect forays-- who needs vinyl fixes, if still no car, off $8000 a year in a cockroached (“NKroachment: Yarbles:” a necessary allusion) co-op in pricy Westwood in Reaganomics 1984. “Slates” was acclaimed but elusive. I’d been hunting it for years. But, I left it in the bin for after my snip up the block, when I’d have more time to browse. When I got back less than an hour later, no “Slates.” Who’d snagged it? Record geeks.

Photo: I selected this, from The Fall Online archive, © by Michael Pollard, who took the promo shots March 16, 1984, used for “The Wonderful…” upon the band’s signing to Beggar’s Banquet and funding their subsequent vinyl distribution across the sea to me. To start listening, why not here, with this album, brightly titled? Their follow-up, “This Nation’s Saving Grace,” dodges (sm)artfully. Then, I’d go back two to the transitional, doomier “Perverted by Language,” and then it’s up to you. Grousing against punk's commodification, rousing against rock's expectations. Two dozen more await, studio LPs alone, remember! That “Greatest Hits” compilation’s not on my shelf, only because of that marketing strategy of selling songs I already have, but you don’t have them, so buy it. The Fall, Prestwick, SalfordImage combining photography and drawing made using a large paper negative.”


tony said...

Hi Fionnchu
don’t know how in to Jungian synchronicity you are but anyway here goes.
While googling myself one night – I know, I know, but all will become clear – I came across a reference to myself with regard to John Moriarty. I used to be the editor of the website and after picking up a copy of ‘Nostos’ tracked him down and spent a most memorable afternoon in his company. You included a link to the article I wrote about him which I was quite pleased about and I browsed through your blog and thought ‘interesting’.
Anyway on another occasion I was googling Francis Stuart who I have been reading since I was 18 – I’m 42 now ¬– (I also interviewed Stuart in 1997 in his home in Dublin – another memorable afternoon). When I asked Moriarty if he rated Stuart he said no – liked ‘Memorial’ but hated ‘Blacklist’ (too cynical) ¬– despite this I googled both names and before you could say ‘Nazi propogandist or misunderstood outsider’ I was directed to your blog once again. That’s weird says I to meself.
And then, I was thinking earlier this year that it was time I tried to improve my cupla focal and thought I would spend a week in Oideas Gael, I spend a week there about 12 years ago. After checking out the website I thought I would see if there were any other references to it and before you could say ‘Ba mhaith liom pionta Guinness, le do thoil’ there I was back at the fionnchu.blogspot.
So on and on I must go on, as someone once said.
I had a novel published late 2006 called ‘The Lost Chord’ and I occasionally check for online references – which is why I google my own name. I got quite a good review in the The Boston Irish Reporter and in the same edition was a review of an album by Donegal fiddler Oisin McAuley. Like the sound of that, thought I, and did a bit of research... agus bhi me ansin aris – fionnchu.blogspot.
Weird, but is it weird enough to write to someone you don’t know? – I will let you judge after this final instalment.
The Fall are playing in Belfast this week and I while I was never a huge fan I do listen out for them and might still go to see them – I live in Co Down, in view of the Mourne Mountains but within commuting distance of Beal Feirste. While checking out a few Fall references I for some unexplainable reason decided to visit your blogspot and... anyway, can you hear the theme music to ‘The Twilight Zone’ in the background.
OK I hope at this stage you are not calling the police to report a cyber stalker.
Anyway hope you found this at least a little bit bizzare.
email address is tonybailie1 (at symbol) yahoo dot com.
Adh mor

Fionnchú said...

Thanks, Tony, with whom I've struck up a correspondence! See my May 24 post for a bit about him and his own coverage thirty years on of the Northern Irish punk scene in the Irish News.

Also, I appreciate the mention by The Fall Online of this entry. And, yes, I finally ordered the new CD today.

2fs said...

re Wire: not their original four members - trivially, originally with George Gill; non-trivially, w/o Bruce Gilbert since late 2004 (his contributions to Read & Burn 03 limited to recorded-earlier "dugga," and none on the forthcoming Object 47, this per, somewhere or other. Otherwise, the comparison's spot-on.

Fionnchú said...

Thanks, 2fs. Actually, I knew this about Mr. Gill, but in the efforts of avoiding rock-geek pedantry I finessed it; I did not know about Bruce Gilbert's leaving, however. Guess I missed it on the e-mails from posteverything, in turn my link to which I don't pop into enough, I confess.

I find I don't keep up as much with the bands as I used to, I admit. Often it's a search on Amazon now for "readers who viewed this bought this" sort of connections that now keep me sort of current on my favorite musicians' latest releases. Such is the evolution away from my formerly weekly haunts of records stores into my own solitary pursuits on the Net!