—It’s a controversial argument, but it was Mark E. Smith that gave the most accurate description of what rock and roll is, at heart, and often isn’t allowed to be: “Rock & roll isn’t even music really. It’s a mistreating of instruments to get feelings over.”
What feelings? No James Taylor was Mr. Smith; no time did he have for the self-conscious sentimentality of writing in the confessional, romantic poet mode. As Taylor Parkes put it:
“It’s language used as a tool of attack, but it’s also an attack on language, its limitations and inadequacies. In Smith’s delivery (that flat shove, all those reptilian tics) every word is onomatopoeiac, every sound is a signal. This approach gives his stories a gleaming immediacy, but also a kind of distance. It’s why they seem to be happening inches from your face, in some other dimension you can only perceive with your guts.”
It’s the stories I’m particularly interested. A confession: this isn’t a perfectly honest Perfect 10. If it were, a lot of these songs would still be on this list, but some perhaps wouldn’t. During the period 1979-1983 (my favourite Fall period), the group soundtracked the aural page for MES to lay down stories over, stories that were part Lovecraft (themes and action), part beat generation (form and abuse of language) and part Mancunian working-class smart arse. While narratives and stories had long been a part of musical and even rock and roll tradition, they had been done before or since in such an idiosyncratic manner. So, I put together my Fall Perfect 10 as if I was compiling my ten favourite short stories by an author, that author being Mark E. Smith and the group. The result, I think, is a great collection of songs that you can enjoy in and of themselves as songs, and also as great songs told through the form of some of the most damn entertaining rock music put to tape.
All lyrics quoted as given by the wonderful ‘Annotated Fall’ website.
I’m Into C.B. (B-Side, 1982)
One of the great unsung Fall tracks in a lot of ways, ‘I’m Into C.B.’ perfectly demonstrates the group’s precarious tight rope walking between experimental rock and Northern working men’s club cabaret. Against a beat which happily can’t decide between ‘bounce’ and ‘drive,’ the guitars ching out a shrill four-chord loop, in equal parts jazzy and humorous, giving a sense of cheer with tongue firmly in cheek. Meanwhile, MES lays out a character study of one’ Cedar Plank,’ a very clear concise one by his standards, my favourite lines being: “My father’s not bad really/He got me these wires and bits/Apart from that he talks to me hardly/I’m just into CB.” An eerily prescient depiction of how Social Technology, now morphed into our Social Media, can become a crutch and fixation for the lonely.
Jawbone and The Air Rifle (Hex Enduction Hour, 1982)
Hex Enduction Hour was an incredibly fertile period of creativity for The Fall. One example of such is ‘Jawbone and The Air Rifle,’ with MES in full-on MR James/Arthur Machen mode, relating a haunting tale (with obvious glee in his voice) of a man at a low ebb who goes hunting for rabbits at night, only to take a mistaken shot at a gravedigger. His reward? A cursed jawbone from the graveyard, which transforms the world around him into a tormented vision of jawbones and carnivores, and islands of a Wicker Man-like nature dancing before his eyes. It’s terrifying, and yet the whole song has a twinkle about it. What with the riff deliberately playing on the melody to ‘Run Rabbit Run’ and Mark’s mirthful reveal: “here is a jawbone caked in muck/Carries the germ of a curse/Of the Broken Brothers Pentacle Church/Formed on a Scotch island/To make you a bit of a man!” Brilliant.
New Face In Hell (Grotesque, 1980)
Welcome to a Mancunian edition of ‘Tales of The Unexpected.’ MES lays out a concise tale of a radio enthusiast who intercepts an illicit government transmission. He goes to tell his neighbour, who he secretly wants to impress, but his neighbour is dead at his table. The radio enthusiast has been ensnared; a government official promptly arrives to find the radio enthusiast ‘caught red-handed’ and arrests him. A tale of governmental abuse of justice and power—the enthusiast has been framed so as not to share what he has discovered. Or shaggy dog story—how could the government know the information had been intercepted and kill the neighbour so quickly? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter: the thrill of the story and the laid back ‘Country and Northern’ strum captivate in the place of concrete meaning, This also features one of MES’ greatest lines: “The dead cannot contradict/Sometimes the living cannot.”
The NWRA (Grotesque, 1980)
A.K.A. ‘The North Will Rise Again.’ MES was known to have a disdain of London and Southern English culture (he wrote a song called ‘Leave the Capital’), but he was not one for dull, narrow propaganda or message songs. ‘The NWRA’ reflects Smith’s reading diet of Philip K. Dick’s pulp sci-fi and Lovecraftian cosmic horror, cutting and pasting scenes together in a modernist-style collage that slowly reveals its key through-line as it goes. Smith’s alter ego, Roman Totale XVII, attempts to stage an uprising in a possibly post-apocalyptic North, an uprising that is co-opted and perverted by his businessman friend, Tony. The language and imagery are rich and vivid: “So R. Totale dwells underground/Away from sickly blind/With ostrich head-dress/Face a mess, covered in feathers/Orange-red with blue-black lines/That draped down to his chest/Body a tentacle mess/And light blue plant-heads.” The group backs this up with a beautifully spare and understated backing, a comedic four-note line that hums gently throughout before the track switches up into a steady, rolling groove that drives the song to its conclusion. Perhaps The Fall’s masterpiece.
Winter (Hex Enduction Hour, 1982)
Or do I stand corrected: is this The Fall’s masterpiece? A slow, steady, driving rhythm in the ‘Sister Ray’ tradition, except here you can see your breath in the icy air as you listen, just as the title suggests. The guitars clang with barely restrained violence throughout, matching the story as it builds and reaches peak intensity at its conclusion. Here is a real street scene, yet one where the normal rules of physics don’t apply. “Entrances uncovered,” sing-speaks MES, “Street signs you never saw/All entrances delivered/Courtesy of winter.” What metaphysical changes are wrought by the changing of the season, what access to new worlds? Even time is slippery: “You got Manny in the library/Working off his hangover 3:30/Get the spleen at 3:15/But it’s 3:13.” Against this uneasy background, MES feeds us a tale of a ‘mad kid’ who is seemingly possessed via the gift of a medallion, brought to him by the soul of a recovering alcoholic who has left his body. One for Twin Peaks fans.
Wings (B-Side, 1983)
A stunning piece of music, with a guitar riff and tone that always reminds me of rainfall against a purple, urban sky (very Mancunian!), here Mr Smith finds himself with the uncanny ability to leap through time with the aid of his purchased wings (from whom, we cannot say) and access to “time locks.” After shenanigans involving annoying an academic, frightening the passengers of an air flight and revisiting obscure Mancunian-Irish history, Smith tries to return his wings, only to find his travels in time have erased their point of sale from history: “Day by day the moon gains on me/By such things, the moon gains on me…A small alteration of the past can turn time into space/Small touches can alter more than a mere decade.” Bear that in mind, the next time you time travel!
If you’ve never listened to The Fall before, this song would certainly make a good entry point.
Spectre vs. Rector (Dragnet, 1979)
The first real Fall story-track, ‘Spectre vs. Rector’ is the perfect marriage of music and lyric. An almost Beefheartian tangling of bass and guitar parts that don’t seem to go together and yet mesh to form a web of discordant power, MES insisted on recording the track on a dodgy recording device in a Manchester warehouse, so that the song sounds miles away. Except, Smith was bonkers enough and clever enough to also record the track in the studio and overlay it onto the warehouse recording, creating an uncanny effect, like ethereal spirit possessing Earthly flesh. It’s genius. The lyric itself is very clearly stage-managed like a play, with the characters of the Spectre, Detective, Rector and Hero very clearly introduced from stage right by MES, still finding his feet, or perhaps trying to lose them, while experimenting with stories set to music. The Spectre is possessed, the Detective fails in his duty, and the Hero saves the day, the outcast shunned by society but can do what they can not—eradicate the Spectre. With references to MR James and Lovecraft, here we find Smith taking the steps towards that which will soon become second nature to him.
Impression of J. Temperance (Grotesque, 1980)
Music at its best can transport, and the ominous, rumbling bass and frustrated military drumming of this track always put me in mind of a clan of villagers, torches aflame, stalking out a monster ala Frankenstein. Which is semi-appropriate as MES sets us down in a port town where a monster has indeed been made. The hated J. Temperance, never-seen dog breeder, sends out for the vet, Cameron, who is horrified by what he finds: a newborn puppy who looks awfully familiar. The music finds sympathy with the lyric as it queasily changes and the notes ascend to the big reveal: “Yes” said Cameron, “and the thing was in the impression of J. Temperance!” A shaggy dog story, perhaps very literally(!), can anyone resist the exhilaration at the end as MES squeals over and over “his hideous replica!” I know I can’t.
Prole Art Threat (Slates, 1981)
Did you ever read William Burroughs’ cut-up trilogy? Find it impenetrable, even though there was some kind of story? You might find a similarity in ‘Prole Art Threat’, although the obscuring influence here isn’t a cut-up but compression. Written down as republished by MES, the lyric reads like a play (albeit one without clear directions), which indeed it started out as, as Smith confirmed: “(it’s) about some commuter type who flips out on leftism and gets caught up with MI5 and that. I just compressed it and made it more of a joke. It was like how everyone’s going on about the working class, but when they do something, it’s seen as a threat. It was, like, an anti-intellectual middle-class song, do you get my drift?” Like a Le Carre novel rewritten by J.G. Ballard, the lyric is near impenetrable and yet this in part is part of its charm, a charm nailed down by the rumbling, dissonant art-rockabilly of the group and the joyously abrupt shouts of “pink press threat!” The rare sound of the group having fun, to the mystification of everyone else.
Garden (Perverted by Language, 1983)
Talking of mystification…here we arrive at perhaps MES’ most oblique story-track. The music is fresh like early morning dew, like going to work as dawn breaks and, with the streets empty, you can feel the space between locations, people. The guitars chime, without becoming a retrofit of The Byrds, and the drums pound like a subdued, suburban tribal beat. It is interesting that on an album that is generally thought to be about suburbia, Smith took the ordinary suburban garden and spun out a tale that begins with the ‘First God’ in his garden, a household pet by his side that is revealed to be “a three-legged, black-grey hog.” From there a tale seeps out that involves a character who is contrived and out of date (“that person in films on TV/Five years back, at least”), a reference to Jacob’s ladder, a description of the Second God (“The second god lived by mountains that flowed/By the blue shiny lit roads/Had forgot what others still tried to grasp/He knew the evil of the phone… The bells stopped on Sunday when he rose”) and a cry of “he’s here/here’s here at last!” Who’s here? The resulting chant of “Jew on a motorbike” seems problematic on the surface, but the specificness of the image and the rich weirdness of the God imagery that came before it points to something much more symbolic, if ambiguous. “He’s here” suggests a prophecy fulfilled, but what? The richness of the imagery here and the labyrinth knots and tangles have kept many a Fall fan guessing for years and will no doubt continue to do so.