Lloyd Cole's brain and face is made out of cowpat - we all know that and herewith is an instrumental track.
Accrington in May.
Puddles filled with dirty rainwater from the previous showers were about to be re-filled, if the lowering grey cloudbanks were any indication of weather to come. Donning their mufflers and deerstalkers, Messrs Dawson and Foster left the comforting interior of the Marlborough Club (last orders till 7pm), hurried past the chippy (still shut awaiting re-furbishment), past The Crown Inn (shut till 7pm) and down the hill towards The Greyhound (open all day) to seek further refreshment. Once ensconced safely in the saloon area of the Greyhound's bar, Mr Foster went to order four pints of Samuel Smiths mild, two Benedictine chasers with hot water, and three packets of scampi fries; (hopefully the fries would be the ones made in Fleetwood). Meanwhile Mr Dawson emptied the contents of his Ulster-wrap pocket onto the table.
Various items were soon displayed next to the newly arrived drinks and comestibles; including a putty rubber, a yard o' lead pencil and some sheets of foolscap. One thing taken by Mr Dawson from his pocket automatically took precedence above all else, however. Stood neatly on its side, this object issued a silent challenge across the sparsely populated saloon bar room. Mr Dawson and Mr Foster viewed the object with some veneration, and no little trepidation. After all, the main reason that they were here was to talk about this thing. Mr Foster took a gulp of mild, cleared his throat and began the proceedings.
"So Mr D, the new Fall box set. I have a feeling that it is the most essential release of the year. But how are we going to describe it and its contents to our readers? I thought that we should review it cd by cd, adding personal reminiscences and preferences when needed. Would you be comfortable with that? You would? Then let us begin".
(The CD set was passed to the amenable landlord, Scoggins, who, regardless of the protests from his clientele playing Supermarket Sweep on the general knowledge video game installation; pressed play on the CD system above the bar.)
Round and round the disc went. Pouring forth from the speaker were scratches and shards of noise, clatterings of drums and snarls of voices. From our place in the snug we could see looks of pain and anguish from young and old alike. But we had been coming to this public house for long enough to know that we had nothing to fear on this account. And, in case any truculent youth did think of interrupting our reverie, we bought several bags of nuts with which to defend ourselves.
Noticeable immediately was the clarity of the cd's sound. Early records by the group were not known for the quality of their production; indeed, Dragnet (sadly underrepresented on this massive document) was almost pulled by the record company, such was the muddiness of MES' production. But here was Container Drivers, surely never sounding so crisp and energetic. The drum roll introduction was bigger than ever and whilst this version lacks the grunt of the original, it more than makes up for it in its cheekiness. It is a joy to be able to hear MES' lyrics (standout line from Container Drivers: 'communists are just part-time workers') as it is without doubt that he is the finest lyricist of his generation. And yet, despite this, when his knighthood comes – as surely it must – (from Ruritania I hasten to add); it will be (as this box set as a whole and as the quote above indicates) for his services to industry. Container Drivers also offers up a wonderfully wonky piano 'solo' and, charmingly, was recorded whilst the producer, a Mr. Sparrow, had fallen asleep and his pipe had gone out. If not all of my favoured songs are included here, then at least the amount of material relating to Hex Induction Hour is gladdening.
Of particular interest is the version of Jawbone and the Air Rifle, committed to tape some eighteen months before its eventual appearance on Hex. Again the clarity of the recording allows the track's full-blown Wicker Man madness to come to the fore – amongst the gravediggers and curses people are sucking on marrowbones. But these two tracks offer interest in as much they offer interesting variations on material we know so well. C n C – HassleSchmuck is a different beast altogether. C n C is abandoned, according to MES, out of respect for the news that he has just heard – Arthur Askey has been shot. In its place comes a parody of Do the Huckleback - it becomes a typical Fall thrash with very entertaining background shouting.
By the time of the second platter we are already into 1981. Happily we can hear Deer Park in one piece and we can also hear in full the lighting system that MES mentions towards the end of the song. The Casio organ is still beeping, and there must be a case for this being MES' greatest moment lyrically. Can anyone ever truly forget the mad kid and his bishop's hat in Winter and his taunt that 'I'll take both of you on'?
In fact it reminded me of a night Mr. Foster and I spent in London. Do you remember Mr F?
Mr F: Indeed I do Mr D, pray relate it once more.
Indeed I shall Mr F. We had both partaken of all that Highgate had to offer (breakfast cooked by Darcy, an afternoon spent in The Prince of Wales, an evening meal at a Portuguese restaurant with the maitre d suggesting that a sprinkling of black pepper would really make our meals 'stand up') and were on our way to party in Fitzrovia. The afternoon had somewhat taken its toll on us and as we wondered around this rather well-to-do enclave just north of Oxford Street we found ourselves, hands clasped to form imaginary loudhailers, assailing all and sundry with shouts of 'Fitrovi-uh' and 'Gimme the lead, Gimme the lead!' As we arrived at the party, late, policemen were escorting some revellers from the premises for running up and down the roof-tops of the houses adjoining the party.
Mr F: I do believe our Fall impersonations (and indeed drunken Lancastrian appearance) helped keep the cops at bay Mr D, a sign surely of the shamanic qualities of Hex –era Smith. I for my part always found the "feminist Austin Maxi" line funny, with its anti nuclear/nicotine stickers"...
My one regret about cds one or two is that there is no version of the North will Rise Again; a minor quibble and we can content ourselves by listening to the brilliant live version on A Part of America Therein.. But I digress somewhat...
Yes you do, Mr F. Back to the platter in question please.
When he played Eat Y'self Fitter in 1983, such was the track's power that Peel actually fainted. And it is easy to see why – yes, we can enjoy the call and response chorus where it sounds like the band are responding from a room down the corridor, but this track is all about the drums. Karl Burns and Paul Hanley bludgeon you with their drumming and it would take a solid constitution not to succumb to their aural pummelling. The final track on the second record is C.R.E.E.P. and we see the poppy direction that The Fall are about to take. There's no nonsensical introduction about Hitler and milk, and there is a much less polished sheen to the track, but it is here (and with the introduction of Brix) that organs are integral to the track for the first time. Previously the crappy organ sounds were embellishments, something to throw in after seven or eight minutes to enliven things a little. Now they were at the core of their sound.
The best album from this period was undisputedly This Nations Saving Grace and there are some great versions of songs from it on CD three. Spoilt Victorian Child opens raggedly but proceeds to include some very menacing background vocals. Gut of the Quantifier is funkier and includes some entertaining twangy guitars. The only slight downside of this version is that we don't get the full introduction with tales of the Cane Gang. However, more than compensating for this is MES' introduction to L.A. – 'Lloyd Cole's brain and face is made out of cowpat - we all know that and herewith is an instrumental track.' In their second session from '85 MES debuted Faust Banana, an early run through of what would become Dr. Faustus from Bend Sinister. This is a much better version of the album track and a much better title too – funnier and forewarning of Brix's inexplicable shouting of banana! Throughout the song.
The Fall were really creating some great music at this point. Live favourite Australians in Europe is given a brilliant run through on the eleventh session from 1987. The sleeve notes suggest that the synths – here allowed to come to the fore – makes the track briefly appear to be a meeting of Boston and Van Halen's Jump. Incredibly, they are correct. But not to worry – this is a great version with MES sounding like a flock of crows at one point and it is a crazier, more rockabilly version than the one that eventually appeared as a b side. Finally, Guest Informant is also nailed – swirling carnival organs, MES' voice messed about with (by the Radio phonic Workshop, from the sounds of it) and a completely chaotic ending.
Mr F: My favourite CD of the set I'd say. I'll say no more, but will go home soon in order to contemplate my 1973 Genesis album covers..
(Outside the Greyhound, gloom enveloped Accrington. People staggered in from the Marlborough Club, hoping for an after hours lock-in; red faced and belligerent. Despite the looks of suspicion, we pressed on, regardless of the derisive comments issued from the tap room...)
The fourth cd opens with a relative rarity – Squid Lord, a song that only appeared on the Seminal Live platter, and there under the title Squid Law. Here the song has the kind of driving drums that you would expect, but also orchestral keyboard stabs and the kind of lyrics that you will only ever find on a Fall (or a Beefheart) album – 'he'll have time to dwell on squid revenge.' The thirteenth Peel session saw the band lay down some very respectful versions of the Extricate album and a track that wasn't actually broadcast – Whizz Bang. The world was not missing a great deal. The next couple of sessions run though material that appeared on Shift work and Code: Selfish. I'm afraid that I think these two albums find The Fall at their weakest. Equally, I think that the Peel sessions only emphasised this. A Lot of Wind, for instance, is even more lacklustre than the album version. The Mixer is probably the best of the bunch, enlivened as it is by Kenny Brady's fiddle playing. It is also one the times that Smith has come close(ish) to singing (but don't worry, the track still features a megaphone). Kimble kicks off with the sound of crockery being dropped in the kitchen and is a template for the run through of The Infotainment Scan's Why are People Grudgefull? The Fall, incidentally, are one of very few bands that can, for instance, take on a reggae song and not sound instantly shit. Witness, for instance, The Police, or The Strokes. Such is the world that MES has created that anything can be appropriated by it, because his world is so defined and so powerful.
Mr F: The difference between the session of 1988 (twelve) and 1990 (thirteen) is very apparent I feel. There seems to be a weariness, an admission that the workings of the music industry have caught up with them via their new home on Phonogram. Or maybe I'm talking complete shit. An incredible version of Cab It Up from 1988 makes up for it though, and its always nice to hear the Dutch national anthem, as heard, not surprisingly at the beginning of Kurious Oranj.
The fifth cd begins with session sixteen, and works from The Infotainment Scan. (By this point I should add, the pub had long since emptied. Scoggins, the amenable landlord, asked us if there was anything that we required before he retired for the night. I asked him if he didn't think that the turning down of the Italian piano on Service gave the song a much more poignant feel. Scoggins touched an invisible cap and said that such things were not for him, but that were we to require anything we should think nothing of using the brush to bang on the ceiling and wake him. For now, Mrs Scoggins would be staying up, watching the late film on the TV propped above the bar. Whilst the film played she would serve us. And so out he walked, having left the brush with Mr. Foster, and who, having agreed with my reading of the song, also suggested (most wisely) that it was a close relation to Edinburgh Man.)
We reminisced about another time spent with The Fall in a pub. This was also connected to Highgate – this time in the most splendid pub The Duke of York. We arrived there in the care of new found friends – a certain Mr. Mark Philips had overheard us talking in The Prince of Wales and invited us to join him in a lock-in at the above said pub. In the course of our conversation it transpired that he too was a Fall fan. By this time the elderly Irish barman that Mr. Foster and I would come to look upon as a kindly uncle was asking us if we wouldn't like our Guinness topping up. Of course we would, we said, and please top up the glass of our most excellent new friend.
In the end, all of this topping up led, as one might imagine, to more Fall lyrics being sung. Guinness is a well known social lubricant, The Fall less so, but combine them both and it is hard to imagine a more convivial evening.
Mr F: If I remember right Mr D we hailed the barman in cod – MES voices, finding that, in our drunken state, we were unable to talk in any other way...
Yes yes, that is all very well Mr Foster, but shall we return to the job in hand?
As for our current evening, I confess that I was feeling somewhat lacking in puff. But then came along Hey! Student which, whilst basically being A Lot of Wind on speed, still had invigorating powers. Here MES is at his most withering and Shaun Ryder doesn't come out of it very well at all. For their December 94 session MES decided to run through a few Christmas songs – if Hark the Herald Angels Sing was respectfully interpreted then Jingle Bell Rock was given a rollicking one minute thrash. Of particular interest is MES' obsession with Marks and Spencer carrier bags and sprouts.
Mr F: I think the sessions from 1995 and 1996 are pretty tremendous and well worth a mention Mr Dawson; Chilinist has a ridiculous spring in its step, Brix's cutesy-pie vocals offset by MES menace. He Pep! is nuts too, terrible 12 year old synths giving way to a guitar rumble, topped off with plenty of vocal invective. As for Nancy S's The City Never Sleeps, MES stands down allowing Lucy Rimmer the vocal limelight. How strange it is to hear someone else singing in the Fall...
D.I.Y. Meat rocks, much better in this stripped down version than the album track I reckon; and what about the fantastically cavalier interpretation that MES brings to the Beefheart cover Beatle Bones n Smokin Stones? It only serves to put the original in the shade. It really does. Spencer sounds like a Cluster rip-off. Spinetrak is the best I feel, with the aggressive vocal interplay that Brix brought to the Fall high in the ascendancy. I still miss Brix...
(Round about this point in our discussion, Mrs Scoggins sent us a baleful glare from the bar. The sixth cd was gripped tight in her gnarled hand; in enquiry as whether we really wanted to prolong the ordeal that she and what remained of her after-hours film club had already been through. We nodded our assent, and waited for the chronicling of the years 1998 -2004 to begin.)
Here, I confess, my acquaintance with The Fall becomes somewhat blurry. A rather dismal run of albums (so I felt) led me to the conclusion that with so many great Fall albums in my collection, that I did not need purchase more. By the time I retreated, as it were, to the classics, it seemed to me that the hardest working band in Britain was becoming workmanlike. Each new album was greeted with the claim that it was a return to form but it was not something that I could discern. After all, The Fall set impossibly high standards, and listening to leaden run-throughs of Fall rockabilly did little to gladden my heart. 1998 was probably the nadir of The Fall's career as the band imploded on stage in New York. Goodbye to Steve Hanley and goodbye (once again) to Karl Burns. Incredibly, nearly five years went by between Peel sessions 22 and 23. Theme From Sparta F.C. sounded not unlike The Fall of the past and there was a welcome run through of Mere Pseud Mag. Ed. from Hex Enduction Hour. Peel session 24, from August 2004 also included Wrong Place, Right Time. It was nice to have a couple of old friends around as the final tracks played themselves out.
Mr F: Still, Mr D, I think these sessions do show an encouraging re-birth played out under the public's gaze. Touch Sensitive from 1998 is slack and jaded. The track conjures up an image of an overweight salesman running round the municipal park, replete in crushed-velvet style shell suit. One more lap, he thinks, and then I'll be there. Which could be an apt description of the Fall's mental health at that time. And the second session from 1998 is somewhat confused. Only Shake Off has the desired bite and wit; great blurping synths fight it out with the insistent guitar riff. Still, they cover the Saints with Perfect Day, and I as a Saints fan, can't argue. MES's vocal delivery here is better than Chris Bailey's dare I say... However, the last two sessions have verve and punch about them. And I may point out Country on the Click, (from which Sparta and Contraflow were drawn) was the best Fall album I'd heard in bloody ages.
I agree Sparta is a jewel, one that brings forth the gnomic reference "You live on Mark Lamarr". Talking of Mere Pseud Mag Ed, I think they were the lyrics that we chanted in the Prince of Wales that time with Mr Philips...
I also enjoyed Clasp Hands. It had bile and a distance in the vocal delivery. "I was part of the Job Club. I was fulfilled"...
(Outside the pub window, the Accrington - Clayton junction presented itself in all its glowering morbidity. The absurdly bright, hideously yellow reflections of the street lights were rippling in the (now replenished) puddles. Peace and quiet had descended, save for the odd figure scurrying towards the Indian restaurant... By this time, when Job Search, (the bonus track) blasted forth, Mr. Foster and I were exhausted.)
Mr F: Just think for a second of the incredible, piss-take absurdity of having one bonus track on a 6-cd set.
As I said, Mr. Foster and I were exhausted. In fact, so fagged out were we that Foster had but the energy to summon Scoggins, proprietor of the establishment; Mrs Scoggins having long since departed, grumbling about the young today. With decency such as is rarely seen these days (for it was, by this time, four in the morning) Scoggins emerged in nightshirt and removed the CD from the stereo. He then brought bread and dripping, warm milk, whisky and rugs, so that we might repair for the night where we were sat. Foster, illuminated by the dying embers of the fire, appeared perhaps to have aged since our marathon had begun. No doubt he was thinking much the same of me. But as I looked at Scoggins I realised that, if anything, exposure to art keeps us young, in mind if not in body. In time, of course, Scoggins will have to relinquish his hold on the Greyhound. The prospect of the poor house (or whatever they call it these days) is of little comfort to Scoggins, and so on he goes, pulling pints even though he must now be approaching ninety years old. I have done what I can, however, to put Scoggins mind at rest on one score. I took him aside some years ago and told him that when he could no longer climb down the stairs to the cellar to change the barrels, that I would ensure that the end would be quick and painless. No matter what anyone says, I cannot stand to see sufferin'.
Maybe Foster and I had aged in those nine hours, but as I saw him wipe some dripping from his chin I caught sight of the twinkle in his eye that only appeared at rare moments – moments when he was truly contented, was truly sated. When he was in clover.
Words: Chris Dawson and Richard Foster.