Musical Epiphanies #7 – Faith – The Cure

The sun is shining (where I am anyway), everyone is t-shirt and shorts clad, and it’s been way too long since I’ve written an article. So, what better to do than write about one of the most depressing records of all time to bring everyone reading back down to earth and remind them of our nation’s slow demise into nothingness?

Whatever your view on Brexit, the EU or Boris Johnson’s ever-receding hairline, these are extremely unpredictable yet utterly dull times. Turn on the news, and you’ll get one headline, with the same commentary that’s been relentlessly supplied for the last three years. Did anyone notice the cyclone in Africa? Probably not*. We’re all too bored and fatigued in our own indifference to take notice of anything else anymore, nor are we allowed to take notice of other events.

*Donate to the aid effort here if you can

We are miserable and everything is glum. If only there were a record to aptly sum up the absolute mundanity of it all. If only!

Step back 38 years and enter 1981, the second full year of Thatcher’s reign. After the release of Seventeen Seconds the previous year, it seemed The Cure were no where near finished with their exploits in ethereal elegance, nor with their descent into gothic gloominess. While Seventeen was a dip in the pool of darkness, Faith would be one of the defining moments of goth.

I was 15 when I first listened to this record. A family friend had been pushing me to listen to it as I was on a bit of a Cure phase, though only the happy-sad-lovely hits of the late 1980s. I must admit I expected the same kind of vibes as Three Imaginary Boys, punk with a twist of pop which wasn’t a particular challenge to listen to.

First, I saw the cover of Faith. It’s quite literally 50 Shades of Grey without any of the eroticism (Disclaimer: I’m yet to see or read 50 Shades, and I think this will remain for a while). In terms of album covers that weren’t manufactured to catch your eye with colour and vibrancy, this ranks up there with the most monotonous of them all.

Yet it is a wonderfully fitting preview of what is to come. And the more you look at it, the more you’re kind of dragged into its utter misery. What looks to me like a vague outline of a church with a smattering of angular, dead-looking grass, it’s simply magnificent in its minimalism. Even the writing of ‘faith’ has an aura of total indifference.

Writing this article has made me listen to this album for the first time in ages, and there’s no sweeter welcome back than the throbbing bassline of album opener ‘The Holy Hour’. It ascends and descends wonderfully, before it’s joined by a simple drum groove and gloomy organ line. With a crash, Smith’s guitar enters the fray with crisp chords, and we’re in full motion.

‘I kneel / And wait in silence / As one by one more people slip away’. How’s that for opening lines? The lyrics become more and more gloomy, and Smith’s voice, as ever, is in an absolute league of its own.

Even the bridge, with the high pitched guitar line is simply brilliant. Following this comes the closing lines ‘I cannot hold what you devour / The sacrifice of penance / in The Holy Hour’. The bassline continues valiantly, carrying the tune along with total control and ease, rising and falling majestically before a final hit of the drums, and a weird cross between synth and church bells signals the end of the beginning of a classic record.

With a few dry cuts of strings, in races ‘Primary’, consisting solely of two bass guitars (one high, one low), drums and Smith’s urgent vocals. This has always been one I’ve continuously overlooked and dismissed as a duff track, even as the lead single. But this revisit is teaching me a lesson. The rumble of the battling basslines is irresistible, and the track is a whole is a fantastic doff-of-the-cap to the punk movement, yet made more eloquent, refined and experimental. In all, a stand out moment in the early years of The Cure.

The way the album flows between tracks is something I’ve just noticed, and is marvellous. The gentle fade into ‘Other Voices’ and the ever-powerful Simon Gallup bass introduces the song brilliantly, with Smith now basically shouting down the mic with gentle fuzzy fade outs after each line. As a track, this is one that’s pretty good. To me, as long as the track makes you nod your head along, it’ll do, and I think the nod-ability (if you will) is a motif of the album as a whole. One review states of the album that ‘you may not love it, but you’ll be addicted’, and I think ‘Other Voices’ fits this description nicely.

A few hits of the drums more, and an abrupt end brings the track to a close.

Now we have one of the defining moments of The Cure’s releases. A repeating drum groove (not dissimilar in style to ‘Atrocity Exhibition’) brings us into ‘All Cats Are Grey’, one of the most miserable and destitute songs ever made. Led by an organ riff that invades every corner of the room with overbearing yet gentle force, Smith gently serenades ‘I never thought that I would find myself / In bed amongst the stones’, blending into the onslaught of atmosphere wonderfully. As far as poeticism goes, I don’t think Smith reaches many heights greater than the ones he does on Faith, which is an unrelenting barrage of lyrical and expressive beauty.

A haunting, solo piano line brings it to a close, and what follows is one of my favourite tracks of all time.

The synth-o-meter is whacked up to a thousand, with a fuzzy and warm chord sequence leading the tune into full charge. The bassline is infectious, as is Smith:

‘Two pale figures ache in silence / Timeless in the quiet ground / Side by side in ancient sadness’

‘The Funeral Party’ is, as you may have guessed, so utterly funereal and so utterly stunning. If melancholy needed a theme tune, this would be it. When I first heard this song in my dimly-lit room, I just sat in total awe of what was emanating out of the speakers. Everything about this song is wonderful. Joyously brilliant.

Smith continues ‘Memories of children’s dreams / Lie lifeless, fading, lifeless’. I think the contradiction between the innocence and – dare I say – happiness of the instrumental compared to the sadness of the lyrics is utterly spellbinding. The song drifts gently, swaying without worry before gently disappearing into the distance. Wonderful.

‘Doubt’ bursts in out of no where, catching the complacently relaxed listener off guard. I’ve always hated the fact they put this slab of rough aural assault after such the beauty of ‘The Funeral Party’, and it’s another song I’ve always dismissed, but again I have to confess that I am loving it. It’s got something a bit more sinister and ominous compared to its similarly speedy contemporary ‘Primary’, and Smith’s voice seems to have a childish carelessness unseen on other tracks. Another stunner.

‘The Drowning Man’ starts absolutely brilliantly. Keyboard handclaps are extremely hit-and-miss with me, but combined with the creeping guitar line which grows louder and louder, it’s a brutish but brilliant combination. Smith’s vocals are basically one long, drawn-out drone at this stage, but still work with the backing effortlessly. God, it’s gloomy. This is a track I never ever listen to. Not out of dislike, just out of general ignorance and forgetfulness, but I never remember it being so deathly. It is glorious, mind you.

And after a slow, whirring fade out and four taps of the drumsticks, we are welcomed by the creeping, ever-growing and always wonderful closing track, ‘Faith’. The guitar line, despite revolving around about five notes, always seems to find a way to evolve and develop. Moving up an octave just before the two-minute mark, it continues this exploration of minimal bliss, before Smith joins in with eerie semi-croons, ‘Catch me if I fall / I’m losing hold / I can’t just carry on this way’.

Even this song is surprising me regarding its darkness. I can’t imagine recording this album being a fruitful adventure of emotions or a celebratory process, just a slow descent into complete misery. To close with this six minute stunner is undeniably apt, however. I love the constant repetition of the line ‘but nothing ever changed’, slowly disappearing in the haze of the bass and guitar lines, a mystifying final goodbye from Smith, which returns in the final minute of the song with more urgency and anger, and the single guitar line just after we reach six minutes is indisputably superb.

Heavy drums and ghostly Smith vocals bring the song to a slowing, lethargic end. Eight songs, thirty-six minutes and fifty-six seconds of absolute miserable joy.

Much like my exploits with Joy Division, I held many school friends hostage with this album. ‘Listen to the bassline!’ I’d say to them about ‘The Holy Hour’, but, as ever, worries for my mental state and happiness seemed paramount with others. I mean, I don’t at all blame them, but at least try the music!

Still, this was the moment when I realised goth was for me. I utterly adore the album as a whole – there are certainly tracks that aren’t as strong as others, but as a whole package it’s an absolute masterpiece, and another album which I feel is so overlooked by punk commentators. This record also led me on a journey into darker pastures; my discovery of Siouxsie and The Banshees’ Juju and the fantastic Only Theatre of Pain by Christian Death.

What we have here is a defining record that altered my musical adventures forever, and began my exploration into avenues of melancholy, gloom and beauty.

For The Record #9 – Offshore Banking Business / Hit The North / Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy

I’ve lately been trying to diversify the artists I’ve written about, and this article brings two who I’m yet to write about. These records were chosen while back at home in London and are some of my favourite in my collection.

Offshore Banking Business B/W Solitary Confinement – The Members

The Members have never been a band I’ve ever raves about or held any particular affinity to. I have found, however, that ‘Sound Of The Suburbs’ (introduced to me by Punk Britannia at the BBC) aptly summed up many parts of my time growing up in suburbia with ‘Heathrow jets crashing over our homes’ and sitting in a dark room playing guitar, separated from the world around me.

I also have a soft spot for Nicky Tesco after I found out he starred in one of my favourite films ‘I Hired A Contract Killer’, in which Joe Strummer played his stunning ‘Burning Lights’. It wasn’t the best dramatic performance, but it’s a nice bit of niche punk history for anyone as geeky as me!

Anyway, ‘Offshore’ is a swipe at tax havens in far away lands, with ‘international crime happening all the time’. It saddens me to say this song has aged very well, and will probably remain a strong piece of social commentary for years to come too.

I remember having a listen to this during the news of our beloved David Cameron revealing his profiting from his Father’s offshore tax fund after the release of the Panama Papers, and I haven’t touched it since. As nerdy as this sounds, I’m a politics student who doesn’t hold much love for Dave, so this was a moment of superficial punk redemption (he did remain in power, after all).

Starting with a solid reggae beat, we’re joined by a stunning bass and trumpet riff, before Tesco joins with some brilliantly sardonic lines about rich people who ‘do more than growing bananas / they got a tax dodge going on’. So great. About 30 seconds in and I’m already kicking myself for neglecting this classic for so long.

The beat is infectious, the vocal delivery impeccable and the whole composition is as intricate as it gets. To release this after the success of punk staple ‘Sound Of The Suburbs’ is such a brave move, but who can blame them if they’re bringing out songs as good as this?!

Tesco continues, taking aim at the ‘Newspaper barons and oil tycoons watching their money grow’ before a final return to the chorus. It pains me to say that on the final rounds of the repeated ‘Offshore Banking Business’ line, my single cracks and repeats infinitely, bringing a never ending that reminds me of all the activities of the rich and powerful, and how powerless I am to stop them. Such sadness!

All in all, a fantastic listen, and one that I’m probably going to be playing for a long time from here on.

‘Solitary Confinement’ is much more representative of the general Members sound. Kicking off with an abrupt ‘You! Are living in the suburbs’ backed with a chugging low guitar line, it grows in stature and powers into the bridge.

I love the spoken word part, a slightly stupid sounding shire boy who’s so simple in his perception of his life and life in the city, innocently losing all purpose and friends because of his move to the city. ‘The Members, are gonna tell ya / What it’s like to be / On your own, by yourself’, and they do. The subject of the song is actually quite sad and desperate, but the musical delivery makes it more of a danceable punk song than anything else. It’s an extremely strong song, ending with the line ‘Solitary confinement, you’re so lonely’. How about that then?

In all, a fantastic single by a band perhaps overlooked by many, including myself.

A Side: 4.5/5   B-Side: 4/5   Sleeve: 4/5

Hit The North Part 1 B/W Hit The North Part 2 – The Fall

A classic number from Manchester’s finest.

Charting at #57 (which, despite its modesty, was their then-highest charting self-penned single) it stemmed from, according to Steve Hanley’s The Big Midweek, Mark E. Smith’s dislike of Norwich, and his desire to, you guessed it, ‘hit the North’. And with a Simon Rodgers crafted instrumental, a masterpiece was born.

STarting with a low, cutting bass sound, Wolstencroft joins with a punchy groove, and in comes the iconic two note riff joined by the infectious chant of ‘Hit The North!’. What follows is probably not worth much anlysis, more just distant admiration and confusion. From my first listen of the song, I’ve always found Smith’s announcement that his ‘cat says eeeeeeeee-ack’ absolutely absurd and absolutely brilliant. I guarantee you wouldn’t find this anywhere else.

I also love the line ‘Cops can’t catch criminals’, the way it dreamily floats around the song with the powerful groove and synth-sax hits. And then the ascent back into the chorus is simply irresistible.

The star of the show for me is the high-pitched, triumphant guitar line that comes in during the closing verse. It’s absolutely stunning.

I love this song, though I never give it the time of day. Luckily, if you have the time of day, The Fall have managed to record six (!) versions of the song. And ‘Part Two’ is the b-side of the 7″ single.

It’s a lottle more stripped back, less effects and more power. It starts with a more complete drum groove and we rejoin the iconic riff again. The recording is a little bit sparse, but I must admit I quite enjoy the less-produced recording. It has a bit more toughness and edge.

However, I’m afraid I’ve never been a big fan of remixes making up B-sides unless there’s a clear and obvious variation on the song (like ‘Soldier and Police War’, B-side to ‘Police and Thieves’). I find placing a demo as the back up to a single a little bit lazy, and, as much as I like the song, it doesn’t really thrill me at all.

Still – the A-side is more than worthy of total acclaim and adoration, and it will forever be an era-defining single.

A-Side: 4.5/5   B-Side: 3/5   Sleeve: 4/5

Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy – Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg has always been a massive favourite of mine, to such an extent that I’m toying around with the idea of writing a sociology essay on the role of the media about his fantastic ‘It Says Here’. And they say punk is dead!!

Of course, it’s a lot easier to like Billy Bragg if you align with him politically. Luckily, I find myself more than hospitable to his political commentary and his general disapproval of all things right of social democracy and all things coloured blue (in the British context, obviously).

His debut abum, Life’s A Riot is a lot less overt in its political messaging compared to the following releases Brewing Up With and Talking With The Taxman About Poetry, but is still quintessential Billy Bragg. Though, sociological and political punch still lies in tracks such as ‘To Have and Have Not’ and ‘The Busy Girl Buys Beauty’, which are both stunning, but we will visit them later.

The first point of discussion is the length of the album. Seven tracks, on the face of it, seems a little short, but we’ve seen shorter albums in terms of the number of tracks, take David Bowie’s six track (and best, in my opinion) album Station To Station, for example. However, the title track on Station To Station is over half the length of Bragg’s entire album.

The longest track is two minutes and fifty-one seconds, and the whole album clocks in at fifteen minutes and fifty-seven seconds. Bragg being Bragg, really.

The albums kicks off with an absolute stunner. In any other song the lyrics would be cheesy and cringey, but there’s something so endearing and innocent in the way Bragg sings the words of ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’. The guitar is excellent, urgent and fast but fittingly complimenting of the more drawn out, conservatively delivered lyrics. I think this song showcases the brilliance of the raw recording of Bragg and his guitar, and is an excellent preview into what is to come. A fantastic introduction to the LP.

Track two is the closest thing to a promotion of communism (rather than socialism) that Bragg has ever achieved, in my opinion. It is also one of my favourite political songs of all time. Starting with a jaunty, cutting chord sequence, Bragg joins in with a tirade of criticism towards the function of the education system, one of my favourite lines being ‘Qualifications what’s the golden rule? / Are now just pieces of pay-pah’.

I’ll have to bring up my degree again. The role of the education system is something I have always had a great passion in writing about and researching, so to hear one of my favourite artists slagging off the institution is simply magnificent. Again, enjoyment comes from the fact I agree with him too, which will always be a deciding factor in any Bragg listening.

‘All they taught you at school / Was how to be a good worker’ is another line that just fires me up so much (I’m a huge nerd, I know…), and overall the song is simply brilliant.

‘Richard’ has never been a song that’s ever stood out for me. Listening to it again, it is still a top quality song (as nearly every track on the album is) but it’s still not doing much for me. I think I’m a lot more sympathetic to Bragg songs which are either about politics or love (‘The Saturday Boy’ and ‘Between The Wars’ have always been favourites), so tracks like ‘Richard’ have never sat highly in my standings. Still, it’s a good enough track.

And then Side 2 opens with the classic, iconic and utterly brilliant ‘A New England’. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’m going to say anything that hasn’t been said before – the lyrics are sublime, the angst of the guitar is so powerful, and the whole composition is a thing of sheer class. I’ll let you sample it for yourself here…

‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ just isn’t really my sort of thing. It’s one I’ve always skipped, and one where I’ve found Bragg’s voice actually hasn’t done any favours to the subtlety of the song. Apologies, Bragg lovers, this one will never be my cup of tea.

But, worry not, ‘The Busy Girl Buys Beauty’ is definitely one that appeals to me a lot more. It’s, in its simplest form, Bragg slagging off the idea of traditional gender roles (‘Where she can learn / Top tips for the gas cook’), the beauty and fashion industry and the idealistic perception of the always happy always smiling nuclear family. Admittedly, it’s a sociology student’s dream, and it’s an absolutely brilliant song that I feel doesn’t get enough praise.

And, after only fourteen minutes, we reach the closing track, ‘Lovers Town Revisited’. A nice, slightly slower song with Bragg sounding absolutely fantastic. It’s a bit more solemn too, and the eruption of the crackly guitar against Bragg’s voice is brilliant. It’s only one minute and eighteen seconds long, and it makes you want more from Bragg. As a closer though, it’s simply superb.

As a whole, it’s fifteen minutes of brilliance, of raw and untouched class. The innocence and vulnerability of both the recordings and Bragg’s voice are vital in the development and creation of one of the finest debut albums we will ever see. And, considering it’s short length, it should be held up as a lesson in minimalist bliss.

Side One: 4.5/5 Side Two: 4.5/5 Sleeve: 4/5

Punks On Film #2 – Joy Division on Something Else

It surprised me to see that I hadn’t actually written about Joy Division in any length whatsoever throughout my twenty article run despite the total love I hold for all their material. I’ve read Peter Hook’s brilliant Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division and had them playing for practically all of my life.

Playing Joy Division to my friends overtime garnered a questionable array of responses, some good, some bad, however most of them usually revolved around concern for my happiness and wellbeing when listening to such macabre, haunting sounds. Overtime response has generally become more positive (as it would with greater musical maturity) but many seem somewhat reluctant to embrace the Joy Division repertoire in all its glory.

So, after my coming to grips with the aural aspect of proceedings, imagine people’s faces when I came to show them this performance! I remember various scenarios of me and someone held hostage to my music taste sitting in the school library watching the display, my eyes wide, my face a look of glorious wonder and dazzlement, and then my friends, confused, worried for Ian Curtis and mostly worried for me.

Like many other bands I’ve written about, this appearance was my introduction to Joy Division, featuring on the Punk Britannia At The BBC video compilation in around 2012 or 2013. The clip shown was only of ‘She’s Lost Control’, excluding its seminal predecessor ‘Transmission’, so there was even more for me to obsess over later in life.

Some context now – not being from the time my knowledge may be a tad patchy, but as far as I can gather Something Else was a music magazine show that had a short stint on BBC Two across the punk and post-punk era. It broadcast the only BBC appearance of The Clash (who played ‘Tommy Gun’ and ‘Clash City Rockers’) and, looking at it’s Wikipedia page (being the meticulous researcher I am) had a stunning array of artists perform throughout its innings – a punk’s dream, it seems.

Joy Division’s appearance came in only the second edition of the show which also featured performances from John Cooper Clarke and The Jam (you see what I mean by a punk’s dream?!), and came just four months after the release of debut album Unknown Pleasures, which charted at the extremely modest #71 on the U.K. albums chart.

As stated, the performance kicks off with the influential non-album single ‘Transmission’ and the infectious minimalism of Peter Hook’s bassline, the iconic aspect of the Joy Division sound. Quick to follow is a relentless, machine gun-like Morris groove and an admittedly cagey lead guitar line by a very controlled, perhaps slightly nervous Sumner. After one quick slip on a note, however, they’re in full swing.

Curtis comes in, a gentle half-croon of ‘Radio, live transmission…’. It’s just one of those songs, isn’t it? The pace, the power, the sheer energy put into every instrument and note to make the performance so brilliant.

What I always found was so good about this song is the simplicity to each part. There isn’t a high degree of difficulty in anything played, no real musical complexity, just a uniquely punk attitude and charisma into the layering and structuring of the song. It’s a song which builds and builds before turning into a warring, hard-hitting and oh-so powerful closing act.

Even a brief introduction of chords from Sumner brings out a fantastic moment of tension, a foreshadowing of the explosive ending coming soon which always grabs me, a warning of what is to come.

‘Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio’ Curtis announces, each time getting more aggressive, before the verse is just an absolutely tunelessly beautiful shout down the microphone, fulled by anger and an inability to control the velocity of the performance, summed up aptly by the fantastic ‘and we can DAAAAAAAAAANCE!’ which just about shreds every part of his throat to pieces.

A few more ‘Dance, dance, dance’ lines before a cataclysmic final few fills and a quietening groove from the workmanlike Morris, and the song seems over before it even begun. What a way to introduce yourself to the nation, and what a song.

Song number two, and the one which introduced me to Joy Division and one that many others were reluctantly introduced to by myself. Morris’ double hits of the drums are joined by the classic bassline of ‘She’s Lost Control’.

This version has a bit more pace and vigour compared to the more refined album take. The pitch of Hook’s bass is brilliant, and Curtis is, despite slurring practically every word, note perfect, slowly descending into what will become one of the moments of punk history. Summer joins in, giving an extra hit of buzz to the song. The engine is running, and the tune seems to grow and grow into a deadlier beast, Curtis shaking, swaying, before letting out a restrained yet utterly vicious growl of ‘She’s lost control’, which he has to stop himself from completely screaming.

And it begins, a quick cut to Sumner returns back to Curtis, dancing like a madman, completely taken by the sounds closing in on him, the chilling bassline, the thumping guitar and the unrelenting smashes of Morris’ drums. These are the first glimpses of the complete pandemonium waiting around the corner.

Curtis returns calmer, hardly able to open his eyes and observe his surroundings, but this facade is quickly removed by the return of the gradual buildup into the instrumental, Sumner’s distorted, crushing chords, and another incensed roar from Curtis signals that all hell has most certainly broken loose.

His eyes, his demeanour, everything about him looks utterly, utterly possessed. Uncontrollable. I love the brief cut to the camera view behind the audience who sit so innocently still, so passive, probably unable to fathom a justifiable or poignant reaction to what is taking place in front of them. They simply sit and observe while Joy Division take them on this macabre, dark but fascinating journey. I imagine their reactions were similar to those of my friends who had to sit through something that seemed to me so confusing but so intriguing; the sound, the dancing, everything.

Peter Hook’s continuously looks up from the bass to witness what’s unfolding in front of him while Sumner’s gaze is glued to to his guitar. I think the contrast between all four in terms of their body language is also something which adds an extra something to the performance – did Sumner see Curtis’ dance? Was Curtis ever in control of what he was doing?

The instruments slow, as does Curtis, and the song is brought to a gentle close by a slick line from Sumner and a gentle rumble of bass before Morris’ final two hits of the drums. Curtis leans over, some can call it a bow, some can call it getting his breath back, but it adds another layer to this iconic showing.

At the time of first viewing I wasn’t aware of Ian Curtis or his history with epilepsy, and I can’t confirm or deny whether it had a part to play here or whether he was simply intoxicated by the music itself. I think it’s safe to say, regardless of what was the key player, this performance is one of the greatest of all time. Meticulously backed by the band, Curtis leads the viewer down a path of unease, intrigue and pure musical beauty, and one that will never be forgotten.

Musical Epiphanies #6 – Blur (1997)

This is a bit of a twist from the usual offering, a jump away from the punk and new wave motif of the blog, but I must admit that Blur were a huge part of my musical education throughout my teenage years.

Say what you will about them – middle class, London centric, Mockney etc – but their contribution to the music scene of the 1990s is utterly undeniable. From Leisure to Think Tank (excluding 2015’s The Magic Whip), I had a huge love for practically every song released, and – it must be mentioned, I’m afraid – believe that they were a million ranks above anything Oasis released. I’ve found myself in the minority with this opinion, but for me Blur have the albums , Oasis have the singles.

However, my listening to 1995’s The Great Escape was a very moot point in my discoveries. It was tired, gimmicky Britpop that didn’t particularly spark any great interest from me. ‘Charmless Man’ and ‘Stereotypes’ are excellent songs, but ‘Country House’ and other similar tracks were simply lacking in any imagination for my liking.

A change was needed, and a change was made. Punk loving guitarist Graham Coxon (who has covered Mission of Burma’s ‘That’s When I Reach For My Revolver’ on a solo record) proposed a move down a grungey, lo-fi and distorted avenue that was practically untouched by their previous albums and still a strong force in the American music scene, a region where Blur were continual recipients of mass indifference to their releases (see their 1992 tour for Modern Life Is Rubbish for further reference).

When I came to listen to 1997’s eponymous album, I wasn’t expecting much after The Great Escape. I knew ‘Song 2’, as we all do, but that was about it. I held hope for a change of sound and an increase in quality, an escape from Britpop once and for all.

Little did I know that album opener ‘Beetlebum’ had reached #1 on the singles chart, and I could see why. It’s still got a bit of Blur-pop sound about it, but that’s the point of a promotional single, isn’t it?

Besides, how can you resist the drop into the chorus on Damon Albarn’s ‘And when she lets me slip away’? Something I discovered a few listens after was that ‘she’ is in fact heroin, with the song somewhat sensually detailing Albarn and then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann’s (singer of Elastica) exploits on the drug. Admittedly, after a few listens it does lose a touch of spark, but is still a solid track nonetheless.

We move on to ‘Song 2’, the most well-known release of Blur’s repertoire in my opinion. It’s one of those songs that, on occasional listening, is an absolute stunner, which has been claimed to have taken 15 minutes to write. For me, it’s a little overplayed to really take me as it did on first listen, but it’s a classic that will probably stand the test of time eternally.

We’re then greeted by the first serving of acoustic lo-fi promised by the stylistic change. I adore ‘Country Sad Ballad Man’ completely, the absurdity of Albarn’s alto into falsetto singing is brilliant, and the beat is one you can really nod your head to. Additionally, some other worldly noises compliment the composition superbly, particularly the damp keyboard line after the first chorus, which is a wonderful hit of discord. Revisiting this song is an absolute joy for me, taking me back to summer walks into school when I was around 15. And with the final minute crash of distortion and punch, it’s an astounding, nostalgic listen.

‘M.O.R.’ is a less memorable song, and somehow a single, which seems a little bit thrown together to my ears. I can imagine Coxon loving the writing of this song – he has total liberty, the guitar line jumping carelessly between octaves and destroying any idea of string-based mundanity. However, as a track it isn’t one that sticks around in the mind for too long.

‘On Your Own’ is the only real notable down point in the album. It’s too weird and bouncy, there’s a disagreement between the rough guitar line and the chanty chorus that just doesn’t match, and it is simply forgettable. A bit harsh, but it’s never been my cup of tea unfortunately.

Now we visit the second absolutely mesmerising track of the album. A creeping, villainous tune which is a lesson in the execution of a disconcerting masterpiece. ‘Theme From Retro’ is quite simply perfect. It’s like a demented circus theme; Rowntree’s slams of the snare drums are so satisfying, the echoey vocals of Albarn are all the more rewarding, but the star of the show is the contrarily macabre and jaunty keyboard line which unsettles in every way possible. It’s another song that takes me back to my first listen of the album, a song that completely blew my mind forever.

And as soon as that ends, Coxon takes centre stage in, what is for me, one of the greatest Blur tracks of all time, if not one of the greatest alternative tracks of all time. An emotional and endearing song, ‘You’re So Great’ flips the album’s mood out of no where, but is forever a welcome addition to the record. The tone of the guitar is fantastic, and Coxon’s high pitched vocals are stunning (though I understand some may be averse to them). The lyrics are miserable (the first line goes ‘Sad, drunk and poorly, sleep in really late / Sad, drunk and poorly / Not feeling so great’) the strings melancholic, and the solos throughout so utterly brilliant. The final strums of the guitar at the end just hit home the sadness and the desperation. An absolute stunner.

‘Death Of A Party’ follows, a similarly dark tune but with a little less oomph (that’s a word commonly used by musical experts, I assure you). The guitar line in the chorus is brilliant, and again the drums of Rowntree stand out, but as a whole it’s a worthy experimental effort, though not the most successful. I’d comment that Albarn’s vocal tone doesn’t really fit with the vibe of the song, owing to its lack of cohesion.

‘Chinese Bombs’ is just Coxon’s guitar on steroids, a fantastic interlude of distorted mess that brings the toughness back to the record. It’s swiftly succeeded by the weirdly funky yet dark ‘I’m Just A Killer For Your Love’. It has a strong beat, but offers little in terms of unpredictability and variation. The drums again are brilliant, though.

‘Look Inside America’ is a bit of a throwback to Britpop era Blur, a more dreamy and upbeat number that could slip into Modern Life Is Rubbish or The Great Escape quite easily. The first line ‘Good morning lethargy’ is one of my favourite Blur lines of all time simply because it’s sung with such an ironic faux-triumph, but the song is another one which isn’t particularly memorable.

The fourth track of utter perfection comes next. A lot of recording for the album was completed in Iceland, a typical destination for artists in search for inspiration, a route taken by the likes of The Fall in the early 1980s for their album Hex Enduction Hour and Radiohead in the same year as Blur for their seminal album OK Computer. ‘Strange News From Another Star’ was one of the tracks recorded in Iceland and is so clearly inspired by its surroundings, but is indisputably superb.

Starting with fuzzy guitar sounds, a cleaner acoustic comes in, joined quickly by Albarn’s soft vocals, announcing ‘All I wanna be / Is washed up by the sea’. It’s extremely mellow, very relaxed but still holds a mild touch of discordant other-worldliness. I’d imagine this to be a Radiohead song more than anything else, but again Blur show that they can mix it up and step out of the pop-rock comfort zone. Frankly, it’s beautiful.

The penultimate ‘Movin’ On’ is another half-throwback to Britpop days, a positively hedonistic headbanger. Albarn’s singing reminds me a little of Howard Devoto’s on Spiral Scratch track ‘Boredom’ – less words or vocals, more just a conglomeration of various noises to fit the track. It works well here too, and it’s a song that I’d dismissed for a while.

Now then. This is the standout moment of the album. After some playing around at the end of ‘Movin’ On’, we end the album with a much deadlier beast. Coxon’s guitar coughs into life like a car engine, a slow, repetitive machine gun-like cutting which is accompanied with another fantastically sinister Rowntree beat. It is epically gloomy.

Albarn murmurs gently:

‘I remember thinking murder in the car / Watching dogs somersault through sprinklers on tiny lawns

 I remember the graffiti / We are your children coming in with spray cans of paint

 I remember the sunset and the plains of cement / And the way the night seems to turn the colour of Orangeade’

A a tale of urban decay, greyness, destitution, ‘Essex Dogs’ is one of the forgotten Blur tracks that deserved so much more. Albarn’s execution is precise, neat and utterly fitting. With this comes a slow dancing bass line of Alex James, combatting the choppy guitar line with elongated picks superbly.

The chorus comes in, even more dark than the verse:

In this town cellular phones are hot with thieves / In this town we all go to terminal pubs 

It helps us sweat out those angry bits of life / From this twon the English Army grind their teeth to glass 

You’ll get kicked tonight / Smell of puke and piss / Smell of puke and piss on your stilettos

And then we’re welcomed by a new drum groove and fantastic fuzzes of guitar, quietly growing in the backdrop. What sounds like an electronic drill comes in on Albarn’s ‘My heart stops / Then starts’. The verse again is chilling, James taking centre stage for a moment before Coxon is freed from his leash. The machine gun-like sound is now at full power, it grows and grows and doesn’t stop, before revolving around one angry note for what seems an unnerving but so satisfying eternity.

Back into the subdued beat, and Coxon remains up front and livid; who knew repeating two notes over and over would be so powerful? It’s ‘Baby’s On Fire’-esque, with Coxon given the freedom of Fripp to explore every avenue of unsettling and discordant noise. Every two seconds the same riff crashes in with immense strength and shock. It’s so addictive, so utterly brilliant. James’ bassline is still dancing across every fret of the strings with utter precision, a beautifully maintained and controlled backing to offset Coxon’s raging thrashes of the lead.

With a final roll and high pitched wail, all calms down on the Coxon front, before a brooding bass line and drum beat settle the nerves of all listening, with Coxon’s guitar giving off a soft, occasional purr before an abrupt wrapping up of the debacle.

A brief interlude follows, and Blur’s first step into new musical pastures departs with a slow fade out.

For 15 year old me, this absolutely changed everything. I’d listen to ‘Essex Dogs’ every day to accompany my adolescent angst so wonderfully. I’m pretty sure I played it to some friends and they were quite worried for my mental state, but what an absolutely stunning closing track this is.

For the album, I first listened to it during the start of my love for all things punk and new wave, so it couldn’t have come at a better time. But I will forever place this album in my top ten of all time. Not particularly for its quality, but more for the impact it had on me and the absolute shift in sound taken by Blur to release such an album at their commercial peak. For me, if you take away a few songs, I believe you have a perfect album.

Like Blur or not, this is a powerful and brilliant effort which played a huge part in shaping my music taste and unlocked doors to music of gloominess, wonder and darkness forever,

For The Record #8 – Straight To Hell / Police and Thieves / Ice Cream For Crow LP

The first ever review of reggae on the blog (if you discount Costello’s ‘Watching The Detectives’, which isn’t real reggae to me, but anyway). The Clash return, while we also have the first appearance of an artist who I’ve come to adore recently, having never listened to them in great depth at all.

Straight To Hell B/W Should I Stay Or Should I Go – The Clash

‘This really sounds like M.I.A!’ is the most frequent greeting this song receives from those who I share it with, which is fair enough to be honest.

‘Straight To Hell’ is one of The Clash’s lesser known singles by those who aren’t avid listeners, which is probably down to the fact it was released as a double A-side with ‘Should I Stay’, which obviously trumps it for accessibility and popularity.

Though I think this is an absolute shame. Since I was around 14 I’ve had a huge obsession with this song, resulting in the purchase and receipt of various ‘Straight To Hell’ themed items (which can be seen below).

A song lamenting the loss of British industry, anti-immigration rhetoric and the legacy of the Vietnam War, this is quite simply one of the greatest songs ever written, both lyrically and musically. Chris Salewicz (Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer) calls it an ‘epic ballad … one of the archetypal Clash tunes’, and probably one of the only songs ever to use an R-Whites lemonade bottle to play the bass drum with.

Starting with a quiet, descending chord sequence, it grows wonderfully before being led by a stunning Topper Headon groove. In comes Strummer – his voice is strained, mourning, sometimes running out of emotional energy to get through words properly. Each verse holds a different story, the first commentating on the bleak plight of British industry, the second on children born in Vietnam to now absent American fathers, and the third covers the dour remains of the American dream

‘There ain’t no need for ya’ is one of the most underrated lines in punk history, and its repetition just hits home the message in such a desperate tone. Who needs the subjects of these stories, those left voiceless by inhumane political and economic decisions?

The second verse holds another fantastic couple of lines:

Let me tell me ’bout your blood, bamboo kid / It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice’ 

You don’t need me to explain the lines or the literary prowess of them, but it is so stark and miserable, particularly with the previous lines from the child’s perspective, seeing pictures of their now separated parents in search of where one has left without them.

Listening to it on repeat, it’s honestly making me feel quite sorry for the state of affairs that Strummer so vividly illustrates with his words. I think it’s a lot easier to empathise with the message of the song if you’re of the same political persuasion of The Clash (of which I generally am), but I think even this goliath of a song could win over anybody, whether left or right, active or apathetic.

There ain’t no asylum here’ announces Strummer slowly, before the final line alludes back to the fatherless child of the Vietnam war: ‘Oh papa-san, please take me home’.

I imagine those who listened to the other A-side in 1982 must’ve hoped for something as upbeat and punchy as ‘Should I Stay’, but to be welcomed by this must’ve been quite a sobering few minutes, a reminder that The Clash, no matter what some thought by 1982, hadn’t sold out their political principles.

This is a song of a hopeless man, angry at the injustices served to so many who are unable to take control of the situations they find themselves languishing in, as if any scattering of belief had been all but eradicated. For an even more sombre rendition, take a look at the live version below during Joe’s post-Clash years.

In all, a marvellous piece of work.

‘Should I Stay’ isn’t a song by The Clash which I’ve never particularly devoted much time to, mainly because of my preference to live in my hive of obscurity which has consistently featured, from The Clash, the whole of Sandinista! (which is basically untouched by many Clash fans my age). Total musical snobbery from me, really.

I think it’s been played so much that nothing really surprises me or jumps out as me as special or memorable. It’s a very good pop song, but doesn’t feel like The Clash sometimes. I don’t feel the need to run through it or particulalry review it. I’m just generally quite indifferent to it.

Still, as singles go, I don’t think there are many as influential as this. ‘Straight To Hell’ (the real A-side) stands high above its companion on the grooves, however.

A-Side: 5/5   A-Side 2: 3/5   Sleeve: 4/5

Police and Thieves B/W Soldier And Police War – Junior Murvin / Jah Lion

The king of falsetto dub in his most glorious outing.

I first listened to Junior Murvin a day or two after he passed away – I had no idea who he was, though my only point of reference was The Clash’s cover of his song which I hadn’t even listened to. My hearing of Murvin’s brand of dub was recevied with general indifference and a kind of ‘how can anyone seriously listen to this?’ appraisal.

Something must’ve grabbed my attention though, as within about a week I’d bought the Police And Thieves album on CD and was playing it on a daily basis. I now credit Junior Murvin with starting my love for dub; not many have ventured further into his discography, but his album Badman Posse is also a stunning record which I recommend to anyone reading.

Anyway, ‘Police And Thieves’ will forever be a timeless classic which I don’t feel needs much analysis. It’s one of Joe Strummer’s favourite records (and I’ll speculate many other punks rank it highly too) and is a take on police brutality that could be applied to practically every society at some point. Lee Perry’s production, as ever, is sublime, and Murvin’s voice is in a total league of its own.

I would have to concede, however, that repeated listens over the years have taken the pleasure of listening off somewhat, but it’s still a wonderful track nonetheless.

Now there are two releases with different B-sides, and I appear to not have the original version. This contained a song I know from the Grand Theft Auto games called ‘Grumblin’ Dub’, found on a reggae radio station called Blue Ark DJed by Lee Perry (I wish I’d discovered it some other way).

My single instead has another dub version of ‘Police And Thieves’, entitled ‘Soldier and Police War’, recorded by Jah Lion. I’ll admit, it is absolutely brilliant. A much more dreamy and hazy take musically, it features much louder and up front vocals with extra effects and sounds to create a fantastic rendition of Murvin’s classic.

Another brilliant discovery on the B-side (one to add to the multitude this series has brought) to go with a dub masterpiece.

A-Side: 4.5/5   B-Side: 4.5/5

Ice Cream For Crow – Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band

This is an extremely recent discovery. I first heard Captain Beefheart on an Old Grey Whistle Test compilation, and I have to say that they blew my mind completely. Van Vliet (singer) looks totally, totally possessed by some invisible musical phantom, and it’s such an emphatic performance by all on stage.

However, I didn’t feel obliged to look any further, which I find a completely absurd decision on my half.

Then, around aged 15, I heard Magazine’s punchy cover of ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’, B-side to ‘Give Me Everything’ (which I think is an absolutely perfect song). ‘I Love You’ appeared in several playlists of mine and was one of my favourite of Magazine’s songs. I knew it was a cover of Beefheart after a bit of research, so surely I was to look further into their discography?

Nope – instead I went into Magazine’s third album, and Beefheart was off the agenda.

So surely, surely, there’d be another encounter. And whaddya know? Watching a music documentary with Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert of New Order, the 1982 video for the ‘Ice Cream For Crow’ single comes on, with Morris explaining that for some Beefheart was utter rubbish, and for others a total genius. Watching this bouncy, bluesy beat played in the middle of a desert with Van Vliet letting out these croaky yelps was simply spellbinding. And that was the moment I finally got onto listening to the Ice Cream For Crow LP, and subsequently purchasing the 12″ album for myself.

(For those wondering, the white rectangle on the cover says the record had been property of Granada TV – does this mean that the album has been in the hands of one Tony Wilson? I like to think so…)

And the album kicks off with the same track, a jaunty tune which is in a total league of its own. The lyrics are so odd and can’t really be explained, but it’s what makes the listening so special. A fantastic song.

‘The Host The Ghost The Most Holy O’ is another brilliant, dark and sinister song, with great lines such as ‘The sky is dark in daytime / and still the black birds beauty lyrics clean’. I’m not big on the chanty closing lines, but a very strong song nonetheless.

Now, ‘Semi Multicoloured Caucasian’ is the standout track in my opinion. You can’t ask for more from an instrumental track. It’s one to nod your head to, an uplifting showcase of utter class which never outstays it’s welcome; if anything, it doesn’t stay for long enough. The guitar riffs are fantastic in their minimalism, and the choppy chords along side them compliment them fittingly. Even the drumming, which I’m sure is half improvised, is simply divine. Have a listen below…

‘Hey Garland I Dig Your Tweed Coat’ is by far the best song name I have ever seen, and it’s a perfectly decent song. Organised disjoint is the only way I can describe it, and Van Vliet’s voice compliments the backing beautifully. This is followed by ‘Evening Bell’, which is a less memorable instrumental, solely featuring the lead guitar. It’s nice enough, though nothing particularly to shout about.

Side one closes with ‘Cardboard Cutout Sundown’, which is an another excellent song name, and is a totally glorious mess – one of those ‘it’s either rubbish or amazing’ songs which characterises much of the album, to be honest. Side two then opens with ‘The Past Sure Is Tense’, which is actually quite a pleasant track as they go. Nicely crafted, classic absurdities from Van Vliet and an all round strong outing.

‘Ink Mathematics’ starts a little more traditional in terms of the structure and form of songwriting, but slowly descends into another typically Beefheart song thrown together by random sounds liberated from any idea of time signatures or rhythm. Vliet’s high-pitched belch of the song’s title is also oddly endearing too, and it’s just one of those tunes you can’t really explain to other people. A bit like trying to explain why The Fall are so good to others.

‘The Witch Doctor Life’ is a wonderful swinging song, an original take on the blues sound which matches perfectly with what are basically screams from Van Vliet at this stage of the album. The solos are soft, masterful and frankly quite beautiful. A top performance from all.

Now, I adore solo spoken word songs, particularly with a peculiar or distinct voice. ’81 Poop Hatch’ is utterly stunning. Van Vliet’s voice is brilliant, and his spoken word is even better. There are four standout lines for me:

Neighbours laugh through sandwiches / Harlem babies, their stomachs explode into roars / Their eyes shiny with starvation / Speckled hula dance on my phonograph’

It’s completely perfect, in my opinion, though I can see why a lot of people are turned off by the spoken word kind of stuff.

I will say that the last two songs suffer as the ideas for the organised mess sound become a little tired and a bit repetitive, especially as the tone of the instruments don’t seem to change too much. But for what they’re worth, they’re still good songs. I do prefer the closer ‘Skeleton Makes Good’, which just makes me laugh to be honest. I could never really put it on and seriously listen to it, however.

All in all however, this is certainly a discovery that I won’t forget for a while, and I can’t believe I put Beefheart off for so long having had so many chances to access their many wonders. And it’s also a shame I’ve managed to listen to their last studio album before any others, but I can’t wait to delve further.

A strong showing from Beefheart overall.

Side One: 4.5/5   Side Two: 3.5/5   Sleeve (minus Granada sticker!): 4.5/5

Punks On Film #1 – The Fall on The Old Grey Whistle Test

In previous articles, I’ve found greater enjoyment in writing about television performances by punk groups; some are beautfiul, some are ugly, and some are just absolutely absurd. There’s something about the body language of the band and, of course, the cheap 1970s/80s television effects that make some outings so memorable and notable – with the visual component of the performances, a greater level of connection and understanding with the artists is established.

I’ve written about PiL and Gang of Four’s television performances, which ticked all three of the adjectives given above. So I thought I’d write about some more, because why not?

I have noted that the title of the series will become contentious, as the ‘are they punks?’ question is likely to come up at some point (I’m planning on writing about Captain Beefheart in the near future, for example) but I thought it was a half decent pun on ‘Girls On Film’, highlighting my creative laziness and indifference when it comes to naming my series.

Anyway – during the promotion of their then highest charting album release The Wonderful and Frightening World Of… which charted at a modest 62nd, The Fall were to grace the Old Grey Whistle Test stage – which was basically a dimly lit room – and play the stunning ‘Lay of the Land’ to the nation. They’d previously performed on The Tube courtesy of the generousity and obsessive fandom of John Peel, who was guest presenting the show and, if I remember correctly, would only come on in the first place if he could choose which band performs that week.

Who else was he meant to choose?

With a horribly high pitched, nasal and tuneless ‘The Fall!’ from the mouth of Jools Holland, they began. Perverted By Language track ‘Smile’ and the then-unreleased Brix-penned shuffle ‘2×4’ featured in a triumphant outing in which they, as Steve Hanley (The Big Midweek) so modestly claims, began ‘to melt the rent-a-crowd brains’. In fairness, we’ve all had our fair share of cerebral destructions in our innocent early listenings of The Fall, so I’ll forgive him for his confidence.

Songs played, brains melted, now for Old Grey Whiste Test. There’s so many parts of this performance which are noteworthy, I’m afraid I’ve no option but to list them.

Firstly, Andy Kershaw, who introduces The Fall’s performance, is donning a ‘Marc Riley and The Creepers’ shirt, which probably didn’t make our Mark E too happy at all (for those unaware, Marc Riley was the former guitarist of The Fall from 1978-83, who Mark didn’t really get on too well with). Four eerie notes start the song, and into the performance we go…

Secondly, I’ll let Brix (The Rise, The Fall, The Rise) sum it up aptly: ‘It was my second time on TV but, again, not that anyone would’ve noticed’. Far in the depths of the OGWT set stood The Fall in a darkened, gloomy backdrop, while Michael Clark and his band of ballet dancers take centre stage. You can only just make out Mark’s half silhouette lurking around the stage, but other than that, there isn’t much to be seen – imagine being Paul Hanley, hidden not only by darkness but by the drumkit too…

Thirdly, and obviously with any Fall performace, it’s musically mesmerising. ‘Lay Of The Land’ is just one of those Fall tracks, an instant classic that, as far as I’m aware, is adored by The Fall’s faithful and given a fantastic showcasing for national consumption.

And fourthly, of course, the headline act. Michael Clark and his bare-arsed army, flouncing aroud the stage to the raucous destruction of ‘Lay of the Land’ in the biggest oxymoron the prforming arts world will probably ever witness (and this was four years before I Am Kurious Oranj). It’s so crude, the standout moment being the moment when one of the dancers (I’m not sure if it’s Clark or not) bends over with arse to camera as the break in between the verse and ascending chord sequence. You can’t justify it, nor deny it’s sheer immature brilliance.

When I bumped into Steve Hanley outside an Extricated gig, he said the whole debacle was ‘absolutely brilliant’ or ‘absolutely fucking brilliant’; six of one and half a dozen of the other really. It is a ridiculously fantastic showing.

Fifth in the chaos comes the questionble last-minute guest appearance – I’ll let Steve describe this one for us:

At the end of ‘Lay of the Land’, for the comedy effect, they drag on a pantomime cow and start ramming cartons of milk down its neck, spilling most of it onto the floor and the cables. Brix looks terrified and even the technicians start to flap, thinking there’s going to be a mass electrocution. All those years of intense training at the Royal School of Ballet to end up as the back end of a pantomime cow on a late-night TV show. The dignity! The glamour!’ 

God it’s weird. So weird. What’s slightly disturbing is that the cow is clearly resisting its forced feeding so desperately but to no avail. I won’t try and explain it. What’s the point?

But there’s more. Sixth on the list of novelties is the fact that the young, fledgling act R.E.M. were backstage. In his book, Hanley states ‘they probably hadn’t quite bargained for this.’

In person, if I recall correctly, he said something along the lines of ‘they were looking around thinking ‘what the fuck is going on?”. I don’t blame them, to be fair. Though, I must admit, the image of a young and confused Michael Stipe sitting on the sidelines of a BBC studio, watching a bunch of ballet dancers attempt to follow the rhythm of half-tuned, barely-famous Mancunians is fantastic. Is this what all English people listen to?!

Around 33 minutes into ‘The Wonderful and Frightening World of Mark E Smith’ documentary, which can be found on YouTube, Mark recalls his fellow band members ‘stayed up to watch the Old Grey Whistle Test … they stayed up to watch it with their parents [a brief interlude of one of the ugliest laughs I’ve ever heard] and all you can see is like Michael Clark baring his fucking arse on the screen, fucking great, it was dead funny’. A typical Smith critique of his subjects and outlook on The Fall’s tumultuous relationship with accessibility.

It’s a stark contradiction to their preceeding and succeeding sessions on The Tube, which actually do a job of promoting the band and their music – the performance of ‘Bombast’ in 1985 is absolutely breathtaking. Even ‘Cruiser’s Creek’, which is a strong song, but for me has nothing particularly special about it, seems to have a new energy and power which was left absent in the original recording.

Yet it seems the OGWT performance will always be the most memorable Fall TV performance, but mostly due to Clark and co.’s absurd appearance. I do have a sneaking suspicion, however, that this is probably what Mark wanted all along – why would The Fall want mainstream coverage for themselves anyway?

All in all, it’s something of totally absurd beauty, and certainly a contender for the best musical TV appearance ever. It’s a magnificent showing which probably flabbergasted every innocent viewer at home. Apart from actual, overt promotion of their material, it paid off in every way possible.

 

 

 

For The Record #7 – Pearly-Dewdrops Drops / Love Song / 154

Two bands I’ve never written about feature, and there’s a more eclectic mix of releases to review this week.

Pearly-Dewdrops Drops B/W Cocteau Twins

I bought this last week at a record fair in Victoria, which was by far the biggest fair I’ve ever been to. I bought 154 there too, along with ‘Living Too Late’ by The Fall.

Cocteau Twins have never been a big favourite of mine, nor do I dislike them at all. They’re a good band, and their big hits I absolutely adore, but I’ve never been truly taken by an album before. I will admit, however, I tend to hold the idea that they were in a total league of their own through the 1980s and 90s, so there’s a bit of artistic respect influencing my distant appreciation.

My mild ignorance to Cocteau Twins is showcased by the fact I thought this song was called ‘Pearly Pearly Pewdrops’, though I think I can be forgiven due to the fact that, as far as I’m aware, some vocals of theirs consisted solely of Elizabeth Fraser’s made-up language. One of the ‘league of their own’ aspects of their output. Another is Fraser’s vocals alone, one of my favourite singing voices of all time, lending itself perfectly to my preference to female vocalists over male.

‘Pearly’ is a truly stunning song of ethereal melancholy. There’s something about their sound that is so addictive and endearing, with Fraser’s soaring cries and the distorted fuzz of Guthrie’s guitar, backed by the most powerful yet emotional bass line. I’ve always been extremely fond of this song, getting into it at an age (consisting of A level pessimism and desperation) where I was more adolescently emotionally fragile than others.

As far as Cocteau Twins choruses go, it’s certainly not as strong as ‘Cherry-Coloured Funk’, which is probably my favourite song of theirs, but still very strong indeed. On the other hand, the performance of ‘Pearly’ on Old Grey Whistle Test is to die for – simple magnificence.

‘Pepper-Tree’ has a bit more of a dark, unnerving touch. Led by an ascending, Cure-like riff, Fraser’s vocals continue to hit new heights, and the controlled discord of the song works very convincingly. It is a little bit too 80s for me, but I absolutely love the chorus. Another fantastic b-side discovery.

A very strong introduction to the article.

A-Side: 4.5/5   B-Side: 4/5   Sleeve: 3/5

Love Song B/W Noise Noise Noise / Suicide – The Damned

One of my first ever vinyl purchases. I’m a huge fan of the brilliantly named Machine Gun Etiquette which I discovered after watching their Old Grey Whistle Test performance, the main feature of that being the destruction of the entire set and the psychotic yet exhausted look of Rat Scabies at the end of the whole debacle.

As for my listening of The Damned, I had a huge phase with the previously mentioned album aged fifteen, and an even bigger phase with their era-defining Damned Damned Damned aged fourteen. Outside of these two releases however, I’m not an especially avid or passionate fan of theirs – the gothic stuff is okay, and I quite like the song ‘Life Goes On’, but there’s no album outside of the two mentioned that ever truly grabbed me.

‘Love Song’, quite simply, is just a huge slab of hedonistic punk mayhem and destruction, with one of the most effectively simple bass lines ever. The lyrics are hilariously awful and, as the meticulously informed Wikipedia page for the song expertly points out, it indeed is not a love song. It’s thumping, hard-hitting, and utterly addictive. This piece has brought a welcome return to a song which was one of the first in crafting my obsession with all things punk.

The B-sides don’t make for equally pleasurable listening, unfortunately. ‘Noise Noise Noise’ has quite an interesting riff, offering a bit of discordant imagination to proceedings, but all in all isn’t a  particularly memorable or essential listen. However, I will concede that the guitar solo is exceptional. It’s definitely improvised to some degree, but is quite frantic and extremely powerful, thanks to the rough distortion applied to the strings. As a whole piece though, a rather average showing that is a notable dip on Machine Gun Etiquette.

‘Suicide’ is a bit more punk with a touch more attitude and aggression. It starts with another very strong riff, if you can call it that – it appears more of a random conglomeration of uncomfortably mismatched notes, a bit reminiscent of ‘My War’ by Black Flag. I have to admit, the song is a little outdated – I feel that this brand of punk had worn quite tired by the release of the single, particularly with the chant-like chorus, which reminds me of some very average American punk.

However, the track is a lot stronger than ‘Noise Noise Noise’, offering a bit more abrasion and toughness, matching the vibe of ‘Love Song’ aptly.

In all, a strong display.

A-Side: 4.5/5   B-Side 1: 2/5    B-Side 2: 3/5   Sleeve: 4/5

154 – Wire 

As one of my earlier Musical Epiphanies article has outlined quite sufficiently, I absolutely adore Wire. I haven’t really delved too far after 1979 (1987’s A Bell Is A Cup is the furthest I’ve ventured after their hiatus), but their first three albums are simply wonderful. Indisputably essential.

It’s probably fairer to say that, rather than the worst of the three, 154 is the least, well, fantastic. That’s probably the best way to put it, but even indirectly criticising the album seems somewhat disingenuous to its utter brilliance.

154 follows their (in my opinion) strongest album Chairs Missing, which saw their first dip into the pool of experimentation after their three-chord-thrash thriller debut album Pink FlagChairs Missing saw Wire take a huge turn to a much darker, more sinister sound, characterised by heavy, scratching distortion and the raging wails of vocalist Colin Newman. There were some points of punk tradition in ‘Too Late’ and ‘Sand In My Joints’, but nothing could defeat the classic ‘Outdoor Miner’, a short, stunning slice of pop which continues to stand as an underappreciated masterpiece of the era.

154 continued the avenue of darkness that Wire embarked on, but with an extra serving of eerie soundscapes and chilling effects. The album kicks off with ‘I Should Have Known Better’, which sees bassist Graham Lewis take the helm on vocals, a common theme for the record as a whole. It’s an urgent yet restrained number, which descends further and further into the abyss of cold, reluctant rage led by Gilbert’s deep croons.

Following this abruptly is ‘Two People In A Room’, which is one of my favourite tracks on the record. Newman returns on vocals – it seems like an angry reply to Lewis for taking the limelight from him for one song, given how powerfully livid the song and his voice are. It’s quite simply two minutes of intense punk with a bit of effects, but that’s understating it’s effectiveness. Just listen to the slam of the drums against Newman’s cries, how can you not nod your head?

What comes next is a song of total beauty and class. ‘The 15th’ is an ethereal, emotional and utterly masterful piece. I couldn’t possibly do it justice with my words, so simply listen to it below, in all its glory.

As sides to LPs go, it doesn’t get much better than side one of the album, the only dip, though a small one, can be found in ‘A Touching Display’, which, for me, becomes a bit unlistenable at times and outstays it’s welcome slightly. The dip is quickly avenged by the side closer ‘On Returning’, which is a track of moody gusto and a fantastic hook.

Side two kicks off with the creepy ‘A Mutual Friend’, which starts off extremely eerie lay, though picks up the positivity, if you could call it that, as the track progresses. It’s not a particularly standout moment on the record, admittedly, but still not a bad one at all.

‘Blessed State’ is simply brilliant – a catchy chord sequence backed by a danceable, understated drum groove, spearheaded this again led by Graham Lewis’ vocals. The chords are at first a bit too discordant, but as the song progresses into full vitality it becomes apparent they are simply brilliant.

‘Once Is Enough’ is just a bit weird, and probably the lowest point on the second side, yet, as ever with Wire, you could never claim it to be a bad song. There’s enough invention and experimentation for it to be appreciated, no matter how absurd it may be.

Then, the second standout moment of the album: ‘Map Ref 41 N 93 W’. A bit wordy, I think you’ll agree, and I think the actual coordinates lead you to a field in Canada. But still, an absolute pop classic from Wire, the chorus is simply divine, a dreamy soar that’s so utterly grabbing, announced by Newman’s simple statement of ‘chorus!’ – simply brilliant.

(Edit: I’ve been informed on Facebook that the coordinates in fact take you to a place in Iowa in the USA, not somewhere in Canada!)

Admittedly, the last two tracks aren’t particularly notable, though ’40 Versions’ does have a beautiful guitar line during its riff, and is still quite a strong showing. I do feel, however, that perhaps they could have had one more big, thumping classic on the album, which I feel their two previous efforts had in abundance.

I’m just being pedantic, however; it’s still an absolutely brilliant journey, fuelled by psychopathic effects and soundscapes in combat with Newman and Gilbert’s fantastic vocals. Again, it’s not as strong as their first two, but that simply means it’s not as brilliant.

Side One: 4.5/5 Side Two: 4/5 Sleeve: 5/5

 

 

The Fall Obituary – One Year On

Today marks a full year since the passing of Mark E Smith, and the subsequent end of the road for The Fall.

As some who read the blog may have seen, I wrote a piece in February (published in October on the blog, and available here) for a university magazine commemorating his death and expressing my adoration for The Fall.

Truth be told, yes, I was a Fall fan, but I could never have said they were my favourite band. I was still in a weird phase of adaptation to their sound, the slow but inevitable recognition that their music stood above and alone from all their contemporaries.

The Clash were my favourite band at the time, and my lack of Fall understanding and knowledge was epitomised by my novice references to the infamous ‘Granny on bongos’ quote and the ‘oh my god they had so many members!’ line, which was wheeled out by just about every tribute article that came their way.

When I wrote the article, I had listened to six albums: Witch Trials, Dragnet, Grotesque, Hex, Wonderful and Frightening World and The Infotainment Scan (I’d missed out Room To Live in the thought it was a live album). Within the piece I referenced only the latter four albums, trying to make out as if I was really down with the evolution and transformations of The Fall and I knew what I was talking about.

So, when MES passed away, and I started listening to The Fall in more depth, I set myself a target of listening to every Fall album within two months. This was probably motivated more by university procrastination than anything else, but I thought it was doable.

What I hadn’t realised however, was how irresistibly addictive nearly every album is. I started off with Wonderful and Frightening World again, one which took a very long time for me to finally appreciate, and continued from there. I wish I had the time to do album-by-album reviews, however this is already being done by the YMGTA blog, and this piece would turn into a novel if I even dared to commit to such a task.

What I found on this journey was utter, utter enchantment. In short, it took me 10 months to listen to every album as I would find myself stuck on each one for about three weeks due to a total refusal to move onto the next.

Even the albums generally considered beneath the towering Fall standard still hold essential tracks – ‘Rainmaster’ on Cerebral Caustic, ‘The Reckoning’ on Middle Class Revolt, and, my favourite track of all time, ‘The Birmingham School of Business School’ on Code: Selfish.

And then there are the albums which are swaggering showcases of utter delight. Every record, even those not held up as classic Fall, had a certain charm or appeal – the sinister gloominess of Perverted By Language, the glorious absurdity of Levitate or the simple brilliance of Sub-Lingual Tablet, which I’ve grown to more and more in the past few weeks.

But what I feel is the most overlooked aspect of The Fall is their determined prolificacy. For every era of music, every movement, every decade and every year, there’s The Fall, lurking in wonderful independence in the background. Forget the fads of Britpop, Madchester and 21st century indie, there’s a Fall record to match, or better, any other release of the time and serve a much-needed hit of variation.

And trust The Fall to offer variation. Though some consider it a bit of an experimental, finding-their-feet sort of record, I think The Fall would be the only band ever to open an album with a post-punk stunner, a blues cover and then a demented drum ‘n’ bass frenzy full of Smith’s signature snarls, as they did on 1999’s The Marshall Suite. Who else would dare do that?

What I feel I missed out on however, was the romance of being a Fall fan during their first ten years or so. I get the impression, from the replies I receive on the blog from Fall fans of the time, that there was something special about following this messiah-like figure of Mark E Smith through the multitude of lineup changes and releases. To be a Fall fan, I feel, was to be unlike the others, to spit on the idea of normality and tuneful accessibility.

What’s fantastic, in my opinion, is how dedication to The Fall means dedication. Every fan who I’ve interacted with, be it online or in person (the latter being extremely rare) has an A-Z knowledge of them. I could probably ask anyone on The Mighty Fall Facebook group, for example, what their opinion is on a b-side to a single released in 1995 only in Germany and limited to a thousand copies (a hypothetical, exaggerative though somewhat representative question on the group), and those who’d reply would be true, learned Fall experts and offer their opinion with utter assurance.

It became clear that The Fall were a mesmerising gateway into other-worldly poeticism, destructive aural combat and reward and, of course, the best bass lines ever. As I delved further and further through their discography, it became apparent that all I was listening and discovering was The Fall, all discovery outside of their offerings had ceased. New music, for me, was The Fall.

And with this discovery came the reading. I am yet to read Smith’s Renegade or Simon Wolstencroft’s You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide (which I’ve heard is exceptional), but Brix’s The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise and Steve Hanley’s The Big Midweek were simply magnificent. Hanley’s deadpan outlook on the constant conflicts within the band were simply hilarious, while Brix’s story of simply bumping into Mark at the bar, and subsequently becoming one of the coolest women in rock ‘n’ roll history, was brilliant.

The highlight of The Fall’s story, for me, was the 1988 I Am Kurious Oranj album and theatre production. As stated earlier, who else, but The Fall, would perform their music with ballet by the Michael Clark Dance Company while telling a story about a former pope AND wheel out Brix sitting on a cheeseburger playing guitar?

With this newfound love, I opted on seeing Brix and The Extricated in October to relive some old Fall staples. What I hadn’t imagined, however, was bumping into Brix and Steve Hanley outside the venue.

I think Brix was in pre-performance psyching up mode, so I let her be, and talked to Steve Hanley. I introduced myself, and he was quick to assure me that I was ‘too young to be at this gig’. We talked about the blog (which I think he was aware of at this stage), and he also told me about how ‘Birmingham’ was recorded. Surprised at my love for the track, he commented that everyone viewed that era as keeping up with Madchester. Upon reply from me that I thought the song was much more than that, he assuredly and humorously responded, ‘Yeah, I know’.

That was the closest I’ll ever get to seeing The Fall, and was all in all a brilliant night, the highlight being ‘Glam-Racket’, which was delivered superbly by the group.

However, all of this, the music, the productions, the albums, singles, b-sides, live albums, compilations, whatever else you can think of, would never have happened without a true visionary, a lyrical master and a man so committed to the fans and music.

There’s something completely alien and other-worldly about Mark E Smith which simply can’t be explained. There are many times when I feel we aren’t worthy of receiving the lines he conjures up, particularly between 1980-85; for those who may not be aware of MES’ poetry, refer to ‘New Face In Hell’, ‘The N.W.R.A’, ‘The Classical’ or ‘Paintwork’ for a sample of his genius.

I think the justified obsession with all things MES is summed up when, during a television performance of Extricate track ‘I’m Frank’, he pulls out a guitar for about 10 seconds and plays a quiet chord during the breakdown into the verse. I wasn’t alone in my complete feeling of ‘what’s going on!?’.

I’ve seen on various Fall groups on Facebook the ‘MES is on guitar!’ sort of comments, but the greatest commitment came from The Fall In Fives, who went so far as sampling the brief stint on strings and amping up the volume as much as possible, just so we could all experience this slightly muted jangling sound for ourselves.

I’m not sure it was done from love of the song, but still. It’s stuff like this that could never be replicated by fans of other bands, and goes so far to show how a commitment to consistent releases and output is rewarded by total admiration and adoration. The idea that a man simply picking up a guitar can garner such a response from followers is simply brilliant.

Even with every interview I’ve seen, Smith holds this sort of self-assured superiority, which is respected by himself, the viewer and interviewer. Every line is delivered with secure, acerbic wit and humour in combination with a complete outlook of total awareness to the social environments of everyday people.

I’ll be honest, I don’t think I could stop confessing my absolute love for MES and The Fall. With my friends, I’m known to only ever recommend The Fall to others, and am a constant listener of my career-spanning Fall playlist entitled ‘Fall For The Fall’, which, at the time of writing, has 143 songs. It’s ten hours long, chronologically arranged, and by far the best playlist I have made or will ever make.

Quite simply, The Fall, in any lineup or variation, are the greatest band to have ever existed. And it is abundantly clear that they were probably one of the most devoted bands to their fans and their music ever. And the spearhead of this, the supreme leader, was Mark E Smith.

And to any Fall fan reading: of course, this is a sombre day indeed, and I’ve seen many on Twitter are takings days off and going on pub crawls to commemorate this most sacred of days.

But I think it’s always important to remember what MES remarked on national TV, when the Fall had reached 54th in the charts with This Nation’s Saving Grace: “The followers of The Fall are the salt of the Earth”.

Keep the records spinning, keep the Fall playing, and never forget that fact. RIP Mark E Smith, and thank you for the music.

For The Record #6 – News Of The World / A Song From Under The Floorboards / The Wonderful And Frightening World Of…

Probably the longest title of the FTR series yet, and probably the whole blog…

The Jam make their debut appearance, while Magazine and (obviously) The Fall are back in. Before we begin, my last article about PiL was my second-most viewed piece since I started writing, so thanks to all those who read it for making my awful university exam and coursework period a bit less gloomy and for starting 2019 on a positive step!

Also, I’ve noticed, with my previous FTR articles, that I never talk about where or how I acquired the records I talk about. From here, I’ll give a bit of background to the origins of my collection, and hopefully offer some tips on buying vinyl in the future.

Let’s begin…

News Of The World B/W Aunties and Uncles + Innocent Man – The Jam

This was bought, if I remember correctly, at Spitalfields Market record fair in Liverpool Street for £4. A usual saturday for me was to travel into Central London to the record fair for a quick half-hour peruse of the stock before heading to watch the football (at which club I will not reveal!), so I got to know which stalls had the best punk selections. Other records featured in my articles that I’ve bought from Spitalfields include ‘Hitsville U.K.’, ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ and ‘Making Plans For Nigel’.

To put it simply, I like The Jam. I think the fact they were a trio made them a little more independent and noteworthy compared to their contemporaries, while its hard to deny the influence Paul Weller has had on practically all corners of the musical arena.

However, this, for me, has always proved to be a problem. Throughout secondary education, there were three people everyone into any alternative music wanted to be like, look like, sound like and so on. Considering I grew up in West London, a mighty barrier to achieving these feats had already been put in place.

Number one was Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys. Number two was a mix of Liam/Noel Gallagher and Ian Brown, which meant putting on a generic Manc accent, constantly saying ‘madferit’ and wearing any form of overpriced vintage clothing in sight. I was also the only person who seemed to prefer Blur to Oasis too, which I don’t think particularly helped.

And number three, inevitably, was Paul Weller, or a near-enough incrnation of him, embracing some form of mod look, usually coming in the form of Doc Martens, skinny jeans, Fred Perry polo and Harrington jacket.

I understand this is extreme musical snobbery from me, but this completely turned me off from nearly all of the acts associated with these people. Hearing ‘Town Called Malice’ or ‘Going Underground’ at any gathering for the umpteenth time was a bit too much for me at times, and I could never convince anyone to let me have the music for a song or two (I don’t blame them at all, however).

Admittedly, singles-wise, I have no qualms with The Jam at all – they have some absolute scorchers, yet I could never do a full album. I can’t explain why, I just don’t think they were fully for me, and being insisted upon the same three songs repeatedly is probably why I chose to escape to my hive of obscurity.

Moving on from my adolescent indifference, ‘News Of The World’ is by far my favourite Jam song of all time. I think it’s absolutely stunning. For my generation, the Mock The Week theme tune (apologies, purists) was inevitably our first introduction to its raw energy, albeit in a thirty second snippet.

The full version starts with three-note arpeggios, before erupting into an angsty, punchy punk cruiser. Bruce Foxton (bassist) takes the lead on vocals, while Weller is given free-rein on guitar. Each chord is thumped out with real strength, oozing with glorious might.

To be honest, this is the first time I’ve listened to the song in a very, very long time – I must confess that I’ve missed it greatly – the brilliant ‘Canada-a-a’ line, the emphatic nature of every instrument in the raucous tirade on the ears. It’s simply magnificent.

The guitar solo is pure punk-rockabilly and utterly, utterly triumphant. I think what’s also great about the song is the way it doesn’t stick to verse-chorus structure – every thirty seconds offers a new hit of variation and unpredctability, something which I feel they could’ve played on more over their tenure.

There’s something quite nostalgic about this song, with the ‘read all about it’ line taking me back to the age when I used to watch Mock The Week every thursday night in bed (what was I thinking?). It holds an oddly significant place in my musical memory, particularly as I was an avid viewer of the show.

All in all, a fantastic piece of thumping punk artistry.

‘Aunties and Uncles’ is quite sterile in comparison to the A-side, offering a bit more of an emotional and melodic edge. It’s quite an innocent sounding song – from my ten second revision of the lyrics, I can’t really gather whether it’s a song of appreication or frustration, but it’s certainly pleasant enough. The guitar solo perhaps outstays its welcome a little, but it remains a very listenable number indeed.

Another Foxton-penned number follows with ‘Innocent Man’. It’s another safe song, and again is very pleasant, but I’m starting to feel the fatigue that I seem to always suffer when listening to a few Jam songs in a row that I experienced when I was trying to ‘get’ what everyone loved about them. It’s not as strong as ‘Aunties’, but still offers just about enough to keep you interested, though I think it’s fair to say it’s a tad repetitive and doesn’t offer many surprises.

A strong all-round performance.

A-Side: 4.5/5   B-Side 1: 3/5   B-Side 2: 2/5   Sleeve: 3.5/5

 

A Song From Under The Floorboards B/W Twenty Years Ago – Magazine

This was one of my first ever purchases of vinyl, around 2015, I reckon. I had just started attending the monthly Soundbite record fair in Chiswick, and was quick to grab the record and run.

As mentioned in previous articles, whether they’re the subject or not, Magazine were my first musical obsession. I spent a good year repeatedly playing their first three albums, with each song always offering fantastic lyrical witticisms, utter other-worldliness and a perfect dose of discord to top it all off.

‘Floorboards’, contrarily, is lyrically crushing, extremely down-to-earth, and, frankly, quite beautiful.

As ever, McGeoch leads the pack with a soaring arpeggiated riff gently backed by Adamson on bass and Formula on keys, before bursting into life on the hit of Doyle’s drums. It’s a clinical shot of melancholic enchantment, grabbing you instantly. And if it wasn’t emotional enough, in comes Howard Devoto with two of the most gorgeously sombre opening lines in post-punk history:

I am angry, I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin/My irritability keeps me alive and kicking

Delivered in the most honest and confessional tone possible, the opening thirty seconds are gut-wrenchingly brilliant.

In typical Magazine fashion, the spotlight in the instrumentation moves from McGeoch to Adamson, the bassline waltzing gloriously behind Devoto’s vocals, each hammer-on and slide serving a wonderful touch of masterful expertise which is so commonplace in all of Magazine’s work.

The chorus, too, is gracefully delivered with care and delicacy, Devoto reaching greater levels of moodiness as the song progresses further.

The tune continues in the same vein before the stunning post-chorus eruption of destructive misery and elegance, led by the wonderful ascending riff of the keyboard.

Everything about this song, and I mean everything, is simply delightful. It’s a clear demonstration of the abilities of Devoto and co. in delivering a classy touch to the post-punk edge and composing a tune of absolute importance and strength.

Devoto is back again, this time in total despondency:

Used to make phantoms I could later chase/Images of all that could be desired

Then I got tired of counting all of these blessings/And then I just got tired

It’s such an admittance of defeat, of worthlessness, of complete and utter dejection. Simply stunning.

It concludes with a final chorus, before a notably upbeat outro compared to the offerings in the grooves prior to its departure. Another trick up Magazine’s sleeve, and it works, too.

After this, we’re greeted by a creature that couldn’t be further from the offerings on the other side of the vinyl.

A weird hit of keyboards descends, before pacey, urgent drums kick in with a combative, mostly single-note bassline. Devoto interrupts out of nowhere, and is succeeded by discordant improvisation on the strings by McGeoch.

I’m not sure what feeling, emotion or atmosphere is meant to be evoked from this piece other than that of bemused absurdity – a screeching saxophone makes some awkward appearances too, in a sort of drunken bust-up with Devoto’s high-pitched yelps.

Despite what the previous paragraphs may infer, I actually adore this song, but I could never explain this in any way other than ‘just listen to it!’, in a similar tone to when I attempt to justify the genius of The Fall. It’s a disruptive, raucous mess, but I will defend it with passion. It’s just so odd.

All in all, simple brilliance, featuring on an album that is equally as pleasing and rewarding.

A-Side: 5/5   B-Side: 4/5   Sleeve: 2.5/5

 

The Wonderful and Frightening World Of… LP – The Fall 

Unlike the other records featured, I got this LP as a gift from my Fall-loving uncle in 2017. No stroy to be told here, I’m afraid.

After GrotesqueTWAFW was my next step in discovering The Fall around aged 16. I’d liked what I’d heard on Grotesque, partially because of its simplicity and messiness, but mostly because of the charmingly hilarious words of MES (refer to the first line of ‘New Face In Hell’, for anyone who doesn’t know what I’m on about…).

I don’t know why I took a 4 year step in their discography, particularly as ‘The Classical’ (from 1982’s iconic Hex Enduction Hour) was actually my first ever listening to The Fall from a Spotify discover playlist. I think I just went for the albums with the most eye-catching covers, to be honest.

Anyway, I listened once until the fourth track ‘Elves’, which is where I decided that this album was rubbish. I completely overdid ‘Lay Of The Land’ and gave everything else a half-hearted listen, which is the most I could give it at the time. I just thought it was completely awful.

Silly 16-year-old me.

On a more through venture through The Fall’s discography two years later, where I’d listened to every studio album before TWAFW (apart from Room To Live, which I wrongly construed as a live album), I had a greater appreciation and understanding of The Fall’s sound and background, and went into TWAFW with a bit more open-mindedness and optimism. And, luckily, I loved it. Completely.

I’ve mentioned ‘Lay Of The Land’ in my ‘Opening Tracks’ article, which is an absolutely gory, thumping mess of a song, but it is totally brilliant. Just mind-blowing. It has and always will be a favourite of the fanbase, and rightly so. It seems to know no limits on the levels of how uncaring and thunderous a song can be – it is quite simply magnificent.

TWAFW saw Mark’s first wife Brix enter the fray, bringing with her a more pop-oriented sound showcased by the preceding singles ‘C.R.E.E.P’ and ‘Oh! Brother’, which created contrasting opinions from fans due to the perceived selling-out of the group. No matter what the overall verdict of followers are, we know one of these songs has proven to provide an excellent name for a blog… (and it isn’t Creep, thankfully).

Brix’s key contribution to the album was ‘2×4’, which is a lovely hit of bluesy post-punk, giving Steve Hanley three ten-second gaps to showcase his vitality and presence to the world with an infectiously catchy riff on the bass. An accomplished track indeed.

Now, the next two songs are quite simply a punch in the face of orderliness. ‘Copped It’ appears out of no where, with a jarring, high-pitched guitar chord and a dancing bassline. Gavin Friday, who I hadn’t heard of before hearing this album, offers very eerie ‘Hey, hey, hey’ interludes between Smitth’s vocals, with an occasional ‘Sing that song!’ which sounds like a grotesquely ugly soul song trying to force it’s way into a Fall tune.

Admittedly, it works magnificently. The best moment of the song, for me, comes during the gradual ramp up in volume, before Smith erupts with a cry of ‘Taking out a policy on war and destruction!’, before the song concludes with some even stranger ‘Bawoo-bap-bap’ vocals from Brix. So odd.

As mentioned by just about any commentator of The Fall, ‘Elves’ is Brix’s inadvertent rip-off of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, but despite the quite blatant plagiarism, it remains a treat. There’s a bit of an angst to the vocals which matches the gloominess of the instruments very aptly, while the weird (I’ll call it) ‘Oof’ noise is also very endearing.

Side Two kicks off with probably the most accomplished track on the album, ‘Slang King’, which is best summed up by The Fall In Fives as simply sounding like ‘music from another planet’. I don’t really feel I can do this song justice with any sort of theorising or gushing description, simply because a) there’s no words to aptly justify its brilliance, b) it’s so, so weird and c) it contains the lines ‘Three little girls with only 50 pence/Had to take, had to put/The Curly Wurly back’. What am I meant to say about it?

Annoyingly, I’ve also got little to say about its follower ‘Bug Day’, which is just quite lethargic, slow, and, to be honest, boring. In fairness, it’s the only real drop in quality for the whole album, so I think it can be forgiven.

‘Stephen Song’ is brilliant. A very addictive melody that sounds like an anthem of victory or triumph. Gavin Friday returns for some more ad-libbing and is all the more welcome for it. His voice is an ethereal offset for the brashness of MES’ rants, and on B-side ‘Clear Off!’, not featured on the album, I think his performance is sublime. Brix’s backing vocals fit wonderfully in with the jubilance of the song, and all in all it’s an assured piece of work. It was the song I remembered most from the brief listening I gave this album before moving onto This Nation’s, and one that I always welcome whenever it comes on.

‘Craigness’ is a bit more chilling and challenging, one that has never been a particularly memorable part of The Fall’s back catalogue for me. It’s alright, y’know. What follows is infinitely better, though.

‘Disney’s Dream Debased’ has always been an ethereal favourite of mine, ranking in second in my article on The Fall’s best closing tracks. To have such a grim background story to the song (have a look online if you’re interested) and yet create this juxtaposingly uplifting tune requires a level of musical awareness and understanding which is unparalelled. Wonderful. And frightening. (Apologies).

It really is a classic, understated album. The freshness of the songs and the imagination that went into to every note shows with the result of the album, and while it has a few shortcomings, it is still a vital and delightful record, and one that I feel completely chuffed to own.

Side One: 4.5/5   Side Two: 4.5/5   Sleeve: 4.5/5

Musical Epiphanies #5 – Public Image Ltd

This piece, much like the first Musical Epiphanies piece, doesn’t put the spotlight on a certain release or album; rather, it will focus on two television appearances by John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd, during the promotion of their seminal second album Metal Box (or Second Edition, whichever takes your fancy).

PiL, for me, epitomise what post-punk should sound like. Along with acts such as Wire, Magazine, The Slits and Killing Joke, there’s an undeniable bravery and courage in the music they meticulously mastered, which took ideas of genre and style to the absolute limits of anyone’s imagination and scope.

Take First Issue – the opening track ‘Theme’ was summed up aptly by the NQGRD blog as ‘worth the price of admission alone’, while it also, of course, featured the classic track ‘Public Image’, which I feel is an often overlooked and sometimes forgotten masterpiece of the movement.

The Flowers of Romance, subject of another article of mine, is probably one of the most outlandishly stunning records ever released. Traditional structure and form was thrown out the window and smashed to pieces as experimentation was given a new standard, and, without a bassist, one of the most gloomily surreal albums ever was distributed to the masses.

However, I think it’s almost universally accepted that their second effort Metal Box is the defining moment of their discography. Blending the sounds of dub, punk and goth (to name a few) PiL embarked on the creation of one of the most influential albums of all time.

With this album came the television appearances. I focus on two which have always remained strong favourites of mine. Though some enjoy the absurdity of their performance on Bandstand and the filthy anger of Jah Wobble after a performance of Chant (for which programme I can’t seem to figure out…), I’ve always preferred the moments of artistic brilliance. Firstly, I’ll look at their performance of ‘Death Disco’ on Top Of The Pops, before going onto the stunning OGWT performance of ‘Poptones’ and ‘Careering’.

‘Death Disco’ – Top Of The Pops – 1979

Now, credit has to go to TOTP for allowing this to broadcast. For even thinking about letting this go on air. For imagining for a second that PiL were the right band for the show. I’m convinced they hadn’t actually heard the song before they played it. And credit again, for TOTP, for letting Lydon sing it live, in all its glorious ugliness. Even the visual effects, often terribly wheeled-out on TOTP, were absolutely perfect for capturing the utter macabre of the moment.

Look at the state of it – Lydon, headphones on, swinging around on the mic, wailing and crying out disgusting, high-pitched gargles, placing his gaze on anywhere but the camera, and Jah Wobble with his teeth blacked out, grinning at the camera while sitting down playing the bass. It’s magnificent, isn’t it?

I’ve always loved this song, the thumping disco beat contradicted by the scratchy mess of strings offered by Levene, a reggae-esque bassline from Wobble and, of course, Lydon’s soaring yelps.

But what absolutely sticks with me is that families, children, mums and dads, sitting in their living rooms for a usual innocent serving of TOTP (mostly) tripe, were instead welcomed by this. The punk panto-villain, who they all thought they’d got rid of, on their TV screens yet again, screaming the least tuneful, most aggressive vocals they’d probably ever witnessed, and giving the biggest metaphorical middle finger to TOTP custom ever recorded.

A fantastic YouTube comment by ‘Sometimes I Talk’ just about sums up the whole dire affair:

And now, for all you cool, hip teens out there, here’s John Lydon singing about his dead mother.

Everything about this performance spits in the face of normality. A disco song about a dying Mother, Metal Box era PiL on Top of The Pops, Lydon’s near demented demeanour. It’s simply stunning. For the deluge of disgusted parents and pensioners, I imagine they were matched by an admiring army of post-punk puritans in total amazement at the performance, at their band, being shown on TV, on the BBC, to the frightened masses who just want their weekly hit of soft-boring-stupid-pop. I’m sure this gained them no fans whatsoever, but I’m also sure that was the point.

It’s a callous, uncaring mess. And it’s simply marvellous.

*There’s another version on YouTube which sounds cleaner than this one, but I thought the poor recording added to the debacle somehow..

‘Poptones’ and ‘Careering’ – Old Grey Whistle Test – 1980 

Now, OGWT is the kind of place where you’d expect to find PiL.

‘Poptones’, in my opinion, is the best song PiL ever made. Even at over seven-and-a-half-minutes on the album, it never outstays its welcome and is always such a brilliant listen. This version may just trump it, however.

The drums are slightly muted, a bit damp sounding, Levene’s guitar sounds even more ethereal and even more beautiful. As a song, the layering, the texture, it’s unarguably genius. Lydon’s vocals are slow, drawn-out and longing, offering the wonderful flavour of discord that epitomised PiL’s sound.

Looking at the musicians, I’d argue that there was a clear respect for this song which was a level above the others – it’s played with admiration for the composition, an understanding that this song demands more delicacy and appreciation than others. It’s absolutely beautiful. All of the band stand still for practically the whole performance, letting the elegance slowly ooze out onto the set, and embrace the living rooms of the viewers at home.

Every effort, whether it be on percussion, strings or voice, is executed so exquisitely, with such attention to every detail. Lydon looks genuinely effected by this song in some way, even his facial expression seems to match his mourning vocals, and make the experience that extra bit more emotional.

The three minute mark sees the start of the finest moment of the performance. The guitar and rhythm section grasp a higher level of volume, matched by Lydon, and reach a more urgent, almost desperate level of sorrow.

The song ends – Lydon poises, takes off his jacket, and throws it on the floor. Atkins slams the snare drum, and incomes a huge whining drone from the keyboard, matched by a classic Wobble bassline. ‘Careering’ kicks into life intently. Like ‘Death Disco’, it’s ugly, it’s grim, but it’s oh-so good.

Levene is blatantly loving his stint on the keyboard combined with the muted cuts of the guitar. The beat is fantastic, and Lydon is adopting his usual offering of croons and barks. He seems almost possessed by a potent rage that had been restrained during ‘Poptones’, shaking as he grabs the mic stand, letting out a manic scream after the line ‘is this living?’.

Everything about this shouldn’t work. Nothing should go together. There’s no tuneful agreement between the keyboard and bass, the drums are a more punky groove than usual, and Lydon is basically letting out a stream-of-consciousness revolving around the word ‘living’. And yet. Everything is so, so right. In it’s correct place, where it should all belong. Credit to OGWT this time – the visual effects do the song a huge favour too.

On the album, the song is much more of a challenge, and, again, the OGWT version is a class above the studio version. You have to put it down to raw, live energy, and the actual personification of the atmosphere both songs create. You can truly witness the unfolding of this strange, unexplainable rage that Lydon holds within and Levene’s utter disregard for aural-comfort with the sharp hits of keyboard.

And after a few more jumps on the pitch of the keyboard, the song slows, there’s a final restrained cough of guitar, before Lydon does this ape-like movement, growls ‘That’ll Do’ and gives off one final yell.

The camera returns to Annie Nightingale in the studio. She looks as if she’s witnessed a horrific crime, her eyes fixed on the camera. She announces urgently, yet softly, ‘That is the most powerful performance I’ve seen on Whistle Test’. I’m afraid I’d have to agree with her on that too.

Both performances sum up why they were such a force in their first few years. There was a proud separation from absolutely everything that characterised their sound and persona, from the PiL logo to the Metal Box album. It was always dark, always other-worldly and always like nothing you’d ever heard or seen before.