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

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 #5 – Hitsville U.K. / Watching The Detectives / The Head On The Door LP

Strangely, my Dad has bought another old stereo stack (as he did in my first For The Record article) which my Mum rightly declared his ‘new toy’ having played, after only owning the stack for a few hours, half of Siouxsie and The Banshees’ Kaleidoscope and introducing me to Basement 5, who weren’t too shabby at all…

This is, of course, another opportunity for me to annex the living room and play my records. As I write this introduction, ‘New Big Prinz’ by The Fall is being thumped out the speakers, killing all Christmas sterility and calm that is always lovingly embraced by my parents.

This article features three bands I have only ever made passing references to. I consider myself (in no particular order) to adore one, very much like another and have an appreciation for the third.

Hitsville U.K. B/W Radio One – The Clash & Mikey Dread

I love The Clash immensely; they were my favourite band until I got into The Fall and offer just about every genre you could possibly ask for across their existence. ‘Straight To Hell’ is one of my favourite songs of all time, and there is never a time when they’re excluded from regular listening.

However, I’ve refrained from writing about The Clash for the entirety of the blog for a number of reasons. One being that talking too much about traditional punk left me stumbling over myself in terms of vocabulary, another is the fact that I own very little Clash vinyl, but the main one being that it’s so easy to write about The Clash.

By this, I mean that I think just about everything that needs to be said has been said about them by practically everyone. The only way I could write about them was to write about (probably) their least mentioned and least favoured single by both their fan base and the generic media tributes that come their way, which usually feature ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ or ‘Rock The Casbah’, both of which do very little for me in terms of enjoyment.

What gives this single a twist is that the B-side is by reggae artist Mikey Dread, a longtime friend of The Clash who magnificently produced the album which ‘Hitsville’ features on, Sandinista!, which is perhaps my favourite Clash album, though this title does change on an hourly basis.

‘Hitsville’ has always been a song that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, both as an album track and a single. At a Strummerville benefit (previously mentioned in my Joe Strummer article) it seemed to me that I was the only one who enjoyed its showing, so much so that my singing-along earned a look of positive acknowledgment from the singer Catherine Popper.

On the album, it follows classic opener ‘The Magnificent Seven’, and offsets the intensity of its predecessor very nicely, led by a jaunty bassline combined with soft, female vocals, sang by Mick Jones’ then-girlfriend Ellen Foley.

The song is about the growing indie scene in the UK as the 1980s commenced – I’m not sure if it’s a criticism of it, or just an observation, but I’m fairly convinced it’s probably a satirical response to the disapproval they received after controversially signing with CBS.

It’s got a comfortable soul-pop-rock vibe, and runs its course very gently while backed by the piss-taking lyrics about using ‘stolen guitars’ or releasing records ‘without the slightest hope of one thousand sales’.

To me, it seems a little hypocritical of the left-leaning Clash to brag about the number of sales they make with their records, though this doesn’t bother me enough to spit out my tea and shout ‘Champagne London socialists!’, buy the latest issue of The Morning Star and start growing an unfashionably large beard.

The song doesn’t offer much in terms of variation, but, for what it is, is a solid offering of experimentation from The Clash. I understand why the punk purists wouldn’t like it – it’s a little bit clean and soft, but to depart from the critical acclaim of London Calling into an abyss of improvisation in Sandinista!, and for it to receive the praise it did, is remarkable in itself.

The B-side is interesting. I had a mini phase with Mikey Dread about a year ago, which coincided with a rediscovery of Junior Murvin. As I recall, I listened to one album of Dread’s, which I’m pretty sure I enjoyed.

His number ‘Radio One’ kicks off with some radio static before a soft, ascending riff and into a simple but effective reggae beat. The lyrics appear to centre around the idea that reggae doesn’t get the airtime it deserves as DJs ‘have no idea, not even a clue/Of how reggae was created by me and by you’.

In truth, it’s nothing special. It’s quite a tinny production as reggae goes – there’s a severe lack of heavy bass, though this judgement may be due to my preference for dub.

I can’t claim to know about reggae as a whole, and I’m probably one of those reviewers who doesn’t ‘get’ reggae, but I can imagine it got very little coverage in the British music media around 1981, so Dread probably has a point. However, this isn’t one his strongest moments, nor is it a particularly bad one. I see it as The Clash helping out a mate, more than anything.

As a whole, a mostly positive showing from the grooves, though The Clash ultimately triumph over their producer.

A-Side: 4/5   B-Side: 2.5/5   Sleeve: 3/5

Watching The Detectives B/W Blame It On Cain + Mystery Dance – Elvis Costello

‘Watching The Detectives’ was my introduction to Elvis Costello via my Spotify discover playlist. I generally approve of Costello, some of the 1980s stuff is a bit too 80s, but his first three albums are absolutely stunning. ‘Shipbuilding’, known more for its Robert Wyatt cover than anything else, is an absolute masterpiece in my eyes.

And so is ‘WTD’. It doesn’t get much better than this, does it? It probably doesn’t get much more misleading to an artist’s sound – as far as I’m aware, he doesn’t really play around with reggae at all after this release.

It’s a very moody, intense song, complimented by Costello’s almost scathing vocals. Every instrumental part is simply perfect. They’re all very sparse, the quiet scratchy guitar, the slow, nearly solitary drums, but it’s a showcase of expertise in musical texture and production.

I think what is great about this song is the way the angry, powerful parts feature in the first half of the song – the reluctant rage comes close to all-out anger, but is never fully recognised. The final minute and a half or so, meanwhile, becomes an instrumental conversation; it’s a gentle simmering of emotion compared to the brashness of the previous minutes.

‘Blame It On The Cain’ is a very pleasant song, fronted by a bluesy chord sequence and a swinging drum groove before entering a fairly powerful chorus. As a whole, you can definitely nod your head to it, and Costello’s vocals are very strong. It’s very easy listening that offers a nice introduction to the usual Costello offering without the burden of generic commercialism. One of the stronger B-sides I’ve reviewed so far.

‘Mystery Dance’ is much more blatant in its taking of the blues formula, and sounds a bit plastic-50s, in my opinion. It’s certainly strong, but perhaps veering away from blues on the B-sides would’ve been somewhat more satisfying. In fairness, it certainly doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, clocking in at one minute thirty-six seconds. It’s decent, but nothing to shout about.

Overall, a very listenable single indeed.

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

The Head On The Door LP – The Cure 

For me, The Cure are one of those artists that can be so utterly fantastic yet, at times, so difficult. The ‘difficult’ bits for me are 1987’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and post-Wish 1990s output, which I’ve found so forgettable and throwaway.

However, they still remain true innovators of their time, and also one of my favourite artists. I think they’re similar to the likes of The Fall, New Order or Public Image Ltd in continuously changing their sound and toying around with all ideas of genre and difference to generally high levels of success.

The Head On The Door, I feel, is a materialisation of a mostly consistent sound after the hit-and-miss experimentation seen in 1983’s Japanese Whispers and 1984’s somewhat forgettable The Top (which, incidentally, holds one of my favourite Cure songs of all time, ‘Dressing Up’). It also saw Smith become a much more romantically-driven lyricist, which is backed up by the more than melancholic instrumental accompaniments to the mournful croons and cries.

The most obvious feature of THOTD, however, is the singles. Never had The Cure been so accessible and commercial in their existence.

And it’s the lead single which gloriously kicks off the album with one of the most iconic drum fills and introductions of the 1980s. ‘Inbetween Days’ is an objective piece of total brilliance. The main hook, the pacey acoustic guitar and the longing lyrics are simply magnificent. It’s a thumping, timeless classic.

We receive the final ‘Without you’ from Smith, before being welcomed by one of the less iconic drum fills and introductions of the 1980s. ‘Kyoto Song’ is certainly creepy, but not particularly listenable or likeable. It really doesn’t do much for me at all, and I feel this effort was probably the result of a very odd jam-session. ‘The Blood’ is also quite weak, taking a leaf out of the opening track’s book with the speedy acoustic guitar , but it isn’t one of those songs that would ever be championed by any Cure fan, I imagine.

‘Six Different Ways’ is a dreamy, child-like song, the main hook sounding like a theme from a children’s TV show, but it’s very strangely gratifying – odd, but also very innocent, complimented fittingly by Smith’s angsty vocals. Very strong.

Side one closes with ‘Push’ which is a much more emphatic and effective hit of sorrow than its predecessors. The guitar line is strong, and the introduction develops nicely, but I don’t feel it merits the near two-and-a-half-minute showcasing it gets, though I think I’m just being a bit pedantic. Again, Smith’s vocals are performed brilliantly, which resurrects the song from the labouring introduction and gives it an extra edge. Not a bad finish to the first side at all.

Side two kicks off with ‘The Baby Screams’ which just isn’t for me. I’m usually more than welcoming to 80s electronic hand-claps, but not here, I’m afraid. There’s a little too much going on in the outro, and it all fades out quite limply.

No worry, however. It’s the second stunning single, ‘Close To Me’, that comes next. The album version is minus the saxophone solos, but this is of little concern. How anyone can deny the strength of this song is beyond me – from the bassline to the overall structure and infectious vocals, it’s another masterpiece from an era which saw The Cure release unbelievable single after single.

Following track ‘A Night Like This’ is also very sturdy. A very powerful hook with just a touch of distortion offers the motif of the song, and the backing as a whole is extremely satisfying. This, to me, with a tiny bit of gothic configuration, could slot seamlessly in 1989’s classic Disintegration, both in terms of sound and quality – it’s masterful.

‘Screw’ is nothing to shout about again – it’s quite discordant, which appeals to me, though the overall sound doesn’t sound very complete or sure in itself. There’s random additions of either edited vocals or dreamy rattling sounds which further pushes the dysfunction.

And then we come to the closer, ‘Sinking’. I’ve mentioned in previous articles that I am a huge, huge fan of a good bassline with a gothic twang. This pretty much epitomises it for me.

Starting with a crash of untuneful piano, we are greeted by this absolutely wonderful, dancing bassline and dragged into a dreamy, dark and delirious Cure world. The discord in this song offers so much more than ‘Screw’ – every part is where it should be and always has something to offer to the ears. The best part for me are the drawn out notes on the keyboard, adding an extra atmospheric edge to the composition.

Smith’s previously romantic vocals become this eerily spoken admission of failure, ‘I am slowing down/As the years go by/I am sinking’, with ‘sinking’ darkly reverberated over and over. It’s a serious stab in the heart for those who’d got use to hopeless romantic Cure; it’s almost a final, deathly goodbye to the traditional goth sound they pioneered.

Suddenly, striking guitar chords fly in, and the song is given an extra hit of anxiety and intensity, Smith briefly moving into falsetto to combat the powerful hits, before all returns to an even more unsettling norm.

It continues on its usual course, with a new chilling and cutting guitar line overseeing the slow demise of the song, before crashing out with a final hit of the keyboard and a brief visit of an unnerving two-note riff.

‘Sinking’ is, with the singles, the realisation of the sound that was trying to be achieved on THOTD, and is simply marvellous. What a closer. 

All in all, it’s a consistently strong album. Where it suffers is in trying to hard to attain a certain sound. With a bit of tinkering and stripping back, ‘Screw’ and ‘Push’ could be greatly improved without compromising the overall sound of the album, and could subsequently improve the overall enjoyment of the record.

Nonetheless, it has many merits. Both sides offer some absolute scorchers, but also a couple of songs which let the respective parts down. I think I’m still being a little pedantic, though. It shows The Cure opening the door to the commercial adoration they rightly deserved with an album of immense quality and offering.

Side One: 3.5/5   Side Two: 4/5   Sleeve: 4/5

 

 

For The Record #1 – Telephone Thing / What Do I Get? / Dazzle Ships LP

On a visit home from university last weekend, I came to find a turntable atop an old stacked stereo that my Dad had bought on eBay. I also came to discover my order of three Fall records (I Am Kurious Oranj, Couldn’t Get Ahead and Telephone Thing) waiting for me on the kitchen table, only my second acquisition of any Fall vinyl.

So, what else was I meant to do other than invade and occupy my living room for the next hour playing my records whilst annoying my Dad for not letting him watch TV in peace? He doesn’t even like The Fall that much, which gave me extra incentive to fully disrupt the harmony that he became so accustomed to in my absence.

Over the weekend I brought my vinyl down from my room to the living room to sit and listen, from Roxy Music to Harry J. All Stars to Au Pairs, to the extent that Dad offered me the turntable to take back to university – how could I refuse?

From there, a new series of prospective articles was formed – me going on about a couple of records an article, reviewing and rating them, and blabbering on about how authentic it is to put the needle on the groove, because no one has ever written about that. Very original from me indeed!

I’ll start with two singles and one album – The Fall’s (obviously) ‘Telephone Thing’, Buzzcocks’ ‘What Do I Get?’, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark’s brilliant ‘Dazzle Ships’.

Telephone Thing B/W British People In Hot Weather

My first hearing of Telephone Thing was a four or five second interlude in an interview with Mark E. Smith, with Smith walking around in the video looking so bored with everything, as usual. Something about the song seemed very peculiar, quite a funky beat (originally written by electronic duo Coldcut) mixed with a discordant bassline that was surprisingly quite satisfying, as if any flirtation with commercial success must come with the price of barely tuned inaccessibility and a complete departure from the ‘sound’ of The Fall.

I listened in full quite a while later – I was heavily dedicated to listening to 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace before going further into the late 80s and early 90s in The Fall’s discography. I finally listened in full and was automatically in love with it. I loved the minimalism of it, there’s no real chorus, there’s no real verse, there’s no real anything structurally speaking – it’s so odd.

What’s even more odd, yet even more brilliant, is their performance on The Late Show in 1990. I always thought its as if the rhythm section has been told to simply do their usual thing, while Coldcut and Smith just improvise with whatever sounds they can make. Smith seems to laugh throughout the whole performance, and I’m one hundred percent sure he loses track of where he is in the song – about five seconds after every instrument has stopped, he loudly slurs one more “I’m tapped-ah!” – it’s all a bit ridiculous, but makes for essential viewing simply for its absurdity.

The B-side British People is okay – I find the synths very outdated, a bit cheesy to be frank, but it’s a satisfying enough song to listen to. Still, a bit forgettable compared to other Fall material of the time. But the headline act makes for essential Fall listening; definitely an accessible yet quintessential starting point for any first-time listener of The Fall.

The sleeve is beautiful – I love the Extricate period artwork, it’s quite abstract yet still minimalist, a perfect epitome of The Fall sound in vision.

A-Side: 4/5  –  B-Side: 2/5  –  Sleeve: 5/5

 

What Do I Get? B/W Oh Shit

I’ve always had a soft spot for Buzzcocks, both with and without Howard Devoto. I think everyone has heard ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ at some point, whether it’s the original recording or some horrible American teen film cover that loots every bit of punk sentimentality out of it. However, it’s comforting to know that they will definitely live on through the ages.

What Do I Get? is a real piece of pure joy. I bought the 7” single on my first ever trip to a record fair in 2014, and it hasn’t lost any of its rawness. The gentle fade into the explosion of the first chord is absolutely sublime – you can’t complain. It’s energy, much like many of Buzzcocks’ other singles, is totally incomparable. It’s prime punk.

It is a shame, however, that this classic was used in a McDonald’s advert advertising chicken wraps. Admittedly, however, I can’t deny the real sense of punk rock and coolness in the assemblage of mid-market ingredients within a tortilla by a stereotypical goth girl who flirts with male customers while squeezing barbeque sauce onto a piece of round bread. It’s what Iggy would’ve wanted.

The B-side is total carnage, a bit childish, but still indispensable Buzzcocks. I love the ending, the repeated shouting of ‘Admit! Admit! You’re shit! You’re shit! You’re shit!’ and so on. Very angsty, very listenable. The sleeve is minimal, it doesn’t really evoke anything emotionally. Nice enough, though.

A great single that has perhaps lost its way given its current re-emergence, but still a scintillating listen.

A-Side: 5/5  –  B-Side 3/5  –  Sleeve: 2/5

Dazzle Ships

Now then. I can categorically say that this album changed my outlook on music. Easily in my top five albums of all time. It’s truly astounding artistry.

What’s even better is that I bought this album in a record shop simply because of the sleeve – I knew Enola Gay by OMD, but that was about it. In fact, I’d never even listened to any 1980s synth outside of Enola Gay at all – I was totally unknowing of what the grooves would hold. But everything about the Peter Saville sleeve and the gatefold opening totally took me. I had to have it.

However, my first listen was one of bemusement to say the least. I was only 16 and had never really been exposed to music that wasn’t of a traditional verse-chorus structure. I didn’t understand the weird naval sounds, the slowness of it, its atmosphere was just too unsettling for me.

I shelved it for a year or so. It didn’t really cross my mind for a while until I started to listen to OMD’s earlier albums – I loved tracks such as ‘Messages’, ‘Souvenir’ and ‘Sealand’, the latter being the most similar in style to the songs of Dazzle Ships. Naturally, I returned to Dazzle Ships, this time with a more open mind, a greater eagerness to listen, even. And then it hit me.

It had this total other-worldliness which transported me to a realm of global tension and nuclear fear. It was still as unnerving and unsettling as the first listen, but one that challenges you, invites you to immerse yourself in this dark fantastical world.

Radio Prague kicks off the album, a cheery radio theme tune with eerie interludes of silence – it’s so chilling, so tense, an impending sense of something unsettlingly indescribable seems to wait around the corner. What follows is pure triumph – lead single Genetic Engineering comes in with solitary hi-hats, the tension of its predecessor still lurking in the surrounding silence. It crashes into euphoric life, McCluskey’s vocal rise and fall with electric elegance, a tribal roar leading a synth-induced fever of power.

There are weird moments, of course – ABC Auto-Industry is strange, ethereal yet also oddly innocent, while Dazzle Ships (II, III and VII) is so dark, the most chilling track of the album yet still as relevant and important as any other on the album. But the album closes with the beautiful, sorrowful Of All The Things We’ve Made – it’s Cure-esque in its mourning, yet maintains the synth influence of OMD brilliantly; a truly understated classic.

I wasn’t particularly surprised to find that the album was panned on first release in 1983 – it’s a total departure from the commercial melody-based OMD of its predecessors, but as time has passed it’s become a cult classic, a historical piece illustrating the anxiety of a nation in deep political turmoil.

All in all, a masterpiece. I don’t usually buy records simply for the sleeve, but I imagine my musical world wouldn’t have been as mythical without it.

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

 

Next: For The Record #2

The Fall Obituary

My first true journalistic piece, I wrote this article in late February for my university magazine in a ‘Broken-Up Bands’ feature a few weeks after Mark E. Smith’s death.

Basically a print version of me parading the campus wearing an ‘I Love The Fall Even Though They Confuse Me Sometimes’ shirt, I aimed to get some innocent, anonymous reader to acknowledge who and what The Fall were, stick ‘Pay Your Rates’ or ‘Jawbone and the Air Rifle’ on, listen in mild confusion and swiftly leave, questioning what the hell they’d just heard – standard protocol for all first listens of The Fall, I believe.

I thought many articles on the feature had been somewhat self-indulgent and missed the point, focusing on the author’s love for the artist rather than the artists themselves and their impact as a whole. So I felt I had done their legacy justice to some extent – it’s difficulty to know if you comprehensively can with The Fall.

But anyway, nothing says artistic justice like an article about The Fall, written by a middle-class student from the South, for a middle-class university’s magazine about how great they were. Exactly what Mark would’ve wanted, right?

‘Hey student, You’re gonna get it through the head’

*

Mark E. Smith’s death in January gave us a timely reminder of what two things The Fall have taught us about musical endeavour over their spellbinding career: You can write critically acclaimed albums of songs consisting only of two guitar chords complimented by absurdly obscure vocals, and it is possible to maintain prolific commendation and musical output despite the coming and going of 66 different members over 42 years. On the topic, Smith famously jibed “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall”.

My first experience of The Fall was in 2016 when listening to their third album Grotesque (After The Gramme), released in 1980. A politically charged bleak outlook on Thatcherite Britain, it opened my eyes to how musical and lyrical creation could be so effortless, humorous and minimalist; the first track ‘Pay Your Rates’ sees Smith rhyme ‘rates’ with itself fourteen times, for example. The album took on themes such as conspiracy theories, the middle-class’ adoption of punk and the lack of career opportunities for the working-class, with Smith’s signature lyrical satirising of all he saw shining through time and time again; “The lower-class, want brass, bad chests, scrounge fags/The clever ones tend to emigrate” he quips in ‘English Scheme’.

Delving deeper into their goldmine discography, the brilliance of The Fall becomes clearer and clearer – Hex Enduction Hour (1982) is an astounding piece of artistry – commanding, jarring and utterly compelling; The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (1984) offers immense bassline driven headbangers, while The Infotainment Scan (1993) sees Smith and co. take on Madchester beats in an enthralling journey of indie-dance experimentation.

Admittedly, on first listening The Fall can be extremely difficult to follow. They are exceptionally idiosyncratic, reject the current trends of the day and demand great patience from the audience – Smith remarked in 1990 “We do make deliberate decisions to alienate people”, owing to their abrasive and repetitive song structure and production. Though with time you begin to welcome their sounds with open arms. It is impossible to resist the thundering chord sequence of ‘Mr Pharmacist’, the sheer speed and velocity of ‘Jawbone and the Air Rifle’ or the hectic, distorted mess that is ‘Lay of the Land’. I could go on, though I fear the list may be everlasting, perhaps never ending.

Smith’s death – bringing with it the end of The Fall – symbolises a growing disappearance of a vital era for musical creativity, both poetically and instrumentally. The post-punk breed has lost an extravagant yet solitary figure of anti-fashion that broke all rules of conformity and trend, offering up 31 albums of pure rejection and retreat, yet remaining as current, confrontational and up front as physically possible. They are one of a kind, though they’d probably reject that too.