I originally intended this article to be five of my favourite opening tracks of the punk era; in the pipeline were Definitive Gaze by Magazine, Theme by Public Image Ltd and The Holy Hour by The Cure – a promising array of variety from bands I’m yet to write about and utterly adore.
However, it dawned on me that my list was becoming more and more dominated by Fall openers, until eight of the twelve openers I toyed with writing about were The Fall. Obsessed? Maybe. Narrow-minded? Probably. Ashamed? Never! Why should I be?! I’m the original big-shot blogger!
(That’s a Fall reference for those wondering – U.S. 80s-90s to be precise – and one that’s quite ignorant of the many Fall blogs and forums that have existed even before I was born; but I digress…)
Some of these Fall openers had strayed totally out of the punk and post punk era, rendering them unfit for purpose, but were simply too good to be ignored. So why not give them their own article? They made 31 albums, they must know a thing or two, surely?
Here’s five of my favourites, in order from the ones I love the least to the most.
(An honourary mention goes to R.O.D., Pay Your Rates and DIY Meat – three favourite Fall openers that only just missed the cut.)
- Sing! Harpy – Extricate, 1990.
On first listen, I was somewhat lost – had The Fall taken a radical turn after Brix’s departure, becoming an awful string quartet in one of Mark E. Smith’s more ill-advised changes of musical direction? A temporary Room To Live-esque departure from critical acclamation and adoration?
Fortunately, no. Instead, their power had been ramped up a level. As soon as the first thunderous chord smashes into life, you’re hooked. It’s so powerful, so contagious. I’ve always viewed Extricate as an album musically above nearly all Fall albums in terms of production and musicianship, feeling that the repeated-riff wonders of Brix’s time were somewhat wearing thin by The Frenz Experiment. Sing! Harpy is a triumphant return to the bassline-driven Fall, irresistible in its immensity and energy.
What makes Sing! so special are Smith’s lyrics – a totally childish ‘Fuck you!’ to ex-wife and former lead guitarist Brix, slagging off her, her father and her new partner classical violinist Nigel Kennedy. Smith violently slurs every line in utter disgust at his subject. It’s quite an explosive outburst after less than a year apart; certainly not Smith’s finest hour, though one more memorable than most.
It’s a brilliant start to a brilliant album, an album that showcases the ease at which they write such penetrating songs, yet with the delicacy and flair only so many will ever achieve.
- Frenz – The Frenz Experiment, 1988.
To me, TFE has always been a forgettable album. I’ve listened to it a lot, yet I could never tell you how ‘Carry Bag Man’ or ‘The Steak Place’ go. It sits as an idle part of The Fall’s discography, particularly as it was released only months before the superb I Am Kurious Oranj, a much-needed musical shake up of The Fall’s output.
However, Frenz is a stunning start to the album. A beautiful piece of musical craftwork that exudes an ominously calm atmosphere, cleverly combined with Smith’s mournful lyrics, confessing ‘My friends don’t amount to one hand’ – a much more reflective, sombre Smith than usual.
It’s songs like Frenz that make you wonder whether TFE could have been so much more. It’s so much more advanced and matured than TFE songs like Oswald Defence Lawyer, that frustratingly trudges along uninspiringly before finding an unnatural end to itself.
Instead, we find ourselves with an utterly compelling and elaborate piece that is an absolute cut above its successors that’s so apparent in both its simplicity and sophistication.
- Lay of The Land – The Wonderful and Frightening World of…, 1984.
Now, if we are to call Sing! Harpy a powerful song, then Lay of The Land is something else altogether.
A cataclysmic, chaotic and callous conglomeration of layer upon layer of noise and destruction, Lay of The Land defies all belief in how far absolute musical brute force can go. What starts as a commanding yet relatively harmless guitar track becomes an absolute monster of obliteration; it’s practically unthinkable that Smith’s vocal efforts remain so controlled throughout the tune.
As ever with The Fall, LOTL showcases another staggering Hanley bassline that waltzes in glorious carelessness to the pandemonium around it. I think it’s safe to say that this is the heaviest The Fall ever got in terms of texture and distortion, at a time when guitarists Scanlon and Brix were at a creative peak that maintained, if not improved, into 1985 album This Nation’s Saving Grace.
I love this song, its explosiveness, its hedonism, its total disregard for all around it. From its cult-like chant beginning to its final ‘BOOM’ line, it’s a victorious guitar track that stands unchallenged in its absolute anarchy and autonomy, an essential song for all first-time listeners of The Fall that kicks off one of the most influential and understated albums of the 1980s
- The Classical – Hex Enduction Hour, 1982.
Speaking of powerful basslines…
What an absolute belter this is. Sheer undeniable class. Hex was the second album I ever listened to by The Fall, and it has always stuck with me. There’s no greater lines than ‘Hey there, fuckface! Hey there, fuckface-ah!’ to try and win over an unknowing listener and grab their attention.
I think this song utilises the Hanley-Burns drum line up most effectively – the combination of Hanley’s infectious grooves with Burns’ almost tribal fills are a joy to listen to, while the force of Riley and Scanlon’s guitars continuously develop into complete bedlam. But the bassline. What more is there to say. It’s just so so good – the deserved headline act in an uncontrollable festival of disorder.
To be honest, this section could easily be how to start, maintain and finish an album. Everything about Hex is indisputable, every song as masterful as the next. Though, The Classical was the first Fall song I truly fell in love with and holds a special place in my appreciation for The Fall.
I don’t think there’s much else to say about this song that hasn’t already been said. It’s simply magnificent.
- The Birmingham School of Business School – Code: Selfish, 1992.
Being 19, I don’t really have any sort of nostalgic connection to growing up with a classic Fall album. Obviously, they released material after I was born, but I’ve never held a close attachment with a certain release or period that it was released in seeing as, on the most part, I wasn’t physically there, nor had I listened to The Fall in depth until 2016.
I say this because I think many 1980s Fall fans will question this choice and will point towards tracks like Eat Y’self Fitter in a sort of emotionally attached ‘you’re forgetting this’ gesture. In all honesty, I can’t say I’ve ever truly, truly enjoyed Eat Y’self Fitter; yes, it perfectly epitomises The Fall and their sound, but I much prefer tracks of the time like Smile or Tempo House.
Of course, the same can be said about Birmingham – I wasn’t there in 1992. But for me it is the most musically skilful and adventurous The Fall have gone with their sound. It’s pure quality. From first listen I couldn’t let go – literally. I still listen to it every day and automatically go into autopilot and put Free Range (the next track on the album) on queue to follow. In fact, while writing this segment I had to put it on again, just to relive it.
The church bell intro is genius, its sparsity and darkness always grabbing me instantly. In comes a classic Funky Si beat accompanied by this beautifully ascending and descending Scanlon guitar part, so contrarily groovy to the eeriness of the moment yet so fitting. The song sparks into life with a rough, cutting two-note Hanley bassline. How anyone can resist even tapping their feet is beyond me. What follows is simply ludicrous, totally minimalist bliss.
I can’t describe how I felt when I heard this. It was just perfection. Absolute brilliance, absolute absurdity. The thrill of hearing the main hook of a song being the singer slurring ‘wah’ over one of the most intricately constructed beats I’d ever heard was just awe-inspiring. I’m still lost for words, it’s totally beyond me how brilliant I find this to be.
Better still, each Scanlon line is a lesson in how to make a guitar part more complex and dexterous with each verse, continuously pushing the boundaries of how discordant a guitar can sound, while Hanley’s grumbling bass is utterly exhilarating, matching Smith’s lyrics in the macabre of the moment.
I think what compliments the start of Code: Selfish is the transition between Birmingham and Free Range. The latter is my favourite Fall song of all time, and the way it crashes in is just pure ecstasy. You think the frantic, jarring beginning to the album is over, but in comes this raucous, no-holds-barred destroyer immediately after the final rumbles of Birmingham in the most powerful start to an album imaginable.
It’s a shame that Code: Selfish takes a moderate step down in quality after these two tracks, but what a way to explode out of the blocks. It’s an easily missed album with some of the most vital songs in an era that I feel goes unappreciated and easily dismissed by many Fall fans, and Birmingham is its shining light.
Next: Closing Tracks – The Fall