Music Scene: ‘The Fall [1970s]’ reviewed

❉ This box set from Cherry Red is a lot for all but the most dedicated of Fall fans, but ‘we dig it’.

“Above everything there’s Smith’s voice – famously not singing, but not exactly just shouting either. Imagine a talking blues track barked out by a half-cut Northern bampot itching for a fight and you’d only be half way there. But it works perfectly, aided in no small part by the genius poetry of Smith’s lyrics.”

God, where to start? With the band probably, for those few people reading this who inexplicably do not the story of the mighty Fall.

The short description is fairly straightforward, actually. The Fall were a post-punk band originally from Manchester who, largely through the caprice of frontman Mark E Smith, went through so many different line-up changes that there are whole books devoted to tracking down every musician who played with the band and you can buy a T-shirt which simply reads ‘I Used to be in the Fall’ (I’ve got one myself, in fact). Generally – though not always – commercially unsuccessful in terms of chart hits, the Fall maintained a cult following over the course of their 42 year existence via word of mouth, the unwavering support of DJ John Peel, and the sheer force of Smith’s acerbic but often witty personality.

They released a lot of records over those four decades (Smith died in 2018, aged 60, putting an end to the band), and this recently released box set from Cherry Red is, I hope, just the first of several such sets to hit the market in the months to come. Be warned, though – for simple reasons of chronology, there are only two actual albums in this first offering, both from 1979 – Live at The Witch Trials and Dragnet – alongside a disc and a half of other studio recordings, with the bulk of the set being made up of live recordings.

For reasons of tidiness presumably, the two albums come first, before both the gigs they played prior to their release and the single and EP which immediately preceded the first LP.

Let’s start with the EP – Bingo Master’s Breakout, the sole commercial recording by the (almost) first line-up of the band (original drummer Steve Ormrod having been replaced by Karl Burns after one gig). Recorded under the auspices of Buzzcocks’ manager Richard Boon, and then shelved for a year after Boon discovered he didn’t have the money to release it, some of its impact was surely lessened at the time by the fact that the band (already onto a new line-up) had released their debut album, Live at The Witch Trials, in the meantime. But even if that was the case (and I wasn’t around to say for sure), and even at a remove of four decades, this is an astonishing set of songs, laying down a Fall template from day one, with Smith chanting and snarling over the top of repetitive but insistent and memorable bass lines, spiky guitar (plus a one note guitar solo, VU-style, on Psycho Mafia) and frenzied drums. Final track Repetition, as the title suggests, goes so far as to admit explicitly that the 3 R’s (Repetition, Repetition, Repetition) were what mattered the most to The Fall – “we dig it”, to quote Mark E Smith.

By the time that the group came to record their first proper album, the line-up had changed again (including a brief flirtation with a conga player) with teenage Marc Riley (the one from Marc and Lard on the radio) moving from roadie to bass player, joining Martin Bramah on guitar, Karl Burns on drums and Yvonne Pawlett on keyboards.

It’s tempting to say that Smith got lucky with musicians on these vital early albums – Karl Burns’ drums are an assault on the senses at times, and Riley (on Witch Trials) and Steve Hanley (on Dragnet and many, many later Fall LPs) add bass lines that loop and bounce high in the mix. Martin Bramah and Riley’s guitar provide bite and background noise and there’s literally not a single wasted keyboard note on either album. But Smith got similar if not always quite as good, results from literally dozens of other musicians over the years. And above everything there’s Smith’s voice – famously not singing, but not exactly just shouting either. Imagine a talking blues track barked out by a half-cut Northern bampot itching for a fight and you’d only be half way there. But it works perfectly, aided in no small part by the genius poetry of Smith’s lyrics.

A quick personal aside – the first Fall track I ever heard was not what most people would call a typical one . A mate who’d been listening to John Peel for a year or two before I did put together a tape with songs he thought everyone should know and his Fall choice was Hot Aftershave Bop, a fairly melodic, almost dance-y, extra track from a 1986 Fall 12. I liked it a lot, and when I saw the Live at the Witch Trials LP for sale in HMV the next week, I bought it, expecting much of the same. How wrong I was.

What I did hear was something far stranger, spikier – and better. Beginning with the paranoid dread of Frightened (‘I’ve got shears pointed straight at my chest/Cause I’m in a trance/And I sweat’), the entire album was packed with what sounded to my innocent ears to be attempts to avoid any accusation of creating mere music. It wasn’t live for a start, it contained some really bad rapping (a track was even called Crap Rap, for goodness sake!), a singer who shouted rather than sang (one track started with Smith chanting ‘sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker’ over and over again) and apparently banal, but bizarre, lyrics (what – other than the obvious – did ‘I live on snacks/potatoes in packs’, or ‘A cigarette goes put when you put it down’ actually mean?) – to someone who’d up until that point listened almost exclusively to David Bowie and John Lennon, this was mad stuff. ‘What’s this song about?’ somebody asked at the start of one track, ‘Eh, nothing?’ Smith replied. It really was like nothing I’d ever heard before.

And I loved it.

I suspect that, after Bowie, Witch Trials is the album I’ve played most in my life – certainly my original vinyl copy became so dirty and scratched by years of abuse in student flats, that I eventually replaced it with Cherry Red’s reissue a couple of years back (which, sadly used the rubbish American artwork and not John Wriothesley’s fantastic hand-drawn original). I also bought a cd copy in between times – more on that later, though.

The Fall’s second album, Dragnet is probably in my personal top 10 too. By the time it was recorded, the band were on their ninth line-up (or so Steve Pringle’s invaluable guide to all things Fall, You Must Get Them All, claims); most importantly for me, Karl Burns  – the world’s greatest drummer – had been replaced on drums by Mike Leigh (not the film director). Most importantly for the future of The Fall as a whole, though, Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley were promoted from occasional roadies to guitarist and bass player, respectively, with Riley moving across to also play guitar. What many fans would call the ‘classic’ Fall line-up was almost in place.

Even so, it’s a much more muddy sounding album than Witch Trials. Nowadays we’d call it lo-fi and be sure it was deliberate, but back then Smith claimed it was down to shoddy studio facilities. Whatever the reason, it’s another amazing record. There’s not a bad track on here, and nothing really which would even count as average. Highlights include the unnerving menace of A Figure Walks and Spectre vs Rector, the Bo Diddley-influenced Dice Man, the funky Psyckick Dancehall and, a personal favourite, Muzorawi’s Daughter. Cover art, again by John Wriothesley, of a spider about to kill a butterfly perfectly suited the album’s sound.

That’s it for albums in the ’70s – the next LP to emerge from the band was the first Fall live album Totale’s Turns in 1980but Cherry Red have included a disc and a half which collects early singles (including the bootleg, and possible home recording, Dresden Dolls) and a couple of Peel sessions (the band did more Peel sessions than anyone else, and these early ones are exceptional).

Which leaves eight discs of live recordings – a lot for all but the most dedicated of Fall fans. There’s not a huge amount you can say about a lot of these gigs – the sound quality is variable to say the least (there’s one at least which you’d never get away with releasing if it weren’t an Important Historical Document), but there’s some interesting different versions of familiar songs, a fair amount of inter-song chat from Smith (always good for a laugh), and a smattering of songs which you might not have heard before. One of the CDs is worth picking out in detail though…

Fall 1977 replaces another gig (the imaginatively titled Live 1977) as the earliest known recording of The Fall (this one is from May, whereas the previous record holder was from December) this may in fact be their first ever gig, and predates any commercial recording by the band (Bingo-Master’s Break-Out! was recorded in late October 1977). As you’d expect, therefore, while some of the tracks familiar from later recordings stand out, there’s also a fair amount of rock thrash, indistinguishable from every other student band of the time, writing songs in their dad’s garage. Futures and Pasts however arrives already fully formed, and though it’s a looser Frightened than we’re used to, both music and lyrics are in place, even if it feels like singer and band are barrelling through the song, rather than Smith savouring every extended drawl as he does on Dragnet. Repetition too is rushed, almost to the point of comedy, getting faster and faster, until Smith is breathlessly rattling the lyrics, out of sync with the music (you can hear him struggling to keep up at one point and the guitar stumbling as he clearly tells them to slow down, which they do – for about ten seconds). Copped It is a racket, with Smith too quiet to be made out against a basic, if thundering, rock noise (check out the version with Gavin Friday on The Wonderful and Frightening World Of… seven years later – nothing goes to waste with The Fall – to see how they improved it over the next few years), and Sten Gun Rock, Race Hatred and You Don’t Turn Me On are much the same. If you were 16 and your mate gave you a tape of him and his pals new punk band, this is likely what it’d sound like. Still, I reckon you’d be happy with this if you’d paid your fifty pee or whatever to go and see The Fall in May 1977. It’s the sound of any band in an early live performance, uncertain at times but full of energy, and at times you can definitely hear the building blocks which were needed to create the distinctive Fall sound.

On which topic, one final thing. I mentioned earlier that I bought a copy of Witch Trials on cd back in the day. That was the Cog Sinister release which, in the words of some bloke on Discogs, “was poorly mastered from a noisy vinyl copy and contains skips and dropouts” – so it’s fantastic to finally get a really good quality CD version of the album. Should you have any interest in listening to early Fall on cd, do yourself a favour – buy this set. It’s the only place you’ll hear the album as it was supposed to sound, back in the late ‘70s…

The Fall: “The 1970s” 12CD Box Set (CRCDBOX121) was released by Cherry Red Group, 25 November 2022, RRP £69.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

 Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas

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