Part 1: Rowche Rumble (Single) and Dragnet (Album) (1979)
Editor’s note: Pete and Ed are part of Sheffield‘s own Pisco Sour Hour. They also dabble in all things The Fall, going on a release-per-release basis in one mammoth of a project (here). We are happy to haven them guest-writing for us.
Ladies and Gentlemen, come in. Sit down. Leave your woes and travails behind you. Welcome to The Fall.
There is so much to say about Dragnet. I mean, it’s class. Surprisingly class for me – I’d forgotten just how marvellous it is. So it would be very easy for me to just list each track and tell you how good it is, and ramble on about this bit of guitar, this poppy chorus, this marvellous mangling of instrument and voice, this turn of phrase. Instead, I’ll limit myself to two thoughts that keep recurring to me when I listen. Hopefully Ed will do the proper stuff this week…
Firstly, there is something very interesting happening here regarding… well, I suppose the artifice of popular music, and writing and performing popular music, and all that brings with it, and as a result where The Fall sit within that artifice. A couple of tunes have already hinted that The Fall will become as important a subject for The Fall to sing about as anything else (see Crap Rap, and even the aforementioned but criminally overlooked – by me – In My Area, both of which refer to The Fall). But this doesn’t feel like some Clash-like self-mythologising, which in reinforcing the classic rock ‘n roll outsiderness that Strummer et al wanted to engender simply reinforced how conventional they actually where (though wonderful – I’m not knocking The Clash). Rather, ‘The Fall’ are increasingly being presented by MES as something, somebody, that sits well away from the norm. So far away, in fact, that they almost inhabit a whole different realm, picking holes in music.
If it’s true that MES = The Fall it’s here that it starts to happen – there’s nobody left from the original lineup, and the guys that he’s got around him now (including Scanlon and Hanley – you’ll be hearing much more about these pair) seem here to be perfectly in tune with his vision. Even Riley‘s held off the prima donna backing vox thank fuck. Anyway, so if we accept that MES‘s lyrics and the music are joined in a fantastically sympathetic marriage (which, with hindsight, maybe wasn’t always the case with Witch Trials) what does that mean? Well, a sound which comes from a cupboard, but with enough clarity to demonstrate the fine, tight, inventive playing (even with the odd fluff and out of tune bass – get used to it, there’s years before they sort this out), but which seems to provide a perfect environment for MES‘s voice and also of what he says here, which whether explicitly or not is often about music, and writing, and writing music, and writing about music.
‘Pshychic Dancehall’, bonkers rockabilly excitement that it is, begins with the cry ‘Is anybody there?’ to which the band (?) reply ‘yeeessssss!’. But who is the question for? If for the audience, then obviously you’re there at that moment – you’ve just popped the needle down and you’ve actively made this noise happen. When combined with aspects of the lyrics such as “When I’m dead and gone / My vibrations will live on / In vibes on vinyl through the years / People will dance to my waves” that act of putting the needle on (or CD in, or iPod, or whatever) suddenly becomes a much more significant act. We’ve unwittingly become part of a game, or a scheme, and MES is already one step ahead.
Casting a disparaging view over the music press is hardly groundbreaking territory, but ‘Printhead’ takes this further, deconstructing itself as it goes – “End of catch-line / End of hook-line” – offering the confusing but intriguing insight “there’s a barrier between writer and singer”, and even going so far to explicitly quote a review of the band:
The singer is a neurotic drinker
The band little more than a big crashing beat.
Instruments collide and we all get drunk
The last two lines
Were a quote, yeah
When we read them
We went to pieces
… and all this allied to a thrilling pop-punk, conventionalish tune that could mistakenly be mistaken for something dumb. Anything but.
The glorious ‘Diceman’ paints MES as a true maverick to a standard, you’ve-heard-this-a-million-times-before Bo Diddly beat. ‘Your Heart Out’ – probably my favourite thing here – has him deconstructing his own performance ‘I don’t sing I just shout / All on one note’, while also pointlessly, yet very amusingly, taking a swipe at another songwriter “don’t cry for me / Mexicooooooo!”. And ‘Before The Moon Falls”, perhaps the brooding, beating heart of the album, begins with a terrific spoken word bit which I must quote verbatim as its so ruddy marvellous –
We are private detectives onward back from a musical pilgrimage
We work under the name of the Fall.
Who would suspect this? It is too obvious.
Our office is secluded.
Those there to suspect would not see the wood for the trees
We were six like dice but we’re back to five
Up here in the North there are no wage packet jobs for us, thank Christ
While young married couples discuss the poverties of their self-built traps
And the junior clergy demand more cash
We spit in their plate and wait for the ice to melt
And then manages to sum up the whole sentiment I think I’m driving toward with the opening (sung) lines “I must create a new regime / Or live by another man’s”.
So what am I getting to here? One of the implicit questions posed during the retrospective must be ‘why do I like this stuff so much that its become not just music for me, but something more important than that?’ For some fans of the Fall their obsession with MES‘s stuff manages to completely undermine their enjoyment of other music, rendering it shallow and pointless. I’m not quite at that stage, but certainly the effect The Fall has on me has raised the bar very, very high for other guitar groups, indie bands, whatever. And I think that one important reason for that is expressed through Dragnet – the intelligence in The Fall‘s music, the ability to look beyond that which your usual band’s would consider ‘the point’, the bravery through a combination of music, words and performance to challenge the listener, to make him or her think about what they are hearing outside of ones usual framework, is enthralling. Dragnet makes it very clear that your usual expectations of music just aren’t up to scratch when it comes to this band, and in working to keep up you’re engaging with something dramatic, scary, and simply fucking brilliant.
Secondly, and I won’t ramble on quite as much now – there is a wonderful, wonderful book by Nabakov called Ada and Ardor. It’s one of the finest things I have ever read, and I highly recommend it. However, be warned, to begin with for about 50 pages it’s a seriously hard and taxing read. It makes sense, but the sense is deeply obscured, fascinating (if not strictly speaking vital) plot points are presented buried in plain sight, the breadth of its lexicon is thrilling yet renders even an intelligent reader feeling a bit under-educated. One theory why Nabakov did this is that any reader that can wade through those opening pages is ready and equipped to deal with what follows, which though more straight is so nakedly beautiful and playful and emotional that you really have to be set-up to tackle it.
Whether this theory is ‘true’ or not – i.e. whether the author actively intended it to be so – I feel that a similar sort of thing happens on track ten of Dragnet. Preceded but the poppy, intentionally ephemeral Choc-Stock (you’ll have to listen to see what I mean – already gone on for far too long) which lulls the listener into a bouncy frame of mind, ‘Spectre vs. Rector’ is perhaps the oddest song (for it is a song, definitely – there are instances in The Falls oeuvre when this is debatable) they recorded. A long, winding, thrilling story of possession and fear, the first half was recorded in a garage or something, features two MESs ranting away, goes on and on in many parts which are grandly announced by the singer, and even when the song suddenly settles into a more conventional studio setting, it suddenly falls apart on itself if to reiterate that you cannot rest with this band – they’re one step ahead and can play you like a puppet. Essentially, if you listen to ‘Spectre vs. Rector’ and enjoy it, you can approach this massive body of work and everything in it, and what is more – odds are you’ll be a Fall fan my son.
Welcome to the world of para-psychic investigation, before the latter day table rappers Derek Acorah and Psychic Sally normalised the weird for the consumers of supermarket magazines. Is there anybody there? Yeah! Step aboard with ESP medium of dis-chord. There is the feeblest veil that separates the world we experience from the supernatural. This is touched upon by the handful of case studies that the private detectives who work under the name of The Fall investigate in the collection, Dragnet. This is the second album, recorded in two days and released in the same year as Live At The Witch Trials, already a completely different band, both in terms of line up and attitude. Quite frankly they are taking the piss. Here’s a few of the parameters.
1. Replace all the band members who recorded the debut album earlier in the same year, with the exception Marc Riley, who’s been around for the shortest time.
2. Oh yes, the drummer. He’s pretty damn good, but what would be better would be to replace him with a teddy boy from a rock and roll revival band, who still insists on dressing like 1950s cinema trashing enthusiast
3. Studio time – two days should do it? There’s only eleven songs after all
4. Production – well clearly everything else is in place, so what we need is a guy who’s got no studio experience at all. That will work.
Dragnet has a very murky sound, mainly due to the inexperience of the people involved in its production. In a way, there’s a reminder to me of Lee Scratch Perry’s Black Ark work – murky, smoky, no quarter given to producing a shiny product. Already we’ve lost the hi-fidelity purists, but we didn’t need them anyway – sipping their ale and discussing the merits of gold plated phono plugs, screw them.
So Dragnet – second album we’ve reached that critical point. Everything I love about the music of the Fall is already present on the disc.
Principally, there’s a couple of strong themes running through this record – the supernatural world a the dread it inspires (‘A Figure Walks’, ‘Spectre Vs Rector), the Fall mission statements/distaste with the music scene (‘Printhead’, ‘Dice Man’). A couple of diversions thrown in for good measure. Some of the Fall’s poppiest moments sitting happily alongside some of there murkiest. There’s no dead wood either, there is no filler in amongst the killer. So broadly, I’m going to take this fucker track by track.
A seance – ‘Is there anybody there? Yeah!’. Psykick Dancehall. For one thing, they’ve ditched the keyboard, which is unfortunate as there were plenty of ace moments involving it. I would like to know what a Dragnet with Yvonne Pawlett’s keyboard on would be like, but my fear is the answer would be ‘samey’. Still we lose Pawlett and we gain Scanlon and Hanley. Steve Hanley’s bass is preposterous – he’s pretty much gone disco for the opening track, and it’s gorgeous. Riley’s on guitar now, joined by Craig Scanlon and we have something which is intricate, abrasive, intertwining. Don’t know who’s doing what, doesn’t matter. Psykick Dancehall sets it all up and combines the twin concerns of the record. ‘I saw a monster on the roof – its colours glowed on the roof’ and ‘When I’m dead and gone, my vibrations will live on, in vibes on vinyl through the years. People will dance to my waves’ – we are forever living with the imprints of the past, which indelibly imprint themselves in the ether, and this musical document is apparently powerful enough to achieve this.
Dragnet feels ‘old’ like an artefact that’s recently been dug up. Partly due to the sonic murkiness and partly because it feels a few steps out from conventional music. It also feels nocturnal. All the ingredients of a rock and roll band are there, but mixed up in a completely different way.
A Figure Walks. New drummer, Mike Leigh (not that one) has got a fantastic tom ting going on. Trance like, repetitive. What goes on just out of the corner of your eye? I think that this may be another MR James inspired number (see Spectre vs Rector later), but my friend Mike Whaley thinks I’m labouring the point who says – “Repeatedly singing about knowing a spooky ghost is behind you and how you plan to kick it, misses the confusion and dreaded building of anxiety that I feel with MR James”. He may have a point. For me though its the ‘if he grabs my coat tails’ which kind of transports this back towards a Victorian time frame.
Print Head – a proper good rant. a garage band. Weirdly meta with its quoting of music paper reviews of the band. The singer is a neurotic drunk. ‘The last two lines were a quote yeah’. There’s a guitar solo of sorts, which is certainly an extremely rare occurrence. It works. A little bit of showing off – its been earned.
Dice Man. The very popular novel of the 1970s. Luke Rheinhart. Never made it through the first few pages. Found it very irritating. Anyway, this is a fantastic Bo Diddley-esque romp. Where MES nails his colours to the mast and skewers his opponents. ‘They say music should be fun, like reading a story of love – but I wanna read a horror story’. Take a chance, create some art don’t become another ‘branch on the tree of show business’
Before the Moon Falls. Shhhh! We are being let on in a secret, lean in:
We are private detectives back from a musical pilgrimage
We work under the name of the Fall.
Who would suspect this?
It is too obvious.
Our offices secluded.
Those there to suspect
Would not see the wood for the trees
We were six like dice but we’re back to five
Up here in the North there are no wage packet jobs for us
While young married couples discuss the poverties
Of their self-built traps
And the junior clergy demand more cash
We spit in their plate and wait for the ice to melt
Unseen knowledge is being imparted. Paraphrasing William Blake – 2I must create a new regime, or live by another man’s”. A field of one ploughing their own unique and revelatory furrow in the face of mainly indifference from the world in general. Blake was only really appreciated in his life time by a foppish group of young romantic artists who dubbed themselves ‘The Ancients’. The Fall have a similar following, but more bald. It’s an angry song, raging at the music business – ‘I could use some pure criminals and get my hands on some royalties’ and the hilarious ‘A problem of this new scheme is answering obscene phone calls’. The intensity and the weird framing elevate a frustrated complaint about business and admin to the realms of something magical.
You’re Heart Out – featuring the excellent backing vocals of front man’s partner and general managerial hard ass, Kay Carroll. This is totally pop. Lovely lolloping bass line, tasty twisty guitar lines. Simplicity. ‘Don’t cry for me! Mexico!’. Lyrically its fairly opaque – but it who cares, its delivered in such a joyful way. ‘I don’t sing, I just shout, all on one note! Sing! Sing! Sing! Sing!’. This is fun! Love it. Its kind of indiepop, but with all the twee surgically removed.
Muzorewi’s Daughter – big old tribal drums, a funereal, ceremonial guitar. MES doing that squeaky yelp thing that he employs so well. Have no idea what’s its about – something to do with some long forgotten aspect of Rhodesian politics, there is the hint of sacrifice and a touch of weird colonial hysteria about cannibalism. Intense. Eerie. Probably best not put this on that seduction playlist you keep on your ipod.
Flat of Angles – man kills wife, hides out in flat, which may or may not have some curious geometric idiosyncrasies. Tasty bit of what may or may not be slide guitar. Vague Americana punctuated by the return of the cheesy organ we know and love from previous episodes, which makes the occasional pass by to buzz the ears.
Choc-Stock – no! Haven’t got a clue. Its fun, jaunty, repetitive and loopy though. Softens you up in preparation for what’s coming next.
Spectre vs Rector. The hulking, malevolent centerpiece of the record. Remember earlier when MES said – ‘They say music should be fun, like reading a story of love – but I wanna read a horror story’? Here is the horror story. The perfect soundtrack for complete mental collapse. A relentless industrial guitar grind, half recorded in an extremely lo-fi manner in some warehouse somewhere. This is the most fully realised Fall narrative yet. Massively influenced by spooky Oxford don MR James, who if you’ve never read, I greatly recommend. They are mainly tales of supernatural possession and/or hauntings, where the characters, often clerical types or academics, experience some sort of horrific primordial terror that robs them of their sanity and leaves them broken men. At the heart the song is a straightforward story of Rector meets Spectre, Spectre possesses Rector, an Inspector attempts to exorcise the Rector, Spectre tries to possesses Inspector but the possession is ineffectual, but effective enough to leave the Inspector insane by what he’s seen. Its extremely meaty and full of great lines like the following:
“Those flowers, take them away,” he said.
“They’re only funeral decorations.
And O this is a tragic nation
A nation of no imagination.
A stupid dead man is their ideal
They shook me and they think me unclean.”
Essentially eight minutes of trance like grinding, robotic rhythm with a great story over the top.
Following this, we have the hilariously incongruous contrast of Put Away, the album’s chirpy kazoo lead closer (with a baa-baa-baa-baa intro from MES), which first surfaced on a Peel session a while back. This version really rattles away. The band is really cooking.
So in conclusion, I’ve enjoyed this week a lot. Been great to revisit Dragnet and soak up its brilliance. The first Fall classic I’d say. All the pieces are in place – MES is hitting a serious stride lyrically and the band really work together well. The Fall are positioning themselves as a band apart – literary, an autonomous unit, experimental, darkly funny, supremely confident. So – listen to this – its freaking awesome and my blathering on about doesn’t do justice to the experience of listening to it.