Looking back at : The Fall’s Grotesque (after the gramme)

Editor’s note: Pete and Ed play for a cool Sheffield band called Pisco Sour Hour. When they are not confusing new comers with their jazzy experimental rock, they go into the wild steppe that is The Fall‘s back catalogue. Here’s their recent venture…
Ed says:

In the intro to this project, Pete mentions being proud that he got me into The Fall, and he should be as it is true. He also says that it was the repeated playing of the greatest hits compilation ‘Fifty Thousand Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong’ while on a road trip that did the job . This is partly true, but it was actually the other Fall album he brought along that had the most profound impact. The album happened to be Grotesque (After The Gramme), which we’ve got to this week.

The three of us on this trip, Pete, our friend Adam and myself took it in turns to drive as we escaped the November snow of Sheffield headed for Spain. As is only right and proper, the person driving got to select the music for their shift. By the time we were halfway through France it was Pete’s turn to drive and he put Grotesque on. I’d like to say that I was caught up in it straightaway, but this would be incorrect – Pete likes to sing along and he knew all the words. I find this distracting. However, I heard enough to be intrigued and he kindly shut the fuck up when it came to further listens. By about the third listen I knew that I loved The Fall and I knew that this was a very special album.

A weird one to write this week – this is the Fall album I love the most and it’s quite hard to write this post without just enthusing and gushing and the like. I’ve also had little sleep this weekend so who knows if my thought processes are firing properly. Having said that, I’ve got a large pot of Assam in front of me stewing happily away.

So let’s begin – well I was going to go off into a rant about the heritage rock industry but it was getting a bit incoherent. Anyway, where I was going was this – Grotesque is a stunning piece of work, an artistic high watermark and it certainly doesn’t deserve the obscurity within which it languishes. It’s top level, mind blowing, high echelon transcendental shit. To my mind,  it is completely unique, does everything on its own terms and is 100% successful. The rough and ready production veers all over the place, which should be recipe for inconsistency, but perversely does nothing to affect the cohesiveness of the album. There’s no dead weight, no filler and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

There’s a common perception, it would appear, that The Fall are in some way difficult or impenetrable, or that the music is simply nasty or the lyrics willfully obscure. I think in reality that this is rarely true, but that in order to engage with this music you actually have to stop what you are doing and listen to what is going on. Fight the idea of background music as opposed to something you sit down and listen to. Maybe this is because we know, deep down, that with 99% of music out there nothing of any real interest is being said, so we refuse to engage. What would happen if people started listening and really thinking about the cod-profound-reading-Nabokov-in-a-showy-manner-on-public-transport lyrics of Sting, or the extended piano backed empty platitudes of Coldplay? That’s picking some extreme example for the sake of illustration, but you get the gist, People aren’t too stupid to comprehend poetry, they’re just buried under tonnes of anodyne lyrical cardboard. Grotesque is a great album to listen to uninterrupted and undistracted. This may of course be why the enforced imprisonment of a long journey down an autoroute afforded the time to properly engage with and become absorbed by it.

The album opens with a piece of music that is really hard to describe – Pay Your Rates. By turns scratchy, punky bop, then atonal, languid, shambolic collapse. MES demanding –

Pay your rates! Pay your water rates!
If your rate’s too high, write a snotty letter

The ‘snotty letter’ – the English passive aggression, the bureaucracy, the estates – the well meaning but ultimately poor town planning of the ‘neurotic red landscape’. This is all an appropriate setting of tone for the whole record, which although swerving through various narratives seems to have at its centre a highly brutal look at the English culture and psyche. That’s how it feels to me anyway. A state of the nation that a nation would rather not hear. A nation that wants to see itself as keeping calm and carrying on, the self-congratulatory stoicism of Kilping’s ‘If’, but who are in fact ridden with neurosis, class war, ugliness, petty jealousy, prejudice, gross incompetence, stupidity and an excessive trust for authority. This comes in with a vengeance with the almost pastoral English Scheme. Well it’s half pastoral, half the as Fall cabaret band, with the cheesy organ returning, bringing the shiny foil curtain WMC vibe. Very poppy and almost delicate. Lyrically it is a tour through the English Scheme, where the ‘clever ones tend to emigrate’, like:

Like your psychotic big brother, who left home
For jobs in Holland, Munich, Rome
He’s thick but he struck it rich

and Albion’s myriad failings are dipped into, including

Peter Cook’s jokes, bad dope, check shirts, lousy groups point their fingers at America

So – love this song. It’s a perfect little portrait that says more than the sum of its words – we’re dealing with little English signifiers and cultural cues. I wonder how this translates abroad. I wonder how it translates to people outside of the age it was written in – I was just a toddler when this was release, but I’m just about old enough for most of this not to go over my head.

This picture of right-on middle class political correctness is recognisable today –

He’s the greenpeace in us all
He’s the creep-creep in us all
Condescends to black men
Very nice to them
They talk of Chile while driving through Haslingden

Maybe today they are less interested in Chile, but might be a member of Respect. You know the type – well meaning and essentially on the side of good, but encumbered with their own prejudices filtered through a gauze of post-colonial guilt, self-loathing and fear of the working class.

New Face In Hell. Another pop gem. With a kazoo. An engaging and comical story of a suburban CB enthusiast who accidentally discovers a secret state operation, tells his neighbour and is then framed by the state for the state’s murder of his neighbour. Again, this shows Smith’s talent for storytelling in a the constrained medium of the song. In just a few lines, he tells you everything you need to know. You can fill in the rest from the archetype of the suburban hobbyist – the drab shed, the mug of tea, the tank top, hours spent there, only emerging to eat the tea rustled up by wife or mother.

C’n’C-S Mithering. This actually looks like one of those droll fake Fall song titles beloved of lazy journos. One of the centrepieces, a tract, or specifically – ‘ a treatise’. There is a hypnotic and hallucinatory quality to it. Another one of these great Fall exercises in repetition – some intertwining all on-one-chord acoustics and a persistent nagging metronomic snare. The perfect bed for MES to unleash a long poem over the top, the musical repetition showcasing the lyrical invention. Delivery wise he’s riding the rhythm, his flow is ridiculous. Basically a very weird hip-hop track, in fact ‘this was going to be called crap rap fourteen’. Again, we have some fantastic state of the union style observations as well as a (fictional?) account of an American trip, where ‘Californians either think of sex or think of death’ and we visit the founder of the Tijuana Brass on his home turf:

Big A&M Herb was there
His offices had fresh air
But his roster was mediocre
US dirge, rock ‘n’ pop filth
Their material’s filched

and castigating the English groups for acting like ‘peasants with free milk’.

I’m not going to relate the entire lyrics, because there are tonnes and because you should listen to it yourself. This is poetry of the highest order. It’s better than most of the lyrics you’ll ever hear, it’s better than most words you’ll ever read. It segues magnificently into Container Drivers, which was covered last week. This version is just as good and as essential as The Peel Session version.

The Impression Of J Temperance – we’re back in Dragnet territory here, but we’re not looking back. That close martial drumming, the erratic buzzing of the keyboard, like a cardboard box of dying insects. The guitar here is amazing, abrasive, scything through the rhythm track, echoing Smith’s melody (yes – melody) lines. The story – it’s another extremely sinister pulp horror narrative, which also harks back to Dragnet. A vet is called out to deliver the birth of a dog that bears a horrific resemblance to its owner for reasons we perhaps don’t want to go in. The great thing about this is the climatic build up to the reveal of the grotesque beast, and MES frenzied screaming ‘This hideous replica! This hideous replica!’. More Hammer than MR James. Again, lyrically it is economical, but everything is there, either explicitly or implicitly.

In The Park is a straightforward rocker about post closing time shagging, with a few double entendres, which is itself works rather well and segues into the weird, experimental and fun WMC Blob 59. Which consists of a few segments of poetry over what sounds like a badly degraded tape of Nico, or a Nico-esque singer. Anyhow, it sets up the album for the final push.

Gramme Friday. Bedsit Peter Gunn-esque ode to the joys and pitfalls of amphetamines now that the weekend has come – ‘Hitler lost his nerve on it!’, includes the hilarious:

‘I am Robertson Speedo and this is my Gramme Friday!’

Building up and building up, but never reaching resolution – which is typical Fall thing – ramp up the tension, but offer no respite.

Finally, on an album full of essential material is the most essential of them all – The N.W.R.A , the North Will Rise Again. It’s an involved, feverish speculative narrative set in the aftermath of a incompetently executed uprising (‘but it has turned out wrong’) – a medicore nation that can’t even conduct a civil war how’s supposed to ne. There’s a fantastic spoken intro which involves an epic Northern journey to Newcastle, shasing off feral children, the West Germans have shipped in trains,  bastardised versions of Fall songs are played on ‘Junior Choice’:

DJs had worsened since the rising. Elaborating on nothing in praise of the track with words they could hardly pronounce, in telephone voices. 

The uprising is a shambles, our embedded reported tells us in lurid, dreamlike detail

But out the window burned the roads
There were men with bees on sticks
The fall had made them sick
A man with butterflies on his face
His brother threw acid in his face
His tattoos were screwed
The streets of Soho did reverberate
With drunken Highland men
Revenge for Culloden dead
The North had rose again
But it would turn out wrong
The North will rise again

It’s an epic in the truest sense, musically it’s cohesive and driving, repetitive but ever evolving. There’s these lovely chiming guitars, that buzzing keyboard, held down by an insistent bass and drums. What The Fall manage to do here, and on the rest of the tracks that precede it on the album is to create a different way of doing things both lyrically and musically, and absorbing you into this world, making you look at your own differently. In doing so they also demonstrate how much scope there is to create art in a traditional rock and roll band set up and additionally highlight the woefull lack of ambition and artistry in most other bands for not doing it. In short,Grotesque is a revelation and every home should have a copy.

Pete says:

I’m at something of a loss at how to approach this this week, purely due to the fact that Grotesque is yet another step up – Dragnet blew me away as I’d forgotten just how class it is, and though I knew Grotesque a lot better it’s still taken me aback. Most fundamentally, the unabashed confidence, the sheer verve of this music which really resists definition, eschews pigeonholing… it’s really rather remarkable. As ever, it’s always, clearly, undeniably The Fall, but the way that that ‘Fall Sound’ mutates and changes and wears different guises is astonishing. And moreover, this is a proper album – well sequenced, recorded with an unconventional (some would say poor, but they would be wrong) yet utterly appropriate sound. It’s the sort of record that, if the world were a more grown-up and thoughtful place, would appear on those periodic ‘Greatest Albums Of All Time’ lists, rubbing shoulders with Abbey Road and OK Computer and all the obvious stuff that 10% of normal people love and take to their hearts, 15% of music fans say isn’t as good as their previous album, 5% of naysayers dislike purely because they make that kind of list, 20% of people have never heard of as they are young, or wilfully stupid, or dead, and 50% of people have bought just because everyone else did.

In fact, when you consider Grotesque‘s constituent elements you could argue that it’s a very informative template of how to construct an album that’ll stand the test of time – you’ve got your singles (ok, they weren’t actually singles, but ‘New Face In Hell‘ and ‘Container Drivers‘ could easily have been), your energetic poppy album openers, your ‘challenging’ track (though listen up younger bands – any song that strongly implies dog fucking must be handled with care), and then with that backbone your meander through whatever genre you fancy – bluesy blank-verse-come-rap, sci-fi futurology, twisted surf tunes. Clearly nobody sits down at session one and draws a list of what type of songs to write (though Pisco Sour Hour do come dangerously close to at times), but when you consider the creative decisions that songwriters and musicians make at every step of the process I can think of a fair few bands that could do with a whole heap of Grotesque in their lives and the charts might be more interesting and music might actually do what it can do a lot more often – entertain, yes, and get you moving about of course, but also challenge and confront and delight and play tricks.

And while I’m on the subject (or at least near enough to switch tracks), let’s put something to bed right now. MES is no one trick pony – “they say I rip off Johnny Rotten” he says here, and while I’m not confident enough to unpick that observation, the fact that people are accusing MES of
ripping of anybody is a utter joke. And that reminds me – though he says “I shout for the Fall” in the self-interview I told you to listen to last week, that’s either working class self-effacement, or an acknowledgement that we really don’t have the words to describe what MES does… or maybe we do actually but… erm, can somebody please remind me to return to this idea at some later point? Anyway, there is, I am sure, a great swathe of opinion that goes something like this –

Mark E Smith shouts.

Mark E Smith shouts and puts the suffix ‘-ah’ after words.

Mark E Smith does not sing

Mark E Smith cannot sing.

Okay – one thing I am 100% confident on regarding popular music is this – if you cannot as a listener buy into the lead vocalist, then you’re not going to dig their music. The music of The Who is lost to me, as I don’t dig Daltry’s voice. I yearn to find a way of appreciating Jagger, as if I did I would be able to enjoy a vast array of Rolling Stones which is apparently fucking ace.

The difference with Mark E. Smith though is that you have to put aside any notion that melody is fundamental to singing… we’ll go with ‘singing’ right now until I can think of a better word. For those of you that find that this concept is so difficult to comprehend that you’re currently smirking at me then fine – off you pop, there’s a whole world of Mariah Carey records to explore though you might want to avoid those nasty rappers she sometimes hooks up with, what are they all about eh, just talking over music?! Anyone can do that?! OK then, cheerio, just pull the door to on the way out, see you…
… good. The two key words I want to get over to those noble few of you who are left are balance and subtlety. Subtlety, because MES does not always shout, does not always stick ‘-ah’ at the end of words, and most times is working the songs, using his voice in ways that benefit that word, in that line, in that verse of that song. And ‘balance’ because (if we focus on Grotesque at least) he’s generally bang on, and yes that does include shouting and ‘-ah’ing, but also includes talking, reciting, rapping, percussion, story-telling, and even at times melody. And I do mean melody, proper singing, in not the most wonderful voice you’ve ever heard, but a proper singing, tuneful register.

So since I was unsure how to do this week, lets do it like this – an analysis of MES‘s vocals on Grotesque, or something like that anyway – I suggest you fire up Spotify and listen along…

And to neatly undermine everything I’ve just said, opener ‘Pay Your Rates‘ has MES shouting away over buzzy guitars, insisting upon paying your water rates, writing snotty letters (oh hi, back again? Yes ‘Always Be My Baby’ is very good. Pop back in a paragraph or two). That is until the other bit of the song, where all the instruments collapse in on themselves, and dredge their way through some dense old chords at a slower tempo. At this point we get a seemingly calmer MES ruminating on ‘debtors retreat estates’, and then tunefully – yes, tunefully Mariah! – proclaiming ‘Neuroticred landscape / A socialist state invention / The old government bones working’… it’s funny, it’s daft, so much so that MES sniggers to himself just toward the end before everything hikes up again and we’re told to ‘PAY TOMORROW!’. But it’s the contrast – indeed, the balance – between the two sections that provides the humour.

English Scheme‘ is funny too, but more satirical than merely daft (the mention of Peter Cook is telling). It’s a fabulous lyric, but as with all good jokes it’s the way you tell it – for example, the drop into a lower, more-spoken register for the ‘like your psychotic big brother’ bit leading into the fabulous phrasing of ‘for jobs in Holland, Munich, Rome’. MES‘s sense of timing is sensational, and even in something as seemingly spoken as this (and indeed ‘New Face In Hell’ next and ‘C ‘n C – S Mithering’ after that) he manages to drag hooks out of nowhere. And Mariah – don’t you dare suggest to me that the sing-song way that he delivers ‘condescends to black men / very nice to them’ doesn’t make that line an utter triumph, effortlessly ladling scorn and derision on somebody with 8 words and without recourse to shouting or sneering.

As an example of how to take a ostensibly stream of conscious narrative and route it into song (music having a natural propulsion let us not forget, which is often why bad music is better than bad poetry. At least bad music moves itself along to a conclusion, whereas bad poetry either makes you – you! the poor unsuspecting Mariah! – move it along yourself, or affords a orator an opportunity to employ the ponderous pause) ‘C-in-C – S Mithering‘ is supreme. As an example of how that narrative can transcend that rhythm, slave it to its own intentions, I’m not sure I know a better example. The first half of it is as precise an example of phrasing you will hear – split vaguely into three sections the way in which the syllables build up as it goes on, from for example ‘three days / three months’ to ‘there was america / we went there’ to ‘a mexico revenge it’s stollen land / they really get off on “don’t hurt me please”‘, these snatches of life from the supermarkets of Lancashire to over-stimulated California build up, not exactly relentlessly – the bluesy chugging guitar backing doesn’t really feel relentless – but inevitably. Having just thought about it in fact, there’s an air of ‘It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding’ (one of my favourite Dylan tunes) about it, but an English, resigned, ironic… oh sod it, a northerness, a jokiness. The second half of the song is great too – and has lent Ed and myself our ‘See you mate!’ exchange which crops up from time to time – but the first half is class class class.

We touched upon ‘Container Drivers‘ and ‘New Face In Hell‘ last week, but it’s worth saying in this context that the way that MES sings ‘the uh-containeeeers, and their driveeeeers’ as if in wonderment is charming and helps the songs unironic, gleeful nature. And as for ‘New Face In Hell‘ –

(well firstly, is it a shaggy dog story? I really want it to be for some reason.)

– the level of detail in this narrative, delivered at great speed but with great clarity, is impressive not only lyrically and technically also. You hear words rush past you but in full colour – ‘Aghast goes next door to his neighbour, secretly excited, as aforementioned was a hunter whom radio enthusiast wanted friendship and favour of.’, ‘muscular, thick-skinned, slit-eyed neighbour’, ‘cream porches’ – all rounded off with the squealed hook of ‘a new face in hell!’. You follow a fully rounded little story which means as much or as little as you want. And there’s a fucking kazoo.

Are you getting this? There is great skill happening in these vocals. Artistic decisions have been made (whether instinctive or considered is irrelevant), and the way that MES sings isn’t a compromise, he’s not straining at the bit to do a three octave spanning melody here, he’s chosen to do it this way in order to best mesh words, music, and voice together. Consider the amount of voices Bowie has – nasal Ziggy, operatic Station To Station, cockney Be My Wife – and then consider MES who probably hasn’t a voice that could charm the birds from the trees, but he’s a working man with a tool and by god he’s getting good at using it.

Impression Of J. Temperance has dog fucking in it, yes, but don’t worry about that – instead, focus upon the second line of each verse. Sung, tunefully, each second line of four. Now, what does that do to this song? Well, in my opinion, there’s something very earthy, very base about J.Temperance, very English indeed, and what might be a dirge (I use that word non-pejoratively) is lifted by that line, heralded even. And to go back to something Ed said – if MES = The Fall then we can hear it when the Scanlon‘s guitar chimes back what Smith just sang. And the same thing happens in Gramme Friday, a proper demented surf number, a tune and everything, this could be busked so it’s clearly a proper sung song Mariah. But MES singing that melody is almost just a set up for the most severe vocalisation on the whole album when at the end of the song which sort of just falls apart under the weight of its amphetamine fuelled paranoia he begins to shriek – and I mean shriek, it’s the sort of noise you wake up at night having had a nightmare about – ‘I can’t relax!’.

Okay – so this is no drunken oaf managing to kid anyone. He might hate the description, but MES is an artist, and his words and his voice are his tools… and his band, of course (can someone remind me to pen something about ‘Disposability and The Fall’ please). The final track begins with perhaps the calmest bit of vocal on the album, and also probably my favourite moment. The N.W.R.A is essentially a story about a future where the tables have turned in England and in his own inimitable style Smith begins:

When it happened we walked through all the estates, from Manchester right to, er, Newcastle. In Darlington, helped a large man on his own chase off some kids who were chucking bricks and stuff through his flat window. She had a way with people like that. Thanked us and we moved on.

‘Junior Choice’ played one morning. The song was ‘English Scheme.’ Mine. They’d changed it with a grand piano and turned it into a love song. How they did it I don’t know. DJs had worsened since the rising. Elaborating on nothing in praise of the track with words they could hardly pronounce, in telephone voices. I was mad, and laughed at the same time. The West German government had brought over large yellow trains on Teeside docks. In Edinburgh. I stayed on my own for a few days, wandering about in the, er, pissing rain, before the Queen Mother hit town.

… I quote all this only to say that this is brilliant scene-setter, a proper little tale being told over some (at that moment) thoughtful chuggy music. And MES has a lovely storytelling voice, a real sense of timbre – the admiring tone for ‘she had a way with people like that’, the slight edge of steel on ‘Mine’. And this is merely a set up for the thrilling moment when MES finds his singing voice (we’ve really got to work on this terminology) to proclaim:

I’m Joe Totale
The yet unborn son
The North will rise again
The North will rise again

And that’s only the start to this behemoth of a lyric, with an air of post-appocalypse, a smidgen of social commentary…

I see that I have written much and possibly conveyed little. Let’s recap. Grotesque is a remarkable album. It’s a fully realised piece of work, is probably better than Dragnet, and contains more classic Fall songs than it has any right to. And while the band are on top form – my favourite Fall drumming performance thus far by the way, really tuned into what’s happening – MES reigns supreme, both lyrically and vocally goddammit! And while I will not deny anybody the right to not get on with his voice, I compel anyone who hasn’t given themselves the opportunity to buy into MES to properly listen, and ready yourselves for something which is at times peerless. I cannot recommend this record highly enough.

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