“The spit in the sky falls in your eye…”
It might surprise regular readers of the Fall in Fives blog that I’m starting with a live album, considering that I did, on several occasions, express my general lack of enthusiasm for the format. (This lack of enthusiasm has always applied generally, not just to The Fall.) However, I thought that if this blog was going to paint a chronological picture of The Fall’s development, then it would be remiss to ignore the intrinsic part that live performances and live albums have played in the group’s history.
In addition, my eyes were undoubtedly opened by a few of the live versions that I encountered as a result of the Fi5 project: the Auckland August 1982 version of Deer Park, for example, or the Munich 1984 performance of Neighbourhood of Infinity.
I’m not going to try and cover all of the live albums: that way insanity lies, as there’s simply too many of them and they are, to put it mildly, highly variable in terms of quality and interest. But Live 77 is, as Dave Thompson says, a ‘fascinating document’¹ ; one that captures the group as a live act in the formative stages of their existence.
Recorded live at the Stretford Civic Centre 23 December 1977
Released March 2000
01. Psycho Mafia 2:40
02. Last Orders 2:14
03. Repetition 4:42
04. Dresden Dolls 3:45
05. Hey Fascist 2:50
06. Frightened 5:22
07. Industrial Estate 2:23
08. Stepping Out 3:32
09. Bingo Master’s Breakout 2:40
10. Oh Brother 4:10
11. Cop It 3:04
12. Futures And Pasts 2:50
13. Louie Louie 6:36
- Mark E Smith – vocals
- Martin Bramah – guitar
- Tony Friel – bass
- Karl Burns – drums
- Una Baines – keyboards
In 1975, Smith was living with his girlfriend Una Baines (who, like him, had dropped out of college after a few months) when they were introduced to two of his sister’s friends, Martin Bramah and Tony Friel. By the following year, this was the roughly-sketched line-up for the (as yet nameless) group, albeit one where there was both a chronic lack of equipment and a lack of clarity as to who was playing what. Impetus was provided by attendance at the Sex Pistols’ second Manchester gig in July 1976, regarding which Smith remarked, ‘I knew we could be a lot better that they were’².
By the time we get to the gig immortalised on Live 77, The Fall had played around twenty gigs, mainly in Manchester and London; the original drummer – long thought to have been called Dave, but who turned out to be a Steve – having been replaced by Karl Burns. The only available recordings prior to this are the two tracks (Stepping Out and Last Orders) that appeared on Short Circuit – Live At The Electric Circus and a three-track bootleg single. The latter features Dresden Dolls, Industrial Estate and Psycho Mafia. It has been claimed that this was recorded in Smith’s living room, but this seems a bit unlikely, and was probably recorded in a rehearsal room.
In November, the group had also recorded four tracks in the studio, three of which were to appear on their first official release. But we’ll get to that in the next post…
The Live 77 gig took place at Stretford Civic Centre on December 23, and was a Rock Against Racism benefit, also featuring John Cooper Clarke and The Worst. Whilst sympathetic to RAR’s cause, even at this early stage of the group’s career, MES was already uneasy about being too closely aligned with any political movement. Around this time, for example, the group turned down an early opportunity to appear on the NME’s front cover because they distrusted the ‘chew ’em up, spit ’em out’ motivation of Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons³.
During 1977, Kay Carroll, an acquaintance of Baines’, became part of The Fall circle, and after Baines and Smith split up, she and MES became a couple. Not long after, Carroll became the group’s manager, a position she was to hold until 1983. The Stretford gig is notable as it was Friel’s last. A combination of his resentment regarding Smith and Carroll’s increasingly dictatorial control of the group and MES’s distrust of Friel’s ‘muso’ tendencies led to him leaving to form The Passage.
In the outside world, England failed to qualify for a world cup for the second time in a row, the queen’s first grandchild, Peter Mark Andrew Phillips was christened, and Star Wars reached British cinemas. Wings’ Mull of Kintyre was number one and the best-selling album was a compilation called Disco Fever. It’s also worth noting a few other albums released around this time: Never Mind The Bollocks, The Vibrators’ Pure Mania, The Boomtown Rats’ debut, and Wire’s Pink Flag. Notable because they were all ‘punk’ (or were at least described by many as such at the time), just as some in 1977 would have labelled The Fall.
I don’t think anyone would argue that Live 77 sounds anything like the four albums mentioned above; indeed, the four of them don’t sound a great deal like each other, come to that. But, leaving aside the use of the term ‘post-punk’ (which I’ll come to in subsequent posts), it’s clear that many people at the time would have considered The Fall to be a punk band. Smith certainly didn’t. In Renegade (not always the most reliable source, it must be admitted) he states: ‘Simple fact: we weren’t a punk band’4. This statement was less to do with musical style and more concerned with long-term purpose. To Smith, punk was short-term attention-grabbing, a ‘quick statement’5 – ‘When you’re dealing in slogans like The Clash and The Pistols it’s hard to keep that shit fresh.’6 Whether in simple musical terms the songs on this album represent a punk ‘style’ is arguable and, to my mind, pointless. There clearly was a lot of spitting though…
thefall.org describes the recording as ‘super lo-fi’, and to a large extent that’s fair comment. That said, in terms of the instrumentation, I’ve heard worse. Whilst Friel’s bass isn’t exactly prominent and Baines’ keyboards make only sporadic appearances, overall the sound balance of the group (when MES isn’t singing) isn’t actually that bad. However, it does deteriorate noticeably in the last few tracks; at points towards the end the instrumentation is occasionally little more than a harsh, homogeneous buzz . The vocals, throughout, are startlingly overloaded and distorted and dominate large sections of the recording. But they do capture well the intensity and aggression (as well as the sardonic humour) of Smith’s delivery. Dick Witts, who organised The Fall’s first gig, remarked upon how MES ‘howled the place down’7, and you can certainly hear what he meant here. The first sound you hear is the alarmingly raw, primal scream that introduces Psycho Mafia, and Smith barely relents thereafter.
Of Smith’s oft-cited influences, you can’t hear much of Can, but you can detect a little bit more of the Velvet Underground (e.g. I Heard Her…); however the comparison that most springs to mind is The Stooges, on whose debut album MES spent his very first wages. Not entirely in musical style (except maybe Louie Louie) but certainly in terms of attitude and also in terms of the gig’s atmosphere. There are echoes of Metallic KO: not quite the level of hostility that Iggy & co faced (with bottles bouncing off guitars), but there does seem to be a fair amount of spitting going on. In fact, after only the first song Bramah remonstrates with the audience: ‘Will you stop f*cking spitting!?’ MES is a little more sanguine, remarking sardonically, ‘The spit in the sky falls in your eye…’ He seems more offended by the beer being wasted – before Stepping Out he remarks: ‘You must have plenty of money, you lot, the amount of f*cking beer you’re throwing over here.’
It’s also notable how tight the band sound here, especially considering the relatively small number of gigs that they had under their belt. There are a few loose ends, no doubt, but overall they already sound like a powerful, disciplined unit.
MES’ opening scream is as arresting an introduction to an album as you’ll ever hear. ‘Good evening, we are The Fall’ he proclaims, as he would hundreds of times thereafter. Smith’s interest in tarot is well documented, so it’s interesting to hear him add ‘as in the ace of wands’, especially as (according the first result of a google search – I’m no expert) this card apparently represents ‘inspiration, new opportunities, growth, potential’.
It’s a song that, on Fi5, I recognised the appeal of whilst feeling that it didn’t quite connect with me. It makes a lot more sense here, in this context. It bristles with energy and aggression; there’s also a sense of joyful exuberance, of a group bursting with ideas. MES sounds virtually unhinged in places, but also like he’s having the time of his life and is completely in his element, excited by the potential of what he’s doing.
This was the first of 20+ish performances of the song, the last being in June 1980.
Similarly aggressive, but with more of a ‘stompy’ feel; also featuring some incongruous if rather endearing ‘na-na-na-na-na’ vocals. I described this on the blog as ‘bog standard punk thrash’, and I still think that’s probably fair, even if the song makes a little bit more sense in this context.
There are only three known performances of this one, of which this was the second. It’s not the group’s most inspiring composition. The most interesting aspect is Friel’s little bass solo at the end, which you can’t imagine (especially in the circumstances) that MES approved of greatly.
It’s difficult, from this distance (I had three years of primary school left when this was recorded) to place these songs securely in context, but this feels like one of those that really set the group apart from what else was going on. If you compare this to the contemporary albums referenced above (The Vibrators, for example), the loping pace, the humour, the sarcasm (‘Same old blank generation/groovy blank generation’) is just a world apart. Lovely deafening cacophony at the beginning too.
Played only 15 times, surprisingly. A defining moment.
One of the earliest Fall songs to be recorded. I’ve read several references linking this to Siouxsie & the Banshees, but for me it sounds much more like Magazine. It has a certain pleasing angularity, but it feels like a cover version, even though it isn’t. Not a bad song, as such, but a little pedestrian. It’s not that surprising that it disappeared after only a handful of performances (like Last Orders, there are only three known), as it doesn’t quite seem like a fully-formed Fall song somehow.
It took 17 years for this to get a ‘proper’ release, and you can’t help feeling that it wasn’t really a strong enough idea to sustain a song (although I have occasionally enjoyed Hey! Student to varying degrees over the years). Bundles of energy, but rather simplistic. It’s the vocals that really undo this recording, pushing the distortion to uncomfortable levels. It’s one of only seven known performances of the song in this form.
Along with Repetition, this really sets the group apart from the contemporary shouty-punk crowd. In this form, it doesn’t quite have the ‘proggy’ qualities of the studio version, but it’s still remarkably sinister and atmospheric. Bramah’s horribly out of tune at this point, but this just adds to the unearthly atmosphere. MES’s tuneless vocals make this a bit of a challenge; it’s not for the only recently initiated. The second of only seventeen performances between 1977-80.
One thing I learned from the Fi5 experience is the power of repetition (the three Rs) in terms of repeated exposure to Fall songs: there really weren’t many that didn’t benefit from multiple listens. I don’t think I’ll ever truly get on with the ‘yeah, yeah, industrial estate’ refrain (however ironic it might be), but it does make a lot more sense in this context. I guess it just wore me down; a bit, anyway.
One of those that I was rather dismissive of on the blog. It’s delivered with a fair bit of vigour here, and once again is one that did grow on me just a little. Still feels like a rather slim idea and the distortion levels on Smith’s here make this another one that’s a challenging listen in places. In contrast to some songs on this album, it remained a fairly common feature in set lists up until 1980, notching up 29 performances.
Bingo Master’s Breakout
I did this song in #002 of the blog, and looking back now the comments do seem unduly harsh. I have certainly developed my appreciation of this era of the group since then, which was one of the positive outcomes from Fi5. The song’s a lot of fun: quirky, angular and refreshingly vigorous. A throbbing rhythm underpins the intro, which contrasts nicely with Bramah’s piercing, trebly guitar line. It’s one of those songs that you can see as a Half Man Half Biscuit influence, especially in Bramah’s jaunty contribution. The group handle the tempo changes well, too (not something that they always managed). The sound quality is getting horribly ropy by this point though. The third of fifteen performances.
This is an intriguing one, and not just because of MES’s odd introduction: ‘Pop music for today’s people; the same fried egg.’ After this appearance, it would be sixteen years before this song re-appeared, and in a very different form. I’m not overly keen on the modern incarnation – I described it as ‘flimsy’ and ‘childish’ in Fi5 #044 – but this takes things to the other extreme. In a 1984 Melody Maker interview, MES described the old version of the tune as ‘a bit Bo Diddleyish’, and listening to this, you can see what he meant. But although this is thankfully free of the ‘flimsy’ elements, at this point it’s little more than a tuneless dirge. It’s not helped by the rapidly deteriorating sound quality.
Another song that was performed once before vanishing until the Wonderful & Frightening era, and another one with an intriguing MES intro: ‘I have to wash my shirts myself: I have not got a mother to do it for me.’ Compared to Brother, there’s a much stronger melody here, one that was retained for the 80s version, but there’s a lot less subtlety and invention in comparison to the studio version, to put it mildly. Interesting though it is, things are getting harder and harder to listen to by now.
Futures And Pasts
One that, in common with some others here, I appreciate a bit more than I did at the time of Fi5 #024. Only got eight more outings after this. I like MES’s opening, casual ‘Futures and Pasts, go on, get on with it’, it’s a great opening riff and it pounds along energetically. Nice murky bass breaks too. But it’s all descending into a blistered fuzz by this point.
In which Mr Friel gets his (slightly sarcastic?) send-off… I gave this 1/10 back in Fi5 #069, and I don’t regret or take back that verdict at all. I also said that I had no intention of listening to it again, of course. It is, undoubtedly, bloody awful on several levels. It’s a dumb and clichéd tune at the best of times, and the group don’t bring anything to it other than sounding pissed and like they’re taking the piss. And by this stage, the sound quality has plummeted to the very depths of hell; as I noted on the blog, it sounds at points like MES is trying to ingest the microphone. Taken out of its context, it’s a listening experience you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
And yet, it almost has a sort of manic charm about it, in an ‘if I’d been there and on my eighth pint’ kind of way. Each time I listened to the album, I didn’t immediately skip it, although I must confess I only made it through the full six and a half minutes a couple of times. It’s a notable(ish) piece of Fall history; but thank God they didn’t play it again.
This week, my work has caused me to have a daily journey of 45 minutes – pretty much the exact length of this album. And, over the last four days, I have listened to it both ways. If you’d told me back in January that I’d at some point happily listen to not just a Fall live album, but one recorded in 1977 – and not once but eight times in a week – I’d have questioned your sanity. But, having listened to Live 77 many times over the last couple of weeks, I have to report that I did actually enjoy it. I even became gradually immune to the distorted blare of Smith’s vocals and the increasingly all-round chainsaw buzz of the whole group towards the end.
Why? Well, as I mentioned above, Smith’s ‘repetition’ mantra seems to be something that applies to not only the group’s musical agenda but also to how The Fall’s music – even the songs that you don’t immediately like – can just beat you into submission. I said at the end of the Fi5 blog that MES would undoubtedly look down upon my work and say, ‘what a waste of time, son – you really ought to get out more’, but I like to think (possibly foolishly) that he’d like the idea of this album bludgeoning me into liking it.
It’s not a great album in its own right, but if you’re familiar enough with the group’s 70s material, then it is indeed a ‘fascinating document’. So, if you are familiar with the songs but haven’t heard Live 77, then I recommend that you give it a listen (below). Just be prepared to have your eardrums shredded a little. If you’re not familiar with this era of The Fall, then get to know to Witch Trials first – then give this a listen.
[See the bibliography page for full details]
¹User’s Guide To The Fall, p24
²User’s Guide To The Fall, p15