YMGTA #02: Live At The Witch Trials

“You can dance to it and pretend it’s avant-garde.”

Front cover

Details:

Recorded:  Camden, London 15 -16 December 1978

Released: 16 March 1979

  1. Frightened 5:02
  2. Crap Rap 2/Like To Blow 2:04
  3. Rebellious Jukebox 2:51
  4. No Xmas For John Quays 4:38
  5. Mother-Sister! 3:20
  6. Industrial Estate 2:00
  7. Underground Medecin 2:08
  8. Two Steps Back 5:03
  9. Live At The Witch Trials 0:51
  10. Futures And Pasts 2:36
  11. Music Scene 8:00
  • Mark E Smith – vocals
  • Martin Bramah – guitar, backing vocals
  • Marc Riley – bass
  • Karl Burns – drums
  • Yvonne Pawlett – keyboards

Background
There was a certain uniformity about the MES obituaries that appeared in January 2018. Inevitably, a sort of ‘checklist’ evolved: ‘Granny on bongos’, cantankerous and difficult (and various synonyms thereof), drink and drugs, the sprawling back catalogue and so on. And, of course, none of them missed the opportunity to mention the ‘revolving door’ approach to the group’s membership, with tales of Smith hiring and firing endlessly and abandoning musicians in a wide variety of locations. (Few of them saw fit to mention the largely strong and steady membership that the group enjoyed over its final decade though.) Nonetheless, it is true that by the time we get to The Fall’s debut album, we are already on version six of the group’s line-up.

At the end of Live 77, we heard Tony Friel’s departure being announced. His replacement, Jonnie Brown, only lasted a couple of weeks (the group having discovered that his unreliability was due to his heroin habit) before he was replaced by Eric McGann. Baines soon left as well, for a variety of personal reasons: as she described it, her ‘head was in bits’1 She was replaced by Yvonne Pawlett, who had responded to an advert in the NME. In May, the group undertook their first Peel session, having been recommended by John Walters. One of the more famous Fall anecdotes concerns how McGann refused to participate, offended by the Hawaiian shirt of van driver and conga player Steve Davies; as a result, Bramah played both guitar and bass on the session, performing the former with the rest of group and subsequently overdubbing the latter.

Their debut session consisted of four tracks: Futures and Pasts, Rebellious Jukebox, Mother-Sister! and Industrial Estate. All four are exuberant and energetic takes: clean and precise and remarkably confident considering the group’s limited recording experience. MES’s vocals are, on occasion, just a little reverb-heavy and lack prominence in the mix in comparison to future recordings.

By this stage, the group had acquired three enthusiastic fans in the shape of local lads Marc Riley, Stephen Hanley and Craig Scanlon, who were acting as roadies. After the Peel session, Riley was promoted to the role of bass player.

In August, the first official Fall release emerged. Bingo-Master’s Break-Out! featured three of the four songs that had been recorded back in November 1977: Psycho Mafia, Bingo-Master and Repetition (the version of Frightened was deemed unsatisfactory and has, as far as I’m aware, never appeared anywhere). This was followed three months later by It’s The New Thing. Of the five tracks the Fall released in 1978, I would say that the two most interesting are to be found on side 2/the b-side. Not that there’s anything wrong with the other three, but Repetition’s loping and sardonic statement of intent is always a treat, and Various Times’ controlled, tense and menacing atmosphere is quite a remarkable accomplishment for a group so early in their career. Both set The Fall a long way apart from the general punk herd.

In the same month as New Thing was released, the group’s second Peel session was broadcast. The four tracks have the same fresh and energetic feel as those on the first session. No Xmas and Like To Blow ended up on LATWT, and aren’t radically different from the album versions; Put Away eventually appeared on Dragnet, albeit in a far less clean-sounding incarnation. Mess Of My is, to my mind, by far the most interesting of the four. Whilst the insistent one-chord keyboard hook is archetypal 78-79 Fall, it’s an interestingly structured song, almost prog-like in its shifting tempo.

In the wider world…
…Britain was just about to undergo a seismic political shift. James Callaghan’s Labour government was in its death throes following the ‘Winter of Discontent’; twelve days after the release of LATWT, he lost a vote of no-confidence, which led to the general election in May which ushered in a decade of Thatcherism. Sid Vicious had recently died, and Trevor Francis became the first million pound footballer.

Notable albums from around the same time include Stiff Little Fingers’ Inflammable Material, Roxy Music’s Manifesto and Magazine’s Secondhand Daylight. The day after Witch Trials’ release, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive knocked The Bee Gees’ Tragedy from the UK number one spot.

From a personal perspective, 1979 saw the beginning of my record-buying career. Pocket money paid for The Knack’s My Sharona, The Tourists’ I Only Want To Be With You and Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ Oliver’s Army. With my tenth birthday money, I purchased my very first LPs: Parallel Lines by Blondie and Breakfast In America by Supertramp. (The Blondie album is clearly a pop classic that has stood the test of time very well; the Supertramp one less so, but I’m still quite fond of it.)

The Fall live in 1978
The group played around 50 gigs between the Stretford gig in December 1977 and the release of LATWT. There are three official live releases that date from this period: Liverpool 78 (released in 2001), Live At Deeply Vale (2005) and Live From The Vaults – Oldham 1978 (2005).

vaults oldham bigliverpool 78 bigdeeply vale big

These albums reveal a very settled setlist: only 15 different songs are performed overall; eight appear on all three recordings and four appear twice.

In terms of sound quality, none of them are great but the Oldham one is the pick of the bunch. The Deeply Vale one is horribly tinny and features a layer of hiss that suggests it’s from a second or third-generation tape; for most of the Liverpool recording the bass is ludicrously prominent and the drums are non-existent.

From what you can hear, there’s not a huge amount to differentiate each performance, but I would say that if you’re going to listen to just one, I’d go for Oldham by this criteria too. In particular, Bramah’s playing is quite expansive and exuberant on tracks like Frightened and a pleasingly lengthy Repetition. It’s a pity that Music Scene is cut off in its prime on this one. All three are on Spotify should you wish to have a listen before you part with any of your hard-earned cash. Incidentally, Deeply Vale was re-released (with a couple of track changes) for Record Store Day in 2016 as Bingo Masters At The Witch Trials, with an unspeakably horrible cover.

The Album

back cover
The album was recorded and mixed in two days; five days were planned, but Smith was ill (he’d lost his voice, which may or may not have been psychosomatic2). It was produced by Bob Sargeant, who’d produced the second Peel session. The production on the album is interesting, especially when compared to its successor, Dragnet. What Sargeant achieves is, above all, a lack of fuss. There’s something clean and clinical in the album’s sound; a clear distinction between each instrument and Smith’s voice. This was probably exaggerated from my perspective from having listened extensively to the live 78 albums before moving on to LATWT: after Oldham, Deeply Vale and Liverpool, LATWT sounded rather like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in comparison.

The main thing that, to me, is a little dissatisfying is Karl Burns’ drums. Burns is a very talented drummer, no doubt, but on much of the album, the extended fills that zoom from channel to channel are rather a distraction. Not that they don’t work at all: on Frightened, Music Scene and Two Steps they add an effective layer of colour. However, on the faster-paced tunes they have a ‘look at me’ quality that diverts your attention excessively and feels out of step with the spirit of the music.

In the last post, I touched on the issue of punk; over on the Fall forum, this provoked a wide variety of interesting and thoughtful posts, many of which were from people who were there at the time (which I wasn’t). Whatever MES (or anyone else) might say about the extent to which The Fall were a punk band, I think it’s undoubtedly true that the average (wo)man on the street who’d never heard the group before would use that word on first hearing Underground, Futures, No Xmas or Like To Blow. The group undoubtedly used/shared the energy and aggression associated with punk in these tracks. To me – and this is a matter of personal taste – these tracks are not the most successful, despite their individual merits. Looking back from my perspective, it’s Frightened, Music Scene and Two Steps Back that really work; they’re the ones that really break the mould and set the agenda.

The Songs
Frightened
A remarkable song, and, in typical Fall fashion, one of the least obvious album openers. An intense, creeping account of drug-related paranoia (‘Amphetamine frightened’), in which MES captures vividly the effects of speed: ‘I’m in a trance / and I sweat’; ‘I look to the sky / my lips are dry’. The music matches his theme perfectly: menacing and ominous, with Bramah’s scratchy, astringent guitar seeming to climb the studio walls. His frenetic work over the last couple of minutes pushes the song to a particularly intense level. If ever a song has stood well the test of nearly forty years…

Crap Rap 2/Like To Blow
The more obvious opener, CR2’s rant being a clear statement of intent: not just the oft-quoted ‘We are the Fall / Northern white crap that talks back’, but even more pertinently, ‘no boxes for us’. The ‘sucker…’ intro and the staccato riff appeal to many, I know, but they’re elements that still feel a little generic to me, even if I have grown to appreciate the song a little more over recent weeks. ‘I stay at home / I live on snacks / potatoes in packs’ capture a drug-fogged existence pretty well, though.

Rebellious Jukebox
Quite tuneful and poppy, relatively; another one that I’ve definitely developed a far greater appreciation of recently, even if the chorus still has a bit of an obvious punk-shouty sound for me. I can hear a little of ‘Echo Beach’ in this one, although that may well just be me.

No Xmas For John Quays
An intriguing and effective intro, and I do like the strident, atonal main riff. But I still struggle to get on with this one: the chorus is obvious and a little crass, and it outstays its welcome by a good couple of minutes. I have tried, but not for me.

Mother-Sister!
Another one of which I’ve developed a greater appreciation. The verse, anyway: a loping, almost reggae rhythm that’s complemented nicely by some nicely slanted guitar work from Bramah. The chorus, though, once again resorts to a bit of obvious punky shouting.

Industrial Estate
I offended all manner of people by giving this 2/10 on the Fi5 blog. And I’ve tried to like it, I really have. The harmonics on the intro are great, as the string-bending on the opening riff. But the ‘yeah, yeah’ chorus refrain (whether it’s ironic or not) still sets my teeth on edge, I’m afraid.

Underground Medecin
Another one that has an intriguing opening but descends into obviousness too quickly. Bramah almost rescues this: an energetic performance with touches of garage/surf-rock that elevates this one a little above the other ‘punky’ ones. It’s also quite interestingly structured, never quite going where you expect it. I’ve grown to rather like this one.

Two Steps Back
A stealthy, menacing prowl, underpinned by a tight, solid riff and carefully-measured drumming. It also features some rather pleasing scratchy Velvets-esque soloing. MES’s sneering is measured and effective, and the trademark plinky keyboards broaden the sound unobtrusively. One that I had underappreciated before covering it on Fi5, and has now become rather a favourite.

Live At The Witch Trials
The first in a long line of filler / piss-take / experimental tracks, of which I am generally a fan. Intriguing and atmospheric, I really like it (even if MES might have regretted it3), although it might have sat better earlier on in the album, to break up some of the punkier tracks.

Futures And Pasts
Of all the full-on ‘punk’ tracks, I like this the best. There’s something taut and disciplined about it, plus the transitions are expertly executed. It’s a great guitar riff, although Burns does once again splash about unnecessarily throughout.

Music Scene
This and Frightened are the two tracks that, for me, really set this apart from the albums released by The Fall’s contemporaries in 1979. It has a lovely, spare, loping rhythm that gives MES plenty of space to sneeringly disparage the music business (‘envy of the choosy set’) and also gives Bramah plenty of opportunity to contribute a range of spidery guitar lines that crawl all over the song.

Several sources link the song’s bass line to PiL’s Fodderstompf, although I have to confess I’ve never really heard it myself. I can hear, especially in the ‘ooh-ooh’ backing vocals, a clearer link to Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’.

This song has a ‘yeah whatever’ confidence that I find refreshing, especially considering that it doesn’t achieve this via the usual “1-2-f*ck-you” punk approach. And I know that it’s contrived, but the ‘ignoring the studio instructions’ sequence towards the end finishes the song off admirably. Sets the tone for the next forty years. The only (very slight) disappointment is that they didn’t open it (as they occasionally did with live versions) with a spot of Ding-A-Dong.

Reissues & Bonus Tracks
The 2002 Voiceprint reissue adds the three tracks from the Bingo EP. The 2004 Sanctuary reissue is a much more comprehensive package, featuring both 1978 single/EP releases, the Dresden Dolls bootleg single, the Short Circuit tracks, the first two Peel sessions plus the Liverpool 78 material. If you only own the original album, this is well worth purchasing.

Overall Verdict
The NME review declared the album to be ‘Not quite in the mainstream, not very far away. You can dance to it and pretend it’s avant-garde.’ I can’t imagine dancing to it (but then I don’t really do dancing) but the ‘not quite in the mainstream’ comment is spot on, I think. The album captures the age without ever being predictable. Record Mirror identified ‘a band with identity, stroppily, successfully, garnishing their bumbling threads… and hammering them into a logical patterned whole’, and I can’t argue with that.

To me, the ‘identity’ isn’t quite there yet. In terms of attitude, yes, but not quite, at this point, musically. Not consistently, at least. There’s lots to admire in LATWT, and it’s a better album than most bands could ever aspire to. And of course this is with the benefit of hindsight: because I know what’s to come…

My “Version”
I mentioned on the Fi5 blog that I have made a variety of my own ‘versions’ of Fall albums. I know that not everyone approves (and that’s fair enough), but I enjoy using Audacity to create my own mixes, in which I re-order, skip less successful (to my mind) tracks and include those b-sides, etc. that I enjoy. If you have a root around in the Fall forum you might even find some further details. I intend to revisit these mixes as part of this project. However, I’m not going to do a LATWT mix as there just aren’t sufficient tracks that I rate highly enough (despite the fact that there are a few crackers). But I’m going to revisit this after my review of Dragnet, as I think that there’s a mighty fine mix to be made from the 1978-79 material. Watch this space…

1Ford, p42

2Ford, p56

3Edge, p18

3 thoughts on “YMGTA #02: Live At The Witch Trials

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