YMGTA #03: Dragnet

Hey you horror-face!

Front cover

Details:
Recorded: Rochdale, 2-4 August 1979

Released: 26 October 1979

Psykick Dancehall 3:51
A Figure Walks 6:13
Printhead 3:17
Dice Man 1:46
Before The Moon Falls 4:34
Your Heart Out 3:07
Muzorewi’s Daughter 3:44
Flat Of Angles 4:58
Choc-Stock 2:40
Spectre vs Rector 7:57
Put Away 3:26

  • Mark E Smith – vocals
  • Marc Riley – guitar, vocals
  • Craig Scanlon – guitar, keyboards
  • Steve Hanley – bass, vocals
  • Mike Leigh – drums

Background
It was the sixth line-up of The Fall that recorded Live At The Witch Trials in December 1978; by the time they came to record Dragnet in August 1979, we were on version nine of the group. Karl Burns left before Witch Trials had even been released (although he was of course destined to return on more than one occasion).  Yvonne Pawlett left shortly after for, as Simon Ford puts it, the ‘refreshingly unique’ reason that she needed to spend more time with her sick dog1.

Of far greater significance, however, was Martin Bramah’s decision to quit, mid-tour, in April 1979. (One of the key reasons seems to have been the tension caused by Bramah’s relationship with Una Baines.) Whilst Burns’ distinctive drum sound was just as much a distinguishing feature of The Fall’s first releases as Bramah’s scratchy, frenetic guitar work, the latter’s departure left Smith as the only remaining founder member. From this point on, bolstered by Carroll’s aggressive management style, Smith was undoubtedly in charge. The days of ‘we’re a democratic band, y’know’ (the intro to Futures and Pasts on the Deeply Vale album) were – if they ever really existed – well and truly over.

Burns’ replacement was Mike Leigh, who had a background in traditional rock ‘n’ roll, as is emphasised sartorially by this picture of the group from March 1979…

photo

Despite this, he seems to have settled into the line-up quite happily, despite his retro attire occasionally causing offence to some elements of The Fall’s audience2.

Marc Riley, who had replaced Eric McGann on bass after the ‘Hawaiian shirt’ incident en route to the group’s first Peel session, had previously formed his first group, The Sirens, with schoolmates Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley. After Riley’s promotion from roadie to group member, Scanlon and Hanley continued as Staff 9, supporting both The Fall and Joy Division. In what Kay Carroll called a ‘serious reshuffle’ following Bramah’s departure3, both were recruited to The Fall, Riley moving to guitar alongside Scanlon to allow Hanley to take over on bass.

Staff 9 supporting Joy Division, March 1979

Bramah’s departure was significant, but the elevation of Hanley and Scanlon from fans/roadies to members of the group was a truly pivotal moment in The Fall’s history. Several people over the years would make important contributions to The Fall Sound (the solid Greenway/Melling/Spurr axis of the group’s last decade springs to mind, for example), but nobody other than MES himself would ever play as crucial a role as these two.

In July 1979, this line-up (still including Yvonne Pawlett) released the Rowche Rumble single. It featured an unforgettable thumping/chanting intro that soon morphs into a frantic ‘Trumpton on speed’ guitar riff (the influence of early Fall on the national treasure that is Half Man Half Biscuit shouldn’t be underestimated). It was based on Smith’s experiences with a consignment of barbiturates during his time as a shipping clerk4.  On the other side of the single, In My Area, the group used a bog-standard blues riff to good effect to produce a comparatively light and jovial little number, Pawlett’s scatter-gun keyboards giving it a slightly unhinged tone.

Less than a month later, the group (now minus Pawlett) were back in the same studio to record The Fall’s second album. As Steve Hanley – in his inimitably understated style – put it: ‘We spend a day in Rochdale recording and two months later it’s in the shops.’5

In The Wider World…
A week after the album’s release, the Iran hostage crisis began. In the UK, To The Manor Born was watched by nearly 24 million viewers, a new record for a recorded programme, and Vauxhall launched the Astra. And there were still lots of strikes.

The day after Dragnet‘s release, Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star (number one for only one week, I was surprised to learn) was knocked off the top of the charts by One Day at a Time by Lena Martell. (No, me neither.) The excellent Parallel Lines was the best-selling album of the year (my other 10th birthday purchase, Breakfast In America, was fourth).

The Fall Live In 1979
The group played 74 gigs in 1979, 38 of them between the release of the first and second albums. The gigography page on thefall.org suggests that there aren’t that many recordings from this era. There are, however, two official releases of 1979 gigs – Retford 1979 and Los Angeles 1979 – plus the first six tracks on Totale’s Turns, all of which were recorded after Dragnet‘s release. We’ll get to them in the next post…

mes

Wednesday, 4 April 1979 Stowaway Club, Newport

The Album
back cover

“Dragnet” is white crap let loose in a studio but still in control. Sung in natural accents in front of unAFFECTed music. “Dragnet” isn’t a mass of confusion covered by reverb and a control board. This sound could catch on. So what. Get Caught.

Dragnet press release

Reviews of Dragnet often tend to focus on the production, and it’s certainly true that LATWT sounds incredibly clean and crisp in comparison. Listen to the contrast, for example, between the taut drum sound that opens Music Scene and the murky thump that introduces Muzorewi’s Daughter. Grant Showbiz took the helm for Dragnet‘s production (the beginning of his lengthy association with the group), and conjured up a rough, grainy sound that often makes it appear that the album was recorded in a shed with a corrugated iron roof. (David Quantick, writing in Q magazine about the 1999 reissue, said it was ‘like the whole thing was recorded on a home cassette recorder in a multi-storey car park’.) Smith described Showbiz as ‘useless in a way, but it worked out well… [he] brought a lot of good things out’.6  Considering just how many Fall LPs GS was to produce in the future, I think we can read that as a compliment, if a typically back-handed one.

The production actually gives the album a more ‘difficult’ reputation than the songs themselves actually warrant. It almost disguises how conventional many of them are. Some of them are actually verging on the poppy, or at least closer to what the ‘traditional’ music listener might consider a properly-structured song than is often the case with The Fall – the jaunty Your Heart Out, the R ‘n’ B shuffle of Dice Man, the ragged rockabilly of Put Away, or the disco rhythm of Psykick Dancehall, for instance. That said, it’s not all three-minute pop songs by any measure: A Figure Walks and Before The Moon Falls are stealthy, eerie slow-burners; Spectre vs Rector takes the group into a whole new territory of inventive, angular, discordant mayhem.

In Your Heart Out, MES declares: ‘I don’t sing I just shout / All on one note’. This is actually a little disingenuous. There isn’t, of course, a single part of the group’s back catalogue that suggests that Smith had anything more than a tenuous grip on melody at the best of times (an understanding, perhaps; but not a ‘grip’ in the technical sense). However, there’s a fair amount (relatively) of melody in his vocals on Dragnet. A Figure Walks, Dice Man and Flat of Angles all see Smith follow a basic melodic structure.

Whilst, for me, Burns’ drums were in places over-fussy on LATWT, here the pendulum swings a little too far the other way. Mike Leigh is clearly a solid enough drummer, but the drums here are generally rather flat and pedestrian.  I stressed above how important the recruitment of Scanlon and Hanley was – however, they don’t yet quite make their mark here; certainly not in the way that they would on subsequent albums. Not that there’s anything wrong at all with their contributions, but in the 80s and 90s there are many tracks where either/both of them just completely make a song, and that isn’t really the case with Dragnet. That’s not a criticism of either of them: they’d only been in the group for five minutes, and many incredible, jaw-dropping moments were to come…

Contemporary reviews were mixed. In Melody Maker, Paolo Hewitt found it ‘inaccessible, sometimes ugly’; whilst he could ‘admire the spirit behind it’, he was ‘not inspired to let The Fall influence my life in any way’.7 The NME regretted the loss of Burns’ ‘distinctive’ drumming, but was keen on the ‘invention and freshness’ of the two new guitarists. Ultimately, however, they felt that Smith was ‘not… any sort of genius; nor do The Fall represent some magical chemistry of talent’.

The Songs

Psykick Dancehall
‘Is there anybody there?’ the opening line enquires, seance-style (an ominous whispered background vocal emphasising the supernatural subject matter). It’s a song about psychic vibrations and so on, apparently inspired by a real spiritual establishment (although exactly which one is the subject of much conjecture and is probably destined to be lost in the mists of time.)

You couldn’t ask for a more different opener to Frightened. The disco rhythm is lots of fun, if rather startling, and contrasts nicely with the pair of spindly guitars. It clatters along joyfully, and also features a slightly unusual bridge (e.g. at 0:33) that takes things in a surprising direction. Some nice, almost bluesy guitar-string bending towards the end, and it’s rounded off by a bit of mysterious background dialogue. One that has definitely been promoted from ‘like’ to ‘love’ in this house.

It’s one of the group’s most frequently performed songs, having been played 72 times. Interestingly, the first 21 took place in 1979-80; the remainder came after it was revived in 2009 and it was still being played in 2016.

A Figure Walks
You can certainly hear the H P Lovecraft influence in this one: a sparse, mysterious journey through terror and paranoia, apparently inspired by a long walk home where MES’s vision was restricted by his anorak. It’s full of effective imagery: ‘eyes of brown, watery/nails of pointed yellow/hands of black carpet’. The wandering guitars (there’s nice interplay between lead and rhythm, e.g. at 2:26-2:36) and stark cymbal splashes give it more than enough variation to sustain its six minutes.

Only played 19 times, almost entirely between 1979-80, although it made a final appearance in 2009.

Printhead
In general, Dragnet sees the group moving away from the more obvious punk tropes that often cropped up on LATWT. There’s a little bit of an echo of those elements here, especially in the ‘Hey you horror-face!’ intro, but it has just about enough vigour and invention to steer clear of the stereotype. The guitar solo towards the end is a bit of a blast too. Still, it is rather on the simplistic side, and feels even at this stage like a pretty standard MES swipe at music journalists. Still, I did find myself enjoying rather more than when I covered it in Fi5. Another one that saw a bit of a surprise return in the group’s latter years, appearing twice in 2011 after only 21 outings 1979-81.

Dice Man
A brief, amiable Bo Diddley shuffle that lasts about as long as it ought to, and is another that I’ve grown rather fond of over the last few weeks. Insubstantial but fun. Only played live 13 times.

Before The Moon Falls
Now this one really has grown on me. Always under my radar, it’s come to be a firm favourite (MES wasn’t kidding about the power of repetition). Like A Figure Walks, it’s of the creepy, malevolent persuasion and features some nice VU-esque metallic slashing guitar. Only ever played eight times.

Your Heart Out
I went to university in 1987, and much of the indie music of the time was dominated by the C86 sound: earnest young men in checked shirts and glasses with floppy fringes singing slightly off-key over awkward, jangly guitar lines. (See: Orange Juice, The Weather Prophets, The Brilliant Corners.) Your Heart Out isn’t quite that – it’s a little too abrasive and angular – but it does, for me, bring back images of embarrassed shuffling around student disco dance floors. Another one that’s just a little flimsy, but fun nonetheless. Also another that didn’t last too long on the setlist: just 19 appearances 1979-81.

Muzorewi’s Daughter
I’d like to consider myself as someone who is appropriately respectful of issues pertaining to race, gender, sexuality, etc. without being excessively sensitive or quick to take offence. But there’s just something that bugs me about this song.

In the Fi5 blog I said that, ‘it opens with a sort of faux-tribal rhythm that always puts me in mind of those racially dubious 40s/50s animations where cartoon characters end up being scalped or boiled in a large cauldron’. (There’s an example here.) With that in mind, given that the song is about Abel T. Muzorewa, a Methodist bishop who, for a few months in 1979, served as prime minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, the frequent references to the ‘pot’ (‘I’ve been in the pot too long / too hot in the pot too long’) plus lines like ‘I’m too long in the nips / I’m too long in the tits’ all seem distinctly dubious to me. I’m not suggesting that Smith (or Kay Carroll, who seems to have had at least a hand in the lyrics) was a racist, but this one just makes me a bit uncomfortable.

In addition, I still struggle to get on with this musically: the chorus is inane, and Smith’s shrieks are unpleasantly piercing. The most musically interesting part is the unexpected semi-tone (I think?) drop at 3:24. Otherwise, definitely the low point of the album for me.

It was played live 42 times; perhaps surprisingly, around half of these appearances were from 2010 onwards.

Flat Of Angles
I’ve always been fond of this one. It has a pleasingly lackadaisical, almost bluesy vibe and has that ramshackle feel that Pavement aspired to in the 90s. It’s also an intriguing tale: a murderer (who killed his wife for ‘wasting his life’) hiding out in the aforesaid flat and getting deranged and paranoid (‘the streets are full of mercenary eyes’). The comparative lightness of the tune makes a nice counterpoint to the Twilight Zone atmosphere of the words. Mike Leigh’s favourite Fall song, apparently. Disappeared from the setlist in 1982 after 17 appearances.

Choc-Stock
Adapted from one of Hanley and Scanlon’s Staff 9 songs (although it may also have originated partly from a Bramah idea), this is another one that I still can’t really get on with. There is a certain amount of haphazard charm to the ‘Now come on kids…’ section, but other than that it’s all a little embarrassingly juvenile. The last of its 19 performances was in early 1981.

Spectre vs Rector
There are many good songs on Dragnet, even if I’ve had to work quite hard to appreciate some of them. There’s only really one, however, that gives any clue as to the unique wonder that the group was to go on and achieve.

You can but admire its relentless, aggressive ugliness. You might think that you’ve heard nothing as scuzzy and dirty as the opening guitar line until the even more grimy bass joins in. And then there’s a cacophony of competing, atonal mayhem (0:27-0:48) that threatens to drag the song down into a vortex of fuzzy, tuneless chaos. It’s more common for MES’s vocals to be the agents of this chaos, whilst the musicians endeavour to anchor the song; here, the opposite is true – Smith’s harsh, aggressive and rhythmic chanting is the only thing clinging to some sense of rationality while the unholy mix of distorted, blistered noise bubbles ominously beneath him.

And all of this only takes us up to around halfway.  At 3:50, a crisper, more energetic rhythm kicks in; but only briefly, before we transition to a cleaner, less chaotic version of the first section. There’s some role-reversal here: the group become (relatively) more focused while MES loosens up and verges on babbling in places.

It’s a thing of mad, unhinged wonder. And, for me, the only thing on the album that really, truly drags itself free of all expectations. You can see a line from this to Hurricane Edward to 50 Year Old Man to Couples Vs Jobless: not necessarily what you want The Fall to be all the time, but something you want to see at least once every album; not just pushing the limits, not even ignoring them, just bloody-mindedly refusing to acknowledge that they even exist.

Put Away
I’ve no great issues with Dragnet‘s sequencing, but it does always feel odd to find the sprightly Put Away tucked away at the end of the album after the eight minutes of Spectre vs Rector mayhem.

It’s a rough, bouncy and fun garage number – very Velvet Underground (imagine What Goes On if Lou Reed had been born in Salford). Also notable for the first appearance of the kazoo. Only ever played seven times, 1978-81.

Reissues & Bonus Tracks
The 2002 Voiceprint issue adds Rowche RumbleIn My AreaFiery Jack / 2nd Dark AgePsykick Dancehall No.2 – which pretty much encapsulates all the extras you need from the era. The 2004 Sanctuary reissue adds a ridiculous number of aborted takes that nobody really needs to own.

Overall Verdict
When I’ve rated Fall albums over the years, Dragnet has always found itself in a relegation spot, struggling to get out of the bottom three. When I averaged the scores from the Fi5 blog, it had dragged itself up to sixth from bottom. I’m not going to (or at least I don’t intend to at this point) rank the albums again, but that’s probably a fair reflection of where it sits. It’s not a bad album by any means, and it’s interesting how often the word ‘fun’ has cropped up in this summary: it’s by no means the difficult album that its reputation suggests. Dave Thompson described it as a ‘dead end’8, and whilst that feels a little harsh, you can see what he means. Spectre aside, there’s a sense that this was as far as this incarnation of The Fall could go. Which makes what they achieved just over a year later all the more remarkable. But that’s for in a couple of posts’ time….

My “Version”
I said in the last post that I didn’t have a ‘version’ of LATWT because there weren’t quite enough songs that I rated sufficiently highly. However, I have made a (in my humble opinion) a cracking 70s Fall compilation. (For those who haven’t come across my ‘versions’ before, I make them using Audacity, and my self-imposed rule is that they have to be comprised of two ‘sides’ totaling somewhere between 35-45 minutes.)

70s Fall Side 1: Repetition / Flat of Angles / Two Steps Back / Music Scene (22:21)

70s Fall Side 2: Various Times / Before The Moon Falls / Frightened / Spectre vs. Rector (22:39)

 

1Ford, p68

2Ford, p59

3The Big Midweek, p52

4Ford, p71

5The Big Midweek, p54

6Ford, p70

7Edge, p27

8Thompson, p39

5 thoughts on “YMGTA #03: Dragnet

  1. Always my favorite, and I love all of Fall’s output. For me, the production is perfect, I love that Mark’s singing, would love to have more Fall material of this kind. Had it sold well, Mark would had thought twice before changing to another direction so quickly. Cause he could do this everyday-horror lyrics in his sleep, and the rockabilly background makes him happy, you can really hear it in his voice here. In a perfect world this record could be for UK what Gun Club’s Fire of Love went to be for US two years later

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cheers, Steve. I’ve got a real soft spot for dragnet. I’ve always thought it has plenty of fun / (perverted) pop moments too, and find it strange that it’s got such a dark reputation considering that it’s really only Spector and a couple of others that are challenging for the casual listener. I’d rate it far higher than you have but I know from your previous posts that it’s not a favourite. I prefer this to grotesque, but I’m probably in the minority there…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is all good. Especially liked the shout out for Half Man Half Biscuit. It’s true that they are big on The Fall. Their bass player has been known to wear a “Hats Off to Steve Hanley” T shirt.

    Liked by 1 person

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