YMGTA #05: Grotesque

“Very few choruses but a lot of beat”

cover

Details:
Recorded: Rochdale & London mid 1980

Released: 17 November 1980

01. Pay Your Rates 2:58
02. English Scheme 2:06
03. New Face In Hell 5:40
04. C’n’C-S Mithering 7:35
05. The Container Drivers 3:08
06. Impression Of J. Temperance 4:19
07. In The Park 1:43
08. W.M.C. – Blob 59 1:19
09. Gramme Friday 3:19
10. The N.W.R.A. 9:10

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

Background
As mentioned in the last post, Steve Hanley’s younger brother Paul had joined the group before Totale’s was released. He made his debut on the 21 March at the Electric Ballroom, London, supporting The Cramps. He was in the middle of his mock exams and turned up in his school uniform. Despite a technical difficulty which involved the electricity cutting out if he hit the snare too hard1 he seems to have coped incredibly well, especially considering that, as his older brother commented, he’d ‘only ever played live once in our local Catholic club’2.

Paul’s reward for this remarkable achievement was a tenner from Kay Carroll and the promise of an audition for the permanent role3. Having passed this hurdle, he played a further eight gigs with the group before they headed off for a tour of The Netherlands in June. Paul having to stay at home for his ‘O’ levels, Steve Davis (of Hawaiian shirt fame) stepped in for the Dutch dates. (Steve Davies claimed that they played 11 gigs in 14 nights, although details seem to be rather sketchy.)

Image result for how i wrote elastic man

The first recorded appearance for the double-Hanley line-up came in July with the single How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’. It has a similar feel to Fiery Jack, in that it (in part) shares a railroad-like rockabilly rhythm, but for me it’s a big step forward and points the way forward to the group’s distinctive early 80s sound rather than just re-treading earlier material. The rockabilly style verse is sharper and more effective than Jack, for my money; but the big difference is in the chorus, where Craig Scanlon unleashes a set of awkward, angular chords that are some distance away from what you might have predicted rhythmically or melodically.  Tim Ellison, writing in Modern Rock Magazine (quoted on the Reformation A-Z site) describes it as ‘erupt[ing] out of nowhere with a simplistic garage band dissonance’.

However they might have achieved it, the chorus is startling, powerful and a joy to listen to. The group – across all eras – were occasionally prone to rather awkward transitions (although often that’s part of the attraction) but the switches here (e.g. at 0:35) is just spot on. I’ve had it on loop whilst I’ve been writing this part, and it’s one I never tire of. It only got 24 live outings, however, the last being in October 1981.

elastic man

Gary Bushell (writing in Sounds) didn’t like it4. But – and I try hard to be reasonably objective in all my blogging wherever possible – he is after all one of the world’s biggest bellends. He made this his single of the week instead. Enough said.

The b-side, City Hobgoblins, was one that I described on the Fi5 blog as previously being a little irritating but one that had grown on me. In the context of this blog, though, it’s a particularly interesting one. Coming at it from a more chronological angle, it feels, as with Elastic Man, like a signpost to what the group would achieve in the early 80s. Much as I’ve come to appreciate songs like Futures and Pasts, this is a long long way from those punk stylings. That ascending, angular riff (e.g. at 0:28) is just so different, so challenging and difficult yet at the same time light-hearted and playful… It’s like the group have identified all the best elements of punk, distilled them, and then manipulated then into something completely new. And that’s without going into the whole lyrical Morrissey/football hooligan/Pere Ubu stuff (see The Annotated Fall for all that). I made frequent reference on Fi5 to those phrases that MES enunciated in a particularly idiosyncratic and winning way; ‘Piccadilly, Manchester’ (1:24) is definitely one of those. It had more longevity live than its A-side: it lasted until 1987, making 62 appearances in total.

The next Fall single, Totally Wired, came out in September. Simon Ford is spot on here: ‘Paul Hanley’s drumming is by now much more assured and the full potential of his brother’s bass playing is finally realised. Add to this Smith’s most compelling vocal performance to date, with its twist of northern sour, plus lyrics that added new life to a perennial rock ‘n’ roll tale of drugged excess, and you have a decade-defining single.’5 Nothing much I can add to that, really. It was, unsurprisingly, a live stalwart for several years, clocking up 72 appearances between 1980-89 before making a one-off comeback in 2008.

The b-side, Putta Block, is – even by The Fall’s standards – bloody odd. An amalgamation of various live snippets (e.g. Cary Grant’s Wedding and The N.W.R.A.) with a potentially interesting tune lurking in the middle, it has b-side written all over it, but is intriguing nonetheless.

September also saw the group record its third Peel session: Container Drivers Jawbone New Puritan New Face in Hell. It’s a great session, but I’m going to write about the Peel sessions in more detail when I get to their full box-set release in 2005.

In The Wider World…
Around a fortnight before the album’s release, Ronald Reagan was elected as the 40th president of the USA. Shortly afterwards, a record audience watched Dallas as the nation became obsessed with who shot JR. In the UK, Jacqueline Hill became the last victim of the Yorkshire Ripper.

In the UK charts, Blondie had just begun a two-week stay at number one with The Tide Is High (not by any means their finest hour), having knocked the ghastly Woman In Love from the top spot. Ms Streisand also had the number one album at time (Guilty), although this was soon to be replaced by ABBA’s Super Trouper, which would stay at the top for a further nine weeks. The Thursday after Grotesque‘s release, Top of the Pops (presented by Dave Lee Travis) featured a pretty diverse lineup: Motorhead’s Ace of Spades, Diana Ross with I’m Coming Out, Bowie’s Fashion and, err.. Dennis Waterman. (If you’re feeling particularly nostalgic, the chart rundown is here.)

The Fall Live In 1980

photo
Cork, 18 October 1980

After the Dutch tour, the group played a further 18 gigs before Grotesque was released. Notable support acts included Cabaret Voltaire (Newcastle 28 June), The Fire Engines (Edinburgh 29 June) and Microdisney (Cork 18 October). As can be seen from the flyer below, The Fall were part of a very varied diet for Manchester Poly students in the Autumn term:

flyer

The Album
Grotesque
, apparently, cost very little to make (maybe as little as £300)6, a good proportion of which went on the full-colour sleeve designed by Smith’s sister Suzanne. The press release (below) is an interesting read, not only for the (pretty accurate) comment that the album ‘contains very few choruses but a lot of beat’, but also for the statement: ‘Most people who like The Fall don’t like other groups anyway’, which feels like it should be followed by ‘Discuss’.

Whilst Sounds gave it an enthusiastic (if slightly incoherent) five-star review, Graham Lock in the NME was distinctly lukewarm. The accusation was that the group had found themselves in a rut: they ‘are throwing up fewer surprises these days’; the ‘scenarios… are typical Fall terrain’; MES ‘throws in his usual rant’, and so on. Whilst Lock recognised that Smith can at times be ‘clear and sharp and extremely funny’ he accuses the group of ‘merely sneer[ing] at the world from a pit of cosy cultishness’. I read the NME cover-to-cover for many years, and – whilst this is before my era (I was still, I think, on Smash Hits at this point) – it reads as a very familiar NME-style ‘knock ’em down before they get too popular’ approach. Despite this, the album reached the top of the independent chart.

The Songs
Pay Your Rates
You can (and I often do) criticise The Fall for their sometimes obtuse approach to sequencing their albums. You can’t knock this as an opener though. The frenetic rockabilly riff – led by a buzzing Steve Hanley bass line – is worth the price of admission alone, but the spacey down-tempo sections are a surprising joy as well. It’s one of those Fall songs (and there are very very many) that sounds as if it’s only just about hanging together, which just makes it more of  a triumph. MES on top form too: snarling, barking, laughing (1:46) and even sort of singing on occasion. (Tommy Mackay also claims that he plays guitar on this. MES, that is; not Tommy Mackay.)7

It’s also a much more complex song than it first appears. I lack the necessary musical terminology, but the last minute or so is particularly intriguing, as the two guitars wander about and do all sorts of interesting stuff. There’s a very technical analysis here which I don’t fully follow to be honest, but I can’t argue with ‘subtly complex cacophony’ as a description. Played 37 times 1980-88.

English Scheme
Not a bad song by any stretch of the imagination, but one that has never quite connected with me somehow. Every time I listen to it, I enjoy it, but ten minutes later I’ve forgotten what it sounded like. Not sure if it’s me or the song (probably the former), but it resulted in one of the briefest reviews on Fi5.

The most interesting thing about it is Steve Hanley’s account8 of its creation. MES made a recording of chirping birds and an ice cream van, considered it to be ‘the sound of the lower-class English summer’ and ordered the group to build a song around it. Riley designed a keyboard line based on the ice cream van tune and the group created ‘an ironically jolly little gem’. Smith was largely delighted, but had reservations about the keyboards; but for once the group (Riley) prevailed and it stayed. (I loved SH’s book, but if I had one minor criticism, it’s that I’d have liked many more of these ‘how we wrote / recorded’ stories.) Played 39 times 1980-83.

New Face In Hell
You can certainly hear the Can influence in this one, although the two-chord riff is actually more directly reminiscent of VU’s What Goes On. The song has an irresistible and infectious groove; a sort of sloppy funk/krautrock hybrid. But the thing that really marks this out from the previous two studio albums is Smith’s vocal. Not the hyperactive squawk of the title line – he’d done that sort of thing before (although perhaps not quite as arrestingly) – but the barrage of twisted and compelling lyricism: ‘Wireless enthusiast intercepts government secret radio band and uncovers secrets and scandals of deceitful type proportions.’ Whilst the first two albums saw their fair share of lyrical invention, this takes things to another level.

At least it does for the first couple of minutes; the second half of the song is actually quite free-form. It’s quite surprising that the group (having been castigated on Totale’s for ‘showing off’) are allowed to indulge in such a loose workout over the last couple of minutes. Still, MES seems into it, contributing some seemingly improvised mumbling over the last minute or so. Surprisingly, it only had an eighteen month shelf-life as far as gigs were concerned, the twenty-fifth and final performance coming in October 1981.

C’n’C-S Mithering
In which we get a level of minimalism that we haven’t seen thus far. A monotonous, insistent two-note riff accompanied by our first glimpse of an acoustic guitar on a Fall record, backed by a sparse, simple snare rhythm meanders along for virtually two minutes before MES appears.

Smith’s delivery is calm and measured to begin with, but ramps things up considerably as the group pick up the pace around the four and a half minute mark. At which point he launches into a trademark tirade about the shallowness and hypocrisy of the music industry. Not the first or last time he would do so, but this is a particularly sharp and incisive version of this trademark rant, dripping with sarcasm and vitriol:  ‘Make joke records, hang out with Gary Bushell / go on Round Table: “I like your single” / “Yeah, great!” / A circle of low IQ’s.’ (The sarcastic ‘yeah, great’ bit is hard to capture in text, so if you need reminding it’s at 5:47). And what line ever summed up better Smith’s general irritation with, well, most things than: ‘The things that drain you off and drive you off the hinge’?

There are many occasions, especially in the early 80s, when MES launches into an outpouring of words where it seems that his mouth – let alone the group – can barely keep up with his brain; a multitude of ideas and opinions tumbling out with wild invention. They’re always a joy, and this example (4:28-7:02) is one the finest. And of course it features the wonderful ‘See yer mate…’ passage, which still brings a smile to my face despite the hundreds of times I’ve heard it.

Although the song is sparse musically (which suits Smith’s ranting well), it’s not as if the group just plod along and let Smith entirely dominate proceedings. I love how, just after six minutes, they up the urgency to match the vocals. And Steve Hanley contributes some characteristically excellent bass work; solid and relentless, but with some lovely flourishes – just listen to the ’round table’ section. Played 39 times, in its various guises. (And, as Tommy Mackay quite rightly points out: ‘All the versions have something to offer. All bloody fantastic to boot.’)9

The Container Drivers
A joyful, exuberant, rickety blast of deranged rockabilly. If you don’t get this, then you’re never going to get it. There is just so much to love about this track, including the ludicrously lengthy drum fills and the 50s-style guitar solos. Roll on roll off! Not surprisingly, a live favourite: 72 appearances 1980-2016.

Impression Of J. Temperance
The bizarre and disturbing tale of a dog breeder’s grotesque experiments: ‘The new born thing hard to describe/Like a rat that’s been trapped inside a warehouse base, near a city tide/Brown sockets, purple eyes/And fed with rubbish from disposal barges.’ This dark, twisted story is well matched by the sinister, oppressive atmosphere the group create: the insistent, marching snare, the throbbing, snaking three-note bass line (which takes a dramatic and alarming trip right up the neck at 3:02-3:20), the stabs of aggressive, discordant freakshow keyboards, the skittering, shrieking guitar… and when the latter two meet in the ‘chorus’ (e.g at 0:51), the effect is as creepy as any horror film soundtrack. Apparently (see press release above) written ‘in a bed and breakfast in Retford miles from anywhere when the locals got suspiciously friendly and there was a huge man-sized one-eyed teddy bear on the landing’. Played live 29 times, 1980-82.

In The Park
Sex is not a common theme in Fall songs, but this is basically a paean to dogging: ‘I take you to the park up the road… rain makes policemen no threat / turns cars into little specks / muffles the shouts of your neighbour and we will have sex here.’ Lordy.

Musically, it’s a nice mix of Bo Diddley-esque shuffle and Beefheart-ish discordance. Vocally, MES is particularly sharp – ‘You thought it’d be great’ is especially well delivered. Absolute filth, and lots of fun. Only ever got three live outings, all in 1980.

W.M.C. – Blob 59
The second in the very long line of (depending on your point of view) p*ssing about / filler / sonic experiment tracks (the first being Live at the Witch Trials). The press release describes it as a ‘very funny track. It’s a pity you can’t hear what’s going on.’ Whilst you could debate the comic value of the track, you can’t argue with the second half of that statement. The NME rather grumpily dismissed it as ‘instantly disposable trash’. On its own, it’s not much to write home about, but it sits quite nicely on Grotesque, forming a pleasant little odd interlude between the sprightly In The Park and the snaking, slow bluesy Gramme Friday.

It’s a ragged little mix of sharp, distorted noises and short bursts of MES declamation, with someone thumping away on what sounds like it might be Tupperware. Played four (possibly five) times in 1981. Sort of. Blob 59 – which bears some resemblance to the ‘singing’ part on the Grotesque version – formed the intro to an embryonic Lie Dream of a Casino Soul. The ‘possibly five’ is due to the performance on the Northern Cream DVD being from an unidentified gig, which you can see here.

Gramme Friday
Like English Scheme, this is one that I’d never quite connected with in the past, even if I’d never actively disliked it. It was one of those that was quite a pleasant surprise when I came to it on the Fi5 blog though: I enjoyed swaggering 12-bar blues sections, the low twang of the lead guitar on the last note of the riff (which gets even twangier and more off-key as the song progresses), the Sonic Youth-ish atonal chords (e.g. 0:52-1:13), MES’s shrieks and squeaks and especially the abandoned chords that come in in the last 20 seconds.

I still feel, however, that it sounds a little like an unresolved set of ideas that don’t quite hang together; it would have been interesting to hear it as a longer piece to give the various themes space to develop and coalesce.

One the group’s many drug-related songs, obviously. ‘Dr. Morell’ was Theodor Morell, Hitler’s physician, who may or may not have given Adolf a spot of methamphetamine to perk him up in the morning. (See The Annotated Fall for further discussion.) Played 22 times 1980-82.

The N.W.R.A.
After finishing LATWT with the eight-minute Music Scene and (nearly) rounding off Dragnet with the similarly lengthy Spectre, Grotesque ends with another epic and expansive track.

The first third has a swing-beat rhythm, providing a slightly jaunty atmosphere that makes an effective contrast to the jagged and angular tone of everything else that’s going on. Steve Hanley anchors all of this with a heavy, flatulent, almost atonal bass line while an occasional hesitant chiming guitar part skitters around in between. Smith’s exclamation of ‘shift!’ at 3:10 denotes exactly that: Paul Hanley introduces a fuller-bodied floor-tom pattern; the slashing, churning metallic guitars become more assertive; Steve Hanley gets a bit more creative and assertive (e.g. the lovely little fill at 8:09). Over all of this, MES provides heady mix of off-tune crooning, acidic declamation and idiosyncratic timing (‘security guards hung from moving escalators’). The kazoo is used sparingly, thankfully.

As a (much) younger man, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Smith and other famous people from Yorkshire, Lancashire, etc. banging on about ‘the North’. Having grown up in Durham, I sniffily considered the North-East to be the ‘proper’ North (see The Daily Mash for an excellent, contemporary exemplification of this attitude). However, the North in NWRA clearly includes Newcastle, Darlington and Teeside, all referenced in the first minute, so my younger self clearly wasn’t paying sufficient attention. More importantly, many misread the song as being ‘a pro-Northern “rebel” song’10; or as MES himself put it, ‘”Here we go again – Smith talking about flat caps” and all that clichéd rubbish’11. Whereas, the song makes clear that if they ‘did rise again, they would f*ck it up’12 – ‘The North had rose again / but it would turn out wrong’.

I don’t hold with any of this ‘pre-cog’ stuff of course, but there was a little prescience here. Around six months after Grotesque’s release, the first of the 1981 English riots took place in Brixton, to be followed in the summer by further outbreaks in Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester. The Specials’ Ghost Town, which spent three weeks at number one that summer, captured evocatively the atmosphere of urban decay, resentment and anger prevalent at the time. NWRA, of course, is a radically different beast. Whilst it has a certain brooding, oppressive tone, it’s as much fantasy as social commentary, despite references to Teesside docks and kids ‘chucking bricks’ through windows – ‘science fiction stuff’13, as the man himself said.

Reissues & Bonus Tracks
The album has been reissued six times between 1993 and 2004. The 1998 Castle reissue added Elastic Man, Hobgoblins, Wired and Putta Block; the Sanctuary one in 2004 also included Mark E Smith Self-Interview 1980. The Castle version put its four bonus tracks at the beginning of the album, apparently believing that a chronological approach was the best one, which just seems plain wrong to me. The Sanctuary version, more sensibly, places the extra songs at the end.

The ‘self-interview’ track was recorded in 1980 for Tapezine (about which I must confess I know nothing). It’s introduced by some guy doing his best ’80s local radio DJ’ voice as a ‘remarkable self-interview’ by a ‘rather out of it’ Mark Smith. In it, Smith rambles on about – amongst many other things – Melody Maker ‘becoming a threat to the proletariat’ and how Elastic Man is about the public ‘killing off their heroes’ creativity’ (giving Jimmy Greaves and George Best as examples). You also get to hear his bizarre pronunciation of Idi Amin as well as a brief burst of him singing The Vapors’ Turning Japanese. Oddly entertaining, if not exactly essential.

Overall Verdict
Grotesque is, to my mind, a clear and substantial step forward from the first two albums, both musically and lyrically. I found plenty to enjoy in LATWT and Dragnet, both through listening to individual tracks via the Fi5 blog and as part of this process. My appreciation of several tracks (such as Before The Moon Falls, Two Steps Back, Futures And Pasts and A Figure Walks) has been transformed over recent months. But Grotesque represents a paradigm shift.

The Hanleys, Riley and Scanlon all demonstrate a vast increase in confidence, invention and harmony compared to their earlier performances. Here, they create a series of sparse, sharp, ragged, angular and hypnotically relentless riffs and grooves that, for the first time, sound utterly, uniquely like The Fall and nobody else. Futures and Pasts, say, is a fine enough song, but if you removed the vocal it could be any one of a thousand bands; there isn’t a single song here of which you could say that. That’s not to say – obviously – that Smith’s vocals don’t contribute hugely to the group’s distinctive sound; but the other 80% of its members now make as great a contribution.

Smith too is transformed here. Gone are the obvious ‘punkisms’ that surfaced sporadically on the first two albums; here he sounds utterly in control of his own unique style. There are interesting lines and turns of phrase on LATWT and Dragnet, but only Spectre vs. Rector comes close to the dense, complex poeticism of New Face In Hell, The N.W.R.A. or C’n’C-S Mithering. As Brian Edge puts it, Smith ‘now executed his ideas without hesitation, as if he had suddenly come to understand the power of his own words’.14

My “Version”
I’ve never actually been moved to make a ‘version’ of Grotesque. It’s not an obvious candidate, like LUS or Levitate, for cropping out the dodgier tracks, as there aren’t really any weak ones here. Still, as an academic exercise, to fit in with my 35-45 minute rule:

Side 1: Pay Your Rates / New Face In Hell / C’n’C-S Mithering / City Hobgoblins / Impression Of J Temperance (22:57)

Side 2: Totally Wired / In The Park / The Container Drivers / How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’ / The N.W.R.A. (21:49)

Rankings
I know, I know; I said I wasn’t going to do this. But the temptation is too great. It might become unsustainable after a while, but for now…

Albums
At this stage, very easy.

  1. Grotesque
  2. Dragnet
  3. Live At The Witch Trials

Singles
I’m just going to consider the A-sides. Looking at b-sides would get horribly complicated, especially in the multi-format Beggars Banquet era.

  1. How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’
  2. Totally Wired
  3. Bingo-Master’s Break-Out!
  4. Rowche Rumble
  5. Fiery Jack
  6. It’s The New Thing

Live Albums
A bit trickier, this one, as you have to balance the interesting aspects of the performance against the sound quality. But thus far I would say:

  1. Totale’s Turns
  2. Live 1977
  3. Live From The Vaults – Oldham 1978
  4. Liverpool 78
  5. Live From The Vaults – Los Angeles 1979
  6. Live From The Vaults – Retford 1979
  7. Live At Deeply Vale

 

1The Big Midweek, p80

2The Big Midweek, p78

3The Big Midweek, p81

4-5Ford, p83

6Ford, p86

7Mackay, p40

8The Big Midweek, p85

9Mackay, p36

10Ford, p87

11-13NME Jan 1981, quoted in Ford, p88

14Edge, p36

2 thoughts on “YMGTA #05: Grotesque

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