“Crumbs of nightmare, u skinny rats”
Recorded: February 1981.
Released: 24 April 1981
- Middle Mass 3:35
- An Older Lover etc. 4:38
- Prole Art Threat 1:57
- Fit And Working Again 3:00
- Slates, Slags etc. 6:33
- Leave The Capitol 4:04
- Mark E Smith – vocals
- Marc Riley – guitar, vocals
- Craig Scanlon – guitar
- Steve Hanley – bass
- Paul Hanley – drums
- Dave Tucker – clarinet, vocals
- Kay Carroll – vocals, kazoo
The writing and recording of Slates marked a deterioration in several of Smith’s relationships: with Kay Carroll, with Marc Riley and with Rough Trade. Riley took umbrage regarding Middle Mass, exclaiming that it was ‘slagging me off’ 1. Whether or not lines like ‘A quiet dope and cider man’ and ‘this boy is like a tape loop /
and he has soft mitts’ were actually directed at Riley is debatable, but Riley seems to have been most affronted by Smith’s refusal to justify his words – ‘my respect for him went right down’2. An Older Lover Etc. would seem to be directed – somewhat cruelly – at Kay Carroll (eleven years older than MES).
As for Rough Trade, Smith despaired of what he perceived as their bourgeois hippiedom: ‘I’d had enough of them and they’re all middle class. They don’t know what The Fall was about.’3 (thompson p49) He felt that Slates could have enjoyed far greater success if the label had promoted it properly4.
In The Wider World…
The UK riots (that I’ve referenced in previous posts) were still going on in April 1981. Bobby Sands, still on hunger strike, was elected as an MP, but died a month later. Unemployment passed the 2.5m mark for the first time in over 50 years. Basically, the UK was not a terribly happy place. Still, Bucks Fizz did win the Eurovision Song Contest with Making Your Mind Up (our penultimate win, before everyone decided that they hated us). The Fizz (as nobody whatsoever called them) had three weeks at number one before Adam & the Ants took over with Stand And Deliver for five weeks.
The Fall Live In 1981
Following the Acklam Hall gig, the last of 1980, the group played 13 UK gigs before Slates‘ release in April. The setlists for three of these (Canterbury, Cardiff and Sheffield) are unknown, but there’s plenty of info about the rest of them here. As must have by then been familiar to habitual Fall gig-goers, the sets (based on the other ten gigs) were dominated by new material. In fact, over half of the songs played were yet to be released, and nearly 20% would form part of post-Slates releases. (Draygo’s Guilt, which was performed at the improbably aptly-named Riley Smith Hall at Leeds University, wouldn’t emerge until 1984.)
Fit And Working Again was the only track from the forthcoming Slates that didn’t get regular outings, appearing only four times; all of the others were played at least 8/10 gigs, and Middle Mass and Slates, Slags, Etc. were in all ten sets. Grotesque material made up less than a third of the songs played, and whilst The Container Drivers continued to be a popular choice, some of the tracks from the previous year’s triumph were already falling out of favour: New Face In Hell was only performed twice and In The Park had disappeared altogether. A handful of Dragnet songs made one or two appearances, and Rowche Rumble and Repetition got one run-out each; LATWT songs had disappeared completely.
There is one official release that captures the group in this period, Live From The Vaults – Glasgow 1981, released in 2005. It contains nine of the sixteen songs that the group performed at The Plaza on the 23 February. (They were supported by local band The Scars, whose Wikipedia page describes them as ‘post-punk’, although the evidence of this video demonstrates a much lighter and more jangly approach than that description suggests.)
Sound quality-wise, it’s no better than average, but it’s an interesting enough listen. As described in the Grotesque post, Blob 59 appears as an ungainly and somewhat tuneless intro to Prole Art Threat, and includes a bit of the Lie Dream chorus line. Smith is clearly unhappy about the sound at the beginning of the set: ‘it would be a good idea if you turned the PA on!’; ‘Can you turn the monitors ON please?’ Grant Showbiz is also ordered in no uncertain terms to ‘sort out the sound on stage’ at the end of Totally Wired.
The only relatively old song, Printhead, is delivered with gusto (MES contributes a variety of interesting noises), but already feels a little dated and simplistic. Apart from that, it’s a formidable, aggressive performance – Slates, Slags, Etc. is an especially intense barrage – that does what all good live recordings do: make you wish you’d been there. If only you could hear it just a little better…
In the NME, Andy Gill gave Slates a largely positive review, despite lamenting the absence of ‘Northern rockabilly’. He pointed out that the group had come a long way from their earliest days, ‘without sacrificing their essential grating harshness’.
Gill also described Slates as ‘either a small elpee or a big single’. Slates‘ format is sometimes a source of great debate, especially on platforms such as The Fall Online Forum. In the Fi5 blog, I was careful not to take sides in the EP/album/mini-LP etc. etc. debate because, frankly, I don’t really care. I recognise all the arguments (there are short albums; there are long EPs, and so on), but feel no need to take a strong position. All I would say is that Slates & Dates (the press release that accompanied the group’s US tour in the summer of 1981) described Slates as a ’10” 33rpm single release’.
Slates & Dates also indicates that Slates was originally intended as a ‘regular’ single: ‘The time was mid-February, The Fall, ORIGINALLY intending to cut 2 tracks ended up with many more. As crumbs of nightmare filtered through they decided to release the lot, as ALL TRAKS ARE RELATED.’
The sleeve describes this track as ‘a HOLY characterisation’ and Slates & Dates refers to ‘the first gleanings of The Hip Priest, more of him later’. At a September 1981 gig in Iceland, Smith indicated that the song was about football hooliganism. And, of course, Marc Riley was convinced that it was about him. Such is the joy of MES’s lyrics (and his occasional, partial and often contradictory explanations of them) – intriguing and tantalising, several explanations of their meaning often supported by a range of sources and interpretations.
As regular readers will know, I am far more an appreciator of the well-turned phrase than a lyrical analyst, so I can only point to the rich array of intriguing constructions here. ‘The last domain of a very very back-room brain / he learned a word today / the word’s misanthropy’ is a pretty cutting dig, whoever it’s aimed at. And ‘vulturous in the aftermath’ is just a great phrase in its own right.
Musically, it’s also original and intriguing. The main section, framed by an ascending/descending bass line, has a just-off-the-beat, lurching rhythm that gives the song an edgy, unpredictable feel. Even an amateur guitarist such as myself can tell that there’s something odd about the chord progression (see here for a proper analysis by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about – ‘The stacking of major seconds is extensive enough in this song to account for an entire whole-tone scale’). This is further emphasised by the guitar’s dissonant diversions, e.g. at 1:25-1:28. In addition, the disturbingly hoarse, whispered backing vocals at 2:08, give the first two minutes an air of barely-restrained menace. The last 80 seconds see a sudden turn into an ostensibly ‘lighter’ section; although, whilst it has a comparatively gentle lilt, there’s still something strange and spiky about it, even if the aggression is a little more veiled.
Although it had a long break between 1984 and 2003, Middle Mass was (relatively) a long-standing setlist favourite, making 101 appearances.
An Older Lover etc.
I was, in retrospect, overly harsh on this one on the Fi5. Not that it doesn’t have its shortcomings: Smith’s falsetto is rather grating in places, and it still feels a little like an over-stretched basic idea to me. That said, Paul Hanley’s percussion is understated and intriguing throughout (there are few parts that sound almost glitch-techno, e.g. at 1:22) and the repetition of the spindly dual guitars is remarkably hypnotic. Hanley senior comes into his own in the second half of the song too, his understated throbbing bass line being augmented by quite a few tidy flourishes, There are also some distinctly odd, grinding background noises (for example just before the three minute mark) that contribute well to the creepy atmosphere.
According to The Annotated Fall, Kay Carroll ‘was not amused’ about this song. I don’t know of any direct attribution to this, but it’s not hard to imagine it being the case: ‘You’ll soon get tired of her / she’ll shag you out on the table’. The back cover (see above) describes the song as ‘real Bert Finn stuff’; this would seem to be a reference to Albert Finney, possibly in relation to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, in which Finney’s character Arthur has an affair with a married woman. However, as The Annotated Fall page points out, there are quite a few aspects of the lyrics that don’t quite fit in with this interpretation. Of course, it would be unlike Smith to take his inspiration directly from a single source. However much the book/film inspired Smith, there’s certainly something cynical and slightly sordid about the words: ‘Old divorces / Children’s faces’; ‘It’s been done; tripped and stepped on’; ‘Her love was like your mother’s / with added attractions’.
Although Lover made regular appearances in late 1980 / early 1981 gigs, it wasn’t a long-standing feature of Fall sets: its 29th and final appearance came at the group’s last 1981 gig in London in December.
Prole Art Threat
I recently embarked on that most foolish of ventures: compiling a top ten list of Fall songs. In my defence, it was the anniversary if MES’s death and I’d had a glass of wine or two. And ten proved to be impossible, so it was actually fifteen. As is ever the case with these things, if I did it again now (I’m not going to) it’d likely be different. However, Prole Art Threat – which came in at #10 on that night – would always be there or thereabouts.
Aggressive and relentless are words that crop up frequently in descriptions of Fall songs (and I am doubtless guilty of overusing them) but it’s hard to avoid them here. Prole launches itself from the speakers from the word go, grabs you by the throat and never relinquishes its grip for its two minute entirety.
Described in Slates & Dates as ‘a spy media story found in an abandoned file cabinet’ and on the back cover as an ‘Asda mix-up spy thriller’, Smith started writing a play about ‘a commuter who flips out on leftism and gets caught up with MI5 and all that’ before deciding to ‘compress’ it ‘and ‘make more of a joke about it’.5 Rough Trade seem to have missed the humour: according to MES, they thought that it sounded ‘a bit fascist’6.
Whatever the intended meaning behind phrases like ‘Hang this crummy blitz trad. by its neck’ and ‘Um-brrrptzzap the subject’, Smith’s performance is astonishing, spitting out phrases with crackling vehemence and disdain; several million miles away from the generic punk-isms of LATWT. The group provide an unremitting, thunderous assault that gallops along in pursuit of Smith’s invective; the grinding, scuzzy guitars in particular provide a suitably intense, dissonant backdrop to his snarl.
Prole had a longer live shelf-life than some of the other Slates tracks: 82 performances, the last of which was in November 1986.
Fit And Working Again
The lightest moment on Slates (‘a fun piece’, according to Slates & Dates), Fit is a sprightly, acoustic-guitar driven shuffle accompanied by some simplistic tinkling piano and slightly comic backing vocals. The lyrics start off matching the breezy tone (‘walk down the road in the sun’) but soon take a darker turn (‘my lungs encrusted in blood’; ‘sat opposite a freak on a train / warts on his head and chin’).
The related quotation on the back cover – ‘Religion costs much-but irreligion costs more’ – has been tracked down by Dan on The Annotated Fall to an early 20th century clergyman, Rev. George Lee. I’m not sure what this tells us, any more than I know what Alan Minter is doing popping up towards the end.
Like Lover, it does, to me, feel a little like a simple idea stretched a little too far, although the deep reverb added to Smith’s voice around halfway through does add a little welcome variety. However, the frequent bursts of glissando guitar (especially in tandem with the piano plinking) do grate somewhat.
Smith also seems to have tired of it relatively quickly: like Lover, it bowed out at the last gig of 1981, having made 29 appearances.
Slates, Slags etc.
‘Here’s the definitive rant’, Smith’s opening statement, is a bold one, considering those that he has already produced by this stage. But it’s not one without foundation, his delivery being – if not quite as frenetic – just as determined and relentless as that on Prole.
Both ‘slag’ and ‘slate’ have a variety of differing meanings in UK English, and this contributes to what is a pretty oblique and ambiguous lyric. The summary on the back cover – ‘Full bias content guaranteed. Plagiarism infects the land. Academic thingys ream off names of books and bands.’ – doesn’t exactly clarify things. Personally, I find ‘RT XVII’s definition (a contribution on The Annotated Fall) to be the most convincing: ‘people who were grey, uniform and mundane, people without any inspiration or shred of individuality in their lives. Those who just accepted the status quo. Just like slate tiles, all grey and all the same.’ Whatever the meaning, the song seems to have been one of the many bones of contention between MES and Rough Trade: the song ‘was totally un-PC for Rough Trade. They didn’t like the phrase “male slags”. A lot of so-called hipsters are very conservative like that.’7
For me, the guitars are the star of the show here; their grinding, relentless abrasiveness bludgeoning you into submission, and peppering the song with some delightful feedback squalls. Riley’s deadpan backing vocals, the distorted double-tracking of Smith’s voice and the occasional bit of ghostly subterranean wailing from Kay Carroll all play their part too.
It’s a cantankerous old bugger of a song that seizes you by the lapels and rants in your face until you accept how great it is. Although it was a stalwart in the live set throughout 1981, it only made a couple of appearances thereafter and bowed out in August 1982 on its 32nd outing.
Leave The Capitol
Comparisons to a wide range of artists – from Motorhead to Martha & The Muffins – cropped up regularly on the Fi5 blog (some directly, some a little more tenuously). An interestingly recurrent feature was the appearance of REM; not a group that many would recognise as being closely related to The Fall. However, the link here is clear: Capitol‘s off-kilter arpeggios being distinctly reminiscent of Chronic Town and Murmur (the former, of course, contemporary to Slates).
By the group’s standards up to this point, Leave The Capitol is a relatively straightforward and traditionally structured ‘rock’ song. Not that the verse has anything that much resembles a regular melody, but the chorus does, and there is a recognisable verse/bridge/chorus arrangement. That said, there’s something slightly slurred and discordant about the guitar jangle, and the occasional flurry of kazoo also gives it a Fall touch.
Despite the back cover statement ‘Any capital’, the song has always seemed to me a straightforward expression of Smith’s disdain for London. Arthur Machen (who I have to confess I’ve never read, but I have just this second ordered The Great God Pan to rectify this) was clearly also an influence, however. Also, a pretty convincing interpretation was posted on the Fall Online Forum by MartinM (quoted on The Annotated Fall):
I always heard the song as both anti-London and anti-logic or anti-habit: get out of the confines of metropolitan thought imposed by our barren time modelled on Roman ideals (straight roads, worship of armed force), and return to older, instinctive ways of thought and imagination.
Capitol is a recurring feature on many Fall fans’ top 10/20/100 lists, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a potent mixture of almost/deceptively accessible mainstream alternative/indie (both terms are horrible, I know) rock, cunningly blended with Smith’s oblique lyricism and an underlying tone of jagged off-centre Fall-ness.
After making its debut in November 1980, Capitol was a virtually permanent feature in the setlist for the next 12 months, clocking up 42 appearances in that period. However, the performance in Plymouth on 1 November 1981 was its final outing.
Reissues & Bonus Tracks
Slates was coupled with A Part Of America Therein, 1981 (which I’ll get to in the next post) in reissues by DOJO (1992) and Castle (1998). The 2004 Sanctuary re-issue included the four tracks from the March 1981 Peel session (Middle Mass / Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul / Hip Priest / C’n’C-Hassle Schmuck), both sides of the Lie Dream single, plus Medical Acceptance Gate, a weirdly fascinating little outtake dating from (I think) 1983.
Confession time: when I was in my late teens/early twenties I used to have my vinyl ‘stacked’ in two columns, and Slates was always at the front of one of them (Zen Arcade was at the head of the other) – purely on the basis that it looked cool and impressive (or so I imagined). But if I’m honest, I under-appreciated it for many years. But the intensive approach of listening to tracks as part of the Fi5 blog, plus having had Slates on repeat over the last couple of weeks has really brought home what a remarkable piece of work it is.
Four of the six songs capture the group at the height of their powers, and the other two, despite their shortcomings, are still strong. The sequencing of the songs is impeccable. The fact that they had all been played live regularly in the months leading up to Slates’ release enabled the group to capture them in ‘their ultimate state’8. Plus, you have to admire the group for bloody-mindedly releasing it in a format that disqualified it from both the singles and albums charts (in an era when those things really mattered) and inspired so many to debate what format it actually was.
It’s very hard to separate Slates and Grotesque, as they’re very different beasts. Both have a couple of songs (Scheme/Friday; Lover/Fit) that don’t quite match up to the standard of the rest. Also, Slates doesn’t have a lengthy epic like NWRA (I do love a lengthy epic). However, the high points of Slates are at a marginally higher level than those of its predecessor, and overall it feels like a slightly more coherent piece of work, so it just about muscles its way to the top spot for now.
- Live At The Witch Trials
Glasgow makes a pretty strong showing, just pipped for third place by Live 77‘s level of historical interest.
- The Legendary Chaos Tape / Live In London 1980
- Totale’s Turns
- Live 1977
- Live From The Vaults – Glasgow 1981
- Live From The Vaults – Oldham 1978
- Liverpool 78
- Live From The Vaults – Los Angeles 1979
- Live From The Vaults – Retford 1979
- Live At Deeply Vale
1The Big Midweek, p89