“I feel guilty for spawning The Sugarcubes and Björk”
Recorded: Regal Cinema, Hitchin, December 1981 (Hip Priest and Iceland in Reykjavik, September 1981)
Released: 8 March 1982
- Mark E Smith – vocals, tapes, guitar
- Marc Riley – guitar, keyboards
- Craig Scanlon – guitar, vocals, keyboards
- Steve Hanley – bass, vocals
- Paul Hanley – drums, guitar
- Karl Burns – drums, vocals, tapes
- Kay Carroll – vocals, percussion
After the successful US tour, the obvious question on the group’s return to the UK was: who’s the drummer now? Paul Hanley seems to have been understandably anxious; as his brother commented, ‘six weeks is a long time to be out of the loop, especially when you know there’s a very competent and original drummer taking your place on the other side of the Atlantic.’1 However, for the group’s fifth Peel session, recorded at the end of August, Paul was back on the stool as they recorded Deer Park, Look, Know, Winter and Who Makes The Nazis? And he was still there as the group headed to Iceland in September. The visit was organised by Einar Örn (later of Sugarcubes fame) and involved three gigs (supported by Örn’s band Purkurr Pilnikk) plus a recording session in a ‘recording studio carved out of volcanic rock’2 that produced Look, Know, Hip Priest and Iceland (see individual songs below.) Kay Carroll’s impressions of Iceland were not overly positive: ‘No beer, no trees, no telly on Thursdays or in the whole of July, no cigarettes and blokes walking round with toilet rolls in their ears’ (a reference to overzealous officials monitoring the group’s sound levels)3. Smith’s reflection on the trip? ‘I feel guilty for spawning The Sugarcubes and Björk.’4
Once the group were back in the UK, however, Burns was reinstated; this time alongside Paul Hanley. The Fall weren’t by any means the first group to deploy two drummers (there’s a lengthy list of examples here) but it was still an unusual move; from my own childhood, I remember that it was one of the main talking points around Adam & The Ants at the time. It was a move that would play a large role in defining the Fall sound over the next couple of years.
In November, Smith ‘received what for some would have been the ultimate accolade’5 – appearing on the cover of the NME. Strange to think it now, but appearing on the front page of the NME was indeed a big bloody deal back then. The somewhat breathless article opens with a quotation from Derrida and goes on to describe MES as ‘the only really important writer and singer in the vast, myth-saturated culture of Pop’ and to say that he has addressed ‘questions of art, culture, politics that Pop has only too conveniently ignored for too long… with a severe and violent humour and a vision of incomparable breadth’.
By this stage, the group had left Rough Trade, Smith having tired of the ‘hippies’ who would ‘only send review copies to left-wing magazines instead of the daily papers’6. They signed up with Kamera (‘fogey label’, as the album cover has it), which Smith described as an ‘old rockers’ label’ (indeed, earlier in 1981 they had put out Freddie Starr’s Spirit of Elvis) and about whom he was uncharacteristically positive in Renegade: ‘I have few good words to say about record companies, but they were very good; a world away from the limp stuffiness of Rough Trade.’7
The first product of this new relationship came in November with the release of Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul, also the first recorded output of the dual drummer line-up. Lie Dream (as noted in previous posts) began life as an extension of Blob 59. Opening with a thumping drum beat (like an accelerated Totally Wired), Smith’s tribute to the Northern Soul scene is notable for its abrasive, atonal breaks that had, in Simon Ford’s words, ‘the weight and momentum of an articulated lorry’.8 It made an impressive 138 appearances live; after an eleven year hiatus, it returned for regular appearances in 1997-98.
The other side of the single was Fantastic Life. It’s a mark of the group’s productivity at this time that a song as strong as this could be relegated to being a b-side. Its nagging, insistent keyboards, Velvet Underground-style scratchy rhythm guitar and nifty pre-chorus lead guitar – matched with Smith’s exuberant vocals – make this an absolute joy. This article describes it as ‘an early forerunner of The Wonderful and Frightening era Fall; there are intriguing spaces where Brix’s sun-kissed garage pop sensibility would later be.’ Surprisingly, it was only played live 31 times, its last outing being in April 1983.
Shortly after Lie Dream‘s release, the group headed off to that rock ‘n’ roll mecca, Hitchin in Hertfordshire to record the rest of Hex. The studio was a converted cinema. The Regal Theatre had opened in 1939, showing Cary Grant in Gunga Din on its first night, and closed as a cinema in 1977 (its last showing being the dubious-sounding Secrets of a Super Stud). After that, it was converted to a studio and concert hall (hosting Spandau Ballet, the Thompson Twins and UB40) before being demolished and replaced by an office block in 1986.
In The Wider World…
Three weeks after the album’s release, Argentinian troops landed on South Georgia, setting in motion the events that would lead to the Falklands War (which in turn saddled us with bloody Thatcher for several more years). Mary Whitehouse’s legal case against The Romans In Britain, a private prosecution for gross indecency, collapsed.
In the music world, Britain came seventh in the Eurovision Song Contest with Bardo’s One Step Further (a bit of a let-down after Bucks Fizz’s glorious triumph the year before, but still a great deal better than we would do in virtually every subsequent year). In the singles chart, The Jam had recently spent three weeks at number one with A Town Called Malice (an end-of-disco staple from my teenage years) before being replaced, regrettably, by Tight Fit’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight (itself – even more regrettably – toppled by The Goombay Dance Band three weeks later).
The Fall Live In 1981
After returning from their US summer tour, the group played a further 21 gigs in 1981. After playing Sheffield Poly on the 4 September (where Who Makes The Nazis? and Look, Know made their debuts), they played the three gigs in Iceland, before returning to more familiar climes: Manchester, Blackpool, Brighton, Newcastle, etc.
The gig at Fagin’s in Manchester on 30 September marked the debut of the two-drummer line-up. Notable support acts in autumn 1981 included The Nightingales, The Membranes, Virgin Prunes and Nico (who played with the group at Birmingham on 6 November). The last gig of the year, in London in December, featured the first performance of The Classical.
According to Smith – in typically enlightening fashion – the title ‘had something to do with witchcraft, and “enduction” I just made up’9. The cover was ‘just me with a felt tip’,10 he went on to say, and this is indeed a pretty accurate description. The cover is filled with typically random and obscure Smithisms: ‘Hexen Death Bubble’, ‘Cigs. smoked here’, Hexenkessel rozzer kidder: “Hail Sainsbury’s!”‘, ‘Flabby Wings’ and ‘Muscle hedonist vanity’. Smith describes himself as ‘Big Personality Face’; Karl Burns gets ‘Burns Babe – umpteenth break in down curve’. Whatever the meaning behind ‘hex’ and ‘enduction’, the ‘hour’ part was certainly literal (although according to my computer it’s actually one hour and sixteen seconds), as is liberally advertised on both front and back covers.
The press release (links: page 1 / page 2) describes the ‘official new Fall product’ as ‘their most concentrated work to date’. In one of the headings, it also introduces the mysterious phrase (name?) ‘Rosso-Rosso’ which would reappear on the sleeve of Room To Live and in the lyrics of Marquis Cha-Cha. The first 50 minutes of the album, apparently, consists of ‘songs honed in from the last tours The Fall have performed’, distinguishing them from And This Day, which has its own entry (see below).
It also contains a rather odd warning: ‘THERE ARE NO BLONDE BIRDS ON THE COVER OR IN THE RECORD’ (something – with apologies for describing the future Mrs Smith as a ‘bird’ – that would, of course, change very shortly). The press release is rounded off with a contact address, accompanied by the message, ‘please do not expect a reply, as The Fall are not a condescending French resistance type group nor do they have warehouses packed with info kits on themselves’.
Reviews were almost universally positive. In the NME, Richard Cook simply described it as ‘their masterpiece’. Hex was the first Fall album to dent the mainstream charts, peaking at number 71. It also reached number two on the independent chart, kept from the top spot by Pigbag’s debut.
As I go through these albums, I’ve been referring back to each song’s entry on The Fall in Fives. There have been one or two occasions where I think I’ve been overly harsh (That Man, for example), but overall I’ve been happy enough with what I wrote, especially given the parameters I set myself. That said, I think I didn’t really hit my stride properly until I was 30 or so ‘batches’ in, and this one (covered in #010) reinforces that. It’s a bit thin, frankly; plus I only give it 9/10, which was a bit of a moment of madness…
The double drummers approach has an immediate impact; from the word go there’s a clattering intensity about the song. The breadth of the percussion also gives Steve Hanley a bit of freedom to add plenty of melodic touches to his muscular bass line throughout. The melodic lead guitar part makes an effective contrast with the overall abrasive atmosphere. The latter quality is explained by Stuart Estell (quoted on the Reformation site): ‘The Classical is, in muso-speak, bitonal – in two keys at once… the bass part is in a mode of A, while Scanlon’s scratchy guitar part is in something like C#. That’s why the sound of the thing changes so much when it gets to “I’ve never felt better…” – at that point Scanlon’s chords start following the bass part and suddenly everyone’s playing in the same key’.
The Classical is not an easy lyric to analyse, as you can gauge by the 100+ comments on its Annotated Fall page. In an interview with Sounds (quoted on TAF), MES says: ‘When we recorded that album we were sick of the music industry, the record was meant to be against that. It was our way of saying “fuck off!” to those people. “The Classical” is the song that sums it all up, it’s the anthem of the record.’ The sleeve notes, which reference Roy Castle and Clive James, don’t exactly make things a great deal clearer.
It’s a fascinating lyric, opening with the proud philistinism of ‘no culture is my brag’ and including the playful (‘I just left the Hotel Amnesia… where it is I can’t remember’), the enigmatic (‘there are twelve people in the world / the rest are paste’), the wry (‘made with the highest British attention / to the wrong detail’) and the hilariously abusive (‘Hey there fuckface!’)
Of course this all skates around the most controversial aspect of The Classical, the one that makes it the most controversial of all Smith’s lyrics. (After some deliberation, I’ve decided to go for ‘N-word’ rather than use the actual word, although there are sound enough reasons for adopting either approach.) Judging people retrospectively over these sorts of issues is always problematic, and it’s difficult to assess both the intent and impact of racist or sexist terms several decades after their use. Many people would undoubtedly point to the fact that in the early 80s a lot of terms that are now considered to be taboo would have had much less impact. There is a grain of truth in this. If I think back to 1982 (when I was 13) I don’t think I would have found a white person using the N-word anywhere near as shocking as I would now. But I still would have known that it was wrong, inappropriate; even in 1982, Smith must have been conscious of the effect his words would have.
Of course the easiest and most simplistic way to deal with the issue is to see it as a swipe at tokenism in the media, which is a plausible enough interpretation. And of course, Smith’s lyrical abstrusity often makes it difficult to disentangle his own words from those of the characters who populate the songs. However, it becomes much harder to excuse or explain Smith’s choice of language once you’ve read the interview that he did for Allied Propaganda fanzine in 1983, where he says that the offending phrase has ‘come true, and every programme you see about young people has now got a black boy in it’. He goes on: ‘…no black man’s going to come over to me and say “You are the fuckin’ oppressor”, because I’ve never oppressed him, and as far as I’m concerned he’s oppressing me, because I have to watch his music on TV’.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Smith was a racist. I don’t believe that there’s any evidence from the rest of his career that reinforces the attitude demonstrated above. He frequently expressed a sincere appreciation of black blues, reggae, jazz and soul artists; it’s also worth remembering his long history of being deliberately difficult, contrary and provoking in interviews. His comments here do make uncomfortable reading though. It’s also worth noting that when the song returned to the set in 2002 (after a 17 year absence), that particular line was omitted. In November 2019, John Doran published a lengthy piece on the song’s lyric that’s well worth a read.
After being a stalwart in 1982-85 setlists, the 2002 revival saw The Classical clock up a further nine performances, bringing its total to 73.
From ‘Masterbag’ fanzine, Autumn 1982
Jawbone And The Air-Rifle
Some Fall songs evolve through their pre-release performances and end up with some quite radical musical and/or lyrical revisions. I haven’t heard any of Jawbone‘s first seven outings, but by its eighth appearance (at Acklam Hall in December 1980, which can be heard on The Legendary Chaos Tape) it’s already pretty much exactly in the form in which it would appear on Hex, 15 months and 31 performances later. (The only real difference is that the ‘Advertisements become carnivores / and roadworkers turn into jawbones’ lines are reversed.) After 44 appearances between 1980-82, its final outing was in March 1984.
The fact that Jawbone had had so many outings by this point is reflected in how taut and aggressive it sounds; the angular, grinding riff launches itself at you from the first second, and the group sound totally in synch as they drive relentlessly through the first minute of the song. The tempo changes are almost slick (very slick by Fall standards), and the way they pick up the pace (1:45 and 3:18) is joyfully uplifting.
The drumming is not as elaborate as on The Classical, and for much of the song Steve Hanley takes a more rhythmic role than on the opener, laying down a piledriver of a bass riff; however in the chorus, he follows the melody of Smith’s vocal, leaving the scuzzy, scratchy guitars to provide the foundation.
The slower sections in particular bring out the dark, gothic tone of Smith’s lyrics. The ‘rabbit killer’ goes out hunting late at night, finding himself in a graveyard. His misplaced shot ‘smashed a chip off a valued tomb’ and incurs the ire of the grave-keeper (‘out on his rounds’) who demands that the hunter step into the ‘light of the moon’ and explain himself; the hunter’s explanation is that he thought that he was a rabbit or a ‘sex criminal’ on the run. The grave-keeper then presents the hunter with a ‘jawbone caked in muck’ which is some sort of cursed relic from a Scottish ‘pentacle church’. Whilst he tells the hunter that it will make him ‘a bit of a man’, it seems that this curse has devastating effects: the rabbit killer can’t eat, has ‘mangled teeth’, loses his ‘bottle’ and seems to have a series of disturbing visions. It all gets very Wicker Man towards the end, with villagers dancing around prefabs and ‘suck[ing] on marrowbones and energy from the mainland’.
It’s one of Smith’s greatest lyrics, full of dark, ominous imagery and gnarled and twisted turns of phrase. As well as the aforementioned Wicker Man, you can hear the influence of some of MES’s favourite writers here – Machen, M R James, Lovecraft – but it’s done in a style that’s utterly all his. It also may be one of the Fall songs – alongside Sparta FC – that is most familiar with those who have never knowingly heard one of the group’s records, it having been the theme tune to Frank Skinner’s chat show in the 90s. Skinner – as you can hear here on his Desert Island Discs appearance, starting at 32:53 – was a late convert to the group but became somewhat obsessed and was tempted to just choose eight Fall tracks for his fictional exile (he went for Rowche Rumble in the end).
Alongside all the ‘granny on bongos’, cantankerous dictator and multiple firings clichés that filled last year’s obituaries, this was probably the song that was most often referenced. The idea of an ‘alter-ego’ made it an obvious choice for journalists; something easy for them to hang a piece around. However, Smith was no Bowie: the Hip Priest was not really akin to Ziggy or The Thin White Duke, characters that Bowie fully inhabited and used to frame his albums and stage shows. Like most Fall songs, the lyrics are difficult to interpret with any confidence, but while there may be a fair bit of Smith in the title character, it is, as ever, hardly as straightforward as that. It’s not hard to imagine MES feeling as if he was ‘not appreciated’, it’s true, but there are other interpretations, including that it may even be directed at Danny Baker. As usual, Smith is less than helpful: in a 1982 radio interview, he said: ‘It was a bit of a joke on the group cos they’re all like Catholics…it’s meant to be a bit of a funny song…I have an image of Johnny Cash or somebody, I don’t know why…or South America.’
As ever, there are a range of intriguing possibilities around the origins of some of the specific phrases. The ‘last clean dirty shirt’ line may well have come from Johnny Cash’s (Kris Kristofferson-penned) Sunday Morning Comin’ Down (‘I fumbled in my closet through my clothes / and found my cleanest dirty shirt’). Interestingly, the ‘brown bottles’ phrase was revisited in 2010 on Cowboy George. Famously, the song featured in one of the closing scenes of Silence of the Lambs, which probably means that there are many people that you know who have heard The Fall without realising it.
It’s a truism to say that no other band sounds like The Fall, although you can (and I often did on The Fall in Fives) cross-reference various songs to a diverse range of artists, such as Sonic Youth, Can, Pavement, The Wedding Present, Beefheart and REM. But of all the group’s songs, this is the one that sounds most unutterably just like The Fall. One of the most striking things about it is the group’s control of dynamics. Over the years, I have listened to and thoroughly enjoyed many hours of the finest exponents of the quiet/loud dynamic – Explosions In The Sky, Pixies and early Mogwai spring to mind – but there’s something far beyond that here. Whilst there’s plenty of joy to be had when a band all stamp on the pedals and turn everything up to 11, the approach on Hip Priest is far more subtle and all the more effective for it. The quiet passages are so sparse as to be almost falling away from you; and when the group do explode (e.g. at 3:42) it’s not achieved with effects pedals, it’s organic, physical; attitude as much as volume.
I loved Steve Hanley’s book, and would recommend it heartily to anyone (although I doubt that anyone reading this doesn’t already own it). If I had one very minor criticism, it’s that there’s a slight imbalance between ‘life on the road’ and ‘how we wrote / recorded…’ stories (I’d have liked a bit more of the latter). But his account of Hip Priest‘s origins is one of the book’s particular delights. Describing how the song evolved a March 1981 soundcheck, he says:
Paul begins with a slow drumbeat, which captures all our attention. He’s just using the rim of his snare instead of the skin, and fusing it together with the cymbals and the bass drum. One by one, compelled by the rhythm, we begin to improvise around it, quickly realising something’s growing. We’re nurturing it with our tempered anguish until a hollow atmosphere begins to fill the empty hall. It continues to build but then, with a sudden unanimous exchange of certain eye contact, a dramatic drop is triggered. Intuition takes over as we induce the pressure again, knowing we’ve got the bare bones of something different. Absorbing the music, Mark Smith appears from the wings, locks on and, riffling through his mental portfolio, extracts an alter ego, intoning his Hip Priest into existence.
Who here would not have given their right arm (and possibly several other body parts) to have witnessed that?
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the group took a little while to find a proper place for Fortress. In its early incarnations, it often prefaced Totally Wired, where to my mind it really didn’t work to its full potential. This may just be with the benefit of hindsight, but I think it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t fit just perfectly here.
After a slightly disturbing intro (featuring the intro from Trio’s Da Da Da) we get an exuberant, slashing guitar riff that’s not a million miles away from the one the group would use on Fol De Rol 35 years later. Its transition into Deer Park at around the one and a half minute mark is simply one of the most perfect and joyous moments that the group ever released. (There’s also an excellent fuller version of Fortress from one of the 1981 Iceland gigs, which includes several extra lines, including ‘You can wander about Oslo / but we are told that outside of England / the rest of the world is a smelly road / with holes for latrines, for urinals’.)
Deer Park is another relentless, aggressive assault of a tune; a wave of hypnotically jagged noise and fury. The lyrics are particularly impenetrable: who is the ‘King Shag Corpse’? What exactly is a ‘large type artist ranch’? Who are the Manchester/Scottish group? But it’s one of those where I find myself not worrying overly about what Smith is on about, because his snarling vehemence is complemented perfectly by the endless two-chord loop of Riley’s keyboards, the dual-drum clatter, the throbbing bass line and – above all – the dirty Stooges/VU-like fuzz of the guitar breaks. It’s all completely mesmerising. I was in the middle of reviewing this when I heard of MES’s death; sticking it on repeat at high volume and having a few glasses of wine felt very fitting.
Mere Pseud Mag. Ed.
I’ve always thought that it would have been preferable to have a ‘full’ version of Winter (which I’ll come onto shortly) close the first side and this open the second side, as the album would benefit from having a bit of a break in terms of relentless guitar assaults. That said, it’s a hell of a riff; it has real heft, in a ‘did you spill my pint?’ burst of aggression. The underlying heavily distorted guitar just before the two minute mark is a particular highlight.
It’s a derisive character assassination (‘his brain was in his arse’; ‘real ale, curry as well -sophisticate’) although it’s unclear at whom it’s aimed. It’s also one of those occasions where MES wilfully tries to cram a line (‘Mere pseud mag editor’s father’) into a space where it plainly doesn’t fit. It was one of the longest-serving songs as far as gigs were concerned, clocking up 149 appearances between 1982-2005.
Winter (Hostel-Maxi) / Winter 2
A masterclass in minimalism, Winter is to a large extent comprised of a metronomic bass line and a single harshly jangling chord (not for the first time, the Velvet Underground spring to mind; Venus In Furs in this case). That’s not all there is to it of course: Riley adds some carefully-applied texture with the keyboards, and Scanlon contributes some spindly solo work. In addition, Steve Hanley, not for the first time, is the master of solidity and restraint; letting the relentless throb of his mainly single-note part underpin everything, but timing perfectly his little runs up the neck (especially at both the beginning and end of Winter 2).
Having only ever had Hex on cassette or CD, I don’t know if the splitting of the track was any less irritating on vinyl. As soon as technology gave me the option to do so, I created and have nearly always listened to a ‘merged’ version – although I have been listening to the originals for the purpose of this project. (I’d post you my YouTube upload of this ‘glued-together’ version, but the buggers took it down – as did Soundcloud.)
According to the press release (see above) Winter, ‘is a tale concerning an insane child who is taken over by a spirit from the mind of a cooped-up alcoholic, and his ravaged viewpoints and theories’. The insane child is obviously the ‘mad kid’ who tries to grab the lead of his mother’s dog, and at some point wears ‘a black cardboard Archbishop’s hat with a green fuzz skull and crossbones’. I say at some point, because while the song is obviously in narrative form, it’s chronologically confusing in places. For example, Manny (presumably the ‘cooped-up alcoholic’) is in the library, hungover at half past three, but then we get: ‘Get the spleen at 3:15 / but it’s 3:13’. On the song’s Annotated Fall page, bzfgt and contributors make an admirable (and much more detailed) effort to unravel Winter‘s meaning.
There’s also an intriguing reference in the press release to ‘an earlier version [which] went into the “Clang” process of speech’, which is explained as where ‘the sufferer during speech makes sentences containing similar sounding words’. On looking this up, I discovered that (according to Wikipedia), ‘in psychology and psychiatry, clanging refers to a mode of speech characterized by association of words based upon sound rather than concepts’ and is often associated with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It’s easy to see many Fall songs being described as such, especially in the group’s later years; I’m not sure I can hear it in Winter though.
Winter was a regular feature in Fall sets throughout 1981, appearing 22 times. However, after its 25th outing in Edinburgh in April 1982, it was never played again.
Just Step S’ways
Hex‘s closest thing to a pop song, Step provides a bit of light relief after the intensity of the first half of the album. It’s not quite as mysterious a lyric as some of the earlier songs, although I’m unsure as to what ‘just skip out miss the ice bricks of Bacardi’ might mean. MES seems to be taking a general wry swipe at the modern world (‘this grubby place’) in general, disparaging both its ‘futurism’ and its tendency to wallow in nostalgia (‘who wants to be in a Hovis advert anyway?’) I’m not quite sure where Elton John playing in Russia fits in with all of this though. The sleeve is once again not terribly helpful in shedding much light on the song’s meaning: ‘”Lie Dream” 80% of 10% OR 6% over no less than 1/4 = ??????’
The stomping rhythm, tangy surf rock guitar and a comparatively clear and melodic vocal (I’m also quite fond of the little burst of ‘mouth trumpet’ in the intro) make it an engaging if rather slight little number. Played 29 times in 1981-82, it made a surprising one-off reappearance in 2007.
Who Makes The Nazis?
A (musically) curiously simplistic, almost childish song; an aspect that is further emphasised in the Peel version by the deployment of a plastic toy guitar. Again, the lyrics are opaque enough to make it difficult to do more than grasp at possible snatches of meaning; I tend to agree with bzfgt on TAF when he says that he is ‘not convinced the song is trying very hard to make a coherent conceptual point’. That said, there are a few great-sounding (if impenetrable) lines like ‘Buffalo lips on toast, smiling’ and ‘Benny’s cobweb eyes!’ The latter, according to a contributor on The Fall Forum, is a reference to Benny from Crossroads, which – given other examples of MES commenting on daytime television (e.g. A Lot Of Wind) – seems at least reasonably plausible. I’d always presumed that the ‘longhorn’ references were an image that MES had picked up on the long drives across the US on the previous year’s tour. bzfgt, however makes an interesting case for it actually referring to ‘Heck cattle‘, which does provide a link to Nazism.
Although not as controversial as the introduction to The Classical, Nazis also features language that now feels slightly uncomfortable, specifically ‘balding smug faggots’. Although it has been, regrettably, assimilated into UK English over the last couple of decades, it wasn’t a common term of abuse in early 80s Britain; or at least it’s certainly not one I remember being used back then (there were much more common terms for homosexuals). Just as I don’t think The Classical makes Smith a racist, I don’t think that this makes him a homophobe; again, it’s difficult to strip away whatever layers of irony there may be, or discern in whose voice the term is being used anyway.
Internet search filters must have a field day with any page reproducing the lyrics of this song: as well as Nazis and faggots, we also get, ‘Remember when I used to follow you home from school babe? Before I got picked up for paedophilia’. The link to Alex Chilton outlined in TAF is a tenuous one, but credit to Dan for working very hard to establish it.
The primitive rhythm and crude guitar/bass lines do have a pleasantly hypnotic quality, but I can’t help feeling that at four and a half minutes the idea is over-stretched, and it can start to drag. (For this reason, I probably just about prefer the Peel version, which is brisker and briefer.) The slightly disturbing backing vocals (not dissimilar to those that open Fortress) do make the song a little less one-dimensional; their bovine quality always puts me in mind of Meat Is Murder. Nazis was a regular feature on 1981-82 setlists, but its 32nd performance in New Zealand in August 1982 was its last.
When I recently constructed my 10-CD Fall ‘Box Set’, poor old Iceland was the last song to not quite make the cut. Whereas I feel in retrospect that I slightly underrated The Classical, looking back at the Fi5 blog I think that I was possibly a little overgenerous with this one. I returned time and again to the theme of context on that blog; how your evaluation can be affected by when and where you listen, what’s going on around you, etc. Perhaps, looking back, my enthusiasm was at least partly inspired by the fact that the previous post saw me get my first like and retweet from one Mr S Hanley.
This is not to say that Iceland is in any way a bad song. It is, however, a strange mix of the eerie and the jaunty, and its meandering, improvisational tone is something that I’m not always in the mood for. Its improvised creation is documented in both Steve Hanley’s book11 and Colin Irwin’s article in Melody Maker. On the September 1981 visit to Iceland, the group spent a day in the ‘volcanic’ studio and knocked out Look, Now and Hip Priest, both in one take. After Smith instructed the group to play something ‘Dylanish’, Scanlon sat down at the piano and began ‘throwing two notes back and forth at each other’ (according to Steve Hanley) and was joined by Riley on banjo, making it ‘sound like a sitar’, according to Irwin. Steve Hanley briefly considered taking over percussive duties, but was deterred by a warning look from his brother and instead played the bass as ‘lightly’ as he can. Irwin suggests that it wasn’t improvised entirely from scratch, as he recognises ‘the abstract tinkering they’d done earlier’; nonetheless, there is certainly a hesitant feel to the performance; and you can hear, over the last minute or so, what Hanley describes as the music ‘ struggling to find a natural end’.
Smith’s contribution commences with a cassette recording he had made of the wind outside his hotel window (described as a ‘barren howl’ by his bassist). He then fishes out some of his scribbled notes from the trusty carrier bag and sets off on a rambling tale of being ‘humbled’ in Iceland; including an incident where he took a tumble over a pile of tables in a café (‘Fall down flat… without a glance from the clientele’).
At their last gig in Iceland, the group made their one, ill-fated (and apparently rapidly truncated) attempt at performing the song live. Steve Hanley – I think somewhat tongue in cheek – described the recording as having ‘somehow harnessed a supernatural Nordic spirit’. The Hip Priestess’ summary (quoted here – the link given there is not correct though) is a characteristically well-written one:
Iceland is beguiling but, in its own way, is also every bit as uninhabitable as the rest of “Hex”, it just unsettles in a different way, its gentle insistence developing into something more creepy, like an ageing crabby hand on your arm, keeping you sat exactly where you are until its owner, sat on the bar stool next to yours, decides otherwise.
And This Day
The song that formed a suitably epic conclusion to the Fi5 blog. Context rears its head again here, as the circumstances in which I listened to it on repeat (driving through some apocalyptic South Wales weather) served to enhance what can only be described as a dense, unrelenting slab of noise.
The sleeve notes strike a somewhat self-deprecating tone: ‘Desperate attempt to make bouncy good of 2 drum kit line-up’. It’s a bit of a divisive one: the A-Z says: ‘Seen variously by Fall fans as a multi-instrumental layered tour de force with astounding vocals to match, or as a stodgy, seemingly never-ending unmusical/unstructured racket’; The Annotated Fall says something similar – ‘it is passionately defended by some but dismissed as boringly repetitive and too long by others.’
The sheer, dense barrage of noise, the lumbering rhythm and in particular Riley’s spooky organ give it a warped, circus-like atmosphere; one that conjures images of a travelling freakshow/carny from a Tom Waits/Nick Cave song or Cormac McCarthy novel. As I said on the Fi5 blog, ‘Peering through the rain-lashed windscreen as I drove warily through Merthyr Tydfil today, it felt like a song that signalled the end of the world. Not many artists can conjure that up.’
It made 28 appearances 1982-83 and got a one-off revival in 1997 (see below). It’s not a song for the faint-hearted; in a 1982 Radio interview, MES commented that it ‘often finishes off a lot of audiences’. According to Steve Hanley12 the original recording was 25 minutes long before it was edited down to make the album exactly an hour long. It even exhausted Smith: ‘Twenty-five minutes is too long, even for us! I ran out of words quarter of an hour ago.’
Reissues & Bonus Tracks
The album has been reissued several times. The 2002 Voiceprint release included, logically, Look, Know (the single that followed Hex), plus its b-side I’m Into C.B. Interestingly, Smith – not exactly known for his love of turning back to the past – speaks very positively of the 2005 Sanctuary reissue in Renegade: ‘I’m pleased with the way Sanctuary re-issued it. They did us proud there. I know for a fact that a lot of kids have got into it as a result.’13 This is particularly interesting because three of the obvious tracks to include – the Peel and single version of Look, Know and Winter from the Peel session – were not included. This was because, according to thefall.org, they ‘were withdrawn from this reissue at the request of Mark E Smith’. As far as I know, no official reason was ever given for this, which makes their omission – especially when you consider the vast array of poorly-recorded and/or shoddy tracks over the years that MES must have approved – all the more puzzling and intriguing.
What the 2005 Sanctuary reissue does include is: Deer Park / Nazis from the Peel session and I’m Into C.B. from the Look, Know 7″, plus live versions of Session Musician, Jazzed Up Punk Shit, I’m Into C.B. (the ‘Stars on 45’ version), Deer Park and And This Day (twice). The first three of these will be covered in subsequent posts. As for the live tracks…
I wrote about Session Musician in the last post. This is from a different date, but the same comments apply. Jazzed Up is an interesting one. It opens with some rather proggy sustained organ chords, then strikes up a rather menacing prowl involving some gentle hi-hat, rhythmic bass and meandering guitar. Lyrically it references Solicitor In Studio, but musically it’s obviously a close relation of Detective Instinct. It only ever got three outings in this form.
The ‘Stars on 45’ version of C.B. sees Smith – not for the first time – referencing the phenomenon that brought us this in the early 80s. He sings a bastardised version of the C.B. lyrics over an uptempo medley that includes Psykick Dancehall, Fiery Jack and Leave The Capitol. Silly but fun. The first version of And This Day (from a soundcheck on the New Zealand tour later that summer) has MES’s vocals in a very prominent position, which just emphasises that they aren’t necessarily the song’s main attraction. It does however, also give you a good chance to listen to Riley’s frankly bonkers prog-psych keyboard work. The other one (its one-off 1997 revival) was part of that gig’s opening (you can hear the applause on Smith’s entrance) and is mainly notable for being dominated by waves of frantic slide guitar. It’s a pretty horrible recording though, and is only of minor interest.
The version of Deer Park (also from the ’82 New Zealand tour) is a much better recording, even if it is a little on the tinny side. However, it’s well worth a listen. In particular the section around halfway through, driven by some sublime, overloaded feedback-drenched guitar is astonishingly intense.
It’s an album that bludgeons you into submission. It’s not flawless: in particular I don’t think the sequencing always does it huge favours; the run of Step / Nazis / Iceland feels comparatively lightweight in comparison to the first half’s relentless assault. But: the opening four tracks are as strong an introduction to an album that you’ll ever hear; Smith’s lyrics – whilst wilfully opaque for much of the time – are wildly, darkly inventive and intriguing (as he put it himself, ‘There’s a barrage of ideas going on there’)14; Burns, Scanlon, Riley and the Hanleys are consistently locked into a tight, remorseless machine that somehow shreds, coaxes, teases, batters and touches simultaneously. I didn’t set out to write nearly 7000 words about this album, but it was impossible not to; and that tells you everything you need to know. Well, everything I need to know, anyway.
A tricky one, and not one that I’ve actually made (beyond sticking the two halves of Winter together). But keeping (nearly) to my 35-45 minute rule, it would have to be:
Side 1: The Classical / Fortress-Deer Park / Winter (21:01)
Side 2: Mere Pseud Mag. Ed. / Jawbone & the Air Rifle / Hip Priest / And This Day (24:38)
Reading over the above, I think it’s a pretty clear-cut decision…
- Hex Enduction Hour
- Live At The Witch Trials
1The Big Midweek, p111
2The Big Midweek, p118
6The Big Midweek, p125
11The Big Midweek, pp119-120
12The Big Midweek, p126