YMGTA #13: This Nation’s Saving Grace

“Oh, to be thirteen and have this be the first record one heard.

Details:
Recorded: Mid 1985
Released: 23 September 1985

  • Mark E Smith – vocals, violin, guitar
  • Brix Smith – guitar, vocals
  • Craig Scanlon – guitar
  • Steve Hanley – bass
  • Simon Rogers – keyboards, guitar, bass
  • Karl Burns – drums, vocals

Background
Up to the release of Wonderful and Frightening, the group’s line-up (notwithstanding the addition of Brix) had been relatively stable for several years. Things changed after their gig at Cardiff’s New Ocean Club on the 1 November. Finding the hotel car park chained shut, the group had to leave their van parked in the street. Come the morning, everything but Steve Hanley’s bass amp had been stolen. MES seems to have been more than a little cross (‘Mark was on a different plane of angry’1), but arrangements were made for the group to play with borrowed equipment at the next night’s gig in Brighton. However, after that gig. MES’s haranguing (which apparently involved the use of a stick, Windsor Davies sergeant-major style) was the straw that broke the camel’s back for both Hanley brothers, who (separately) quit the group.

For Steve, the pressure of having recently become a father was undoubtedly a factor in his departure. Eventually, it was agreed (after a surprise visit to his home by Mr and Mrs Smith2 where he received £1000 to tide him over) that he would take a few months off from The Fall. According to Brix, MES was ‘chastened for probably the only time I had ever seen’3.

For Paul, however, the departure was final (although he was persuaded to play for the infamous Old Grey Whistle Test performance later that month). He formed a new band, Kiss The Blade, who released one single, The Party’s Begun. Shortly afterwards, he left the music industry to work in IT. He can now, of course, be found playing in Brix & The Extricated alongside his brother.

Musically, the solution to Paul’s departure was obvious. Finding a new bassist, albeit temporarily, would be more problematic. The answer came via Smith’s connection with Michael Clark. Simon Rogers had worked with Clark at Ballet Rambert; he was a ‘proper’ musician, who had attended the Royal College of Music, composed ballets and even appeared in the charts as a member of Incantation, who had a top twenty hit with Cacharpaya in 1982. According to Steve Hanley, who first met Rogers at the OGWT appearance, he could ‘play every instrument on the planet’. Dave Simpson described him as ‘the least likely musician ever to end up in The Fall’4.

Hanley seems to have – understandably – felt a little threatened by Rogers at first, especially as the group started to write new material such as Cruiser’s Creek without him. However, he was detailed to pick Rogers up from Piccadilly station after the Easter US tour and – having been surprised and slightly impressed by his conversion from ‘clean-cut, ethnically-dressed kids’ TV presenter type’ to a ‘straggly-haired man in leather trousers and in desperate need of a shave and a good night’s kip’5 – they seem to have bonded over an afternoon in the Hanleys’ living room going over the new material6.

In May, the group recorded their eighth Peel session (Cruiser’s Creek / Couldn’t Get Ahead / Spoilt Victorian Child / Gut Of The Quantifier), with Steve Hanley on bass and Rogers on guitar and keyboards. In June, they released the double A-side single Couldn’t Get Ahead / Rollin’ Dany, which had been recorded with the temporary Hanley-free line-up.

Couldn’t Get Ahead is, for me, a far better attempt at capturing an accessible-yet-still-The-Fall sound than the previous year’s singles. It’s a bouncy, twangy little number with an infectious chorus plus an energetic and coherent MES performance. However, it made no more of a dent in the UK charts than the 1984 releases, only reaching number 90. Rollin’ Dany, a Gene Vincent cover, is a spirited if fairly unremarkable piece of rock ‘n’ roll, although it features a pretty nifty solo from Craig Scanlon. Couldn’t Get Ahead was a popular setlist choice 1985-86, making 51 appearances, although it disappeared thereafter. Rollin’ Dany only got four outings, all in autumn 1985.

The 12″ version featured Petty (Thief) Lout. The main body of the song is quite mainstream, reminiscent of a Smiths/REM jangle/strum; pleasant if not earth-shattering. The quiet interludes are more intriguing, with an understated, bluesy slide guitar. It made 21 appearances in 1985 gigs, and was resurrected once in 1990.

A couple of weeks after the album’s release, Cruiser’s Creek became the group’s sixteenth single release. The title was inspired by the Smith’s experiences of holidaying with Brix’s family7; it features another irresistible and infectious riff (a languid yet direct surf-rock twang) and is one of the group’s best efforts at capturing that Fall-pop sound, although once again the group only reached the lower end of the charts – 96 this time.  It was played 50 times 1985-87.

Vixen, the bonus song on the 12″ of Cruiser’s Creek, is regularly vilified by Fall fans as being one of their worst ever efforts. I don’t have any particularly strong feelings against it, but it is rather thin and lifeless. It was never played live (other than Brix playing a snatch of the riff at the Santa Monica in-store appearance mentioned below).

In The Wider World…
September 1985 saw a repeat of the rioting of four years earlier: in Handsworth, Birmingham, two people died when a post office was petrol-bombed; a month later, the Broadwater Farm riots saw the murder of PC Keith Blakelock. Not entirely coincidentally, over three million people were unemployed in the UK. Neil Kinnock was wrestling with the Militant issue, his speech to the party conference in October causing Eric Heffer to walk off the stage in protest. Glenn Hoddle’s goal against Romania secured England’s place in the 1986 World Cup.

In the music world, Bowie and Jagger’s utterly awful karaoke/dad-dancing cover of Dancing In The Street was in the third week of its month-long stay at the top of the charts. After a one-week visit to number one by Midge Ure’s If I Was, Jennifer Rush’s archetypal 80s power ballad The Power Of Love took over for the next five weeks. Madonna’s Like A Virgin topped the album charts.  On Top Of The Pops in the week of the album’s release, we were treated to Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell, The Style Council’s The Lodgers and Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero. Ah, the 80s…

The Fall Live In 1984-85
The Fall played 45 gigs between the release of TW&FWO and TNSG. This included five dates in Europe in December 1984 (the first following Paul Hanley’s departure), a dozen American performances in March-April 1985 and six German gigs in the month leading up to TNSG‘s release. Unusually for them The Fall went for a whole twenty gigs (the last twenty they played in 1984) without debuting any new material.

New material started to emerge in March 1985. At the Hammersmith Town Hall gig, where the group were promoting the newly-released compilation Hip Priest And Kamerads, Couldn’t Get Ahead, Cruiser’s Creek and Barmy were played for the first time. Petty (Thief) Lout was debuted later that month; Gut Of The QuantifierSpoilt Victorian Child, Paintwork, Bombast, What You Need and LA all emerged in June and July; Rollin’ Dany received its first outing a fortnight before TNSG‘s release.

Excerpts from the group’s in-store appearance at Texas Records Santa Monica on 23 March featured on MTV’s The Cutting Edge:

The Album
Like Wonderful & Frightening, the album becomes a different beast if you’re used to the cassette version or later CD reissues that shoehorn in the various singles and b-sides. But at 16 I bought the 11-track vinyl version and that will always be the ‘correct’ version of TNSG to me.

Once again, John Leckie handled the production. For me, he strikes the perfect balance on the album tracks. Not going back entirely to Dragnet-era scratchy murk, but pulling back a little from the sometimes very clean sound of TWAFWO. As Simon Ford describes, Leckie ‘chose not to smooth out The Fall’s rough edges; instead he made them a virtue’8. The album has a dark, ominous edge, but still provides clarity, giving the songs space to breathe. Or, as MES much more simply put it: ‘it’s just what’s there, bringing out what’s always there’9.

In the NME, David Quantick declared that: ‘The Fall have made one of their most accessible LPs yet; at the same time, they have made a record that’s infinitely more peculiar then almost anything else released this year.’ In Sounds, Chris Roberts was even more effusive: ‘Oh, to be thirteen and have this be the first record one heard. Life and what you needed would never be the same again.’10 The NME ranked it at number six in their albums of the year and it reached number 54 in the UK album chart, out-performing both Wonderful and Hex.

The Songs
Mansion
Brix in magpie mode again, as Mansion‘s riff is a clear lift from Billy The Monster by The Deviants (some of whom went on to form The Pink Fairies). But it makes for a very effective album opener, with its spooky, sci-fi atmosphere (it was ‘supposed to evoke the creepy theme song to the Haunted house at Disneyland’)11 setting the scene nicely for the aural assault of the next track.

How many times it was played live is a tricky issue. It was only used as an intro tape at the time, and didn’t make its way into the set until 2002 (in which year it was played 24 times). However, whether these performances were of Mansion or its companion piece To Nkroachment: Yarbles isn’t entirely clear. Musically, the live versions were closer to the instrumental album track, but they generally contained vocals; although they rarely resembled the lyrics from Yarbles. To add to the confusion, DVD releases from the year call it Yarbles whilst the 2002 setlists call it Mansion.

Bombast
Steve Hanley, not surprisingly, felt a little out of sync with the rest of the group when the album was recorded, several songs having been written in his absence: ‘I’m like a builder who’s been off sick, returning to find most of the wall has been built and all that’s left for me to do is the snagging.’12 However, his contribution here (he wrote the riff during his paternity leave) kicks the album into gear in an utterly glorious, boisterous fashion. It got an impressive 98 outings over the next five years.

MES gets on his megaphone for the opening (which sadly doesn’t include the lines about Lloyd Cole that were included when this intro was used to introduce the Peel session version of LA). It’s a great introduction, even if it doesn’t actually make a huge amount of grammatical sense – ‘Whose main entitle is themselves’? The message seems to be, ‘Don’t give me any of your bullshit, or you’ll know about it’ (on The Annotated Fall bzfgt suggests the somewhat wordier, ‘All those who are entitled in their own minds, and whose only source of entitlement is themselves, are in for an overdose of vitriol.’ Which is a fine effort, to be fair, although over around 800 words he really ties himself up in knots trying to pin it down.

What follows the intro is an absolute marvel. It’s like Steve Hanley came up with three great riffs and then thought, f*ck it, let’s weld them all together and see what happens. It clashes, it grinds, it thrashes, it threatens to punch you in the face… and the track is just full of highlights: the atonal, tremolo-heavy chord at 0:27; the staccato chords just before the minute mark and again at 1:36 and 2:22 (echoed by Smith’s yelps); the squall of feedback at 1:32; the brief, controlled burst of thrash 1:40-1:46 (and the extended one from 2:28). There’s no real song as such here, but it’s a gloriously effective and actually moving piece of noise.

Barmy
Another example of a ‘borrowed’ riff, this time from The Monkees’ Valleri. More twangy guitars, supporting a distinctly bouncy and surprisingly tuneful verse; contrasting with a dark, dissonant and gloomy chorus (of sorts). The latter features some lovely swampish wah-wah guitar. There’s also a bit of shrill rock ‘n’ roll piano sprinkled over the second half that adds some pleasant contrast.

It’s a joyful stomp of a tune. My only criticism (and this is pretty much my only – very mild – criticism of the whole album) is that it very slightly outstays its welcome; for me, it could perhaps have finished at 4:05. It was played 43 times 1985-86.

What You Need
According to a 1985 MES magazine interview, What You Need was inspired by a couple of Twilight Zone episodes, one actually called What You Need, the other entitled The Four of Us Are Dying, about a con man who can change his face to make it look like anyone he chooses. (MES got the two episodes confused, probably because they were shown as a double bill – thanks to Dan for the clarification.) Smith went on to say that, ‘the main theme of the song is that there are a lot of people in Britain, and a lot of people in America, too, telling people what they need. And in America, especially. I find this really scary.’

This is proper ‘3 Rs’ stuff: uncompromising in its adherence to The Fall principle of bludgeoning and beguiling you with relentless repetition. The snaking lead guitar line and sparse, choppy rhythm guitar are simplistic but devastatingly effective; Smith’s vocal is almost devoid of melody, simply declaiming – often in classic megaphone style – a series of seemingly random phrases: ‘been bleeding some itch’, ‘your verbose kitchen’, ‘slippery shoes for your horrible feet’. It also eschews anything as namby-pamby as a chorus or middle eight, although the ‘spooky carnival’ keyboards do add a bit of colour and variety, as does the intermittent appearance of a cowbell.

What You Need is, to me, just what The Fall sound like. You could greet a newcomer to the group with something enticingly mainstream-ish like Ghost or Victoria, or you could challenge them with something extra-difficult like Hurricane Edward or Jobless or Ibis-Afro Man. But What You Need is the sound of the centre of The Fall for me; the chalk-face; the grinding out of what needs to be said and heard; the epitome of the group’s work ethic.

Spoilt Victorian Child
A lyric of which MES had written an early draft back in the late 70s, but for which he had never found suitably ‘daft English music’13 until Simon Roger provided an angular, stuttering riff – in 6/4 time no less – that fitted the bill. (It bears a slight resemblance to The Groundhog’s Earth Is Not Room Enough.) Brix apparently found the guitar part tricky to learn, but ‘felt like Eddie Van Halen’ once she’d mastered it14.

The jerky, awkward riff contrasts nicely with the comparatively solid and straight drums, but the most pleasing aspect of the song is the way that MES seems to be in a constant battle to keep up with the music, which gives it an energetic urgency. It was played 29 times in 1985-86, and was resurrected for seven performances in 2004.

L.A.
Famously John Peel’s least favourite Fall track (you can hear him say so here), Brix said that LA was ‘my most favourite song that I ever wrote’. It’s one that doesn’t get universal love from Fall fans, although I’m never quite sure why.

The oscillating synth and snaky, sinewy guitar lines give this a dark, sinister edge which is supported well by MES’s understated and minimal contributions. Sometimes there is just something about Smith’s timing that is indefinably wonderful, and the way he moves from ‘L, L, L, L’ to ‘A, A, A, A’ – never quite at the point where you expect it – is just spot on. The breakdown at 3:14 – 3:22 is a wonderful moment too; there are occasions when a chord change, or a vocal inflection, can achieve huge amounts without seeming to try that hard: and this is one of them.

LA was a long-standing feature on setlists, racking up 104 appearances between 1985 and 1996.

Gut Of The Quantifier
A leading candidate for the most Fall-ish song title, and another spot of ‘borrowing’ here, as the riff bears a passing resemblance to The Doors’ The Changeling (which in turn may well have been poached from Jr. Walker & The All-Stars’ Shotgun). It’s a thumpingly muscular, aggressive tune, all angles and elbows. The double-tracked vocals create a sense of oppressive intensity, but it’s also not without humour: the ‘Kane Gang’ line might be a little lost in history now, but it still raises a smile, as does the manic cackle at 0:48.

It was played 65 times 1985-88, and then was resurrected for a couple of performances in 1995. It’s a beautifully well-paced track, the build/crescendo sections being perfectly placed; it’s still full of surprises even after all these years.

My New House
You can tie yourself up in knots attempting to decipher the meaning behind many of MES’s lyrics, but here’s an exception. My New House  was about, well, Smith’s new house. The house in question was a semi-detached in Sedgley Park, just around the corner from Smith’s parents.

It was credited to Smith alone, but it seems likely that the riff was Craig Scanlon’s15. One of the few Fall songs to feature a prominent acoustic guitar, it follows a ‘3Rs’ approach similar to What You Need. The simplistic riff is insistent and relentless, and the whole thing is ramshackle to the point of sounding likely to fall apart at any moment. It’s another one with an almost endless list of features to treasure: Smith’s gleeful whoops on the exclamations of ‘seeee my new house’; the odd, mistimed cymbals in the ‘chorus’; the grinding Beefheartesque guitar lurking in the background… Plus, a personal favourite amongst Smith lyrics: ‘I bought it off the Baptists / I get their bills / And I get miffed’.

Surprisingly, it was only ever played live seventeen times, all in 1986.

Paintwork
The title of this blog comes from a well-known quotation from Mr Peel regarding the fact that trying to rank Fall songs/albums is missing the point. And that’s very true; although it doesn’t stop us, does it? Because, if pressed, I would always name this track (along with Blindness and Dr Bucks’ Letter) as my absolute favourite.

The looping acoustic guitar, descending organ part and the ‘Hey Mark!’ refrain, combined with the occasional diversion into a grungy guitar riff would mark this out as a great song on its own. But add into this mix MES at his most wonderfully random and enigmatic (‘I read Paula Yates on Vision mopeds’, ‘Them continentals are little monkeys’, ‘As if I hadn’t done 10 months service in the USA on the big yachts’) then you have a truly great song. But then you also add in the peculiar excursions into ‘sounds MES accidentally recorded by sitting on the tape recorder in his hotel’ that are spliced awkwardly yet brilliantly into the song and you have an absolutely sublime piece of wonder.

Interestingly, Paintwork was only played six times in 1985-86, but got seventeen outings 2000-04. Like Gut, I find something new every time I listen to this song.; and every time it fills me with a sense of awe and wonder. The group at the height of their creativity; as MES said, ‘you can’t contrive something like that’.

I Am Damo Suzuki
One of the songs that made the most live appearances – 110 in total – although 66 of those were between 2001-04 after a fourteen year gap. It’s also another ‘borrow’, there being echoes of Can’s Oh Yeah throughout (plus a reference to Vitamin C).

It is, quite frankly, mad. The first time I heard it (aged 16) I checked my record player was working correctly, as surely there were two different songs playing at once.  The introduction is in itself somewhat askew: the simple, haunting guitar line already sounds a little out of sync with Smith’s sinister, breathy vocal. But the entrance of the drums at 0:43 provides an exhilaratingly jarring experience. The way that the two rhythms clash, resolve, then draw apart again is just masterfully bonkers. It’s worth quoting in full John Leckie’s account (from the Omnibus edition of TNSG booklet):

‘One of those where we did two takes and Mark liked the band on one tape but he liked his vocal better on the other. Now, on a computer you’d be able to edit that and stretch it to make it all work, so I said, ‘well, all we can can do is to take the vocal off here and put it on to a piece of tape. The two takes had different arrangements, like the verse and chorus came in at different times, so the whole thing gives the impression of being completely random, but the reason being that the first take was eight bars of verse, four bars of chorus, eight bars of verse and the second take is twelve bars of verse, six bars of chorus, a different arrangement. Also Mark’s standing next to Karl, so the drums are coming through the vocal mix and every time the drums stop on the first take you can hear these ambient drums going on from the vocal mix on the second take and I thought it was fantastic and so did everyone else, but a totally unconventional way of doing it.’

To Nkroachment: Yarbles
The companion piece to Mansion is softer and more lethargic, and is also an even stronger candidate than Gut of the Quantifier for ‘most Fall-ish song title’. Like the name of Brix’s first band, Banda Dratsing, ‘yarbles’ is nadsat (the language used in A Clockwork Orange), meaning ‘testicles’. Once again, we have a spot of ‘borrowing’, this time from a song called Every Day I Have to Cry, written by Arthur Alexander and covered by many artists, including Dusty Springfield.

There’s a doleful ennui to Smith’s vocal (‘All the good times are past and gone’); it’s a small, almost understated thing, gone almost as soon as it arrives. As I said on the Fi5 blog, I can just imagine my 16 year old self eagerly flipping the record over and starting again with Mansion.

Reissues & Bonus Tracks
At the time of release, the cassette version included Vixen and Couldn’t Get Ahead tacked onto the end of side one and had Petty (Thief) Lout closing the second side (putting Lout after Yarbles being sheer madness in my opinion). When the album was issued on CD in 1988, Rollin’ Dany and an edited version of Cruiser’s Creek were added to the end.

In 2011, Beggars Banquet released a 3-CD ‘deluxe’ version, featuring a 48 page booklet. CD2 included a variety of rough mixes, which are all interesting if not exactly essential. One of the more intriguing inclusions is the instrumental Edie, which – with added vocals – would eventually appear as an Adult Net song. My review of it on Fi5 is here. The third disc rounded up singles, b-sides and the Peel sessions from the time.

Overall Verdict
It is a mark of this album’s quality that the only (mildly) negative thing I can find to say is that one song could possibly be about a minute shorter. It is simply the perfect marriage of the Fall’s increasing accessibility (although let’s not get carried away with that angle – try playing TNSG to a Coldplay or Mumford & Sons devotee and see how you get on) and their difficult, challenging qualities. And for once, the sequencing is absolutely spot-on (although I sometimes feel that the wilfully odd sequencing of many of their albums is one of the things many of us love about them).

It contains a flawless balance of everything the group did exceptionally well: aural barrage (Bombast), off-kilter pop hooks (Barmy), grinding repetition (What You Need, My New House) , sonic experimentation (Paintwork), difficult and angular riff (Spoilt Victorian Child) and sheer, audacious strangeness (I Am Damo Suzuki). To paraphrase Sounds’ Chris Roberts: oh to be sixteen again and be placing this on my turntable for the very first time…

Image result for This Nation's Saving Grace

My “Version”
No question: wouldn’t touch it.

Rankings
Not a difficult decision with the albums, obviously:

  1. This Nation’s Saving Grace
  2. Perverted By Language
  3. The Wonderful And Frightening World Of
  4. Hex Enduction Hour
  5. Slates
  6. Grotesque
  7. Room To Live
  8. Dragnet
  9. Live At The Witch Trials

The two singles slot in comfortably to mid-table positions at this point:

  1. Kicker Conspiracy
  2. The Man Whose Head Expanded
  3. How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’
  4. Totally Wired
  5. Marquis Cha-Cha
  6. Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul
  7. Cruiser’s Creek
  8. Couldn’t Get Ahead/Rollin’ Dany
  9. Look, Know
  10. Bingo-Master’s Break-Out!
  11. Rowche Rumble
  12. Fiery Jack
  13. It’s The New Thing
  14. Oh! Brother
  15. c.r.e.e.p.

References
1The Rise and the Fall and the Rise, p203

2The Big Midweek, p237

 3The Rise and the Fall and the Rise, p204

 4The Fallen, p172

 5The Big Midweek, p247

 6The Big Midweek, p248

 7The Rise and the Fall and the Rise, p212

 8-10Ford, p147

 11The Rise and the Fall and the Rise, p208

 12The Big Midweek, p250

 13Ford, p146

 14The Rise and the Fall and the Rise, p209

 15The Rise and the Fall and the Rise, p207

6 thoughts on “YMGTA #13: This Nation’s Saving Grace

  1. Thanks for this. Spot-on. It really is the perfect Fall album. I could never tire of it.

    And great overview of Bombast, a track that doesn’t quite receive the reverence it deserves. When the obligatory Fall biopic comes out, it’s Bombast that should play over the intro credits.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah Steve, thank you, just reading this brings it all back (I was 20 at the time of release). PERFECTION as you say. The rush, the rush, the rush, you get when the tracks kick in. When I die do nothing else but play the whole album at my funeral! Well, at the afterparty at least! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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