YMGTA #17 – Seminal Live

“I have never seen five thousand yobbos in my life.”

Image result for seminal live

Details
Recorded: Side 1 – Rochdale and Edinburgh, early-mid 1989; Side 2 – live in Manchester and Vienna 1988 (possibly – see below)
Released: 19 June 1989

  • Mark E Smith – vocals, violin
  • Brix Smith – guitar, vocals
  • Craig Scanlon – guitar, vocals
  • Steve Hanley – bass, banjo
  • Marcia Schofield – keyboards, vocals
  • Simon Wolstencroft – drums

Background
The day after the release of Kurious, the group recorded their 12th Peel session:  Dead Beat Descendant / Cab It Up / Squid Lord / Kurious Oranj. which was broadcast on 31 October.

At the end of 1988, The Fall seemed to be a commercial and creative peak. As Simon Ford summarises:

‘Everything should have been more wonderful than frightening in the world of The Fall. The group had just helped attract sell-out audiences to… one of the most prestigious theatres in the world, and was supported by a record company capable of releasing and promoting two well-received albums in a year… Smith had collected together a team of musicians at their creative prime… What could go wrong?’1

Ford goes on to answer his own question: ‘just about everything’2.

Smith announced that the group were parting company with Beggars Banquet. He felt that ‘it was time to move on… I think it will be good for us to have a change’3; or, as Steve Hanley put it, ‘far from adhering to the age-old adage, “If it’s not broken don’t fix it”, with Mark it’s more a case of “If it doesn’t need fixing, break it”‘4.

In addition, the Smiths’ marriage proved to be irretrievably broken. On the 4 January 1989, MES left Brix and moved to Edinburgh, driven north by Simon Wolstencroft. (Brix’s account of the separation is detailed in pages 244-252 of her book.) In February, the group headed off to Munich for a gig that was broadcast on German TV (the second guitarist who can be seen – for example on Cab It Up – was Phil Ames, Brix’s guitar technician). On the flight, there was ‘an empty seat on the plane, the last call for Brix Smith going unanswered’5.

MES spent the first half of 1989 largely in self-imposed exile in Edinburgh. He did, however, record a handful of tracks with The Fall (that would appear on the first half of Seminal Live). He also ventured for the first time into the role of guest vocalist, one that he would return to several times in his career. (I’m) In Deep featured on Coldcut’s What’s That Noise? album; it’s a fairly unremarkable bit of late 80s techno-pop, but it did demonstrate the potential for Smith’s vocals to provide an effectively acerbic contrast to dance/electronic music – something that would prove highly successful several years later in his collaboration with Von Südenfed.

A difficult year for MES was made even worse in May, when his father died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of just 59. In a Melody Maker interview in March 1990, MES recalled the difficult times of 1989: ‘I distinctly remember this time last year I felt totally shit, you know. Shit really shit. Probably the worst ever.’

In The Wider World…
A fortnight before the album’s release, the solitary protest of ‘Tank Man‘ quickly became an iconic image, as he stood in front of a convoy of Chinese Army tanks the day after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In the UK, police arrested 250 people for celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge. The race for the first division title reached one of its most dramatic conclusions ever, as Michael Thomas’ last-minute goal clinched it for Arsenal.

On the day of Seminal Live‘s release, BBC2 broadcast in the mornings for the first time. Over the next few weeks, John Craven left Newsround, and Robin Day left Question Time. Jason Donovan’s anodyne cover of Sealed With A Kiss topped the singles chart; Simple Minds’ Street Fighting Years was the number one album. The chart rundown from Top Of The Pops on 15 June 1989 demonstrates that chart music hadn’t really improved since 1988. (And I’d obviously – and sensibly – blotted from my mind the fact that Clannad and Bono had a hit single together.)

The Fall Live In 1988-89
The group played eight UK dates in December 1988. At Leeds on the 13th, Squid Law was debuted. The last gig of the year, at the Town and Country in London on the 21st, was to be Brix’s last until 1994. The Munich TV appearance was the group’s only performance in the first half of 1989.

ticket

The Album
Seminal Live is the very definition of a ‘contractual obligation’ album. The LP featured a first side made up of a very mixed bag of studio recordings; the second side was filled with a random selection of recent live tracks.

The music press were surprisingly forgiving, if not exactly glowing with praise. The Record Mirror review described the album as ‘merely plundering The Fall’s back catalogue, conveniently fulfilling the band’s contractual obligations with Beggars Banquet as they move on to greater things’. In Sounds, Richard Cook saw it as ‘a valediction – part celebration, part clear-up.’ Andrew Collins in the NME was optimistic for the group’s future and (rather generously) felt ‘the very fact it’s not crap is remarkable enough’. However, he also described the album as ‘a parody of a thrown-together clause-filler’ and worried that this was a sign of them ‘cruising’.

Marcia Schofield was not so forgiving:

The worst piece of sh*t I’d worked on in my life. No songs, no ideas. Done quickly and cheaply in a terrible studio that sounded awful. I thought, “What are we doing? This is really crap”.’6

The Songs
Dead Beat Descendant
As I said in the last postDead Beat Descendant is a prime piece of Brix-era Fall; one where her sunny, west-coast surf-rock twang sits perfectly with the group’s angular aggression. Just let down ever so slightly by the very 80s drum sound, but a corker nonetheless.

Pinball Machine
Whilst you could pick up some vaguely country influences in some of the group’s early 80s work, they went full-on yee-haw here. MES had a well-known fascination with country truckin’ songs, and here he gives full vent to his enthusiasm for the genre. He makes a seemingly genuine attempt to sing it in a proper, unironic country style, and, despite his melodic limitations, just about pulls it off. He sounds like he’s really enjoying himself, although it does very much seem like something he recorded after an afternoon in the pub: the vocals veer all over the place, presumably the result of Smith wandering drunkenly around the studio whilst it was recorded. The group deliver a spirited, if somewhat ragged backing, with Steve Hanley adding some rather lovely just-about-in-tune banjo.

The original was recorded in 1960 by Lonnie Irving, who died that same year. It’s actually quite touching (both the original and The Fall’s version), although probably best appreciated when you’ve had a couple of drinks yourself. It was played live twice, on consecutive nights in July 1989.

H.O.W.
H.O.W.  (which stands for ‘history of the world’) is a frustrating song, in that it’s one that feels as though it could have been so much better if it had had a little more time spent on it. There is a dark, foreboding atmosphere about it that is greatly appealing. Hanley’s bass line (which sounds like a slowed-down Dr Feelgood riff) virtually takes turns with the drums, which gives it an interesting stop-start rhythm. However, it does sound distinctly under-rehearsed; the keyboards seem to be in a different key, the guitar doesn’t sound properly tuned and the timing is way off on several occasions (1:41, 2:55 and 3:21 are notable examples).

MES is on particularly enigmatic form; a deep, understated vocal that contains some profound-sounding phrases – ‘I am the one who stamps on all ages, Jet trains, lead paint, stamps on border forms,  A rigid adoption of codes you had concocted.’ It’s pretty impenetrable stuff (for an interpretation, see The Annotated Fall, where the level of analysis is way out of my league: ‘here the narrator is a fictionalized congelation, rather than an anthropomorphic source of real evils’).

One of those intriguing ‘what if?’ moments from the group’s back catalogue. It was never played live.

Squid Law
Based alternately around a descending, scuzzy guitar figure and a stomping, staccato riff, there are a lot of layers to the sound that benefit from a listen on the headphones. In particular, there’s a fuzzy, frantically scrabbling bit of distorted lead underlying the main guitar part. There’s also a little dab of quite delicate synth/keyboard work around the three minute mark that, rather randomly, puts me in mind of someone ‘swishing’ through a bead curtain. (This may well just be me, I realise.) ‘Gladys Winthorpe’ (quoted in the A-Z) describes this version as ‘rather tatty’, which I think is a little harsh; although there is the odd occasion where it does sound slightly under-rehearsed (e.g. the mis-timed guitar at 1:31).

Mollusc In Tyrol
Now I love a bit of ‘difficult’ or ‘experimental’ stuff as much as (in fact, probably a great deal more than) the next man, but this has ‘filler’ written all over it. In the context of this album, it just feels like padding things out. And it’s also not actually that sonically interesting; whilst there are a few vaguely intriguing rumbling noises around the three and a half minute mark, overall it’s too thin, shrill and one-dimensional to benefit from repeated listens.

The music actually comes from Craig Leon’s Donkeys Bearing Cups from his 1981 album Nommus. The original has a far fuller, less astringent sound and is much more pleasing on the ear. Leon would go on to make performance and production contributions to the next three Fall albums. [Thanks to Sam Smyth from the Agents of The Fall Facebook group for pointing out this omission in the original post.]

2 x 4
Recorded at Vienna on 16 April 1988.  2×4 is a great song, but this is no more than a solid enough version. The only thing to note (other than SH utterly nailing the riff as ever) is the presence of a few extra ‘swooshing’ keyboard sounds.

Elf Prefix / L.A.
After a Post Nearly Man / Papal Visit-style intro (which seems to be studio-recorded) we get another unremarkable version (also recorded in Vienna) of a solid Fall song.

Victoria
It’s a pretty thin version: the guitars are buried way down in the mix, and the vocals (both MES’s and the backing) are a melodically dubious in places. There’s nothing actually significantly wrong with it, but it’s a bit unenlightening.

The most interesting aspect is where it was actually recorded. The sleeve says that the second side was ‘recorded in Vienna and Manchester 1988’. Victoria was played in both cities in that year; the Reformation site suggests that this version is from Manchester (where it was played at the Ritz on the 8 March), and thefall.org (by not including it in the list of tracks from Vienna) seems to support this. However, if you watch this video of that gig, the version of Victoria doesn’t appear to be the same one as that on Seminal Live. In particular, at the end of the song (52:20 on the video), MES turns to Wolstencroft and clearly says ‘Simon!’ – which is not present on the SL version.

Pay Your Rates
The most interesting live track on the album, it’s intriguing to hear this version of the group thunder through an ‘oldie’. I’m not sure about the twinkly keyboard fills, but overall it’s an admirably fresh update of an old tune.

Introduction / Cruiser’s Creek
This is a particularly odd one. Firstly, it features an introduction from an apparently ‘tired and emotional’ Bill Grundy (‘I have never seen five thousand yobbos in my life… a bit later, I’m going to tell you about how I made the fortune of punk rock.’)

Secondly, although the sleeve notes say that the live tracks were recorded in Manchester and Vienna 1988, both Reformation and thefall.org gigography page indicate that Cruiser’s Creek wasn’t played in 1988 at all. This review suggests that it might come from The Festival of the Tenth Summer in July 1986. [Edit: this was confirmed to me by Pete Conkerton via the ‘Mighty Fall’ Facebook group, who was there.]

It’s not an especially enlightening version of the song anyway; what appears to be a soundboard recording that isn’t at all well balanced.

Reissues & Bonus Tracks
The CD and cassette versions added live versions of Kurious Oranj, Hit The North, Frenz and In These Times. The first two are the same versions that appeared on the recent Cab It Up single. Both are lively enough takes, although Oranj suffers from cheesy-sounding keyboards that are far too prominent in the mix – something that’s also true of In These Times. It’s also a bit of a mystery as to where or when this version of Kurious Oranj was recorded; it wasn’t ever played in Vienna, and the only performance in Manchester was sixth months after Seminal Live‘s release.

Frenz doesn’t even seem to be a concert recording, sounding more like it’s being played live in a studio. It’s a perfectly satisfactory run through the song, but the extra two minutes don’t really add anything of note.

The album was remastered and released as part of the 2013 5 CD box set, 5 Albums.

Overall Verdict
Seminal Live is misleadingly titled, neither word providing an accurate description of its contents. The first side is a frustration: four decent songs that, with a little more time spent on them, could have formed the basis of a strong EP at least. On the second side, only Pay Your Rates really adds much to the canon of Fall live recordings.

Considering all the turbulence surrounding the group at the time, one can perhaps have some sympathy with Andrew Collins’ view that ‘the very fact it’s not crap is remarkable enough’. That said, you can also see where Marcia Schofield was coming from, as Seminal Live is, overall, a little shoddy. It’s interesting to speculate about what the album could have been had Smith not been so hell-bent on severing the group from its connection with Beggars Banquet. But it is what it is: an album that’s more an interesting historical footnote than a satisfying piece of work in itself.

Rankings
Tricky: I don’t feel you can rank it among the studio albums, although it’s not a ‘proper’ live album either. But it has to go in the latter category really. In terms of atmosphere, it doesn’t suffer from the flaws of Austurbaejarbio or BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert, but it isn’t much of a ‘historical’ document in that way that, say, Live 77 is. So it sits very much mid-table at this point.

  1. Live To Air In Melbourne ’82
  2. In A Hole
  3. A Part Of America Therein, 1981
  4. The Legendary Chaos Tape / Live In London 1980
  5. Totale’s Turns
  6. Live In Cambridge 1988
  7. I Am As Pure As Oranj
  8. Live 1981 – Jimmy’s Music Club – New Orleans
  9. Live 1977
  10. Seminal Live
  11. Austurbaejarbio
  12. BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert
  13. Live 3rd May 1982 Band On The Wall Manchester
  14. Live 1980 – Cedar Ballroom Birmingham
  15. Live From The Vaults – Alter Banhof, Hof, Germany
  16. Live From The Vaults – Glasgow 1981
  17. Live From The Vaults – Oldham 1978
  18. Liverpool 78
  19. Live From The Vaults – Los Angeles 1979
  20. Live From The Vaults – Retford 1979
  21. Live At Deeply Vale

 

References

1Ford, pp183-184

2Ford, p184

3NME 10 December 1988, quoted in Ford, p184

4The Big Midweek, p309

5The Big Midweek, p310

6Ford, p190

3 thoughts on “YMGTA #17 – Seminal Live

  1. To my eternal surprise, no one anywhere seems to have noticed that “Squid Law” is, in part, an early homage to/ rip-off of the Groundhogs’ “Junkman.” But it’s there, clearly. I suppose the fact that hardly anyone bothers listening to this record at all (while I, in my most monomanically rabid Fallmania phase in ’89-’90, played it an awful lot, so badly was I in need of a regular fix of MES et al) might account for this. But let the record show…!

    Liked by 2 people

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