YMGTA #23 – Cerebral Caustic

“He looks like a f***ing skull, and he acts like a f***ing clown.”

Image result for cerebral caustic

Details
Recorded: London, late 1994
Released: 27 February 1995

  • Mark E Smith – vocals
  • Brix Smith – guitar, vocals
  • Craig Scanlon – guitar
  • Steve Hanley – bass
  • Simon Wolstencroft – drums
  • Dave Bush – keyboards
  • Karl Burns – drums, guitar, vocals
    With: 
  • Lucy Rimmer – vocals (Pearl City)

Background
The previous year’s surprise event that was Karl Burns’ reappearance in the line-up seemed minor news in comparison to the sudden and unexpected return of Brix in 1994.

In the first few years following her departure from the group had Brix had shunned writing or playing music and had become almost as well known for her relationship with celebrity violinist Nigel Kennedy (possibly the ‘hippy half-wit’ in The Reckoning, although he actually affected more of a punk look) as for her connection to The Fall. In 1994, however, she had started playing with Susanna Hoffs (of The Bangles) and had even auditioned – unsuccessfully – for the bassist role in Courtney Love’s band, Hole.

In her book1, Brix suggests that MES initiated the contact, but in a 1995 interview for Vox, both his (‘she called me up out of the blue’) and her versions have it the other way round. It’s hard to imagine the exact phrase that she ascribes to her ex-husband (‘Please come back. We need you back in the band to kick ass.’) actually coming out of MES’s mouth, but it does largely capture the spirit of the feelings he expressed in that Vox interview:

‘At the time, I was looking for a guitarist and arranger. I wanted either a really young kid or an old producer–someone to put some bite back into The Fall, to kick them all up the arse. When I told Brix, she immediately said she’d do it and got on a plane. I’d rather take a chance with someone I know than some smart-arsed kid who wants to be in Oasis. Brix is a great musician. She revitalised the new LP.’

Brix on stage in Toronto 13/09/94 (photo by David Fisher)

At the time, Smith and Brix’s public pronouncements suggested a sense of optimism and enthusiasm. This did not give the full story, however. Brix was, for example, shocked by the change in Smith’s appearance (‘he had aged decades’2) that she – not unreasonably – felt had been brought about by his lifestyle. Also, whilst she seemed pleased to be reunited with her old band mates (even Karl Burns) and took an immediate liking to Dave Bush, she soon identified that not all was well in the Fall camp. Craig Scanlon, in particular, she felt had ‘lost his passion’3, an impression echoed by Steve Hanley, who commented that at that time he appeared ‘ to be losing interest in playing the guitar’4.

Craig Scanlon, Phoenix Festival 15/07/1994

Brix soon discovered that Smith’s on-tour behaviour had hardly improved over the last five years. At the second gig after her return, in Edinburgh on 15 August, he punched both the sound man (apparently for the crime of eating a sandwich at the mixing desk) and Karl Burns. Steve Hanley: ‘He then proceeds to walk off stage so many times that at the end of the show half of the eight hundred people… demand their money back’5. One audience member shared his memories of the gig on thefall.org’s gigography:

‘Two other things stick in the mind: one was the drunk punk who started dancing on stage with Mark E Smith, who then pushed him into one of the poles supporting the marquee… which then began to list in an alarming fashion. The other was the fact that the shortened set was also due to the Fall having to finish by 10.30pm as the marquee was then being used for a show by the laughable Peter Powers – Stage Hypnotist!’

Brix described the following US tour as ‘absolute misery’6.  Smith – having parked himself in a suite at the Gramercy Hotel – insisted on the group repeatedly travelling back to New York after gigs, despite the distances involved. In addition, his difficult behaviour continued to intensify. At Rhode Island, he dragged the group off-stage after twenty minutes and threw a bottle at Dave Bush. He repeated the walk-off in Washington, although this time the group stayed where they were; on his return, Smith managed to get into an altercation with one of Simon Wolstencroft’s cymbals. He also alienated the road crew to such an extent (for example by having a gaffer tape boundary drawn out between the ‘group’ and ‘crew’ sections of the tour bus) that they flew home in disgust.

These were the early days of mass use of the internet, and Steve Hanley noted the potential impact of the phenomenon: fans sharing stories of Smith’s ‘nail-chewing, fag-smoking, obvious indifference’seemed to have a negative impact on ticket sales.

Following on from their encounter with Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love the previous year, this tour saw the Fall make the acquaintance of a few other fellow musicians. Smith and Simon Wolstencroft attended Barry White’s fiftieth birthday party in a New York club (the drummer’s reminiscences of the night are here) where Smith had an intimate encounter with Lisa Stansfield. The group also met the up-and-coming Oasis towards the end of the tour, Noel Gallagher apparently offering Wolstencroft a job8 – adding Oasis to the impressive list of bands that ‘Funky Si’ was almost in.

From the Cerebral Caustic CD booklet

1994 also saw Smith’s case against Trevor Long come to court. In the early 90s, Smith had become convinced that Long was surreptitiously helping himself to the group’s money (as described in The Birmingham School of Business School – see the Code: Selfish post). The hearing didn’t start well for Smith when his designated taxi driver (Wolstencroft) was late picking him up due to being hungover from a Primal Scream gig the night before9, meaning that he arrived just in the nick of time. Smith, possibly unwisely, represented himself.

‘…the judge threw the whole thing out of court on account of Mr Smith being unable to remember the evidence he had given in the morning and therefore contradicting it in the afternoon. “Your life is a mess, Mr Smith!” declared the judge…’10

Inevitably, the MES version differs somewhat from other sources. According to him, his evidence wasn’t heard properly in court (literally) because the microphone in front of him wasn’t working, and the main reason that Long was acquitted was that Smith had ‘quoted a figure of £1200 when the actual figure was £1215’11.

After all the concerted promotional efforts of recent years, there wasn’t even one single released to support the album; in fact there would be an almost two year gap between 15 Ways and The Chiselers, released in February 1996. Peel sessions continued to roll around like clockwork though – number 18 was recorded on 20 November and broadcast on 17 December 1994. It saw the group getting into festive spirit, performing Hark The Herald Angels Sing and a cover of Jingle Bell Rock. They also played Numb At The Lodge (which would be re-titled Feeling Numb) and, for the first ever time in a Peel session, an old track. A year and a half after its release on The Infotainment Scan (and a full two years after its live debut) Glam Racket did feature some extra lyrics from Brix (which led to this version being re-titled Glam Racket – Star) but otherwise sounded pretty much the same as the same as it had in 1993.

In The Wider World…
Shortly before the album’s release, Bosnian Serb commanders were put on trial by the United Nations for crimes against humanity in the Balkan Wars. At the end of February, Barings Bank collapsed after broker Nick Leeson lost $1.4bn speculating on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The following month saw members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult kill 13 and injure over 5000 by releasing sarin gas on the Tokyo subway. Arsenal’s manager George Graham was sacked over allegations regarding illegal payments from agents. Eric Cantona received an eight-month ban for his infamous ‘kung-fu’ assault on a Crystal Palace fan.

In January, Céline Dion’s overwrought power ballad Think Twice became the first UK number one not to be available on vinyl; it spent seven weeks at the top of the charts. She was also at the top of the album charts with The Colour Of My Love. 1995 also saw a change in the pattern of chart entries: singles started entering high and then falling rather than climbing the charts gradually. Later in the year, the tiresome, tabloid-fuelled ‘Britpop battle‘ between Oasis and Blur saw the latter’s Country House beat the former’s Roll With It to the top spot.

The Fall Live In 1994-95
The tour to promote Middle Class Revolt kicked off in May 1994 and saw the group play fourteen UK gigs between May and September (plus a performance at a festival in Lithuania on May 28). The concert on 13 August in Glasgow was the first in Brix’s second stint in the group.

In September, the group headed across the Atlantic to play fifteen dates in North America (there is a collection of audience memories of the tour here).

The Cerebral Caustic material didn’t start to appear in the set until the group returned to the UK to play five gigs in November and December. Feeling Numb, Don’t Call Me Darling and I’m Not Satisfied were debuted at Bradford on November 24; The Aphid, The Joke and Pearl City at the next performance, in Manchester on 19 December.

Shortly after the album’s release, The Fall played at The Forum in London (on March 10), and then played four nights (19th-22nd) at Manchester’s Roadhouse (the first of which was an ‘album release party’).

Front cover

The 20-22 March gigs are compiled on the 1997 releaseIn The City… It’s an often overlooked entry in the admittedly overcrowded Fall live canon, but very much worth a listen. The sound quality is excellent – crystal clear and generally well-balanced (if lacking a little bottom end as these things generally do), and the group sound tight and energised. Brix provides some really strong and effective vocals (although she’s way out of tune on Dead Beat Descendent), including on Middle Class Revolt, which puts the album version to shame in terms of vigour and focus. An uptempo version of Gut Of The Quantifier is another highlight, but the best moment is an extensive – nine minute – version of Life Just Bounces (which also features on the A World Bewitched compilation) that thrashes the hell out of the tune in a joyful, abandoned fashion.

 

The Album
The group recorded Cerebral Caustic in late Autumn 1994 at The Pavilion Studios in London. It was recorded quickly: Simon Wolstencroft says that ‘the whole thing was written and recorded in twelve days’12; Steve Hanley that ‘the album is down in a week’13. Once again, the recording sessions were riven with tension. The studio was a tight fit for the then seven-piece, two-drummer group. Karl Burns rowed frequently with Smith and was once again given his marching orders for hotel-related mayhem – this time for detonating fireworks out of his window.

To add to the tension, Smith was clearly turning away from Dave Bush’s influence. In a May 1995 interview, Smith discussed the departure in the group’s sound that made Cerebral Caustic a very different proposition from the previous four albums. He describes the almost complete abandonment of the use of technology that had characterised much of the group’s early 90s output as a ‘very conscious’ decision:

‘…it was getting a bit sludgy, with the process we were using and that. As you probably know, it’s all computers in studios now, and they’re always losing the plot really. You can’t get to people like Craig and Steve and myself to play to drum machines, so if I hadn’t got Brix and Karl back, I think it probably would have ground to a halt.’

Steve Hanley describes the effect that this was having on the recording and also the sense that Bush’s days were numbered:

‘Dave’s giving it rock-sounding beats instead of effects, but there’s only so many beats that can go in. Every time he tries to do an effect, it is wiped out and we can all feel the chamber revolving.’14

All of this was to lead to rumours that there was a vastly different (possibly superior) version of the album that included more of Dave Bush’s contributions; this was fuelled partly by Smith’s comment on the promotional interview (see below) that, after the rest of the group had finished recording, ‘me and Karl did all the guitars again’. The bonus material on the 2006 reissue (again – see below) seems to disprove this.

LR
Lucy Rimmer in rehearsal, January 1995

Whilst Dave Bush was disappearing from the group’s sound, there was also a new name on the album sleeve.  Lucy Rimmer – credited with (barely audible) backing vocals on Pearl City – was Smith’s new girlfriend. Like Saffron Prior before her, she was organising the group’s fan club, rather reinforcing Steve Hanley’s point that, ‘every one of Mark’s girlfriends was involved in some way. His personal life was always mixed up with the band’15.

Cerebral Caustic was The Fall’s third consecutive album to be released on the Permanent label. Unlike the last two, however, it didn’t get a US release at the time, not coming out in the States until the 2006 reissue (see below) – although it did get a Japanese release.

The Japanese CD

Pascal Le Gras supplied the artwork for the fifth Fall album in a row (the group would go elsewhere for the next couple of albums, although they would return to him for 1999’s Marshall Suite). Cerebral Caustic‘s cover, however, was a marked departure from the bold, colourful, semi-abstract designs of the previous four releases. Brix considered the stark, gaudy skull image to be the group’s worst ever cover:

‘…the skull clown is Mark. It’s prophetic. He looks like a f***ing skull, and he acts like a f***ing clown. It’s him.’16

Perhaps even more curious was the back-cover image (see above) of Smith adorned with a crudely-drawn set of angel-wings.

In an interview for The Scotsman from March 15, 1995, Smith described the album as ‘very diary-ish… it wasn’t a nice time for me personally. I’m OK now but I thought it would be nice to get it down really fast’. He reiterated his aversion to nostalgia:  ‘A lot of musicians would gladly do Totally Wired every night. You just can’t have it.’ He also demonstrated a strong sense of optimism:

‘I feel a lot better than I have for a couple of years about the group actually… I think the possibilities are getting endless again. We’ve got a bit more jump to it.’

Despite this positive outlook, reviews were once again mixed, and overall were the most negative the group had received since Seminal Live. American magazine Trouser Press did describe Cerebral Caustic as ‘prime-slice Fall in all its caustic, cerebral glory’, and in Melody Maker, Jamie Conway proclaimed that Smith was ‘destined never to suffer from the creative fatigue which has plagued his peers’17. John Harris’ 4/10 evaluation in the NME was more typical, however, complaining that the album was ‘worryingly generic’, full of ‘predictable, drone-laden rumble’ and that several tracks had the ‘uninspired aura of recycled goods’.

Commercially, it fell short even of its predecessor’s mediocre performance, reaching only number 67 in the album charts – the group’s worst placing for eleven years.

The Songs
The Joke
The album’s return to a techno/dance-free back-to-basics garage rock approach is signalled as clearly as it possibly could have been on the album’s opener. It’s not the most innovative riff, perhaps, but for not the first or last time the group squeeze maximum energy from a few obvious chords. The interplay between Brix and Scanlon’s guitars (one in either channel) is a particular joy, one that makes this track an especially satisfying headphones experience. The two aren’t playing anything radically different, but the subtle variations give a seemingly straightforward song surprising levels of texture and depth. For example, if you listen from where the group kick in at 0:15, over the next few seconds you get a choppy thrash on the right but a more sustained lead guitar on the left. At 0:51-0:54, you get a similar lead/rhythm effect, where the left pulls a bluesy string-bend while the right hammers away on one chord. 1:52-2:01 is another particularly fine example. They work like this all the way through, circling around and colliding with each other, producing a gloriously ragged and layered fuzzed-up thrash.

Dave Bush is notable by his absence for much of the album, but there are traces of his work here: an underlying drum & bass-style rhythm that’s relatively unobtrusive (you might not even pick it up until it’s exposed right at the end of the song) but subtly adds a fizzing energy to the track.

Smith’s vocal fights its way belligerently through all these layers of sound, and he sounds energised, acerbic and casually aggressive. The ‘five years in a PC camp’ line might suggest a diatribe against political correctness, but as ever it’s not quite as straightforward as that. What ‘violent food’ or ‘multicoloured sweets
in bottom of white sweet pack’ might be, for example, is anyone’s guess. Some have suggested that Milan Kundera’s novel of the same title may have been a reference point. The book’s Wikipedia page claims that there’s a connection, stating that the song links ‘humourless Eastern Bloc authoritarianism to political correctness’. As the Reformation A-Z page says, in rather deadpan fashion, ‘this may or may not be accurate’.

The song was a particular live favourite, clocking up 129 appearances between 1994-2004, and featuring on no less than eleven of the group’s live albums.

Don’t Call Me Darling
Track two picks up the thumpingly energetic garage-punk baton and runs with it, due to some pleasingly scuzzy guitar and a strident, stomping almost glam-rock rhythm. The vocals, however, are the most notable feature.

Back in the mid 80s, Brix’s vocal contributions tended to work best where she offered a tuneful sweetness as a balanced contrast to Smith’s rough, off-hand acerbity. Here there’s rather a role-reversal: MES virtually croons his way through the song, while Brix is in full-on rasping shouty punk mode. In the promotional interview that features on the 2006 reissue (see below), Brix describes (at 2:29) how she was trying to use her voice in different ways and that her vocal chords would be ‘thrashed’ after singing the song. She just about carries it off, although her delivery does teeter on the irritating all the way through.

In the Vox interview, Smith was keen to point out that the song was not about Brix; on the aforementioned promotional interview, he claimed that it was about ‘being assaulted… being beaten up’. Once again, this isn’t really clear from the lyric, which is full of intriguingly well-crafted but obscure phrases such as ‘The long black hair
of wretched bluebottle darting all over to no avail’ and ‘they smell of oak panelling / voices thick with Bouncing Jackson’.

It was played live 21 times 1994-96.

Rainmaster
A simple and sparse track, based around a basic, descending twangy guitar line and a solid, unobtrusive rhythm track; there’s something underdeveloped and fragmentary about it. But – somehow – this works in its favour. There’s something fragile, vulnerable yet defiant about it; it captures a certain rawness that emphasises how the group are often at their best when they just throw around a basic idea and let Smith loose on it.

Even by Smith’s standards, it’s a lyric that defies any sort of rational analysis; but, as is often the case in these instances, there are some strikingly worded if impenetrable phrases that you cannot imagine coming from anyone else: ‘Curserer of blights once too often / In the ridiculous muggy envelope stained’; ‘Rainmaster in Basingstoke’s portaphone traffic / Maurique (?) assistant crap in hermitage’.

Despite his evident overall sidelining, Dave Bush once again manages to just about elbow his way into the margins of the song; a few squiggles and effects float about here and there, and a brief spot of drum programming peeks over the parapet right at the end.

According to Brix18, the musicians loved the song, which led MES to bloody-mindedly refuse to include it on setlists. Whatever the reason, the song was only played live once, at The Phoenix Festival on 14 July 1995.

Feeling Numb
Like Darling, this a stomping, largely straightforward rocker that once again has the MES/Brix vocal interplay as its point of focus. Here though, the roles are more traditional, Brix chirping away just on the right side of twee in contrast to Smith’s off-hand sneer. And whilst it’s not exactly Simon and Garfunkel, the moments when they join together to deliver the same melody are actually quite touching, albeit in a ragged, haphazard way.

It’s actually not as completely straightforward as it first appears: there’s a rather odd stuttering guitar part lurking in the background during the verses that adds an angular, unpredictable quality that rescues the song from becoming mundane.

In contrast to the preceding couple of songs, there’s an apparently clear meaning to the lyric, which makes direct reference to Prozac (known for its numbing qualities). It’s not too much of a leap to link this with the phrase ‘cerebral caustic’.  In the promotional interview, however, MES suggests that the scope of the song is a little wider: it’s about ‘satiation’, which includes how people ‘veg out’ with, for example, food and television.

As a bonus, there’s a particularly effective example of one of Smith’s trademark ‘Hup!’ exclamations to kick things off. It was played live 29 times between 1994 and 1997.

Pearl City
Smith covered a wide range of topics over his 40-ish years of lyric-writing; this was the only one (as far as I’m aware) that took its inspiration from a Chinese restaurant. Having said that, it’s not really the case that the song is about the restaurant – as The Annotated Fall quite rightly points out. ‘Cappuccino and a slice of quiche’ is something rarely served in that type of establishment, and seems more likely to be some kind of dig at yuppie (or what would be these days, hipster) pretensions. This is reinforced by the (rather sixth-form poetry-style) references to the fact that ‘no-one cares / about your world of stocks and shares’.

Smith discussed the song in a local radio interview in May 1995:

‘I’m very pleased with it. It was like a two and a half minute riff that Karl and me wrote at my house. When I came to develop it, I didn’t really know what to do with it. I just wrote about eight sheets of lines about Manchester over it and when I sort of randomly chopped it together it all came together really well.’

There’s a pleasingly skittering randomness about it, and Steve Hanley provides a solid foundation through his deep, snaking bass line. Once again, there’s an interesting guitar part lurking in the background, this time pulling some subtly blues-rock moves. However, there’s a slight air of something half-arsed and underdeveloped that, unlike Rainmaster, doesn’t quite cut it and leaves you just a tad unsatisfied.

It made 43 live appearances 1994-98.

Life Just Bounces
By now rather an old song (especially by Fall standards) having been played live since 1990 and first appearing on the White Lightning single / Dredger EP. The previous version was disappointingly sluggish; this take picks the song up, slaps it around the face and injects it with a hearty dose of adrenalin. The most aptly-named Fall song since Glam Racket, it’s framed around a simplistically effective ‘up-and-down-the-scale’ guitar line and is more than ably supported by Simon Wolstencroft’s thunderous drumming and Steve Hanley’s agile but muscular bass.

Smith’s distorted vocals are a treat too, full of vigour and belligerence. Many lovely touches as well: ‘rock group’ at 2:41; the ‘…and!’ at 3:50. The random way that the volume is cranked up over the final fifteen seconds is a nice touch too.

Played live, surprisingly, only 30ish times, it is simply a joy. Unless you’re hard of hearing and/or soulless, it inspires a beaming grin and a strong desire to crank up the volume.

I’m Not Satisfied
Unlike its predecessor, Cerebral Caustic had only one cover, a version of a Frank Zappa song from The Mothers Of Invention’s 1966 debut album Freak Out! It’s a notably straight cover by The Fall’s standards, following the structure, melody and lyrics of the original fairly closely.

It’s passable, if rather thin and throwaway. The heavy distortion on Smith’s vocals is only a partial distraction from his rather off-hand and apathetic delivery. That said, there’s something weirdly strung-out, sparse and almost desperate about it that does have a certain appeal.

The Aphid
The Aphid sees the group return to the full-throttle ragged garage-punk with which the album opened. Driven by a snarling, fuzzy guitar riff, it’s no-nonsense, relentless and full of aggressive intent. Lyrically, it may well have been inspired by Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, in which the main character imagines himself covered in aphids. There’s something intriguing lurking right back in the mix that might be a descant recorder (you can hear it best around 0:46-0:48).

Like The Joke, it’s a perfect example of The Fall doing a simple thing very very effectively. Surprisingly, it only got half a dozen live outings (all in 1994-95), and two of those were instrumental versions.

Bonkers In Phoenix
A Brix song called ‘Shiny Things’ that MES mangled and embellished with a wide range of outlandishly garish sound effects that were apparently intended to capture the experience of attending a festival. You can hear the original version on the 2006 reissue of the album, which confirms that it was – as Brix herself admits on the promotional interview referred to above – rather ‘girly and sickly’. In fact, it’s woefully twee and tuneless.

The notion of slathering a kaleidoscope of sonic effects over the song to capture the atmosphere of a festival is a potentially interesting and amusing idea; but it palls a long, long time before its six minutes are up. As a two minute ‘interlude’ or as a b-side it might have been just about forgivable; but it really doesn’t warrant taking up about a seventh of the album. It was played live twice, both performances in March 1995.

One Day
A driving, heads-down frenetic rocker. The prime force behind the song is a lively surf-rock guitar line, which powers along in the right channel of the stereo. On the left, there’s all sorts of stuff going on: a choppy, scratchy, almost skiffle-ish (acoustic?) guitar mainly, but also a selection of weird and wonderful random noises that scrape, screech and squawk away merrily. There’s also a very dodgy edit at 2:20.

MES’s blaring, abrasive vocals are a strong feature of the song, and his enunciation of  ‘vacuum breath’ (0:44) and ‘transparent or not’ (1:16) are both moments to relish. Oddly, it was never played live

North West Fashion Show
The by now obligatory novelty/p*ss-take/filler. It’s not quite as banal and pointless as Crew Filth, but it does have a similar level of self-indulgence and juvenile laddish ‘humour’ (for example in its references to ‘sheep-shaggers’). Never played live, unsurprisingly.

Pine Leaves
Just when you think the album is starting to lose its way, the group pull an odd and weirdly effective little gem out of the bag.

It’s a strange, fragile and wistful track. Based around a gently picked acoustic and slightly cheesy keyboards, the lyrical references to annihilation and concentration camps and MES’s slurred, whispering (often double-tracked) delivery give it a dark, enigmatic air. The indistinct dialogue sample lurking in the background adds to the generally mysterious atmosphere.

Tommy Mackay rightly identifies that the lyric is ‘packed with impenetrable… imagery revolving around death and annihilation during occupation and wartime’19. It actually starts off in a relatively straightforward fashion: ‘They gave their lives during the occupation / Arranged at the end of Japan… annihilation / a million dead here’, but soon evolves into some evocative but obscure imagery: ‘The corpor (?) of this leaden leaf
/ folding out with ghost / censure / still in the tub of side for bone shakes’.

It’s another of those songs that benefits greatly from listening on headphones. The section from  1:15-1:26 is especially affecting; Smith’s whispered vocal in the left channel contrasting with his almost delicate, breathy ‘ahhh’ in the right. The ‘reversed’ section just after the two minute mark is also lovely, adding to the melancholy strangeness. There’s all manner of interesting guitar detail too, such as the gentle, repeated figure that appears at 2:26. It’s just full of fascinating, interwoven layers, and is unutterably haunting. Like the previous two tracks, it was never played live.

Reissues & Bonus Tracks
As mentioned above, the album did get a Japanese release. That version contained two of the remixes of Middle Class Revolt that eventually appeared on that album’s 2006 reissue.

The reissues of the group’s early 90s albums that came out in 2006 and 2007 were largely of good value. The bonus discs helpfully rounded  up the contemporary Peel sessions, non-album singles, b-sides, etc. They also contained a range of alternate versions and remixes that were generally interesting if not always essential.

The 2006 Sanctuary reissue of Cerebral Caustic, however, falls a little short in comparison. After the obligatory contemporary Peel session, the next ten tracks are ‘pre-release rough mixes’ of all the album tracks bar North West Fashion Show and Pine Leaves. If you expect these to reveal some kind of ‘lost’ superior version that reinstates all of Dave Bush’s contributions, then you’ll be sorely disappointed; basically, they sound like a tape of a tape of the album that was originally recorded from AM radio. It’s doubtful that more than a handful of those who own the CD have listened to them more than once.

The last three tracks on the bonus CD are a little more interesting. The ‘alternate’ mix of Bonkers In Phoenix is not exactly a pleasant listen (see above) but it does at least provide some relevant context for the track. The ‘promo interview’ (quoted several times above) also gives some valuable insight. By far the most interesting, however, is the Rex Sargeant mix of One Day. For much of its duration it bears virtually no resemblance to the album track, stripping away most of the ‘traditional’ instrumentation in favour of synths and sequencers; it’s only in the last minute or so that it starts to resemble the original version. Perhaps the only clue as to what the album might have sounded like had Dave Bush not fallen out of favour…

Overall Verdict
Cerebral Caustic is not, in general, a highly-regarded album amongst either casual or committed Fall fans. It’s often criticised for being rushed, simplistic, retrograde and generally shoddy. And it is undoubtedly all of those things to some extent; but, in many ways, these factors are what make the album. There’s a clear sense of reinvention, a desire to pursue a radically different direction. It also recaptures (as Infotainment Scan had to some extent) the group’s independence, their disassociation from everything around them.

There is an argument, of course, that The Fall were still in some way following the general musical trend. Independent/alternative music at the time had moved on from Jesus Jones to Oasis; less sequencers, more heads-down guitar-based anthems. But the bands in the emerging Britpop scene were plundering their parents’ Beatles, Kinks and The Who albums, not referencing The Stooges and Nuggets.

Brix’s role in the group and on the album was different to how it had been in the 80s. She was now more forceful, more independent and more inclined to stand up to Smith’s nonsense. This is reflected clearly in songs like Feeling Numb and Darling, as well as in the group’s live performances at the time, where she frequently stepped up to cover for Smith’s drunken, self-indulgent stage absences. She has less influence on the group’s overall image and public perception here, but her effect on the group’s actual sound is more notable.

Cerebral Caustic – like nearly all Fall albums – is almost wilfully inconsistent. Bonkers (whatever you might think of the concept) is excessively long for the sake of it; North West Fashion Show is one of the group’s more uninspired ‘novelty’ tracks; Satisfied and Pearl City might have been pretty good if not so casually tossed off. But three-quarters of the album is absolutely top-notch, full of dark, edgy intent that was clearly inspired by the intense, difficult and claustrophobic circumstances of its creation.

My “Version”
A bit more tricky than some others. as there aren’t really an ‘extra’ tracks to choose from…

Side 1: The Joke / The Aphid / Pearl City / Rainmaster / Feeling Numb / One Day (18:02)

Side 2: Life Just Bounces / Don’t Call Me Darling /I’m Not Satisfied / One Day (Alt. Mix) / Pine Leaves (18:33)

Rankings
Cerebral Caustic‘s sharp edges and gnarly, fuzzy garage-punk feel like the group settling back into what they do best – without reverting to any sort of cosy nostalgia. It’s undoubtedly uneven, and the tension surrounding its creation is palpable throughout. But that’s a fundamental quality of the group’s best work: the creativity that comes from a range of talented people being squeezed through an inhospitable recording process. Unfairly disparaged, it encapsulates the best of the group’s defiance. It does, admittedly, fall a little short of the uninhibited creativity of Slates or Grotesque, for example. But not too far.

  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. Cerebral Caustic
  8. I Am Kurious Oranj
  9. Room To Live
  10. The Infotainment Scan
  11. Extricate
  12. Bend Sinister
  13. Dragnet
  14. Middle Class Revolt
  15. Code: Selfish
  16. Shift-Work
  17. Live At The Witch Trials
  18. The Frenz Experiment

In The City… captures the group at a difficult time, but despite (possibly because of, to some extent) that, it’s one of the clearest, most coherent Fall live albums. It doesn’t have quite the same high points as In A Hole or America Therein, for example, but it has an impressive consistency and represents far better value than many of the group’s live releases.

  1. Live To Air In Melbourne ’82
  2. In A Hole
  3. A Part Of America Therein, 1981
  4. In The City…
  5. Nottingham ’92
  6. The Legendary Chaos Tape / Live In London 1980
  7. Totale’s Turns
  8. Live In Cambridge 1988
  9. I Am As Pure As Oranj
  10. Live 1993 – Batschkapp, Frankfurt
  11. Live 1981 – Jimmy’s Music Club – New Orleans
  12. Live 1977
  13. Seminal Live
  14. Live In Zagreb
  15. Austurbaejarbio
  16. BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert
  17. Live 3rd May 1982 Band On The Wall Manchester
  18. Live 1980 – Cedar Ballroom Birmingham
  19. Live From The Vaults – Alter Banhof, Hof, Germany
  20. Live From The Vaults – Glasgow 1981
  21. Live From The Vaults – Oldham 1978
  22. Liverpool 78
  23. Live From The Vaults – Los Angeles 1979
  24. Live From The Vaults – Retford 1979
  25. Live At Deeply Vale

 

References
1The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise, p364

2The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise, p366

3The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise, p370

4The Big Midweek, p379

5The Big Midweek, p382

6The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise, p370

7The Big Midweek, p387

8You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide, p193

9You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide, p195

10The Big Midweek, p386

11Renegade, p195

12You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide, p196

13The Big Midweek, p398

14The Big Midweek, p397

15Ford, pp212

16The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise, p376

17Quoted in Ford, p235

18The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise, p375

19Mackay, p150

8 thoughts on “YMGTA #23 – Cerebral Caustic

  1. Absolutely delighted that someone else other than me rates this album. Here’s something I posted on The Mighty Fall Facebook group last year:

    With the number of albums that The Fall released, there are bound to be some that are generally less popular than others. However, I’m often surprised at which ones these seem to be. Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to know them all in the last two and a half years, so I haven’t had to go through the process of anticipation – purchase – evaluation… By the time I heard any of these albums, they were already out there in the wild, in the main for many years.

    First in my list of “why isn’t this more popular?” – Cerebral Caustic. I’m not just going to stick up for this in a “it’s not as bad as you think” way, I really love this one. It might be because I’m putting my own narrative onto it, which probably isn’t there, but it’s Feeling Numb that sets it all up for me. I see it as an album about Mark being on the way down, suffering from a bout of depression, to the extent of being hospitalised (The Joke – references to wards, multicoloured sweets which I take to be prescribed pills, “violent food” = hospital food, “Disease control room” = doctor’s office). I can see that Don’t Call Me Darling isn’t going to set well with those less keen on Brix, but I think it’s wonderful. Mark seems to be in a calm world of his own, anesthetised to what’s going on around him. The “bouncing” parts during the later chorus are the words of a man numb to the shouting going on around him. Feeling Numb conjures up images of Mark convalescing with family, post-Christmas, dosed up with Prozac, being looked after but aware that his usual way of life is being erased (And family / Is cerebral caustic) but in no state to get away (I’m feeling numb / Stick with kindred). I heard Life Just Bounces here before I was even aware that it was an old B-side, and it fits so well that this is my preferred version, again echoing the idea of someone being sedated with antidepressants (The prescription’s filled but I’m unsure of its contents / I sit back with a tight lip / Retina amazed).

    Probably all way off, but that’s my interpretation and I’m sticking to it.

    I’d stick up for it all, to be honest. The lyrics to North West Fashion Show are probably the low point, but the music is fine, could have been the basis for a great “proper” song.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Steve, I too am a big fan of this one. Think it’s one of their stronger 90s albums and actually rate it above some of the ‘classics’ (as you do in your rankings). Life just bounces just bounces, a real highlight. and NWFS has a great baseline (if little else).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “…and, for the first ever time in a Peel session, an old track.”
    Worth noting that ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’ was released a couple of years prior to it being performed on their later 1985 Peel session.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I quite appreciated the praise you gave to ‘Pine Leaves’. I’ve always loved that song, but most reviews don’t rate it too highly. A very underappreciated gem that is in fact quite different from the rest of the album. In the realm of self-indulgent Fall songs, “North West Fashion Show” is quite inoffensive – it is, in generous terms, still very recognizable as a song in the traditional sense – can’t say that for every self-indulgent Fall track.

    Liked by 1 person

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