YMGTA #33 – Fall Heads Roll

“99% of non-smokers die.”

UK version

Details
Recorded: Gigantic Studios, New York, January 2005; Gracielands Studio, Rochdale mid-2005
Released: 3 October 2005

  • Mark E Smith – vocals
  • Ben Pritchard – guitar
  • Steve Trafford – bass, vocals, guitar
  • Spencer Birtwistle – drums
  • Eleni Poulou – keyboards, vocals
    With:
  • Simon “Ding” Archer – banjo (Clasp Hands), bass (Youwanner), vocals (Trust In Me)
  • Billy Pavone / Kenny Cummings / Phil Schuster – vocals (Trust In Me)

Background
Early in 2004, MES managed to injure himself again. This time it wasn’t at a rockabilly festival: after a gig in Newcastle on 26 February, ‘in the early morning hours… Mark slipped on the icy pavement and broke his thigh bone. A woman tried to help him up but they both slipped and fell; this time Mark’s hip was fractured.’

This resulted in the group cancelling several gigs. When the tour restarted, Smith played a couple of dates in a wheelchair, on crutches, or sat at a table (see Live section below).

New York, 8/4/04 Photo by Dean Walcott

In April, Steve Trafford joined the group on bass. According to his interview with Dave Simpson, he was invited into The Fall via a conversation with Ben Pritchard in a Manchester pub toilet: ‘The next thing I knew, I was touring America’1. He played a couple of UK gigs alongside Simon Archer before ‘Ding’ was ‘loaned out’ to PJ Harvey’s band. Although this was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, Archer’s future involvement with The Fall was only on the production/engineering side of things (although he did make a few guest appearances in March 2008).

During the summer of 2004, Dave Milner left the group. His account in The Fallen2 suggests several reasons: issues with his partner, a foot problem that interfered with his ability to play, plus his frustration with the management style of Ed Blaney (who was, at this point, back in the ‘inner circle’). Spencer Birtwistle returned to the fold to replace him. Jim Watts also re-joined the group, playing throughout the second half of 2004.

Front cover

The Fall’s only single of 2004 was released on 28 June. As outlined in the last postTheme From Sparta F.C. #2 is easily the best version of the song. It reached number 66 in the singles chart.

On 4 August 2004, the group recorded their 24th and final Peel session. Broadcast on the 12th, it comprised Clasp Hands / Blindness / What About Us? / Wrong Place, Right Time / I Can Hear The Grass Grow. They also recorded Job Search, an odd little lo-fi ramble that was pressed as a one-off 7″ (with Half Man Half Biscuit on the other side) and presented to John Peel for his 65th birthday. It wasn’t broadcast as part of the original session, but was played on Peel’s show a couple of weeks later.

CD

In September, The Fall released a one-song promo CD in advance of the album Interim (see below). Blind Man (very different from the version of Blindness that appeared on Interim) is a slow, intense and menacing version of the song. You can hear it on this collection of all the studio versions of the track.

Related image

John Peel died on 25 October. His unfinished memoir, Margrave of the Marshes, was completed by his wife Sheila. In her half of the book, she described the part that Smith and the group played in their lives.

‘As if further proof were needed of the esteem in which John held The Fall, it should be remembered that he kept all their records separate from the rest of his collection. Tens of thousands of albums are squeezed onto John’s shelves. But only The Fall have their own special VIP enclosure, away from the hubbub, like religious artefacts with voodoo properties.

There was simply no other band that excited him quite so much. He once said, in a documentary made by the BBC to mark his sixtieth birthday, that he didn’t want to die yet because there would be another Fall album out soon; we even chose that comment to play at John’s funeral. What I can’t quite come to terms with now is that there will be Fall records that John will never hear.’3

Smith took part in an interview, alongside Michael Bradley of The Undertones, on BBC’s Newsnight as part of a feature about Peel’s death. (The interview is at 5:02.) Smith was a little acerbic in places (‘Am I allowed to speak now?’) and some thought he was rather dismissive of his group’s greatest champion (‘We never were friends or anything like that’), but he was much warmer (by his standards) about Peel than the interview’s reputation suggests. Smith admitted that he ‘probably looked mad’ but claimed this was because he couldn’t hear himself properly4.

Newsnight
MES on Newsnight, October 2005

Smith is occasionally a little dismissive of Peel in Renegade: ‘We never depended on John Peel for our livelihood. I don’t put my career down to him.’5 In fact, he even suggests that being a ‘Peel group’ was a ‘limitation’ for the group. He does, however, also say that ‘it’s a shame that he’s not around any more. He was a one-off.’

In Margrave, Sheila echoes MES’s comments about he and Peel not actually being friends:

‘The strange thing is that John and Mark never exchanged more than a few words over the years. Their friendship involved little more than a mumbled greeting and an occasional punch on the shoulder or squeeze of the arm.’

Smith was undoubtedly a difficult man to strike up a friendship with anyway, but it’s likely that Peel kept his distance after his chastening experience of his friendship with Marc Bolan. Sheila does say, however, that MES often wrote to Peel (signing his letters ‘Your mate Mark’) and that Smith was ‘very kind and considerate’ to her when he died.

Front cover

On 1 November 2004, The Fall released Interim, a curious mix of – as it says on the cover – ‘rehearsals + live’. The album’s title (it was originally to have been called Cocked – a word MES deploys in the early version of What About Us? included here) pointed to it being a stopgap release, as the group were not releasing a ‘proper’ album that year.

Like Seminal Live, it’s a mix of studio and live tracks, but’s a very different beast to that largely ‘straight’ studio-side/live-side affair. It has more in common with The Twenty-Seven Points‘ experimental interlude approach, given its spliced-up, scatter-gun randomness. It has the feel of a home-made, almost avant-garde mix tape.

There are several wilfully odd re-spellings/re-wordings of titles, such as Green-Eyed Snorkel, Spoilt Victorian Childe and Boxoctosis Alarum; the last of these presumably re-titled because of the smoke alarm that goes off in the studio at 1:24.

Interim sleeve: ‘Comments will be ignored.’

Green-Eyed Snorkel opens with a ropy live recording from York on 12 July before transitioning (with seemingly deliberate clumsiness) into the demo version Iodeo. There’s a rather limp, faint version of Sparta entitled Sparta FC No:3 (it does, to be fair, contain a great intro from Smith – ‘Good evening, I am Mark E Smith. We start tonight with the theme from Sparta FC, a film yet to made by the great director Xyralothep, your true God’); also a frustratingly sluggish take on Wrong Place, Right Time (truncated to Wrong Place).

I’m Ronney The Oney is a potentially interesting little riff that meanders along for a minute and a half before abruptly disappearing. The highlight of the album, however, is the alternative take of Mod Mock Goth, a sharper, brighter, more concise and coherent version than that on the Protein Christmas single.

Critics, possibly still basking in the unexpected excellence of Real New, were surprisingly kind to Interim. In The Sunday Times, Stewart Lee called it ‘inexplicably cohesive… Smith’s fearsomely focused narratives and majestically brutal accompaniment [are] an accurate document of Britain’s greatest band at work.’ Vox felt that ‘golden greats such as ‘Wrong Place Right Time’ and ‘Mere Pseud Mag Ed’ haven’t aged one jot [and] the new tracks are simply breathtaking.’

Pitchfork, who gave the album 5.8/10, were a little more realistic, calling it ‘a haphazard jumble… no one that I know of needs a disc like this… it further muddies The Fall’s already confusing and (to a newcomer) somewhat monolithic discography.’

In December 2004, Jim Watts made his final exit from the group, saying:

‘Well for anyone who is interested I have left the Fall. Again. Not amazingly acrimonious. Usual reasons. Sick of the whole credits/royalties charade. No creative control whatsoever. Finding out that apparently Dave Milner wrote Boxoctosis. And sick of the hassle over the f*cking intro CDs.

A shame though as I have really enjoyed playing gigs and recording with this line up which I feel is easily the best I have been involved with. The next record looks like it will be excellent too. It just won’t involve me.’

The group’s first release of 2005 was the Rude (All The Time) EP in February. The title song had been released back in August 2001 (see YMGTA #30), but, oddly didn’t even appear on the EP, apparently at Smith’s request.

‘Mix 15’ of Distilled Mug Art is not noticeably different from the 2G+2 version; ‘Mix 4’ of My Ex Classmates Kids is a little sharper and crisper than the one on the album; ‘Mix 5’ of I Wake Up In The City omits the TV programme sample; ‘Mix 17’ of Taxi – it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever actually mixed this track at all – is just as execrable as the original.

The 6-CD box set, The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004, was released in April 2005. YMGTA #34 will cover this in detail.

Front cover

In May 2005, The Fall made an unlikely appearance on long-running TV music show Later… With Jools Holland. Reputedly, Smith insisted in advance that the host would ‘not play f*cking boogie-woogie piano over any of his songs’. (Sources vary on the actual wording, but the message was evidently clear, as Holland – who often added incongruous tinkling over his guests’ performances – was nowhere to be seen when The Fall were playing. This story might be a little lost on non-UK readers, but trust me, it’s hilarious.)

After a taut and focused version of Pacifying Joint / I Can Hear The Grass Grow (featuring a surprisingly smooth transition between the two songs) the group belt out a cracking version of Blindness, with MES sporting an intriguing ‘one-leather-glove’ look.

According to popbitch (quoted on Fall News and not, admittedly, the most reliable of sources), Smith ‘delayed filming several times by wandering in and out of shot, calling Robert Plant c*nty and just generally behaving like what he is The Last Great Englishman… Robert Plant turned up in a bullet-proof limo, the Fall were transported by Salford Van Hire’.

On the 26 September, The Fall released the single I Can Hear The Grass Grow. Backed with Clasp Hands, it only managed number 104 in the charts.

The US version of the single contained a ‘slow version’ of I Can Hear The Grass Grow plus Bo Doodak, an alternate version of Bo Demmick. The latter ramps up the reverb and distortion a little; the former just sounds the group have all taken Mogadon.

US single

‘In The Wider World…
The week before the album’s release, controversial drawings of Muhammad printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten sparked outrage and violent riots by Muslims around the world.  The Conservative Party begin voting on a new leader following the resignation of Michael Howard, who stepped down after being defeated at the general election in May.

In the music charts (which had included downloads since April), The Pussycat Dolls had the number one single with Don’t Cha. In the album charts, David Gray was at number one with Life in Slow Motion, a selection of mid-paced, soporific ballads. He was shortly to be replaced by the even more dreary Piece By Piece by Katie Melua.

The Fall Live In 2003-05
Following Real New‘s release, The Fall played nine UK dates in December 2003: there are several – largely very positive – reviews here. On the first night in Nottingham, Mod Mock Goth was debuted, and the group played their cover of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ Walk Like A Man (which would be adapted as Breaking The Rules) for the first time. Middle Mass received its first outing for 19 years, and would be played regularly for the next six months.

Carling Academy, London 8/12/03 Photo by Nick Gibbons

2004 was the busiest year gig-wise for a while, the group managing 69 performances. The first 16 were all in the UK and were spread across the first four months of the year. On January 23, they shared the bill with The Magic Band (minus Captain Beefheart/Don Van Vliet, who had gone off to live in the desert and paint) – reviews here.

Camden Barfly 4/2/04 Photo by Jaffoon Jaffoon

On 26 February, they played Newcastle Opera House, after which MES had his accident (see above). The bootleg of the gig is only of average sound quality, but it’s an excellent performance.

Smith’s mishap led to seven dates being cancelled. He returned to the stage at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on 6 March for a spoken word performance. Reviews (on Fall News and the Fall Online Forum) indicate that it did not go well: MES was wheeled on in a wheelchair and only performed for 15-20 minutes; boos and heckling seem to have been in evidence.

The next two gigs (Birmingham on 1 April; Liverpool on the 3rd) featured both Trafford and Archer on bass.

In April, the group headed to America, where they played 20 dates; Smith played some of these dates sat at a table or on crutches (see above). There should have been more, but several were cancelled. The 28-29 April gigs in Columbia/Oklahoma City didn’t take place because Smith had food poisoning. Ten other dates were cancelled in May: a note from MES stated enigmatically that this was because ‘The Group / New York Agency + Tour Manager are too lazy to play. 50% refund to all ticket holders’. 

Front cover

The group’s performance at New York’s Knitting Factory on 9 April was released in 2007 as (yet another) Voiceprint live album. Also known as ‘Punkcast 2004’, this recording was filmed and released as disc one of the Access All Areas – Volume One DVD. It’s of middling sound quality, but contains spirited versions of Sparta and Mere Pseud Mag Ed, plus a nicely understated Janet, Johnny and James.

Reviews of the US tour were again generally very positive. At Asheville, North Carolina on 19 April 15 Ways was played for the first time in seven years; it was performed at the next five gigs before disappearing again until it was revived once more in 2013. On the 25th, MES squeezed in a spoken word performance in Chicago. Clasp Hands was debuted in Brooklyn on 22 May.

Dave Milner’s last performance was at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona on May 28 – a gig that nobody seems to know much about.

Moorfest, Heaton Moor, Stockport 14/8/04

July and August 2004 saw the group play half a dozen gigs in the UK and Ireland (some of which were rescheduled dates following Smith’s injury earlier in the year) with Birtwistle and Watts (on guitar) back in the fold. On 11 July in York, the group played What About Us?  for the first time. Spoilt Victorian Child was resurrected after 18 years; it was played six more times in 2004 before being permanently retired. On the 29th in Stourbridge, Blindness was debuted; it was entitled ‘Blind Man’ on the setlist (which also calls Clasp Hands ‘NYC Steve’).  The bootleg of this gig is of pretty poor sound quality and the performance is a little messy to say the least.

There were 26 more dates over the last four months of 2004; a mix of UK and European dates, plus another brief visit to US in mid-October. Bo Demmick (at this point known as ‘Bo Doodack’) was played as an instrumental opener on 5 October in Munster, Germany. (Six days later, it was entitled ‘Bo Diddley’ on the Nuremberg setlist.)

Munich 13/10/04

The group returned to Iceland for a couple of gigs in mid-November.

Reykjavik 17/11/04 Photo by Oskar P. Einarsson

There were half a dozen UK gigs to round off 2004. The second of these, at Manchester’s Bierkeller on 1 December is a cracking bootleg; a crisp recording of a tight and powerful performance. There are particularly effective and lengthy versions of What About Us? and Blindness.

Two nights later, at Bristol, Trafford and Birtwistle didn’t make the gig owing to being stuck in traffic; Jim Watts filled in on bass and the support band’s drummer stepped up to play. ‘Chris’, the drummer, does a remarkably fine job. The gig was cut short because the venue had a ‘heavy metal youth club night’ planned for 10.30; MES refers to this in the amended lyrics to Mountain Energei: ‘Good evening, we are The Fall. We have to be on quickly so the youth club can start…’ After White Lightning, Eleni announces that ‘We would like to play more but there’s a club night on and we cannot play any longer’, although the group do return to grind out an aggressive Blindness. An intriguing bootleg, worth acquiring.

Their last performance of 2004, at the All Tomorrow’s Parties ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ festival (which also featured Mercury Rev, Sunn O))) and Violent Femmes) was Jim Watts’ last appearance with the group.

2005 was a little less active than the preceding year, with 41 performances. The group started the year with a one-off gig at New York’s Knitting Factory on February 10 (they were in New York recording Fall Heads Roll at the time) where Pacifying Joint and Ride Away received their debuts.

There followed a dozen UK dates in March-May. Assume was played for the first time in Middleton on 7 March.

The Empire, Milton Keynes 12/3/05 – MES and mystery dancer. Photo by Marcus Kittridge.

On 12 March in Milton Keynes, Smith was joined on stage by a mystery dancer. According to this review, ‘a young lady got on stage during Wrong Place and tried rubbing herself up against MES for a while. He gallantly continued, moving around the stage to shake her off until he could do so no more and turned to her to have words (smiling with it). Eventually a security guard escorted her back to the crowd and MES gave him a kiss for his trouble.’

On 20 May, Youwanner was played for the first time at The Forum in London.

Edinburgh 23/5/05. Photo by Kevin Barclay.

After their June 17 gig in Berlin (an energetic performance of which there’s a more than decent bootleg) The Fall played the Feedback Festival at Parc de la Villette in Paris. There is video footage of the whole gig on YouTube, apparently shot by Pascal Le Gras. It’s split into four parts: 1, 2, 3 and 4. It’s a fascinating watch (despite the incredibly shaky camera work), which sees MES in an affable and communicative mood, even handing out bottles of water to the audience.

Paris
MES about to go on stage, Paris 10/7/05

The most intriguing part is at 3:15 in part one, which captures Smith looking genuinely apprehensive and nervous before his entrance. The group concluded the gig with Carry Bag Man, which hadn’t been played since 1990 (and is missed out on Reformation).

GDMW Festival, Rotterdam 30/9/05. Photo by Lutek Dabrowski

The group’s performance at the GDMW festival in Rotterdam on 30 September saw Midnight In Aspen played for the first time.

UK CD rear cover

The Album
Fall Heads Roll was released on Slogan records, a subsidiary of Sanctuary; the US released came out on Narnack. There were fewer differences between the UK/US versions than there had been with Real New, and the two CDs had the same tracklisting. The American version did, however, have a different cover.

US CD rear cover.

There were also some differences between the vinyl releases. The UK one was a single disc; in the US (where it also came out on white marbled vinyl – see below) it was a double album. In addition, it contained an alternative version of Blindness. This take doesn’t have that notable change in bass sound thirty seconds in; there are also a few occasions where the bass riff drops out for a couple of bars, which provides an interesting variation in the song’s rhythm. (And keep it under your hat, but you can hear it here.)

FHR US LP sleeve
US LP inner sleeves

The album generated much more in the way of column inches than any Fall album for years. This was probably at least partly due to the many mentions made of the group in the Peel obituaries the previous year. It even received a brief review in the Daily Mirror:

‘The late John Peel’s favourite band are, as ever, masterminded by Mark E Smith who now looks like a scary toothless gargoyle. But the group’s ferocious blend of lo-fi intrigue and brain-busting underground rock is as strong as ever. Peel is no doubt smiling down.’

Reviews were almost entirely glowing. In the Sunday Times, long-time fan Stewart Lee said that the album ‘balances provocative noise and hypnotic hooks, benefits from an uncharacteristically spatially aware mix, showcases a disciplined, ferocious and finessed Fall, and finds Mark E Smith at his cryptic and quietly hilarious best’. The Guardian‘s Alexis Petridis gave it five stars and described it as being ‘of head-turning quality… Nobody else writes like this.’

US LP white vinyl edition

Louis Pattison in the NME gave it 8/10 and challenged readers to ‘try and deny this is a band on form’. In The Wire, Sam Davies described it as ‘full-blooded Fall, fired up and amped up by some muscular production and rhythm playing… It’s harder than it looks to make simplicity sound this satisfying.’ Stuart Maconie, in Word magazine, said:

‘The current hirelings play with a vim and vigour that continual harangues from the boss will surely quell, but right now they rock… a sterling addition to a great canon, someone somewhere is hearing this glorious racket for the first time and their lives will never be the same.’

Mick Middles, writing in Record Collector, sounded a rare note of caution; whilst recognising the ‘sheer brilliance’ of the ‘towering’ Blindness, he felt that ‘hints of the formulaic do start to appear before the album’s eventual conclusion. In short… it’s too long.’

The increased media coverage did not, sadly, translate into greatly improved sales. Whilst Fall Heads Roll achieved the group’s highest chart position for six years, it only peaked at number 115.

UK CD booklet

The Songs
Ride Away
‘Divisive’ is a word that I might be charged with overusing throughout these blogs, but it really is apposite here. To some it’s a lazy, embarrassing bit of half-arsed nonsense; to others a bouncy bit of fun that sees the group challenging preconceptions with a spot of unpredictable humour. MES seems to be having a dig at someone (‘You spread lies and discontent, I wish you could see yourself / You think you’re a giant you know you’re nothing’) but it’s not at all clear who.

Whatever you think of it, it’s certainly a rather bold (possibly even foolish) choice to open the album; it’s also a bit of a ‘borrow’, owing a debt to Tami Lynn‘s I’m Gonna Run Away From You.

Personally I rather like its wonky and defiantly odd attitude, but I do understand why it annoys some people. Despite what many of the album’s reviews said, it’s clearly not reggae (which Reformation quite rightly points out).

It was played 33 times, 2005-06.

Pacifying Joint
Based around a hammering two-chord/two-note guitar/keyboard assault, it’s not among the group’s most complex and subtle moments, but it does have an enjoyably driving muscularity that’s well-suited by high volume. It’s also not one of MES’s most subtle lyrics, making a rather obvious play on the various meanings of the word ‘joint’ (‘With carrots and meat / a place where nice people should meet / the kind that puts you to sleep’). The learned folk on The Annotated Fall point out that this is an example of antanaclasis.

It was a popular live choice over the late 00s, being played 145 times 2005-08.

What About Us?
The album continues at thunderous pace with another heavy and basic riff. Like Pacifying Joint, the group strike a successful balance between Pritchard’s crunchy guitar and Eleni’s squelchy keyboard line; it’s also like its predecessor in that it begs to be turned up a notch or two louder.

It’s a great vocal, Smith sounding somehow simultaneously casually slurred and sharply focused throughout; the opening ‘Ba-ba-ba-ba-buh-ba-ba-buh-ba’ and ‘wuh, uh-yeah’ being worth the price of admission alone.

The only song (that I’m aware of, anyway) that takes its inspiration from the case of Harold Shipman – ‘There was a doctor going around / He was dishing out drugs / He was dishing out left and right / To old ladies’. Eleni’s coolly dispassionate backing vocals (‘Hop hop hop!’) are also a treat, and recall the occasions when Smith and Brix’s vocals entwined so successfully.

Another popular live choice at the time: 150 outings, 2004-08.

Midnight In Aspen
Just when you think the album is going to bludgeon you to death, it takes a melancholy and delicate turn…

Ben Pritchard’s delicate minor-key arpeggios and Steve’s Trafford’s melodic but understated bass provide a sensitive, wistful background to MES’s pensive utterances. Smith is peerless in his timing (‘hyphen’ at 0:55, especially) and seems to express genuine emotion without, unusually, ever retreating into cynicism – ‘he was lucky this week’ (2:21). Not that there isn’t, as ever, a modicum of humour (‘highest bestest’).

Apparently inspired by Hunter S Thompson’s suicide, the minimal, oblique lyrics (‘Hyphen / Aspen / Utah / Ice mountain of Jehovah’) and gentle, melancholy backing make for a genuinely tender and moving song. It was played 37 times 2005-6.

Assume
Back to the crunchy riffs, this time with a more staccato approach;  there’s also a bit of discordant guitar that’s reminiscent of the early 80s. It has been suggested that the tune is inspired by the theme to ‘Supercar‘.

In a radio interview (4:53), MES ‘explained’ the lyrics: ‘That was a random one, definitely… it’s about humans, and air flight, and um, rabbits, and um, things like that.’ Nobody other than Smith himself really knows what a ‘hume’ is (although The Annotated Fall comes up with a few suggestions).

Aspen Reprise
Midnight makes a brief return; it’s not entirely clear why, but it continues to be gentle, melancholy and lovely.

Blindness
Not surprisingly, many of the album’s reviews focused on this track, widely regarded as the towering achievement of ‘late period’ Fall. I devoted several hundred words to it on the Fall In Fives blog, many of which are repeated here.

A brief swathe of oscillating distortion leads us into a taut, solid drumbeat; and then that bass line comes in – thick with distortion and menace. A sinister, snaking guitar line loiters furtively behind this wall of noise. And then the bass line is re-energised by a second version from another recording; less raw distortion, but a thick, reverberating coil of bottomless snarl. Its emergence (0:33) is one of the crowning moments in the entire canon. The highlights just keep coming, layered on top of each other: Eleni’s deep, sinister synth oscillations (1:08); the choppy, biting slashes of guitar (1:41); the bass’s brief, surprising diversion into an ascending pattern (2:34); the floor tom-led lull (4:18) that builds and breaks into a crescendo rounded off by a machine-gun blast of the snare (4:56). The final two minutes are just hypnotic, and could easily go on for another five.

And all of this is without considering Smith’s performance. The song is full of some his most memorable lines (‘The flat is evil’, ‘poster at the stop of the street’, ‘Cavalry and calvary’, ‘blind man – have mercy on me’, ‘99% of non-smokers die’). But it’s his timing here that is utterly remarkable, absolutely unique and breathtaking. He uses a variety of styles – abrupt snatches of dialogue, a strange, almost tuneless kind of crooning, even (2:28) what sounds like him attempting to play the kazoo whilst having forgotten the kazoo itself – and every bit meshes perfectly with the beast of a riff pounding away behind him. Just listen to his timing 5:10-5:21, as he delivers ‘blind man – have mercy on me’ – each utterance never where you expect it, slightly off the beat, but just perfect in a way that only he could do.

Despite the fact that the whole song was based around Steve Trafford’s hypnotic bass line6 (which does bear a little resemblance to Roots Manuva’s Witness), the song was inexplicably credited to Smith/Birtwistle. According to Jim Watts (posting on The Fall Online Forum, quoted on The Annotated Fall):

‘We took a break from Tuff Gong to go for a drink in The Original Wire pub. Pretty much the worst pub in Warrington. I remember a cloud of flies buzzing around in there.

And in the car on the way back we heard witness by Roots Manuva and Spencer got very excited. We were inspired by the groove and I think Spencer started the beat, then Steve came up with the bass and me and Ben came in with our guitar parts.

Then it was put forward to Mark as a demo and he went in to do his vocal sessions and he made it a Fall song.’

It was played 182 times. 2004-17.

I Can Hear The Grass Grow
We’re up to track eight, so it must be time for the obligatory cover version… and it’s actually not a bad one at all.

The Move were Roy Wood‘s band before he went on to ELO and Wizzard, and are most famous for the twee psychedelic pop of Flowers in the Rain (the first song to be played on Radio 1) and Blackberry Way. I Can Hear The Grass Grow was the band’s second single, a top five hit in 1967, and had much more bluesy edge to it. (It was also covered somewhat blandly by Status Quo.)

Several of the album reviews referred directly to the track, the general tone being that the group had ‘flattened’ (Stuart Maconie) or ‘laid waste’ (Alexis Petridis) to the song. In actual fact it’s a pretty straight, almost poppy rendition. Smith in particular seems to make a relatively concerted effort to deliver the song effectively (his attempts to follow the melody properly leading to the usual hit and miss results regarding the actual notes). He even affects a pleasingly Jagger-ish swagger on the ‘Get a hold of yourself…’ sections.

It’s energetic, good fun and the group sound like they’re enjoying themselves. It sits nicely in the middle ground between the slabs of full-on riffery and occasional gentle touches of the rest of the album. Another one that was a popular live choice at the time, racking up 123 appearances between 2004 and 2007.

Promo CD
Promo CD of the single

Bo Demmick
As it evolved, the song was called both ‘Bo Doodak’ and ‘Bo Diddley’ on setlists. The latter title is highly appropriate, as it deploys the signature beat of Ellas McDaniel, an approach taken many times over the years by a plethora of artists such as Buddy Holly, Bruce Springsteen, The Who and George Michael. The Fall had of course already explored this avenue with Hey! Marc Riley back in the mid-80s.

Bo Demmick is a vigorous stomp, with a hint of ‘soundcheck jam’ about it without being too formless or indulgent. The lyric is partly lifted from The CD In Your Hand (from The Post Nearly Man) and sees a reprise of Smith’s favourite made-up word, ‘moderninity’. Apparently ‘debate has raged’ over what Smith actually says (at, for example, 0:33) but it’s clearly ‘Hey fatty!’ to these ears. The identity of the ‘he’ referred to throughout is unclear; The Annotated Fall‘s suggestion that it might have something to do with Bo Derek seems a particularly tenuous one.

Like several on the album, it got a decent number of run-outs on stage at the time: 78, 2004-07.

Youwanner
Not for the first time on this album, the group deploy an aggressive, heads-down no-nonsense guitar assault; Alexis Petridis in The Guardian described it as ‘a riff that could strip paint’.

It charges along with brutal force, threatening occasionally to break into a chorus of some description, but always resisting the temptation. The relentlessness of it recalls Last Commands; the group would also take a similar approach on 2011’s I’ve Seen Them Come. It’s also another that begs to be turned up loud – a bit of a developing theme with this album.

Smith once again delves into his spoken-word material: ‘It is the outsidedness flavor of it’ being a variation on ‘the outside flavorness of it’ from Pander! Panda! Panzer! The lyric (‘I coulda had a life / Coulda had a wife’) suggests a tension between the personal and artistic life, perhaps related to Cyril Connolly‘s famous sentiment, ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. A contributor to The Annotated Fall, referring to some of Smith’s comments in Renegadesuggests that it could refer to Ben Pritchard and/or Steve Trafford.

It was played extensively in 2005, but had a shorter shelf-life than the other riff-heavy tracks on the album; it was played for the 28th and final time in June 2006.

Clasp Hands
A jaunty bit of rickety rockabilly, which sees Smith in uncharacteristically positive mood, expressing an enthusiastic esprit de corps regarding a performance by the group (‘It was a pleasure’; ‘It was one of the best shows ever seen / Ludicrous, majestic and exhilarating’). The lyric also refers to the fact that the song, written by Trafford was originally called ‘NYC Steve’ (see above) – ‘We’re going down NYC / Steve’s song’.

It’s not quite clear how ‘Priscilla Chaos is a lustrous jewel’ fits in with all of this, but it’s  a great line. The lyric also sees Smith revisiting his inexplicable obsession with wolverines (‘The lads were wolverines’) – also referred to in Service, Session Musician, Bury Pts 1 +3 and Arid Al’s Dream.

Simon Archer plays banjo on the track (he describes the experience in this interview (from 36:01) – ‘I just got thrown a banjo and got told, play on that’.

As with many Fall Heads Roll tracks, it was played frequently at the time before being dropped after a couple of years: 63 performances 2004-06.

Early Days of Channel Führer
Like Midnight In AspenEarly Days provides light relief from the heavier tracks that dominate the album. It’s amongst the prettiest, most fragile Fall songs in the whole back catalogue: a brittle, tender waltz, to which Pritchard contributes some tender folkish guitar whilst Birtwistle adds delicate brushstrokes.

MES refers to ‘channel fuhrer’ in this interview (at 0:42), during a lively discussion about late-night television (in which he pronounces Lidl as ‘Leedle’). This doesn’t go any great way towards explaining the particularly enigmatic lyric: ‘And the man who brushes against me in Heathrow / And the man who brushes against me in beyond Vienna midweek is shaggy’; ‘The snow is all around, like my hat’.

There’s a curious moment at 1:19, when a seemingly helium-infused voice (apparently Ben Pritchard’s) squeals ‘Where’s all the choccies gone? It smacks a little of early 70s Genesis (when Peter Gabriel used to put on silly voices), but The Annotated Fall has a slightly more serious assessment: ‘it conveys the narrator’s alienation from his surroundings, as his sad meditation is punctured by cries bespeaking a more trivial and temporary trauma’.

It was only ever played live twice, at Middlesbrough and Nottingham in October 2005 (although this review of the Nottingham bootleg suggests there was a third performance on the same tour). The Nottingham recording is of frustratingly poor quality and is marred by audience chatter, but suggests that the song worked well live.

Breaking The Rules
Hang on, haven’t we already had the obligatory cover version?

The group started playing a cover of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ Walk Like A Man in late 2003 (see above). Breaking The Rules is basically the same song with amended lyrics (credited by The Annotated Fall to ‘Bec Walker, who was 17 at the time and recording in the same studio’), and whilst it’s bouncy and fun and all that, it does feel at this point like the album’s being stretched a little too far. One of the covers should really have been a b-side, and this seems the likelier candidate of the two; the inclusion of both on the album feels unnecessary. The ‘have we finished?’ last ten seconds of Rules just emphasise the throwaway nature of the track.

It was played 24 times (in its various incarnations) 2003-05.

Trust In Me
A curious closer. The strangest thing about it, obviously, is that it’s one of that select band of songs that doesn’t feature MES. (Reformation suggests that Smith does appear, using an ‘old man voice’; I presume they mean the ‘trust in me’ part at, for example, 1:14, but it doesn’t sound like him to me.)

The vocals are supplied by Simon Archer, engineer Billy Pavone and Kenny Cummings and Phil Schuster from New York band Shelby. (Shelby released their sole album, The Luxury of Time, in 2005; it’s on YouTube and Spotify – a pleasant enough if rather generic bit of alternative rock around the Buffalo Tom/REM end of things.)

Cummings and Schuster described their experience on a now-defunct website, quoted on Reformation:

Shelby arrived at the Gigantic Music offices this evening to sign their recording contracts… Hanging out in the lounge of the recording studio were Mark E. Smith and Elena Poulou of The Fall (who were there recording their new album for Narnack Records).

Enjoying a break from recording their parts, Mark and Elena were happy to join in the signing ceremony acting as official witnesses. One thing led to another, and before the ink was dry, Kenny and Phil were in the recording studio adding vocals to one of the new Fall tracks. Mark christened the song ‘Kenny and Phil and Billy and Ding’… commemorating vocals added by engineer Billy Pavone and producer Dingo. We don’t know if the track will make the album, but it was a fun experience.’

It’s not just the absence of Smith’s voice that makes the track unusual: it’s a taut, lean and ominous stomp that doesn’t sound much like The Fall musically either. Tommy Mackay suggests, not unreasonably, that it sounds like a cross between Wire and Queens of the Stone Age7, but the discordant arpeggio/spoken word section at the minute mark is also highly reminiscent of Slint. A comment on the YouTube video below also suggests Placebo.

The identity of ‘Dr Lee’, the dentist who will come round to your house and give you an x-ray for the price of a cup of tea, is unclear. It was never played live.

Overall Verdict
The received wisdom regarding Fall Heads Roll (if there ever really is such a thing with a Fall album) is that, whilst it contains several outstanding tracks, it’s overlong, lacking in variety and over-reliant on simplistic and unsubtle three-chord bangers.

It is indeed overlong. Like The Unutterable, it suffers from the curse of the CD age – having over an hour to play with rather than around 45 minutes leading to an ‘oh let’s just stick that one on as well approach’. As a result, for example, a second, distinctly ropy cover version gets the nod which would have been far more unlikely 15 or 20 years earlier. That said, it is – like Unutterable – under an hour long, making it shorter than Hex.

Accusations of it being a one-paced, monolithic slab of riffery are also a little unfair. Whilst it does have more than its fair share of uncompromising two/three chord weighty rockers (What About Us?Pacifying JointAssumeYouwanner), there’s plenty of variety – the poppy and almost melodic Grass; the gentle and melancholy Aspen and Führer; the dark and mysterious Trust In Me; the humorously bizarre Ride Away.

If you had a friend who was completely unfamiliar with the group’s work whom you wished to indoctrinate, and you were giving them a full album rather than a mix tape, you might start here. Although you might suggest that they skip Ride Away to begin with…

CD booklet, European release 

My “Version”
Although I enjoy its oddness, Trust In Me doesn’t quite make the cut; perhaps the sort of song best tucked away on a b-side or on an obscure various artists compilation. Pacifying Joint is a perfectly decent song, but in order to get the album down to regulation length it had to go on the basis that you don’t really need it as well as What About Us?

This is not to say that Ride Away is a better song than Pacifying Joint, but in the interests of balance and variety, the strangely wonky stomp of the former is preferred over the heads-down rock of the latter, an approach that is more than amply represented elsewhere.

Side 1: What About Us? / I Can Hear The Grass Grow / Midnight In Aspen / Assume / Ride Away / Aspen – Reprise (22:57)

Side 2: Youwanner / Bo Demmick / Blindness / Early Days Of Channel Führer (20:30)

Rankings
A real tussle between this one and Unutterable. The sheer presence of Blindness almost tipped the balance in FHR‘s favour, but Unutterable has Dr Bucks’ Letter and also edges it for variety and invention.

  1. This Nation’s Saving Grace
  2. Perverted By Language
  3. The Wonderful And Frightening World Of
  4. Hex Enduction Hour
  5. The Real New Fall LP Formerly ‘Country On The Click’
  6. Levitate
  7. Slates
  8. Grotesque
  9. The Unutterable
  10. Fall Heads Roll
  11. The Marshall Suite
  12. Cerebral Caustic
  13. I Am Kurious Oranj
  14. Room To Live
  15. The Infotainment Scan
  16. Extricate
  17. Bend Sinister
  18. Dragnet
  19. The Light User Syndrome
  20. Are You Are Missing Winner
  21. Middle Class Revolt
  22. Code: Selfish
  23. Shift-Work
  24. Live At The Witch Trials
  25. The Frenz Experiment

The sublime barrage of controlled noise and aggression that is the single version of Sparta finally dislodges long-standing number one Living Too Late from the top of the  singles chart. I Can Hear The Grass Grow is amongst the group’s best covers, and eases into a mid-table slot. The Rude (All The Time) EP is a mix of the pointless and the terrible.

  1. Theme From Sparta F.C. #2
  2. Living Too Late
  3. Jerusalem/Big New Prinz
  4. Kicker Conspiracy
  5. The Man Whose Head Expanded
  6. How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’
  7. Totally Wired
  8. Free Range
  9. Behind The Counter
  10. Marquis Cha-Cha
  11. Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul
  12. The Chiselers
  13. Touch Sensitive
  14. (We Wish You) A Protein Christmas
  15. Cab It Up
  16. Cruiser’s Creek
  17. Hey! Luciani
  18. F-‘Oldin’ Money
  19. I Can Hear The Grass Grow
  20. Mr. Pharmacist
  21. Couldn’t Get Ahead/Rollin’ Dany
  22. Look, Know
  23. The Fall vs 2003
  24. Telephone Thing
  25. There’s A Ghost In My House
  26. Victoria
  27. Hit The North
  28. Bingo-Master’s Break-Out!
  29. Rowche Rumble
  30. Fiery Jack
  31. Masquerade
  32. Ed’s Babe
  33. High Tension Line
  34. 15 Ways
  35. It’s The New Thing
  36. White Lightning
  37. Popcorn Double Feature
  38. Why Are People Grudgeful?
  39. Oh! Brother
  40. Rude (All The Time)
  41. Rude (All The Time) EP

Interim is a flawed but intriguing semi-live album. Knitting Factory 2004 is solid enough, but definitely mid-table material.

  1. Live To Air In Melbourne ’82
  2. In A Hole
  3. A Part Of America Therein, 1981
  4. 2G+2
  5. Live In San Francisco
  6. In The City…
  7. Nottingham ’92
  8. The Legendary Chaos Tape / Live In London 1980
  9. Totale’s Turns
  10. The Idiot Joy Show
  11. Live In Cambridge 1988
  12. I Am As Pure As Oranj
  13. Touch Sensitive… Bootleg Box Set
  14. Creative Distortion
  15. Live 1993 – Batschkapp, Frankfurt
  16. Live 1981 – Jimmy’s Music Club – New Orleans
  17. Live 1977
  18. The Twenty Seven Points
  19. Interim
  20. Seminal Live
  21. Live At The Knitting Factory – New York – 9 April 2004
  22. Live 1998 12th August Astoria 2 London
  23. Live Various Years
  24. Live At The Phoenix Festival
  25. Live In Zagreb
  26. 15 Ways To Leave Your Man – Live
  27. Austurbaejarbio
  28. BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert
  29. Live At The Knitting Factory – L.A. – 14 November 2001
  30. Live At The Garage – London – 20 April 2002
  31. Live 2001 – TJ’s Newport
  32. Live 3rd May 1982 Band On The Wall Manchester
  33. Live 1980 – Cedar Ballroom Birmingham
  34. Live From The Vaults – Alter Banhof, Hof, Germany
  35. Live From The Vaults – Glasgow 1981
  36. Live From The Vaults – Oldham 1978
  37. Live At The ATP Festival – 28 April 2002
  38. Liverpool 78
  39. Live From The Vaults – Los Angeles 1979
  40. Live From The Vaults – Retford 1979
  41. Live At Deeply Vale
  42. Yarbles

 

References
1The Fallen, p288

2The Fallen, p276

3Margrave of the Marshes, pp310-312

4Renegade, p103

5Renegade, p100

6The Fallen, p289

7Mackay, p210

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4 thoughts on “YMGTA #33 – Fall Heads Roll

  1. “Blindness,” maaaaaaan! What can you say? Not only do I prefer the Peel version, but I prefer the one that was broadcast with Peel apologizing/chuckling at the beginning: “I’ve done it again”

    The album is also very funny, providing smiles and laughs along the way.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for the heads up (ha ha) on Carry Bag Man being played in Paris. It was included in the gig review but not in the song entry itself.

    Thanks in general for the errors and omissions you comment on re the Reformation site, We try our best but it’s only a two-man operation run by two people who have other lives to lead as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Can’t find much to disagree with here. FHR is a solid effort and I have always rated in somewhere between 10 and 15. I think it’s true that it’s maybe a bit too long. Trust in Me is so forgettable that I had to listen to the album again to remind me what it sounded like.

    Liked by 1 person

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