YMGTA #36 – Imperial Wax Solvent

“Squirrels mean nothing to me. I killed a couple last weekend actually. They were eating my garden fence.”

Front cover

Details
Recorded: St. Martin Tonstudio, Dusseldorf, May-June 2007 and Gracielands Studio, Rochdale late 2007
Released: 28 April 2008

  • Mark E Smith – vocals
  • Peter Greenway – guitar
  • David Spurr – bass
  • Keiron Melling – drums
  • Eleni Poulou – keyboards, vocals

Background / The Fall Live In 2007-2008
Another year, another album, and yet another line-up. More of a transition than a clean break this time, though. Greenway and Spurr had contributed to the previous album and had played in various combinations with ‘the Dudes’ over the preceding months. There was only one opportunity to hear what a McCord/Melling dual-drummer line-up sounded like: they both played at the 12 November 2006 Manchester gig; sadly, no recording seems to exist.

The group played 35 dates in 2007 (many of which were covered in YMGTA #35) The 23rd of these, at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona on 1 June, marked the last appearance of ‘The Dudes’. The rest of that year’s performances featured the Smith / Poulou / Greenway / Spurr / Melling line-up, as would all of the 2008 gigs (with the occasional addition of Simon ‘Ding’ Archer).

On 9 June, MES appeared on stage in Athboy, Ireland with Mouse On Mars for Von Südenfed’s first performance. They would play a further four dates in 2007.

The first Dude-less Fall gig took place at The Ritz Manchester on 1 July. It served as a launch party for a recently-published book of short stories inspired by Fall songs, Perverted By Language, and included readings by Stewart Lee amongst others. Reviews from The Fall Online Forum, The Guardian and Manchester Evening News suggest that the audience soon ran out of patience with the spoken word elements.

Stewart Lee:

‘Before agreeing to write a piece for the book I secured a hand-written note off MES making sure he was ok with the book happening, and with my idea for it… I can’t find the note regarding PERVERTED BY LANGUAGE but it’s tucked in a record somewhere, along with a postcard from Berlin from Steve Hanley, answering fan mail, in 1982.

On the night, 3 or 4 writers had agreed to read from the book, as part of the Festival, before the Fall’s set. Alan Wise the manager came back stage and hung around wheezing and snuffling and told us all how Mark hated the book, which freaked the other writers out and made some of them nervous, though I had expected our part of the show to be unplayable anyway and so took the opening spot like a pro. I did some chatty stuff about the night and got some laffs and read a bit of my story then split for the pit. All the other writers went on too long and the standing audience got restless, as they would have done for anything that didn’t suit the set up of the room, which was a music gig.

The Fall came on and MES tore the book up on stage, which was a struggle for him as it was sturdier than he had imagined. I don’t know if MES hated the book or not. Some of the pieces (not mine) were very good, some weren’t. It made sense for “the character of MES” to hate the book, whether he did himself or not.

The gig saw debuts for Wolf Kidult Man (as an instrumental), Strangetown and I’ve Been Duped.

The next date, in Bristol on 14 July, saw MES walk off stage after (according to a FOF reviewer) ‘punching an on stage photographer in the bollocks and arguing with some stage guy about the mic cables’. Three days later, at London’s Carling Academy, the never officially released (see below) Ponto received the first of its three live outings. At the same venue on the following night, The Man Whose Head Expanded received a one-off revival, the first time it had been played for 22 years.

On the group’s fourth night at The Carling Academy (July 20), another song that had been absent from the live set for 22 years – Wings – was played.

The group’s next performance was at the ‘Tales of the Jackalope’ festival. They opened (according to the setlist) with a new instrumental called I Am Me, Mark (which seems to have been an early version of Tommy Shooter).

Bolton 2/11/2007, photo by Keiron Clarke

On 6 September, in Berlin, Alton Towers was debuted. Can Can Summer got its first outing at Bolton on November 2. On 22 November Tommy Shooter was played with lyrics for the first time in Birmingham.

The Fall’s first two gigs of 2008 took place in Greece. At Bilston on 4 March, Exploding Chimney and Latch Key Kid were debuted. Is This New followed on the next day at Newcastle. Totally Wired received a one-off revival in Glasgow on 30 March.

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Shortly before Imperial Wax Solvent‘s release, Smith was involved in a story that was bizarre even by Fall standards. After an Uncut interview with Ben Marshall in which he claimed to have killed two red squirrels because they were eating his garden fence, it was reported that the RSPCA were considering investigating his comments and having him charged under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Image result for mark e smith renegade

In April, Smith’s biography Renegade was published. There’s no doubt that it’s an entertaining and occasionally hilarious read. However, anyone hoping for an in-depth discussion of the lyrics or a detailed account of how The Fall’s best-known songs were written and recorded is (a) going to be disappointed and (b) clearly hasn’t followed Smith’s career very closely up to this point.

At its best, the book is acerbically funny, touching and insightful; at its worst it descends into rather bitter axe-grinding (particularly regarding ex-members of the group such as Riley, Pritchard and Trafford). A frustrating mix of brilliance and nonsense, it’s exactly what any Fall fan would have expected of him. The best review of Renegade, by John Doran in The Quietus, is here.

Two days after the album’s release, MES received the ‘Maverick Award’ at the Mojo Awards. They played a short set at the awards launch party at HMV on Oxford Street (the version of Wings would eventually turn up on the 2014 live album, Live Uurop VIII-XII Places In Sun & Winter, Son).

Smith also took part in a backstage interview, which sees him in fine humour, if not at his most coherent. He discusses the squirrel incident at 3:24.

In The Wider World…
The London mayoral election saw Boris Johnson defeat Ken Livingstone. The strange tale of  the kidnapping of Shannon Matthews ended with her mother Karen being arrested and charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice.

Madonna, assisted by Justin Timberlake & Timbaland, was at number one in the singles chart with the forgettable 4 Minutes. It was succeeded by the far more entertaining That’s Not My Name by The Ting Tings. Once again, dreary landfill indie was at the top of the album charts in the shape of The Kooks’ Konk.

The Album
Imperial Wax Solvent was recorded at Mouse On Mars’ studio in Dusseldorf during May and June 2007, and finished off in the group’s by now familiar haunt, Gracielands Studio, Rochdale, later that year.

In a 2018 interview, Greenway, Melling and Spurr described the experience of recording IWS. The original plan seems to have been for Spurr and ‘The Dudes’ to join MES in Dusseldorf once the Von Südenfed album was finished. However, the Americans never arrived and Greenway and Melling were flown over instead. Spurr recalls that a Neo-Nazi group were based nearby, and that he and Melling (who both had shaved heads) got some verbal abuse from passers-by as a result, much to Smith’s amusement.

Pete Greenway:

‘At this stage, we hadn’t really gelled together as a band, that would come later through touring and the recording of the next LP: Your Future… Most of the songs were built track by track which is a method we abandoned soon after this recording. Due to Andi realising far too late that I had a flight to catch and couldn’t hang around, most of my guitar tracks were recorded on the last day, probably within an hour, in a blind panic.’

Keiron Melling:

‘Dave, Pete and I slept at the studio, in some bedrooms in the back, so we would just come up with ideas and record any time we wanted. Mark would come over and have a listen to oversee what we had done, then give us his notes on what to change and guide us through the process.’

 

According to Greenway, he recorded some further guitar parts for the album in London (apparently Britannia Row Studios, Fulham) with Grant Showbiz. This included him sitting on a fire escape to record an acoustic guitar track because Smith ‘liked how it sounded there’. The guitarist added that ‘I remember being surprised at how cohesive the final LP sounded considering the chaotic environment that it was recorded. I later learned that Mark would thrive in these situations and use the chaos to his advantage, taking control of the project and steering it his way.’

Dave Spurr described the experience as ‘the start of a great relationship the three of us had together with Mark…’

Although the surrounding details are unclear, there was an original mix of the album that was quite radically changed before its release (see below).

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The album attracted some mainstream press attention when it was released, owing to an error at the pressing plant that saw the album accidentally issued as teenage Britain’s Got Talent entrant Faryl Smith’s eponymous debut.

According to The Sun:

‘A cock-up in production meant that instead of delicate balladry in the honeyed tones of their recently signed youngster, what actually ended up on discs bearing her artwork and info were the grumblings of Mark and his fellow Manc veterans’ 2008 album Imperial Wax Solvent.’

The album reached number 35 in the UK albums chart, the group’s highest placing since 1993’s Infotainment Scan. The critical reception was highly positive. In The Guardian, Dave Simpson gave it 4/5, identifying the group as ‘Britain’s most berserk, uncompromising and brilliant band’. In The Independent, Andy Gill commented that:

‘Nothing seems able to halt Smith’s progress. Just when you think The Fall must finally fail its MOT, he tinkers around beneath the bonnet, slams it shut with a shower of rust, and off it trundles again.’

The Quietus‘ Taylor Parkes described it as, ‘pure surge and shudder, the heaviest, grimiest, most guttural Fall of all… IWS is powerful enough to pin you in the present, bellow in your face until all you understand is this, here, now – and what the hell are you doing with your life that it doesn’t match up to this?’

Also on The Quietus, John Doran and Luke Turner wrote an amusing track-by-track analysis that’s well worth a read.

The bold, abstract cover design was courtesy of British painter Anthony Frost, a long-time Fall fan (see YMGTA #18) who had also designed Extricate‘s cover.

The Songs
Alton Towers
Rather an outlier in the group’s back catalogue (cf Mark’ll Sink Us and The Knight, The Devil and Death), there really isn’t another Fall song that sounds much like this. A squelchy, spacious jazz-tinged groove that even has a touch of Gong about it, Alton Towers is a wonky, unusual delight. It’s full of intriguing details, and is one that benefits greatly from being listened to on headphones.

The lyrics reference Lauren Laverne (with whom MES had a distinctly uncomfortable and awkward interview in 2007) and also James Brown, ex-editor of Loaded, a publication for which MES contributed a famously antagonistic and drunken interview; they also contain the wonderfully impenetrable line, ‘the crows are not reflecting any form of quality.’

It was only played live 7 times, 2007-08.

Wolf Kidult Man
A burst of primeval howling, heads-down primal drums, reverberating bass and a wonderfully scuzzy, snaking fuzz-guitar riff – all within the first ten seconds – propel you into a raucous piece of no-nonsense garage thrash. The sort of thing that the group nearly always did exceptionally well. It was played live 134 times, and was the opening song on their final gig. (If you’re not moved by the clip below, you’re clearly reading the wrong blog…)

50 Year Old Man
One of the most remarkable pieces of music ever recorded. Angry, recalcitrant, relentless… and probably the shortest eleven and a half minute song you’ll ever hear.

The opening four minutes are an unforgiving onslaught of fury, noise and distortion. The pounding combination of drums, bass and guitar bludgeon you into submission whilst MES extols the priapic and excessive virtues of reaching half a century. More than ever, he strikes the perfect balance between pathos, aggression and humour. And then we get a spot of shrill keyboards and loping, hoedown banjo; followed by a more down-tempo (but no less intense) version of the first section. Around the 8 minute mark, things get distinctly weird and proggy before returning to a pared-down, relatively restrained version of the main riff. Even in the last 30 seconds, there’s still a shitload of stuff going on: a late uptempo rally; plus a lovely moment when MES orders them all to ‘fade out!’

The song was played live 29 times, 2007-09. It’s simply astonishing: a barrage of defiance the like of which you will never hear elsewhere.

I’ve Been Duped
Reformation describes this, not unreasonably, as a ‘fairly conventional punky tune’. Sounding a little like Nico covering The Rezillos, it has a pleasing enough energy, but suffers from rather crass everyone-in-the-studio-sing-along backing vocals that veer perilously close to Hurry Up Harry territory. It also features several strangely clumsy edits towards the end.

Like The Wright Stuff, it’s a song that worked a lot better live: bootleg versions find Eleni’s vocal a great deal more urgent than the stilted diffidence of the studio take. Which may explain its setlist longevity: 155 outings 2007-15.

Strangetown
Five tracks in, and – unsurprisingly – it’s obligatory 60s/70s cover version time. On this occasion, the group dip into The Groundhogs’ back catalogue for the second time (having covered Junkman on Middle Class Revolt). Strange Town originally appeared on The Groundhogs’ 1970 album Thank Christ For The Bomb.  This cover also borrows (in the slower sections) from Garden, from the same album.

Reformation points out that at the Newport gig on 16 April 2001 there are some Strangetown lyrics spoken before Hot Runes (they’re actually lines from Garden), suggesting that MES had his eye on this song sometime before eventually using it.

On first impression, it feels like just another one of the group’s bog-standard 60s/70s garage rock covers. However, there are a few odd elements that raise it just a little above that. Firstly, there’s the Wish You Were Here-style radio tune-in intro and MES’s slightly creepy and disturbing ‘I like your plants, they are nice’. Then there are some strange little ‘skips’ and/or clumsy edits that make it sound as though it’s a taped copy of a scratched record (e.g. at 0:23, 0:33, 1:46, 2:12 and throughout). Plus, there’s a range of very interesting background noise (e.g. what sounds like a broken-down air conditioner at 4:29-4:41). The moment where MES seems to lose the plot and has to count himself back in (2:42-2:46) is also an endearing touch.

It was played live 23 times,  2007-10.

Taurig
Eleni throws in a bit of jaunty Kraftwerk-style electronica. It’s fun enough in itself (the whispered backing vocals adding a little bit of menace), but does feel a little out of place, plonked randomly in the middle of the album. Used as an intro tape on a few occasions, but never played live.

isw promo
Promo CD

Can Can Summer
A scratchy, disjointed piece of funk-rock that has a distinct air of Can about it (which is presumably the origin of the title). It seems rather stitched together – like Dupedthere are several clunky edits (at 1:00, 1:33, 2:00 and 2:40) – and has the feeling of a potentially strong idea hurriedly cobbled together. It has an edgy, nervous charm, and the ‘My boss, he has the imagination of a gnat’ interlude is entertaining, but it’s one of those where you can’t help wondering what it might have become with a bit of time spent on it. It was only played live 13 times, between 2007 and 2011.

Tommy Shooter
Starts with an endearingly hesitant synth line from Eleni (seemingly played on the ‘steel drums’ setting) before breaking out into a taut, understated groove. Greenway’s simple, ascending guitar pattern gives the song its shape, and is well supported by Dave Spurr’s restrained bass line and Keiron’s nimble drumming.

But it’s Smith’s lyrics and delivery that make this one. He hits a rich vein here, and you can’t help but admire the construction of the language: not just ‘I’ve got news for you’, but ‘I got news for you my friend/to which you will have to attend’; not just ‘sit on your shoulder’, but ‘sit on your shoulder bone’; not just ‘the locals are humiliated’, but ‘the locals are in the realm of humiliation’. He’s completely in tune with the ebb and flow of the music around him, but also pulls off that trick where he’s just off the beat but still hits that perfect yet unexpected moment.

Played 28 times in 2007-08, Smith often handing vocal duties over to a roadie called Nikki.

Latch Key Kid
Opens with a mightily grizzly bass line from Spurr, overlaid by a double-tracked growl from Smith about ‘tobacco and sugar’. There’s also another one of those ham-fisted edits at 0:38. Whilst there’s some interesting interplay between the various MES vocal tracks, it doesn’t really build on its promising opening; it feels like an enthusiastic stab at a half-formed idea.

It was played live 39 times, right up to 2016. By far the best version (streets ahead of the album take) is this one:

Is This New
Another odd little track, a strong garage groove broken up with urgent, staccato interludes that has a Zappa-ish air to it in places. Lyrically, there’s an intriguing if incomprehensible little story lurking in there somewhere, involving Jeremy Kyle and Jeffrey Archer, and (possibly) Dot from Eastenders and Judy from Richard & Judy.

It features several passages that are random even by MES standards, for example ‘they tracked them down to a dancing high school / and his goddamn rock school, featuring an Egyptian / at least one / and a Trombone musician’. It’s all a bit inexplicable, and disappears in the blink of an eye (only just making two minutes), but it’s still a tidy, tight little number. It was played live 25 times (all but one performance in 2008, the last coming in 2012), generally a vehicle for ‘Good evening we are The Fall’ plus some MES improvisation rather than the lyrics that appeared on the album.

Senior Twilight Stock Replacer
Featuring a particularly archetypal Fall title, STSR was a fairly well-established part of the live set before IWS was released, having been played 22 times in 2007. It fell out of favour pretty quickly, however, being played only once after the album came out.

Dave Spurr contributes a deep, resonant bass line, but, like Duped, it relies on a rather obvious and simplistic everyone-in-the-studio-chant-along refrain and is overall a slightly thin and monotonous idea.

2019 vinyl reissue

Exploding Chimney
The group only attempted this on stage four times (all between March and July 2008); the descriptions on Reformation suggest that – vocally at least – none of the four were very similar to the album version. (The first two featured roadie Nikki, who also filled in for MES on Tommy Shooter on a few 2008 dates.)

Smith’s reference to ‘herpes, scabies and AIDS’ around a minute in shed a bit of unsavoury light on the opening lines, where he describes having ‘rat poison’ in both his ‘workshop’ and his ‘vicinity’. All of which suggests that the chimney that’s undergoing detonation might not be an architectural feature.

Disturbing lyrical imagery aside, it’s a cracking tune, bristling with taut, aggressive energy. An inventive garage-rock/prog hybrid (the Mellotron/Rhodes keyboard and staccato bursts providing the flavour of the latter), its only fault is that it ends at least a minute too soon. The keyboards give it its distinctive air, but Greenway’s performance is the highlight: the screech of fingers down the frets at 0:38; the strangled chords at 1:24-1:36; the shrieking runs at 2:07-2:08; the crackling distortion of the finale. Begs to be played at high volume.

Overall Verdict
Imperial Wax Solvent was certainly more fully-formed than its predecessor. Whereas Reformation was a frustratingly unfinished draft of a potentially exciting album – one that fell considerably short of making best use of the line-up at the time – IWS sees the group moving towards a clear definition of their new incarnation. It’s not quite there yet – as Pete Greenway said, they hadn’t fully gelled at this point – but you can feel a new, dynamic sound emerging.

There are moments (Can Can SummerTaurigLatch Key Kid) that might have been improved with a bit of time and reflection, but considering how closely it followed on the heels of Reformation and the disruption of 2006, it’s a remarkably consistent and effective piece of work.

The ‘Original’ Mix
The original mix of the album has been rumoured to be on Cherry Red’s release schedule for some time, although nothing has been heard about it for quite a while. Whilst it isn’t exactly a ‘great lost album’, it will certainly be worth purchasing if it ever emerges.

  • Wolf Kidult Man – One that isn’t really an improvement, feeling a little flat and lifeless in comparison.
  • I’ve Been Duped – More precise and clipped than the LP version; features some interesting ‘chacka-chacka-chacka’ backing vocals from Eleni.
  • Ponto – An intriguing little number. There’s a distinct math-rock sound to parts of it (quite reminiscent of fIREHOSE) as well as a strong vocal hook (‘What is your fear girl/boy…?’) Not entirely clear what it’s about, but ‘ice cream palaver’ is a particularly satisfying phrase.
  • Tommy Shooter – Not radically different, but again there’s a cleaner, more precise sound. The keyboards (a similar sound to those on Chimney) are more prominent.
  • Taurig – Musically similar to the album version, but features much more in the way of vocals; MES contributes some sinister and dramatic whispering and Eleni adds some jaunty yet robotic chanting.
  • Can Can Summer – Once again, a much dryer and precise sound, and it feels more balanced overall.
  • Strangetown – Much briefer (about half the length of the album version); feels a little sluggish, but contains some interesting wobbly synth effects. Also glitch-free.
  • Alton Towers – Even better than the excellent album version; considerably more spacious and jazzy and the odd little background details are more easily detectable.
  • 50 Year Old Man – Swaps the bludgeoning muscle of the album version for a slightly more measured approach, but still a swirling maelstrom of intensity. Some very odd backing vocals as the banjo section emerges; also lurches into a strange jazz-funk passage just after four minutes.
  • 50 Year Old Man 2 – Replicates the last 2-3 minutes of the album version, again in a slightly more measured and less unhinged manner.
  • Exploding Chimney – A little looser in structure. Still frantic and powerful, but Pete’s guitar doesn’t have quite the blistering vigour of the released version.
  • Senior Twilight Stock Replacer – The one that varies least from the final version.
  • Is This New – Also relatively similar, although there’s an interesting oscillating keyboard part lurking in the background on occasion.

My “Version”
With no singles/b-sides to play with, and the album only clocking in at 47 minutes, there’s little scope for a radically different version. In addition, the sequencing doesn’t exactly scream out to be changed, so I’ll happily leave it as it is.

Rankings
With no releases other than the album itself to consider, the only decision to be made is where IWS fits. It feels, to some extent, similar to Unutterable, in that it is full of new ideas, invention and variety, but doesn’t always quite hit the mark. Its missteps are less jarring than those on Unutterable, however, so is just about preferred.

In many ways, it has a similar feel to Grotesque, in that there’s an air of reinvention about the group on the album. It doesn’t, however, quite reach the same transformative heights.

  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. Imperial Wax Solvent
  10. The Unutterable
  11. Fall Heads Roll
  12. The Marshall Suite
  13. Cerebral Caustic
  14. I Am Kurious Oranj
  15. Room To Live
  16. The Infotainment Scan
  17. Extricate
  18. Bend Sinister
  19. Dragnet
  20. The Light User Syndrome
  21. Are You Are Missing Winner
  22. Middle Class Revolt
  23. Code: Selfish
  24. Shift-Work
  25. Live At The Witch Trials
  26. Reformation Post TLC
  27. The Frenz Experiment

5 thoughts on “YMGTA #36 – Imperial Wax Solvent

  1. Glad you made this top ten. I would have made it top three, top two even. An absolute classic, every tune a cracker with a great riff. You can tell they must have had a lot of fun making it (not always a given with The Fall!) The start of the last great Fall period.
    There was an interview with MES on Newsnight Review when the short stories collection came out and he predictably dismissed it. There was a panel discussion afterwards where Paul Morley, Kirsty Wark and John Harris absolutely tore it to pieces and I think they were right. Even the writers I like (Niall Griffiths, Stewart Lee) turned in terrible work. I still have it on a DVD-R somewhere, I could try and upload it to Youtube if anyone here is interested?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m fortunate to have heard it, but I’m not in a position to be able to share I’m afraid Dan. There have been noises about Cherry Red releasing it as a bonus disc on a reissue, but it seems to have gone quiet. Fingers crossed.

    Chimney is indeed great 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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