Perverted by Language

Mr. Sociological Memory, Northern England, Blustery Contempt, The Stooges, The Monks, MC5, Your Granny on Bongos, Avant-Garde Murk, “The White Crap that Talks Back,”Overenunciation of Final Consonants, Captain Beefheart, Northern Riot, The Kinks, Sonic Youth, Yuletide Parodies, The Death of John Peel, Repetition

Perverted by Language

Douglas Wolk
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

“Apparently, there are some people out there who don’t love the Fall,” John Peel announced on BBC Radio One once, after playing yet another song by his favorite band. “I spurn them with my toe.” Between 1978 and Peel’s death last year, the Fall recorded twenty-four “Peel sessions,” sets of four songs recorded in three hours or so at the BBC’s studios in Maida Vale for broadcast on his twice- or thrice-weekly show. Peel aired a few bands’ sessions every week for more than thirty years, a custom held over from the days when the British musicians’ union required a certain amount of music commissioned for radio play. The Fall, though, were the quintessential Peel band; he once said he was “incapable of telling if they’ve ever made a bad record.” They have, but his adoring rain-or-shine fandom made it possible for them to sustain their marvelously odd career, and their six-disc set The Complete Peel Sessions 1978–2004, on the British label Sanctuary, is the cornerstone of their work.

Fussiness is arguably the Fall’s biggest problem in the studio—their worst records sound as if they’ve had the life tinkered out of them, and most of the best sound like they were rocketed onto tape in a few minutes before the police arrived. So the no-time-to-lose format of Peel sessions was ideal for them: They could do a few takes of a song, or add a quick overdub or two, but that was it. There have been fragments of the Fall’s Peel sessions released in the past: a couple of EPs, a late-’90s album, a double-CD anthology. Mostly, though, these performances have been passed around on tapes of tapes of tapes from the radio, hand to hand, and more recently on file-sharing services. They’ve never quite been commercially viable to release as an actual bootleg—the title of the Fall’s recent retrospective compilation 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong is on the mark—but the new set will retire a lot of hissy, fuzzy cassettes and CD-Rs.

Who exactly are the Fall? If you believe frontman Mark E. Smith’s infamous quote, “if it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s a Fall gig.” It’s true that Smith has been their only constant member—there have been near-constant lineup changes since he formed the first Fall as a teenager in Manchester in 1977. (“Always different, always the same,” Peel said.) But the Fall’s sound and style have a lot to do with the musicians Smith’s worked with, too: Remove his voice from any of their records, and it’d still be obvious who was playing. Guitarist Craig Scanlon and bassist Steve Hanley were in the group from 1979 until 1995 and 1998, respectively, and another guitarist’s two engagements with the Fall pushed them from avant-garde murk into pop, or something like it. We’ll get to her.

The starting point for wrestling with the Fall, though, is Smith’s voice, even more than his words. Robert Shelton’s 1961 review of Bob Dylan described his voice as “anything but pretty”; Smith’s voice is anything but pleasant. His relationship with melody is strained at the best of times, and usually overtly hostile; he prefers, generally, to hector and sneer, to orate, to rant, and to whine the bits of his lyrics that are attached to notes as if he’s putting them in sarcastic quotation marks. In the early years, he had a squeal that particularly emphatic words would erupt into, and his overenunciation of final consonants is the stuff of a thousand parodies: “The man-uh! Whose head! Ex-PANded-uh! Was corrupted-uh! By Mr. Sociological Memory!”

Smith’s persona is a shabbily dressed, working-class guy with a bad haircut, obsessed with English Northernness: “We are the white crap that talks back,” he announced early on. That pose is how he gets away with being a total aesthete and language-geek. His lyrics are denser and murkier than any other pop songwriter’s, with the possible exception of Captain Beefheart (whose “Beatle Bones ’n’ Smokin’ Stones” the Fall covered for one Peel session). They don’t quite work as poetry of the printed kind; their rhetorical mode is usually blustery contempt, and on the page, they’re very often ridiculously repetitive, or close to nonsensical. But repetition is one of his great weapons as a performer—the Fall’s first single identified “the three Rs” as “repetition, repetition, repetition”—and he uses it to make his songs sound simpler than they are. Almost every Fall song has a phrase or two he chants until it sinks in: “The Wehrmacht never got in here,” “long horn—long horn breed,” “welcome to the U. S. ’80s–’90s.” After playing their records all the time for over fifteen years, I finally looked at their quasi-official lyric site (www.visi.com/fall), and realized those phrases were the only parts of a lot of their songs I recognized.

When the Fall first recorded for Peel’s show in May, 1978, they must have sounded like a particularly tuneless variation on the second-wave punk that was Peel’s staple in those days, with a few flashes of intriguing weirdness. That first session’s “Industrial Es-tate” is standard punk territory in subject, but it begins with Smith half-whispering “get off the Ind. Est.,” as if reading from notes. He’d repeat that trick later on: The first line of “The Container Drivers,” a speed-crazed rockabilly song about speed-crazed truckers from their September 1980 session, is “Net cap. of 58 thousand pounds”—the 58 pronounced “five-eight.”

By that third session, though, the Fall were using their radio gigs to push at the walls of song form. “New Puritan” is seven minutes of Smith chanting about how “all decadent sins will reap discipline”; “New Face In Hell” is a two-chord riff (later ripped off by Pavement for “Conduit For Sale!”), accompanied by a little story in crabbed, breathless prose. “This is off our new LP!,” Smith squeaks in falsetto, then starts babbling: “Wireless enthusiast intercepts local government, uh, broadcast and uncovers secrets and scandals of deceitful-type proportions.” Radio One listeners whose ideal of political rock was “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” must have been baffled.

The fourth session, six months later, is even hotter and stranger. “Lie Dream of a Casino Soul” is a lurching parody of the “Wigan soul scene” of Northern English casino discos that fetishized rare American records from the ‘60s; “C’n’C” was, in those days, a regular part of their live set, a tuneless, galumphing framework for Smith to go on about whatever was on his mind. In this case, it seems to be people who want to interpret his work: “Forget the act, read the lit-crit first. You wouldn’t even know the sun was up unless there was a press release on it.” A minute later, he segues into a yowling, doubly tuneless rendition of “Do the Hucklebuck,” rewritten as “Hassle Schmuck,” and prominently featuring the couplet “video reach / stereo bog,” which he threw into a lot of songs around that time. Why? Who knows? It’s hilarious, anyway.

By the Fall’s sixth session, in March 1983, they’d managed to eradicate every hint of similarity to their contemporaries, which is to say that they wrote and played so eccentrically that the recording can hardly be heard on any terms but its own. Craig Scanlan had settled into his preferred guitar sound, just far enough out of tune to sound sour but not bitter; two drummers made their rhythms grind like a mill-wheel. “Smile,” a lacerating attack on a “lick-spittle southerner” fashionista, is built on a monomaniacal fifteen-beat-long riff. Half the band gets lost almost immediately and stays there, and it doesn’t matter, because Smith is in control, circling around to the title every few seconds and screaming it like a warning of an attack.

Smith’s language had also gotten as resonant and complicated as his early lyrics had promised. Here’s how “Hexen Definitive-Strife Knot” begins, as the Fall’s guitars leak out a simple, repeating figure:

Tied up to posts
Blindfold so can’t feel maintenance
Kickback art thou that thick?
Death of the dimwits
Businessman hits train
Businessman hits train
His veiled sex seeps through his management sloth
The journey takes one hour

And then the drums kick in. (Four minutes later, we finally hear a bass guitar, which leads the guitars into a second, similar riff: “That’s strife knot!” Smith announces. “Strife k’not!” It’s a medley, and we are not to mistake “knot” for “not.”)

Well, what’s going on here? Smith knows, for sure: he sings these lines with very specific emphases, nudging the “feel” and “of” in the first stanza, and he lingers over the s in “dimwits.” Almost every word or phrase plays off a few others, mutating their sense. “Tied up to posts / blindfold… death” suggests an execution, but a condemned man is blindfolded so he can’t see his death, not feel it, or “maintenance,” which belongs to the “businessman/management” vocabulary; “kickback” could be a business word, or a reference to an executioner’s rifle. So perhaps it’s a burning at the stake, which the archaism of “art thou” suggests. The meaning of “thick” drifts from describing posts, to the stupidity of the “dimwits,” to a “veiled sex”—blindfolded, in a way. A train can hit a businessman, but if a businessman is hitting a train, especially if two in a row are doing it, it’s a lot less fatal: Maybe it’s for a trip that takes an hour—or does the seeping take an hour? And so on. The song goes on for almost ten minutes, and doesn’t bother to explain itself.

By the time the Fall made studio recordings of that remarkable session’s songs, for their Perverted By Language album, they’d acquired another guitarist, Smith’s new American wife Brix. When they returned to the BBC’s studios in January 1984, she’d led them in a new direction—toward actual hooks, choruses, backing vocals, and perkiness—and Stephen Hanley’s tough, booming bass tone had emerged as their main instrumental voice. A nine-minute plod called “Words of Expectation” (memorable lyric: “Looks like an A1 predic. / But I’ll worm worm, worm, worm, worm worm worm, worm worm, worm worm worm worm worm worm worm, worm, worm worm worm, worm worm, worm worm worm, worm worm my way right out of it”), which never showed up on an album but sounded great as a one-off on the radio, was the only remnant of the previous year’s sound.

The next few sessions saw the Fall trying out cheerful rockabilly (“Couldn’t Get Ahead”) and full-on cock-rock (“Spoilt Victorian Child”). 1987’s “Athlete Cured” lifts its riff from Spinal Tap’s “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” of all things. By the end of the decade, they’d improbably landed a few singles in the British charts. Which is not to say that they’d forsaken their odder tendencies. For one thing, they still had Smith’s untamable tongue right out front; for another, he realized that Brix’s pop sense would let him get away with even more extreme linguistic experiments. The refrain of 1987’s “Guest Informant” is allegedly “Baghdad / Space Cog / Analyst,” but he keeps changing the phonemes. “L.A.,” from October 1985, is not a song by any normal definition of the word: a bass part with caffeine jitters, a guitar line like a persistent itch, and a lyric like surviving fragments of something that’s mostly crumbled away: “Odeon / Sky / Uncanny / Bushes are in disagreement with the heat.” Toward the end, Brix yelps a line from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: “It’s my happening! And it freaks me out!” The chorus goes “L.L.L.L.A.A.A.A.A.A.A.A.” That’s it for the words. It was a college-radio hit anyway, because it sounded like one. Peel, by this point, was inextricably identified with the Fall; when Sonic Youth recorded a Peel session of their own in 1988, they did three Fall songs and a Kinks song that the Fall had recently covered themselves.

Brix and Mark E. Smith split up in 1989, and she left the band; the subsequent Peel session, in January 1990, debuted three songs in which Smith seemed to be awfully mad at somebody (“Remember when you needed six caps of speed to get out of bed / And now you’re on Ecstasy”—nice substitution of “on” for “in” there), as well as a cover of the Monks’ mid-’60s garage-rock obscurity “I Hate You” (“You maladjusted little monkey you!”). The next few years’ worth of sessions are a welcome return to the dissonant messiness Brix had tamed, but the band’s also sounding more mechanical than they had in the ’80s, and Smith is more unidimensionally grumpy: “Is that a hair extension? / It’s soaked in hair lotion / How can you smell your own head?” Still, there are a couple of stellar covers the Fall never attempted to record outside the Maida Vale studios: a daffy reworking of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s reggae oddity “Kimble,” which might as well have been a Smith original, and a straight shot through the Sonics’ garage-rock oldie “Strychnine.”

And then, in late 1994, Brix returned, and the band’s subsequent session features one of their most glorious moments: “Glam Racket/Star,” a rewritten version of a two-album-old T. Rex–style boogie, for which she devised a new set of insults (“I feel empty! ’Cause baby you suck me clean!”) to yell at the same time as Mark sneered his (“Your Clearasil adverts produced Richthofen rashes! Sideboard-like! Shadrach! The SHOCK-uh!”) They also did Fallified versions of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Jingle Bell Rock,” apparently because that was the last thing anyone would have expected them to do. (Elastica, recording a Peel session of their own the same month, did a Yuletide Fall parody called “I Wanna Be a King of Orient-ah.”)

Brix stuck around for two more sessions, with less successful experiments—an unfortunate cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “The City Never Sleeps at Night,” and “Chilinist,” originally a song called “The Chiselers” that had apparently been messed with until it curdled for good. (“Dry hump in the hip club / The Floyd are short” is not one of the Fall’s better lines.) The March 1998 session, recorded after she left, is a fascinating disaster: Smith’s voice is buried in the mix, he’s singing as if he’s misplaced his teeth, and the band is barely holding it together, even on an early version of “Touch Sensitive,” which would eventually be recast and rerecorded as a single.

A month later, the band collapsed when Steve Hanley, Karl Burns and Tommy Crooks all quit after, or during, an onstage melée in New York City. The new Fall that Smith promptly assembled (with his girlfriend/keyboardist Julia Nagle the only holdover) did their best to break with the previous lineup’s rockist groove, in favor of breakbeats, dissonance, and electronic noise. “Anti-dotes,” from their unbelievably abrasive November 1998 Peel appearance, debuts a new Smith vocal technique: a slurred wail of vowels that only occasionally dips into spittle-flecked consonants. (“Aaaaand would Addams Family raconteur schizophrenes ice floe cut it out shows people on the train and shouted at disco RAAAoutes” is the closest approximation I can make of a typical line.) The session concludes with a shrieking, nearly atonal rattle through the bones of the Saints’ “This Perfect Day”—“well, there you go, and a perfectly coherent version of the old fa-vorite,” Peel breezily declared after playing it, and then didn’t feature another new Fall session for over four years.

In the meantime, Smith rotated the band’s lineup a few more times, including a brief spell featuring your granny on bongos. When the Fall returned to Peel’s show in March 2003, they’d become a bunch of lead-fisted rockers, plus Smith’s new wife/keyboardist Elena Poulou. They were also apparently having severe songwriting problems. Most of “Contraflow” is just Smith repeating “I hate the countryside so much / I hate the contraflow so much,” and they reached back twenty-one years for a bludgeoning remake of their old song “Mere Pseud Mag Ed.”

Another year, more Fall members, and one final session, from last August, in which they’ve finally attained the brute power Smith’s been trying to pound into them for the past few years. The model for the new Fall seems to be the late-’60s garage rock Smith’s been flirting with for years: the Stooges, the Monks, maybe even the MC5. That’s a decent strategy when they have a solid riff to play with. But the problem is that the best periods of the Fall were the ones when they had no model at all.

Peel died two months after that recording aired; the Fall aren’t likely to find a champion like him again. Former Fall guitarist Marc Riley now hosts a show of his own on Radio One but has no particular love for his old boss’s band. The mystique of Fall fans’ worn-out Peel tapes is about to be eradicated by pristine, FM-noise-free copies. Good: Mark E. Smith spurns the mystique with his toe. “I curse the self-copulation of your lousy record collection / New puritan says coffee table LPs never breathe,” he spat in 1980. These recordings are weird, tough, uneven, and sometimes frustrating, but they breathe like no other music.

More Reads

Church of Monsters

Dorna Khazeni

The Conlangers’ Art

Annalee Newitz

Welcome to the Almost Cult-Like Fan-World of American Womens’ Pro Basketball

Stephanie Burt