The Fall - 58 Golden Greats - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Fall - 58 Golden Greats

by Jeff Penczak Rating:6 Release Date:2018-11-30
The Fall - 58 Golden Greats
The Fall - 58 Golden Greats

Essentially a reissue of 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong (Sanctuary, 2004) [aka 39 Golden Greats], this set adds an extra disc worth of goodies, but may not be necessary for the casual Fall fan, as 37 of the previous “golden greats” are repeated and both sets were compiled by Daryl Easlea, so you don’t get a fresh perspective on what constitutes a “great” Fall track. [Granted, some would argue they’re all “great” and Easlea admits that you could assemble your own 58 which would probably be considerably different. Hell, If Mark E. Smith assembled the box, there’d probably be 58 different selections! As an aside, the first three tracks I went looking for (‘No XMAS For John Quays’, ‘Bill Is Dead’, and ‘I Am Damo Suzuki’) aren’t included and you’ll probably encounter a few dead ends on your own.] But onlookers who may have missed out on the earlier release (allegedly out of print) will certainly welcome this expanded edition. [Serious completists will just want to spring for Cherry Red’s 7CD box set of all the singles and be done with it, but then you miss out on some of their interesting album tracks that Easlea has selected to give a fuller representation of their genius/insanity!] And despite Easlea’s awkward, clumsily-edited liners, he does give you the gist of the stories behind the tracks, which completists will appreciate.

The Fall were the most prolific British punk band (over 150 different releases have been documented), so narrowing the collection down to a rather pretentious 58 (why not an even five dozen) is fraught with hairpulling, teeth gnashing, and fist-pumping, but economics insist on a manageable number, and Easlea insists his latest collection “includes all the hits” (it doesn’t). I count about half their singles (surprisingly, their debut ‘It’s The New Thing’ is omitted), alongside a generous selection of album tracks with the added bonus that Easlea had access to all the various labels that released Fall material – over a dozen – including Step Forward, Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet, Cog Sinister, and their latest home, Cherry Red, who’ve released the current artifact.

So, to the songs… Yes, most of the “hits” are here. The early years were their zenith in popularity, scoring seven UK Indie Top 10 hits (inexplicably, ‘Look, Know’ is omitted) between ’79-’83 before another two dozen singles graced the national (Top 100) chart (about eight of these are passed over) as the band’s popularity spread beyond their initial “indie-flavoured” fanbase to the general public. [Surprisingly, their biggest hits – all included - were cover tunes – cult US psychers The Other Half’s golden nugget ‘Mr. Pharmacist’, The Kinks’ ‘Victoria’, and R. Dean Taylor’s Northern Soul classic ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’.]

The startling statement of intent, the spoken word ‘Repetition’ from the “Bingo-Master’s Break Out” EP set the stage for early sound attacks: minimalist, rudimentary, antagonistic instrumental backing trying to keep up with Mark E. Smith’s rambling soapbox utterances (one could make an argument that Smith created rap, at least in a punk context) – “difficult listening” in a nutshell. Several excerpts from their occasionally unlistenable full-length debut Live At The Witch Trials follow, signposting punk’s fuck-all attitude for melody and musical proficiency, let along intelligible lyrics. (Of course, with The Fall, unintelligible doesn’t necessarily translate as meaningless. Smith & CO were nothing if not sincere in their political and social concerns for the underdog.

‘Rowche Rumble’ lashes out at big pharma (i.e., Hoffman La Roche)’s exploitation of prescription drugs while many users are treated as criminals, while early favourite ‘Fiery Jack’ is speedabilly, a galloping tune that Sounds magazine nevertheless struggled to market to its subscribers, claiming it was “completely at odds with the general scene”. Thankfully, the band soon introduced melody and humour into their material with the sublime #2 UK Indie hit ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’, co-produced by Pere Ubu/Red Krayola musical mastermind Mayo Thompson (just to ensure the lunacy wasn’t completely abated!). The amphetamine-fueled adrenaline rush of ‘Totally Wired’ soundtracked a generation of speed freaks and also peaked (no pun intended!) at #2 on the UK Indie charts, their two career chart highlights back ending each other in the Summer of ’80.

Popular album cuts include the kazoo(!)-driven ‘New Face In Hell’ (from late-’80 #1 album Grotesque (After The Gramme)) and their initial Rough Trade swan song (they briefly jumped ship to Kamera) ‘Prole Art Theft’ (from Slates, 1981) that Easlea suggests offended their label (whom Smith labeled “a bunch of well-intentioned hippies”) due to the song’s antagonistic stabs at the weak-kneed Left who apparently weren’t radical enough for Smith’s liking. You may also recognize Hex Induction Hour’s ‘Hip Priest’ from its inclusion in Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning film Silence of The Lambs, although to these ears, its nearly eight minutes of Smith at his rambling, incoherent worst. Future BBC 6Music DJ Marc Riley (bass, guitars) left after “Hex”, and the band returned with one of their biggest hits (UK Indie #3) ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’, where Smith once again foresees a world “fucked up by too much misinformation posing as real information”. In 1983!

‘Lie Dream of A Casino Soul’ introduces the dual-drummer lineup (as if they didn’t make enough racket with just one!), while ‘The Classical’ gives Johnny Lydon a run for his P.I.L. money while simultaneously predicting the entertainment industry’s current nonsensical habit of sticking “obligatory niggers” in every TV show, movie, play, etc. that comes out these days. Smith claims that Tamla Motown were briefly interested in signing the band because they needed another white act, so Smith “had to make a joke about it”.

By 1984, the Fall were finally producing sounds that didn’t cause one to run screaming from the room holding one’s ears for relief, and a new wife (Laura Salenger, aka Brix Smith) and label (Beggar’s Banquet) toned down the offensive noises to at least attempt to reach a wider audience. ‘Oh! Brother’ and ‘C.R.E.E.P.’ [which Riley claims was about him, referring to an old nickname, although the Smiths (Mark and Brix, not the band!, although Morrissey was also mentioned as a possible candidate) deny Riley’s claim] actually had beats you could follow and melodies you could sing along to, yielding their first two singles to chart nationally (#93 and #91 respectively) and beginning a streak of nearly two-dozen consecutive chart entries, admittedly holding up the rest of the entries from the nether lands of the 80s and 90s!

Disc 2 kicks off with the bouncy ‘No Bulbs’ (and for the Fall, “bouncy” is not an adjective you’ll hear too often!) and the aforementioned ‘Mr. Pharmacist’ links their punk roots with their garage influences. The downbeat ‘Living Too Late’ was the obvious attention-grabber after Smith’s passing and his morose lyrics still strike a nerve, but spirits and shoes are lifted by the plonky baroque pop (another phrase naught heard around Fall fans) of ‘Hey! Luciani’ from Smith’s muddled play about Pope John Paul I that most Fall fans I spoke with never knew about (a 2-week run-and-done engagement will do that).

With such an impressive, prolific catalogue, one still is perplexed how the inconsequential throwaway, 'There's A Ghost In My House’ would end up being the Fall’s biggest hit, especially as it is immediately followed here by what SHOULD have been their greatest triumph, ‘Hit The North’, a masterpiece firing on all cylinders that had even the most jaded Fall critics tapping their toes down the High Street. One of music’s most perplexing shocks and proof positive that the charts don’t mean a fuck. Their faithful cover of the Kinks chestnut ‘Victoria’ nearly outsold the original, and the Fall joined the baggy-trousered Madchester brigade with the funky rap-tastic beat bomb ‘Telephone Thing’, which again deserved much better than its #58 chart peak. The beats kept coming throughout the “frantic techno skank” (NME) of 1993 single ‘Why Are People Grudgeful?”, although their dabble with the disco silliness of ‘Lost In Music’ (Sister Sledge? Really, Mark?) is another imponderable in a discography full of left turns, about-faces, and are-you-shitting-me’s!

Their ’93 Christmas single ‘Behind The Counter’ is another in a long line of successful rebounds: it’s got a memorable melody, somewhat intelligible lyric from the Bard of Mumbletown, and a swanky synth midsection that adds up to something even notorious chart antagonist DJ Johnny Fever might play (c.f., WKRP IN Cincinnati)! Brix returned for ‘95’s ‘Feeling Numb’, but Mark sounds bored and Brix’s sweet backing vocals can’t save another subpar effort that was past its sell-by date almost as soon as it hit the streets.

The final disc opens in ’96 (not ’86 as Easlea’s liners indicate) with the controversial ‘Chiselers’ which previous home Permanent refused to release as a single because they felt “it sounded like an LP track”. The band also struggled with Smith’s constant rethinks on the instrumentation and arrangement. It was also guitarist Craig Scanlon’s final Fall appearance. With all the mayhem around its recording (supposedly over eight months), the track manages to hold together with angelic backing vocals, multiple keyboard embellishments softening the sonic assault. Still, it does feel more like a multi-part suite cobbled together from Smith’s myriad redirections.

Julia Nagle replaced Scanlon on the ensuing Light User Syndrome LP, represented here by Smith’s own premonitory Bonfire Night blast, ‘Powder Keg’, which preceded the Manchester City Centre IRA bombing by less than a week. Coincidence, of course. Smith & Co. climb back into their baggy trousers for the Madchester funky two-step, ‘Masquerade’, which manages to out-do Happy Mondays, The Farm, Primal Scream, et. al. in its dance floor magnetism.

1999 saw an almost entirely new lineup (Nagle was the lone holdover) and the new blood seemed to breathe new energy into the band, with the rousing fist-pumping shoutalong ‘Touch Sensitive’ garnishing ear play in a Vauxhall Corsa advert. But it sounds too Elastica/Wire-influenced to these ears, and the extra exposure didn’t translate into sales – it stalled at the bottom of the charts.

The 21st century showed no sign of the Fall yielding to commercial interests, as the lo-fi basement squalor quality of ‘Hollow Mind’ or the near-industrial metallic clang of ‘Susan Vs Youthclub’ attest. Still can’t understand a thing Smith is mumbling, but some think that’s part of his charm? Better yet (much better) is the Gary-Glitter-on-steroids stomp-fest ‘Mountain Energei’ and the band’s popularity was never higher than ‘Theme From Sparta FC#2’, which topped John Peel’s final Festive Fifty in 2004, the year the legendary DJ and Fall supporter (they were his favourite band) died from  a heart attack whilst on holiday.

‘Blindness’ chugs along like a Looney Tunes assembly line set to an industrial Carl Stalling bass throb (courtesy Steve Trafford), but is eventually doomed by Smith’s impersonation of a bored Van Morrison going through the motions on his Contractual Obligation Album. It also doesn’t know when to end – at over 7 minutes, it must be one their longest tracks, with headache inducement arriving earlier than usual and refusing to go away. Its “sister track”, the title track from 2007’s Reformation Post TLC is even worse, with Smith screaming maniacally and incomprehensibly for nearly as long. Consider this their Krautrocking motoric phase, harkening back to their Can inspirations 40 years earlier. It’s the set’s most mesmerizing-cum-hair-raising/pulling 15 minutes, proof that Smith hasn’t lost any of his vim, vigour or vitriol.

‘Wolf Kidult Man’ finds the band back in the garage for more head-pounding pillage – think Nirvana–meets-Motörhead, but the doomy/gloomy Sabbathian sludge of ‘Greenway’ (inexplicably named after their guitarist) borders on vomitosis speed/thrash metal and is possibly the worst thing on here (a shame that “Suzuki”, “Bill” and “John Quays” were all passed over for this crap). By now only the most die-hard Fall fan could stomach the mess that was sputtering from Smith & Co. The set’s final single ‘Sir William Wray’ was described by Smith as “anti-music” and it certainly sounds like a Chinese fire drill gone haywire in which all the musicians are playing different songs. You know, like anti-music. Trouble is, why should we buy something that is self-described as the antithesis of what we buy albums for? Sadly, a lot of what remains is just antagonistic, room-clearing noise, from the belching fart-mongering demoniacal ‘Remainderer’ (demonstrating that Smith enjoys inventing words for his titles) to the angry, meandering ‘Venice With The Girls’ from 2015’s Sub-Lingual Tablet. By now, even their staunchest supporters in the music press had abandoned ship, describing the new material as “miserable”, “incomprehensible”, “a mixed bag to be sure”. The box ends with the title track from their 31st and final studio album, New Facts Emerge and Smith is still howling at the moon, but some listeners will have bailed long before.

So, a treat for fans of such notoriously uncompromising artists as Captain Beefheart, (I could certainly hear Don Van Vliet covering any number of tunes here, and vice-versa with Smith demolishing the Captain’s back catalogue), Can (the ‘Damo Suzuki’ tribute is a tipoff), Faust, Einstürzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle, Foetus, P.I.L., Skinny Puppy, Swans, Red Krayola, Pere Ubu, et. al.; others, beware…you’re in for an evening of challenging sonic aerobatics, screaming punk rapping, and musical pyrotechnics that will rearrange your brain for years to come.

 

 

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