Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Fall's peak: Grotesque and Hex Enduction Hour

Grotesque offered a modern-day hallucinatory equivalent to Hogarth's caricatures of the English lower classes taking their pleasures, an idea pursued further on such singles as "Lie Dream of the Casino Soul", a critique of the Northern Soul scene.

The Fall - Lie Dream of the Casino Soul 1981

On "I'm Into CB", for instance, Smith method-acts the role of a hapless radio ham (codename Happy Harry) who still lives with his parents: "My father's not bad really/He got me these wires and bits/Apart that he talks to me hardly".

The Fall - I'm Into CB 1982

For the NME's Barney Hoskyns, this era of Fallmusic - bookended by Grotesque and the mini-LP Slates - threw the listener into deraging 'wastelands of sound without themes, messages, or politics. These records were politics, living conjurations of the crass and the grotesque in Northern prole life ... What The Fall's music implied was that the whole bastion of comfortable working-class traditions - the institutions of barbiturates, boozing, and bingo - could be transformed, could even transform themselves, into a deep cultural revolution". 

Smith had broached this notion in the sleevenotes to Totale's Turns, a sort of live greatest hits. Alluding to the Northern circuit of working men's clubs where The Fall played early on for lack of other opportunities, he speculated wildly: "Maybe one day a Northern sound will emerge not tied to that death-circuit attitude of merely reiterating movements based in the capital".

This fantasy scenario inspired Grotesque's epic closing track 'The N.W.R.A.', which stands for "North Will Rise Again". 'It's just like a sort of document of a revolution that could happen - like somebody writing a book about what would have happened if the Nazis had invaded Britain', Smith told the NME.

The Fall - The N.W.R.A. 1981

Reading speedfreak science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick gave Smith concepts like like 'pre-cog' and 'psychic time travel'. The latter informed the song "Wings", during which he recruits gremlins and goes back through a 'timelock' into the 1860s.

The Fall - Wings 1983

A teenage phase of bumping into ghosts while out walking inspired songs like "Spectre Vs. Rector" and "Elves", in which Smith shrieks, 'The fantastic is in league against me!'

The Fall - Spectre Vs. Rector 1979

The Fall - Elves 1984

The culmination of The Fall's fascination with the supernatural came with 1982's Hex Enduction Hour, half of which was recorded in Iceland, a country where most of the population still believes in elves.

The track "Iceland" was improvised in a Reykjavik studio with lava walls, the band oozing out a drone of two-note piano cycles and banjo that sounded like sitar, topped with incantations from Smith about casting 'runes against your self-soul'.

The Fall - Iceland 1982

Hex is The Fall at their most forbidding and primordial. On "Just Step S'Ways", the group's two-drummer line-up brings a new polyrhythmic tumultuousness to the band's juggernaut rumble.

The Fall - Just Step S'Ways 1982

"Hip Priest" has an almost jazz-like swing, while the guitars on "Who Makes the Nazis?" sound like flint shards hewn from a mountain face. And in case you are wondering who makes those Nazis, it's 'intellectual halfwits'. Ouch!

The Fall - Hip Priest 1982

The Fall - Who Makes the Nazis? 1982

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Manchester's other bands: The Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio and The Passage

Guitarist Vini Reilly had gone AWOL from normal life. He suffered from anorexia nervosa, and his music sounded as translucent as you'd expect from someone with almost no flesh: intricate skeins of guitar fed through an echoplex and always played with the fingertips, delicate and prismatic, like Jack Frost on a window pane. On the second Durutti Column album, 1981's LC, Reilly recorded a tribute to Ian Curtis, but the song, "Missing Boy", could just as easily have been about himself.

Durutti Column - Missing Boy 1981

Heard best on the early single "Flight" and the live side of their debut album The Graveyard & The Ballroom, A Certain Ratio's music worked through the tension between dry funk (rimshot cracks and feverish snares, neurotic bass, itchy rhythm guitar) and dank atmospherics (trumpet that seems to drift through fog, diffuse smears of guitar so heavily processed it sounds more like synth).

A Certain Ratio - Flight 1980

Formerly a classically trained percussionist, The Passage's leader Dick Witts built dense, dramatic arrangements that were stirringly rhythmical but not in the least rock-like. "We used bell sounds, military sounds like trumpet fanfares, brass and trumpets - anything that suggested things outside rock", he says. Matching the epic sound was a thematic loftiness verging on the didactic: "Devils and Angels" railed against organized religion, while "XOYO" obliquely explored gender politics.

The Passage - Devils and Angels 1981

The Passage - XOYO 1982

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures & Closer

Released at the height of British summertime - June 1979 - the album caught the eye as well as the ear: the cover, designed by Factory's art director Peter Saville, was a matt-black void apart from a small scientific diagram of rippling lines whose crinkled crests and sharp slopes resemble the outlines of a mountain range. Joy Division's guitarist Barney Sumner had found the diagram in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Science: it's a Fourier analysis of 1000 consecutive light spasms emitted by the pulsar CP 1919. Left behind when a massive sun exhausts its fuel and collapses in on itself, a pulsar is highly electromagnetic and emits regular flashes of intense energy, like a lighthouse in the pitch-black night. Perhaps that's how Ian Curtis was beginning to see himself - as a magnetic star sending out a signal, a beacon in the darkness.

With its vast drumscape, permafrost synths and cascading chimes, "Atmosphere", Joy Division's breathtaking next single, sound like nothing else in rock, except maybe some dream collaboration between Nico and Phil Spector.

Joy Division - Atmosphere 1980

The image on the single - a hooded monk, his back turned to the viewer, stalking a snow-covered Alpine peak - captures the moment when a certain religiosity began to gather around Joy Division.

A 'strange social climate' (as Hannett put it) surrounded the March 1980 sessions for Closer, Joy Division's second album. Hannett described the record as 'kabbalistic, locked in its own mysterious world'. The sleeve featured a photograph taken in a Genoa cemetry, a sculpted tableau of the dead Christ surrounded by grief-stricken mourners.

Compared with Unknown Pleasures, the textures of Closer are more ethereal and experimental: bassist Peter Hook often used a six-string bass, for more melody, while Sumner built a couple of synthesizers from kits. Morris had acquired a drum synth and fed it through 'the shittiest fuzz pedal you can imagine' to generate the slaughterhouse of hacking and shearing, metal-on-bone noise in the background of "Atrocity Exhibition", Closer's opener.

Joy Division - Atrocity Exhibition 1980

Listening to Closer, it's like you are inside Curtis' head, feeling the awful down-swirling drag of terminal depression. Side one is all agony: the swarming knives of "Atrocity"; the ice-shroud glaze of "Isolation" - Curtis swathed in a barbiturate haze, his voice mineralized by Hannett's effects. The treadmill motion of "Passover" sounds like the group's batteries are running down. It's followed by the tough, punitive rock of "Colony" and "A Means to an End", in which the drums finally decelerate like a dying machine.

Joy Division - Isolation 1980

Joy Division - Passover 1980

Joy Division - Colony 1980

Joy Division - A Means to an End 1980

Closer's second side is even more disturbing, but this time on account of its serenity. It's as though Curtis has stopped struggling altogether: the numb trance and narcotic glide of "Heart and Soul"; the alternately desperate and resigned "Twenty-Four Hours", its beautiful bass like the pulse of a heavy heart, Curtis's voice disconcertingly deep, like the microphone is right inside his chest; the epic colonnades of "The Eternal", seen through misty eyes, as if Curtis is watching his own funeral procession; finally the listless, clip-clop beat of "Decades", its synths eroded and washed out, like aged Super-8 home movies of happy childhood memories.

Joy Division - Heart and Soul 1980

Joy Division - Twenty-Four Hours 1980

Joy Division - The Eternal 1980

Joy Division - Decades 1980

The last lyric Curtis ever finished, "In a Lonely Place", featured a death-wish reference to 'caressing the marble and stone'. The crisis came on 18 May 1980. After visiting his estranged wife and asking, unsuccessfully, for her to drop the divorce, Curtis stayed up all night, watching a movie by his favourite director Werner Herzog and listening to Iggy Pop's The Idiot. Finally, he hung himself as 'that awful daylight' ("In a Lonely Place") approached.

Joy Division - In a Lonely Place 1980

Saville gave the posthumous single "Love Will Tear Us Apart" an exquisite abstract cover that looked like the lustrous stone interior of a cenotaph. The song became Joy Division's first chart hit.

Curtis's crooning vocal, Hook's bass and Sumner's keyboard trace in unison the same shy, crestfallen melody, while Morris's drumming skitters with feathery unrest. On "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and its savage B-side, "These Days", the singer and the music both sound raw and exposed, like they've got no skin. The words are laceratingly candid glimpses into a dying relationship, snapshots of bad sex and broken trust. Although the marriage break-up was only one factor, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was taken as Curtis's suicide note to the public: the official explanation.

Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart 1980

Joy Division - These Days 1980

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Joy Division and Martin Hannett's production

Joy Division began life as Warsaw - to most contemporary ears, a fairly undistinguished, punk-inflected hard-rock band. "Digital", the group's first recording as Joy Division, sounds not a million miles from Black Sabbath's "Paranoid": a dark, fast pummel, a full-tilt dirge fusing pace and ponderousness.

Joy Division - Digital 1978

Black Sabbath - Paranoid 1970

Joy Division's use of Nazi imagery stemmed from morbid fascination; and as such, was often in questionable taste. On the mini-album Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus - a document of the Manchester punk scene - singer Ian Curtis can be heard screaming at the crowd, 'Do you all remember Rudolf Hess?'

Joy Division - At A Later Date (from Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus) 1978

In June 1978 the group self-released their first record, the Warsaw EP An Ideal for Living. The sleeve featured a drawing of a blond-haired Hitler Youth drummer boy and a photograph of a German stormtrooper pointing a gun at a small Polish Jewish boy.

Curtis was also intrigued by the mass psychology of fascism - the way a charismatic leader could bewitch an entire population into doing, or accepting, irrational and monstrous things. The early song "Walked in Line" is about those who just did what they were told, committing crimes in a 'hypnotic trance'.

Joy Division - Walked in Line 1979

Curtis' doomy baritone and obsession with the dark side often got him compared to Jim Morrison. Indeed, The Doors were one of the singer's favourite bands. Joy Division's "Shadowplay" is like "LA Woman" turned inside out, the latter's rolling, virile propulsion reduced to a bleak transit across a city that could hardly be less like sun-baked southern California.

Joy Division - Shadowplay 1979

The Doors - LA Woman 1971

"Digital", Martin Hannett's first Joy Division production, was titled after his favourite sonic toy, the AMS digital delay line. His most distinctive use of the AMS digital delay was subtle, though: he applied a micro-second delay to the drums that was barely audible but which created a sense of enclosed space - a vaulted sound, like the music was recorded in a mausoleum. Hannett also wove subliminal shimmers deep into the recesses of Joy Division's records. And he loved the occasional extreme effect: on the debut Unknown Pleasures, he miked up the clanking of an antique lift for "Insight" and incorporated smashing glass on "I Remember Nothing".

Joy Division - Insight 1979

Joy Division - I Remember Nothing 1979

Hannett demanded totally clear and clean 'sound separation', not just for individual instruments, but for each element of the drum kit. "Typically on tracks he considered to be potential singles, he'd get me to play each drum on its own to avoid any bleed-through of sound", sighs drummer Stephen Morris. "First the bass-drum part. Then the snare part. Then the high hats". Not only was this tediously protracted; it created a mechanistic, disjointed effect. "The natural way to play drums is all at the same time. So I'd end up with my legs black and blue 'cos I'd be tapping on them quietly to do the other bits of the kit that he wasn't recording". 
This dehumanizing treatment - essentially turning Morris into a drum machine - was typical of Hannett's rather high-handed attitude to musicians. But the disjointedness certainly added to the music's alienated feel. You can hear it on one of the high points of the Hannett-Joy Division partnership, "She's Lost Control", with its mechano-disco drum loop, tom-toms like ball-bearings, a bassline like steel cable undulating in strict time, and a guitar like a contained explosion - as if the track's only real rock-out element has been cordoned off.

Joy Division - She's Lost Control 1979

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Fall's peculiar brand of social surrealism

It's hard to imagine The Fall and Joy Division coming from anywhere other than 1970s Manchester. Something about the city's gloom and decay seemed to seep deep into the fabric of their very different sounds. Although he didn't identify the place by name, The Fall's singer Mark E. Smith immortalized the pollution-belching Trafford Park on "Industrial Estate", an early classic of the band. "The crap in the air will fuck up your face", he jeers. 
"That song is a very funny take on Manchester's history of having been the cradle of capitalism and then, by the 1970s, its grave", says Richard Boon, who funded the recording of The Fall's first EP but then couldn't afford to release it on his label New Hormones.

The Fall - Industrial Estate 1978

"This is the three "R"'s...Repetition repetition repetition", quipped Smith on The Fall's mission statement "Repetition". Scorning "fancy music" - the overproduced mainstream rock of the day - "Repetition" fulfilled Smith's early goal of "raw music with really weird vocals on top". The rawness was supplied by guitarist Martin Bramah's thin, wheedling guitar lines, keyboardist Una Baines' wonky organ jabs (played on the cheap 'n' nasty Snoopy keyboard, rated by Sounds as the absolute worst on the market), Tony Friel's capering bass, and Karl Burns' ramshackle drums. The freak vocal element came from Smith's half-sung, half-spoken drawl and wizened insolence.

The Fall - Repetition 1978

On Live at the Witch Trials, the group's 1979 debut, "Underground Medecin" and "Frightened" evoke the positive and negative sides of amphetamine abuse: the rush that lights up your nervous system ("I found a reason not to die", Smith exults, "the spark inside") versus the hyper-tense twitchiness of stimulant-induced paranoia.

The Fall - Underground Medecin 1979

The Fall - Frightened 1979

In 1981 Smith talked about the downside of "taking a lot of speed" over a long period: "you start looking in mirrors and getting ulcers". But The Fall carried on writing songs like "Totally wired" and covering sixties amphetamine hymns like "Mr Pharmacist".

The Fall - Totally Wired 1980

The Fall - Mr Pharmacist 1986

The "pharmacist" in that song is a drug dealer, a street punk peddling "energy". The Fall were obsessed with the double standards surrounding drugs - the way some chemicals are proscribed while others are prescribed. Training as a psychiatric nurse at Prestwich Hospital, Baines came back every day from work and disgorged stories about the mistreatment and neglect she'd witnessed - including the use of downers to pacify the inmates. 
Her talk filtered into Smith's lyrics: "Repetition" refers to electro-shock therapy (after you've had some, alleges Smith, you lose your love of repetition), while The Fall's 1979 single "Rowche Rumble" got its title from Hoffman La Roche, the pharmaceutical multinational who dominated the market for antidepressants.

The Fall - Rowche Rumble 1979

Pills feature in Bingo-Master's Break-out", the title track of The Fall's debut EP, not as a way of coping with soul-crushing mundanity but of escaping it permanently. A guy whose job is organizing other people's recreation - the bingo master - looks into his future and, seeing only encroaching baldness and years "wasting time in numbers and rhyme", opts to end his life with a handful of pills washed down with booze.
Macabre and hilarious, "Bingo-Master's Break-out" typified The Fall's peculiar brand of social surrealism.

The Fall - Bingo-Master's Break-out 1978

Equally important as subject matter was rock culture. Song after song skewered the platitudes and pieties of hipsters: "It's the New Thing", "Music Scene", "Mere Pseud Mag Ed", "Look Know", "Printhead" (the last about an obsessive music-press reader who gets 'dirty fingers' every week perusing the 'inkies').

The Fall - It's the New Thing 1978

The Fall - Music Scene 1979

The Fall - Mere Pseud Mag Ed 1982

The Fall - Look Know 1982

The Fall - Printhead 1979

One of Smith's most famous pronouncements was his description of The Fall themselves as 'Northern white crap that talks back' (in "Crap Rap 2" from Witch Trials).

The Fall - Crap Rap 2 / Like to Blow 1979

"Fiery Jack", the Fall's fourth single, offered a coruscating portrait of one of Manchester's finest sons, the hard-bitten product of five generations of industrial life. Fiery Jack is a forty-five-year-old pub stalwart, who's spent three decades on the piss, ignoring the pain from his long-suffering kidneys. Surviving on meat pies and other revolting bar snacks, Jack is an inexhaustible font of anecdotes and rants. The music sounds stubborn, incorrigible - a white-line rush of rockabilly drums and rhythm guitar like sparks shooting out of a severed cable. Speed might just be another of Jack's poisons, judging by his refusal to go 'back to the slow life' and lines like 'Too fast to write/I just burn burn burn'. Based on older blokes Smith had met in Manchester pubs, Jack was 'the sort of guy I can see myself as in twenty years', he told Sounds.

The Fall - Fiery Jack 1980

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cabaret Voltaire's classic first singles

The group's debut record, Extended Play, was released by Rough Trade in October 1978. Somewhere between 1977 and 1979, the classic Cabaret Voltaire sound took shape: the hissing high hats and squelchy snares of the rhythm-generator; Chris Watson's smears of synth slime; Stephen Mallinder's dankly pulsing bass; and Richard Kirk's spikes of shattered-glass guitar.
Everything coalesces on singles like "Silent Command" and "Seconds Too Late" to create a stalking hypno-groove feel somewhere between death disco and Eastern Bloc skank.

Cabaret Voltaire - Second Too Late 1980

On other singles - "Nag Nag Nag", "Jazz the Glass" - there's an almost charming sixties garage-punk feel, the fuzztone guitar and Farfisa organ vamps recalling ? & The Mysterians or The Seeds.

Cabaret Voltaire - Nag Nag Nag 1979

Cabaret Voltaire - Jazz the Glass 1981

You can hear the chill wind, the icy silver-machine whoosh of Kirk's guitar sound emerging on "The Set Up" on the debut EP.

Cabaret Voltaire - The Set Up 1978

Another Cabaret Voltaire hallmark was dehumanizing Mallinder's vocal via creepy treatments that made him sound reptilian, alien, or, at the extreme, like some kind of metallic or mineralized being. On "Silent Command", for instance, Mal's vocal bubbles like molten glass being blown into distended shapes.

Cabaret Voltaire - Silent Command 1979

Visiting USA for the first time in November 1979 inspired the sophomore album The Voice of America: the band caught wind of the impending shift to the right with Reagan and his born-again Christian constituency.

"A big novelty for a bunch of kids from England, where TV finished at eleven o'clock and there were only three channels, was the fact that America had all-night TV and loads of stations. We just locked into this televangelist Eugene Scott, who had a low-rent show that was all about raising money. And the only reason he wanted money was to stay on the air", says Kirk. Scott's voice ended up on the Cabs' classic single "Sluggin for Jesus".

Cabaret Voltaire - Sluggin' for Jesus 1980

1980's mini album Three Mantras was an oblique response to events in the Middle East.

Its two tracks "Eastern Mantra" and "Western Mantra", contrasted the evil twins of fundamentalist Islam and born-again Christian America, beloved enemies locked in a clinch of clashing civilizations.

Cabaret Voltaire - Eastern Mantra 1980

Cabaret Voltaire - Western Mantra 1980

"It kind of culminated with the third album, Red Mecca. It's not called that by coincidence. We weren't referencing the fucking Mecca Ballroom in Nottingham!", recalls Kirk. 

Purely through its sonic turbulence and tense rhythms, Red Mecca also seemed to tap into closer-to-home issues: the urban riots of summer 1981, unrest stoked by mounting unemployment as Thatcher's deflationary policies kicked in, then ignited by insensitive policing in inner-city areas.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Human League - The Dignity of Labour

The Human League's second release for Fast Product was a tribute to 'the worker'. The Dignity of Labour consisted of four electronic instrumentals inspired by the Soviet space programme. Each offered a different slant on a central concept: the extent to which 'modern technology depends almost entirely upon the worker'. In this case Russian miners toiled deep beneath the earth's crust, excavating the coal needed to make steel, the steel in turn being turned into gantries for Yuri Gagarin's spaceship. Gagarin appears on the EP's front cover as a splendidly isolated figure walking across a Moscow square to receive a medal for being the first human in outer space.

The EP came with a free flexi-disc, which documented - in true Brechtian fashion - the band and Last debating the sleeve's image. At the end Oakley makes a brief statement about the concept EP's theme: individualism versus collectivism.

The Human League - The Dignity of Labour (Bonus Flexi Disc) 1979

"You couldn't live in Sheffield and not be aware that the industrial era was crumbling", says Last. "So, on one level, the records was a totally serious hymn to the dignity of workers, but at the same time it was imbued with many levels of irony, doubt and alienation". Despite its timely resonances and atmospheric, ahead-of-its-time electronica, however, the EP's pensive instrumentals confused most 'Being Boiled' fans.

The Human League - The Dignity of Labour Part 1 1979

After the EP's release Last believed there was no point in putting out a third League single on Fast and decided to secure a major-label deal for the group. Approaching the big companies again, The Human League pitched themselves as the Next Big Thing in music: a wave of positivity after punk's nihilism and outrage.
"Blind Youth", the first song on their demo tape, ridiculed fashionable doom-and-gloom mongers, especially people who depict modern urban life as some kind of dystopian nightmare. 'High-rise living's not so bad', sings Oakey, a dig aimed equally at J.G. Ballard and The Clash. 'Dehumanization is such a big word/It's been around since Richard III'. Firmly rejecting punk's 'no future' posturing, The Human League exhorted the blind youth of Britain to 'Take hope...your time is due/Big fun come soon...Now is calling'.

The Human League - Blind Youth 1979