The Fall – always different, always the same

During the latest Melbourne lock-down, I have been revisiting the music of The Fall. A strange (or should that be Kurious?) choice, but at a time when you feel like ranting (or mithering) at the absurdity of it all, The Fall make perfect sense. It might not always be comfortable listening, but sometimes you need a bit of grit and gristle as a catalyst to move on.

When exploring The Fall, it’s hard to know where to begin (and, just as importantly, how to end). Although they emerged from the 70’s punk movement and were associated with the Manchester music scene, The Fall identified with neither. But if punk hadn’t happened, and without that link to Manchester, I doubt they would have got as far. They out-lived all of their contemporaries, without the tired reunions or desperate comeback tours of their peers. Perhaps only Wire or Gang of Four can claim a similar longevity, but they both had long periods of inactivity.

Named after an Albert Camus novel, The Fall were not afraid to acknowledge their influences and interests, in particular those of their core founder and only consistent member, Mark E Smith. Scattered across lyrics, album covers, sleeve notes, press interviews and side projects, it is possible to find references to literature, art, theatre, dance, philosophy, politics, psychology, spiritualism and the occult. Elements of Wyndham Lewis, Samuel Beckett, Edgar Allan Poe, Aleister Crowley, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Blake, H.P. Lovecraft, Luke Rhinehart, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Jarry and Kurt Schwitters can be found strewn across The Fall’s output.

This should not be too surprising: during a 40-year recording career, The Fall released 30+ studio albums, 60+ singles and EPs, and more than a hundred live albums and compilations. Integral to their recording career are the two-dozen sessions The Fall recorded for John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 program. (Peel was an early champion, and often cited them as his favourite band – he is also credited with the quotation that provides the title of this blog.) It’s the sort of discography that will keep fans busy for years – and represents something of a licensing headache for record labels and music publishers alike.

The Fall’s prolific (and challenging) body of work only came to an end when Smith died in early 2018, although the posthumus re-issues and compilations have continued with almost indecent frequency – I hope his estate are keeping tabs.

Of course, with that sort of work ethic, quality control can suffer. Smith was equally feted and feared for his wilful determination and unwillingness to conform. His refusal to compromise or comply with current fads and fashion was certainly an admirable trait. But this steadfast and stubborn control over his content reveals a weakness – the absence of any discernible editorial oversight means that there is a law of diminishing returns, especially in the band’s later years. Although it must also be acknowledged that even on the last few albums, there was something of a return to form.

When Smith died, he was honoured with an obituary in the Washington Post, which must have had more than a few readers perplexed – (Mark E who? Marquis Cha-Cha of course!). Smith would have loathed/laughed at the attention. He had a love/hate relationship with journalists, but he also understood the value of the media to reach his audience, especially in the pre-internet heyday of the UK’s weekly music press (the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds). At the same time, he could be dismissive towards certain sections of his fans, although he saved most of his bile for other bands, especially those whom he felt were mere plagiarists.

Trying to summarise what The Fall represent musically is no easy task. Their antecedents can be traced to 1950’s rockabilly, 1960’s garage rock and 1970’s glam. In terms of outlook and attitude, it’s possible to discern similarities to American groups such as Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu, and German bands such as Can and Faust. Yet another reference point might be their choice of cover songs, ranging from The Kinks to Sister Sledge, from Hank Mizell to Lee Perry.

Another way to approach their music is to break it down into chronological chapters: the post-punk and dense sounds of their first few albums, the rapid evolution into art rock and neo-pop in the mid-1980s, the brief period with a major label in the early-19990s that saw a transition to a more electronic sound (and mild flirtations with techno and big beat), the peaks and troughs of the middle-aged years, and then the erratic coda in their dotage that showed glimpses of former glories. But this hardly does their back catalogue justice. If you asked fifty fans to list their top 10 tracks by The Fall, you would get as many different compilation albums.

I was fortunate to see The Fall in their early- and mid-1980s peak – so my own preferences mainly stem from that era – the run of albums that comprises “Grotesque (After The Gramme)”, “Perverted by Language”, “Hex Enduction Hour”, “Room to Live”, “The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall”, “I Am Kurious Oranj”, “Bend Sinister”, “This Nation’s Saving Grace” and “The Frenz Experiment”, plus the myriad singles and EPs dotted around those releases.

If pushed, I’d have to say my favourite track is “Leave the Capitol”, from 1981 – to me, it sums up what The Fall represent.

Next week: Eileen Agar – My Brush With Surrealism

Goya – allegories and reportage for the modern age

Just prior to the latest COVID-related lock down in Melbourne, I managed to visit the exhibition of drawings and prints by Goya at the NGV. Although these works were produced 200 years ago, they are still relevant today.

Goya: Two People Looking into a Luminous Room – Image sourced from NGV

Working at the time of the Enlightenment, and despite his status and reputation as a court painter, Goya still had to navigate the political oppression of both Spanish and French rulers, and the religious persecution in the form of the Inquisition.

His series of drawings and etchings reveal a very personal side to Goya’s work, combining allegory, satire, reportage, surrealism and the sub-conscience. The images provide a commentary on the horrors of war and its aftermath, while his domestic scenes on courtship, gold diggers and hapless suitors would not be out of place on Married at First Sight or The Bachelor… There’s a lot that’s familiar about these images.

The exhibition provide some insights into Goya’s working methods – from his use and development of preparatory drawings, to the different etching techniques he deployed to create the finished prints.

One drawing in particular caught my attention – a red crayon sketch entitled “Two People Looking into a Luminous Room”. It’s a remarkable image on a number of levels. The room of the title does not look like a typical building or structure. It almost resembles the bellows of a giant camera, except that photography had not yet been invented. Perhaps it refers to a type of camera obscura or similar device that Goya had seen? On the other hand, it could be a metaphor for Hell, a glimpse into the white heat of the Inferno. For me, it even suggests Goya’s prescience for the work of James Turrell. It’s a remarkable piece in an absorbing exhibition.

Next week: The Fall – always different, always the same

Cancel or Recalibrate?

In the wake (sic) of wokeness and cancel culture, it was interesting to read that Disney has decided to add a health warning of “negative depictions of cultures” to re-runs of the Muppet Show. So rather than cancel these programmes, it has chosen to (re-)contextualise the content for a contemporary audience.

I don’t have a problem with this type of labelling, or indeed on any other content, if it helps to aid understanding, generate debate, and acknowledge past lapses of taste or judgement. Especially as programmes like the Muppet Show were huge in the heyday of mass-market network television, before cable and streaming fragmented audiences into pre-defined sub-genres and segregated demographics.

Indeed, I’ve grown used to similar health warnings attached to re-runs of many BBC radio dramas, from the 1950s through to the 1980s, when “social attitudes were somewhat different to today”.

But, if we continue along those lines, should we be applying similar health warnings to Shakespeare’s plays, Greek tragedies, French farces, Norse legends, European folklore as told by the Brothers Grimm, or Roman accounts of gladiatorial victories over their hapless victims?

In which case, I look forward to the same contextualisation (and health warnings) of any programmes that quote, cite, promote or reference key religious texts, most of which were written hundreds and thousands of years ago, yet which similarly offend our current values and societal norms.

Next week – Facebook and that news ban

The Return of Cultural Cringe

I was recently reminded of the phrase “cultural cringe”, a term which I hadn’t heard for a while, and which is often reserved for when Australian politicians resort to fawning over visiting dignitaries and royalty. (Remember Tony Abbot’s knighthood for the Duke of Edinburgh?) More usually, it reveals a misguided belief that nothing produced locally can be any good.

The latest use was in response to a discussion about Australian expats stuck overseas, who are trying to return home during the pandemic. There was a general view that the criticisms revealed in The Guardian article were “fair”; there were also some comments to the effect that the reason many Australians go overseas is to take advantage of work or other opportunities not available to them here; while another suggestion was that local cultural cringe can drive people away. Cultural cringe is part and parcel of Australia’s identity crisis and the associated tall poppy syndrome, but it’s a complex issue….

When I first came to Australia as a child in the early 1970s, I was very surprised to see how much American influence there was. From TV programmes, to consumer brands; from car makes to drive-in cinemas; from fast food chains to the local currency. While I wasn’t as crass or naïve as my schoolmates back in the UK (some of whom thought that Britain still “owned” Australia) it was nevertheless surprising how much American culture there was. Local TV content was mainly limited to sport, game shows, and a few police dramas from Crawford Productions – this was long before the heyday of Aussie soaps and the stream of pop stars they generated.

On the other hand, there was also a growing engagement with Asia Pacific (and not just a result of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war). Japanese-made electronics were available in the shops (items which were not as prevalent at the time in the UK, possibly due to the latter’s recent membership of the European Common Market). The Osaka Expo of 1970 had been a big deal in Australia, and even warranted a set of postage stamps. Then there was Gough Whitlam’s visit to China in 1971. At school, I studied South East Asia geography, and had the option to study Japanese alongside French and German.

But I was also painfully aware of being called a “Pommie bastard” (and the kids at school were equally free in their use of similar terms for anyone of Mediterranean or Eastern European heritage). In my case, the term of abuse was prompted by England winning the 1970-71 Ashes tour of Australia – as if it was my fault that Australia had lost the series, failing to win a single test match. Up to that point, I had no particular interest in cricket whatsoever – but it was a defining moment that has meant ever since, I always support England and whoever is playing Australia. Those school-yard experiences revealed a sense of parochialism, narrow-mindedness and a weird superiority complex when it comes to sport – which is still prevalent today when support for national teams leads to jingoistic flag-waving.

Anyway, when my parents took our family back to London a few years later, I never expected to return. However, I kept an interest in Australian culture, or at least the portion that found its way to the UK (pushed out by lack of domestic opportunity and/or local appreciation?). Figures such as Germaine Greer, Clive James, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes, who were regulars on British TV; films and books by Peter Weir, Peter Carey and Bruce Beresford; music by The Saints, Nick Cave, The Go-Betweens and The Triffids – all of which seemed to find a better audience outside Australia rather than within. Maybe Australians didn’t think these cultural references represented them as well as more mainstream fare such as Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil and Crocodile Dundee? Of course, Australia also has a tendency to be quite censorious towards anything counterculture.*

The other side of the cultural cringe is the belief that everything local is “world class” (whatever that means) – that anything Aussie-made is simply the best. When I came back to live and work in Australia, I witnessed the “not made here” syndrome. Working for global brands, I would often meet with local companies, to present our products and services, most of which were developed overseas. “Is anyone already using this product in Australia?”, I’d be asked. “Er, not yet, we wanted to give you the first opportunity to try it.” “In which case, come back when you have some local customers.” (Conversely, if we introduced a new service that had been developed locally, I would sometimes be asked, “Who’s using this overseas?”. “Er, no-one – it’s specifically designed with regional customers in mind.” “OK, come back when you have some US or European clients.”)

Which brings me back to the point about Australian expats having to go overseas to get access to experience and opportunities unavailable here. The irony is that many of those expats who are trying to return home will be bringing a wealth of expertise with them, that would surely benefit the local economy.

Next week: FinTech Australia Road Show

* The “Barry McKenzie” books (created by Barry Humphries) were initially banned in Australia, while Richard Neville relocated some of his publishing operations to London after OZ magazine had been prosecuted for obscenity (ironically, OZ faced further prosecution in the UK). No doubt Daevid Allen, a mercurial figure in the beatnik and hippy counterculture, and founder member of both Soft Machine and Gong, would have struggled in the Australian music scene of the 1960s and early 1970s. As for artist and performer Leigh Bowery, his achievements in London are overlooked or unrecognsied here. But he was probably too out there for local tastes, notwithstanding the Australian appetite for mardi gras, drag and high camp (as epitomised by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert).