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

Decay Music

As Melbourne returns to normal post lock-down, I’ve been attending some live music events around the city. The most recent was a performance of contemporary Australian compositions written mainly for percussion, including a piece entitled “When Only The Walls Can Sing” by Mark Pollard, performed by members of the Melbourne Conservatorium.

When introducing his work, the composer referenced the notion of “decay” in music, whereby sound waves continue to reverberate indefinitely, albeit in decreasing magnitudes of volume and resonance. Incorporating recordings of works previously performed by the Conservatorium, this 2020 composition is also a reference to our enforced isolation during the pandemic, when many people only had the four walls of their homes for company.

The concept of “musical decay” appears in many forms. Examples include:

The physical degradation that occurs with each playback of a recording (both analogue and digital), as exemplified by “The Disintegration Loops” by William Basinski

The idea that all sound is potentially infinite – given voice by Gavin Bryars on “The Sinking of the Titanic”….

…. and continues even when no-one can hear it, as suggested by “On Hold” by Photay.

The half-heard music that inspired Brian Eno’s early ambient and tape-loop experiments on “Discreet Music” ….

… and the related “systems” composition of Michael Nyman’s “Decay Music”

For musical archeologists, look no further than Philip Jeck’s epic installation piece (and related albums), “Vinyl Requiem”….

… and compare this to similar works by L.Pierre on his final two albums, “Surface Noise” and “1948”

Given the melancholic nature of “decay”, the “final” word probably goes to the conceptual work by AM/PM, that samples and amalgamates “The Ends” of certain records, to great effect.

Next week: RONE in Geelong

Version / Aversion

Cover versions are always tricky – for some fans, the thought of another artist messing about with a song by their favourite singer can come across as sacrilege; for many others, a cover version can bring to their attention music that they might never otherwise hear. At their best, cover versions can reveal unfamiliar elements in a familiar song, uncover hidden depths, and add an extra dimension to established work. At their worst, cover versions are simply pedestrian, lazy reworks, or mere replicas (slavish copies). Many renditions veer on karaoke or like those over-hyped performances (which are inflicted on an undeserving public courtesy of “reality” shows such as The Voice, Pop Idol and The X Factor), they seem mainly designed to demonstrate vocal gymnastics, rather than exploring the essence of a song. Far from making an iconic song their “own”, the performer ends up with a Xerox facsimile.

ABC Triple J’s “Like A Version” veers between true inspiration and mere replication….

Our preferences for particular cover versions (even over the originals) are purely subjective. The other night I was at a small social gathering, and the host started playing Frank Sinatra’s version of “Mack The Knife”, a recording from late in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ career. Hearing it for the first time, I recognised the song and the singer, but not this rendition. My own reference for this particular arrangement of the Weill/Brecht standard is probably Bobby Darin – but he was following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong who first brought the song into the Top 40. Perhaps if I had heard Sinatra’s version first, would that be my reference point?

There are probably lots of songs we all know by way of cover versions, rather than the original. Which is understandable. First, in jazz, country and blues, of course, standards and evergreens are the staples of many a repertoire. Second, in pop music of the 1950s and 60s, multiple versions of the same song (usually written by jobbing song writers, rather then by established performers) would be released, often at the same time, to cater for different markets. But in both these categories, these are not so much cover versions as different interpretations – which is not quite the same thing, in my view.

What draws me to a particular cover version tends to be one or other of the following factors: first, what prompted or inspired the artist to record their own version? second, does the new recording bring an unfamiliar artist to my attention, that I then end up exploring further? third, how does the cover version interpret a well-known number, beyond replicating it?

Here are three examples of cover versions, whose original recordings were unknown to me when I first heard them, and which remain my reference points for these songs – but they have also prompted me to explore the original artists’ back catalogue:

  1. “Song to the Siren”, written by Tim Buckley, as recorded by This Mortal Coil
  2. “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, written by Sly & The Family Stone, as recorded by Magazine
  3. “My Funny Valentine”, the Rodger & Hart evergreen, as recorded by Elvis Costello (who was referencing Chet Baker’s version)

In contrast, here are three recordings of songs which I love, but I hate these interpretations, because, as happens with many cover versions, they do not add anything, or they are poor replicas, or the vocal interpretations are simply out of kilter:

  1. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, written by Joy Division, and bludgeoned by Paul Young
  2. “Ziggy Stardust”, written by David Bowie, and made soulless by Bauhaus
  3. “Hallelujah”, written by Leonard Cohen, and rendered overwrought and histrionic by Jeff Buckley (sometimes less is more – as demonstrated by John Cale’s majestic and elegiac interpretation, recorded a few years before Buckley brought out his version)

Of course, a good song will generally shine through, regardless of performer, style or arrangement – revealing itself to be a perennial work of art. A few random examples:

  1. “Computer Love”, originally by Kraftwerk, but turned into a laid back, disco-style torch song that manages to bring warmth and humanity to an electronic classic by Glass Candy
  2. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, a classic ballad by The Smiths, yet when rendered as “The Light 3000” by Schneider TM & Kptmichigan, it becomes a mournful song of love, loss and regret that could easily have been performed by HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey”
  3. “She’s Lost Control”, Joy Division’s post-punk anthem, given a reggae makeover by Grace Jones that works because it sounds like Ms Jones could easily be singing about herself in the third person…

But for all my reservations, cover versions do have their place. If it wasn’t for This Mortal Coil, I wouldn’t have heard Big Star’s “Third” album; if not for Nick Cave’s “Kicking Against The Pricks” album (which at the time, set off a trend for tribute and covers albums – with varying results…), I’m not sure I would have encountered much of his own music; and without Robert Wyatt’s series of cover versions in the early 1980s, I probably wouldn’t have been as engaged by or aware of the music of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis or even Chic….

Next week: Startupbootcamp – Melbourne FinTech Demo Day

From Brussels With Love (Revisited)

40 years ago this month, an obscure record label in Belgium released a cassette-only compilation album, which became a reference point for many post-punk projects. “From Brussels With Love”, originally put out by Les Disques du Crepuscule, has just been re-issued, so during the recent lock-down, I thought I would exhume my original copy and remind myself of why this was such a landmark album, and why its influence continues to this day.

To add some context, Sony had launched the Walkman cassette player in 1979, the first truly portable device for pre-recorded music. This led to a renewed interest in the cassette format among independent artists and labels, as it was also a cheaper means of manufacture and distribution than vinyl records (and long before CDs, mp3 and streaming services). And in the wake of the DIY aesthetic promoted by punk, some new music was being released on cassette only, such as Bow Wow Wow’s “Your Cassette Pet” and BEF’s “Music for Stowaways” (the title referencing an early model of the Sony Walkman). Some of these cassette-only releases (especially by independent, lo-fi, DIY electronic artists such as Inertia) are now highly collectable.

What made “From Brussels With Love” so significant was not just the format. It was not even alone in combining music with interviews and fully illustrated booklets. Fast Forward in Melbourne also launched their first audio-magazine in November 1980, and other similar projects followed such as Edinburgh’s “Irrationale”, Manchester’s “Northern Lights”, and London’s “Touch” label which began life releasing a series of curated audio gazettes, including both spoken-word and musical contributions.

The importance of “From Brussels With Love” was the cross-section of artists it managed to bring together: mercurial musicians such as Bill Nelson, John Foxx and Vini Reilly; side projects from members of established post-punk bands from the UK (Wire, Joy Division/New Order, the Skids and Spizzenergi); a cluster of emerging European bands (Der Plan, The Names and Radio Romance); and several leading names in modern classical and ambient music (Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Phil Niblock, Brian Eno and Wim Mertens). Oh, and an interview with actor Jeanne Moreau.

This eclectic mix of contemporary artists (and this deliberate approach to curation) was no doubt highly influential on subsequent projects such as the NME/Rough Trade “C81” or Rorschach Testing’s “Discreet Campaigns” – these were not compilations reflecting a single musical style or even the usual label sampler, nor were they simply collections of what was new or current. Instead, they reveal an aesthetic attitude (curiosity combined with open-mindedness mixed with a high level of quality control and a hint of audience challenge) that is harder to find today. Now we have “recommender engines” and narrow-casting streaming services that would struggle to compile similarly diverse outcomes. And more’s the pity.

I know there are a number of on-line platforms and print publications that try to bring a similar approach to their curation, but for various reasons, and despite their best intentions, they generally suffer from being cliquey, self-referencing/self-identifying, and all driven by a need to capture eyeballs to attract advertising, so they quickly lose any claim to independence or even originality. Which is a shame because there is so much great music out there that we don’t get to hear, simply because it is not mainstream, or it doesn’t conform to a particular style, or it doesn’t meet “playlist criteria”, or it doesn’t have enough marketing dollars behind it.

Next week: Is the Party over?