Artist: The Fall
Released: October 26th, 1979
Highlights: Psykick Dancehall, Printhead, Muzorewi’s Daughter, Spectre Vs Rector
Accessibility is not a word one would use to describe the work of The Fall, the post-punk English band led by rock music’s most beloved curmudgeon, Mark E. Smith. Yet, when they presented themselves to the world via their first full-length record, “Live at the Witch Trials”, they did so through songs that, although dirty in their aura and rough in their musicality, did receive a production treatment that made them stand somewhat close to the angriest spectrum of the predominant scene. Nobody really played like The Fall, nobody wrote lyrics like Mark E. Smith, and nobody had the guts to sing their words in a manner that resembled the vocal approach of the band’s microphone-wielder. Yet, a listener with some knowledge on the musical currents that sprung out of the smoky wreckage of the punk movement would easily place the music of “Live at the Witch” trials somewhere towards the end of the 70s. It is a nature that, by all means, is not enough to outweigh the group’s idiosyncrasy to the point it makes the songs of their debut friendly to a wider audience, but it does have the effect of making the tracks slightly approachable.
Released just seven months later, “Dragnet” goes the other way. Like “Live at the Witch Trials”, it contains post-punk music at its boldest and raunchiest state. Unlike it, though, it takes no steps whatsoever towards making its tracks less abrasive. Where the former had found a way to filter its filthiness without extracting the most poisonous particles out of its thick muddy juice, the latter submerges that already radioactive substance repeatedly in the sludge that pours out of the factories that dominate the northern portion of England. And it all turns out to be a fitting choice; after all, formed in the Greater Manchester, The Fall – from the get go – came up as a vehicle for Mark E. Smith to air the grievances of a working class that was as oppressed by the system that pinned it down as it was by the smoke of the industries that turned the cities and neighborhoods where its members lived into suffocating traps. And Smith did so by ranting, often wildly and incoherently, over circular, repetitive, and psychotic riffs and grooves that sounded as if they had come out of the sewers of his hometown. Unsurprisingly, that is just about what he and The Fall do during the course of “Dragnet”; the difference is that, here, the soot is broadcast through the speakers in lo-fi frequencies, as if the album had been recorded by placing a set of microphones around the open manhole out of which the grime in the city’s bowels sang of the horrors it saw.
Smith’s lyrics, partially a collage of words and partially free prose, stand between surrealistic realism and the incoherent ramblings of a bitter man; yet, even to those who are unable to crack them or understand the words drenched in his thick accent, it is quite clear that they ride waves of anger. He does not care about how they come out or if they harmonize with the instrumentation; it is only important that they get out of his system, not to alleviate his rancor, but to make way for more garbage-laden speech. Always anchored in maniac and frantic repetition, The Fall’s music finds plenty of room to breathe varied air in “Dragnet”. Frequently, it drinks from literary sources: in Dice Man, based on a book of the same title, Smith nods to freedom of choice by relating the story of a man who makes decisions based on the roll of a dice while the band puts a twist on a traditional Bo Diddley riff; meanwhile, “A Figure Walks” and “Spectre Vs Rector”, the album’s longest cuts, are winding and monotonic jams that become stellar in how their music and lyrics give off a horrifying atmosphere that does justice to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Similarly dark are “Muzorewi’s Daughter”, which verges on the disturbing thanks to Smith’s shrieks during the chorus and verses carried by a riff that resembles the menace found in The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”; and “Before the Moon Falls”, where with the apocalypse approaching, Smith, cryptically, speaks of everything from establishing a new regime to thanking the heavens the lack of jobs in the north has helped him avoid the traps of routine and working-class marriage.
The Fall’s favorite pastime, though, seems to be the implosion of musical structures that could – if executed by other bands – be immediately likable; and Smith’s favorite activity is the airing of vicious words towards the music industry. The former can be seen in opener “Psykick Dancehall”, where a stellar snaking riff goes wild in the speedy and energetic chorus; in “Flat of Angles”, in which a rare warm acoustic strum and a noisy guitar are used to illustrate the psychosis of a criminal hidden in an apartment where he believes he is being watched; and both “Choc-Stock” and “Put Away”, which could be catchy if they were not so messy and noisy. On the other hand, the two preferred strands of band and singer come together in “Printhead” and “Your Heart Out”, which could be poppy if Smith were not ridiculing negative reviews that The Fall got from members of the press that disliked his mixture of talking with singing and even went as far as calling him a drunk and stating the band was “little more than a big crashing beat”. Although – to a point – accurate, those evaluations failed to see that it was through these characteristics that Mark E. Smith and The Fall gained a cult following, inspired other groups, occasionally flirted with the mainstream, took post-punk to unique terrains, and achieved success and respect by following their own rules and staying true to who they were. And in “Dragnet” those qualities were very much present and blatant, even if slightly hidden below inscrutable lo-fi production.