The Fall Slates
(May 1998)"Don't start improvising, for God's sake...."
("Slates, Slags, Etc.")
Twenty years, thirty LPs, hundreds of gigs, dozens of sackings.....where will it all end? What do you take me for, Return Of The Son Of Nostradamus?
The Fall are an institution. God knows what their latest sounds like, what it's called, who plays on it apart from... I stopped caring years ago, just like I did with Blue Cheer and all those other great bands whose names escape me for now who just fizzled out into mediocrity. For all I know The Fall could be better than ever. But I doubt it. Rumour has it Craig Scanlon was fired! How can it be? It's engraven on the tablets; Scanlon on guitar. Just goes to show how much has changed since April 1981, so many years ago now...
What I remember initially about Slates is that I could never find it. What with it lacking those all-important two inches it had a decided tendency to nestle snugly in between, say, Eddie Cochran's On The Air and some confounded jazz record or whatever degenerate nonsense ticked my fancy at the time. But every now and then there was nothing else for it. Out it came and on it went. One of the first things that struck me about the Fall, especially once they eschewed a permanent keyboard player, was the uncanny accuracy of Julian Cope's professed judgement that "the guitars had Mancunian accents." For something that makes no sense at all this still makes more sense than I can say. Those guitars sound so different to anything else; the riffs and chords have a resonance all their own, as if hewn from some meteorite that crash-landed just outside Bury millions of years ago. Everyone goes on about The Magic Band but the Fall's instrumental section remains criminally under-rated, seen by most as a mere appendage to their leader. Whilst most of their contemporaries either buried guitars in effects or simply turned up and hoped for the best, Scanlon and Riley stuck to basic sounds and deceptively simple parts; as some idiot once observed, "the Fall are rock and ROLL." Whether it was the unison two-chord roar of "Slates, Slags, Etc.," the sardonic crashing chords of "Middle Mass," the gnarled ur-rockabilly of "Prole Art Threat" or the minimal, almost tinkling strains of "An Older Lover," the guitars were perfectly complimeted by the redoutable Hanley brothers, whose bass and drums were so effortlessly functional you hardly noticed them. Perhaps the reason for so many seeing The Fall as a one-man band is that the instrumentalists always provided precisely what was needed for each song, no more, no less; the Hermits to Mark E's Herman.
"The Wehrmacht never got in here, the Wehrmacht never got in here..." I shit you not, that's what They Who Know (more on them later) say he says! "Middlemass" opens with big chords and words like that and carries on until it stops. All the tracks on this record have that ominous quality, like the kind of huge truck he goes on about in "Container Drivers," unstoppable except with extreme force. "An Older Lover" makes reference to the notorious Doktor Annabel Lies over an almost skipping beat, illustrating the instrumental finesse the lads were capable of.
On then to "Prole Art Threat" and a Smith Classic Line if ever there was one: "Everybody hears the hum at 3 a.m." Like all the great rock'n'roll lyrics from "Awopbopaloobopalopbam boom" down, you can try and work out what it means till you're turning blue (same applies to the song as a whole) but you can't deny what a cracking sound it is. If ever a chap knew his phonetics, it's our Mark. "Fit And Working Again" namechecks the English boxer Alan Minter and rockabillies along merrily to a tale of soft drug abuse and grimy optimism. These are all great numbers, and if you think I've rattled through that lot a bit sharpish and not done them justice, then....well, you could be right! How about that! Do let me know! Fact is though, the last two tracks on side 2 demand detailed scrutiny, they being two of the outstanding opuses produed by this most idiosyncratic of combos. So there. (Blows raspberry and runs away)
Back to it. "Here's the definitive rant..." Two big fuckers of chords and that's your lot as "Slates, Slags, Etc." steams out of the speakers like another bleeding juggernaut. No let up from the boys in the band as Smith really lets rip, the very nerve of his ire exposed by the kind of person that would "knock over your drink/Pay for correct amount spilt..." This man is not joking. He is considerably vexed. The resulting performance is awesome. Do you know what he's on about half the time? I don't, but (and this is the point, surely) I sort of get the feeling that he does; as the man himself would have it, "Have A Bleedin' Guess." Mind you, "Rip-off bands with stuck up hair and new shitty pants" can only be interpreted so many ways, one may safely surmise. This track roars, lyrically and musically, incredulous and sardonic at the same time; the priceless one-liner from the leader to his troops near its end that acts as some kind of literary quotation-type heading thang at the start of this piece is one of the great moments in the history of recorded sound. As the last brutal chord starts to fade, there is little or no time to prepare one's self for the experience of Slates concluding band.
A frisky little beat similar to the one that graced "Fit And Working Again" with almost delicate guitar work on top provides stark contrast to the previous track. The clean guitar sound nearly obscures the whispered vocal, though it is possible to pick out snatches of phrases such as "It's a hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square" out of the mix on the early verses, until Smith delivers the killer lead-in line to the chorus: "Then you know in your brain, you know in your brain....LEAVE THE CAPITOL! EXIT THIS ROMAN SHELL!" The instrumental change on the chorus, the chords, the way they're played, all gives the lie to the common view of the Fall's supporting players as a bunch of journeyman punk rockers merely there to play barre chords behind their master's voice and do what they're told. This is a real group, and "Leave The Capitol" is them at their most real and incisive. Smith's target here is the London music scene, not for the first and last time, and the culture shock felt by our friends from the North is scathingly set down, almost through clenched teeth in its rage until Smith leans into the microphone about halfway through the song and delivers yet another classic Smithism: "Hotel maids smile in unison..." For me this is one of the great lyric lines of all time. Fuck knows why really, there's just something about the way it sounds, the image it conjures up, the way he says it, the bloody absurdity of the idea. It just comes off as a brilliant line, especially arriving just before another chorus. The last verse is delivered at full pelt, no mumbling, the bile in his throat rising, "and all the sidestepped cars, all the brutish laughs from the flat and the wild dog downstairs..." The final chorus is instrumental, as if nothing could follow that, guitars on the verge of feeding back wildly crash on regardless to the end. The last thing you hear, almost exactly like on "I Heard Her Call My Name," is the sound of the tape being switched off.
And there you have it. One of the great recordings of our time, and, I am led to believe, the favourite of many a Fall die-hard. The Fall might be an institution, and only Mark E. Smith and Steve Hanley remain from the line-up that recorded it, but time has not been cruel to Slates since we first wondered where the fuck it had got to (in among the 12", probably) all those years ago. Quite the contrary; listen now to the outporings of those tricky little experimental guitar bands that frolic in the meadows of the indie marketplace these days and observe how much such callow youth might still profitably learn from this singular 10" record.
(Thanks be to FALL LYRICS PARADE, by Jonathan Kandall & Jeff Curtis.)
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