The Fall Ersatz GB
by Dave Lang(August 2018)
After Mark E. Smith passed away earlier this year, PSF head cheese Jason Gross came up with the idea of getting a bunch of his writers to each pen something about a Fall album in tribute to the great man. I quietly prayed to someone or other that I would be granted the good luck of being assigned something like Hex Enduction Hour or Slates or, well, anything up to and including 1986's Bend Sinister - a period I would call the Golden Era of the band.
Of course, some harsh critics have their cut-off period a few years earlier, stating the influence of Brix Smith as a wholly negative entity on the band, whilst others of the more persistent and dedicated variety see worth - and indeed some cases, great worth - in many of their subsequent releases. I see myself as more in the latter category, though let's face it, when I do feel like listening to the Fall, 90% of the time it's going to be a release from their first 10 years I reach for.
And so, of course, I drew some sort of proverbial short straw and was given the unenviable task of spilling some verbiage on 2011's Ersatz GB album - their 28th studio album, for chrissakes! - and I wondered what I had done to deserve such a fate. Which, of course, doesn't mean for one second that it's a bad record. It is, in fact, a pretty damn great one, even. But it's also their 28th - one of many - and their record start to blur into one once the band hit the 21st century and their previous membership numbers had spilled into that of several football teams.
By sheer luck, I happened to actually own a copy of the album on CD, as it was released on the Cherry Red label, whom I used to look after in Australia during my label-management days, and so I played this on repeat in the car on long drives to bury my head in the detail and see if it really deserved merit of any kind. I even saw the band play here not long after its release. They were predictably chaotic and not consistently captivating (Smith was certainly consistently drunk), but it was a show I don't regret.
It should be noted that Smith's voice was starting to get pretty blown out by this stage. It had graduated (or degenerated) from a Mancunian snarl to a bit of an old drunken man's growl, particularly on tracks like "Greenway" and the eight-minute-plus "Monocard," but really, this is all context. And when you're talking about a band's 28th studio album, context must be given its due. So contextually, Ersatz GB is a really strong album. I can't think of any other band on earth in the history of recorded music whose 28th studio album is anything but sheer sonic torture. I mean, Chicago totally sucked after the first three.
The two prime influences on the disc are well-worn MES loves: rockabilly and Krautrock. The former's influences are prevalent on the mightily strong opener, "Cosmos 7," and "Mask Search" (a track which really feels like it could've been on Grotesque), and the kosmiche sounds permeate throughout, especially via the wonderful keyboard contributions from Elena Poulou (also Smith's wife #3). The minimal, Can-like pound of "I've Seen Them Come" is well worth hearing, and "Taking Off" is a track which could have easily been spat out from the band circa 1982. There are 10 tracks in 45 minutes: that, for me, means this is a ‘rock album.'
Mark E. Smith and the band he helmed for the last 40 years of his life were certainly a unit who understood the dynamics of rock & roll. They drifted off into Madchester a bit too much for my liking at the dawn of the ‘90's, but outside of that diversion he/they never lost the original vision of combining an unruly and unorthodox brand of garage rock with a certain gothic and particularly English brand of angry poetry. Thank fuck that Jason assigned me Ersatz GB: it is a late-period Fall album well worth wrapping your ears around. If you'd never heard it before, and someone played it to you claiming it was recorded in 1981, you'd probably believe them.
Also see our Fall tribute
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