The Fall Grotesque (After the Gramme)
by Sandy Atwal
Too many people, cowards and criminalsSo much is made of The Clash's London Calling that it makes you wonder if there were any other 'punk' albums released that year. Although most of the punks were dead, had sold out or just faded away The Fall managed to release Grotesque: After the Gramme -- an album that even when filtered through the usual hype-mongering of Fall fans remains, along with Slags, Slates, Etc. the best of example of what the Fall were capable of at the turn of the decade.
And all that government crap
After the rockabilly horror stories of Dragnet, Grotesque marks a wordier but more intelligent Fall. At this point, they still love repetition, so Grotesque is mostly one or two chord jams with only a few flat-out rockers. The album is a grudgeful manifesto with Smith at a peak equaled by few of The Fall's other albums.
On the album, Smith manages to fully realize the union of his working-class background with a political agenda. That agenda, mostly rants against "cowards and criminals and all that government crap" is presented through a cracked mirror with ghosts, traitors and secret government agents all playing a role in Smith's tales.
The opener, "Pay Your Rates" is (beyond its fiscally responsible title) a flat-out, two-chord squeal of a song with the tempo changes that show up on many of the songs to follow. Smith turns, again, to simplicity.
The band follows with "The English Scheme," an example of Smith at his most efficient. The song's barely two minutes but manages to visit some familiar turf, slagging the lower class who "want brass," and "scrounge fags" and praising the ones who emigrate (which in retrospect is an even bigger joke because of Smith's own umbilical cord to Manchester).
It's blindingly obvious now that Pavement's "Conduit for Sale" is simply a re-write of "New Face in Hell." The similarities are there, but it's the differences that make The Fall's original version far superior. While Pavement's tale is a pastiche of fucked-up references cut-up into a makeshift fairy tale, "A New Face in Hell" is a chilling story of betrayal and gestapo states that would make a brilliant short movie. Smith's mistrust of government in general is pathological and thank god for that.
A sort of midpoint for the album, the seven-minute "C'N'C-s Mithering" is an example of Smith as a spoken word artist. The music is almost ambient, serving only as a backdrop to the long complaining litany of everyday complaints. "The estates stick up like stacks, the estates stick up like stacks" is an industrial tongue-twister, just one of the literary devices Smith bends to his own devices. Smith's rant works partly because his subject matter is so parochial. His hatred of early morning lawnmowers can't help but bring a grin to the listener's face.
"The next bit is hard to relate. . .The new born thing hard to describe. . .Like a rat that's been trapped inside." It's difficult to nail down "Impression of J. Temperance" as either horror or sci-fi, because really it's both. And I think it's about fucking a dog.
As the story of dog breeder J. Temperance builds, so does the music. It's a cacaphonic, atonal jam accompanied by a drilling, military beat rising to a climax as Smith shouts "This hideous replica" about twenty-five thousand times at the end of the song. The dirty Mr. Smith makes a showing on the brief "In The Park," where he says (and who can really argue?) that "a good mind does not a good fuck make."
Perhaps the album's best line appears on "In the Park," where Smith admits "I am becoming everything I used to hate, but I, I can't go back there. Can't go back there, I can't go back there, not back to the past." Smith faces up to the changes he has to go through as he gets older (as we all get older) but refuses to look back.
"W.M.C.-Blob 59" is the obligatory noise track on every Fall record. No music to speak of, unless it's coming out of a radio or nearby car, and distorted vocals saying something, but I'm not really sure what.
The climax, as is always the case with Fall albums, rewards and surpasses everything that has come before. So with the epic "The N.W.R.A./Shiftwork": a defiant, bastardy, pissed-off mantra. When Smiths shouts that The North Will Rise again, he's not trying to convince you that it will, it's just a fact that this is going to happen. Some strange army of Mark Smith's will just roll up their sleeves one day, walk down to Coventry and start kicking the shit out of everyone that has more money than they do.
Simple music (usually too simple for the Fall's critics) is a perfect foil for Smith's rant. It's part of the band's essence that Smith's lyrics take an up-front role, but that's because they can. Most of the shit that passes for music these days might as well treat the vocals as another instrument and fade them in the back because they're pretty much worthless.
One of the things Mark Smith and The Fall prove on Grotesque is that lead vocals and the lyrics can be given a stronger-than-usual role on an album, but only if you have something to say. If you really don't have anything interesting to contribute, don't bother saying anything. Unsurprisingly, that's rarely a problem for The Fall.
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