The Fall Live At the Witch Trials
Bob Osborne/Bob Stow
The band's first album was recorded in one day at Camden Sound Suite in December 1978. The line-up had settled down to the first great Fall combo. In retrospect, Smith was glad that some commentators saw the humour in the album and that it never took off commercially. Because the band was democratic, and Smith was having a hard time with that, he felt when reviewing it in 1983 that it would have been the end of the Fall.
The opening track "Frightened" is a masterpiece of brooding sensuality. Written by Tony Friel and Mark Smith it is a fitting start to the bands first album. In 1983 Don Watson, when looking back at the album, called it possibly the greatest speed song ever written. The narrator essentially intones the things that make him frightened, paranoid even, and the key to the fear is the Amphetamine he has been taking. The key issue about this track is that it was actually about one of punks' crucial subjects; for the lumpen punk mass from London, the followers of Sham 69 or Chelsea this was known as Boredom. For Mark E Smith, always known as a primitive, the interpretation of the zeitgeist was a sophisticated look at the effects of disaffection, alienation, paranoia, disassociation, false nostalgia, and ultimately, self-assertion over all these ills. The only other articulate group of the time on this subject was Wire on Pink Flag. This can be compared with the nadir of Jimmy Pursey's "We are Bored" from the first Sham 69 album. Musically, (keyboard player, Yvonne) Pawlett carries the simple riff/tune to allow (Martin) Bramah to smear characteristic hi-tone guitar behind the vocal; the performance of this track is urgent, edgy, as if they were relieved to at last get it down on tape. What is very important to note is the separation of the instruments on the LP. Punks' logical momentum from Iggy Pop to Johnny Rotten was to make the noise a solid impact of guitar and drums, a punch/kick in the face/guts. Instead, the Fall divided this thrust and sent it snaking over our nervous systems-edgy-fidgety-nagging-scratching guitar, rolling drums, tinny plastic keyboards, repetitive bass.
"Crap Rap" is as clear a statement of assertion and intent as you could wish for. This meaning does not have to be interpreted. "We are the Fall" says it all, or how about "I live on snacks, potatoes in packs" for a profound analysis of how we live?
"Like to Blow" is a rough and tumble rant about the pleasures of one assumes marijuana. It is probably the weakest track on the album.
"Rebellious Jukebox" is so simple and sardonic, the bass/keyboards allowing Martin that vital space. In the lyrics are bits of snatched conversation, half-memories of some night out. Bramah left the Fall but throughout the rest of his career was only able to recreate this intensity on the first two Blue Orchids singles. With this sound it is definitely Bramah searching for the now. In the pub with the weird jukebox someone has ordered a taxi for Mr Nelson. This rebellious jukebox makes music for itself, the noise resolves around. My mind goes back to the pub in my local in Lower Broughton at the time. Full of skinny tied students who would put the B-side of the Banshees "Hong Kong Garden" on the not so rebellious jukebox to wind up the landlord. In the '80's Brix Smith would recreate a pop version of this track and retitle it "Waiting for the Now." That version would fail to match the stunning bass, scratchy guitar, twee keyboards, and omnipresent drums of the original.
"No Xmas for John Quays" is only 4 minutes and 37 seconds whereas the impression is that it goes on forever, a memory encouraged by many long and intense live versions, which now tend to spoil this original release. A particular favourite is the version on Totales Turns. The track is another Fall template, just a riff and a rant, going round and round, composed by Smith only and suitably primitive. It's a fund for snappy quotes, with classic lines like "Stop talking to the cigarette machine" and "Although the skins are thin, he knows its up to him, to go out or stay in, oh I'll stay in." The Leeds University gang I used to hang around with had phrases to hang on which they used to throw into pub conversations at random times. By the end, quotes from these songs used to lace my conversation involuntarily, so nobody knew what I was talking about. 18.104.22.168 kicks it off. A predilection of bands at the time was to count in like this. One wonders if Smith was attempting to rid himself of the punk epithet with this. The track only has two chords but its not punk, its primal rock music, first in the lasting mythology of Falls extended noise.
"Mother-Sister" kicks off with the words "Uhh what's this song about...Nothing." Nothing seems hardly an appropriate description for this spooky story of Oedipal intent; half the lyrics have been thrown away so sparse and dynamic are the words. And they are strange words, "No recipes...it was like a seesaw.... It was like an up and down...bye-bye...Mother-Sister, Mother-Sister why did you put your head in?......floorboard creaks.... Our friends and our fathers are underground." Martin Bramah again is brilliant with a consummate sub-Beefheart riff. There is a compelling circular piano and rolling drums from Karl Burns.
"Industrial Estate" is another contemporaneous subject, but comparing this with the proto-socialist ethic of "Factory" by Chelsea, one realises that this scabrous two minutes contains more wit and inventiveness in its two-note fade out than all the works of the chummy humanists put together. Although we are reviewing here, and not eulogising, it is hard not to get enthusiastic after all these years, and to recognise these myths which grew up around the band were simply untrue. One myth was that they couldn't get what Mark was on about- most of this was in the meaning, but no doubt some was down to pronunciation. In fact, we can hear clearly all of the lyrics throughout and only the occasional accent/accidental slurring comes into play. The track features a snarling guitar figure but it's the lyrics that linger. The misery of working class life, the need to earn your pay, the presence of depression and valium, that fact that the Company air will fuck up your face. Bruce Springsteen's "Factory" from the Darkness At the Edge of Town album is comparable in its content. Springsteen's understated but heartfelt song comes out of John Stienbeck. Smiths' view is altogether more modern with commentary on Industrial Pollution and no chance of the escape that Springsteen provides for many of his heroes. A short sharp rant on the evils of modern working class life was to re-merge on "Pay your Rates" on the Grotesque album.
"Underground Medecin" features rock guitar figures and is another of the albums tracks about drugs. Your nervous system...the spark inside....psychosomatic voice...take it away....snatches of lyrics describing an alternative culture.
"Two Steps Back" has a fulsome guitar sound with an atonal alien keyboard and perhaps is the classic incarnation of the Fall's schema outlined in the comments about "Frightened." Bramah extemporises throughout and the minimal keyboards carry the tune. The short section with eerie keyboard is a masterpiece of light at the time. How far this was from the Damned's "New Rose" or Skids' "Into the Valley"; un-laddish, un-anthemic, un-juvenile. Even coeqals of the group who were sophisticated enough to deal with socio-cultural issues in an interesting manner were still tied to a lumpy punk noise- the Adverts for example. Again the lyrics are in the form of a narration with key phrases like "everybody likes me , they think I'm crazy...I pull my string and I do my thing." The narrator is trying to make progress but every time he gets someplace he takes "two steps back..." Fractured words flit in and out of the soundscape. We hear of an acid factory mushrooms from the field, and someone called Julian. This may be a well known Prestwich resident who was a friend of Northampton ex-pat Bennie Bliedenstien and was heavily into the drug scene in the village, or it could be Julian Cope who roadied for the group at the time. We hear of psychedelic-like images... cigarettes going out over there... there is a guitar solo... an attempted rhythm scratch... talk of free festivals, and cinemas with no films.... Strange stuff. Live versions of this track of the time were better.
"Live at the Witch Trials" is a summation of the Fall's position. Live at the Witch Trials of the 20th Century where everything has a label, a brand, a tribe, and defines their part in time. "We were early and we were late" (i.e. both ahead and behind the times, both more ambitious and more conservative than their coevals), and pisses about with free guitar while waxing lyrically about rock and roll as primal scream. Smith subsequently indicated that the title of the album represented his views on those members of his audience that were attacking him for not being a punk. The audience that had six months earlier would have had long hair and been into heavy metal were now dressed as punks and were listening to Chelsea and Generation X. Smith felt alienated and angry by these, mainly Southern audiences, who were sniping at the bands refusal to kow-tow to the fashion of the time
"Futures and Pasts" is a punk masterpiece but with the added surprise of a guitar drop-out at crucial moments. Smith is once again in an alienated/nostalgic mode, revealing bits of someone life in the fractured lyric. Talk of sleeping dreams, mothers, closed pubs, pre-cognition, and lost childhood's. The song consists of four basic chords, flanged guitar, but the thing that sticks in the mind is Karl's drumming.
"Music Scene" finishes the album with bitter tirade against the men who run the music business. "Oh aye your a good lad, and here is a pound note" parodies the patronising attitude of many managers in the business. These are declamatory words about people in the scene. The track is dominated by Bramah's worrying guitar tone his tendency to play high notes all the time sometimes detracts from the shape and content of the music. Keyboards play a dominant role here giving a cushion for the guitar and bass. With Marc Riley's bass work on this track one questions his move to guitar. This is a long track at eight minutes. It's all about managers vs. groups.
Looking back twenty odd years this is the defining punk album, and perhaps the defining rock album of its era. It was when Genesis finally died and the Velvet Underground crept under our skin.
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