Over this past winter break, I visited my friend in Cambridge, MA. He works at a college radio station on the MIT Campus, and he wanted me to help him program his radio show the week I came to visit. Programming the show afforded me access to the station’s record library. The station, WMBR, also happened to be the country’s longest running punk station (at least, according to my friend). Being someone who weened himself on punk-rock and related forms of music since middle school, I felt like a kid in a fucking candy store in that record library. My friend had a job a class to go to during the week I visited, so he’d drop me off at the station and pick me up when he was done with all of that at around 4:00pm or so. With all this time on my hands, I spent a lot of time listening to music. Out of all of the considerable amount of music I listened to, there was one record that stuck out. A record so good I listened to it about four or five times through over the course of three days. That record was The Fall’s debut studio LP, Live at the Witch Trials.
A Little History:
The Fall are a band that hail from Manchester, England, home of Factory Records as well as such paragons of 20th century alternative music as The Buzzcocks, Magazine, Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths, The Happy Mondays, and The Stone Roses. They were formed in 1976 by members Mark E. Smith (guitar), Martin Bramah (vocals), Una Baines (drums), and Tony Friel (bass). After adding another drummer to the lineup (whose name was either Steve or Dave, depending on who and when you ask), Baines switched to keyboards, and Bramah and Smith swapped positions. After the release of an EP (Bingo-Master’s Break-Out!), a single (It’s The New Thing! b/w Various Times), and a few radio sessions for the BBC’s John Peel show, Smith and Bramah were left as the only original members, being joined by Marc Riley (bass), Karl Burns (drums), and Yvonne Pawlett (keyboards) for the recording of “Live at the Witch Trials.” By the time of The Fall’s next album, Dragnet, Bramah would leave and be replaced by guitarist Craig Scanlon, leaving vocalist and lyricist Mark E. Smith as the sole original member of the group. From that point forward, The Fall would essentially be Mark E. Smith, alongside whichever musician’s he chose to surround himself with.
For an album from a band whose main appeal partially stems from it’s unhinged and chaotic sound, the album starts out with a relatively tame and down tempo track, “Frightened.” Lyrically, the song comes across as semi-cryptic ode to amphetamine use and the growing pains of young adulthood. Musically, the song is based on a single four chord motif which builds in tension and becomes more impassioned and aggressive as the track progresses, with Bramah’s guitar becoming increasingly wiry and pissed off. This is the soundtrack to teeth grinding out of frustration. That could just be me, though. Is it simple and repetitive? Yeah, but that’s The Fall’s calling card, so much so that they released a single around this period entitled “Repetition,” which contained the lyric “We’ve repetition in the music/ and we’re never going to lose it.” It was almost their manifesto.
“Frightened” is followed by the tracks “Crap Rap 2/Like to Blow,” an uptempo number featuring jerky, devo-esque rhythms and swathes of guitar textures, and “Rebellious Jukebox,” which is a fairly melodic song that, while definitely having the force and energy of a punk song, also has a kind of austere beauty to it that makes it seem like it could be played quite beautifully by a string quartet, as well.
This most tuneful of tracks is followed by “No Xmas for John Quays.” The track starts off with Smith cooly intoning the words “the ‘X’ in Xmas is a substitute crucifix for Christ,” and then, after a count off, launches into a fast, chaotic rush of a-melodic fury. To mein ears, this track ’tis glorious, though I could very easily see most other people just getting pissed off and annoyed by it.
This is the followed by “Mother-Sister!” which we find is the musical equivalent of Seinfeld when someone in the band asks “what’s this song about?” to which Smith replies “nothin’.” The verses seem fairly easy going, with lyrics about see-saws and requests for preaching, but then the songs speeds into a frenzy for the chorus, wherein Smith decries “Mother-Sister, Mother-Sister/ Why did you put your head in?” The song ends with this frenzy continued, with Smith shouting “pylon” until the song ends. Why Smith’s making oblique references to Greco-Roman architecture, I haven’t the slightest idea. However, my sources tell me that pylon is also a Canadian slang-term for moron. Should I trust this? Probably not, but a boy can dream, can’t he? (No, he can’t, and you should be ashamed for assuming as much).
The first side of the album ends with the one-chord wonder that is “Industrial Estate.” It starts with the chimes of guitar harmonics, and then launches into the Shakespearean spiel of “Yeah! Yeah!/Industrial Estate” in the song’s chorus. The set of lyrics that follow detail a city in the mist of industrial decay, with “crap in the air that’ll fuck up your face” and inhabitants who are just barely able to trudge through their lives thanks to a prescription of valium. It ain’t the prettiest picture, but I find it to be a Got Damn compelling romp.
Side two kicks of with Smith chanting “your nervous system” on “Underground Medicine,” which uses many of the same themes of the previous song, albeit in a more directly personal matter.
The next track, “Two Steps Back,” is a more melodic track, and actually wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Pere Ubu’s first two albums, save for Smith’s semi-drunken ramblings (again, it probably doesn’t seem like it, but I do mean that in the best possible way).
This is followed by the albums title track, which is also the albums shortest track. At 51 seconds, it’s basically guitarist Martin Bramah noodling on his guitar while Smith rambles on about primal scream therapy and some R&R. It culminates with Smith shouting “Live at the Witch Trial,” which begets the next track, “Futures and Pasts,” which is probably the albums most straight forward punk song. It’s also quite catchy, if I do say so myself, with the relatively sing-song chorus of “I understand but I don’t see it/ Futures and Pasts.” I’ll probably have the chorus stuck in my head for the rest of the week, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Then, we have the grande finale, “Music Scene.” At 8 minutes, it sounds like Can being played by a garage band, and although it starts out strong, I have to admit it probably goes on a bit longer than necessary.
All in all, I really enjoy this album. It’s the debut album of a classic post-punk band who have influenced everyone from Sonic Youth and Big Black to Will Oldham. For anyone interested in that genre or any of the aforementioned artists, I highly recommend this album, and wish you many joyous listens.