Grotesque (After the Gramme) (1980) ****
For a lot of people, this is where the classic Fall sound begins, as Mark E. reveals that punk rock was never but rockabilly played really, really fast, as the furious opener, "Pay Your Rates," makes clear with its Gene Vincent after-playing-Pong-for-seven-hours hard and bouncy attack makes clear. You could say that parts of this sound like '69 era Stones covering the Johnny Cash songbook and you wouldn't be far off (the magnificently jangly "New Face in Hell," is a particularly fine "Street Fighting Man," rip). But as always they sound like nobody else but the Fall. With what is now regarded as the classic early Fall lineup in place - Steve Hanley on bass, with Craig Scanlon and Marc Riley on tag-team guitar - there aren't that many particularly low points on this missive, unusual for a Fall LP (or anybody). "W.M.C. -Blob 59" is a lo-fi experimental waste, but it's less than 90 seconds long, so kwitcherbichen'. Still, it's lacking a little something - rockabilly can be quite harshly unappealing music, you know? - to truly knock this out of the soccer stadiums as the Fall's shining hour: personally I'd still rate it slightly lower than Dragnet and Witch Trials, even if technically it's better, with more diversity and a brighter, more open sound. Probably because I'm not too huge a fan of primitivist rockabilly in the first place, and maybe because aside from "C'N'C S Mithering," there isn't a truly knockout track among this porridge of consistency. But oh, that "Mithering," - it's a nearly eight-minute spoken-word piece undergirded by a bed of basically strummed acoustic guitars and snapping drums. The way those drums snap! dryly is worth the hypnosis alone; Mark's voice doesn't even enter until a full minute and a half in. And when it does your ears can't let go: another rant against the music industry, California and Herb Alpert and some unnamed English group consisting of "four wacky proletarian idiots" are just a few of the targets. The way that Mark E. sneers, "See ya mate, see ya mate, see ya mate," is the definition of withering contempt. And the way it ends and suddenly segues into the ultra-speedy rockabilly jangle, "Container Drivers" (truckers) is inspired. If all the tracks had sounded like "C'N'S Mithering," this would be a five-star effort, no doubt. But if every track sounded like "Mithering," it wouldn't be a very good album, now would it? Could you take an entire album of crudely backed spoken word pieces like that? Nah. This album marks (ha, no pun intended) a slight change of direction as the vocals and lyrics get pushed more upfront; the other major slow epic on this album, "Impression of J. Temperance," works the same angle - it's no wonder that some early critics first exposed to the Fall via this album referred to their music as beat-poetry readings with crude three-chord backing. "In the Park," delivers more quoteable punchlines in a dispiritingly funny sex farce as Mark E. declaims, "You thought it'd be great! You thought it'd be great! But a good mind does not a good fuck make," and his tryst in the woodlands only goes downhill from there. The album closes with nine minutes of "The N.W.R.A." which stands for "The North Will Rise Again," a would-be anthem for northern industrial hard men as opposed to those soft southern English fairies. It shouldn't work at all, with the band out of tune and seemingly only playing the proper notes when they feel like it, and only change up after Mark yells, "Switch!" But it does, in spite of itself. Perhaps that's what's lacking in this album - it sounds a bit too loose and off the cuff, as if the band wrote and rehearsed and recorded these songs in a matter of hours. But that's the Fall for yew.
The bonus tracks this time are loaded up on the front of the album, so if you get the reissue it doesn't start with "Pay Your Rates," but "How I Wrote Elastic Man," a snappy ditty that was originally entitled "How I Wrote Plastic Man," but had to be changed due to some copyright issue (you can still hear Mark singing the original chorus, he didn't change that at all). "City Hobgoblins," was its B-side and one of my favoritest Fall tunes evah, a charming sub-nursery rhyme about, well, goblins. "Totally Wired," is another one of the band's key A-sides, a throbbing rockabilly-ish ode to caffeine and god knows what other speedy and more illegal stimulants. And finally there's that single's B-side, "Putta Block," which sounds like a classic B-side: a totally uncommercial, highly experimental throwaway that would have fit nowhere else but on a B-side and is absolut brill, as the Brits say.
BTW, I almost forgot to mention that this album marks Mark E. Smith's coinage of the term, "Country and Northern," to describe the Fall's music. Which fits this album perfectly. This is what you get when you spin a lot of Link Wray records and then play Pac-Man for five hours straight to rack up the highest score on the arcade machine and then waltz off to the garage to meet your mates and try to recreate '50s greaser rock under the influence of some dodgy mushrooms you'd scored from some shifty character you met behind the back of a 7-11.