Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Fall - Live At The Witch Trials

We are the Fall
Northern white crap that talks back
We are not black. Tall.
No boxes for us.
Do not fuck us.
We are frigid stars.
We were spitting, we were snapping "Cop Out, Cop Out!"
as if from heaven.

Live At The Witch Trials (1979) ****1/2

As debut intros go, the spoken word bit that prefaces "Crap Rap 2/Like to Blow," would have been immortalized as the greatest opening lines to a debut album by a great rock band ever, except that "Crap Rap," is actually the second track; the plodding "Frightened," opens this longplayer, the repetitively churning rhythm section thinly thudding under Martin Bramah's translucent high-pitched guitar spitting out fragile glass shards and, of course, Mark E. Smith's characteristic (does he ever change?) sourpuss poetry-chant vocals.  Hearing this album another hundred times again, I decided after all that it's appropriate for this album to start off with a slow one instead of the anthemic statement of raw punk roar and intent that is "Crap Rap".  Eases you in and sets you up, you see?  Wouldn't have been nearly as effective to immediately dash in with a bloody assault of noise.  Repetitively churning well describes the sound of this album.  It's a deliberately ugly sound, the missing link between post-punk and punk proper (but oh, was there ever a need?  Nearly every post-punk band can be described as a "missing link" to punk.)  Recorded in one day and mixed the next, and sounds it, this still manages to somehow come across as more professional and polished than later early Fall releases.  This is entirely relative to the Fall, as they exist in their own private sonic universe; compared to anyone else, it's raw and under not over produced.

As per the typical pattern with each new Fall release, the band playing the music contained inside this container wouldn't exist in this form by the time of the next LP, as members quit/fired due to Mark E. Smith's slaver misanthropy.  So it's the only Fall album where you can taste the glassy guitar sounds of Martin Bramah, whose lack of a buzzsaw attack immediately sets this apart from the punk pack; his plink-plunk little lines when he's creeping around on lead and thin jangly-aggressive strums when he's on rhythm are amateurish-influential on subsequent indie-punk.  Amateurishly influential is an adverb-adjective combo quite fitting for the first Fall LP.  I already mentioned the cement churn of the Mark Riley/Karl Burns rhythm section, so how about the ultra-ultra-ultra-ultra-lo-fi keyboards of Yvonne Pawlett's electric piano, which connects the microdots to '60s garage punk and leavens the proceedings with some not unpleasantly musical cheese.  As John Peel described his favorite band, they are always the same and always different:  every track sounds the same in the same sort of style but every track is uniquely different, memorably sounding unlike the rest.

The aftorementioned "Frightened," is one of the slow songs, as is the nearly eight-minute closer, "Music Scene," which is a scabrous attack on guess what.  "Mother-Sister!" appears to be some sort of Freudian neurosis, though Mark intros the track with, "What's this song about?" "Uh....nothin'."  "Two Steps Back," self-referentially states that, "Everybody likes me but they all think I'm crazy," which for once Mark E. Smith connects with me emotionally as a statement I can relate to.  The others are faster ones, some of them even pretty fast, like "Industrial Estate," the simplest punk blast here, with its "Yeah, yeah!" chorus and easy to decipher (nothing to decipher, really) lyrics about living in a polluted urban slum.  "The air in here will fuck up your face!"  The title track is a mighty spoken word piece where Smith proclaims allegiance to the Puritan ethic and non-sympathy for spastics; "We were early, we were late," as the piece segues into another driving raver of a drunken dream, "Futures and Pasts."  "Rebellious Jukebox," leaps out as the most likely to succeed as an A-side, coasting on Bramah's catchiest ringing guitar line, and "No X-Mas for John Quays," (no no-prize for spotting the pun) contains some of the sharpest and funniest lyrics on the LP, with random references to cigarette machines, Frankie Lymon ("tell me wh-Y!"), and the Idle Race.  The Idle Race?  Who else was talking about the Idle Race in 1979?  I haven't mentioned "Underground Medecin," yet.  That's because I don't like it.

This is probably the best Fall album; I don't know, my opinions keep shifting depending.  Just look at the track-listing, it's already got more good songs on it than any Stooges album - "Crap Rap," "Industrial Estate," "Rebellious Jukebox," "No X-Mas for John Quays," ah man, these are freakbeatin' classics.  Still, there's always something a bit too raw and too sloppy and too repetitive in the performance for any Fall album to receive the highest grade.  The ramshackle edges are crucial to the band's stumbling and lurching charm, but also a sort of Achilles' heel.  And I do have to be precisely in the mood if I'm going to take forty minutes of Mark E. Smith's one-note emotional inventory; does he ever display any other mood than sneeringly pissed off?  Ah, screw it, the Fall are great.  The two-disc reissue is one to look out for, as it not only appends nearly half of the songs contained on The Early Years reviewed below, but their first Peel sessions plus an entire concert from 1978.  Quite the catch-ah!

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