Saturday, 3 March 2018

Variations on Disturbance: Mark E Smith the Past/Future Roman Totale by Olly Beck

1. The Outsider

‘I wanted to write out of the song. I wanted to explore, to put a twist on the normal. People think of themselves too much as one person – they don’t know what to do with the other people that enter their heads’

 Mark E. Smith, 2008

‘Someone's always on my tracks
 In a dark room you’d see more than you think
 I'm out of my place, got to get back
 I sweated a lot, you could feel the violence

 I've got shears pointed straight at my chest
 And time moves slow when you count it
 I'm better than them, and I think I'm the best
 But I'll appear at midnight when the films close’

 Frightened, Live at the Witch Trials, Smith/Bramah, 1979

The Fall are one of those rarefied bands I’ve always turned to whenever I start to feel complacent or indifferent or even seduced by the mainstream establishment-led value system or the ‘English Scheme’ as Marc E Smith once wrote it. A working class autodidact, part of Smith’s legacy will be his masterly toying with identity politics and the middle class paradigm which fuels this ‘set up’. In its current guise in these times of austerity, caused by people obsessed by too much wealth, we are invited to gawp in disgust or fear at poverty ridden, drug addled ‘chavs’ in television programmes commissioned by successful TV executives who often themselves appear to have risen to the heights of middle-classness from humble beginnings. That Smith riles against (but at the same revels in) this type of stereotyping is nothing new, it was part of the Punk ethic from which The Fall erupted. But whereas most of those Punk originators were tamed and subsumed into the system, The Fall as orchestrated and organised by Smith, resisted.                    

Smith’s dogged sense of self, refused to be flattened by the media saturated world he operated in. He was on its case to the point of pedantic annoyance. Fully aware of the pits and falls of the cultural system, he chose an ethic of hard unforgiving experimental graft to bring us more than forty years of music that now that he’s gone off to other complicated universes brings yet another reminder that our culture is rescinding itself in the name of some non-alignment global pact about obsessions and addictions to the rise and fall of the dollar, yen, sterling, bitcoin and all the rest of the capitalist led orientations of this neoliberal era. That Smith wasn’t interested in more than just enough money was very clear given his deliberately chosen trajectory into musical success which he filtered in terms of his beliefs rather than sell out his vision.

I doubt he would have agreed with what I’ve just written about him. But that was always the problem with Smith; he was difficult to pin down, forever the contrarian with an acute sense of cutting through the bullshit.     

2. In Your Area

‘You've got comics in full bloom
 McCarthy reincarnates soon
 See the bones on the two-way faces
 The me generation
 See the traces of
 The madness in my area’

 In My Area, Totale’s Turns, Scanlan/Riley/Smith/Pawlett, 1980

I crossed paths with him once in the late 1990’s. He was walking down West End Lane towards Maida Vale probably on his way to another intense Peel recording session. He had this grimace that was simultaneously hilarious. He hated London, which he saw as full of mercenary eyes. Prophetic or not, he was right to be cynical about the capital. What should have been, and once was a bohemian and affordable place to live was fast becoming overpriced and gentrified. A new breed of property speculators and the rise of the rentier class were moving in on all over us like a disease, leading us to the frankly criminal state of affairs which is the London I live in today. Not that this gentrification is confined to the south, it has spread even to Smith’s hometown of Prestwich: ‘Gentrification happens so quick, it happens here. This pub used to be a bit of a rough house, and you get these middle class fellas coming in with baby’s round their neck. And that’s their idea of austerity, coming in here!’[i]

Back in 1985, I picked up my first Fall album ‘The Wonderful and Frightening World of…’ The opening track Lay of the Land, with its part-gothic, part-psychobilly sonic sensibility across which are lain seemingly potty lyrics vocalised by a sardonic northerner had me transfixed. Later, at art college, when given a visual diary project to be put to music I took my 35mm camera loaded with slide film and documented my first semi-conscious drift/dérive around the liminal bad land spaces of my suburban hometown on the outer edges of North London and used Lay of the Land as the soundtrack. These were spaces that attracted a multitude of turpitudes from the lighter side of illicit sex, teenage parties, drug taking and gang fighting to the sites of much darker misdemeanours which were all too often places which bisected the former zones of innocence deflowered. 

I didn’t think much of the results of my work, but it was cathartic given my own disturbed familial beginnings in life and the random unsituated violence which regularly haunted my neighbourhood. I certainly didn’t know anything about the likes of Guy Debord, Ivan Chtcheglov and the Situationist International at that stage.

Instead The Fall had given me access to a sense of evocation via Smith’s sense of an urban psychedelic exorcism drawn from his fascination with esoteric/visionary writers such as Arthur Machen, Malcom Lowry, H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K Dick. It was apparently from Machen that Smith drew his alter-ego Roman Totale XVII, a rebellious figure drawn  to the outside mysterium of the Welsh Mountains from an urban fiery within: ‘Machen’s style of writing horror and the supernatural into everyday occurrences, especially urban metropolitan settings, is echoed in The Fall’s urban gothic. The horror is located under the surface of things.’[ii]

Roman Totale surfaces prominently in the opus  ‘The N.W.R.A’ (The North Will Rise Again) wearing an ostrich headdress, covered in tentacles, his face a mess and dwelling underground, screwed over by a dubious local businessman called Tony. In Mark Fisher’s brilliantly perceived essay exploring the influence of pulp modernism on Smith’s writing Fisher observes: ‘Lovecraft is the exemplar here: his tales and novellas could in the end no longer be apprehended as discrete texts but as part-objects forming a mythos-space which other writers could explore and extend. The form of ‘The N.W.R.A’ is as alien to organic wholeness as Totale’s abominable tentacular body. It is a grotesque concoction, a collage of pieces that do not belong together.’[iii] Fisher’s reading (a reading he readily admits to being  just that, rather than some definitive understanding of Smith’s trademark lyrical jouissance) sees Totale’s failed redemption as standing for a North unable to re-establish its former glory whether Victorian or ancient, suppressed by its own nouveau riche aspirations: ‘More than a matter of regional railing against the capital, in Smith’s vision the North comes to stand for everything supressed by urbane good taste: the esoteric, the anomalous, the vulgar sublime, that is the Weird and Grotesque itself.’[iv]

Smith’s lyrics and his deliverance of them have a schizophrenic quality echoing another key influence in William S. Burroughs cut-up technique. Here Smith is attracted to the daily pulp of magazines and newspapers: ‘I like crap, me. The local advertiser and all that. The rubbish that’s written in there is quite fascinating. Free newspapers, the Metro and all that shit.’[v] This mixing up of the literary arcane with the throwaway mundane, the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ interjected  with Smith’s tetchy often humorous social realism is what makes repeated listening to The Fall so absorbing and challenging.                      

3. Futures/Pasts

‘I was in a sleeping dream
 When a policeman brought my mother home
 By the window I didn't scream
 I was too old for that
 I was in a drunken dream
 The pubs were closed
 It was three o'clock
 At the bottom of the street it seemed
 There was a policeman lost in the fog’

 Futures and Pasts, Live at the Witch Trials, Smith/Bramah, 1979

But with all the fascination about Smith’s cantankerous personality as the grouchy double-talking outsider as well as the Dadaist approach to meaning and performativity it’s his poetic ability that is left wanting. The song Futures and Pasts is an exquisitely paired down encapsulation of suburban dysfunction using a dream state saturated with fog and booze overseen by an inadequate authority figure where memory slips uneasily between the present, past and an implied future. Bill is Dead from Extricate is a celebratory love song like no other, while The Reckoning from Middle Class Revolt is one of the most reassuring and upliftingly defiant songs about unrequited love I’ve ever heard. The opening track Alton Towers on Imperial Wax Solvent finds Smith crooning like a deranged stalker against what could be a seedy Tom Waits style jazz meander – although it has been speculated that it was actually inspired by Edvard Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. Before the lyrics descend into chaotic clipped asides comes:

 In excelcis
 And the waves
 Through the slits
 In San Rocco
 Look very different
 And are no longer any way sublime’

 Alton Towers, Imperial Wax Solvent, Smith/Spurr, 2008

4. Dictaphone Man/Lost in Music

In a long overdue but already old essay on musical experimentation as a tactical anti-establishment component employed by The Fall, Robert Walker points us towards what he calls ‘dictaphonics’.[vi] The use of lo-fi recording equipment such as dictation and home tape recorders (in the studio or out in the ‘field’) as well as Smith’s penchant for projecting his voice through guitar amps, megaphones and anything else which conveys a sense of dissemblance, is designed to disrupt ‘the acoustic, spatial, and temporal complacency of the established rock formula.’

It is also used more uniquely as a key compositional device. The haunting, oppressive sounding Spectre vs. Rector from the 1979 album Dragnet opens with the band recorded as though we are listening to them muffled and drifting up from some hellish basement: ‘The intentional muddiness of the ghost band that Smith sings over in the first part of Spectre vs. Rector is then wrenched away by the real band, an opportunity to use the claustrophobic squall of replayed sound to act like a character lurking in the space of the record. The fact that the two versions sit over each other uncomfortably adds to the songs dank atmosphere. The unflattering acoustic helps convey a sense of otherness because its tonal quality is outside of our own expectations of a piece of music.’[vii] 

Walker counts at least fifty songs from The Fall’s output which use dictaphonic insertions with varying degrees of prominence, approach and affect. The most recognisable being Smith’s use of the Dictaphone to create multiple voices emanating from the same person (himself) as a way of exploring his fascination with multiple identities and splintered personalities. And perhaps it is in this bi-polar way that John Peel’s much loved proclamation that The Fall are ‘always different, always the same’ might be understood.  

[i] Mark E Smith,, July 2017
[ii] Mark Goodall, Salford Drift: A Psychogeography of The Fall, Mark E Smith and The Fall: Art, Music and Politics, Ed. Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan, Routledge, 2016, p48
[iii] Mark Fisher, Memorex for the Krakens: The Fall’s Pulp Modernism, Ibid, p105
[iv] Ibid, p105
[v] Mark E Smith,, November 2011
[vi] Robert Walker, ‘Dictaphonics’: Acoustics and Primitive Recording in the Music of The Fall, Mark E Smith and The Fall: Art, Music and Politics, Ed. Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan, Routledge, 2016
[vii] Ibid, p80 :Walker sites the influence of musique concrete here (John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer et al) but also fellow mavericks like Brion Gysin, Burroughs and Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.

Text by Olly Beck 2018

No comments:

Post a Comment