Messing Up The Paintwork: This Nation’s Saving Grace Revisited
, January 17th, 2011 12:07
‘Paintwork’, an album track from This Nation’s Saving Grace, is in some respects the key to the song-writing processes of The Fall. John Doran looks back to 1985 with some help from Mark E. Smith
Mark E. Smith writes... no, he builds a song to the standards he requires, just for other people to turn up to complain about the lack of respect he has shown for the finished product. The bloody cheek! They are busybody site inspectors complaining about his lack of understanding about current health and safety regulations. He is a hard bitten old school site foreman bitching bitterly about the nanny state while dragging on a roll-up.
"And sometimes they say, 'Hey Mark, you're spoiling all the paintwork.'
"And sometimes they say, 'Your thumbprints are on the paintwork.'"
This song has perhaps some of the most visceral examples of him "fucking up" the paintwork. Not only does it start with someone making clicking sounds with their mouth while a workaday studio conversation takes place in the background: "We go two, twice all the way round those things. Two high ones, two low ones..."
When the song itself gets going, with portentous lyrics concerning a man with a bloody nose and a "tracing paper" vest which does little to hide horrible chest scars, it is not long before disaster strikes. Someone's only gone and recorded over the master tape. And who's this? It's someone on TV going on about how carbon is formed in stars while a flute plays in the background.
We don't find out what happened to the scar chested man. When we arrive back in the song a few seconds later, the lyrics have moved on to Smith's accountant, his diary, Paula Yates, cocaine, a cancelled Italian tour, his mother and a plate of liver and sausages. Of course, it's tempting to presume a lot of these lyrical non-seqiturs are just roughshod surrealism but there's always an autobiographical strand of silver shining through. This section of the song partially refers to the band narrowly missing an overnight stay in Turin during the aftermath of the Heysel Stadium disaster when tempers were running violently high against English people in the city, especially amongst Juventus fans. Another example of the band managing to be in the wrong place at the right time. It's also worth pointing out that the missing lyrics can be heard on the demo version included on the second CD of the recent, excellent Beggars Omnibus Edition but have so far failed to illuminate the author's grasp on the song by any great increment.
So the little chance we have of getting to grips with this song as an entity has now faded even further from view. Why would he mess up his own paintwork like this?
Smith claims it was a happy accident rather than an act of auto-vandalism. He says he was listening to the song in a hotel room on an old tape machine and was singing along to it when he went to hit the off button but pressed record instead. When he noticed the red light, he knocked the tape off properly.
After speaking to Smith recently for a Quietus interview I chatted to him briefly about This Nation's Saving Grace and, as is his wont, he said his primitavist experiments with tape are little more than a means of making the song seem a little more mysterious or exotic: "It's not a deliberate thing to be experimental. Sometimes random things work, sometimes they don't. You're always surprised when they come out well. But I've got a bit of a blind spot about this kind of thing. In my mind Paintwork isn't any different to any other song I've done… that's just the way I am."
Which, of course, isn't necessarily something that an academic or cultural commentator interested in The Fall would agree with. Perhaps inevitably the Prestwich powerhouse have become a rich source of material for academics and cultural theorists, and nowhere is this more visible in the recent publication Mark E. Smith And The Fall: Art, Music And Politics. While it's debatable how much Smith or even the majority of Fall fans like this kind of caper, there are certainly some fantastic essays in this book (not least by the always illuminating and occasionally bewildering Mark Fisher and Owen Hatherly). One article helpfully deals entirely with Smith's habit of singing into a dictaphone or dubbing his own voice over tracks and other such uses of tape manipulation. Robert Walker's 'Dictaphonics: Acoustics And Primitive Recording In The Music Of The Fall' lists all the instances that have seen the singer putting thumb prints in the paintwork of his own music in this manner.
Walker suggests several reasons why Smith likes all these different, supposedly Luddite, practices, but tellingly, the first one he floats past us is that the singer wishes to stick two fingers up to studio engineers and by extension, the entire rule book, of how one is supposed to do these things. And, let's face it, one only has to listen to the horrifically mangled but intensely enjoyable and exciting intro to the recent 'Bury 1+3' to see this is still something that is still close to the core of his ideas today.
In the essay Walker briefly concentrates on 'Paintwork' itself: "We hear the dominant 'clean' version of the track interrupted by someone pushing record and randomly inserting fragments of living room TV sound into the song. The simple home keyboard chords and drums are repetitive and banal but the dictaphone wrecks the acoustic homongeneity. As such the song is inconceivable without it - tape has become an instrument that is a key part of the ensemble. The concept of erasing parts of your master tape with a home tape recorder is an incredibly charged intervention: aesthetically, politically and in opposition to an industry whose prime asset is the master tape. It draws direct comparison with Brion Gysin and William Burroughs' tape cut ups which randomly erase and interrupt narrative flow to generate meaning, acting as a crude technological analogy for the human brain's ability to switch from memory to present perception. As one meaning is disrupted, a new meaning is created."
Will we ever know exactly what he's doing, or even if he's 100% sure himself? I'm not entirely certain but I do know for a fact it's one of the reasons we're talking about This Nation's Saving Grace today and not, say, Brothers In Arms, Rum, Sodomy And The Lash or The Night Of A Thousand Candles. (Perhaps the only other 1985 released rock album that will be discussed on the Quietus this year to any great extent is The Jesus And Mary Chain's Psychocandy which also used noise and unorthodox recording techniques to obfuscate and confuse. Although admittedly there is little else to link the two albums.)
Even if it's just another defence mechanism on the Prestwich poet's part - part of his prodigious paranoia - it's a fascinating way of working. Encrypt lyrics then obfuscate them with accent, mic technique, use of loudhailer/cardboard tube/cymbal and finally use various methods - including random accidents - to distort the tape when the process is nearly complete.
'Paintwork' is an utterly insane excuse for a song despite it being the closest thing to a ballad on TNSG, which itself is an utterly insane album. But despite this and the fact it doesn't contain a hit single (although some original versions of the album did contain 'Cruisers Creek', which reached the dizzy heights of 96 in the UK charts), it is considered by critics to be their most 'pop' album. The gateway drug. The path of least resistance. The entry point to the wonderful and frightening macroverse.
But hang on a second... isn't this just far too strange to be 'accessible'? In what kind of universe could this be considered a pop record?
AFTER SIGNING TO Beggars Banquet and releasing The Wonderful And Frightening World... The Fall had clearly turned a corner in terms of quality. You can certainly tell the Beggars albums apart from all the others and this is generally put down to Brix Smith's influence rather than the actual change of record label. But she joined the group in 1983 and appeared on Perverted By Language while the group were still on Rough Trade. If this is a great album - and it is - it was in spite of the label's input. Apparently bored with the band, RT packed them off to a studio that was unfit for purpose. The equipment was that bad that you can still hear the previous takes of 'Strife Knot' under the one that made the final cut and the final track listing had to be filled out with a live track ('Tempo House', the author's favourite Fall track and introduction to the group via the John Peel show on R1).
TWAFW... in 1984 can be seen as a dry run for the group's so-called pop period with Brix asserting herself more and John Leckie's calming, can-do influence also helping draw Smith to the fore as well as finding more tunefulness amongst the chaos. When all's said and done it still doesn't quite have the production or the songs to make it Premiership Fall material but it did show how good things were going to get.
Now, some will tell you that This Nation's Saving Grace is The Fall's best album. Not everyone though. The cider-powered punk rock ghost at the wedding will rep for Live At The Witch Trials; the amphetamine enhanced scholar will tell you Dragnet or Slates while gentlemen of the author's vintage will recommend Hex Enduction Hour. But who knows? There's something to be said for this century's Unutterable being in poll position even, while a sensible Fall fan will always state that the current incumbent is the best... as long as it doesn't happen to be Cerebral Caustic...
But it has become a given that you can't underestimate the influence Brix had on The Fall. Like a multi-millionaire buying an electric razor manufacturing business, she had to join the band and marry the front man to be in a position to take a group that she loved to nudge it into a context that she, as a pop punk loving American could fully understand, or at least understand more clearly. And certainly their appearance on TV interviews at the time suggests that they were deeply in love and in awe of one another. Certainly again theirs was obviously The Fall's most even-handed partnership. Her stamp is clearly all over tracks such as 'L.A.' and there's an obvious double meaning to her statement taken from Russ Meyer's Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls: "It's my happening and it's freaking me out."
But, as hasn't been really noted that often, perhaps her influence was most pronounced on this out of all of the Beggars albums because she had someone else in her corner. Another outsider.
Simon Rogers was introduced to the group by the ballet dancer and collaborator Michael Clarke before he initially joined Brix's band The Adult Net. He was certainly more art than prole, being a graduate of the Royal College of Music and a member of the new age outfit Incantation, before joining the ranks of The Fall. It's not like the other lads in the group treated him like some posh kid whose family have fallen on hard times, having to pull him out of private school and drop him into a state comprehensive, but there was a sense of him being other... y'know, a trained musician and everything. He'd been drafted in to fill the gap created by Steve Hanley preparing for imminent fatherhood by taking a job in a petrol station. Speaking about his initiation into the group Rogers said: "I wasn't like a 'Fall' kind of person. I was into everything. I bought punk records. I used to buy jazz records and I would buy classic records, electronic. I wasn't at all tribal about music which was quite unusual back then."
He added: "They didn't come off stage and high five me initially. You have got to sit around and be quite laconic you know. It was kind of a relief for Brix because she liked to chat. So when I was there, she would at least have someone to talk to, rather than the rest of us staring at the floor."
But even in the Adult Net he was marked out as different by his given name: Ottersley Kippling. I.e. they thought he was posh, therefore he ate cake. Rogers, begs to differ, saying he didn't eat cake, he just occasionally ate full stop. There is something almost hilariously telling about the UK independent/ alternative scene of the mid 80s about this detail. What kind of ponce would choose to have a meal when there was a Tesco bag full of cheap amphetamines on offer?
But Rogers was a gifted musician and had some understanding of what Smith wanted. His first 'attempt' to write a Fall song resulted in 'Spoilt Victorian Child'. MES might have paid it the backhanded complement of saying it was brilliant, like "lute" music - perhaps hurting Rogers' feelings slightly because he thought he'd come up with some "nasty punk shit" but by anyone's reckoning this is surely one of the best tracks of this period. The actual lyrics had been kicking about since the formation of the group, with Smith just waiting for some old-fashioned sounding British music to pair them with. But there was nothing old fashioned about Rogers really. He was into PCs. He knew where the cursor was. He knew where the eraser was. He was the ideal candidate to introduce them to the dark art of sequencing, which reared its streamlined head on 'L.A.'.
Another way the group shifted gears in '85 was that they recorded their first cover version, 'Rollin' Dany', which, as Smith states, quickly "became a tradition". They'd never seemed like a covers band before so what had changed? "Well you were saying before about the kind of music that people should know about and I'd say stuff like Gene Vincent. When I chose a cover back then, it was because I was getting sick of soul covers [in the charts in the mid-80s] so it started out as a reaction to that. You had people like Paul Young doing these terrible songs so I was saying why does no one do a Gene Vincent song? And you have to try and make it better… which you never can but [in trying] you can make it different. What is good about it is that it changes the group up so they're not stuck in a Fall kind of pattern. It keeps them alert. Covers can keep them on their toes with their complicated chord sequences and that."
Other notable songs on the album include... well, fucking all of them. This is The Fall's Off The Wall after all. We've already mentioned 'Paintwork' and 'Spoilt Victorian Child' so perhaps we should applaud the other album track that is known by even the most casual of Fall-kurious listeners, 'My New House'.
Smith is on good form here; both laugh out loud funny and chillingly bleak, often within the same barked proclamation:
"According to the postman/It's like the bleeding Bank of England
Creosote tar fence surrounds it/Those razor blades eject when I press eject...
"The spare room is fine/ Though a little haunted
By Mr. Reagan who had hung himself at number 13/ Mr. Reagan hung himself at number 13
"It'll be great when it's decorated..."
Not that his nibs would want it said in his presence but out of his entire back catalogue this is the track that seems to predict the second half of Sonic Youth's career the most. A simple, sub-Krautrock riff, which nonetheless lodges in your brain like an aggressive tick, lollops along via scrappy note bends and cheap distortion, full of mischief and violent possibility like the world seen through the fourth pint of lager in a daytime session.
Sonic Youth had been vocal in their praise of The Fall in interviews and even included some footage of Smith and the slogan 'Thank you' in their Teenage Riot video of 1988. On October 19th of the same year they mischievously recorded a Peel Session comprising Fall cover versions. (One of the tracks, 'Victoria' was of course, a cover itself, having been originally recorded by The Kinks.) They released the session as a bootleg on their own Goofin label in 1984, calling it 4 Tunna Brix, dedicating it to "Darling Brix" just as Smith was divorcing from his wife.
But he had already been aware of them - and disliked them - for some time by then, rejecting them as tour support act in 1985, choosing Marcia Schofield's Khmer Rouge instead. Smith has never really missed an opportunity to have a pop at the band since saying their license to make rock music should be revoked, that he would never shake hands with them if he met them and that he would hire a lawyer to sue them if he could afford it. He even sacked Craig Scanlon for apparently playing like them and, perhaps most cuttingly, he still refers to SY's front man as Scott Thurston in interviews.
Whatever Sonic Youth think is mainly unimportant, however. This is Brix's take on the album which is her favourite of all the ones she appeared on: "We worked really well together. I tried to embrace all of their styles and not obliterate anyone or be like the arrogant guitar player that pushed in front, I didn't want to do that. Everybody was special in that band and played their own part. I'm so proud, so proud, to have been a part and it is genius, he is a genius, Mark, he is brilliant."
At the end of the day, of course, it's not a pop record it's a Fall record and it's not a Brix record it's a Mark Edward Smith record. Listen to 'I Am Damo Suzuki'... a song that marries the drum beat of one Can song ('Oh Yeah'') to the bass line from another Can song ('Don't Turn The Light On, Leave Me Alone') with lyrics replete with references to other Can songs ('Vitamin C' etc) and Can albums (Soundtracks etc), while he even repeatedly claims to be a member of Can. Has a song ever sounded more like The Fall though? Has a song ever sounded more like the work of Mark Smith? Talking about the song, Smith said: "Damo Suzuki and Can had a really big effect on me when I was younger. I met him in about 1989. He was a car salesman for Mitsubishi in Germany. He was telling me about the troubles he'd had over that decade but by then he'd 'reformed' himself. He thought the song was great but I think it was the group in general he liked."
Perhaps, let's say this: this is as malleable as the group ever became without really fluctuating that far from the blueprint set up by 'Repetition', the most he ever relinquished control. After all, he's always made his feelings on the subject of The Fall being a rock group and not a pop group pretty clear. Feelings he made clear to me: "Do I think it's Pop?! Er, I don't really know… I don't particularly think so. I listened to it recently just because of the reissue and you're talking about a different person altogether. I can relate to him but can't relate to him if you know what I mean."
They were of course interviewed by pop magazines at the time but that's not really the same thing. His comment to NME in 1985 on being featured in the hallowed pages of Smash Hits, should perhaps be the last comment on the subject here: "Yesterday we were getting mithered by all these little kids, all about seven or eight. They were saying, why didn't you do 'Pat-Trip Dispenser' and stuff. Wanted autographs. So I said to Craig get those little kids away from me. It's bloody perverse. And he said, they know all our names, y'know that's what Smash Hits does for you.
"I said, Craig - there's all swear words in our songs! They shouldn't be hearing that fucking stuff!"
Thanks to Steve Webbon, Daryl Easlea, Niall O'Keeffe, Tom Watson, Rich Walker and Dorothy Howe