A Past Gone Rad: The Fall's Infotainment Scan 20 Years On
, April 15th, 2013 05:04
Neil Macdonald was in school when he was first exposed to The Fall via a murky tenth generation cassette recording of their 16th album
As a 15-year-old living in small-town 1993, I felt somewhat duty bound to be 'into' The Fall. So finally being aware of a forthcoming record release from the band seemed to me more like a call-to-arms than just another notch on the Fall completist's bedpost, and most certainly the best place to start my relationship with Mark E Smith's revered revolving-door rock band. Certainly as far as the full-length Fall experience goes anyway - I'd recently been thrilled to have chanced upon a promo copy of 'Why Are People Grudgeful?', with 'Glam-Racket', something called 'The Re-Mixer' and a cover of Sister Sledge's 'Lost In Music' on the B-side. Three of these four tracks convinced me that getting into The Fall would be easy. Only 'The Re-Mixer' caused me to doubt my prospective committal to the cause. It sounded a bit like a (second) album track from some UK rave sensation of three years previous - the kind of thing you'd find on a Vox magazine 'dance music' cover-mount cassette. 'Lost In Music' jangled and shimmered, while 'Glam Racket' rode a solid, striding glam-rock rhythm accompanied by Mark E Smith littering the title over the track as he pleased. With my musical taste having been informed by the Stourbridge bands, Sub Pop Before-Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, the Chart Show's all too infrequent indie countdown and the aforementioned rave outfits of the very early 90s. It was some years before I discovered that 'Lost In Music' was a cover of a mainstream disco number. Not that it mattered at the time, and in fact the reference and reasoning are still largely lost upon me.
The fidelity haemorrhaging with every cassette-to-cassette generation it had taken to get to me, by the time The Infotainment Scan had passed through the school's hierarchy of cool, this otherwise accessible album sounded like some wavering school-band punk demo from 1977. Apt since I was in the deepest trough of my Clash phase at the time, and entirely enamoured with the presumption that anything recorded on more than sixteen tracks was the work of a fascist.
The three good songs from my 12" all featured on the Phillips C60, confusing me about the supposed vastness of the Fall's catalogue, but simultaneously affording me an immediate kinship with the album. It was like turning up at the coolest party in town and already being friends with three of the guests. At least, it was how I imagined that situation might have felt.
Steve Hanley's rumbling, rolling bass on opener 'Ladybird (Green Grass)' hit me like Jah Wobble's bass had on 'Albatross', and Mani's in 'I Wanna Be Adored'. Did all the best albums have such incredible bass tones on the opening track? In less than a minute I knew that this album knew what it was doing - it was smart, informed and interesting; knowingly contradictory. Contradictory because I'd been led to believe that enjoying The Fall was a privilege that had to be worked for, a privilege that was somehow earned. It was like I'd managed to sneak into the party through an open window, with the help of the three cool people I knew from before, and nobody minded since the party had been going so well for so long anyway.
Sidestepping my acquaintances 'Lost In Music' and 'Glam-Racket', I found myself with the cover of Steve Bent's ode to globe-trotting decadence, 'I'm Going To Spain'. Having barely been outside Scotland, this tale of one man's decision to pack his job in and uproot to a sunnier climate seemed - especially, perhaps within the context of the album - unfathomably cool. The thought that there were people unbound by trivial domestic commitments like school, work or family was an inspiring one, and probably the last time (until their cover of 'I Can Hear The Grass Grow' at least) that I associated The Fall with sunshine. I still maintain (or I would, if it was to ever come up in conversation) that the guitar in Fugazi's 'Do You Like Me', of two years later, is just too close to Craig Scanlon's chopping riffs of 'It's A Curse' to be a coincidence - retrospective reassurance that even within their vast canon of work, The Fall were inventing things with every record.
In an absolute contrast to how I'd presumed the album was moving, 'Paranoia Man In Cheap Shit Room' threw me entirely. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now. Guitars rang like Black Sabbath, and Mark E Smith's slur - which I'd already felt affinity with, thanks to my enjoyment of some Pogues records - seemed to be taunting me, as if to deliberately annoy anybody thinking it was going to be fun getting into The Fall. What previously had been at least poems, if not stories, had become an insistent, nonsensical relentless ramble of confusion over what I assumed to be an improvised musical backdrop that was made even less tolerable with being (probably) a tenth generation cassette copy. In hindsight, I'm certain the group achieved exactly what they set out to. Still, it was the last song on the first side of my cassette, so fast forwarding past it was always easy and the Balearic pop tones of 'Service' were always welcome. Those piano chords, the brass and an arguably Madchester bass line helped make The Infotainment Scan sound like some brilliant compilation of all the best music I didn't know, and not the 16th album by a band in their 17th year.
The guttural dirge that was 'The League Of Bald-Headed Men' sounded just right on my tape at the time. Not knowing how much of the mire was by design and how much of it had been weathered by repeated home dubbings mattered not, it was loud and it was dirty. Smith sounded (almost) lost in the music, struggling to be heard over the thundering rhythm, being dragged under by the bass currents and sucked into the guitar sludge. Every time the track seemed to be about to level out, it span gloriously out into another whirlpool of noise. By contrast (naturally), 'A Past Gone Mad' is a double-speed programmed freak-out, chords soaring like 808 State, as if the Salford crew had intended to reclaim the rave dancefloor from the Mancs at the Hacienda. The sampled drum loop pretty much blew me away. Having assumed The Fall would be beyond contemporary stylings like this, it was as close as the guitar music I knew had got to appropriating the motifs of the black America of the time, immediately bringing to mind the music on Straight Outta Compton, from the tape that had recently passed through the same chain of copying-a-copy command into my ownership months previously.
While 'Paranoia Man' had confused me, 'Light' / 'Fireworks' made me wonder if I was listening to the same album. Perhaps somewhere between the original owner's purchase and it arriving with me someone had hilariously taped themselves spinning the record backwards, or a Fall TV appearance through a karaoke microphone. There was the faint sound of Smith in the background - amidst distant, indiscernible clattering - followed by what I assumed to be somebody spinning the record really fast, still taping the result. It was only when I eventually came to own a vinyl copy that I realised this track actually existed pretty much like that. I'm still glad it confused me so much, I think if getting into The Fall was going to be as easy as it first seemed the eventual rewards would not have been as great.
Like Half Man Half Biscuit covering the B-52s, 'Why Are People Grudegeful' is an unadulterated, animated pop-stomp and remains one of my favourite Fall moments. The first Fall track I heard was almost always bound to be a favourite, and I'm delighted that this track is it, as comically misleading as it might have been.