“We’re Taking Control” – Former The Fall Members On New Release ‘Slates (Live)’

Marc Riley, Craig Scanlon, Paul Hanley and Steve Hanley speak to Daniel Dylan Wray about a new release of archive recordings capturing Slates performed live in its entirety, how it’s helping them regain agency in a world awash with ropey Fall bootlegs, and what Mark E. Smith might have made of their plans

Photos by Paul Husband

On April 25, 2023, the hammer struck down in the Omega auction house. The final, winning, bid for the item from lot 437 was £750. Not bad for a 10cm square soggy bit of wood pulp.

The item in question was a Joseph Holt Ltd beermat, emblazoned with the company logo, its 1849 founding date, and advertising itself as brewers of traditional mild and bitter. On the reverse side were the handwritten sketches for the album cover of Slates by The Fall, along with Mark E Smith’s shopping list: MILK x 2. FAGS. BOG ROLL.

The final version of the album cover ended up being very close to those loose sketchings, no doubt scrawled out in the middle of the afternoon while sitting in a pub. The layout (slightly tweaked), tracklisting, even down to the price of the record which Smith wanted on the cover itself – ‘cost: two pounds only, u skinny rats’ – all made its way onto the band’s first ever 10” six-track mini-album release in 1981.

It was one of many personal artefacts of Smith’s sold via auction by his estate. Aside from being a lovely little insight into the genesis of the album cover to one of The Fall’s greatest works, it’s also symbolic of where the legacy and history of the band is at the moment: hugely in demand yet also broken up, scattered and spread out. Much like many of Smith’s personal possessions are now in the ownership of various individuals and collectors all across the country, the musical output of The Fall is often equally in the hands of many.

Countless reissues from a variety of labels, some official some not, along with a steady stream of bootlegs and live releases, have been pumped out in volume for years now. In many of these instances, some credited members and songwriters of the band have no input in the decision, no control over the quality during the process and no remuneration from the output. So key members of the band – Marc Riley, Craig Scanlon, Paul Hanley and Steve Hanley – have got together to tackle this via a new record label, Popstock, a subsidiary of Bella Union, to release: Slates (Live).

“We’re taking control,” Scanlon tells me, as we all huddle in the corner of a Manchester boozer as the rain lashes down outside. “There is so much rubbish being released by carpetbaggers who don’t give a shit about it at all – and that’s our stuff they’re dealing with.” Riley adds: “If you look in The Fall racks, there’s pretty much a new one every other week. You’re lucky if you get a copy and who knows who’s replicating this stuff all over the world.”

As if to perfectly prove his point, the morning after our conversation a fresh batch of bootleg live recordings pop up online which could well end up hastily pressed to vinyl by anyone wanting to make a few quick quid. “We’ve even had it where people have asked us to contribute to the sleeve notes and that’s the only interaction we’ve had at any point with the release,” says Paul Hanley. “It would have been nice if they had even consulted us.” Steve Hanley tells me that he even regularly gets targeted Facebook ads selling bootleg Fall t-shirts.

“It seems like The Fall brand, for want of a better word, has just gone through the roof,” says Riley. “It’s just bizarre. Mark’s passing will have had something to do with that without a doubt. But ‘Totally Wired’ is popping up on TV programs and films all over the place and it seems like The Fall’s stock is bigger than ever. That’s probably pushed more of these new releases, which are of varying degrees of quality.”

Working with Bella Union designer, Luke Jarvis, they have created a sharp cover that feels very much like an accompaniment to the original, and still very much in keeping with Mark’s original beermat sketches. There’s only really one element that had to be removed due to inflation in the last 43 years: the £2 price tag. “That was the first thing that had to go,” laughs Scanlon.

Slates (Live) is the same six tracks from the original release, in the same order, but compiled from various live performances from that era, spanning gigs in places like Germany, the Netherlands and Scotland. “We realised that this didn’t ever seem to have been done before,” says Riley. Although, ironically, it had definitely been done by one person. The same person who has written the sleeve notes: Stewart Lee. “I approached him with the concept and he said, ‘I did exactly that five years ago,’” Riley laughs. “He’d already got his own live version of Slates together [from live recordings] so, who knows, maybe The Fall army have been doing this forever and a day but we’ve never seen it done before.”

And it was The Fall army, particularly Barrie Reilly, that they leaned on to dig through the wild west that is the band’s live bootleg archive. “He has got an encyclopaedic knowledge and a hard drive with pretty much everything that exists on it,” says Riley. “But it is so difficult to go through and filter what will be the absolute best version.” Riley estimates going through around 80-100 gigs from the era when Slates songs were being performed live to land on the final tracklisting. “We never did all of the songs in one gig,” he says. “So it’s a lot like what would have been if The Fall had written Slates and then gone out and played it in its entirety, which never happened.”

The result is a record that captures the punch, potency and piercing intensity of the recorded version, albeit filtered through a band who were capable of reaching another level altogether when on stage. The quality for a bootleg is excellent and in fact, for some tracks – such as an utterly arresting and pulverising version of ‘Leave The Capitol’ in which Smith’s every rabid spit, growl, snarl and yelp is captured – is often of a similar level to some of the band’s studio recorded work.

The beauty of composing a Fall live album like this – aside from the quality of the recordings and production going way up, and all members getting paid properly – is that live Fall songs only tend to exist in a small window. Such was the band’s desire to move forwards that new songs would almost always be favoured in place of old ones, and so within the space of a couple of years, a lot of those songs only exist in people’s memories. So here what you have is a crystalised snapshot not only just of a band line-up that would soon change, but songs themselves that don’t exist outside of this moment.

The result is a flush-tight band at the peak of their powers, fully connecting to music in a neophyte stage, all played with a dynamic, interlocking assault that is equal parts taut groove and fierce thrash. Lee writes in his sleeve notes: “That final, and all but stable for a decade, Fall ensemble played like some Stooges-Hawkwind cosmic earthmover, bulldozing riffs into the transcendent, until the music stopped in 2017. The Fall featured here, the 1979-1982 aggregate, remain unsurpassed, the standard by which all further Falls were judged.”

How do they feel about this description? “It really was a great band,” says Riley. “The two drummer lineup [with Karl Burns] was an amazing thing to be involved in. It felt absolutely infallible pretty much every night. We felt like we could take anybody on. We once played with The Birthday Party [in 1982] and they really went for it, it was a bit like a ‘follow that…’ scenario. And we did. We did a 13 minute version of ‘And This Day’, and we went hell for leather. For my money we were better than The Birthday Party that night, who were one of the greatest live bands in the world.” Scanlon then adds: “although we did play with The Cramps and they blew us off stage. Fucking ruined us.”

In fact, the band were so locked in and devastating in effect as a unit around this time that Riley feels it resulted in an unwelcome shift in power dynamics. “That two drummer lineup just gave us real confidence and we had the wind behind us,” he says. “And I think Mark didn’t like that; that unsettled him because there was always this ‘I’m the boss, they are the workers’, but we were a force of nature at that point in time and I think that worried him a bit.”

Was he prone to sabotage when things were going too well? “In a way,” offers Paul Hanley. “But you can’t argue with a band that was as well attended and critically acclaimed as they were for every point of their career for forty odd years.” His brother Steve then chips in: “On the whole you can’t but you can when you go from Hex Enduction Hour to Room To Live. That was [deliberately] messing things up.” Scanlon also concedes: “He definitely had sabotage in him.”

This new project may well stretch out to cover other albums in a similar fashion given the wealth of material to pluck from. So, why Slates as a starting off point?. “I think it’s the first album that sounds like it’s been produced properly,” says Paul Hanley, with Riley concurring: “It was the first Fall record that really sounded like it all came together as we would have hoped. It’s all really well executed and well recorded whereas on Grotesque the songs are great but the production is a bit ragged and Dragnet is patchy. But Slates jumps out.”

None of the band can remember any of the individual shows on the new live album but the original recording sessions were a mixed bag for members. “It wasn’t the most pleasant of recordings, was it?” Steve Hanley asks the table. “I don’t remember too much about it,” says Riley. “I recall Adrian Sherwood putting the bass drum at the bottom of the staircase and the microphone at the top of it.” Steve Hanley then responds: “What about the row in the studio?”

Riley then clicks. “Oh yeah,” he says. “I heard Mark talking to Grant [Showbiz – producer] about it and I said ‘‘Middle Mass’ is about me isn’t it? The line [about] ‘cider mates’ and all that.’ He was like, ‘no, no, no it’s another Mark’. He obviously had a bee in his bonnet about me at the time and that proved to be the case a year down the line.” Paul Hanley loves the album and so remembers the session fondly, while Scanlon has one mild gripe. “I didn’t like the Adrian Sherwood production on ‘Middle Mass’,” he says. “Because he compressed everything. The Peel Session version of the song is more how it should have sounded.”

The album, or EP, or mini-album, whatever you wish to call it, has often been said to have been aimed at people who didn’t buy records. Is there any truth in this? “I don’t know what that means,” says Riley, with Paul Hanley echoing him, “Yeah, it’s not like someone who’s never bought a 7” or 12” is suddenly going to go rushing out to buy a 10”.” Scanlon recalls the format choice being less rooted in accessibility and more in being antagonistic. “It was Mark being obtuse,” he says. Paul Hanley adds: “Rough Trade were pretty pissed off with it if I recall, because they were saying, we’ve got the number one album in the indie chart and the number one single, and this one can’t go in either.”

Smith’s estate will be remunerated for this record in the same way as the rest of the band, but do they think he would have liked this idea? “No,” comes a very quick answer from Steve Hanley, before he jokes: “He would have liked it if he’d thought of it.” His brother also feels it’s unlikely he would have warmed to the idea. “I don’t think it’d be too much of a shock to anybody to think that Mark thought the intellectual property of The Fall belonged to him and nobody else,” he says. “So I think he’d be fucking horrified if he thought we were putting a record out.”

Do the band ever feel underappreciated for their contributions to the group? There’s pretty much a collective “no” around the table, with them all mirroring Steve Hanley’s sentiments: “It’s not about what other people think. If you know what you did… that’s enough.”

It is clear everyone here has had a complex relationship with the band over the years. “I didn’t listen to them again for about 20 years,” recalls Scanlon. “It felt awful listening to it. I remember seeing The Fall on telly, and realising, I’m not in the band anymore. They were playing ‘The Mixer’ and it’s like, ‘That’s my fucking song!’” Steve Hanley and Riley both also admit to having required years away from listening to the band before they could return.

However, what unites them all – apart from a fair few bruises and war tales – is more rooted in positivity and a shared love of what they made together rather than any feelings of negativity or bitterness. Riley and Scanlon in particular are still effusive, wide-eyed, and animated when they recall seeing the band in their formative years and being blown to pieces. “Fucking hell,” Riley booms, mimicking his own response to when he first saw them as a young teenager.

As we wrap up our pints and head back out into rain-sodden streets of Manchester, you clearly get a sense that there’s a deep love and affection between these men, for the band, and being able to work together on something that feels befitting of the band’s legacy and trying to move it forward with dignity, quality and integrity. “There’s a lot of goodwill and love for the band and everybody who’s involved is in it for the right reason,” says Riley. “It’s just nice to be involved in something that we’ve got some control over.”

Slates (Live) is released on April 26 via Popstock. To pre-order it, click here

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