Last year I was asked to contribute to this book an English friend of mine was putting together about seminal & ultra-prolific UK band The Fall. Each writer would tackle one of their 30+ albums and the result would be an entertaining walk through the band’s catalog. Someone had already taken Hex Enduction Hour so I claimed Palace of Swords Reversed. And then as a birthday present, I was given a night away from my wife & infant son so I could drive a half-hour to Commerce, Ga. and stay in a Motel 6 working on the piece.
Well the book fell through (turns out I was the only writer who even submitted anything), and I can’t imagine any place that would run this in its entirety–though that may say more about my ambition than the ambition of music editors.
And I’m not doing a final edit b/c the fact that the book never happened breaks my heart, and I just can’t put anything more into it.
It’s Memorial Day weekend here in the US South, a time for honoring our fallen (a nice spineless euphemism for ‘dead’), and the tv is filled w/all kinds of military porn for the armchair warriors—endless documentaries & parades, furniture sales & fireworks—and b/c I’m working on an essay about The Fall, I can’t help thinking how MES never would have fallen for this suicidal patriotic bullshit. The idea of MES in the army—carrying a gun, following orders, killing foreigners—is laughable.
Fall music works as an inoculation against the bullshit of the world. There are few things in this world that Fall music can’t make look ridiculous. And the greater the piety, the greater its power.
Speaking of the bullshit of the world, I’m writing most of this at an Applebee’s off I-85 in Commerce, Georgia. Commerce sits about an hour NE of Atlanta, the largest city in the US South; and about 30min N of Athens, home of Georgia’s largest university and one of the most vital music scenes in the US South. Despite all that, Commerce would be completely forgettable if it weren’t for the series if sprawling beige shopping centers along the interstate and the attendant corporate chain restaurants/hotels/etc. there to serve the shoppers & the travelers.
Applebee’s travels along the bottom tier of US non-fast-food dining experiences. A friend of mine worked at one down in Florida. She says the ‘kitchen’ would ‘cook’ most of the food by heating it up in the microwave. This was back during the Bush Jr. Administration, then in the full throes of its murderous slapstick occupation of Iraq, and so she would tell people that her husband was over there serving in the Marines while she raised their baby. To keep the lie 100% believable, she kept two pictures in her wallet—one picture of a friend in his marine uniform, and the other a picture of her as a baby—which she would then show to people. Needless to say, her tips were well above what you’d expect for a waitress in her early 20’s who spent her spare time injecting opiates. But if her scam sounds awful & cynical & cruel, well I ask you to consider the context of the times and the audacity of her behavior compared to, say, Blackwater, Halliburton, Rumsfeld, etc.
So yeah, anyway, I’m at the bar in Applebee’s taking in the scene. Because It feels like an appropriate place to write about The Fall. One of the many lessons I’ve learned from MES is that culture is all around us, that art is in fact more likely to be found in the everyday than in some cozy hipster enclave. And let’s stop and think about this for a second, b/c it touches on something vital & unique about The Fall. And isn’t it amazing that a band so geographically & culturally specific (not just England but the North, not just the North but Manchester, not just Manchester but Prestwich), w/lyrics slurred through a thick provincial accent, in places completely decipherable, could connect so deeply to people all over the world. That these songs make total sense when heard in a series of beige strip malls in the US South that were built to sell discounted clothes made in foreign sweatshops to hick Americans on their way to someplace else. That these songs written in isolation, the sound of a man talking to himself, the grumblings of a misanthropic hermit, Dostoyevsky’s Man From Underground updated into the present, could resonate with so many people and be understood around the world. That a college student in his late 20’s could latch onto these songs, get his synapses blown wide open & his perception of art kicked all over the room.
All of this suggests that language is as much a miracle as it is a virus. And that despite all of its failings we should still look on it with awe.
Applebee’s has televisions all over the place—you can’t look up w/o looking directly at one—and all of them are showing an Atlanta Hawks playoff game that everyone’s kind of watching and not-watching at the same time. When the closed-captioning on the basketball game mistakenly says We’ve just reached the end of the first courter, it strikes me as such a Fall-esque lyric/or title that I wish MES was here to put it in his notebook. The parking lot is filled w/jacked-up trucks covered in flag decals both American & Confederate and I just ordered the ‘Triple Hog Dare Ya’ a cheesy barbeque sandwich filled w/pulled pork, bacon, and ham. A guy in a booth towards the far side of the restaurant w/his right arm raised in the air who keeps shouting, ‘Miss!…Miss!…Miss!’, in what is either an attempt to get the waitresses attention or an attempt to influence the Cleveland player shooting free throws. Either way it’s creepy, this repetition. He’s like an inverted eskimo, linguistically speaking—instead of a million words to describe snow he has one word to describe the universe.
There’s repetition in the music and we’re never gonna lose it. (That song isn’t on here—go check chapter one).
The bar itself is shaped like an elongated horseshoe. The computerized seating chart on the bartender’s POS system looks like a mouth. Each barstool looks like a tooth, and the green light that represents each customer makes it look like the mouth is filled w/rotting cavities. When My Triple Hog Dare Ya comes out I notice the bacon is covered in this weird yellowy crust that looks like the foam you’d see on a whitecapped wave crashing onto a polluted beach.
A man to my left is using the calculator on his cellphone, or possibly an app, to compute how much tip he should leave.
Applebee’s doesn’t have a jukebox, but there’s music playing over the speakers. I don’t know who chose it but it’s so retro the bar would feel like the 1970’s were it not for the crumbling neoliberal hopelessness & techno-surveillance all around us. McCartney’s ‘Hi Hi Hi’ comes on, carrying unintended ironies as we sit in this lowest of lows, but the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sway’ cuts through everything. From where I’m sitting the room seems to shudder. I can almost hear MES say, ‘Not a bad song, that,’ fainting his praise in the face of the Stones’ ubiquity.
One of the great lessons of Palace of Swords Reversed is that inspiration is everywhere if you only open your eyes. And in Applebee’s perspiration is everywhere as well. Art or no art, sometimes you’re better off averting your eyes.
In some ways PofSR is the only Fall album you need. It’s the fullest example of what makes them unique Most people say to start w/This Nations Saving Grace, or 458489 A-Sides, the singles comp immediately after this one, and they’re right in one sense. I understand that if you’re trying to get your friend—who loves (possibly) Pavement, or The Smiths, or U2, or whatever—into The Fall, you want to make it easy for them and so you suggest the band’s more accessible side. The same way most people would tell a friend visiting England for the first time to visit London, or maybe Brighton. But then again there’s people like me who feel claustrophobic & poor whenever they’re in London but find places like Bristol or Hull completely relaxing & awesome. PofSR possesses a magic that 458489 doesn’t. So I can’t help thinking of all the people who might have loved The Fall if they’d heard PofSR first, but got steered towards 458489 instead and heard a smooth, glossy band who liked to play covers.
PofSR is The Fall at their most relentless. Scuzzed out and exploding, jumping electrical treble that’s best danced to sitting down, frantically bouncing yr knees underneath the desk in an effort to keep up—so many thoughts, so many notes. In the sense that amphetamines speed up the rate at which neurons fire in our brain, it’s one of The Fall’s most amphetaminic records, accelerated & accelerating. It slashes & stabs. It burbles & slurps. The album opens w/a bang, a series of alarms. ‘Prole Art Threat.’ You picture people leaping awake and rushing around—to their telephones, to their printing press, to their guns. All revolutionaries to their battle stations. Wake up! Stop sitting around! There’s work to be done. Regardless of how MES intended it, the song sounds like a rallying cry, a call to arms.
The excitement of discovery is all over PofSR—you can write songs this way. It sounds like freedom. Anything that catches your eye or focuses your attention, from the Falklands War to football, from fantastical stories about flying & time travel to the mundanity of writer’s block.
At the turn of the century the internet still wasn’t ubiquitous. You learned about bands from other people, delivered through rumors & magazines, unverifiable stories that someone heard from someone else. In this light, Palace of Swords Reversed came to me as a mystery. I still have the same CD I bought in the spring of 2000, purchased during an impulsive spending spree at Newbury Comics in the wake of a larger-than-normal tax refund, and here’s all the information it contains:
Front Cover: Looks like a collage of newspaper articles about the band overlaid w/‘The Fall’, ‘compilation: 1980-83’ and the album title.
Back Cover: The Fall / album title / songlist (unnumbered, untimed) / band lineups 1980-81, 1982-83 / the words ‘cog sinister’ / a thin rectangular label w/the words ‘made in austria’ just below the bar code
Inside Booklet: A picture of the singer holding a microphone stand / a picture of the singer between guitarist & bass player / a picture of five men standing on a brick sidewalk
And that’s it. Everything’s in black & white except for the album title which is a pale yellow color written out in horror movie font. I’ve bought bootlegs that looked more professional and contained more info—I have no idea why I bought this one and not one of the other Fall albums. And yet I still have this same CD fifteen years later, it’s still magical, and it still has the power to catapult me into another world as completely as the timelock that sucks the narrator of ‘Wings’ under Ardwick Bridge where he’s surrounded by Irish refugees from the US Civil War. I know lots more about the album now than I used to, but my listening experience w/PofSR still holds the same amount of mystery.
And questions. Like if it’s a collection of singles why is there this poorly recorded live version of ‘Neighborhood of Infinity’, an album track from Perverted By Language? Sure, that’s one hell of a title. Neighborhood of Infinity—novels have won prizes w/less—but what’s it doing here?
As compilations go, it’s structured unlike any other compilation I’ve ever heard—so perverse that it attains a weird kind of perfection. ‘Putta Block’ adds a minute-plus intro of live keyboard-driven lurch followed by an outro of yelling from the same show as a framing device around the song itself, but somehow it all fits The Fall’s aesthetic in a way that makes perfect sense. Consider the way ‘Pay Your Rates’ teeters on the edge of chaos until in its last 15 seconds the song gives up the struggle and falls off a cliff. Or take the absurdly bad mix on the vocals in the second half of ‘An Older Lover etc.’ The way MES sings Dr. Annibel LIIES is as dear to me as the incredibly loud sweetly’s on the Velvet Underground’s ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’. The first time you hear it you think someone made a horrible mistake, but by the fifth listen it’s your favorite thing about the song.
But none of this perversion would be genius if it wasn’t surrounded by so many moments of actual genius. 1980, the opening year of PofSR, marks the period when MES realized that a song could be about anything. So you get a song about soccer (or football if you’re a wound-too-tight englishperson). You get a song about being totally wired. No metaphors, no abstraction. I drank a jar full of coffee. And took a handful of these. The lyrics on PofSR are a completely original mix of the surreal (the man whose head expanded, sound like hitler man, over over) and the mundane (if you take an older lover you’ll soon get tired of her) b/c the world itself is a mix of the surreal & mundane. Meaning & chaos swimming in the same pool. Sometimes they miss each other & sometimes they intersect. MES is a Rimbaud who instead of going to Africa went deeper into his imagination, not even the voice of the streets, the voice of a basement apartment solitary & inflamed, his genius lies in his refusal to stand still. Even on this album, even in a single song like ‘An Older Lover etc.’ MES veers from intense shouting to goofball sotto voce mocking, like he can’t decide how seriously to take the whole thing. Which is a good choice on his part b/c either approach on its own would fall flat.
How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’ is not only the best song about writer’s block. It’s a song about writer’s block that teaches the easiest way to get past it is to simply write about the writer’s block in the most straightforward way possible. Once the writer remembers that the universe is an infinity of people & parts that can be reassembled/reinterpreted in an infinite number of ways, that the only limits are one’s imagination & stupid received wrong-headed biases, the block is gone and there’s a whole new field to play in, like that dream where you discover another room in your house that’s never existed. Aside from all that though, I spent the better part of a decade wondering if MES was singing ‘elastic’ or ‘plastic,’ and how the song’s meaning changed depending on which one it was. Turns out it’s ‘plastic’, apparently. Sometimes you can ruin everything by making it too clear.
The guitars drop out during the chorus of ‘Totally Wired’ just like everything drops out for the chorus of Abba’s ‘Mamma Mia’ except for the piano, displaying a commitment to popcraft & arrangement on the part of The Fall that usually goes unacknowledged. This is a band that knows how to bring the hooks, and you can even dance to it. Shake those hips while you’re rolling that bill.
Life should be full of strangeness, like a rich painting. In a more just world those words would be on t-shirts & posters all over the world. They’d get us a whole lot further than another bodiless Che Guevara.
Even a misanthrope has his good days—when you find the right words to express your distaste, when the struggle eases up for a bit, and so MES writes ‘Fit And Working Again’, an optimistic, genuinely carefree stroll through the day driven by a drumbeat you could skip to. B/c MES knows to never get pigeon-holed. He hates the cliches, esp. the ones in himself.
I read somewhere that ‘Marquis Cha-Cha’ is about the Falkland Islands war, but the verse vocals are so low in the mix you’d never know w/o going online (to the indispensible visi.com/thefallyrics). Me I always thought it had something to do w/120 Days of Sodom, but sometimes I’m an idiot.
A friend tells me his ex-wife hates The Fall w/white hot intensities of hate but once spent 24hrs straight listening to the song ‘Wings’ on repeat. I understand completely; the song’s that good.
Day by day the moon grows full is a better first line that whatever the first line was in this year’s Booker Prize winner, whatever year it might be as you read this. The lyrics are essentially a sci-fi story about time travel that manages to work in immortal phrases like:
cheapo airline snobs
an academic kneaded his chin
the wings rot and feather under me
When I compare MES to Shakespeare later in this book, you might be tempted to laugh. Go read those lines again and reconsider.
The sound of that guitar. And do you know how hard it is to get a drummer (let alone two—by this time in the comp, the fall are a two-drummered freight train of a beast of a mixed metaphor) to play like that? No cymbals, no hi-hat, no syncopation. Just BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. It’s a song so great that when it’s over and the album ends and silence fills the room, I feel its absence as acutely as if my loved one was sleeping on the other side of the country tonight. The world becomes a poorer, simpler, less-knowing place when a Fall album ends. And since this Fall album ends w/the greatest album-ender in the band’s catalog, you have no choice but to start all over again.
And ‘Wings’ was a b-side.
There should probably be a separate essay in this book that talks about the similarities between MES and Van Halen singer David Lee Roth. Neither are good singers by any sort of traditional standard, preferring to get across on their charisma & presence. They both utilize inhuman squealing to accenuate their points. They both have a love of stimulants & booze. And they’d both much rather talk their way through a song than waste all that energy singing and trying to hit the notes. Because DLR’s from Southern California and MES is from Manchester they take different approaches—for DLR this means a sunshine-baked athleticism & fashion sense that MES probably views w/contempt—but neither of them take any shit off anyone and they both always tell you exactly what they’re thinking.
So I spent the summer of 2002 consumed by poetry, certain in the knowledge that the right combination of words delivered the right way could change the world. Don’t tell me I was crazy. Just look at the Magna Carta. The Declaration of Independence. Martin Luther King. The Sex Pistols. Rupert Murdoch. Words can be dangerous things. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to try and change things for the better or work towards destroying the whole sick spectacle once and for all, but there are certainly worse things to do w/one’s leisure time that stay up all night on speed trying to unlock the secrets of the universe through beauty & incantation, and PofSR remains the best soundtrack I’ve ever found. The fact that the album has a song called ‘Totally Wired’ is just a strange and totally appropriate bonus. Of course I’m also aware that MES’s persona—an all-knowing cynic who sees through all the bullshit & pseduo-intellectuals around him—is always going to appeal to a certain subspecies of young people in their 20’s. Factor in the appeal of finding revelation through repeat exposure to shitty mass media & cheap drugs, sifting through the detritus of a dying culture for meaning. and like where do I sign up.
Because ultimately PofSR is a talisman of energy & imagination. MES finds inspiration in trashy newspapers, in advertising catchphrases, and the most mundane aspects of his life & everyone around him. Meanwhile someone like Ed Sheeran keeps squeaking out vague songs about his sensitive feelings. A universe out there to write about—MES has been writing for almost 40 yrs now and still isn’t tapped out—but for most songwriters the universe still extends no further than the end of their nose, or the tip of their dick. Anything can be a song and art is all around us. In his use of ‘found text’ MES was about two decades ahead of 21st century avant-poet theories about appropriation, recontextualization, and the value of ‘unoriginal’ art (always in quotes unless it’s meant to provoke), that dominate the field today.
And that songs written w/such specificity could resonate so far around the world. The idea that hyper-isolation & hyper-regionalism can resonate further than bland pluralism.
Even to someone like me who grew up in a California shit-town w/more stucco than hope, yet somehow connected so completely w/the rantings of a man 15yrs older and almost 10,000 miles away. If you constructed a Venn diagram of our shared experiences—me & MES—you’d end up w/an ultra-thin elliptical sliver containing literature & rage & chemicals, and now you. And yet, like most Fall listeners, I feel like I know the man. So well that I can project him into a21001000413008
In an era of unending lockstep sameness, MES still serves as proof that you can sometimes go further by going it alone. B/c we are all of us isolated, rooted to our present surroundings and the uniqueness of our own environment. But the more uniqueness you can find in yourself and show to the world, the better the chance of finding others like you. It is only in our sameness that we begin to disappear, that we drift into invisibility.
I don’t believe in revolution anymore, but I definitely believe in evolution. There is nothing vestigial about Palace of Swords Reversed. If it was the only thing The Fall ever released, it’d still be enough to earn them a place in history. PofSR isn’t the band’s most misanthropic album (Hex Enduction Hour, possibly) but it’s misanthropic enough to make you feel less isolated in your isolation. And unlike most misanthropes, MES never forgets to laugh once in a while, both at the world and at himself. Because viewed from a certain perspective this human parade of inanity & tears can also be pretty goddamn funny, and mockery makes equals of us all. Remember, good taste is the foundation of cowardice, and good manners are the enabler of fascism, and the moral of this story is you always keep going and you never fucking stop.
I won’t bore you w/the specifics—the tedium & the nausea. Tv is just the worst form of neutered voyeurism, a heightened sugary numbness. Dripping in overbright colors & shouting, several hours of it leaves you feeling empty & small. Ironically, early 80’s Fall sounds monochromatic & small, the way it’s recorded. It scratches its fingernails across your brain in thin rattling static and leaves the listener feeling powerful & awake.
somewhere between her tits & her navel you’ll find that last rib.
So I’ve shoplifted a package of pens from a Wal-Mart just outside Commerce, Georgia USA and somehow this feels entirely appropriate for an essay about The Fall.
The town I live in now was once called ‘The Manchester of the South.’ Any similarities begin & end w/the two cities rampant textile mills in the late 19th century, and even from this, the two areas would head off in opposite directions. Manchester became the incubator of socialism, giving rise to the labor movement and worker’s rights. While in north Georgia, the governor rounded up striking workers and put them in prison camps, earning the approval of Nazi-era German newspaper, who looked at the governor’s actions as a sign that the tenets of National Socialism were spreading and would soon take over the world.
I like riddles. Not solving them so much as pondering them. And MES like to cover his tracks. This was a match made in heaven.
It’s completely legal and, thanks to the 21st century, it’s completely free if you don’t want to pay for it.
(Note: this particular cheap-shit man in his paranoid room needs to walk 30m across the parking lot to siphon internet from the gas station whenever I fuckup and accidentally type CNTRL-something and take me off this screen where all changes are saved offline b/c while this particular laptop is way cheap & easily transportable it doesn’t have a hard drive which is why it’s so cheap and so the only way to reopen the file is to hoof it over to Racetrac, that’s the name of the gas station and no I don’t know why it’s spelled like that, there’s a TV above the yogurt machine that plays this dancing bear in perpetuity, well actually a person in a bear suit—polar, if you’re wondering, in pink patterned shorts held up by baby blue suspenders, thankfully I don’t have to go inside Racetrac to access their internet, I can just stand around the side over by the dumpsters, and once it’s re-connected I can pull up the document and return to my room, the a/c of which is already sadly necessarily even w/us still in May)
So much of today’s music is like that kid in high school who thought if he dressed like the cool kids then everybody would think he was cool and so he buried down his uniqueness under several layers of acceptability—what show is everyone watching, what’s the consensus opinion on the war, figuring if he parroted along w/the majority then he too could reap the benefits of belonging. Fuck music, too much of society is like that. The digital era was supposed to birth a new variety, a flood of previously unheard voices, but all it’s done is allow to people to learn the consensus that much quicker. What’s everyone else saying about _____ so they could hop online and demonstrate that yes they too love/loathe this particular thing and hey you wouldn’t by any chance be looking for new writers would you? Or unpaid interns?
A way of looking at art in self-created binary:
There are two types of art: Pedastal Art & Parallel Art
Pedastal Art stands above the audience and presents itself as a masterpiece. Its foremost desire is to be worshipped, and if not worshipped then appreciated. Bowing & genuflecting is encouraged. And if someone in the audience says they decided to stop making art after encountering this particular work, then its creator will be mightily pleased.
Parallel Art aims to provoke its audience into doing something of their own. It deliberately presents itself as amateurish, even crudely so. It first & foremost wants to communicate look how easy this is, even as it knows that what it’s doing isn’t easy at all standing out there so exposed and willing to look stupid. Parallel Art hates Pedestal Art and is constantly hoping to wipe that smug satisfaction off its face. It’s a weird inversion of that old fairy tale—Parallel Art shouting ‘The Emperor is wearing clothes! He is not as he seems!’ It thinks that art should be made by everyone, even if it’s terrible. B/c creating art means the audience is being active, that it is shaping its own reality instead of passively paying money to have its reality shaped by Pedestal Art and sit in respectful silence like they’re in fucking church or something.
Pedestal Art: Picasso, David Foster Wallace, The Beatles
Parallel Art: Keith Haring, Allen Ginsburg, Sex Pistols
Not sure MES gives a shit about any of this, least of all what his audience does in their free time. But just note the simpicity of most of these songs. One or two riffs repeated into the ground. Rarely more than two or three chords
Although it needs to be noted that the drummer is playing like he left a lot of money outside in an unlocked car and is racing through the song as fast as possible so he can get outside and check on it.
I know for a fact that I’ll one day be old & dying in an arizona trailer and still finding new things to love about The Fall.
In some ways, our projections, the things we add to the art, can be more meaningful than what the artist brought to it in the first place. Imagination is more powerful than knowledge, and creativity is a two-way-street.