“‘GROTESQUE’ is the new LP by The Fall .. The Fall are the group who keep being brought up and slagged by other insecure bands – this automatically invokes a curse on them which usually takes its toll. This is true. Most people who like The Fall don’t like other groups anyway and don’t own coffee tables.
‘GROTESQUE’ contains very few choruses but a lot of beat and the raw edge of The Fall is retained. If they were psychotic, they’d think every other group was mad except – them. This band thrives on being in tight spots, odd knots, and calling the shots .. SHUUT UP! ENTER
JOE TOTALE: As he writes this weak TV rock filters through from the adjoining room. SMITH SAID ‘78 was the year of the average man. WELL IF That’s true ’80 is the year of the average band. The Fall are the GROTESQUE EXCEPTION.
ON this LP Every class gets what’s COMING TO IT. MY FATHER said: THE FALL WILL OUTLIVE YOUR SINS.
Get this – ‘GROTESQUE’ also tells stories ..”
And what stories.
It was with the bonkers missive above that the Fall announced the release of their third album proper, Grotesque: After The Gramme, in November 1980.
Immediately preceded by the legendary Totale’s Turns live album and the magnificent singles Fiery Jack, Totally Wired and How I Wrote Elastic Man, Grotesque marked a decided change in approach for the Fall. Prior to that, I reckon, they were just another snot-nosed, northern punk band, albeit one that had better music, more ambition and a smarter frontman than many of their contemporaries. Now they really started to get it together.
In his autobiography, Renegade: The Lives And Tales Of Mark E Smith, the singer says that Grotesque was the point where he “began thinking of albums more in the way of documents. Elongated newspapers, so to speak.”
What the press and public expected the Fall to do was – and continues to be – of absolutely no concern to MES.
“It’s horrible how much people try to shape what you do .. I had a lot more untapped anger back then. And hearing other people’s silly verdicts on what I did just made me worse.
“Everybody was giving me shit, journalists saying people don’t want to hear songs with a story, where are the messages and why aren’t you addressing the political climate?
“I even had problems with the group as well, they didn’t like it, couldn’t get their heads around it. They wanted to be the Jam. But in my eyes, Grotesque was the first record that worked as a whole ..”
Britain in late 1980 was a strange and terrible place – and the rest of the world wasn’t much better. At home, the NF was in the ascendant, there was rampant inflation and mass unemployment. It was the height of the cold war, Reagan had just been elected and death squads were already roaming around central America. Tito died and the Balkan timebomb began ticking.
It was the year of Pac-Man, The Empire Strikes Back and Zimbabwean independence, the Iranian Embassy Siege, CNN and the Unabomber. ‘The lady’ told us she was “not for turning”, even when the H-Block hunger strikers began creating a whole new generation of volunteers.
Meanwhile, the question on everyone’s lips was ‘Who Shot JR?’ A couple of weeks after Grotesque came out, everyone was asking the exact same question about John Lennon. I think that was part of the plan.
And how did the Fall respond to this wildly accelerating maelstrom of chaos and insanity?
The default siege mentality kicked in. MES and his endlessly patient and adoring backing band – at that point consisting of Craig Scanlon and Marc Riley on guitar, Steve Hanley on bass and his 17-year-old brother Paul on drums, with the fearsome manager/enforcer/commissar Kay Carroll, no doubt nursing a cricket bat, stage left – created an extraordinarily complex and absorbing album which was all the more extraordinary for the fact that it examined the world through the bottom of a pint glass in some shit-hole boozer in North Manchester.
It was a question of Smith talking about what he knew.
“Writing about Prestwich is just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno,” he says in his autobiography. His equating of Hell with the area he grew up in probably isn’t accidental – although he’s lived there pretty much all his life, so maybe he likes the heat just as much as he likes the rain.
Unfortunately, by all accounts, the seemingly limitless creativity showcased on Grotesque came at a price, with Smith and Carroll ruling the roost with the kind of mystifying, unhinged, shell-shocked, drug-addled randomness which is normally associated with mental illness or the aftermath of a major humanitarian disaster.
Interviewed by Dave Simpson for his book on past Fall members, The Fallen, Kay Carroll says that she and Smith – whom she was also in a relationship with for a while (she is supposed to be the Older Lover Smith later wrote about on Slates) – were speeding “the whole time” they worked together.
“It definitely has an edge,” she added, unnecessarily. “You do get paranoid.”
Chief recipients of this institutionalised misanthropy – besides the long-suffering Fall musicians, or as Smith called them, the Jesuits – were the band’s label Rough Trade. In Renegade, the singer claims he was never really sure about Rough Trade’s motivations:
“They reminded me of kids at school who suddenly got into things .. They wanted a more commercial, Totally Wired-style record and I handed them Grotesque.”
With this Smith, an unashamed bullshitter and serial revisionist, conveniently forgets that Grotesque was actually produced by Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis, alongside Grant Showbiz and the Red Krayola founder Mayo Thompson.
And while we’re at it, in what parallel universe is Totally Wired a commercial record?
I can’t remember when exactly I bought Grotesque, but it was two or three years after it had been released, at some point in the early-Eighties and it was probably just about the first Fall album I bought. If I’d got either of their previous studio albums, Live At the Witch Trials or Dragnet, who knows whether I would’ve been as immediately keen?
Maybe I’d not really been paying attention properly but Grotesque was the album where I first began to understand the fierce intelligence at work in the Fall’s lyrics, a strange, Mancunian beat poetry which dealt with an alien and slightly surreal but still recognisable type of reality. It was a very different North of England to the one I knew but it was still recognisably the North. Warts and all.
“Grotesque is a very English album,” remembers Smith. “It’s written from the inside, from experience. The real thing. Pub men can tell you a lot about the English way.
“But it’s tricky, because it wasn’t a defence either. It wasn’t some sort of kitchen-sink apology, or even one of those crap salt-of-the-Earth things, where the working class are delighted with their lot, trudging round potless and pissed.”
The striking image for Grotesque’s front cover was a painting by Smith’s sister Suzanne. A series of vicious caricatures of past and present members of the band combine in a nightmarish boozy, druggy bacchanal, with bad skin, crappy haircuts, shit clothes – the grotesque peasants, as one early version of the title had it, after the gramme. Off their heads, convinced they’re having a good time despite all evidence to the contrary. Smith looks like some snarling, wild-eyed maniac.
There are crudely superimposed photos of the band awkwardly cradling their drinks in some boozer on the back of the album cover, looking ridiculously young and uncomfortable. Smith is plonked on the end, wiry, wired, weird, and surly with it.
Below this haphazard montage, there’s a photo of Marc Riley, every inch the young rockstar, and a picture of some post-industrial wasteland that looks like Dresden after Bomber Harris’s firestorm. And, appropriately enough for the year when Solidarity began to make waves in Poland, there’s also a snap of what looks very much like Lech Walesa, out cold on the carpet.
The band had toured the UK with the Cramps just before recording Grotesque and it would be easy to attribute the taut, angular rockabilly of the album’s opening track Pay Your Rates to Lux and Ivy’s influence but in truth they were listening to that kind of stuff long before the Cramps came along. Whatever its origin, the track rattles along like a bastard before breaking down into spookily dissonant interludes and cranking up all over again.
Pay Your Rates is, apparently, about working class traitors like Warren Mitchell aka Til Death Us Do Part’s idiotic and impotent comedy racist Alf Garnett (for the benefit of US readers, that’s the prototype Archie Bunker), but what Smith bases this on, what he’s on about, where he’s coming from, I haven’t a clue. I don’t get it. But that’s just part of the fun.
Smith has described English Scheme as “a loose description of the English class system”. He seems to contrast the views of the lumpen proletariat of north Manchester with those of the left-of-centre middle classes who have migrated further out of the city into the wide open spaces of East Lancashire. And if you didn’t have that option, well, you’d eventually be told to get on your bike, Auf Weidersein Pet and all that. I interviewed him some time afterwards and he described that whole strange phenomena as “the brain-drain of the working classes”.
“The lower-class, want brass, bad chests, scrounge fags. The clever ones tend to emigrate,” he sang “like your psychotic big brother who left for jobs in Holland, Munich, Rome. He’s thick but he’s struck it rich – switch!”
And Grotesque isn’t a ‘political’ album? Seriously?
The loose-limbed funk of New Face In Hell – complete with kazoo, what can only be described a prototype (third-person) rap and a spectacularly screechy chorus – isn’t entirely dissimilar to some stuff from the first Happy Mondays album. No shit.
The stupendous C‘n’C-S Mithering finds MES somehow connecting the terrible things people shout at their kids in Cash and Carry stores in Lancashire with the excesses of the LA music biz the band had experienced on a US tour the previous autumn and a list of things that just generally get on his nerves.
Like Can-gone-folk, an acoustic guitar repeats a simple refrain before a staccato snare comes in and transforms it into a strange and somnambulant approximation of skiffle. It’s got the kind of rhythm that is perfect for tapping out on the side of over-flowing ashtrays in nicotine-hued saloon bars.
“There was America, we went there,” sneers Smith. “All the English groups act like peasants with free milk, on a route, on a route to the loot, to candy mountain, five wacky English proletariat idiots ..”
He gets into his stride:
“This was going to be called Crap Rap 14, but it’s now Stop Mithering. The things that drain you and drive you off the hinge – Boils, dirty socks, the ceiling’s collapsed, the Sunday morning loud lawnmower, the upstairs Jewish girl damn hoovering every 30 minutes, from valium cig withdrawal. She wants communal, fluent flat household. I want privacy. The bastard dentist doctors surgery. Clip, clop, ring, knock, ring .. Stop mithering!”
The song is built around the kind of musical repetition which makes the rare-as-rocking-horse-shit key changes all the sweeter but once they happen you immediately want the group to get back to the simple certainties of that central locked groove. It’s like a drug. Meanwhile ..
“You think you’ve got it bad with thin ties, miserable songs synthesised, or circles with A in the middle. Make joke records, hang out with Garry Bushell, go on Round Table – ‘I like your single’, ‘Yeah, uh great’. A circle of low IQs …”
Quick as a flash, you’re assaulted by the demented, knockabout rockabilly of Container Drivers, like a long lost scene from Hell Drivers, only in Salford when it still had docks instead of art galleries and empty executive flats. “Communists are just part-time workers, And there’s no thanks, from the loading bay ranks .. RORO, roll on, roll off,” barks Smith. It’s like music for some Benny Hill speeded-up chase scene, complete with extraneous skids, honks and bangs.
“Container Drivers is of the ‘I am an ex-commando and can kill you with one touch’ ilk,” explained the album’s brief and not especially illuminating sleeve notes. The north of England seemed to be full of portly, tattooed psychopaths, ex-special forces, scarred by the things they’d seen, forever on the edge of a terminal psychic meltdown. My uncle Bill for a start.
Side two of Grotesque opens with Impressions of J Temperance, wherein Smith tells a tale of dog breeders and a “hideous replica” over a predatory Steve Hanley bassline. Live, Smith would add “This actually happened! Take Doncaster! Take Arnold Swain! Put it together..” But what the oldschool Coronation Street bigamist and the South Yorkshire mining town had to do with it is anyone’s guess.
In The Park celebrates the fine and honourable tradition of having sex in parks watched by the voyeuristic ghost of a monk in a brown cowl – we’ve all been there haven’t we? – in this case the park up the road, which may or may not be Heaton Park (it’s next door to Prestwich) although, Manchester municipal park fans, Boggart Hole Clough in Blackley actually has a history of ghostly apparitions and further East Clayton Park supposedly has no less than three resident spectres.
It contains the killer line: “You thought it’d be great, you thought it’d be great, but a good brain does not a good fuck make.”
WMC – Blob 59 sounds like it was recorded down the pub. A martial Billy Boys drumbeat suggests a whiff of Orange, although given Prestwich’s proximity to Salford it’s much more likely to come from the other side of the sectarian divide. A woman, perhaps Kay Carroll, sings away in the background. It might be about menstruation, it might be about Manchester’s long-lost Blob shop on Church Street or it might just be about working men’s clubs. You’d have to ask MES.
Good luck with that.
Next up is the wobbly 12-bar blues of Gramme Friday – an odd, jagged tale of speed freaks and the Friday ritual of scoring and yammering and drinking and not eating. Hitler’s physician, Dr Theodore Morel, who prescribed him amphetamine, even gets a name-check.
The pub cabaret backing band stylings of The NWRA aka The North Will Rise Again – or as some would have it, the North West Republican Army – close the album. The words, ideas, visions tumble out of Smith like gravel from a council gritter on an icy morning. It’s good to have him around – clearly, you need to get a grip – but don’t get too close.
And while we’re on the subject, this is why you should pay your rates.
Ironically enough, I have no stories to tell about Grotesque: After The Gramme. I bought it somewhere, sometime. I moved to Leeds and, one morning, emerged from my decade-long rave-fug to find it wasn’t there. I could make something up but what would be the point? It’s an interesting enough album in its own right, after all.
The ever-reliable Les Hare at Kingbee had a load of Fall stuff in the other week – Dragnet, Totale’s Turns and Slates to come in due course – so I splurged. It’s a joy to hear them again. Grotesque sounds as strange and compelling as it did when it was released nigh on 30 years ago. It’s a marvellous thing.
Oddly resonant references leap out at you, even now. To the casual observer, Mark E Smith’s oeuvre probably seems like an only occasionally coherent stream of consciousness, and there’s always an element of improvisation with his stuff, but this unstoppable torrent of rich, vivid, robust imagery was written and edited and revised and finalised. Sweated over. Nobody gets that lucky this often.
I don’t know if Grotesque is the best thing the Fall have ever recorded in their long and illustrious career, but I think it’s the album I like the best.
This week, anyway.
[Invaluable input for this piece came from Jonathan Kandell, Jeff Curtis and Conway Paton’s Fall Lyrics Parade on the Fall Online, Dave Simpson’s book, The Fallen, published by Canongate and Renegade: The Lives And Tales Of Mark E Smith by MES and Austin Collinge, published by Penguin.]