NEITHER fish nor fowl, single nor album, the Fall’s dinky 10-inch Slates is a little record that makes a big impression.
“I was looking through the import bins in Wax Trax in Chicago, and I found Slates,” said Brix Smith in an interview with Guitarist magazine. “I took it home and became obsessed. It was the most brilliant thing I ever heard. It was outrageous. Two weeks later they were playing Chicago at Cabaret Metro, so Lisa and I went along.
“Stephen Hanley was totally, totally hypnotic. I was scared of Mark E Smith. They played a lot from Slates. After the gig, Lisa took off with some boyfriend, leaving me at the bar on my own. Before I knew what was happening I was talking to Mark E Smith ..”
And we all know what happened after that.
Slates made a big impression on me too, although unlike Brix I didn’t end up marrying Mark E Smith. I have a vague recollection of buying it from some record fair some time later. But I’m not entirely sure that people like me and Brix were the target audience for Slates in any case.
“That’s what I was trying to do with Slates in England, you know, get across to people who have no music,” MES told an interviewer in New Zealand. “People who either haven’t been told about the music trappings and the rubbish that surrounds it or people who do know it and don’t like it.
“That’s why it was a 10-inch, neither single nor album. It’s very conceptual, do you understand? It’s like an attempt to get over to these thousands of working class or middle class people, whatever, in England who don’t listen to records anymore, who don’t buy records .. I’d be one of them if I wasn’t in a group, I know that.
“Where I come from there’s a big scene called the Northern Soul scene .. the kids I’m trying to get to on Slates. They hate punk rock, they hate, you know, all those middle class art college groups. And they’re just into, like, Tamla.
“I mean, they’re very young, they’re only 18, 19 .. they’re into Tamla, but mainly Northern soul, which is like soul, played very badly by obscure American artists. It’s really good stuff, you know.
“And the Northern Soul scene was four years ahead of the new wave scene; they were into drugs years before anybody else. But because they were like engineers and people like that, it just wasn’t hip.”
According to a typically unbalanced press missive for the US releases of Grotesque and Slates, the recording sessions which Slates came out of – 16-year-old drummer Paul Hanley’s first experience of a studio – were meant to produce a brace of tracks for a standard seven-inch single. It didn’t work out that way:
“The time was mid-February, the Fall, ORIGINALLY intending to cut 2 tracks ended up with many more. As crumbs of nightmare filtered through they decided to release the lot, as ALL TRACKS ARE RELATED.
“Side 1 concerns observations of trash culture, British undercurrents of secrecy, institutional goings on esp. Prole Art Threat – A spy media story found in an abandoned file cabinet. The side is begun by Middle Mass, the first gleanings of the Hip Priest. More of him later.
“Side 2 is, in chronological order, Fit and Working Again – a fun piece about regeneration, wi’ nods ha hee to the super-weedy groups, title track (Slates, Slags, Etc.) which is about plagiarisation and blackboard type people in this land of ours, rounded off by Leave The Capitol (note fancy spelling) which relates time warps and encounters in Victorian Vampiric London.
“EVERYTHING BAR ‘SLATES’ MUSICALLY IS TEN YEARS OUT OF SYNCH ON THE CONTEMPORARY SCENE. YOUNG PRODUCERS AND NONE_TECH STUDIOS ARE LIKE GOLD DUST NOW. YOU HAVE BEEN TOLD. regards & affection / The Fall.”
What looks very much like a grainy, slightly out-of-focus film-still runs at a right angle to the front cover text, featuring Craig Scanlon, Steve Hanley and Marc Riley – the Jesuits, as the singer had it – hunched over their guitars, workmanlike, and Smith grasping the mic stand with both hands, looking to one side, crazed.
If Grotesque was the record that made me fall in love with the Fall, Slates is the one that made me want to shag them. It is flawless, pristine, perfect in practically every way – from the weirdly truncated abbreviations littering the front cover text (reminiscent of the work of a demented commercial signwriter), to the similarly simple and unfussy but alluring amd inspiring music produced by the maniacal Manc mavericks.
It’s just extraordinary. Divided up in subjective and objective sides, complete with a vaguely herladic chevron design on either side of the label, Slates kicks off with the Adrian Sherwood/Geoff Travis/self-produced Middle Mass.
The story goes that Smith choose the studio purely because Prince Far-I recorded there but it’s unclear whether Far-I collaborator Sherwood came as part of the deal. Either way, Middle Mass is nothing like any of Sherwood’s
Sherwood has said that his original intention was to “weird the thing out”. Smith soon put him right, adopting what Sherwood describes as an “anti-production” approach. You don’t really hear much more than the relatively unadorned and un-effects-laden instruments themselves. It’s all very stark and bare.
Indeed, the group starts out sounding like nothing more than your bog standard WMC turn before the repetition goes way beyond the usual drudgery into something darker and stranger, an aura only intensified by the one-note out-of-tune keyboards and what is supposedly Smith’s sarky riposte to Marc Riley’s head being turned by the bright lights of London and his “hard drug and cider mates”.
“The Wehrmacht never got in here,” the Hip Priest reminds us, several times, appropos of who knows what. S’right though. The Wehrmacht didn’t get in here.
The pensive, predatory An Older Lover Etc finds Smith at his most spiteful and unpleasant, at his snidest and nastiest, at his very worst – and his very best. Widely understood to refer to his then-girlfriend and Fall manager Kay Carroll, who is a decade or so older than him, Smith croons: “Take an older lover, Get ready for old stories, Of teenage sex, From the early Sixties ..”
“You’ll soon get tired of her!” he admonishes. “Doctor Annabel lies!” he hisses. “Her love was like your mother’s, But with added attractions ..” he murmurs.
“Real Bert Finn stuff” observes a terse sleeve note, in some kind of reference to Smith’s fellow Salfordian and ladies’ man, the distinguished thesp Albert Finney.
Side one ends with the simply demented Prole Art Threat – one of the best song titles ever – a tense and chilling scene (as the sleeve notes have it) “starring ‘gent’ and ‘man’ in Asda mix-up spy thriller”. Musically fast and furious, lyrically indignant, the group are simply on fire.
“GET OUT THE PINK PRESS THREAT FILE AND Brrrptzzap* the Subject” reads what looks like a script on the sleeve, before adding “(* = scrambled)”.
As Smith said in New Zealand a couple of years later, “that was the one we had the trouble over. They [Rough Trade] thought that the Pink Press sounded a bit fascist, but I told them that was what I was getting at, fascism doesn’t have to be the men in suits.”
The jaunty, punk-skiffle of Fit And Working Again – complete with one-finger keys and even an acoustic guitar – seems to find Smith looking on approvingly at the kind of old school working class dedicated wage-slavery that sees people going back on the early shift a couple of days after open-heart surgery. Honest toil. Grafting. Earning a fucking living. Nowt to be ashamed of in that.
What’s that you’re going on about? Do they owe us a living? Owe us a living? Course they fucking don’t.
Then again, nothing is quite as simple as it seems with the Fall.
He goes onto to say he feels like the boxer Alan Minter and alludes to eating a lot, a lot of acid. Whether this is an example of the trademark twisted MES pre-cog, an early forewarning of local boxer Ricky Hatton’s recent tabloid drug-use revelation woes, or whether he’s just talking about Alan Minter on acid, we may never know. Perhaps that’s just as well.
If you’re looking for black and white certainties and monochrome absolutism, you’ve come to the wrong place. Write to Crass Records c/o 1981. Please enclose a SAE and/or soap the stamp. Thanks.
The record’s title track Slates, Slags, Etc sounds like the Stooges might have if they’d recently relocated from Salford and drank Boddingtons instead of bourbon. “Full bias content guaranteed,” seethes the poorly-typed sleeve
notes. “Plagiarism infests the land. Academic thingys ream off names of books and bands ..”
Accompanied by a feedback-ridden, sludgy kind of raw and repetetive rock’n’roll, Smith launches into a condemnatory, acusatory tirade against what he sees as worthy, uninspired and uninspiring pop-rock, and trendy lefty-ism
“Rough Trade were soft, boring hippies,” MES told Volume magazine. “They’d go, Er, the tea boy doesn’t like the fact that you’ve slagged off Wah! Heat on this number. And fuckin’ .. the girl who cooks the fuckin’ rice in the canteen doesn’t like the fact that you’ve used the word ‘slags’. They had a whole meeting over the fact that we mentioned guns in one song.
“Y’know .. it is not the policy of Rough Trade to be supporting fuckin’ .. And I’d go, What the fuck has it got to do with you? Just fuckin’ sell the record, you fuckin’ hippy.”
Former Here & Now soundman Grant ‘Showbiz’ Cunliffe, who Smith had met when both bands played at the Deeply Vale festival in 1978, co-produces all three tracks on this side and so is responsible for its parting shot, the superlative Leave The Capitol.
Subtle and nuanced musically, lyrically not so much, Leave The Capitol employs more acoustic guitar, a harmonica and even a kazoo. It’s tuneful, it’s melodic, it’s everything the Fall were not and are not ‘supposed’ to be about. It is, for example, just about the only song on the entire record that sounds remotely like it might perhaps contain a trace of Dave Tucker’s elusive clarinet, as promised on the sleeve.
Smith delivers a snapshot of a “vaudeville pub backroom, Dusty pictures of white frocked girls and music teachers ..” before advising us, in no uncertain terms, to “Leave the capital! Exit this Roman shell!”
“As with most Fall tracks, Mark would change the Lyrics for each take,” Showbiz has recalled. “We did several takes for this song which included the line ‘Showbiz mimes, minute detail’, a kind of line I liked. Sadly, the best lyric had the line ‘Showbiz whines, minute detail’.”
I lost Slates sometime between then and now and picked it up again a couple of years ago, for a not-unreasonable eight quid from Les at King Bee. It sounds every bit as belligerent, dramatic, off-kilter and vital as it did then.
Hearing it again has made me remember that Slates is not just one of my favourite Fall records – it’s one of my favourite records. It’s a little piece of plastic that still makes an awfully big impression.
[Writing this piece, I got various kinds of invaluable help from the fantastic Fall site. Cheers]