On January 24, 2018 the punk rock continuum lost one of its most singular and unique voices. Mark E. Smith, legendary provocateur and ringleader of The Fall, passed away due to complications with his respiratory system. As the only constant member of The Fall, Mark E. Smith leaves behind one of the longest-lasting and most extensive bodies of work in the annals of independent music, with over 200 releases to his credit
To commemorate Mark E. Smith’s passing, we’ll be delving into the strange and frightening world of The Fall, starting with The Fall’s infamous debut LP Live At The Witch Trials.
Live At The Witch Trials is both an anomaly and utterly representative of The Fall’s worldview, if such a thing is even possible. It’s a good place to start with The Fall’s nearly-endless discography, as an introduction to some of the major themes, touchstones, and sonic signatures of the band. There’s the requisite drug-addled paranoia (“Frightening”). There’s the finger-pointing snark, kicking against the pricks, which is pretty much everybody in Smith’s world (“Music Scene”). There’s the ominous, hypnotic minimalism, predating the dubby dread of PiL‘s Metal Box by several months (“Two Steps Back”). There’s even some good ol’ fashioned straight punk rock ‘n roll of “No XMas For John Quays” (a play on words of “No Christmas For Junkies”. Extensive misanthropic wordplay would be another running theme throughout The Fall’s/Mark E. Smith’s 4 decade career.
Live At The Witch Trials also kickstarts the trend for extensive lineup changes that would also be a constant throughout The Fall’s career. Live At The Witch Trials is the only official recording with several of the musicians who’d been with The Fall since the start, most notably guitarist Martin Bramah. Bramah’s guitar work is more glistening and melodic, while still sounding strange and atonal, than The Fall MK II with Craig Scanlon on guitar. Live At The Witch Trials is a chance to hear the Captain Beefheart/Pere Ubu worship in The Fall’s DNA. It’s a chance to hear the virulent post-punk RNA as laid-out in John Lydon‘s street-cred destroying Capital Radio show in 1977. Lydon laid out a non-rockist plan-of-attack for the post-punks to come with plenty of glam, dub, and psychedelic German music. Lydon’s show on Capital Radio showcased a blueprint of repetition as hypnotism, low frequency as sonic weapon, of outsiders as the true artists. It also showcases a bit more of a soft spot of rock ‘n roll, via Gary Glitter, Lou Reed, and David Bowie, than his supposed hatred for “Johnny B. Goode” might lead us to believe.
Mark E. Smith seems to have more of a love for rock ‘n roll than many of his post-punk contemporaries. “I still believe in the r ‘n r dream/r ‘n r as primal scream,” as he eerily intones over a scratchy, itchy bassline on “Live At The Witch Trials.” Mark E. Smith and The Fall are every bit as intellectual and non-rockist as their contemporaries. And yet, much of Live At The Witch Trials sounds tailor-made for Victorian theaters converted into bingo halls. That’s thanks in large part to Yvonne Pawlett’s rinkety-dink organ (a throne previously held by Una Baines,) which lends a particularly nutso carnivaleseque vibe to much of Live At The Witch Trials.
Several of the songs on Live At The Witch Trials serve as a mission statement that would lay the blueprint for The Fall’s entire career. “Crap Rap 2/Like To Blow” is especially pertinent, with the opening monologue:
“We are the Fall
Northern white crap that talks back
We are not black. Tall.
No boxes for us.
Do not fuck us.
We are frigid stars.
We were spitting, we were snapping “Cop Out, Cop Out!”
As if from heaven.”
Existential dread rubs shoulders with working class malaise, with a nearly theological underpinning.
“Futures And Pasts” is another battle cry, touching on The Fall being both ahead of and behind the curve, waiting 2 years past the white hot crucible of punk rock in 1977. “We were early and we were late/But, still, live at the witch trials,” as Mark E. Smith puts it in “Live At The Witch Trials.”
Listening to The Fall’s debut LP in 2018, Live At The Witch Trials stands up next to some of the most influential post-punk albums of all time, many of which were released the same year. There’s the organ-driven post-rock of Magazine’s Secondhand Daylight. There’s the throbbing dubby menace of PiL’s Metal Box. There’s the stripped-down, avant-pop sensibilities of Wire’s 154. There’s even the Northern miserablism of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, from the neighboring town of Manchester. Straight out of the gate, Mark E. Smith sounds more cut-throat and robust than most of his mackintoshed contemporaries.
As early The Fall champion John Peel described the long-running institution, “Always the same/always different,” Live At The Witch Trials lays the blueprint for all of The Fall music to come. And yet it stands alone in their vast discography as a singular entry. It’s a wonderful place to begin investigating the Wonderful, Frightening World Of The Fall.
The expanded version of Live At The Witch Trials includes The Fall’s earliest material, including the excellent Bingo-Master’s Break Out EP, as well as live recordings and demos from 1977 – 1978. It’s worth the price of admission for these rarities alone.
Stand-Out Tracks: “Frightening,” “Rebellious Jukebox,” “No XMas For John Quays,” “Industrial Estates”
Operating out of Portland, Or., J makes electronic music and DJs as dessicant, hosting a weekly radio show on Freeform Portland, Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness. He also plays in the band Meta Pinnacle with his partner, the visual artist/illustrator Lily H. Valentine, with whom he co-founded Bitstar Productions, a visual arts collective/production company.
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