Dancing To Dead Vibrations
The Fall’s first two records managed to outline many of the tenets of post-punk while punk itself was still getting going. While most post-punk bands were breaking away from tradition, ripping it up and starting again, The Fall actually extended the rock ‘n roll tradition, bringing in goony ’50s rockabilly guitars, a la The Cramps, and Bo Diddley beats and pairing them with the disco, funk, and dub of the more rhythmically oriented post-punk bands. These are delivered with an avant-rock edge, a post-Velvets sturm-und-drang that prefigures noise rock by some years. Finally, Dragnet is seeped in high-brow literary intellectualism, while still whiffing of barley-soaked pub fumes.
Dragnet came out a scant five months after Live At The Witch Trials. As Pitchfork’s Jason Heller notes, “You can pogo to Witch Trials; you can’t to Dragnet. Where Witch Trials is wiry, Dragnet is weighty.” It’s a fair observation, but not entirely accurate. If anything, Dragnet is the more purely punk album of the pair. This is largely to do with the departure of founding guitarist Martin Bramah, with his particularly odd melodicism, to be replaced by young axe-slinger Craig Scanlon. Scanlon, just 19 years old at the time, was a roadie for The Fall, recruited from the briefly-lived Staff 9, who used to open for The Fall on their earlier tour. Scanlon’s guitar is more of a buzzsaw sheet of sound, as opposed to Bramah’s atonal Captain Beefheart worship. This gives Dragnet a classic Spirit Of ’77 raging rock ‘n roll adrenaline rush. The addition of Marc Riley on second guitar brings that catchy, nearly-poppy melodicism that The Fall are so good for, coming off like a working man’s Television.
Despite the rough-and-tumble production style, Dragnet encapsulates the many moods of The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall. There’s the proto-disco punk of “Psykick Dancehall,” as much of a battle cry and mission statement of Live At The Dance Hall’s “Crap Rap 2/Like To Blow.” Mark E. Smith delivers a diatribe about telepathic discos over razor-sharp drumming and throbbing basslines. It’s as good as anything off of Gang Of Four’s seminal Entertainment!, also released in 1979. While Gang Of Four sound like art school students rooted in Marxist literature and wired on cheap speed, The Fall’s Northern English agit-prop is a bit more sluggist and leaden. This is the sound of working class debates over pints and crisps, before taking to the streets to raise holy mayhem.
“A Figure Walks” details what is so delicious about The Fall’s extensive ouevre. On the surface, it’s a simple psychobilly anthem – wiry, twanging surf guitars and a truly thumping tribal pulse. Smith’s vocals shadow the psychobilly freakout with a tale of stalking menace, “A figure walks behind you/A shadow walks behind you.” There is no narrative here, no resolution. Just a looming menace, a vague ominousness hanging over the proceedings like a sickly fungal spore. It’s fucking glorious, and you can hum along to it!
“Before The Moon Falls” serves as the final capstone in Dragnet’s (un)holy trinity. It’s a pulsing, ominous noise rock cacophany of droning guitars, mumbled vocals, and motorik beats. It sounds like The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” layered overtop Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69.” Somehow, this combination of glam-damaged art punk and sinister cults seems weirdly appropriate for The Fall, as a whole.
Recorded in 1979, Dragnet is still relevant today. Mark E. Smith could read the late capitalist doomsaying on the wall, hailing from the rustbelt decrepitude of Northern England. Smith extols the virtue of chance, fate, and absurdity in a world of straight lines and ledgers; of day planners and reminder apps for everything. On “Dice Man,” based on the book by Luke Rhinehart.
I am the dice man
And I take a chance, huh
Do you take a chance, huh?
Where you two going?
Where you two going?
Is this a branch on the tree of showbusiness?
In this day and age, even the punks have to be MFAs. Even the avant-garde performance artists are ensconced in heavy theoretical rhetoric. It seems that The Ivory Tower is unavoidable, inescapable. It seems that the beige carpet of the monoculture has paved over everything.
Listening to The Fall, in general, and Dragnet in particular, encourages us to get lost, fall off the map, off the grid. It encourages us to think for ourselves, follow our hearts, and damn the consequences. Dragnet is very much a post-punk record, drawing in threads from the past, present, and future of rock-based music. Other, more po-faced post-punks wouldn’t be caught dead trading in Chuck Berry riffs and Bo Diddley beats. The Fall couldn’t care less. They just do what they like, and do it to the best of their ability. May we all be so bold.
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.