THE FALL – Fall Sound Archive Vol 7: 1970s

The Fall’s early work has been reissued several times, but with a few of their “Fall Sound Archives” releases, Cherry Red Records managed to go above and beyond to give some well worn material the best send off ever. Both ‘Live At The Witch Trials’ and ‘Dragnet’ were released as lavish three disc editions in 2019, but even better, the seminal ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ formed part of a brilliant box set, ‘1982’, later that same year. By making the much loved album the main feature of a 6CD anthology, it set a precedent for similarly great reissues.

Taking the same approach as that box set, ‘1970s’ is a hefty 12CD tome that claims to include all of the band’s work from that decade. It doesn’t – there are notable omissions – but it pulls together a huge wealth of material, including several live shows that have never been officially released. There’s always a question of how much bootleg quality Fall material you need, but as the old fan mantra suggests, “you must get them all”, and the lure of six unavailable live sets here will certainly be enough for the hardened fan to want this set – quality be damned-ah.

Before getting to that, of course, there’s the matter of four discs’ worth of studio material to consider. There won’t be any parties interested in a twelve disc set of early Fall who won’t already own ‘Live At The Witch Trials’ and ‘Dragnet’, but the opportunity to revisit those classic albums again as part of a larger body of work acts as a very direct reminder of how sharp they still sound, albeit in a relatively lo-fi way. Decades on, the crashing chords of ‘Industrial Estate’ still sound vibrant; the repetitious chaos of ‘No Xmas For John Quays’ has the potential to really aggravate the ears of the unenlightened and the catchy ‘Rebellious Jukebox’ provides an excellent early example of Smith’s love of seemingly unconnected lyrics but ultimately, gives ‘Witch Trials’ a number that’s most memorable for its great music – and most specifically a fantastic bassline courtesy of Marc Riley. For all of its unsophisticated production values, the debut still sounds almost unlike any other punk-oriented record of its era, due to MES applying a visceral approach to his vocals, and the spoken mantras of the title cut and ‘Two Steps Back’ lend a unique appeal via a sense of genuine threat that’s far removed from the cartoon posturing delivered by the UK punk scenes other acts from that time.

On the surface, ‘Dragnet’ purports to offer the listener more of the same, but a murkier production brings an extra darkness, and Mark’s growth as an oblique lyricist is clear from the off. In terms of obvious highlights, ‘Your Heart Out’ could easily be The Sonics fronted by a drawling and confrontational Englishman, ‘Put Away’ sounds like Hank Mizell’s ‘Jungle Rock’ put through the ringer by a loose band in a rehearsal space (it’s surely no coincidence that a much later incarnation of The Fall would cover Mizell’s best-known hit) and ‘Before The Moon Falls’ applies the mechanics of Neu! to a garage rock tune that’s by turns rough and loose, yet at the same time manages to cling on to a fascinating and hypnotic rhythm. Elsewhere, ‘Spector vs. Rector’ assaults the listener with an eight minute, hugely distorted recording that sounds no better than a hastily presented rehearsal tape, with Smith free forming over an indistinct noise – horrible, yet somehow adding to the mystique already surrounding an already fascinating band – and ‘Printhead’ supplies more post-punk anger, with a defiant lyric spat with intent over a brilliant, grumbling juggernaut of a band. …And then there’s ‘Psykick Dancehall’ – arguably the archetypal Fall track from these sessions – with opening motorik rhythm, joined by ugly 50s rockabilly guitar twang and punk-ish interludes.

Always conveying a minor threat in an obvious continuation of the debut’s sterling work, it’s the sound of a still new band pushing forever forward. Even with its iffy production values, ‘Dragnet’ is arguably more interesting than ‘Witch Trials’, with Smith presenting various lyrical concepts that only he truly understands; his lax performance only ever serving the sprawling narratives and spiteful refrains brilliantly, sounding more like the legendary figure who’d steer ‘Hex’ to its unique, almost impenetrable glory.

Joining the two albums are several stand-alone singles, b-sides and session tracks. All of these can be found on the respective ‘Live At The Witch Trials’ and ‘Dragnet’ reissues. It’s only ever going to be the most obsessive fan who’d continually want to explore several aborted takes of ‘Rowche Rumble’ and ‘In My Area’, but the final master of ‘Rowche Rumble’ remains a sharp, punk-oriented workout that ranks among the best 70s Fall recordings. ‘Bingo Masters Break Out’ shows how even from the earliest studio sessions, Smith’s vision for a hybrid of punk and Krautrock bleakness was very clear, a that sound is honed to perfection on the droning and hypnotically ugly ‘Repetition’. Fans will undoubtedly know most of this material inside out, but the recordings still have the power to thrill and challenge in equal measure, whilst the first two Peel Sessions (providing the real heart of the third disc) offer much sharper renditions of ‘Witch Trials’ era material, including a brilliant version of ‘Rebellious Jukebox’ with a fascinatingly loose vocal, and a superbly punky ‘No Xmas For John Quays’ that runs rings around its studio equivalent.

The big draw here, obviously, is the box set’s wealth of live material. Even though some recordings will be very familiar to hardened fans, it’s great to experience these shows in one place. The earliest Fall show available for some time, the recording from Stretford Civic Theatre, Manchester (December 1977) supplies an incendiary noise. Although the recording quality leaves a lot to be desired – the vocals are so loud throughout, they’re blighted by extreme distortion – the band’s raw energy really comes through at all times. From the opening ‘Psycho Mafia’ capturing the punkier Fall and an even sharper ‘Last Orders’ showcasing a really jangly guitar, the beginning of the set shows off a band that’s truly on fire and set to smash their audience into oblivion. Despite the distortion making Mark’s vocals hard to process, the slower ‘Frightened’ provides a definite highlight with atonal keys parping against a threateningly slow groove, and an early outing for ‘Futures and Pasts’ hints at greater things on the horizon. The fact that this ends with MES and company hammering through ‘Louie Louie’ with inebriated gusto – a performance that rivals The Stooges in 1974 for wanton trashiness – shows how the band were still applying an off-the-cuff approach to live performance at a time when they had no studio recordings behind them. Overall, even though the quality could be much better, the atmosphere here more than speaks for itself.

This massive set includes two even earlier shows, released for the first time. A recording from North West Arts, Manchester (May ’77) features just eight tracks and runs to less than forty minutes, but the energy that comes through, again, shows how sharp the band could be. Mark’s vocals are often lost behind a wall of distortion from the guitar and bass, but the more familiar material (‘Futures & Pasts’, ‘Industrial Estate’, ‘Repetition’ and ‘Frightened’) isn’t really that had to make out, despite its roughness. The bass work throughout ‘Frightened’ attacks with a proper lo-fi menace, and the trebly sound during ‘Industrial Estate’ throws more focus onto the drums as the rhythm rattles through a rockabilly inspired groove. The performance is fat looser than that on ‘Witch Trials’ and even from other 70s live recordings, but it’s interesting to hear the band at their most punky and still ironing out the kinks. For the hardened collectors, there’s a greater interest here with a moody ‘Sten Gun Rock’ approximating some loose gothy vibes replayed with a weird Krautrock menace, and the ragged ‘Race Hatred’ offering some basic punk vitriol, half a world away from the band The Fall would soon become. It’s never easy listening, but always strangely fascinating; this document of the first gig played with Una Baines on keys is a Fall essential despite its rough state.

Six months on, The Fall sound so much tighter. A gig from Band On The Wall, Manchester (November ’77) features rowdy takes on ‘Hey Fascist!’, ‘Psycho Mafia’ and ‘Industrial Estate’, but really comes into its own when MES and that week’s Fall sneer their way through the moodier material. ‘Your Heart Out’ is especially good on this night with Riley’s bass punching against atonal keys, whilst the drums keep a dense rhythm over which MES drawls with a snake like menace. Likewise, ‘Repetition’ grinds the audience into a mood that most punks of the era wouldn’t necessarily welcome or understand. This proto-PIL jam puts Riley in the driving seat once more, and unlike any of the other pre-’Witch Trials’ bootlegs this actually has the benefit of capturing everything he and guitarist Martin Bramah play with a genuine clarity. It’s one of the best sounding early boots in circulation – rivalled by Cog Sinister’s recording from Cedar Ballroom 1980. The only drawback is that MES sounds like he’s shouting through a doorway in the next room, but even then, almost all of his vocals are much clearer than on some live recordings. With ‘Dresden Dolls’ offering a disjointed, clattering darkness, ‘Copped It’ dropping in a little more repetitious rockabilly-tinged post-punk noise – complete with angrily stabbed keys – and ‘Oh Brother’ representing something of a punk band’s take on a Bo Diddley riff or two, this is a truly fantastic snapshot of the early Fall, despite the imperfect recording. For those who’ve not obtained a bootleg from elsewhere, this provides every reason for picking up this box set.

The well circulated set from Mr, Pickwick’s in Liverpool (August ’78) is really rough. Although it features a much clearer vocal, the bass dominates the mix to the point where the guitars sound as if they’re not actually plugged in and anything audible from the drums seems to be bleeding through from a nearby mic. Nevertheless, the set is great, Now firmly into ‘Witch Trials’ territory, the it includes fiery performances of ‘Frightened’, ‘Industrial Estate’ and ‘Like To Blow’, along with the lesser heard ‘Stepping Out’ that couples the usual post punk with a reggae tinged bassline, and ‘Mess of My’, comes with a rollocking arrangement that sounds like a sloppy rockabilly knockabout reappropriated by a rough garage band. By virtue of almost nothing else being audible, Riley’s bass sounds great, and especially strong during a nine minute ‘Music Scene’ – a number he trucks through despite previously breaking a string. Lovers of the band’s earliest singles will likely also get a reasonable amount of listening pleasure from spiky (but pretty much drumless) versions of ‘Various Times’ and ‘Bingo Masters Break Out’ along the way too, even in such a rough state. The cassette source still carries a lot of distortion, and the drums are sadly missed until the latter part of the gig, but it’s still obvious how, every few months, The Fall sound even more professional in their own fantastically ramshackle way.

A full fourteen song set from Warrington (November ’78) is also previously unreleased, but it’s easy to hear why. In terms of all round fidelity, it makes the Stretford ’77 show sound like Thin Lizzy’s ‘Live & Dangerous’. However, for the more patient fan willing to bend their ear around a wall of distorted noise, there are moments where a feedback heavy ‘Two Steps Back’ sounds like it might have been really sinister on the night in question, and a bass driven ‘Bingo Masters’ seems keen to follow suit. Unfortunately, the sound is such that, the noisier parts of the latter are partially hidden behind keyboards that sound like an electrical fault, whilst a relentlessly clangy guitar is especially hard on the ears.

Going into a speed driven ‘No Xmas For John Quays”, MES appears in a short temper, or else he’s having a rare moment of trying out a more typical “punk persona”. “The X in Xmas is a substitute for a cross…GET IT?” he spits at the front row, before Bramah launches into a punky frenzy. As the track reaches its peak, the sound quality is so bad that only a true fan would really know what was at stake, and its a pity, as a couple of Mark’s audible squeals, again, suggest a performance that’s absolutely electric. Early crowd pleasers ‘Industrial Estate’, ‘Repetition’ and ‘Rebellious Jukebox’ appear very spiky, but it’s ‘Underground Medicin’ that brings a greater interest with its scattergun vocal delivery set against a high toned bass, wrung for all its worth. Again, parts of the performance capture the early Fall in a punkier spirit than some early gigs, but the repetitious chopping guitars more than hint at an arty heart. There’s so much potential within the setlist and performance, but this is one of the worst sounding Fall boots to emerge from the seemingly thousands of tapes in circulation – the epitome of “for completists only”.

Luckily, the unreleased recording from Institute of Technology, Bolton (December ’78) is much better. There’s still distortion present, but everything is far more balanced, giving the feeling of listening to the band from the venue toilets. An opening ‘Bingo’ is very clear, thanks to its sparser arrangement, which sets everything off in great stead, before MES reminds the audience that The Fall “don’t do requests”. There’s immediately an edgy mood in the venue, it seems, and it’s one that solid renditions of ‘Stepping Out’ and a very mechanical ‘Mother Sister’ are keen to keep in place. More early Fall gold comes courtesy of solid performances of ‘Mess of My’, ‘Industrial Estate’ and ‘John Quays’ – all recorded in “near releasable” quality – before ‘Psycho Mafia’s discordant brilliance shows off this line-ups abrasive, sneering side in the most perfect post-punk way. An encore reprising two tracks from the main set suggests that the band were extremely well received on this night, and despite only being the support band (on a bill shared with Here & Now, Danny & The Dressmakers and Wilful Damage), they were obviously the biggest draw – and not only historically. According to an online press clipping, a good proportion of the audience actually left the venue after MES and company had vacated the stage…

The full show from London YMCA Building (September ’79) is in “official” quality – possibly a soundboard source – and is the one of the greatest sounding early shows ever. The dark rockabilly of ‘A Figure Walks’ supplies the gig’s best moment with recent arrival Craig Scanlon throwing out thin, yet menacing guitar notes throughout, but that’s challenged for all round brilliance by ‘In My Area’, supplying something menacing when MES grumbles with intent over a chugging, repetitive groove. The atonal keys take on the mantle of an atonal saxophone and a surprisingly subtle drum part underscores an arrangement that seems desperate to explode at any moment. ‘Printhead’ drops into some decent punk driven noise – finally making good on the promise of those ’77 shows – and ‘Before The Moon Falls’ allows MES to really vent, often sounding like a human reptile, slurring his mantra, hissing and buzzing like a man who’s about to burn out. With sharp takes on set regulars ‘John Quays’ and ‘Rebellious Jukebox’ propping up the (already superior) new material, it’s the kind of recording that fans will take to their hearts and enjoy time after time. With so many poor quality boots in circulation as part of official releases, it’s amazing that this has been held back for so long.

The recording from JB’s, Dudley (31st November ’79, claimed to be September 1st ’79 by some fan sites) is just as clear, from an audio perspective, but this second dose of peak ‘Dragnet’ Fall provides a rather different experience. With the brand new ‘Flat of Angles’ coming across like Wire a polyrhythmic funk groove, it further shows how much sharper the band were in comparison to just a year earlier. Scanlon’s arrival shows an obvious edge throughout as he latches onto a repetitive slide guitar riff, whilst the bass punches through with the kind of complexity that most casual admirers wouldn’t always associate with the band. MES is on fire throughout, delivering various sloganeering lyrical barbs, before shouting the album title to create a massive climax. Regardless of the rest of the gig, this is one of the best performances from this incarnation and era of The Fall. ‘A Figure Walks’ conveys the same kind of darkness as the YMCA gig, but if anything, MES sounds a little more focused, and for those hankering for more of an obtuse noise, ‘The 2nd Dark Age’ is more than keen to oblige with vocals that careen back and forth with no regard for melody and a layer of keys that rarely sound like much more than a Casiotone drone. It’s the kind of performance that could come off the rails, but there’s a real joy in hearing the band flying so aggressively, even though it gains applause from about three people.

A very buoyant ‘Stepping Out’ gives Scanlon’s rough guitar chops a great showcase and the tune sounds much fuller than its ’78 equivalents; ‘Fiery Jack’ cuts loose with yet more sharp edged, sharp tongued rockabilly brilliance, and ‘Rebellious Jukebox’ (introduced as “Jukebox Pissers!”) crashes in a carefree way, and sounds noisier than before due to some really terrible vocals. There’s now a disdain for this number that’s audibly obvious; MES was never keen on nostalgia – in later years, the Fall leant on their back catalogue less and less for the live sets – but unwillingness to wheel out the crowd pleasers had obviously kicked in at a really early srage. And who could blame him? By the end of ’79, it’s clear that most of the ‘Dragnet’ material is better and more complex than most of ‘Witch Trials’, and since by the time of ‘Slates’ in ’81, The Fall will have reinvented themselves again, there’s very little point in looking back-ah. As it stands, the JB’s set is much lighter on the early favourites, but in terms of retrospectively showing the ‘Dragnet’ band in great shape, it’s an unmissable listen.

So, with all that great stuff included, what’s actually missing? Despite claiming to be all of the 70s recordings, the live set from Deeply Vale (reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day in 2018) is absent, as is the previously issued ‘Live From The Vaults: Oldham 1978’. The Oldham gig really should have been included here as the original release is hard to find, and it’s of marginally better quality than the similar set from Liverpool, which was released on the three CD version of ‘Witch Trials’ in 2018 anyway. The 1979 live shows from Retford and New York aren’t here either, but you can find those making up discs two and three in Cherry Red’s ‘Dragnet’ box. ‘1970s’ is very comprehensive, yes, but it is far from complete.

Looking at this box set as a whole, even for the biggest Fall fan, it’s a huge commitment in terms of both time and money. On the negative side, how many more times will people be expected to shell out for ‘Live At The Witch Trials’ in order to get a bounty of unreleased goodies? Honestly, that album has been milked to death now. On the positive side, a couple of the unreleased live shows give a fascinating insight into the band’s formative years and the presentation of this whole set is lovely. With a booklet full of newspaper clippings and interview bits, it’s still a worthy addition to the Fall Sound Archives reissue series, even with so many previously available materials present. In addition, the set has a great look, with its clamshell box providing a worthy companion to the ‘1982’ release. Despite the studio albums being surplus to requirements, there’s more than enough here to entice most hardened Fall heads here, and the live sets from Band On The Wall, the Bolton Institute and the YMCA Building are very much unearthed gems. If you “must get them all”, you’ll be well up for adding this to your collection anyway, but if you don’t consider yourself a completist, but are still keen to take the leap into yet more live archives, you’ll certainly find some gold shining through some very rough edges. Despite not being the cheapest option or the most user friendly, ‘1970s’ offers something for all Fall fans.

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August-October 2022