The Backdrop Shifted and Changed (a Fall story)

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In 1981 I first hear The Fall—“Rebellious Jukebox” is another post-punk song in an ocean of such stuff on a sampler album, and “Totally Wired” is a fixture on certain college radio shows. The singer and main Fall guy appears to be someone named Mark E. Smith. Upon moving to NYC and having the album Perverted by Language tossed my way by a friend, all of a sudden…“Hotel Blöedel”! With villainous violin sounds by Mr. Smith and sung (delightfully off-key) by his wife at the time, Brix Smith. Later comes a cassette tape of selections from the new Fall album The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (that title says it all) including “Elves” (think these guys ever heard “I Wanna Be Your Dog”?) and the lilting, too-tuneful (for The Fall) “Disney’s Dream Debased.” Missing from the tape but making its appearance later on, “2 By 4,” built on Stephen Hanley’s muscular, melodic bass lines and Karl Burns’ jackhammer drums. After that it’s FALL speed ahead!

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Living in the Bronx, everyone around me is a Fall fan. The band Fly Ashtray—still in existence today—is forging a sound directly influenced by The Fall’s minimal-yet-complex style, and we all spout Smith-isms from Fall lyrics every chance we get. Just released and in our hands is the EP Call for Escape Route, featuring an eight-minute long, positively danceable ode to low-rent apartment living, “No Bulbs.” The most astounding song I’ve ever heard. Next, a bright, poppy thing called “C.R.E.E.P.” and its sort-of psychedelic (in a Fall way) B side, “Pat Trip Dispenser.”

“Moveable backdrop / The backdrop shifted and changed”

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Soon a series of singles compilations and live tapes make the rounds, showcasing an earlier version of The Fall with Marc Riley on guitar, the best tracks being “The Classical” and “Backdrop” on Fall in a Hole. Both excellent examples of Smith’s rambling to the point of mania, over a tense-but-grooving post-punk landscape, his trademark penchant for ending every other word with an extra “ah” syllable not unlike a Southern preacher driving his fire-and-brimstone sermon home. Other ear-catching stuff include “The Man Whose Head Expanded” and the centerpiece from 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour (and what’s occasionally come to refer to Mr. Smith himself), “Hip Priest.”

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In April ’85, The Fall come to town, performing at the now-no-more Peppermint Lounge, during the final year of the club’s existence. The show’s mesmerizing high point is a driving, hammering thing with bedazzling, crazed chords from guitarist Craig Scanlon, carefully controlled feedback from the guitar of Brix, and typically indecipherable words from Mark E. The song is “Wings,” and it turns out I have it on one of the compilation tapes but never gave it a good listen. That all changes the following day as I put on Fall song after Fall song, culminating in a “Wings”-athon, playing the song ten times in a row. And note, this is 1985, so I have to rewind the cassette to the beginning of the track each time—no mere clicking on an icon. Wrapping myself around Smith’s enigmatic lyrics, I take in the strange, Philip K. Dick-esque tale of how changing the past can cause something in the present to cease to exist.

TheFall-ThisNation'sSavingGrace ( it wouldn’t be fall without…The Fall! The big event come autumn ’85 is the release of This Nation’s Saving Grace, their eighth album. Featuring the dance-party-fun, almost B-52s-ish “Cruisers Creek” (on the American release; the rest of the world gets “Barmy”—even more dance-party-fun and seeming to take its main hook from the horn break in the Monkees’ “Valleri”), Smith’s proclamation of his new digs, “My New House,” the intricate, intriguing “Paint Work,” and the homage to German progressive group Can and their Japanese lead vocalist, “I Am Damo Suzuki.”

“The backdrop shifted and changed / So did not even know what song it was”

The band gets poppier still with tracks like “Hot Aftershave Bop” and “Hey! Luciani,” then in March ’86 it’s another Fall show at a most unlikely venue: the Lone Star Café. Normally the home of country/western music in NYC, the place is showcasing Mark E. Smith & Co. for some reason. This time we’re there not only to see the band but also to interview them for my fanzine. So in between sets, suddenly I’m INTERVIEWING MARK E. SMITH. He actually comes across as somewhat approachable, up until he deems the session over by saying quietly but firmly, “I’m going to ask you to leave now.” And then it’s time for the next album, Bend Sinister, as The Fall falls back to a darker sound, albeit with snappy synths on stuff like “Shoulder Pads,”courtesy of keyboardist Simon Rogers.

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Now a bit of a break from The Fall…until The Frenz Experiment in 1988, showcasing a rendition of the Kinks’ “Victoria.” Another NYC performance at the Ritz (later Webster Hall, now, sadly, nothing), the next Fall release, I Am Kurious Oranj (in bright oranj album cover and producing the synthpoppy “Cab It Up!”), then in 1993—just to hear what the band is sounding like—I pick up The Infotainment Scan. It turns out be heavy on the electro-dance side, but one song stands out, a ridiculously light and tuneful cover called “I’m Going to Spain.” At this point I pretty much leave Smith and The Fall to their own devices. But they keep releasing albums, nearly one every year, with a constantly changing roster of musicians.

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“The backdrop shifted and changed / Until did not even know”

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Sometime in 2013 I catch a glimpse of the present-day Mark E. Smith in a magazine, and it’s not a pretty sight. Years of alcohol, tobacco, and who knows what else seem to have taken their toll. But the man soldiers on, branding himself and anyone he records/performs with as The Fall (“If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall,” he once uttered). 2017 sees the release of New Facts Emerge, a work that has Smith ranting, grunting, and yelling like never before. Several live dates suddenly appear—and sell out—at Brooklyn hotspot Baby’s All Right. And just as suddenly the shows are cancelled, presumably due to 60-year-old Smith’s declining health.

On January 24, 2018, I read the news of Mark E. Smith’s passing. The Hip Priest is dead. But with thirty-something Fall albums, plus countless compilations and live recordings, the genius cantankerousness of Mark E. Smith carries on…against an ever-changing, ever-shifting, ever-recognizable musical (sometimes not-so-musical) backdrop. As legendary BBC radio host John Peel described The Fall, “They are always different; they are always the same.”

“The backdrop shifted and changed / And this was The Fall / Goodnight”

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 “Backdrop” lyrics © Minder Music Ltd. / Songwriter: Mark E. Smith

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Anybody up for some rockin’ Spanish Civil War songs?

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In July of 1936 in Spain, right-wing Nationalist generals decided they’d like to overthrow the democratically-elected, left-leaning Spanish Republic. The coup didn’t quite work, but the generals, led by one Francisco Franco and aided by other infamous dictators, refused to take no for an answer and proceeded to wage the bloody, three-year-long Spanish Civil War. Eventually the Nationalists won but, not to be outdone, the Republic’s defenders organized the International Brigades, a massive group of volunteers from over fifty countries. Venturing to Spain to fight fascism, the Brigades included 2,800 Americans who came to be known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – the first American military force to integrate blacks and whites equally.


81 years later in NYC, the Brooklyn-based band Barbez released a collection of songs paying homage to the Lincoln Brigade entitled For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War. Described on their website as “a haunting mosaic of avant-rock, old-world cabaret, Eastern European folksong, and contemporary classical music,” Barbez is guitarist Dan Kaufman (Rebecca Moore), clarinetist Peter Hess (Philip Glass Ensemble), theremin virtuoso Pamelia Stickney (David Byrne), marimba and vibraphone player Danny Tunick (The Clean), violinist Catherine McRae (The Quavers), bassist Peter Lettre (Shearwater), and drummer John Bollinger (Sway Machinery). As if that’s not enough schizomusical energy, For Those Who Came After also features actress/singer Velina Brown as lead vocalist on each and every track (except the instrumental “No Pasarán”).

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The album leads off with “Viva La Quince Brigada,” the unofficial anthem of the Lincoln Brigade. Besides showcasing the eclectic ingredients of the Barbez brew, the song features snippets of an interview with Brigade veteran and activist Abe Osheroff. “Venga Jaleo” (roughly translated as “Let’s Rampage”) follows, its lush guitars giving way to a sweeping flamenco-fest. A throbbing, “Heroes”-style beat and eerie theremin introduce the socialist anthem “L’Internationale,” Brown’s operatic voice rallying the comrades into a frenzy. Arise ye prisoners! Other highlights are the bouncy “Si Me Quieres Escribir” (“If You Want to Write to Me”), the simple but dramatic march “Song of the United Front” (sung in several different languages – now that’s pretty damn united), and the lovely, waltzy “Los Cuatro Generales” (“The Four Generals”). The album’s closer, “A las Barricadas” (“To the Barricades”), features another Lincoln Brigade veteran, Del Berg, in excerpts from an interview conducted at Berg’s California home the year before he died. Many of these songs were first introduced to American ears by Lincoln Brigade supporter Pete Seeger on his 1944 album Songs of the Lincoln Battalion.

Back to the war, General Franco held control of Spain until his death in 1975 – after which a certain satiric news segment reported him as “valiantly holding on in his fight to remain dead.” And as far as we know he’s still hangin’ in there.

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The best of 2017…finally

Now that the holidays are all packed away and the last of the stale fruit cake has been thrown out… Now that the first blizzard of the new year in NYC is just a few patches of filthy gray slush/sludge being washed away by a balmy rain (climate change? what climate change?)… Before we get too far into 2018 (and before our small-handed president opens his big mouth again!), here’s the Schizomusica top 100 of 2017!

  1. IN BETWEEN (Reprise) – The Feelies
  2. CERTAINTY – Temples
  3. PLAY MYSELF SOME MUSIC – R. Stevie Moore / Jason Falkner
  4. TRAVELER – The Walk-A-Bout
  5. GLEAM – Richard X. Heyman
  6. ALL THINGS PASS – The Jesus and Mary Chain
  7. AGISTRI – Heather Trost
  8. SURE GONNA MISS YOU – Chandler Travis Philharmonic
  9. DRIFTING TIDE – The Walk-A-Bout
  10. WHOLE LOTTA LOWS – Arrica Rose & The …’s
  11. BEEN REPLACED – The Feelies
  12. WHITEOUT CONDITIONS – The New Pornographers
  13. ANOTHER DAY SLIPS AWAY – R. Stevie Moore / Jason Falkner
  14. CROSSING THE TISZA – Speed the Plough
  15. BROKEN PAST – The Walk-A-Bout
  16. LOLLIPOP (ODE TO JIM) – Alvvays
  17. SHE GOT HIT – Kim Rancourt
  18. ROMAN GODLIKE MAN – Temples
  19. GONE GONE GONE – The Feelies
  20. CRAZY CRAZY – Yasutaka Nakata (feat. Charli XCX & Kyary Pamyu Pamyu)
  21. ON THE BAY – The Walk-A-Bout
  23. HIGH TICKET ATTRACTIONS – The New Pornographers
  24. A FOOL’S ERRAND – Richard X. Heyman
  25. I WANNA BE YOUR MIRROR – Temples
  26. TOO MUCH TIME – Nona Hendryx / Gary Lucas
  27. OH MANDY – The Spinto Band
  28. OPEN AIR – Temples
  29. FLAG DAYS – The Feelies
  30. (DON’T WORRY) IF THERE IS A HELL BELOW WE’RE ALL GOING TO GO (Theme from The Deuce) – Curtis Mayfield
  31. YOUR TYPE – Alvvays
  32. SHAKIN’ IT UP – The Walk-A-Bout
  33. AND THEN – Richard X. Heyman
  34. PEEL THE MOON – Lisa Said
  35. BORN INTO THE SUNSET – Temples
  36. THIS IS THE WORLD OF THE THEATER – The New Pornographers
  37. IN UNDERTOW – Alvvays
  38. EVERYBODY GET WISE – Richard X. Heyman
  39. DARK CONTINENTS – The Trypes
  40. L’INTERNATIONALE – Barbez with Velina Brown
  41. OH THE SAVIOUR – Temples
  42. LONG TIME – Blondie
  43. INCOGNITO – Richard X. Heyman
  44. WORLD GONE CRAZY – Gene Loves Jezebel
  45. AMPUTATION – The Jesus and Mary Chain
  46. MYSTERY OF POP – Temples
  47. BY THE WAY – Chandler Travis Philharmonic
  48. NOT MY BABY – Alvvays
  49. DETECTIVE MINDHORN – Robyn Hitchcock
  50. IF YOU SEE KAY / RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! – R. Stevie Moore / Jason Falkner
  51. PEACHES SANS HERBES – Double Naught Spy Car
  52. BLACK AND BLUES – The Jesus and Mary Chain (feat. Sky Ferreira)
  54. CRACK THE WHIP – The Spinto Band
  55. BLOODMOON – Heather Trost
  56. TURN BACK TIME – The Feelies
  57. THE BIRD HAS FLOWN – Speed the Plough
  58. I H8 PPL – R. Stevie Moore / Jason Falkner
  59. HEARTWORMS – The Shins
  61. THE CITY – The Lil Smokies
  62. CHALK IT UP – Richard X. Heyman
  63. CLAUDINE – Kim Rancourt
  64. PEOPLE I KNOW – The Spinto Band
  65. BUTTERFLIES – No Line North
  66. OASIS – The Walk-A-Bout
  67. MAD SHELLEY’S LETTERBOX – Robyn Hitchcock
  68. CARNIVAL – Neil Young & Promise of the Real
  69. SINCERO AMORE – R. Stevie Moore / Jason Falkner
  70. MY HEAD IS MY ONLY HOUSE UNLESS IT RAINS – Nona Hendryx / Gary Lucas
  71. IZITME – Gene Loves Jezebel
  72. LINE DRIVE – No Line North
  73. NEW FACTS EMERGE – The Fall
  74. I WANT TO TELL YOU ABOUT WHAT I WANT – Robyn Hitchcock
  75. SONG FOR A SECRET – The Jesus and Mary Chain
  76. SOME DUDES – Lisa Said
  77. PLIMSOLL PUNKS – Alvvays
  78. TIME COAST – Robyn Hitchcock
  79. SPY VS. SPY – The Spinto Band
  81. SURE ‘NUFF ‘N YES I DO – Nona Hendryx / Gary Lucas
  82. ALREADY NAKED – Blondie
  83. I AM THE BEST FOR YOU – R. Stevie Moore / Jason Falkner
  84. HOT THOUGHTS – Spoon
  85. ALWAYS SAD – The Jesus and Mary Chain
  86. CRYING ON A TRAIN – Ohmslice
  87. LOS AGELESS – St. Vincent
  88. A GOOD DAY IN NASHVILLE – Matt North
  89. TRACTOR – The Spinto Band
  90. RUBBER BALLZ – The Shins
  91. AIR RUNNING BACKWARDS – Chandler Travis Philharmonic
  92. SI ME QUIERES ESCRIBIR – Barbez with Velina Brown
  93. FEATHERS – The Lil Smokies
  94. RED PIRATE OF THE PRAIRIE – Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
  95. COLD LITTLE HEART – Michael Kiwanuka
  96. CIRCLE – Matthew Sweet
  97. SAMBOU SAMBOU – Eliane Elias
  98. STAMPS – R. Stevie Moore / Jason Falkner
  99. SABINE TURNAROUND – Lost Bayou Ramblers
  100. IN BETWEEN – The Feelies


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