Metaphrog’s John Chalmers on falling for The Fall
In partnership with artist Sandra Marrs, writer John Chalmers is one half of Glasgow-based graphic novelists Metaphrog.
The Franco-Scottish duo have been creating comics and books since 1996 to international acclaim, winning The Sunday Herald Scottish Culture Awards 2016 Best Visual Artist and multiple award nominations, including three for the Eisner Awards – the Oscars of comics. Their new graphic novel, Bluebeard: A Feminist Fairy Tale is just out and it is a thing of beauty.
When he’s not working on Metaphrog projects, John is also one of the nation’s most fervent fans of The Fall, the legendary Manchester group led by the late great Mark E Smith, famously summed up by John Peel as “always different, always the same.”
Like many of us during lockdown, John has been experiencing bouts of insomnia. During one recent sleepless night, he found his mind turning back to The Fall again, and was inspired to write about how his fascination with the group began. “This was in my head instead of sleep,” John says. “So. Written under no duress. I stress . No duress…” We’re delighted to be able to share it with you here.
I grew up with The Fall – the late 70s were an exciting time. Punk rock. What punk meant to me was thinking for yourself. My dad had his own small business and we were fairly poor. The 70s felt racist, sexist and homophobic. Horrible. Punk was a reaction to that. The Fall were not punk. Whatever they were they couldn’t really be classified. They defied classification. We are art, Mark E. Smith would say. Weird art? We are art.
As a young teenager and music addict The Fall seemed to be everywhere. In interviews in the music press (NME, Sounds, even Melody Maker) refusing to play the game, playing a game: why should I tell anyone what I really like, who I really am? Aware of the Society of the Spectacle, unwilling to conform and be subsumed while recognising that uncommercial music needed some promotion. And in fanzines: more open, more relaxed and effusive.
In the air. John Peel played The Fall regularly on his radio show weeknights from 10pm until midnight. He often invited the group to do a session.
Albums: two in 1979 already. Live at the Witch Trials. It isn’t live. Yet recorded in two days with a group that sound like one highly attuned unit, this is music live. Dragnet is darker, more angular and perhaps even stranger. Grotesque the following year is their first unarguable masterpiece. Short clever songs, long weirdly structured songs.
EPs: Fascinating, melodic and lyrically strange – fragments and short stories in song form and a we dig Repetition declaration from the start. The Fall had released two EPs by 1981, Bingo-Master’s Break-Out! And the phenomenally great 10” Slates.
Singles: Rowche Rumble (1979) was an anti-Valium classic; the 7” Fiery Jack (1980) sounding like an amphetamine wired Ring of Fire filtered through the Sun Records sensibility and shaken vigorously. Totally Wired (also 1980) was an undisputed classic. A group at the height of their powers sounding at once knowing, immediate and fresh.
Live: like a finely tuned machine, The Fall were the future, live sets almost always included new songs – this was not some greatest hits, audience appealing, crowd pleasing celebration. This was a way of refining the music as art. Live shows were incredible, hypnotic, mesmerising – a spiritual experience with double drummers. They even toured America – import vinyl copies of A Part of America Therein, 1981 could be found in Glasgow second-hand record shops. From the riot torn streets of Manchester, England to the scenic sewers of Chicago… While 1980 saw the live sound documented with Totale’s Turns (It’s Now or Never), part-live part home recording part studio, all amazing. Impossibly exotic locations like Doncaster! Bradford! Preston! Prestwich!
Exclamation marks! Mark E. Smith typed his press releases with a fervour and a sly humour!!! And a nod to BLAST Wyndham Lewis’ Vorticist Manifesto! Although he clearly brought his love of literature (horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and Robert W. Chambers but also Malcolm Lowry, Jim Thompson, William Burroughs and George V. Higgins) to the lyrics, and love of music to the ideas. The magpie approach to writing and composing made for fertile and exciting novelty combining low art and high art without distinction cutting and pasting from comics and song, taking inspiration from films and fashion and dance. Moreover, The Fall were very much a group. Individual artists allowed to flourish and express themselves. In some ways it was like Sun Ra. A band of outsiders making an independent way in the world, creating a path through sheer force of will and hard work. The Fall felt working class, anti-fashion, outside of fashion, and beyond the rules. Beyond convention.
By the time the group set about recording Hex Enduction Hour they had an extraordinary rhythm section. Telepathic links between two brothers Steve (on bass) and Paul Hanley (drums). This connection extended to multi-instrumentalist Karl Burns (drums, vocals, tapes). Craig Scanlon (guitar, backing vocals, piano), Marc Riley (electronic organ, guitar, piano, backing vocals, banjo), Kay Carroll (percussion, backing vocals) and Mark E. Smith (vocals and tape operation).
Hip Priest is one of the centrepieces of the album, there is an element of diary (And drunk from small brown bottles since I was so long) coupled with character sketch, blended with self-mythologising.
The atmosphere of the song is unique and one hopes that when, almost a decade later, it was used to soundtrack a creepy serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, The Fall received some folding money as the cannibal association must have been about as welcome as a damp knob.
So in four years from 1978 to 1982 The Fall released some 18 records. In 40+ years they would go on to make around 32 studio LPs, 52 singles, 42 live LPs and numerous hybrids but really it is all one piece all one vision.