- The Joke
- Hot Aftershave Bop
- Cab Driver
- In These Times
I mentioned in #097 that I was surprised that the fast-paced garage-rocker DIY Meat didn’t get more live outings. The Joke is a similar kind of song, but it certainly seems to have been one that MES did enjoy performing, as it made it onto the setlist well over 100 times, and features on eleven (according to the A-Z) of the live albums.
It’s not amongst the group’s most innovative offerings, it’s true, but sometimes a belting riff and an acerbic MES vocal is all you need. There are two guitar parts throughout (presumably one is Brix and the other Scanlon), one in either channel. (To digress slightly: I’ve never been a particularly avid headphones user in the past, but to spare my long-suffering wife from over-exposure to ‘the worst band ever’ I’ve written a lot of these with the headphones on, and on many occasions it really pays dividends in terms of the ‘extras’ that you pick up – this was one of those occasions). What I really love about this track is the interplay between the two guitars. They’re not playing anything radically different – both pretty much follow a pretty common chord progression – but it’s the subtle differences between the two that make this an excellent headphones experience.
For example, if you listen from where the group kick in at 0:15, over the next few seconds, you get a choppy thrash on the right but a more sustained lead guitar on the left. At 0:51-0:54, you get a similar lead/rhythm effect, where the left pulls a bluesy string-bend while the right hammers away on one chord. 1:52-2:01 is another particularly fine example. They work like this all the way through, circling around and colliding with each other, producing a gloriously ragged and textured fuzzed-up thrash. Stick the headphones on and turn it up.
One of the criticisms often levelled at Cerebral Caustic is that MES frequently sounds uninterested (I’m afraid I’m one of those pedants who’s hanging on to the ‘proper’ use of ‘disinterested’), off-hand and a bit bored with the whole thing. Not the case here: his vocals are biting, aggressive and perfectly timed. Some great, if obscure lines too: ‘Multicoloured sweets in bottom of white sweet pack’; ‘go back to your diseased-hut-control room’. The Wikipedia entry for Milan Kundera’s novel, The Joke, claims that: The novel was referenced in The Fall’s song “The Joke” on the album Cerebral Caustic. The song’s refrain is, “The Joke! Five years in a PC camp – The Joke!”, linking humourless Eastern Bloc authoritarianism to political correctness. The A-Z comments, in a commendably deadpan fashion, that ‘this may or may not be accurate’.
As I mentioned above, there are plenty of live versions to listen to: I have a couple on my hard drive, and there are six on Spotify. The 27 Points version is quite interesting, as it both mixes a lo-fi introduction into a ‘cleaner’ version (a la Bury) and seems to feature a guest appearance from Jerry Lee Lewis on piano. They’re all generally okay, but feel a bit one-dimensional in comparison to the studio version. 9/10
A dark slab of ominous electronica that you could easily imagine sitting alongside Oxymoron and Hostile on LUS. I love the ‘treated’ drums on this (similar to Dr Buck): it’s an avenue that, despite my appreciation of Kieron’s excellent drumming on most of the group’s 21st century output, I wish they’d explored more often. Here, the combination of the deep, distorted toms, the dark and disturbing synth/sequencer effects and Greenway’s floating, spooky Twilight Zone-style guitar lines is sublime. It creates a richly oppressive and foreboding atmosphere.
MES’s vocals – a deceptively casual drawl that draws you in with gentle menace – are in perfect harmony with the dark, barely-restrained chaos that lurks beneath. I’ve no idea, as ever, what ‘101.1’ (not his first use of seemingly random numbers, of course) might pertain to – as usual, there are some interesting suggestions on The Annotated Fall) – or why he might be ‘excluded’ from ‘pleasures in curvaceous women’, but his performance is captivating here. 9/10
Hot Aftershave Bop
As I’ve mentioned previously, I used to own the 12″ of Living Too Late, of which this was the b-side. Perhaps because I loved the lead track(s) so much, I’ve always considered this a bit of a minor footnote in the group’s history. But even though I found it a little lacking in comparison to the two songs that preceded it on this playlist, it’s definitely not without its merits.
Steve Hanley’s bass is a highlight: not the most complex of bass lines, but it forms a prominent, driving foundation, and there are several flamboyant slides up the neck (e.g. at 2:00 and 2:06) that add a bit of colour. There’s some nice guitar work too: like The Joke (although not in quite so striking a fashion) there’s a guitar in either channel; the left (Brix?) focusing on relatively straightforward chords/arpeggios, whilst the right (Scanlon, presumably) lets loose with some frenetic, blues-rock string-bending. The drums are the song’s Achilles heel for me: whilst they gain a bit more body from around the two minute mark, the fragile, tinny snare in the first half makes the song feel a little thin. That said, the fuller ‘that-80s-drum-sound’ percussion on the Peel version doesn’t really improve things, even if both the bass and guitar are equally as effective here as on the single version.
MES’s dislike of facial hair is well-documented (in the early 80s, the group at one point expressed their rebellion against Smith’s dictatorial nature by growing beards); whether this has any link to a song with ‘aftershave’ in the title is hard to tell, but there’s not a lot else to go on – ‘courtesy orange box’?? Still, he’s pretty on-form, and provides some entertaining squeals as the song progresses. Apparently, promo copies of the 7″ came with a miniature bottle of ‘Hot Aftershave Bop aftershave’. God knows what it smelled like: peculiar and goatish, perhaps? 7.5/10
An early version of City Dweller, and I have to say that I preferred it (slightly) to its successor. Like its later incarnation, it’s very trance/dance oriented, and has a chord progression that’s not a million miles away from Lost In Music. Compared to Dweller, though, it’s very spacey and woozy and altogether looser in structure. The vocals, such as they are, mainly consist of multi-tracked samples of MES (and others) chattering away aimlessly and unintelligibly a fair way back in the mix. The only distinguishable bit is the frankly disturbing growling whisper at the beginning: ‘He’s in there now, man: he’s listening right to us, I know he is.’
I enjoyed the way it floated along enigmatically; but it possibly does so for a minute or so too long. 6.5/10
In These Times
As regular readers will know, Frenz is not an album that I have returned as often as most over the years, so this was another one of those pleasant surprises. Lots to like about it: SH’s deep, heavily-flanged bass intro; the moody floor-tom-led interludes (e.g. at 0:44); the fuzzy guitar solo lurking in the background around the two minute mark. Plus a selection of prime MES lyrical obscurities: ‘Diluted Jesuits pour out of mutual walkmans from Elland Road to Venice Pensions and down the Autobahns’; ‘My gossamer-thin gate will keep out the trash in which my psychic streets emerge’. And we haven’t had a shout-out for bzfgt over at The Annotated Fall for a while, but he undoubtedly deserves one for his understated and deadpan annotation for the ‘my Aqua-cat is where it’s at’ line: ‘Maybe the cat just thinks it’s aquatic. I don’t think these lyrics are necessarily striving for coherence, though.’
On the negative side, there are some rather cheesy 80s-style keyboard stabs towards the end (which dominate, horribly, several parts of the Seminal Live version) and the chorus does teeter slightly towards the monotonous end of things; although it’s rescued by the random nature of Brix’s contributions. She claims at 2:25 that ‘this song’s a belter’, which is possibly overstating the case a little, but it can certainly go in the same ‘better than I remembered’ file as Aftershave. 7.5/10