Naively, I thought that the previous post (the statistics one) would only be of interest to hardcore graph & spreadsheet geeks like myself. But then it got over 600 views in two days…
Of course I’d forgotten that many – even those who are not OCD/data-inclined – love a list, especially when it comes to ranking an artist’s albums. I did say that the graphs/lists I posted weren’t a proper ‘ranking’ of the albums: there’s more to evaluating an album than rating the individual songs. What I’ve done over the last ten months is to consider each individual song in isolation (or in the context of a random five-song playlist); the lists and graphs simply represented a crude average of each album’s songs.
Understandably, however, many people did see it as the albums being ranked (even if it wasn’t entirely that), and of course this encouraged a veritable barrage of comments on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. I was told, for example, by two posts no more than five minutes apart that I’d rated AYAMW both far too high and for too low. In particular, the lower ratings for the early 90s albums caused a bit of angst amongst some. I should point out that I’m not complaining about any of this at all. It’s very flattering that so many people have taken the time to read and comment. Also, the comments were, without fail, humorous and good-natured and recognised the impossible ‘can’t please all of the people’ nature of evaluating any artist, let alone one with as large and diverse a back catalogue as The Fall.
I’m not going to go into any great detail about the relative merits of each album: that sort of thing’s for the next blog, ‘You Must Get Them All’. What I am going to do is reflect a little about what I’ve learned and experienced over the last ten months.
But before I do that, here’s a video that I kept meaning to post but never found an excuse:
At the start of this enterprise, I did wonder whether I’d just get sick of doing it. I gave myself a target of covering all 105 batches by the end of the year; as I started on January 8, this meant I needed to do two of them a week. If I’d started to find either the listening or the writing a chore, then that would probably have been too big a challenge. However, after feeling a little daunted to begin with (525 songs! And many of them with multiple versions – sessions, live takes, alternate versions, etc.) I found that my enthusiasm for the task grew continually, and where it was practical, I sometimes actually wrote four or five in a week.
This enthusiasm was largely because of the inspiring and rich diversity of the group’s music, but also due to the response I got from readers. A key turning point was in early March when someone (I’m still not sure who, but thank you) posted a link to the blog on one of The Fall Facebook group pages, which suddenly expanded the readership dramatically. The wealth of encouragement, support and good-natured debate and argument I got from several different online avenues made it an increasing pleasure to write the blog.
Of course, another risk (hence the title of this section) was that I’d just get tired of listening to The Fall. My ‘All Fall’ playlist is, according to Foobar 2000 (an excellent music player which I’d recommend unreservedly) 2 days, 15 hours, 25 minutes and 45 seconds long – and this of course doesn’t take into account the various live versions that I listened to via YouTube or Spotify. I listened to each song at least six times before sitting down at the laptop, and had each one on repeat whilst writing about it, so with a bit of rough arithmetic, I reckon that’s at least 700 hours of Fall listening since January. But this ‘Fall fatigue’ never happened. In fact, when a couple of people suggested (semi-seriously, I think) that I should re-randomise the list and do them all again, I did actually – briefly – consider it. That I decided that this was a crazy idea was not to do with being tired of listening to the group; it was because I wanted to continue writing about them, just in a different (album-related) format. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt tired of listening to them. My wife, on the other hand…
A good proportion of my work involves writing, but it has to be in a very particular ‘house style’. I tried to avoid being formulaic: I wanted to provide a genuine (and hopefully thoughtful) reaction to each of the songs; I resisted the temptation to go back and edit retrospectively any of the posts (other than for glaring typos and factual errors), as I wanted it to be a true reflection of my feelings at the time.
Looking back over the blog, I think I got more and more into the ‘groove’ with it and got better as time went on. I certainly wrote more as it proceeded – although that in itself is not necessarily a good thing, of course. I tried to strike a balance between just saying ‘I like the guitars on this one’ and being overly florid or pretentious. Whether I succeeded or not is not for me to say, but it was certainly always fun to do.
Before I move on, here’s on of those ‘word cloud’ things of the blog; not especially enlightening, I don’t think, but it looks nice:
I kept coming back to this word throughout the blog…
There were two ways in which I approached each batch of five, depending on my work programme. My job involves both a lot of travel and long periods working at home. As a result, I either did my listening in the car or at home during the day. It’s hard to quantify (without going over the whole lot again as outlined above), but I strongly suspect that which method was deployed had at least some influence on the final result. I’m not talking about songs that were already firm favourites (e.g. Dr B), but those that were previously ‘hit and miss’ for me may have lost or gained (a little at least) through how I listened to them.
Listening in the car – especially as there are often large parts of my lengthy journeys that I’ve done many many times and don’t require particular concentration – tends to encourage more focused listening, whereas ‘home listening’ often involved the playlist being on in the background for a few hours. As a result, I think that songs that I’ve never been keen on probably suffered from extended car journey exposure, as they tended to irritate more rather than (as might have been the case at home) wheedling their way into my consciousness a little. Here’s one that certainly was painful to listen to half a dozen times in the car:
And This Day (in the last batch) was a particularly good example of the ‘context effect’. The fact that I was driving through excessively (even for Wales) torrential rain and ominous skies really brought out the oppressive, apocalyptic nature of the song. Similarly, the effect of Deer Park was doubtless enhanced by the fact that I was listening just after MES’s death, accompanied by a large glass of red or three.
I mentioned several times during the blog that my introduction to the group came via W&F and TNSG in the mid-80s. It seems to be well-recognised that Fall fans’ favourite albums tend to be closely linked to those that introduced them to the group, and I’m no exception.
When I did get into the group in my late teens/early 20s, my starting point was the early part of the Brix era. Of course I investigated the group’s earlier stuff, and found many songs that I loved: Container Drivers, Expanded, Hip Priest, Smile and so on. However, I never quite developed a completely consistent love of the albums from the pre-Brix era. After losing touch with the group for a while in the mid-90s/early 00s (and I know I’m not alone in that) I embraced the 21st century stuff with a real passion – and still do.
As a result, I had sort of settled into a rough view that: 70s – a few good songs but generally not that great overall; early 80s – full of fine songs but a bit uneven in places; mid/late 80s – generally superb (although not without its duffers – Vixen, C.R.E.E.P.); early 90s – the odd great song but not my cup of tea overall; late 90s – picks up the pace majestically, albeit irregularly sometimes; 00s onwards – fabulous noisy invention with just the odd dip (e.g. EGB).
Did this project change my view? Yes and no. I still don’t get 100% on with a lot of the first two albums (but I’ll get back to that in the new blog). I still adore W&F and TNSG. I continue to be a bit ambivalent about some of the early 90s material. I still find most 21st century Fall to be a treasure trove of unearthly delights. But what really grabbed me was the era that many would call the ‘classic’ one – 1980-83. Not that I ever thought that the early 80s weren’t full of excellent Fall songs, far from it; but there were many songs from Grotesque, Hex, Slates and – especially – Room To Live that, under the conditions I set myself, just blew me away in a way that I didn’t entirely expect.
Here are some of the most notable examples:
Another positive feature of the blog was that it led me to some of the b-sides, obscurities that I felt I really should have listened to more often in the past:
I think I’ve been rather a lazy listener in the past (in general, not just with The Fall). I’ve always obsessively listened to music, but I’ve nearly always done something else whilst it’s on: reading, cooking, etc. I’ve always found it a bit tricky (nigh on impossible, in fact) to just sit and listen. I can’t say that that’s changed entirely – I’ve listened to all these songs whilst driving, working or writing about them – but the process has made me pay rather more attention to the finer detail. Especially the writing about them with the song on loop in the headphones. The (new pair of) headphones were introduced to protect my long-suffering wife’s sanity, but they also helped me pick out lots of things that I might otherwise have missed.
My ‘lazy’ listening has always been in part characterised by rarely listening properly to the words. A sizeable proportion of my music collection is comprised of wholly or mostly instrumental artists, and there a only a very few (Billy Bragg, The Smiths, Springsteen) where the lyrics are an important part of what I enjoy about them. I’ve had many ‘so that’s what he says’ moments over the years (often followed by others asking what I thought he said – a question to which I generally don’t have an answer).
Now, you can’t enjoy The Fall without enjoying MES’s unique style of lyrical construction, and for many people Smith’s words are the aspect they love most about the group. And over the last thirty-odd years some of his most choice phrases have played a key role in my love of particular tracks. But, for me, the sound of Smith’s voice is just as important as – sometimes more important than – the words. It’s like another instrument. This probably explains my love of the later albums to some extent. Somewhere in the 90s, MES started to move inexorably away from the athletically articulate lyricism of the groups ‘classic’ period to the garbled and incoherent (if nearly always highly entertaining) snarling and growling that characterised the last few albums.
Take this pair as a prime example of the contrast:
I am greatly indebted to bzfgt and Dan and all the other contributors to The Annotated Fall, which I used as a constant reference tool throughout the blog. Their tenacity in establishing exactly what MES might have actually said is admirable and above and beyond the call of duty. Personally, I don’t lose any sleep over, for example, whether Smith says ‘vivant’ or ‘live on’ at the beginning of Spectre vs. Rector, But I’m kind of glad to know that there’s someone who does. They undoubtedly enhanced greatly my appreciation of the group’s work.
On an (almost) final note… @SkippyVinyls – curse him – has pointed out today that I didn’t cover M.H.’s Jokes (from The Twenty Seven Points). I could argue that it’s not really a proper song as such (which it isn’t), but having written about, for example, Glasgow Advice and Where’s The Taxi?, I’m not sure that that argument really holds water. So I’m just going to pretend that I haven’t seen his tweet. What tweet?
And that really is that for this blog. Thanks again to everyone who read, commented, re-tweeted, etc. It was all very much appreciated. And look out for ‘You Must Get Them All’, plus the (as yet nameless) side project that I have up my sleeve. I’ll finish – I think appropriately – with my favourite ever video: of the best group in the world doing the best version of their best song. Turn it up. And a bit more, go on…