It’s been over a year since we lost Mark E Smith. Expanded reissues following the demise of any other artist would feel like callous cashing-in, but The Fall’s staggeringly vast back-catalogue has been subject to ongoing review for the best part of 20 years already, making the revisiting of the band’s first two albums pretty much business as usual – which seems appropriate. Moreover, 2019 marks the 40-year anniversary of both albums, so….
For many, The Fall were at their best in the early years, and while ‘Hex Enduction Hour,’ ‘Slates,’ and ‘Perverted by Language’ perhaps represent peaks of art and innovation, their debut, ‘Live at the Witch Trials’ – recorded in its entirety on 15th December 1978 and mixed the following day before being released in March ‘79 – clearly set the template for the Fall Sound and the band’s career. The arrival of ‘Dragnet’ on October ’79, and, recorded over just 3 days y an almost completely different lineup very much cemented The Fall’s characteristics – an album that was simultaneously very different from its predecessor, but unmistakeably The Fall.
Reviewing the albums themselves in detail is pretty much redundant: no-one who isn’t already a fan is going to be converted by a massive triple-disc CD or limited-edition heavyweight vinyl pressing of either album. Similarly, there won’t be many fans who have gone decades without hearing them.
Then again, even now, from that first off-key guitar break that jolts against Smith’s ugly, atonal drone on ‘Frightened’, ‘LATWT’ sounds like nothing any other band could have made. It’s just about in time, it’s not in tune, it’s spiky, edgy, amateurish, and it simply wouldn’t work if done differently.
There’s a real sense of urgency to the album (that’s not just about being recorded in a day), and it’s brimming with songs that stand as enduring classics: ‘No Xmas for John Quays’, ‘Rebellious Jukebox’, ‘Industrial Estate’, ‘Mother-Sister’ are all instant earworms, the repetition of both musical and lyrical phrases proving simple but highly effective.
‘Dragnet’ marks something of a shift: it is poppier, more sophisticated, less abrasive, and even a shade patchy. The playing is loose and the production is murky and dampens things a shade in places. But then again, the primitivism is again an integral part of its charm, and it contains belters like ‘Muzorewi’s Daughter’, ‘Before the Moon Falls’ and ‘Spectre vs Rector’.
So let’s look at what’s on offer for the fans, who’ve probably got both albums more than once already. So, for starters, these three-disc editions are a lot neater than previous efforts in the presentation – and specifically the organisation and sequencing – of the material.
‘Witch Trials’ again includes the ‘Liverpool 78’ set which was originally released in 2001 before being incorporated in the 2004 expanded edition. But whereas the previous effort bunged the debut EP, ‘Bingo Masters Breakout’ at the end of the album, here, the album itself sensitively stands as originally released, with the EP and other contemporaneous cuts separated out onto disc 2.
While the tracks which occupy this second disc have been featured elsewhere – the Peel Session tracks being a particularly notable duplication – the inclusion of ‘Stepping Out’ and ‘Last Orders’ from the ‘Short Circuit: Live At The Electric Circus’ compilation 10” are particularly welcome, and wrap up a comprehensive summary of the period without myriad shit alternative versions – a frustration I felt deeply with the previous reissue of ‘Dragnet’. The Castle reissue felt like a bit of a swizz, with disc 2 containing the A and B sides to ‘Rowche Rumble’ and ‘Fiery Jack’, accompanied by four further takes of ‘Rowche Rumble; back-to-back, followed by two takes of ‘In My Area’.
Those tracks are all presented again here, and in the same order: in fact, the entirety of the second Castle disc appears as bonus material after the album, an if I had one minor gripe it’s that this is inconsistent with ‘Live at the Witch Trials’ which leaves the album to stand alone and separates the additional material. Maybe I’m picky, and the flipside of this is that this edition makes optimal use of disc space, with a full set from a contemporary show on each of the other two discs.
Both ‘Retford 1979’ and ‘Los Angeles 1979’ (November and December respectively) have been previously released, in limited runs of 2,000 back in 2005. Culled from Smith’s own tape collection, they’re every bit as rough and ready and you’d expect, but do capture The Fall at their rawest, most visceral. What’s also telling are the track-listings, with ‘Witch Trials’ material having already been almost completely ditched in favour of the new stuff. Again, in hindsight and context, it’s easy to spot the emergence of career-long habits from the offing.
So, in the analysis, what do we make or take from this? Nothing new, but then who expected different?
More Fall: reissued, repackaged, yes, but at least nicely and considerately this time at least. And whatever the shortcoming of the production, they’re as essential to the experience as the songs themselves, these first two albums more or less define The Fall, a band who would influence countess bands in their own lifetime, who would come to define a style in themselves, and a band who would ultimately, some 40 years later, still be The Fall. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, these albums are essential and definitive.