I suppose I must have had some consciousness of The Fall as far back as 1985 from mentions in the Record Mirror. ‘L.A.’ might have been the first Fall song I heard but the memory didn’t take hold as much as a later encounter. An early summer holiday in Devon in 1986 led to me having just an AM radio for company at the point where I desperately wanted to hear and absorb more new music. I can recall a Thursday night – possibly the night we arrived at the seafront house in Torcross – and a radio reception that made lots of interesting high-pitched sounds due to the proximity of the sea. At least, that was always how I understood it. I’ve been looking around for an appropriate word or phrase for these ghostly sounds but have failed to find one. Googling ‘ghostly AM radio howling’ just leads to lots of hackneyed lyrics related to memories which are of course vastly inferior to a piece of writing like this. I always hoped ‘wow and flutter’ might apply, but it doesn’t. This was always worse when there was no music and so John Peel’s usual seemingly random mutterings seemed to almost encourage single syllable words for clarity. That may be why I made out the name ‘The Fall’ amidst a description of the next song and some half-remembered reference made me stay listening.

The song was ‘Living Too Late’ and when I finally got it on the cassette of ‘Bend Sinister’ a few months later, it was obvious to me that I had liked something which had a tune I couldn’t remember. I may have just liked the line ‘crow’s feet are engraved on my face’ which might have been mentioned in a review I had seen. It’s hard to tell as I clearly just got a feeling from this listening experience and that would be a familiar feeling over the next 26 years. That summer seemed to allow the idea of a tune or a style to grow. The trip to Devon would not see any further development of Fall-love but did also see me by the double 7” of ‘Some Candy Talking’ by the Jesus and Mary Chain in the Dartmouth Woolworths. Why, when we went on holiday, did we always have to visit towns where I spent hours wandering backwards and forwards around John Menzies, Woolworths and the inevitable Our Price? – and they didn’t even seem to have them in Devon . I think a review also prompted the JAMC purchase though the novelty attraction of a double 7” certainly did no harm.

Come September, I wanted more obscure records than Oswestry would ever provide – well, at that time certainly. During the previous school year I had ordered a 7” single through a friend at school: Wait for the Blackout by The Damned. Now I decided to take this further and ordered a further couple of 7” singles: ‘Almost Prayed’ by The Weather Prophets (a classic possibly also first heard in Devon with added AM effects possibly provided by the sea, the atmosphere or even the ground according to my brief bit of radio wave research) and ‘Mr. Pharmacist’ by The Fall.

‘Mr Pharmacist’ excited me. It came in a really interesting sleeve with little bits of information and obscure references all over the back, as did all Fall releases in those days. It was certainly a beguiling way for me to be enlisted into this cult of fans – look, James!…lists of things and stuff! Yep, that hooked me. I can recall looking at it while awaiting a check up at the dentists on Salop Road. That set out like it was going to be a profound memory and yet it really isn’t, just a small moment stored away ever since.

The actual song itself (finally!) also excited. It felt like slow punk rock or like slow punk rock was supposed to feel as I understood it then: less frantic than a shouted manifesto lasting three minutes and yet more sure of itself and defiantly militant – yet decidedly apolitical. It felt ominous as well as fun to be involved in, though that may just be my idea of fun. It was drugged but not druggy despite seeming to be about a dealer or just a pharmacist selling over-the-counter ‘legal’ highs. The production sounds like it was an afterthought, but any Fall fan soon gets used to that. After all, this song was from an album that was mastered from a C90 cassette and probably an extra-brown ferric Memorex cassette at that. What impresses me most about ‘Mr. Pharmacist’ is that it manages to sound exactly like the original by 60s garage band The Other Half and exactly like a Fall song at the same time. It brings to mind the classic John Peel quote about the group:  “The Fall: always the same; always different.” This also points to the fact that the song sounds like it belongs in 1986, a garage band from the mid to late 60s and yet its punk spirit oozes the late 70s. Of course it would also sound at home in the future within the later sounds of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the inevitable White Stripes. Now, it could be the sound of yet another Ty Segall single, if he could summon up the undercurrent of malice suggested by Mark E. Smith’s vocals. In The Fall’s version of this song, you suspect the pharmacist might get done over for his product if he doesn’t comply with the singer’s wishes whereas the original suggests the group might be chased off by an ageing pharmacist wielding a broom or shaking a fist at those cheeky monkeys. The Fall’s pharmacist would of course be a chemist and therefore probably wondering why this sarcastic-sounding Salfordian fiend is addressing him as ‘Mr.Pharmacist’ while his band members are in the background throwing items from the shelves at each other. It’s the scene in the shop from ‘This is England’ without any racist overtones – you can’t technically be racist if you feel contempt for everyone as it sounds like MES does, it’s a more universal version of unpleasantness.

The opening syllable is uttered without the band, they come in on the second. This is the same on the original yet here it sounds deliberate rather than ramshackle, or possibly deliberately ramshackle? That seems almost a neat summary of The Fall’s entire recorded history. As a result of the band’s late entry, they seem to spend the rest of the first half of the song trying to catch up with the vocals. They almost seem to achieve this with a slight reggae lilt to their developing competence. Of course, in reality, being in The Fall generally meant trying to keep up with Mark E. Smith and his whims and sometimes having to do so while he tried to unplug the bass guitar…live…mid-song.  Maybe the reggae lilt is false confidence or an attempt to skip a note of two as the band only truly sound comfortable during the sped up break in the middle – as perfect for an indie disco wigout as it would have been for the 60s version possibly first experienced via The Count Five’s ‘Psychotic Reaction’. The Other Half’s original borrows the wigout and adds the customary garage band harmonica (something for the singer to do while the real musicians are playing?). The Fall have no harmonica, punk rock generally shuns them. Once we get back to normal speed, it seems like the band have caught up with the vocals and the song really does seem to have developed its swagger now and so it ends. I can’t imagine MES tolerating a band swaggering behind him for long without a good kicking being administered. The song ends as it began – this seems to be dictated by Mark E.Smith and the sudden, shuddering stop suggests his absolute control.

The original song sounds like some guys hanging out and having a joke and some fun, The Fall’s version doesn’t. The original song sounds like it was recorded for a keg party. The Fall sound more like they have been taught to follow using this track and maybe it was a way of introducing new drummer Simon Wolstencroft to the methods of his new band or, more pointedly, his new band leader.

I could go on to discuss the b-side, but that’s never a sentence opening designed to encourage readers or audiences to declare “Oh please do!” unless sarcastically. Also, said b-side appears to be one of the few Fall songs I don’t own digitally but the title alone backs up my points about malice or the threatening tone of The Fall: ‘Lucifer Over Lancashire’.

Liking The Fall became a badge of mine very soon after this point. Liking The Smiths seemed easy, but this lot of Mancs were a different kettle of fish and suggested a private club rather than the Salford Lads Club. There was definitely an element of pretension there but a worthy one. Better to be pretentious about music like this than many of the other 80s options. I shudder involuntarily at the hint of a memory of once considering Lloyd Cole ‘deep’. Of course, Lloyd Cole’s brain and face are actually made out of cowpat, everyone knows that – according to Mark E. Smith in one of his more famous putdowns.

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