Sunday, June 05, 2005

They couldn't tell Lou Reed from Doug Yule

You couldn't hope to summarise a band that has been producing genre-bending and genre-defining material for 30 years.
Good luck for me, then, that everything I love about The Fall is encapsulated in one song.
"Shoulder Pads #1B" was the second of two B-sides on the "Hey! Luciani" 12-inch single from December 1986. ("Hey! Luciani" itself merits further study: The song details the history of a murdered pope.)
Musically, the song features the repetitive rhythm guitar work of Craig Scanlon and a simplistic synth line that hints that this tune is a conventional pop song.
The Fall could never produce a conventional pop song ("Knew I was right all along," Mark E. Smith sings, "It wasn't then a Beatles song."). Out of nowhere, Stephen Hanley provides a booming, monolithic bass that drives the song along.
The Fall's music has passed from harsh post-punk to refashioned rockabilly to obtuse Krautrock to would-be pop to electronic dance music back to harsh post-punk.
"Shoulder Pads #1B" falls into the would-be pop category.
Then there are the words.
The Fall are all about words. Mark E. Smith has ranted and railed for decades in a voice that drives most people up the wall. I love it, because he sounds like an everyman. This man is no crooner emerging from a chauffeured car. He could be Erik Hogstrom complaining about the poseur music fans "cursing black singers 10 years dead," as Smith sings.
You have to work to enjoy the Fall.
You have to read the lyrics to fully enjoy "Shoulder Pads #1B." Smith sings that "the Macca lads stayed at home" picking antiques in a world in which passing fads among the lads equate to shoulder pads.
All the people around him have succumbed to these dim-witted fads ("it was like being back at school," he sings), so Smith wraps himself in the fad to subvert it. He turns the fad on its head, showing its stupidity by becoming the thing he despises.
"Hop on, lovers of fads/It's shoulder pads."
More than that: "Look out, lovers of fads?It's M.E.S. in shoulder pads!"
Then the music -- with its seemingly simplistic stab at the pop mainstream -- makes perfect sense.
Mark E. Smith in breezy lightweight pop shocker? As if!
That is what I love about The Fall. Like the best jazz or the best films or the best books I have ever read, The Fall have layers. You can only hear repetitive post-punk riffs and off-key rants-uh if you like. Or, you can dig a little and learn about society and yourself, perhaps. "Then my powers did return," Smith sings.
All this in one song!
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