Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ultimate Playlists 9: The Fall

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Have you ever been to a concert and wished the band had played certain songs? I know I have. The reality is, you'll never get exactly what you want. However, you are free to build any playlist you like. I have decided to write a series showcasing the Top 20 songs from some of my favorite bands.

For those of you who are old enough to remember cassette tapes, you'll know the terrible anguish of trying to fit the songs together. How annoying when the last song you picked was still playing as the tape ran out! Those days are over and it's now a simple task to throw together a playlist using your computer, iPod or a USB. I know that having USB capability has enhanced my driving pleasure because it's so easy to update a list of songs.

But there's also more to creating a playlist than simply deciding which songs to include. Like an actual concert, or even a single song, a good playlist features changes in mood and tempo. If a band opens with the three songs that the audience most wants to hear, the rest of the performance might fall flat. My own particular method of creating a playlist has a number of considerations:

  • Mix up the duration of the songs
  • Put space between songs from the same album, unless the two are better when played in sequence
  • Build to a natural high, slow it down again, and finish with a real flourish
  • Put in some newer songs close to the start, assuming there are newer songs worthy of inclusion
  • For bands with more than one vocalist, mix up the sequence depending on who is singing
  • Speed and style matters, so mix it up unless there is a good reason not to
  • Albums often have a great choice of opening and closing song that work best in that particular spot 
  • The final three or four songs might resemble an encore if it was a real concert
  • Leave the listener satisfied and wanting more 

Being obsessed with your favorite band is a little bit like being in love; you can see most of the flaws, but you start to see those idiosyncracies as reasons why you love that particular person. You might find yourself smiling when you notice them. I'm not saying that I was ever in love with Mark E. Smith, but The Fall hold a special place in my heart.

For one thing, the first concert I ever attended featured The Fall. The difference between hearing recorded music and feeling it vibrate through you at a live show is huge, so I'll never forget that musical awakening. I've been to hundreds of concerts over the years, but I've seen The Fall around 30 times; more than any other band. Between 1980 and 1992, I would have argued that they were the most important band on the planet. No band has ever been my absolute favorite for a longer period of time. The friends I saw most of those shows with were, and still are, very important to me. And, of course, The Fall were John Peel's favorite band and Peel was someone that I cared deeply about.

According to Wikipedia, The Fall have released 30 studio albums, 32 live albums, 5 albums that are a mix of live and studio songs, 40 compilations, 13 EPs and 46 singles. I'm not going to count, but that sounds close. The introduction of the CD format dramatically increased the running time of albums I had previously owned on vinyl. Some of the songs from this playlist were not available on the original albums.

My introduction to the band came courtesy of the John Peel show. The love affair began slowly and it took me a while to fully absorb Smith's shouts, shrieks and pterodactyl cackles as something I wanted to listen to. There's no question that Smith's unique vocals are what define the band's sound even now, but the songs that I care about the most only reached those heights because of the incredible rhythm section. 

Smith changes musicians like women change shoes, but for the duration of my obsession, a core group was present, like a favorite pair of sneakers that are too comfortable to part with. Stephen Hanley's bass was a huge part of the sound; Marc Riley, Craig Scanlon and Martin Bramah also helped define that classic guitar sound, while Karl Burns, Paul Hanley and (later) Simon Wolstencroft often provided the band with two drummers during concerts. The combination of those band members gave Smith an incredible platform from which to bellow or mumble his drunken vocals.

I consider Cerebral Caustic (1995) the last great Fall album. After Levitate (1997), Smith eventually fired the band and rebuilt it with new personnel, except for Julia Nagle (keyboards). My love affair was over. Many will argue that The Fall are still producing great music, but something died for me when that incredible engine room was removed from the equation. That will help explain my upcoming choices.

Before I reveal my final 20 songs for the playlist, I want to emphasize how difficult it was to cut so many great songs. For almost 20 years, The Fall produced important music filled with energy and venom. The ever-changing lineup always managed to sound tight. The only real wildcard was Smith's vocals. If you think his lyrics are hard to make out, try listening to him speak!

My favorite Fall album is definitely Grotesque. Almost every song from it just missed my final list, but I think of it as the best example of The Fall's definitive sound. It includes short rants, meandering rants, great riffs, a couple of compelling stories and a lot of humor. Smith's dark sense of humor is present in the lyrics on every album. If you have never heard the band before, you might wonder why Smith ends every line with -ah. I don't have a clue, but you have to admit that his vocals are distinctive. This is a band that probably won't appeal to new listeners on just one playing. The songs are often repetitive and gradually burrow their way into your brain. If you give the music a chance, you might start to go through some of the things I first felt more than 30 years ago.

So here it is. The result of the almost impossible task to reduce The Fall's output to their 20 best songs. As usual, my YouTube playlist is available:

Lay of the Land
The Man Whose Head Expanded
Kicker Conspiracy
Eat Y'Self Fitter
Lie Dream of a Casino Soul
Guest Informant
I'm Into C.B.
Prole Art Threat
Totally Wired
Athlete Cured
How I Wrote Elastic Man
No Xmas for John Quays
The Classical
Dead Beat Descendant
Hey Student
Cruiser's Creek
New Face in Hell
Paranoid Man in Cheap Shit Room
Free Range
Bremen Nacht (Alternative)


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