Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Fall - Masquerade (Single) (Discs 1 & 2)



Most of the stuff on these discs was recorded during the tension-fraught Levitate sessions in mid-1997, studio time filled with financial pressures, band member walkouts (Simon Wolstoncroft) and reentries (Karl Burns), unpaid producers quitting in disgust, and creation of semi-coherent, structureless songs, most of which for some reason vocalist and group leader Mark E. Smith refused to sing (Smith later admitted that, at the time, he was "drinking heavily", "paranoid" and "losing it"). Somehow out of all of this confusion and turmoil (a portion of which I alluded to here), an album was produced, but neither the methods to create it nor the final product were particularly inspiring or pretty.

Levitate was the last in a series of weak and generally unmemorable 1990s Fall albums issued in the wake of 1993's The Infotainment Scan, considered at the time of its release the band's most accessible and commercially successful album (debuting at #9 on the British album charts). As I wrote in an earlier piece I did regarding The Fall during this era:
The 1990s were an iffy period for The Fall, in my opinion. Brix had left Mark E. Smith and the band, and her presence and ear for pop-friendly hooks was sorely missed. Her absence did serve as the inspiration for one of the best Fall albums of that era, 1990's Extricate . . . From there, the albums began a gradual decade-long slide into mediocrity. There were some high spots here and there: Code: Selfish and The Infotainment Scan had many high moments. But other releases like Middle Class Revolt and Cerebral Caustic seemed to lack the imagination and fire of some of the band's best material from the 1980s. And, of course, the infamous onstage punchup in New York in 1998 that led to the departure of longstanding Fall stalwarts like Steve Hanley didn't help either. The Fall really didn't start to get its shit back together until 1999's The Marshall Suite.
At the time of its release in September 1997, Levitate was The Fall's worst performing album since 1979's Dragnet (which did not chart), only making it as high as #117 on the British charts. The tragedy of all this is that even with all of the craziness going on during the recording sessions, there were some great songs produced during that period, that for some ungodly, unknown reason were not included on the album itself.   Instead, these songs were bundled with various versions of album cuts onto a couple of CD singles released in early 1998, shortly after Levitate dropped.

Masquerade (Disc 1) contains the following track listing:
1. Masquerade (Single Mix)
2. Ivanhoes Two Pence
3. Spencer Must Die (Live)
4. Ten Houses Of Eve (Remix)
Songs 1, 3 and 4 are versions of songs included on the album. The only "new" song here is "Ivanhoe's Two Pence", a shambling, chugging workout of a song set on a strong rhythmic foundation - no wonder, since longtime Fall bassist Steve Hanley co-wrote it (his 100th (and as it turned out, last) songwriting credit with the band). Despite the rudimentary, almost slapdash nature of the song, it's still better than much of what ended up on Levitate.

Disc 1 is OK, but for my money, the real gold of the Levitate sessions is contained in Masquerade (Disc 2). Here's the track listing:
1. Masquerade (Single Mix)
2. Calendar
3. Scareball
4. Ol' Gang (Live)
The first and last tunes here are album track versions. But the second and third songs, "Calendar" and "Scareball", are some of the great "lost" Fall tracks, and probably my favorite Fall songs of the past twenty years.

The circumstances behind the recording of "Calendar" are weird and interesting, as all good Fall stories are: In the early winter of 1997, shortly after Levitate was released, Mark E. Smith went out on the town in Manchester and tied one on. Stumbling out of the Night & Day pub late that evening, Smith jumped into what he assumed was a cab and ordered the driver to take him home. However, it was no cab; it was the private car of a local musician named Damon Gough — aka Badly Drawn Boy — who just happened to be idling outside the pub at the time. Gough was still relatively unknown at the time; his first EP had been released only three months earlier, and he was still two years removed from worldwide acclaim with his album The Hour Of Bewilderbeast. Gough agreed to drive Smith home, but only after getting Smith to commit that the Fall record one of Gough's songs, the instrumental "Tumbleweed", which was reworked by the two in the studio later that month into "Calendar". Badly Drawn Boy even guests on guitar, resulting in an interesting collaboration between two of Britain's leading independent musicians. Just a great song:


As for "Scareball", this song was written by keyboardist (and Smith's then-girlfriend) Julia Nagle; it was based on a demo that Nagle recorded with her previous group, the Manchester-based What? Noise the year before. The tune is essentially a point-counterpoint duet between Smith and Nagle, with some excellent guitar work and a catchy little keyboard riff thrown in for good measure:


I found these discs for sale at the old Virgin Megastore at Grapevine Mills Mall in Texas in early 1998. I noticed the similarities in the design of the singles covers to that of the parent album, which I had purchased a couple of months prior and, frankly, didn't particularly like. But as a longtime Fall fan, I was damned if I was going to leave any band product up on the shelf, unpurchased. I'm glad I did - I find the music on these two EPs superior to the majority of what could be found on Levitate. Apparently, others did as well - the Masquerade singles charted in England significantly higher than The Fall's previous album release. Now, I am not by any means claiming that the addition of these songs to Levitate would have made the album that much more acclaimed or successful. It just seems to me that the disc could have used a bit more of the innovative spirit and "pep" inherent in these sidelined works.

It would be nice to claim that the songs off of these EPs were precursors for The Fall's future success, and pointed the way towards the band's critical and creative reemergence in the late 1990s (sparked by the release of The Marshall Suite) - but that claim just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. After the disastrous 1998 American tour, punctuated by the Brownies on-stage altercation that led to the departure of longtime Fall members Hanley and Karl Burns, Smith was forced to reconstitute the band with all new members, which necessitated a return to basics - specifically to the more simplistic rockabilly-influenced sound of earlier group lineups. The new band members brought a new level of spirit and energy to The Fall's music, similar to what the best of the Masquerade songs offered, but it wasn't as if they were in any way influenced by or building upon that sound.

It's still an open question as to which direction The Fall would have moved in if the pre-1998 members had stayed in the band - whether they would have followed the Masquerade singles trend, or just continued to simply crank out uninspired, half-assed albums like Cerebral Caustic and Levitate. Who knows? All I can say is that, in many ways, the New York bustup was a blessing in disguise, and may have saved the band.

But enough of all that. Here you go - The Fall's two Masquerade EPs, released by Artful Records in January 1998. These discs are fairly hard to come by now - Artful went belly-up more than a decade ago, and all of their releases are currently out of print. So enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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3 comments:

  1. Thanks for these obscure songs- The Fall, always worth a listen.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks again for this and sharing the genius of Mark E. and the guys (something more of the world should participate in)

    ReplyDelete