The Fall: Live at St. Helens Technical College 1981 (2021, Castle Face Records)
This is MY staff pick section for the newsletter at MY record store, and if I want to go full Fall nerd mode on you, then there ain’t shit you can do about it except keep scrolling!
The impetus for this descent into Fall nerd mode is a new release from Castle Face Records (home of the Oh Sees and a lot of other stuff): Live at St. Helens Technical College 1981. As a Fall fan, I dutifully bought this record and listened to it, and it set my mind reeling. I plan to give you the skinny on this record below, but there’s a lot I want to say generally about the Fall and Fall live recordings. I’m going to dip my toe into these waters for this staff pick, and if it seems interesting, I’ll wade out a little further.
One great thing about the Fall is that they always seemed to approach their songs as works in progress. This is something I first understood when I spent some time with the essential The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004 6-CD box set that came out in 2005. By the time I heard that box I was pretty familiar with the first dozen studio albums by the Fall (and the associated singles), and I noticed the Peel Sessions versions of songs were often very different from the “official” studio recordings. Any deep Fall head should be able to point out some key Peel Sessions tracks. I’m partial to their session from March 31, 1981. Not only does it capture one of my favorite eras of the band, but also the faster, tougher-sounding Peel Session version of “Lie Dream of Casino Soul” blows away the version released as a single that year.
You can hit the Fall message boards if you want to get into the weeds about the best versions of particular songs, but my takeaway is that the Fall’s approach to studio recordings was scattershot and arbitrary. Whereas a band like Iron Maiden does extensive pre-production before they go into the studio then integrates the finished songs into a highly choreographed stage show, this wasn’t the case for the Fall. Some Fall albums capture the band ripping through a batch of songs that are well rehearsed and fleshed out from a songwriting standpoint (like This Nation’s Saving Grace), while others (I’m looking at you, Room to Live), feature a tired-sounding band trying their best to get through songs despite not having really found the groove. Sometimes, as with the Peel Sessions version of “Lie Dream,” we can find a version of a song that’s way better than what the record company got.
The “Peel Sessions versus studio versions” debate is key to Fall fandom, but it’s possible to go even deeper than that, and that’s where the live albums and bootlegs come in. The big variable here is fidelity, as some recordings come from soundboards, while others run the gamut from terrible to very good audience recordings. When you dig into these, you learn that, besides there being a pretty big difference between the Fall on a good night and the Fall on a bad night, they often didn’t “finish” a song before wheeling it out in front of an audience. Fall live albums and bootlegs are full of alternate arrangements, fragments, castoffs, and embryonic versions. You can take a trainspotting approach to these differences, but I contend that often these differences reveal things in the music you wouldn’t hear or appreciate otherwise.
TL;DR version: the Fall was never the same band two days in a row. This makes the world of Fall bootlegs very exciting.
There’s plenty more to say, but I’ll leave that for when I return to this topic. For now, let’s get back to the record at hand. Castle Face Label owner / Oh Sees frontman John Dwyer describes Live at St. Helens Technical College 1981 as a “bootleg soundboard recording,” but when you hold the thing in your hands, the vibe is pretty luxe. Unlike the parade of horrible packaging adorning the never-ending series of Fall live albums on labels like Cog Sinister and Hip Priest, Castle Face has put together a very nice product. They dug up beautiful black and white photographs from the actual gig and presented them as an eye-catching gatefold, even springing for a little pocket to hold the 7” EP that contains the last two songs of the set (and that 7” also has a picture sleeve that matches the rest of the package). It feels prestigious, and it will look very nice filed alongside the rest of my extensive Fall vinyl library.
When you drop the needle, the album starts off promising with a track called “Blob ’59.” This is one of those weird little fragments I mentioned above that are exciting to find on a Fall bootleg. While there is a track with a similar title on Grotesque, the version on Live at St Helens is essentially an embryonic version of “Lie Dream of Casino Soul.” If you listen, you can hear that song’s main guitar riff just taking shape and toward the end Mark rattles off a few lyrics that would make it into the song’s more familiar versions (which they would record mere weeks after the gig captured here). Score!
After that, you get something I don’t expect when I approach a Fall live record: a well-rehearsed, confident version of the band playing a set of classic songs that hew pretty close to their album versions. The recording even sounds fantastic, with a beefy drum sound and all the instruments sounding great. The lineup is the five-piece Slates lineup, and the set list features tracks from Slates and Hex Enduction Hour along with a few from Grotesque and a couple of older songs, “Rowche Rumble” and “Muzorewi’s Daughter.” It’s hard to imagine a better set list… “Leave the Capitol,” “City Hobgoblins,” and “Prole Art Threat…” fuck! While there are always more songs I would add, what they string together here is god tier.
That’s the good. Here are the inevitable quibbles. A few months after this gig, mercurial percussionist Karl Burns rejoined the band. The drummer on this record, Paul Hanley, stayed on as well, giving birth to the legendary two-drummer lineup that would record Hex Enduction Hour, my favorite Fall album. The Hex Enduction Hour songs on this record sound great, but the two-drummer versions on Hex (and later live albums like Fall in a Hole) are superior. This reminds me of an analysis of Black Flag I once heard (but can’t remember where): Damaged is a bunch of songs written for one guitar and played with two, while My War is a record written for two guitars and recorded with one. Both Hex Enduction Hour and Damaged are records where there’s almost too much going on, with so much sound crammed in that it feels unstable, accentuating the menace present in the songs themselves.
My other quibble is the recording. On one hand, it sounds fantastic… like I said, all the instruments and the mix sound great, and in that respect it’s a lot like the quickly produced but sonically precise recordings bands got when they went to Maida Vale to record a Peel Session. On the other hand, soundboard recordings, when they don’t have any mics capturing the audience or the ambient room sound, can sound flat and sterile, and that is arguably the case here. This is a cliche, but I think the Fall were in dialogue with the audience when they played live. Since their arrangements were always a bit half-formed and fuzzy, they had a lot of room to respond to the energy of a particular room or crowd (can you imagine the Fall playing along to a click track?). You can’t hear much of the crowd here, and it’s a bit like eavesdropping on someone talking on the phone where you can only hear one half of the conversation.
So, that’s more than you ever wanted to know about Live at St. Helens Technical College 1981. I have a few Fall live albums in my collection and I’m not averse to adding more, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be returning to this topic.