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A Fog from Reykjavik

John Fleming

Have A Bleedin Guess: Hex Enduction Hour, by Paul Hanley, Route, 192 pp, £12.99

Recorded in Iceland and a cinema in Hitchin close to Luton, Hex Enduction Hour is The Fall’s fourth lp proper. A catalogue of noise chaos and gleaming sonic bombast, its eleven tunes are tectonic plates across which Mark E Smith’s lyrics roam like Lear across his troubled land: “You won’t find anything more ridiculous than this new profile razor unit / Made with the highest British attention to the wrong detail.”

The year of the album’s recording was 1981; the year of its release 1982. Paul Hanley played drums. All these years – and an Open University degree – later, he has written a splendid book about the legendary sessions. Avoiding the twin traps of vengeance and pride, he uses first-hand participant observation to animate a record cherished by the few and unknown to the multitudes.

Have a Bleedin Guess: The Story of Hex Enduction Hour drips decency and likability. In what could be profitably patented as a pragmatic template for art memoirs or biographies, Hanley employs three elements: the snare drum body text on which he hammers out the truth of his reminiscence; the high-hats on which he nails quotes of succinct witness from key players; and the booming bass drum of footnotes which he kicks playfully to impart background detail, gossip or extra enthusiasms. These three pieces of percussion he plays hypnotically on his forensic drumkit.

Mark E Smith retrospectively claimed that Hex was to have been the band’s last album. This seeming swan-songism heightens Hanley’s narrative as much for mockery of the singer’s claims of precognition as for reminding us that, back in the early 1980s, no one was to know The Fall would keep touring and recording until late 2017. Given the sociocultural aesthetics of the band and the enduring psychology of its ever-changing line-up, Hanley’s was never going to be a tale of rock ’n’ roll excess or even of industrial kiss ’n’ tell. It is instead rooted in modesty, deferring throughout to the excellence not only of ring-leader Smith but of the rest of the band: his brother Steve Hanley (whose own The Big Mid-Week book a few years ago was initial proof of the family signature being amusing asides, wry comments and a great talent for compelling, pragmatic, insightful prose communication about music) was on bass; the magnificent pre-Creepers and pre-BBC DJ-career Marc Riley (high time this man returned to creating his eccentric music) and Craig Scanlon were on guitars; and Karl Burns was the parallel second drummer. Hanley is never too mean or insecure to acknowledge his stick-wielding colleague as – in his opinion – the greatest drummer in the world.

Key Fall characters – Grant Showbiz, label managers, music hacks, others – pop up with their names and a colon in bold after which their insights are presented like a line in a stage play or TV/radio script. Here is a good example: “Richard Mazda: As a producer my job was almost to wrangle people’s disjointed thoughts … That way I could give the band something they didn’t know they were capable of.”

A much mythologised visit to Iceland sets the tone with its double purpose: the playing of three gigs and the recording of three songs: Iceland, Hip Priest and Look Know (not on the album). About playing on the first of these songs, Hanley writes: “The drums were easy … I just recreated the relentless pounding in my head that Iceland’s ridiculous licensing laws had helpfully provided.”

You don’t even need to know these songs or have any idea of the counter-wound magnificence of the band to marvel at Hanley’s talent in imparting the measure of Mark E Smith: “It’s difficult to imagine many writers who could combine an anecdote about slipping on their arse in a café with a quasi-Norse saga of godmen walking amongst us. A similar melding of the preternatural and the prosaic can be found in the line 'Memorex for the kraken'." For the forgetful audiophile consumers among us, Hanley offers one of his footnotes to remind of the leading audio cassette brand.

And so the book takes leave of Iceland with these tracks recorded and relocates to The Regal cinema and concert venue in Hitchin. But some otherworldly Reykjavikian fog continues to flow through the cinema’s Pullman seats as the band sets about recording and creating the rest of the Hex Enduction Hour album. The musicians initially set up on the icy-cold stage, the two drumkits of Burns and Hanley facing each other to facilitate visual communication, while Mr Smith is sequestered with the producer in the warmer recording facility upstairs, a “disembodied voice in our headphones”. Hanley is admirable for actively debunking myths rather than lazily hiding behind them, but in telling the tale of his experience, he excavates the prolific weirdness of The Fall far more profoundly than most public accounts have dared thus far. He anchors us in the early 1980s and builds a cogent and charming account of working with the brilliant but difficult lyricist and leader. Tracks are laid down, and Hanley explains and enlightens every step of the way. Of the ten-minute-plus closing track, And This Day, he writes that a press release stated it “intends to intimidate the listener into The Fall’s intelligence thru noise waves” and that “Musically harrowing and lyrically all-but-unfathomable, it’s the quintessential Fall album track.” And then he quotes Craig Scanlon, “It’s good and violent, and suited Mark’s lyric. It’s too fucking long though.”

Have A Bleedin Guess serves to remind the reader of how easy it is to overlook the jagged catchy ugly music of The Fall in the rush to be overwhelmed by the dense complexity of Smith’s words and the wizardry and force of his personality. For instance, Hanley writes of the often-crap instruments they played on: “The equipment The Fall used around the time Hex was recorded was, without exception, cheap and second hand. The group’s attitude to instruments and amps was mostly unsentimental.”

But Hanley does not avoid astute insights into the lyrics. He offers a stunning connection mapped by Quietus founder John Doran between the opening words of Hex Enduction Hour’s first song, The Classical, and the contemporaneous South Bank Show arts programmer/presenter (first name Melvyn): “There is no culture is my brag.”

Seldom has music been so well-written about.

1/1/2020

John Fleming is an Irish Times journalist, fictionalist and Fall fan. He salutes Paul and Steve Hanley, as well as Simon Wolstencroft, as among the many writer/player heroes of the band’s history.

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