Sunday, 15 January 2017

Oliver: The Fall - The Birmingham School of Business School/Two-Face! (1 March 1992)

The best rock music book I read in 2016 was The Big Midweek - Life Inside The Fall in which the band's former bassist, Steve Hanley details the peaks, troughs and utter awfulness of spending 19 years working, recording, touring and dealing with Mark E. Smith.  As told alongside co-author, Olivia Piekarski, it paints a picture of a band which was always uncategorisable, even when it was enjoying mainstream attention.  Smith comes across as a resentful, control freak - always ready to blame others for his own mistakes and paranoid that his bandmates are lazy leeches, resting on their laurels.  A sacking offence of the highest order as far as he's concerned.  At the same time his remorseless attention to detail, perfectionism and focus (even when horrifically drunk) is admirable.  He really should be a world famous figure, he's certainly as driven as any megastar needs to be.  The Big Midweek captures all this through a compelling narrative of wariness, weariness, appalled amazement, mordant humour and a soupçon of admiration.  I was quite touched by the story of how Smith cheered up a little girl who was crying about a lost teddy bear by telling her that it had gone on tour and that, as his job involved a lot of travelling, he would keep an eye out for it.  He then used to send her postcards, from her teddy bear, sent from different countries that The Fall were touring to.   It also keeps its thread of events a little bit better than Renegade, Smith's own autobiography.

The Fall were in one of their customary phases of crisis when they began recording Code:Selfish.  Not in a personnel sense; indeed their ranks had been strengthened with a new keyboardist, Dave
Bush, whose interest in techno music colours quite a lot of the tracks.  However, money was tight.  Smith was still tied up in settling his divorce from Brix Smith Start and was also getting very agitated  over the performance of the band's manager, Trevor Long.  It is Long who is the subject of The Birmingham School of Business School - a witheringly sour attack on "scientific management and the theft of its concealment".  Hanley takes up the story:

"To clear up any remaining doubt as to which manager the song may be calling into disrepute, Mark even insisted on tacking an authentic recording of an answerphone message onto the end of the piece. 'Orroight Mark!  It's Trevor Long here. It's 3pm...Hello Mark, it's Trevor Long here. It's 3:45pm..
'Do I need a speaking clock?  I need a manager, not a fucking speaking clock!'
Trevor once made the mistake of turning up to the studio in a dusty-pink Audi...The car wasn't brand new but looked it, so immediately roused Mark's suspicions. 'Where's the money for that coming from?'
'You get a lotta car for yer monnay at the central Birmingham New-to-You Audi dealers.  They even threw in a full valet.'  Trevor was a co-signatory to the Fall cheque book and, feeling the pressure to defend his spending, became a walking spreadsheet.
For some time Trevor's alleged fund-siphoning had been brought into question by Mark and Trev had been ringing me up in a bid to interpret why.  'You know whor it is, Steve. Oim just trying to limit his spending.  Wharram I supposed to tell the accountants? It's a business, you know.  With a turnover of a quarter of a million.  Seven people on the payroll.  And it's Wednesday, cash.  Friday, more cash in the outgoings.  And what's it for?  Him going out, that's what!  It's cash and there's nowt petty about it. I can't lerrim do that.  Even Simon Le Bon wasn't allowed to do that.' (Long had previously worked  with Duran Duran).
I tried to explain to Trev that Mark doesn't like him controlling his money, and we all know what happens if Mark thinks he's losing control of anything.  Once his misdeeds were immortalised in a song, sadly there was only one way Trevor was going to be heading in his dusty-pink, value-for-monnay Audi, and that was straight down the M6 to the Bull Ring." (Hanley & Piekarski - The Big Midweek, pages 346/347 - Route, Pontefract).

When Peel played The Birmingham School of Business School on his British Forces Broadcasting programme, a fortnight after this show, he called it the least commercial track on the album.  Certainly, it's esoteric theme may have prevented it from emulating the Top 40 placing of Free Range, but that Lalo Schifrin/Blaxpoitation style bass/drum pattern is a thriller and the dirty guitar work of Craig Scanlon draws out every last ounce of contempt and suspicion in Smith's vocal.

Two-Face!, the other selection here, might also come from the same distrustful place as The Birmingham School of Business School.  However, it could equally be about Smith himself and the faces he has to assume within his role as the face and voice of The Fall.  But, it's a flawed analysis if you read The Big Midweek, or even Renegade.  Smith has one face at all times.  It isn't a patch on The Birmingham School of Business School but someone clearly had a brainwave when it came to utilising a keyboard sound.  That giant bee in a copper pipe sound, which gets louder as the track progresses until it comes booming out to get the listener at the end, is The Fall to a tee.  Angry at you and implacable.

Videos courtesy of 54129 and Paul Connelly.

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