Tuesday
Nov162004

Hip Priest - The Story of Mark E.Smith and The Fall by Simon Ford

The late John Peel has a lot to answer for.  A few months ago I came across three (yes three!) books about The Fall in the Reading Broad Street branch of Waterstone's bookshop.   I thought that Mark E.Smith must have died, or at least have been given a knighthood.  

I first heard The Fall when I was at Leeds University in 1978, on the Peel program of course.  Back then they were very rough indeed, but I was impressed enough to seek out and buy Bingo Master's Break-Out! and Live at the Witch Trials.  I followed them through Dragnet, Fiery Jack, How I Wrote Elastic Man, Totally Wired, and on to Hex Enduction Hour in 1982.  After that, I must have become more responsible, for the only other Fall records I bought were The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (1984) and Bend Sinister (1986).  Then I lost track of them completely for several years.  It was only when I started listening to BBC Radio 6 on broadband that I learned that The Fall, or rather Mark E.Smith and the current version of The Fall, are still active and producing good stuff in 2004.

The key element of The Fall has always been Smith's inscrutable lyrics which are completely unlike anything else in contemporary music.  A lesser, but still important feature has been the driving wall of noise produced by the rest of the band.  The overall effect is best summed up by quoting Danny Kelly's description (NME 1984 Nov 10):

"The wall of rhythm generated by the Hanleys and the great and loyal Karl Burns is huge and brutal.  Craig Scanlon and Brix Smith drill shockingly harsh metal guitars into the heart of the beast.  Where the babblings of the wordSmith used to be a part of an urban guerrilla cell - mercurial, fragmented, chancy - they now find themselves riding atop Krupp's wet dream, a black, invincible war machine.  The noise is crude, cruel, inescapable and authoritarian.  Smith has always been a lucky bastard, chucking his writing bag of words into the music like a carcass into a set of propellers, to watch the result spin off not as gore and offal, but diamonds, a tour de force of inexplicable sorcery."


As well as quotations, Ford's book is full of interviews with many past and present members of  the band, some interviewed specially for the book, others culled from old music magazines and books.  Smith comes across as almost impossible to live and work with, and one has to admire the dedication of Steve Hanley, Craig Scanlon, Karl Burns, Martin Bramah, Kay Carroll, Brix Smith, and the others for sticking with him for as long as they did.  Whenever the band looked like it was getting to be successful, Mark E.Smith would insist on making a new start, for example by changing their record company.  On one occasion Smith apparently fired his whole band because they wouldn't make the sound that he wanted.  A few days later he went and got his ears syringed and found out the problem had actually been in his hearing, not in their playing.  But they stayed because they were in awe of his ability to come up with ideas and words.  Some of this awe comes across in reading Marc Riley's reaction after the recording of 'Iceland' as recounted by Colin Irwin (Melody Maker 1981 Sep 26):

"No, we didn't know what he was going to do either," says Riley in a state of euphoria later. "He just said he needed a tune, something Dylanish, and we knocked around on the piano in the studio and came up with that. But we hadn't heard the words until he suddenly did them. We did 'Fit And Working' on 'Slates' in exactly the same way.Yeah, I suppose it is amazing really..."


As Ford says, once you have been a fan of The Fall you can never escape it: even now when I walk past a pelican crossing and it goes beep-beep-beep... in the back of my mind I hear Mark E.Smith spitting out:

Got eighteen months for espionage,
Too much brandy for breakfast,
And people tend to let you down,
It's a swine.... 
Fantastic life!

Ours is not to look back, ours is to continue the crack.  (Argggh!  I think I had better go and lie down.)

Sunday
Nov142004

Diving behaviour in a Lesser Black-Backed Gull

While walking with Zoe around the Reading University lakes this morning, I noticed a lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) sitting on the water.  Suddenly, it flapped its wings as if taking off but rose only a few feet into the air and then dived head-first back into the water, almost immediately coming to the surface again.  I saw it perform this trick twice, so it was obviously deliberate.  Maybe it was trying to catch a fish and needed to get a certain amount of momentum to get deep enough to reach it.  After the second dive, the gull then slowly meandered its way around the lake as if looking for something else to dive for, but we didn't see it dive again.

Wednesday
Nov102004

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Casaubon, an Italian history graduate, gets a job with a publisher of occult books.  There he helps his two colleagues, Jacopo Belbo and Diotallevi, in assessing submitted manuscripts about the Knights Templar, an order of monk crusaders that were supressed in 1344, but about which conspiracy theories have grown that say they survived as a secret society and control history.  Casaubon and Belbo meet an array of 'occultist' would-be authors, each with their own mad theory.  Madness is piled upon madness; conspiracy theory upon conspiracy theory. Then, for their amusement, Casaubon and Belbo start to invent the conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories: it links the Templars, Francis Bacon, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons,  Napoleon Bonaparte, Tsar Nicholas, Adolph Hitler, and has at its heart is a great secret concerning 'underground currents'.  But Casaubon and Belbo are sucked into the madness when the occultists start to believe in their theory and want to know the secret.

This a really biting satire of occultists, occultist thinking and occult publishing.  It is also rather cleverly written and very  funny in parts.

Thursday
Nov042004

Heron in the Dark

With the shorter hours of daylight at this time of year, I don't get to see that many birds on my way to and from work.  However, on Monday morning at 6am, as I was walking walking through central Reading on my way to the railway station, there was a grey heron (Ardea cinerea) standing in the river Kennet, just opposite the abbey ruins.  It was perfectly still in the darkness, with its neck extended as if it was watching.  Maybe the light from the street lights is bright enough for it to actually catch fish there at night, I don't know. 

Herons are usually fairly wary of people and I half expected it to fly off as I walked by along the tow path, but it didn't, maybe because I was I was over on the opposite bank.  It also ignored a car moving along the bank near to it, but when the driver got out of the car the heron rose up and flew off slowly upstream.

That part of the river, the shallows on the inside of a bend, must be a fairly popular place for water birds to spend the night: I often see swans, Canada geese, coots, mallard ducks, and occasionally the heron there in the early morning, waiting for daylight to come. 

Tuesday
Nov022004

Niko's Nature by Hans Kruuk

This is an academic biography of Niko Tinbergen, the pioneeer of ethology, the study of animal behaviour.

Tinbergen made his name by devising and carrying out some beautifully simple experiments on nest-finding in wasps and birds, on pecking behaviour in gull chicks, and on aggression between male sticklebacks.  He also seemed to have a real knack for attracting first class students and inspiring them to do first class work.  The names of just a few of his students will show what I mean: Desmond Morris, Richard Dawkins, Aubrey Manning, John Krebs, Marian Stamp Dawkins.  Tinbergen also wrote many popular books and articles on animal behaviour, and even made a few films.

However, Tinbergen was somewhat flawed both a scientist and as a person.  He didn't back up his work with the quantitative and statistical arguments that are now thought to be necessary, and he suffered increasingly from clinical depression in the latter half of his career, to the extent that some of his later students hardly ever saw him.  In spite of these flaws, his research group still managed to flourish, apparently largely thanks to his assistant Mike Cullen who looked after his students for him and provided the quantitative expertise that he lacked.  Tinbergen also showed good sense in his reaction to the potentially devastating criticisms of his experiments by the American Danny Lehrman: he invited Lehrman across to Oxford to help sort out what could be salvaged.

In 1973, the value of Tinbergen's work was recognized when he was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine, jointly with his old friend Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch.  Ten years later, Tinbergen suffered a couple of strokes but these had the fortunate side-effect of curing his depression and so he was able to enjoy himself during his last few years.  He died in 1988.

The relationship between Tinbergen and Lorenz was an interesting one, particularly in how it was affected by their experiences during the war.  In that respect it bears comparison with that between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

A good read if you are interested in biology.  It should inspire you to search out copies of Tinbergen's papers and books.