The Fall’s Dragnet hits 40 years old and Getintothis’ Rick Leach reappraises an essential record.
“Is there anybody there?” is the shouted question that opens The Fall’s second album.
“Yeah!” comes the positive reply. There’s no need for an exclamation mark really. You can hear it.
Forty years on, Dragnet still has that vital spark, that positivity and a sense of exploration which has the power to astound.
There’s a lot of guff spoken about Fall albums; how the first one your heard is the best one, or that the next one (but there’ll never be a next one) is the greatest Fall album or, even worse, that Hex Enduction Hour is the quintessential record by Mark E Smith and his merry band of ever-changing troubadours.
Like a lot of (usually male-centered) list things The Fall, having just a massive back catalogue, lend themselves to being ranked and sorted, arranged in order of merit, significance and importance. They are a train-spotters paradise.
The idea of ranking Fall albums? Mark E Smith would have pissed himself laughing.
It should be said at this point that we’re not immune at Getintothis from ranking albums, including The Fall’s, as we did back in 2017 and a cracking read it was as well.
It’s good to know that Dragnet reached the heady heights of number 12 in our list which is a significantly higher placing that it’s made in other lists.
Yet the purpose of this feature (if this writer can be so bold as to make such a claim) is not to argue for a recount in the hope of Dragnet inching its way into a revised Top 10, but more to look at an album that while still having the capacity to surprise, stands alone – and in many ways, apart and above from many of its much lauded contemporaries.
Dragnet was released only eight months after The Fall’s debut, Live At the Witch Trials and in terms of recording less than six months spanned the studio time between the two releases.
Yet Witch Trials and Dragnet are two completely different beasts.
Witch Trials came hot on the heels of punk, recorded in one day in a rush with Mark E Smith suffering from a cold and produced by veteran and very able BBC producer Bob Sergeant at the helm.
There’s an edginess to Witch Trials for sure, a strangeness to the songs, but you know that underneath it all, there is a band that’s still blown away (and in thrall somewhat) by the excitement and newness of punk.
It feels like that they are playing as if it might be their one chance to get their songs committed to LP and they’d be back to their day jobs or whatever life in Manchester had lined up for them in 1978.
Combined with a crystal-clear production by Sergeant (who did sterling work on The Beat’s debut album), Witch Trials is, for this writer anyway, a good Fall album, a great debut album, but one that misses the essence of The Fall.
It’s a question of the songs themselves, the smoothing of the rough edges, a toning down of the strangeness and invective that were a staple of their live performances of the time.
To paraphrase a hackneyed political phrase, six months is a long time in music.
By the time The Fall entered the studio in August 1979 to record Dragnet, there’d been a sea-change in the members of the band.
In a sign of things to come with The Fall (although we did not know it at the time), seemingly core elements of the group had either been sacked or walked out and replaced with new and unknown members.
Only Mark E Smith and Marc Riley remained from the line-up that recorded Witch Trials. Drummer Karl Burns and keyboardist Yvonne Pawlett left soon after Witch Trials had been recorded and were quickly followed by the loss of founder member Martin Bramah.
The rapid churn of Fall members over the decades is a thing of legend of course, but the loss of Bramah is one of the very few where it could be considered that the sound of the group changed.
Bramah’s distinctive guitar work, spidery and twisting, had echoes of Tom Verlaine’s in Television and elevated The Fall outside the rama-lama pub rock thrash of any erstwhile punk contemporaries. Additionally, as co-founder of the group and lead writer with Smith of most of the songs, his departure could have been felt keenly.
However, nothing was going to stop the inexorable journey of The Fall and Smith drafted in future Fall stalwarts Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley, both Fall roadies, members of support band Staff 9, mates of Marc Riley and both only 19 at the time.
He switched Riley to guitar and keyboards from bass and in a typical Smith move, recruited mutton-chopped, drape-suited Teddy Boy Mike Leigh (of local ‘50’s rock and roll cabaret band Rockin’ Ricky) to replace Burns.
Not a very auspicious start to recording a follow-up album on paper; two 19-year olds and an ex-teddy boy comprising over half of the group, but it has to be said that this transition worked wonders.
The revamped and renewed Fall came up trumps.
A few of the songs were heavily reworked tracks that Bramah had co-written; Before The Moon Falls turned up in a different form as Work with Bramah’s post-Fall group The Blue Orchids and for Printhead, Bramah received co-arranging credits on Dragnet, yet there’s enough to mark the entire album out as a massive progression from what had come earlier.
A whole lot of it is due to the resolutely flat and tinny production. It’s not murky in that sort of now overused and meaningless lo-fi way. If anything. it’s crystal clear and Smith’s vocal is to the fore and with a sparseness that weirdly reminds one of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album. There’s not much to it.
It’s open and transparent. There’s no studio trickery to hide behind, no atmospherics, no shades of darkness and light. It’s simply there.
This is what makes Dragnet. It’s the matter-of-fact sound combined with Smith’s tales of the unwordly and fantastic, of horror and visions and of dread and foreboding. Strip way the music to the bare essentials and everything seems so much more believable.
Dragnet opens with Psykick Dancehall and at first blush it may seem like an outtake from Witch Trials yet there’s more to it than that;
“My garden is made of stone/ There’s a computer centre over the road/ I saw a monster on the roof
Its colours glowed on the roof….here they have no records/They know your questions about no words..”
This is the unnerving aspect about Dragnet. It turns the extraordinary and frightening into the commonplace. A part of usual (Northern) life. Glowing monsters on the roof and an unnamed “they” are to be accepted as an everyday as much as a stone garden or a computer centre. It’s one and same thing.
When this writer first heard the second track on Dragnet, A Figure Walks (a long time ago) it’s a fair thing to say that I jumped out of my skin. There’s a rolling, ever-rolling simple drumbeat courtesy of Mike Leigh then, like a knife slashing silk, there’s the sharpest single cymbal crash you can imagine. Even after 40 years of listening to this album it still jolts.
There’s many tracks on Dragnet that could be described as stand-outs or definitive, but A Figure Walks is up there.
Smith sings almost joyfully it seems, warning us of shadowy figures, walking behind us, grabbing our “coat tails” (note the use of arcane terminology), a figure with “brown, watery eyes, hands of painted yellow and nails of black carpet” leading us to a quick trip to the ice house. Death is around the corner and although the tales of terror that his father told him never scared him. then this shadowy figure is one to watch out for.
There’s a distinct Northern late 70’s edge to it all just as much as the influences of horror writers Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft (of whom Smith quotes on the back sleeve of the album.)
In a recent piece about Joy Division’s Transmission, Jono Podmore rightly recalls that Britain in the late 70’s was a violent place and that fists and boots would regularly fly.
Yet this is the thing and something that this writer can’t get over, no matter how much I try.
Joy Division are acclaimed as the masters of the threatening and disturbed and the swirls of madness at the edge of the world, ever-grasping. Words like darkness and despair are bandied around and those have been ever present since the first reviews of Unknown Pleasures. It’s been built up into a self-fulfilling edifice.
Unknown Pleasures was released only a few months before Dragnet. But where the former covered itself in that Hannett production- leading to the darkness/despair axis- Dragnet with The Fall shied away from all that.
All that cloaking was torn away. There was really no need for any of it. Because for Smith and The Fall, that darkness and despair was not worth commenting on. The horror and the threat of the unreal was ever-present and if anything, it was a matter of documentary song writing as much as a narrative fiction.
Joy Division were mythologised by the likes of Jon Savage and Paul Morley as the voice of urban decay, of cities falling it dust and such romanticised nonsense. It wasn’t Joy Division’s fault of course; they were not responsible.
Yet by way of contrast in Before the Moon Falls, Smith sings: “Up here in the North there are no wage packet jobs for us/ Thank Christ/While young married couples discuss the poverties/ Of their self-built traps/ And the junior clergy demand more cash/ We spit in their plate and wait for the ice to melt …” and this encapsulates the “Northern” aspect of Dragnet perfectly.
There’s no pussy-footing around, no navel -gazing. This is what it is. Up here in the North.
A pivotal track on Dragnet of course is the MR James/ Lovecraft tale of demonic possession Spectre vs Rector. Stretched sludging over seven minutes this ghost story could, in the hands of lesser writers and groups, come across as slightly silly and gothy. A bit Sisters of Mercy crossed with the ghost train at Southport Pleasure Fair.
However, by playing it straight and commonplace, The Fall make it truly frightening. This is reality, a tale of true horror and disbelief.
This is a track that would have sounded wholly different and possibly never come to fruition with the previous iteration of The Fall.
However essential Bramah was to the early Fall sound, his delicate and filigree neo-psych work would not have worked on Spectre vs Rector. This is where Riley, Scanlon and Hanley came into their own and set a long-term sonic template for The Fall.
I do wonder incidentally what on earth Mark Leigh wondered what he stepped into when he moved from a cabaret band paying covers of Rock Around the Clock to something like Spectre vs Rector? Or, was it, as Smith proclaimed on Printhead just another branch on the tree of showbusiness?
Elsewhere on Dragnet, The Fall gnaw the hand that feeds them, spearing the then sacred and ever-powerful cows of the music weeklies in Printhead (again) and self-referentially break out of their perceived ineptitude “I don’t sing/ I just shout” in Choc-Stock.
Dragnet truly is a marvellous record and one of the few that stands the test of time.
If The Fall had packed it in after this, we’d have still been left with two great albums and some cracking singles.
But without Dragnet, it can be argued that The Fall would not have been able to produce the body of work that they did. It’s a look back to the future and a violent and passionate break from the dead cul-de-sac of punk.
Listen to Dragnet and wonder. Dance to the waves.
“When I am dead and gone/My vibrations will live on/In vibes on vinyl through the years/People will dance to my waves…” Psykick Dancehall by The Fall. Words by Mark E Smith.