So you have the brilliant Fall compilation 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong, you’ve heard the singles comps, you’ve downloaded old BBC Peel sessions from the ‘Net, and bought the superb U.S. version of last year’s The Real New Fall LP. It’s time to get down to brass tacks, and start getting acquainted with some classic Fall albums, but looking at the band’s vast, overwhelming discography, where to start? Many will suggest 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace, one of the more listener-friendly discs in the catalog, or even Perverted By Language from two years earlier, but while you couldn’t go wrong with either title, the band’s volatile 1982 opus Hex Enduction Hour seems to be a perfect fit these days. In a world ravaged by floods, tsunamis, wars, inept political leaders, and the unholy coupling of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, it’s a perfect time to lose one’s self in some good old, bitter, cranky, antisocial post punk, and Hex Enduction Hour fits the bill perfectly. Given the deluxe reissue treatment by Sanctuary Records, it still packs a massive wallop 23 years later.
Recorded in such disparate locales as a lava-walled studio in Iceland and an abandoned theater in a town on the outskirts of Luton, England, Hex Enduction Hour is easily the most cantankerous Fall album there is. There’s none of the nervous energy of “Totally Wired”, nor the dry, self-deprecating humor of “How I Wrote Elastic Man”. Here, singer/songwriter/Lord of All Thing Fall Related Mark E. Smith is venom-tongued and confrontational, and his five member band matches his focused energy step for step. As devoted fans of The Fall that Pavement were, this is one facet of The Fall’s history the lovable West Coast slackers could never equal. The Mark E. Smith of 1982 would have torn Steve Malkmus a new one. Seriously, this is some surly shit; the band was rumored to be on the verge of signing with Motown Records, of all places, in 1982, but 35 seconds into the album, the inimitable Mr. Smith put a quick stop to that, and kickstarted an unforgettable piece of music.
The direction of the hour-long record is set in the first moments of the immortal “The Classical”. Taking a cue from his Krautrock heroes in Can, Smith and his band immediately launch into a wicked, funk-fueled groove, the mix dominated by the pounding, propulsive dual drumming of Paul Hanley and Karl Burns and the sharp bass melody by Steve Hanley. After introducing the album with the spoken line, “There is no culture,” barely half a minute in, Smith wastes no time getting our collective attention, hollering sarcastically (and instantly alienating Berry Gordy in the process), “Where are the obligatory niggers?/ Hey there fuckface!” The percussive onslaught is unrelenting, as the song climaxes with the acidic, highly sarcastic refrain of, “I’ve never felt better in my life.”
Equally revered is the lengthy “Hip Priest”, one of three tracks from the Iceland sessions that made the album. In direct contrast to the pummeling “The Classical”, “Hip Priest” is more subdued, but every bit as caustic. Beginning with a tiptoeing drum beat, Smith croons the memorable hook in an affected falsetto, “He, is, not,” and then concludes in a dead serious tone, “appreciated”, as a subtle guitar lick echoes the menace in Smith’s voice. Seen by some as a diatribe against rock critics, and by others as a lampoon of Smith’s own status as a cutting-edge artist, the song is laced with first-person rants (“People only need me when they’re down and gone to seed”), and the more Smith’s bile rises, the more explosive the band becomes, resulting in cacophonous, jarring crescendos that echo Smith’s declarations of, “I’m a hip, hip, hip, hip, hip priest!”
Elsewhere, the lively, insistent “Jawbone and the Air-Rifle” is a fascinatingly dark Smith narrative, reading like an interpretation of an old folk song, while “Iceland” is decidedly more abstract, the band providing a frosty backdrop for Smith’s spontaneous poetry. “Fortress/Deer Park” opens with a false Casiotone intro before erupting into a full band performance, guitars and keyboards matching the rhythm section’s drive, as Smith savages the London-based UK art/music/literature scene, declaring, “Yes, dear chap, it hasn’t changed that much/ It’s still a subculture art-dealer jerk-off.” Even more direct is the jolting “Mere Pseud Mag. Ed.”, during which Smith lets his feelings about critics be made crystalline (“His brain was in his arse”). “Just Step S’Ways” is the closest thing to an upbeat song, as Smith opines over a gleeful repeated guitar riff, “Just step sideways round this place today,” but the feeling doesn’t last, as the mood instantly shifts, first with “Who Makes the Nazis?”, which tears into everything from the BBC to George Orwell, and then the climactic final track “And This Day”, a demented zombie march towards oblivion, a discordant organ delivering a twisted dirge, the bass spewing a lurching funk melody, as Smith concludes the album on a fittingly bleak note: “Everywhere just no fucking respite for us here.”
The second disc of the expanded edition is loaded with the kind of brilliant little bonus nuggets one would expect from a Fall reissue. There’s a typically great Peel session from 1981, as well as a handful of previously unreleased live recordings, highlighted by the obscure “Jazzed Up Punk Shit”, and a ferocious performance of “Deer Park”. However, the real treat is the addition of the rare B-side “I’m Into C.B.”, a playful, herky-jerky lampoon of the erstwhile citizens band radio craze from the late ‘70s, in which Smith hilariously admits, “I’m having trouble with the terminology/ But I’m into CB.”
Misanthropic, abrasive, and just plain irritable, Hex Enduction Hour crackles with the kind of fervor we just aren’t hearing from today’s recent wave of post punk revivalists; while the limp-wristed Kaiser Chiefs are predicting riots today, Mark E. Smith was bent on starting them in 1982. This album grabs you by the collar, spits vitriol in your face and dares you to do something about it. In 2005, it’s a welcome wake-up call.