Week Nine: Hex Enduction Hour
Hex! Fuckin’ Hex, man! Who knew!
Well, apparently a few people knew, because Hex Enduction Hour is one of the few Fall albums that it was actually recommended I checked out before I started this whole ridiculous idea. It was their first album to chart, it’s considered by a lot of critics and fans to be their best, or at least the best of their early works (despite the fact it’s fuckin’ March, I’m only on their fourth proper full length. Wow. They’ve been together for six years at this point, though. I guess the length of their career means “early” covers a very long time), and the Fall Online Forum, which I think contains roughly 90% of my readership amongst it’s members, waiting on the edge of their seats for the album that finally puts me off, once decided to cover the whole thing for a bit of a giggle. People like Hex. So do I. I like this record. Actively, too, not just begrudgingly. The fact that it managed to get played multiple times in a week that has been completely dominated by Pre- and Post-Silver Mt. Zion show listening is remarkable.
It was often sold as being one of their weirder offerings, though, which is a bit odd, because although it is a bizarre, idiosyncratic mess (David Raposa put it well for Pitchfork: “It sounds like a group of five talented musicians trying to play as brilliantly stupid as possible, while a sixth fellow from the docks hops on stage, grabs the mike, and fights his way through the morass scorched-earth style”) it is, in places, poppy as all hell. I guess I mean that in the way that I mean Fabulous Muscles by Xiu Xiu is poppy, though – it’s sill pretty fucked up, it just has a few tracks with absolutely massive hooks. Hex is a bit of a juggernaut, this massive and unstoppable freak-punk racket. Thanks to actually having had the same lineup for a few releases now, it has the sound of a band coming in to their own and making a record that, even as they were making it must have felt definitive – it makes Grotesque sound a bit limp in comparison, actually. Mark E. Smith’s vocals sound at their best yet here so far – usually they’re annoying at best, but here they actually manage to work
The hookiest, catchiest track of all is probably The Classical. The album’s opener roars out of the gate, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing on first listen. However, it also happens to have the misfortune of containing The Fall’s most notorious lyric – early on in the song, Mark E. Smith drops the N-word and wonders where the obligatory ones are in what fans probably tell themselves is Smith’s sarcastic and biting take on the music industry and that it’s fine because it was only the eighties and it’s art, man, so it shouldn’t matter. But oh my fucking god it makes me feel uncomfortable.
Why? Well, Mark E. Smith’s reputation as being a giant prick sure doesn’t help matters. The story goes that when a Tamla Motown subsidiary wanted to sign The Fall, Smith sent them a copy of Hex, despite how stupid the opening lyrics make that decision to be. Although some sources say he sent it because it was the only album he had to hand, an interview with Smith makes it sound like he had an actual agenda and resented the attention: “Then fuckin’ Tamla Motown steam in! You know… about time we had another white act, ha ha! Dead funny. But they were pretty serious. I went to see them and everything.” They passed on signing the Fall, famously condemning them as having no commercial potential whatsoever (which is actually more or less true, really, if we’re being honest), and he acts surprised that a label that was instrumental in ensuring black artists where, y’know, actually accepted by people would be put off by his use of a massively dehumanising racial slur. Mad, that, isn’t it? I’m not trying to say Mark E. Smith is a giant racist, I’m trying to say that this is the best example of him being an inconsiderate, ignorant, insensitive prick that I’ve seen yet, and his use of the word is inexcusable.
The Classical has been covered by Pavement, and on listening to it for the first time in ages (it was one of the last things they put out and, as much as I love early-mid Pavement, I could not care less about later Pavement) I was glad to hear they omitted the offending line from their version. A bunch of white dudes may have been able to get away with dropping the N-bomb at the beginning of the eighties, but it would not have gone down well at the end of the nineties, I’m sure.
The Fall’s musical influence over Pavement is something I’ve always been vaguely aware of, but never really considered. You can hear it the most on Wowee Zowee, their third album, a sprawling and experimental reaction to the massive popularity of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain before it - I think some consider it to be a bit of a mess, but compared to The Fall it’s still pretty coherent – but there’s elements of The Fall’s experimental, rambling fuzz throughout Pavement’s history. It’s just, y’know, used in a more consistent and listenable way.
Still. Back to Hex. That one unforgivable (regardless of intent, sorry) lyric aside, the album kills. Amazingly, the hour flies by, especially compared to Slates’ dragging twenty minutes. The mixture of elegantly slow, repetitive buildups that lead to discordantly messy crashing post-punk guitars means it sounds like The Shaggs covering Slint’s Spiderland. Or maybe Slint covering The Shaggs’ Philosophy Of The World, I’m not really sure. But if that’s not the sort of thing you’re interested in, then I’m not sure I want to know you. This was always supposed to be The Fall’s final album – Smith was getting fed up with it all and wanted a last hurrah, I suppose, and it shows. Hex feels like it has everything they ever wanted to do squeezed on to it - all the best ideas they ever had, all the necessary catharsis that comes from being in a band that literally only John Peel seems to like for six years, all crammed in to one record. It literally bursts at the seams – even on a typically rambling and repetitive number, there’s loads going on. No wonder it actually finally earned them some buzz and some sales, it’s a legitimately awesome, utterly exhausting listen. It’s easy to see why it’s considered the greatest Fall album, and it’s hard to see them actually topping it.
Thanks to being put off what would probably be my favourite Fall song if not for, y’know, the slurs (seriously, the outro with it’s refrain of “I have never felt better in my life!” is the high point of the record) FortressDeer Park stands out as a favourite, and probably one of the clearest examples of “typical Fall” that you’re ever gonna hear – if you’re new to the band, give this a go, and if you can’t stand it then you may not get much further. Still, Hex deserves to be viewed as a complete thing, and is well worth a listen, at the very least as a moment in this history of punk and post-punk. With Hex, the question switches from being “why do so many people care about The Fall?” to “why don’t more people care about The Fall?”. This album could so easily have been much more of a classic than it actually is – it’s definitely their London Calling, their Unknown Pleasures, their Romance Is Boring. I wouldn’t be surprised if plenty of others over the years have joined myself and Motown in thinking the whole thing is held back by one unfortunate word. Of all the lessons I thought I might have learned from listening to every Fall album in order, I would never have guessed that “racism doesn’t pay” would be one of them. I mean, shouldn’t it be obvious enough? Not to Mark E. Smith, clearly, but his relationship with clarity has always seemed to be something of a broken one.
This week’s Fall experience was an interesting one. Writing about Mark E. Smith’s inexcusable use of a racial slur on what would otherwise probably be the best Fall song is sure to go down well with every single person in the world ever.