Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Leckie Trilogy.
While record shopping in Seattle recently, I discovered a copy of Nord West Gas, a German album that compiles some songs The Fall recorded with producer John Leckie during the mid 80s. Of course, I already had all the music but I regularly have dreams about buying obscure Fall compilations in foreign cities, so I had to get it.

Listening again to this music, which hit me so hard as a teenager, I'm more convinced than ever that it's the best and most important ever made. There's a healthy relativism in the rock discourse nowadays but it can only go so far. The three albums that Mark E Smith and John Leckie made for Beggars Banquet are not only my favourite albums of all time, they're also, objectively, utterly without equal.

That said, this is clearly too great a topic for a hastily written and poorly proofread blog. All I can offer, in this context, is a handful of scattered thoughts and reminiscences. I do this in the confidence that great sages of all kinds will be pondering and writing about the Leckie trilogy for as long as human civilization lasts.

A while back, my friend Cheryl asked me which Fall album she should get. Someone had told her that This Nation's Saving Grace – part two of the trilogy – was the one to go for. Strangely, I felt unsure about reinforcing this common wisdom, worrying, perhaps, about throwing a relative newcomer in at the deep end. While The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (Leckie trilogy part one) is my favourite LP of all time, I can't deny that This Nation... is the most well-realized album the band has ever released. As such, it's an extremely dense and somewhat imposing piece of work.

Perhaps the best place for newcomers to start is, oddly enough, at the end. The third - and most approachable - Leckie album, Bend Sinister, has fallen out of favour with critics over the years but it's hard to understand why. Perhaps it's due to the same prejudice which causes many critics to label Hex Enduction Hour as the band's peak while ignoring everything that came after. This, in turn, is probably related to the assimilation of Brix Smith's West Coast guitar stylings and – perhaps more significantly – Leckie's pro production skills into the band's armoury.

Quite how professional was Leckie's approach to producing The Fall, though? At his first session with the band, he mic-ed everyone up and told them to play a song. Halfway through the number he demanded that they stop playing and leave the studio for five minutes. During this break, Leckie walked around the room putting the guitars slightly out of tune. When the band returned, he found the noise they made more to his liking.

Leckie actully toured with The Fall during this period, as their live sound-man. Apparently, he had a habit of turning all the channels up so far that he would regularly destroy the VU meters on venues' mixing desks. Still, even Leckie had his limits and when Smith insisted that Bend Sinister should be mastered from a low-quality cassette copy, Leckie vowed to never work with him again. Turns out Smith was right – the album has a muffled, distant sound which is oddly beautiful and distinctly hauntological.

Hauntology is a significant issue here, in fact. Like all great Fall works, the Leckie trilogy albums are an uncanny blend of the mundane and the mysterious. I recently argued that they have a similar spirit to Coil's two Musick to Play in the Dark volumes, which are overtly hauntological in their use of magical imagery and vintage Radiophonic electronics. As Leckie tells it, Smith would actually hang out with members of Psychic TV whenever The Fall were recording in London.

I'm not sure that Coil were still involved with PTV at this point but I still find the story to be fairly telling. Really, it's just a clumsy way of hinting at the true occult power of these albums. To get the real story, you simply have to experience them.


Brady said...

Tears to my eyes. A heartfelt post. I must say I think I like Grotesque best of all (with the Infotainment Scan a "guilty" second-best pleasure). Where does that leave me, brother?

Biggie Samuels said...

I like "Grotesque" a lot but it does sound a little hesitant compared to what came next (especially "Hex..." and the Leckie albums).

"Infotainment..." has some great tracks but there are much better examples of The Fall's rave'n'roll period, particularly "Code: Selfish".