The Fall’s ‘Hex Enduction Hour': their inscrutable masterpiece turns 40
“When you’re mired in the shit of the times with bland bastards like Elvis Costello and Spandau Ballet, you start to question not only people’s tastes but their existences. You’re not going anywhere with all that shit. I wanted an album to be like reading a really good book. You have a couple of beers, sit down and immerse yourself. None of those fuckers did that. I don’t even think they attempted it. I’d rather listen to the Polish builders clanking away next door than any of that crap.”
That's Mark E. Smith in his memoir, Renegade, reflecting on the headspace he was in 1981 while making The Fall's fourth album, Hex Enduction Hour. It was the band's biggest statement to date -- a literal hour of music, somehow crammed onto one vinyl album -- featuring what many regard to be the fiercest lineup of the band. It may not have been their first great album, but it was their first true classic full-length. (1981's Slates mini-LP is is masterpiece in miniature.) Is Hex their best-ever? That's debatable but it's certainly a contender.
A big part of Hex Enduction Hour's impact is the band's two-drummer attack. The Fall toured America in the summer of 1981 but drummer Paul Hanley was only 17 at the time and too young to play at many of the clubs they were booked at, so they got original drummer Karl Burns to fill in. He worked out so well that when they got back to UK, Smith asked Burns to rejoin the group.
The wallop that this six-shooter lineup bring is evident in the opening seconds of Hex Enduction Hour; "The Classical" smacks you across the face with thunderous drums, Paul's brother Stephen Hanley's driving bassline, the dueling scratchy guitars of Craig Scanlon and Marc Riley, and Mark's exclamations of "Hey fuckface!" Unlike most of the songs on the album, this was written after Karl rejoined the group and his and Paul's dual rhythms are central to the song's appeal.
“The traditional beat (played by me) is contrasted and enhanced by Karl’s manic percussion part, played for the most part on his snare with the snares off," Paul Hanley writes in his book Have A Bleedin Guess: The Story of Hex Enduction Hour. "Performing the same role as congas traditionally do in a samba, Karl’s percussion transports the song from traditional indie territory into something far more ear-catching and plays tricks with the listener’s perception of how fast or slow the song is.”
That "temporal misdirection," as Hanley puts it, was one of Mark E Smith's key concepts for the album. "I was trying to get the group to play out of time," Smith writes in Renegade. "Taking musicians out of their comfort zone, getting them to think about timing in a distorted way. It’s weird because I never sing in time. Last thing you want is a regular time. That’s the good thing about Hex – I was experimenting with speeding up on a track and slowing down. I don’t know what was in my head – but I can’t think of anybody else doing that sort of stuff."
"When we recorded that album we were sick of the music industry, the record was meant to be against that. It was our way of saying 'fuck off!' to those people," MES said in a 1989 interview. "'The Classical' is the song that sums it all up, it's the anthem of the record. I figured: if you want to say it, you might as well do it in the first song."
As brilliant as "The Classical" is, it's also one of The Fall's most controversial songs due to one of the first lines: "Where are the obligatory n*****s." Says Craig Scanlon in Have a Bleedin Guess, “Mark was heavily into Wyndham Lewis and Blast, making big statements that are supposed to shock you. It was also a dig at the white middle-class hipsters. I didn’t think it was ill meant, but I can’t defend it now." A tossed-off joke that was meant to shock and provoke it may have been, it's indefensible now and when MES brought the song back into The Fall's live rotation in 2002, the lyric was excised. One famous story that has been mostly debunked: the lyric kept the band from signing with Motown Records. There is a grain of truth here -- the newly launched Motown UK were interested in the band, but The Fall had already signed to Beggars Banquet by that point. Print the legend, as they say.
The most famous song on the album, though, and one of The Fall's most-loved and best-known, is "Hip Priest." Mark E Smith said over the years that the lyrics were a bit of a joke and are either about how people saw him or a takedown of cooler-than-thou journalists and Fall imitators. It's a little of both. "All the young groups know they can imitate but I teach, because I’m a Hip Priest," Mark spits out. Lyrical bile aside, "Hip Priest" is more known for its methodical, decidedly sinister vibe which was used to chilling effect in the tense climax of Jonathan Demme's 1991 film Silence of the Lambs.
"Hip Priest" is one of two songs on the album that were recorded in September, 1981 at Studio Hljóðriti in Iceland. The Fall were there playing a few shows in Reykjavik -- a trip instigated and organized by Einar Örn who a few years later would later co-found The Sugarcubes. Bands didn't really play Iceland then -- before The Clash played there in 1980 the last outside band was apparently Led Zeppelin a decade prior. The Fall's arrival was front page news: "British Raw Rockers Arrive in Iceland."
“We did two gigs, and about a third of the youth population turned up to see us," Mark wrote in Renegade. "They’d never had rock groups playing there. I feel guilty for spawning The Sugarcubes and Björk.”
Studio Hljóðriti was built out of volcanic rock, with lava walls and the people who worked there were not used to groups like The Fall. Says producer Grant Showbiz, “I always say that telling the engineer that what appeared to be some musicians rambling around, tuning, and generally fiddling, was actually ‘Hip Priest’, and that he should start the tape machine, was one of my greatest achievements.” The song was captured in a single take, as was the other song on Hex Enduction Hour recorded there: "Iceland," a droning number inspired by the alien landscapes of the country, as well the instruments they found in the studio, including a Steinway grand piano and a banjo. It's also a rare track featuring MES on guitar.
The rest of the album, including "The Classical," was made in winter 1981 with producer Richard Mazda at a shuttered movie theater in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. The chill of Iceland followed them, though, for what was England's coldest winter of the 20th Century. "For half the album we were on the stage of an empty venue the size of Manchester Academy, with no heating," Paul Hanley said on Tim's Twitter Listening Party. "I cannot overestimate how cold it was!" Inspired by the need to get somewhere warmer, not to mention the chemistry of the road-rehearsed band, the remaining songs were banged out mostly live, and the cavernous room adds to that live feel. The prowling "Winter," which was split into two parts so it would fit on the album -- ending Side 1 and opening Side 2 -- was inspired by this.
Hex Enduction Hour is loaded with classics that also serve as blueprints for The Fall's sound over the next decade: the way Scanlon's riffs and Stephen Hanley's basslines are mirrored by MES' vocal melodies on "Jawbone and the Air-Rifle" and "Mere Pseud Mag Ed," the nicking '60s R&B rhythms on "Just Stop S'ways," the influence of krautrock icons Can on the monstrous closing track "And This Day" (which was edited down from 25 minutes to 10 to make the album exactly an hour).
As to what Mark E Smith was singing about, that always anyone's guess but Smith's lyrics have certainly been poured over, sifted through, and dissected over the years. (The Annotated Fall has collected the theories and references into once place and is a good way to kill a day.) The cover art by Smith and Alan Skinner is equally inscrutable, a cut and paste assemblage of MES scrawl and side-eyed liner notes. "Nobody actually discusses the radio that goes with your toast," is text accompanying "Fortress / Deer Park."
The artwork here and on other Fall records of the era has been as influential as their music -- hello, Pavement -- but at the time it kept Hex Enduction Hour from being more prominently featured in chain HMV who displayed the album using the back cover facing forward. “I like the cover to reflect what’s inside,” Smith said. In that respect it's a total success: a clattering, compelling cacophony, a ransom note where the mind is held hostage.
Hex Enduction Hour was almost The Fall's last record, as Smith later said in interviews that he considered it to be the final word, the definitive statement. “I thought that this is it. This is the last one we’re going to do," Smith said in Renegade. "To a certain extent I always think like that, with every album – even now. But the feeling was a lot more acute with Hex.” But they would be back before the end of 1982 with another album, the hastily recorded, half-baked Room to Live. "Wish someone had told me," Stephen Hanley joked on Tim's Twitter Listening Party about the almost end of the band. "I'd not have bothered with Room to Live."
But Hex Enduction Hour is a classic, and good starting point for Fall neophytes looking for an entry into the band's daunting discography. “I’m still very proud of that album," Smith writes in Renegade. "It’s the one that everybody talks about, and I can see why. I went through a period when I couldn’t listen to it because I thought that I’d never be able to improve upon it. But then I stopped thinking like Costello and realized I had bills to pay and got back on the beat.”