The Fall - Code: Selfish
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
You have to understand, I grew up in a town of six thousand. The closest thing we had to a record store was a Radio Shack. And there we were lucky if the bastard who ran the place would order a Blur album on request, let alone any of the really interesting stuff.
But we had the internet, at least by the time I was paying attention. So I was reading about all this great stuff that went beyond the Talking Heads and Clash albums we had at home. All sorts of great bands that I mostly went on to love: The Stooges, Television, Spacemen 3, Joy Division, Mercury Rev, Aphex Twin, and so on. Some of them I could pick up at the HMV in whatever city we’d go to on occasional trips, but some I could never find. Especially the Fall.
God, they were mythic to me at the time. Do you have any idea what it’s like to have your entire picture of a band for several years pieced together from NME articles and random, anonymous record reviews, the allmusic guide and Pitchfork reviews? No band deserves to be heard only through intermediaries, and arguably the Fall even less than most. This was the dial-up years—no downloading to be had unless I could get everyone to not use the damn computer for a couple of hours. So I languished, bitterly cursing HMV’s selection.
At that point, you start making excuses to yourself. And given the near-legendary unfriendliness of the Fall’s oeuvre, it was easy to think of them as overhyped hipster bait. At some point around this time I had started to encounter highly hyped bands that severely underwhelmed me (I still pull out my promo copy of At The Drive-In’s last album every so often and play it, but it never gets any better), and in an adolescent way I didn’t take it very well. How could they lie to me, after all the trust I’d put in them?
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I saw, once I was away at university, that our itinerant CD seller had a Fall album for sale. Not one of the ones I’d heard highly praised, either, a thing with garish art and a scratched up jewel case called Code: Selfish. I debated with myself at length, but finally bought it with a stack of other releases, most of which I no longer have. That night at my residence room, after the requisite booze-up with my friend Paul, I slipped on some headphones and put the album into my CD drive. I remember actually bracing myself, already telling myself that it would take many listens for the genius of Mark E. Smith to be revealed to me.
And what happens? Some bells toll, a bassline and some weird noises, and then all of ‘The Birmingham School Of Business School’ lurches to life in all its weird glory. Smith initially sounds like he’s trying to imitate a very sick, old dog saying “bow wow wow”. It was like being put in a trash can with the drum part from Joy Division’s ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ (which I hadn’t heard then, but in retrospect I can see the connection), some circus music and a crazy hobo and being rolled down a hill. This was the post-punk craziness I’d read of, this was (finally) groovy in a way totally foreign to me, this was the first band I’d ever heard build on the supreme weirdness of Talking Heads at their ‘Life During Wartime’ peak. I’m not trying to make a claim for the Fall, or this album, epitomizing these things. But to me, a young’un fresh from the provinces, it was like a bomb being dropped And Smith’s vocal style, of which so much has been written; how odd, I thought, that it should be so instantly endearing, even on the weighty sarcasm of the first track’s references to an institution “In the heart of Britain/The big heart of England”.
‘The Birmingham School Of Business School’ was followed up with the dull roar (literally; listen to the guitars providing the blank wall behind the rest of the track) and prophetic political scare tactics of ‘Free Range’ (“It pays to talk to no-one/No-one!”) and the downcast and cryptically lovelorn ‘Return’, the first time I understood how a keyboard part could be called “nagging”. I consider those songs, to this day, to be the finest opening three song run in existence. That the Fall then stretched out to make what were, for them, affecting ballads (‘Time Enough At Last’, ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’), even more insinuating midtempo twitchers (‘Everything Hurtz’, ‘So-Called Dangerous’) and some more absolutely nuts pseudo-rockabilly/krautrock/punkfunk spasms like ‘Two-Face!’ was astounding. Like any Fall album, there was filler, but for once they confined it to a mere one track, and even had the decency to leave it until the very last, in the form of five minute gag ‘Crew Filth’ (although shame on them for starting it like it’s going to be a song). If you stop Code: Selfish after ‘Married, 2 Kids’, though, you have what for me will always remain the Fall’s finest single work.
Not that Code Selfish was, I was slightly dismayed to find once I started buying everything by the Fall I could find, exactly typical for the band. Code: Selfish is surprisingly mellow, with the mood on songs like ‘Time Enough At Last’ and ‘Just Waiting’ coming as close as Smith gets to cheerful. Sure, there is still plenty of venom spewed (and ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ in particular is vicious, with its faux-innnocent recitation of "But I thought we had an agreement"), but even when Mark E. Smith is doing his typical working over of an unpleasant character on ‘Married, 2 Kids’ you get the sense he’s finally begun to sympathize with them as well.
More importantly, the sound here is more dense, layered, and dancey in some respects than most of the Fall’s catalog. There’s often more going on, but the mode here is dense repetition, especially on standouts ‘The Birmingham School Of Business School’ and ‘Two-Face!’. Never before had I understood how a man who sounds like your weird old drunk uncle (a means of referring to MES I’m sure every Fall fan has used at some point, but it’s too apposite to pass up) repeating the same phrases over the same inexorable groove could be so compelling. Hell, on ‘Immortality’, Smith almost goes Zen on us. That alone makes this album worthwhile.
All of this, however, doesn’t change the fact that Code: Selfish is underrated and hard to find these days, even more so than albums by the Fall in general. I would submit that the album on its own merits is an imperishable classic, but I confess that part of the reason I wanted to see it given classic status here was because of the radical effect it had on my younger self. One of the few Fall albums you can dance to, I firmly believe that putting a copy of Code: Selfish in front of any inquisitive teenager will have far reaching effects on what sort of music they’re willing to seek out in ways that other Fall albums, being more cryptic and impenetrable (though equally wonderful) wouldn’t. This album is simply that good, and that welcoming to new ears.
By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-01-30