In their 39–year career the Fall have always embraced chaos, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the studio...
In 1987, the Fall, a band who were 10 albums into their career, producing challenging, hall–of–mirrors post–punk, suddenly made a lurch for the dancefloor. October of that year saw the amorphous Prestwich troupe, fronted by their inimitable and unpredictable ringmaster Mark E Smith, release ‘Hit The North’, a rousing groove–based anthem which is now regarded by many as both their ultimate statement and best single.
For this most underground of bands, this seemed like a very conscious effort to go commercial. “Nah, it wasn’t a conscious effort,” Smith stated to this writer in 2006. “It was just trying to get it a bit more punchy. I always like it very clean and simple. A lot of groups are swamped with sound.”
The beginning of the Fall’s slow creep towards the mainstream, which culminated with ‘Hit The North’, had begun three years earlier in 1984 when, before signing to a new label, Beggars Banquet, Smith had seriously considered quitting music altogether.
“I thought, fuck it,” he admitted. “Nobody liked us. We always got good reviews, but that doesn’t put food on your plate, does it? I was thinking of packing it in. I was gonna sell pool tables. It was a bit heavy for me that time. But then I got a bit of the old writing impetus and I carried on with it. People forget all this, y’know. They forget that the Fall wasn’t really appreciated until the mid-’80s.”
Along with Smith’s change of attitude, the addition of two new members to the Fall was to significantly change their sound. The singer’s American wife, guitarist and vocalist Brix Smith, had joined the band in 1983. She admitted that she felt that, in many ways, the Fall were undervalued and that she had designs on upping their commercial potential. “It was definitely a conscious thing on my part,” she said, “because they were so, so underground and so unappreciated and unknown. I just thought they were such an important band and it needed to be broadcast all over the world.”
Then, in 1985, came Londoner Simon Rogers, a multi–instrumentalist who was initially brought in to play bass with the band, before moving to guitar/keyboards and then going on to produce many of the Fall’s records, including ‘Hit The North’. His connection to Mark E Smith was first made when progressive ballet dancer Michael Clark asked Rogers to score an orchestral arrangement of ‘The Classical’, from the Fall’s 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour.
“Which I tried to do,” Rogers remembers today. “But looking back on it, it’s not one of those things you can just arrange. It needs a real concept and real time and real skill, which I don’t think I had at the time. So that wasn’t a great success. But I phoned Mark up in the process of trying to arrange ‘The Classical’ and said, ‘What do you think about using horns on the chorus?’ And he said, ‘I dunno, cock. I don’t know anything about music. Do you play bass?’ I said, ‘I have played bass, yeah.’ So he said, ‘D’you wanna come on tour with us?’”
In the 2009 book The Fallen: Life In And Out Of Britain’s Most Insane Group, author Dave Simpson’s search for the more than 60 members who have passed through the band since their formation in 1976, he names Simon Rogers as “the least likely musician ever to end up in the Fall”.
Rogers initially studied guitar at the Royal College Of Music in the late–’70s, where his tastes leant towards the experimental. He remembers in particular learning modernist French composer Pierre Boulez’s tricksy ‘Le Marteau Sans Maitre’. “Really complex stuff,” he says. “I kind of realised that I wasn’t really that into most of the guitar repertoire. I was interested in the modern, avant–garde stuff really.”
Having graduated, Rogers joined Ballet Rambert’s Mercury Ensemble as guitarist, which lead in a strange way to his first hit record. When asked by the company to learn a piece by Chilean folk group Inti–Illimani, Mercury Ensemble’s guitar–and–pan–pipes arrangements were to prove so popular with audiences that they went on to secure their own record deal as Incantation, with their 1982 single ‘Cacharpaya (Andes Pumpsa Daesi)’ reaching number 12. From his share of the proceeds, Rogers bought his first home recording setup, centred around a Soundtracs desk and Fostex B16 multitrack.
Even if their backgrounds were very different, Mark E Smith and Simon Rogers bonded quickly when the former invited the latter to come and stay with him in Prestwich to learn the basslines to the key Fall songs. “Mark would have piles of papers and plastic bags full of notes and stuff,” he says. “We’d sit up all night and we’d listen to William Burroughs and Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. Lots of speed, lot of fags, lots of beer. We became pretty good mates and he stayed with me in London nearly all the time when he came down.”
But even after joining the Fall and touring extensively with the band, Rogers realised that his heart belonged in the studio, forcing him to choose to quit the live band and concentrate on recording. “It was tough touring with the Fall,” he admits. “‘Cause we used to go to America and do 20 dates or more in a month. You’re on stage for an hour and the other 23 hours of the day, you’re just dicking around. And it wasn’t enough music for me.”
During the mid–’80s, the Fall’s producer was John Leckie, though Simon Rogers’ first production contribution was to appear on 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace, with ‘Paintwork’, the creation of which was — in typical Mark E Smith style — characteristically haphazard.
“The track on the album is basically a cassette that I recorded at my bedroom studio in Hammersmith,” Rogers explains. “I programmed the drum machine and just pushed a button and I’m credited as producer. Mark had taken the rough cassette away and he sat on the cassette recorder and punched a few holes in the actual recording. So there’s a bit of a documentary about stars that comes in halfway through that was on the TV when he happened to sit on the tape recorder. John Leckie recorded the cassette onto 24 track and we played along with it in the studio. Where it dropped out, we kept going, and we made it work.”
Rogers was clearly someone who could understand Smith’s highly unorthodox working practises. “He’s an experimentalist,” he laughs. “A very creative man. He likes to throw things together. It’s like when you do your chemistry experiment at school. Y’know, they give you all the different elements and they go, ‘Now don’t put this one in with this one’, and everyone goes whack, puts them all in at once and it goes bang. That’s what he does.”
Former Fall bassist, Steve Hanley, in his own highly entertaining book about his years in the band, The Big Midweek, said that in terms of making sense of Smith’s methods, Rogers was “perspective personified”.
“Well, I think I gave them perspective about the way they treated Mark as well,” Rogers says. “Because I got on with him and it tended to be me, Mark and Brix and then the band somewhere else. I would give him a bit of lip occasionally, which they never did. And if they did say anything to him, it would usually boil over. And it had boiled over in the past and there’d be fights and someone would go or whatever. So I suppose it was a different setup.”
This writer has spoken to John Leckie in the past about his work with the Fall. Similarly, the veteran producer was obviously someone who could deal with Smith’s acute eccentricities. “Mark was crazy,” Leckie remembered, with a laugh. “You’d do all the mixing and he’d take the tapes away home and he’d be very enthusiastic. But then you’d get to the cutting room and he wouldn’t like it. When we were mastering Bend Sinister  and the guy had just cut the acetate, Mark was stomping around saying, ‘That’s not the mixes we had in the studio’. But he’d been listening to a chrome Dolby cassette he’d taken away and played on his little Walkman through a speaker that was distorting, and that was his reference. In the end, a lot of that album was cut from a cassette because that was the quality that Mark wanted. He was actually right though because that’s their sound.
“We did three albums over a two-year period and then I suppose we got fed up with each other. They would do things like play a song once and then that would be it, they wouldn’t want to record it again. I can remember telling them to tune up and they played the song again and it didn’t sound as good. I thought, fuck, I’ve destroyed it! I got to a stage with Mark where I realised that, as far as he was concerned, when they’d finished the take, that was the record done. So we recorded some of it straight down to stereo, no multitrack.”
Mark E Smith looked back on his collaboration with Leckie with a certain respect, bordering on fondness. “Play a song only once?” he said. “Yeah, that’s the way we are. But, like me, Leckie would just put out the mistakes, leave them all in.”
Following Bend Sinister, the Fall and John Leckie parted ways. “I think Mark had subverted enough of John Leckie’s engineering by then for him to get pissed off,” reckons Simon Rogers. “John also did the [XTC ’60s psychedelic offshoot] Dukes Of Stratosphear which some people loved and Mark thought was the biggest load of embarrassing shit. So... I think it was a lot to do with that.”
In approaching the making of the Fall’s next album, The Frenz Experiment, the sessions for which would yield ‘Hit The North’, Simon Rogers suddenly found himself promoted by Smith to producer for the whole project. “There was this idea that I was the guy that could ‘handle’ Mark Smith,” he says. “But it wasn’t that at all. We were just matey at the time. I think he trusted me as a musician to pull something together. Rather than having an engineer/producer, why not have a musician/producer? So it was like having another useful band member.”
The Frenz Experiment was recorded over the month of July 1987 in Abbey Road Studio 2. Even as a first–time producer, Simon Rogers insists that he wasn’t intimidated to be working in such a hallowed environment.
“No, because I had a great engineer, Ian Grimble. He was fantastic. Very quiet. Learnt everything he knew in that studio, so knew all the mics, all the rooms, knew the SSL [G Series]. I was really into sound for the sake of sound as well. So we tried to keep the energy, but add a bit of sparkle to it. And he was great at that.”
Having also engineered Bend Sinister, Ian Grimble wasn’t taken aback by Smith’s volatility when recording The Frenz Experiment. “No, I knew what to expect,” he says. “When we were tracking, we set a booth up for him in the middle of the room, so he could control the whole thing. But then the voice would stop and you’d hear a bass drum mic being thrown across the room and him saying, ‘That’s putting me off.’ So halfway through the take you don’t have a bass drum mic anymore...”
In terms of capturing the sound of Fall drummer Simon Wolstencroft’s kit, Ian Grimble remembers he used the multi–miking technique that was fashionable at the time. “I used everything that Abbey Road had to offer,” he says. “It’d have been [Neumann U] 67 overheads, a FET 47 bass drum. Back in the ’80s, the whole point was trying to capture the ambience around the bass drum and snare. Simon Rogers would have asked him to track without cymbals, so then the cymbals would be added on, just so you wouldn’t have trashed cymbals in the room mics. You could just get a clean bass drum and snare and possibly hat.”
“In those days there was a lot of miking,” Rogers says. “Though we did a track called ‘Steak Place’ totally acoustically with a Calrec Soundfield. With that thing, you record channels and then you can re–pan it afterwards, re–manipulate the stereo fields.”
While The Frenz Experiment is a very live–sounding album, ‘Hit The North’ was a far more programmed affair. But in keeping with the spontaneous approach of the Fall, the song had its roots in a test track that Simon Rogers created when he first bought his Sequential Circuits Studio 440 sequencer/sampler.
“Mark had a sort of love/hate relationship with machines,” Rogers says. “He liked the idea of them, but he didn’t always like the process that you went through. It was slow and he just didn’t want to be dictated to by them. So he would try and subvert the situation. I’d just got this 440 and literally the first thing I put into it was a bass and a snare just on two pads, a little tiny Indian bell which I’ve still got, and a sax note and a bass note from a Gentle Giant record.
“Mark came round to my bedroom studio and I said, ‘Oh, here’s the new sampler, have a look at it’, and just pressed play and out comes the basis of ‘Hit The North’. He said, ‘What’s that music?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s the first thing I put in.’ He said, ‘I’ll have that, just do me a tape.’”
Rogers plays SOS a recording of the session where Smith returned to his Hammersmith bedroom studio with the lyrics to ‘Hit The North’ to record an initial demo. It makes for fascinating listening. While Smith is often regarded as someone who throws his ideas down, here he can be heard asking for the track to be sped up as he vocally riffs over the top of it. It’s sonic proof that the apparently unhinged band leader knows exactly what he’s after, even to the point where he insists that the programmed drums, which he thought were off–putting, be muted, in favour of drummer Simon Wolstencroft tapping on a table.
“It’s not moving for me, that tune, at the moment,” Smith can be heard to say.
“It’s cause it doesn’t have the machine drums in it,” Rogers responds.
“Are you sure that’s what it is?” Smith replies, a touch challengingly.
In Abbey Road, Ian Grimble remembers, he and Simon Rogers sampled the sounds of Wolstencroft’s kick and snare into the Sequential Circuits Studio 440. “The drums, apart from cymbals and hats and things,” he remembers, “they were sampled and then played out again.”
Meanwhile, the atmospheric guitar effects that feature on ‘Hit The North’ were the result of a happy accident in the studio. “Simon had a Crate amp,” remembers Grimble, “and we had it boxed off with a mic inside. Back then I used to do a lot of close-miking, but for some reason I pulled up the wrong mic, just some random mic in the room. Simon was like, ‘Wow, that sounds amazing’, and that’s what we used. We weren’t even sure where the mic was.”
When it came to the perhaps unenviable task of recording Mark E Smith’s vocals, Grimble set up various mics to capture the different elements of the frontman’s performances. “It was handheld mostly,” he says. “Something he could grab hold of generally and roam around. He was happy with a [Shure SM] 58 most of the time. But we’d also have a Neumann up, a U87 or something, ’cause he had his megaphone, and then he’d grab his Dictaphone out of his bag and play something through it.”
“He likes a basic 58 stage mic and he screams into it and he covers it up,” adds Rogers. “So good luck in the studio really. You just do a few takes. I think there’s probably three takes on ‘Hit The North’ all playing at once. So you hear things coming in and out.”
Elsewhere, there is some vocal manipulation going on in ‘Hit The North’, most of it done in the Sequential Circuits Studio 440. “We do a bit of a ‘N–n–n–n–nineteen’,” Rogers says, referring to Paul Hardcastle’s 1985 number-one hit. There’s also the distinctive backwards reverb that precedes some of the “hit the north” lines themselves. “That was spinning the tape over,” says Grimble. “Just trying to get that kind of crowd effect. A real surge into it without having to track it up loads of times.”
When it came to mixing ‘Hit The North’, Rogers and Grimble experimented with the rhythm track, even putting the hi–hat patterns through a Roland VP330 Vocoder Plus. “We spent a lot of time messing around,” says Grimble. “We did a lot of delay stuff on that, like left–right hi–hats, and in the middle you hear this weird sound which is vocodered hi–hat. I used to work with Mike Hedges and I was doing a Marc Almond record with him and he’d left this vocoder and that’s what we used. Simon wanted it to be a little bit odd but rhythmical.”
Often, when recording the rest of The Frenz Experiment, Mark E Smith’s patience would wear thin when it came to technology. “He had no patience for anything really,” says Grimble. “His concentration span was minimal. It was fun to work with, ‘cause he was very ‘of the moment’, all the way. And y’know, he knew what he wanted, and he wanted it then... now! He wouldn’t wait for anything.”
“There was one bone of contention we had,” Rogers remembers, “which was he didn’t really like time code. I had to have time code for the 440 and the SSL G-Series, otherwise nothing happens. I remember him recording a vocal and saying, ‘Let’s just do another take,’ and we said, ‘Oh we’ve run out of tape.’ ‘Well put another tape on.’ ‘Well, we’ve got to stripe it.’ ‘Well, what d’you mean? Let’s do it without.’ ‘Well, we can’t do it without, ‘cause the desk won’t work.’ There was all that went on.”
Then, in two separate instances, both Grimble’s and Rogers’ patience with the vocalist finally snapped. “There was one point where I actually walked out of the room,” says Grimble. “We’d done this mix and we’d been up all night, me and Simon. Mark listened to this mix and he goes, ‘D’you know what this fookin’ needs?’ And he went upstairs and he got two Yellow Pages telephone books and he just banged them randomly in this track. And then he was like, ‘It’s so much fookin’ better,’ and then off he went.”
Meanwhile, Rogers laughs when remembering the moment he got to the end of his rope in his dealings with Smith. One day, the frontman walked into the studio while Steve Hanley was fooling around on his bass with the riff of Spinal Tap’s ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight’. Smith decided this was great and it became the basis of the track ‘Athlete Cured’. Rogers couldn’t believe what was happening. “I said, ‘What the fuck? It’s a 100 percent lift’. I knew the track, I was a big Spinal Tap fan. So after a bit of pointless persuasion by me, they recorded it. I thought they’d get done for it basically. But then I suppose a bass line in those days... That was kind of before the massive sampling trials. Mark said, ‘Don’t care. I like it.’”
Even when mastering The Frenz Experiment with Ian Cooper at The Townhouse, Mark E Smith would still want to experiment randomly with the process.
“We were mastering a track,” remembers Grimble, “and Mark said, ‘Oh, I wanna cut a bit in.’ He brought out his dictaphone and he played it onto a piece of tape and he goes, ‘I want that bit.’ Ian was like, ‘OK, so find out where you want it.’ And Mark just like, randomly, went, ‘There.’ And we cut it in.”
But, in a tale that has passed into Fall legend, Smith pushed Cooper too far with his warped demands when mastering ‘Hit The North’. “Me and Ian Grimble went in,” Rogers remembers. “Ian Cooper put it on, said, ‘Sounds great, I’m gonna put a little bit of 20k on it.’ So we did that. And then Mark came in with his plastic bag and a tin of beer and he said, ‘I want bass fookin’ reverb in the intro and then take the top off.’ It was horseshit. Ian Cooper left the room and came back with, I think, a big knife and put it down on the desk.”
“It was a big plumber’s wrench,” Grimble insists. “He put it on the desk and was like, ‘Now what d’you want?’ And Mark actually shut up.”
Simon Rogers was to go on to produce two more albums for the Fall, Code: Selfish in 1992 and The Infotainment Scan in 1993, before he and Smith had an irreparable bust–up in a studio in Manchester.
“We were doing a remix of something we’d started somewhere else,” he recalls, “which was on two–inch 24 track. We got to the studio and the band were all set up and it was a 16–track half–inch studio that Mark had booked. So I said, ‘Oh you can’t carry on, it’s not gonna work.’ He said, ‘Why can’t you back me up for once?’ I said, ‘What d’you mean?’ It’s like the time-code thing. There’s no negotiation or leeway. I said, ‘I can’t do anything about it, send me the tape in London.’ Then he starts going you fucking this, you fucking that. I got the train and that was the end. There was one phone call after that and I’ve never seen him since. Afterwards I don’t think he was as angry with me as all that. But it was just one of those things.”
Looking back on his time working with the Fall, Rogers admits that it was a period which taught him a lot. “Just that there’s other ways to do things,” he says. “After coming out of the Royal College Of Music, I realised there’s more than one way to skin a cat. For sure.”
As far as ‘Hit The North’ was concerned, although it is now considered a classic track for the Fall, upon its release, it actually failed to chart, struggling to number 57. As ever, Mark E Smith had a theory about this.
“We lost half our fan base with that,” he pointed out, “‘cause everybody thought it was disco. Everybody was like, fucking hell, they’ve sold out.”
Not that it matters much to him, of course, being just another colourful incident in the weird and wonderful world of the Fall.
“I don’t see the Fall as being parallel to any other groups,” he concluded. “We’re not indie, we’re autonomous.”
Label: Beggars BanquetReleased: 1987 Producer: Simon Rogers Engineer: Ian Grimble