“I am The Fall”
Martin Bramah interviewed about ‘Live At The Witch Trials’ forty years on.
Forty years on from its release, a deluxe edition 3-CD re-issue of the debut album by The Fall ‘Live At The Witch Trials’ is coming out soon on Cherry Reds ‘Fall Sound Archive’ label.
Ged Babey spoke to co-founder and guitarist Martin Bramah, about the bands early days, the album and of course Mark E Smith.
Towards the end of the interview, Martin Bramah sucked hard on his cigarette, downed the remains of his glass of whiskey and pushed his rockstar shades onto the top of his head and leaned towards me:
“Mark and I loved each other like brothers maan. He was a cunt yeah, but I loved him and I miss him”
His eyes were filling up with tears and the shades came back down onto the bridge of his nose.
“Publish that and I’ll kill you”
That didn’t happen. I type-talked to Martin Bramah online. He doesn’t talk like he’s in an American rockumentary and it’s no secret that he probably hadn’t been on good terms with Mark since he left the band (twice).
Blue Orchids, which Bramah formed after leaving the Fall in 1979 have been making extraordinary music over the past few years. Righteous Harmony Fist is a masterpiece, as is 2016’s The Once and Future Thing. The forthcoming covers album is a treasure too. He is an under-rated figure as both a guitarist and songwriter… and it all started with the Fall in 1977. He agreed to cast is mind back and talk to me about the early days of the band and the Witch Trials album. Intended as a few snippets to go with a review of the album, this is the whole thing, as it’s just too good to edit down.
(GB) I generally subscribe to the idea that any bands first album is their ‘best’ or most interesting /exciting as its a group of people (mates) combining their talent or enthusiasm to make something new and great….and the debut album is a documenting of a year or mores working and playing together… And to me a band is just that four (or five) people, like the Beatles/Monkees archetype – with all playing an equal part.
With the apocryphal ‘If its me and your granny on bongos..” this didn’t apply to the Fall after Witch Trials…
how did it feel at the time (long time ago I know) were the 1977/78 Fall a band of friends, a band of equals… a band of drug-fiends who formed a band almost by accident?
(MB) The original Fall was all of the above…
Like most naturally forming bands, we were teenagers that grew up within a few miles of each other and so gravitated to the same watering holes, at first warily circling each other, then gradually becoming friends.We became a gang of like minded delinquents, heading into town to discover what the world had to offer us. Books and records were very important. In Manchester, in the 1970s, we knew we were at the end of something and at the beginning of something. LSD was very important. Manchester, as a city, was like a cultural vacuum, sucking in all the ideas and trends of other cities and centers of creativity but seemingly without a character of its own, or without a contemporary character of any value.
In this city we were able to drink in all the latest music, all the latest books and magazines, the latest movies, politics, fashion, history, etc. and puke it all up in what turned out to be a very Mancunian fashion.
Making music became a natural part of hanging out, a novelty, a way of bringing our heroes down to earth. We didn’t take any of it seriously but it was deadly serious. Speed and weed were for fun or an aid to meditation.
So yes, we were equals, with a lot rivalry and name calling thrown in – and then Punk Rock hit the UK and we were on it like we owned it.
Unlike boys-club bands there was always a female presence in the Fall – starting with Una Baines – who I always imagine had a big influence, not only in how the band sounded, but how they were perceived and behaved – or am I wrong?
Yes, you make a good point. Having a young feminist in the band helped to temper our more laddish leanings.
Because of our Velvet Underground obsession, we needed a Mo Tucker, and Una Baines was at first imagined as being our drummer.
But what people don’t realize is that it was Una’s flat on Kingswood Road in Prestwich Village that was the base of operations for the The Fall in those early years. It was in the attic room of her small flat that we made all the music and her living room/kitchen was our office.
No doubt this influenced the group’s outlook and attitude and this thread of the feminine presence became essential to the internal dynamics as well as to the image of The Fall.
The first two Peel sessions I never realised, you played both guitar and bass -and the band only signed off the dole the day before the second session. How do you feel about those sessions now – do they represent the Fall (77-79) somehow better than the finished Witch Trials album? ( not dissing the album, it’s probably from a fan point of view, those sessions were the first time some of us heard the band)
In fact I played guitar and bass on the first Peel session only, by the second session I’d trained up Marc Riley to play Fall bass, then Riley initiated Steve Hanley, who went on to perfect Fall bass technique.
We learned a lot about recording and recording quickly during those first two sessions. In a way ‘Witch Trials’ was an attempt to capture that experience and set it in stone for posterity. I don’t think the sessions are any better or worse than the album, both were executed in the same manner and represent the group’s working style in 1978 – along with ‘Various Times/It’s The New Thing’. We set a standard hard to beat
Marc Riley has gone on record as saying that the Fall, Subway Sect and Alternative TV ( and I would add the Prefects ) were the truest examples of UK Punk -in that, I suppose, they studiously avoiding playing Chuck Berry / 12-bar ‘rock’n’roll’ – and did something new and distinctive. What can you remember about your intent, at the time, apropos ‘the music’ and how you wanted it to sound?
I was trying to look at the basic building blocks of the rock song. To see how the patterns made popular could be inverted and re-imagined. Stripped of all cliches. Like taking a Lego house and applying a blowtorch to make art.
I had a profound insight into “beginner’s mind” musically speaking and an awareness of “the layman’s ear” as I termed it. I was very interested in the ideas of John Cale and Brian Eno, too. In their principles and approach not in their style or sound. I mean I learned a lot from them but I did not want to imitate them.
We made “head music with energy” as I was quoted as saying at the time: Zen and the art of Punk.
Repetition was important. The idea that there was no such thing as repetition. The world being in a constant state of flux – you say something twice and the second time you say it will have a different meaning to the first time because the world has moved on and changed in those moments between then and now… and so the meaning has changed in relation to it. This is a great starting point for creativity, or it was for us.
I get the feeling that you are still very proud of Live at the Witch Trials? (Some artists dismiss their early work…)
“Witch Trials” is a very good album that has stood the test of time. It is considered an underground rock classic and of course I am proud of that – who wouldn’t be?
Your life and career in music has been in a way, inextricably bound with Mark E Smith – even though you were only in a band with him for two years – and Blue Orchids – who have consistently made great music, seem to have, as far as the music press are concerned, always been in the shadow of the Fall. Has the shadow been lifted with Mark E’s passing? Did he go from ‘best mate’ to ‘worst enemy’? Was he a ‘great artist/impossible human being’?
I think it is I who may have gone from ‘best mate’ to ‘worst enemy’ in Mark’s mind. The reasons for this are complicated, even quite personal, and I’m not handing them out on a plate here… do your own research.
(Una was Mark’s girlfriend I know from this and from Facebook I know her daughters surname is Bramah. I should invest in one of the books on The Fall… )
I will say that when I was asked to rejoin in 1989, I ended up feeling like I’d only been invited back into the fold so I could be punished for leaving the first time around.
A large part of Mark Smith’s success is down to the fact that he was a master of the ‘rock star’ interview, he gave good press. His secret was his preparedness. He read all the weekly music papers religiously from cover to cover. He got to now the names and writing styles of all the influential journalists. So when it came to be his turn to be interviewed by the rock media, he was better briefed than his interrogators. Mark was an ‘A’ student of the Lou Reed school of how to handle the press and loved sparing with the hacks. He used this intellectual muscle to create the myth/character of ‘Mark E. Smith’ the lone genius that didn’t need anybody, and through subtle insinuation and bald lie, he managed to get everyone else involved in the creation of The Fall written out of the story. Often by just refusing to answer questions about his collaborators or mocking the questioner for daring to even ask. I know his fans will say he proved he didn’t need anybody else; in fact he proved he needed an army of helpers over the years, he called them “The Fall” and dismissed them as useless fucking musicians.
As an example of Mark’s chutzpah: MES was the only rock singer that managed to convince the public that being the singer in a rock group was hard work. Not even Mick Jagger has managed to pull that one off. In fact he was a lazy drunkard, who was chauffeured around everywhere, dropped his dirty washing round at his mams and couldn’t even be bothered to turn up for band rehearsals.
A genius with words though. No doubt about it.
Has this terrible shadow lifted, you ask? Never! because it is my shadow. I Am The Fall!
And that is the trouble with email interviews… Does he mean it? Or should I add… (Cue hammy, maniacal, melodramatic laughter… Mu-ah-ha-ha-ha-ha -haaah! )
Live At The Witch Trials, deluxe 3CD version in clamshell boxset is available to pre-order now from Cherry Red. Alongside the full album is a disc of b-sides and session tracks and a live show from Mr Pickwick’s in Liverpool 1978. The boxset also features a booklet of new sleeve notes by Daryl Easlea and has been remastered by long-term Fall engineer Andy Pearce. Pre-Order from here
Buy Blue Orchids from here
All Words Ged Babey and Martin Bramah (C)
Photo of The Fall ©️Kevin Cummins 1977