Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Fall "Hey! Luciani"

Pope Francis is due to arrive in the United States this week, and it's made me think of maybe the one great rock song written about a pope, The Fall's "Hey! Luciani."  It's about Pope John Paul I, known as Albino Luciani before taking St. Peter's chair for only a month before dying in one of the shortest papal reigns in history.  Mark E Smith of The Fall wrote this song as part of a larger play of the same name about John Paul I/Luciani in 1986, the time when The Fall popped up their sound a bit and toned down their dissonant garage punk approach.  (Much of this had to do with band newcomer Brix Smith, also Mark E Smith's spouse.)

As with most Fall songs, "Hey! Luciani"'s lyrical content is hard to decipher but crucially important.  It theorizes that John Paul/Luciani had not just died of a heart attack, but had been killed by members of the curia (the papal bureaucracy) for his anti-capitalist proclivities, which would have included going after the then and now scandal-ridden Vatican bank.  I don't put a lot of stock into those theories (mostly due to lack of evidence, even if the motive clearly existed), but I have often wondered if any reformist pope, including Francis, has the ability to truly overcome the inertia and corruption within the institution.  So far I have to say I am glad that Francis has had a lot more than the miniscule 33 days that John Paul had.

The song itself is wonderfully propulsive, starting with a catchy harpsichord hook, a sign that The Fall are up to more than their usual distorted guitars bread and butter.  Then come the booming, gated snare drums, so beloved of mid-1980s studio producers.  In this song, used sparingly, they actually work, and don't sound like clunky relics, as they do on REM's record of 1986, Life's Great Pageant.  Smith snarls the lyrics perfectly, especially the sinister "all the cowls of black/ on the Inquisition rack," and that snarl has a great counterpoint in Brix Smith's "ba ba bad da dah dahs" in the background.  The mid-to-late 80s are a musical quagmire of overproduction and overwrought songs as far as the rock scene is concerned, it amazes me sometimes that this song could have so many markers of the era but transcend them so well.

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