In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking songs about living in the city.
As befitting his persona as the William Blake of complaining about his neighbors, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith has long populated his post-punk screeds with pithy, pissy observations about the horrors of city life. Sometimes these take on a Lovecraftian edge, as in the monsters of “City Hobgoblins”; elsewhere they are more about the banality of evil, as in the “Euro-bores” of “City Dweller.” Occasionally they are just the idiots at the pub (“Slags, Slates, Etc.”), the dull shells tying up traffic (“M5#1”), or the stupid, sad sacks that come in varieties fresh-faced (“Hey Student”) and past their prime (“Paranoia Man In Cheap Shit Room”). Regardless of their specific transgressions, together they form the Hieronymus Bosch-like tangle of terrible flesh that Smith has to wade through every day just to get a beer.
But while he’s definitely put it more vividly, “I Wake Up In The City” is Smith’s most visceral rendition of the bemusement and disgust with which he navigates urban life. Released as a Flitwick 7-inch—then neutered, as so many latter-day Fall songs are, with an album rewrite as “My Ex-Classmates Kids” for Are You Are Missing Winner—the song is a classic Stooges-esque garage rock churner, with Smith ranting in a voice as gnarled and garbled as the guitar behind him, sounding every bit the cranky old man yelling at passerby from the stoop of his flat. It is perhaps the only rock song that uses a phlegm-clearing smoker’s cough as a lyrical hook.
Smith’s observations are typically scattered, spotting bureaucrats lurking in the trees, complaining equally of the KGB, “glasses under my skin,” and uncooperative vending machines, comparing himself to Jesus and General Custer, and even slipping in a dirty joke about giving a dog a bone. Then there’s the random audio sample of some talk show pundits, babbling on about education requirements for the youngsters, dropping in uninvited to add to the sensory overload.
It’s all crazy, cross-the-street-to-avoid-him stuff—but as Smith outlines in the chorus, it’s not totally his fault. It’s the city’s “thoughts that pollute me,” all of these things crowding in on him and causing him to wonder, “How many of you are stable?” No one, he declares by song’s end. If you wake up in the city, you’re part of this living nightmare. At least Mark E. Smith knows he’s dreaming.