“They say you project yourself…”:
“Edinburgh Man” and desire. Andrew Renton, 2020
You’re trying to understand who’s speaking… It couldn’t belong to anyone else, but is he speaking in tongues, speaking in character? In whose name is he speaking? There’s a default mode to read (and overread) MES for autobiography – a barely mediated writing/utterance of the self. But that won’t wash. He’s set too many stumbling blocks and contradictions. And no apologies.
The song’s not what you would expect, of course. But then, you’ve always come to expect the unexpected. Always different, always the same, as John Peel said. Until it’s more different. Difference, here, is not defined in terms of styles, genre or production. These variants are open for debate and everyone has their favourite Fall mode or moment. Rather, difference may be understood in terms of perspective. It’s about MES’s constant shifts of position. You might be able to argue that he always speaks in character. But it’s too varied a representation to be simply self-caricature.
Formally, the song plays the game completely. A proper song almost – things are in tune, in time and there’s verse/chorus structure to boot. And that plaintive guitar line. And MES’s even more plaintive tracking of that melody. And that doodoodoo backing vocal. Post-Brix pop.
Reviews of Shift-Work always mention “Edinburgh Man” as the standout. A 10/10 review in NME from 1991 called it ‘the best Fall song ever’ – already a big statement some fifteen albums in. Not just because it’s different, but dare you suggest that “Edinburgh Man” offers a moment of relief? It steps outside of its context. That is, it’s a Fall song that’s not always resisting, not always pushing against something. Although live recordings attest that MES could interpret the song with more urgency in performance, “Edinburgh Man” is one of the rare moments where it appears that MES is not taking on the world, and is at relative peace with place and time. But you know better than to take things at face value. Even when he’s persuading you to take things at face value. You sing along to a song that’s not reinventing the wheel and comfortably inhabits tried and tested genres. And sometimes a pop song is just a pop song. And/or a love song.
There are a handful of these romantic, yearning Fall songs. There’s the poignant ode to lost love, “Rose”, also on Shift-Work. And then there’s “Bill is Dead”, which demands an essay of its own. So “Edinburgh Man” doesn’t come out of nowhere, but it’s still as strange a declaration as MES has made. More than anything, it’s the explicit expression of desire which surprises. “I wish I was…,” he says. Unguarded as this is, should it be taken literally? Yes and no. It’s not irony, as such. But you might be able to argue for a condition which simultaneously sustains intimacy and detachment.
What can you rely upon, then? Is “Edinburgh Man” about Edinburgh at all? To the extent, perhaps, that it’s about an idea of an absent place. It’s certainly chock-full of references to specific sites and recollections that speak to an Edinburgh life lived, albeit a somewhat solitary and melancholy one. In an interview about Edinburgh, MES confirmed that “It’s a bit of an escape really.” Biographical detail will back this up. There’s no lack of sincerity here. But you could equally go through the song, line by line, and dismantle every assertion. You desperately want to take it at face value. But the tone is so elegiac that MES would have been the first to tell you to mistrust it.
Evidently, you can be sure MES never thought of himself as an Edinburgh Man (despite his brief sojourn there around 1990). He knows you know this. Was anyone more rooted to one spot? He never wrote “Prestwich Man”, perhaps because so much of what he wrote is infused with that place it doesn’t need to be made explicit. (“Writing about Prestwich is just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno.”) Elsewhere he’s pretty keen to tell you where he’s not from. He can assert that he’s “not from Bury”, which is about five miles from Prestwich, where he lived most of his life, along the twin axes of Bury New Road and Bury Old Road. And just down the road from his house, it’s clear he’s not keen on “Cheetham Hill”, either. (This song also parses an important political distinction between “Salford or… ah… Manchester”.)
Fall songs are often informed by specific events and places; anecdotal, often residual narratives from places visited and occluded backstories. Hapless or curious encounters. Always from the outside looking in, however hallucinatory the perspective. Places imagined or remembered. Or both. But “Edinburgh Man” isn’t a nostalgia trip. It’s more the dismantling of memory. Remembering at one remove. An emotional ventriloquism. Desire sublimated through dislocation. Always elsewhere. And MES always inhabiting a version of himself.
Places cited in song titles in alphabetical order, almost certainly incomplete:
Bourgeois Town. (Reworking of a Lead Belly song, “The Bourgeois Blues”, originally referring to Washington DC. MES’s version could be anywhere.)
The Capitol. [sic.]
Casino. (Undoubtedly Wigan Casino, home of Northern Soul, is invoked in “The Lie Dream of Casino Soul”. MES even replaces ‘Casino’ with ‘Wigan’ several times in the Peel Session recording.)
Coach and Horses (Generic pub name. 21st most common pub name in the UK in 2019, according to a recent survey. There’s a Coach and Horses on Bury Old Road towards Whitefield, which dates back to 1830s, rather than the song’s 1860s. But it does not seem to be about a specific pub and only indirectly about a pub at all, for that matter.)
Crappy. (As in “Town Called Crappy”, which seems to be a dig at The Jam’s “Town Called Malice”. Doesn’t appear to be location specific.)
Jerusalem. (Reworking Blake’s hymn. England as the new Jerusalem. And those ‘dark satanic mills’ resonate strongly with industrial Manchester.)
M5. (The motorway running from the Midlands to the South West. MES would have joined it from Junction 8 on the M6, the motorway that connects Manchester to Scotland northwards and the Midlands to the south.)
Mexico Wax Solvent
North West. (No definite article. Location as adjective.)
Pearl City. (Chinese restaurant in George St, Manchester.)
The Steak Place.
Victoria Train Station.
(What others have I missed…?)
Riso zine, 24 pages, 21 x 29,7 cm, edition 160, ISBN 9789492486035 – collaboration with David Powell and Andrew Renton. Essay: “They say you project yourself…”: “Edinburgh Man” and desire, by Andrew Renton. Order here.