City Hobgoblins

Lyrics

(1)

Spiders know these things 
Gremlins know these things
Tap, tap, tap, tap
You think it's the pipes
But who turns on the lights?
Our city hobgoblins
Our city hobgoblins
Ubu le Roi is a home hobgoblin (2)
And at nights all ready
Our city hobgoblins
Our city hobgoblins
Infest my home at night
They are not alright
Ten times my age
One-tenth my height
Our city hobgoblins
Our city hobgoblins
Buzz of the all-night mill (3)
Ah but evil
Emigres from old green glades
Pretentious, eh?
Our city hobgoblins
Our city hobgoblins
They'll get yer
So Queen Victoria
Is a large black slug in Piccadilly, Manchester (4)
Our city hobgoblins
Our city hobgoblins
And they say
We cannot walk the floor at night in peace (5)
At night in peace

(6)

Notes

1. Reformation has the following snippet:

MES in Tapezine self-interview, 1980: "...City Hobgoblins which was originally called Case for the Jews, not that that's got anything to do with the song...it's good. It's a paean to paranoia number 1097. We've got a new drummer on it called Paul Hanley...can't be here at the moment because he's got school."

The song may be about the Manchester football hooligans dubbed the "Perry boys." The following interpretation of the song comes from an interview with Morrissey (the latter's comments are in bold type):

Legend has it that sometime in the late Seventies, somewhere in the northwest of England, there existed a mythical city called Manchester. To the north of the city lay the infamous Collyhurst Perrys - a vicious cult of midgets dedicated to Jumbo cords, wedge haircuts, Fred Perry tee-shirts and easy violence. Morrissey remembers them well. So do I, especially the night my skull cracked open under the weight of a specially sharpened heavyweight Perry belt-buckle. (Perrys were always good at CSE metalwork.)
"They're still there. Trouble is, now they're all 33 and they're still doing the same thing. The memories I have of being trapped in Piccadilly Bus Station while waiting for the all-night bus or being chased across Piccadilly Gardens by some 13-year-old Perry from Collyhurst wielding a Stanley Knife. Even when I was on the bus I would be petrified because I would always be accosted. They were the most vicious people. They would smack you in the mouth and ask you what you were looking at after."
They were all so small, as if suffering from some sort of genetic defect...
"Hence 'City Hobgoblins' by The Fall. What's the line? ... 'Half my height, three times my age'."
They always used to hang around the Arndale Shopping Centre.


The "Perry Boys" seem to have gotten their name because they favored Fred Perry polo shirts. According to, believe it or not, perryboys.com:

The original Perry Boys were a strange crowd, a Soul rabble that put most other gangs to flight. They were few in number in the early-70s when Manchester enjoyed its main Northern Soul era, but as the decade progressed they became more visible. The “bags” - immense flares made from a billowing silky-type material favoured by the Skinners and football hooligans - hid the Perries presence. But they were in there, among the Glam-Rock and Soul crowd, dancing to the beat in polo shirts, narrow Mod jeans and gym pumps. 

Eventually, the story goes, a lot of Perry boys emigrated and brought their style to the world. I don't know if this is what the song is really about, as Morrissey seems to be the only source for this theory.

^

2. Ubu Roi ("Ubu the King") is the title character of a play by Alfred Jarry, about a fat, stupid and greedy man who was apparently based on one of Jarry's schoolteachers; in fact, the play began as an ongoing collaboration between students ridiculing a particularly inept teacher and predated, in one form or another, Jarry's appropriation of the theme. Ubu is sometimes said to be Jarry's caricature of the typical man of modernity. Mark Goodall has stated that the song also draws on Camus and Sartre, but I do not know what this claim is based upon (if there are variant lyrics out there, I hope someone will call them to my attention).  

^

3. The mill is a central symbol in Blake, for whom evil is conceived primarily in terms of the mechanical and venal workings of an industrial society that is losing its capacity for imagination. The most famous appearance of this trope is probably the "dark Satanic mills" of the verses from Milton that form the basis for the English hymn, and the Fall song adapted therefrom, "Jerusalem."  

^

4. This line seems to refer to the statue by Edward Onslow Ford (1852-1901) in Manchester's Piccadilly Square, which looks a bit like a slug.  

^

5. From Big Youth's "Keep Your Dread": "We cannot walk the streets at night in peace..." There are also lines that probably come from Big Youth songs in "No X-mas for John Quays" and "Get a Hotel."

^

6. Oh, yeah--it ain't over.  Martin has dug something up:

In the more than slightly odd book Pan (Camden Joy and Colin B Morton, Highwater Books, 2001), a lot of which is set at the infamous 1998 Brownies gig in New York, there is a character called Alvin Snook who has his own peculiar interpretation of this song. After previously observing that Mark E Smith had eaten a biscuit the morning before composing "Everybody But Myself" ("He did not eat toast, as many people believe, but a biscuit. It is not known what type of biscuit, but there are many theories") he goes on to talk about "City Hobgoblins":

"Note how, accented in the title, comes the word '`hob,' as in `HOBNOB', a popular brand of biscuit in the United Kingdom. Perhaps this is Mark E Smith's choice of biscuit; again, I reiterate, there are many theories. 'Nob,' the biscuit's lost syllable, is, significantly, British slang for 'penis'. 'Goblin', of course, is how 'gobbling' would sound if pronounced by a working-class prole of Mark E Smith's ilk. I can therefore argue with resolute certainty that 'City Hobgoblins' is about oral sex."

I present this extract more for the sake of completionism rather than a serious addition to the lyrical study of the song, I should add...

But Martin, I had to give it a note, don't you think? If this wasn't from 2001 I'd swear they were having a go at us...

^

Comments (7)

Kong
  • 1. Kong | 16/06/2015
Isn't it 'emigrés from old Greek lays'?
Martin
  • 2. Martin | 18/09/2015
In the more than slightly odd book "Pan" (Camden Joy and Colin B Morton, Highwater Books, 2001), a lot of which is set at the infamous 1998 Brownies gig in New York, there is a character called Alvin Snook who has his own peculiar interpretation of this song. After previously observing that Mark E Smith had eaten a biscuit the morning before composing "Everybody But Myself" ("He did not eat toast, as many people believe, but a biscuit. It is not known what type of biscuit, but there are many theories.") he goes on to talk about "City Hobgoblins":

"Note how, accented in the title, comes the word 'hob`, as in `HOBNOB', a popular brand of biscuit in the United Kingdom. Perhaps this is Mark E Smith's choice of biscuit; again, I reiterate, there are many theories. 'Nob', the biscuit's lost syllable, is, significantly, British slang for 'penis'.'Goblin', of course, is how 'gobbling' would sound if pronounced by a working-calss prole of Mark E Smith's ilk. I can therefore argue with resolute certainty that 'City Hobgoblins' is about oral sex."

I present this extract more for the sake of completionism rather than a serious addition to the lyrical study of the song, I should add...
bzfgt
  • 3. bzfgt | 15/11/2015
Does the accent change positions between "hob" and "hobnob" in the original? I assumed the second was correct and moved the first...
David
  • 4. David | 22/01/2016
If it needs to be said, Hobnob part, at least, of Snook's fictional theory is clearly wrong. City Hobgoblins was released in 1980, and my memory and Wikipedia both agree that the Hobnob only came into being in the mid 1980s.
Scoot
  • 5. Scoot | 11/12/2016
The statue of Queen Victoria at Picadilly Manchester does indeed resemble a large black slug.
bzfgt
  • 6. bzfgt | 26/12/2016
I must thank you for that comment, Scoot, as it made me think "crap, don't I have a note about that?" and when I checked there was a typo...
dannyno
  • 7. dannyno | 22/02/2017
What we need is "The Illustrated Fall Lyrics".

For a good picture of the Queen Victoria statue:
http://manchesterhistory.net/manchester/statues/victoria.html

Image

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