High Tension Line



High tension line, step down

Jeanette Fletcher is strange but not in a horrible way
And Michelle Spencer is this tight
Come and hear her today
And see 40-year olds in multicoloured shirts (2)
It never used to concern me
But now it's making me say

High tension line, step down

Buying houses and doing them up far far away
Got at my shoulder
CDTI and behind me TDK (3)
You have to go far for the simple and unadorned
And please excuse my words, wandering

High tension line, step down

At my feet CDTI breakdown
And I pick up the phone, no-one
And am far too far fast for sampling
Just spend my time avoiding

High tension line, step down

Life is nothing more than a disposable facial tissue (4)
In a brass bin and spawn
Take it out, I notice face imprint
And please excuse my words, I'm wandering

High tension line, step down


1. It's worth reproducing what Reformation has on this one:

According to Simon Ford in his book "Hip Priest", the song's title "came from an obscure source, composer La Monte Young's 'The Second Dream of the High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer' (1963), a piece of music with no apparent beginning, middle or ending. " Ford goes on to say that MES had some trouble persuading Phonogram to bring it out as a single, given that it was the fourth such from the group in a year. 

The lyrics were supposed to be topical, and while this is debatable, the video featured the band wearing SS uniforms. In one of his more infamous statements, MES said in an interview with Stephen Dalton, "Not Falling, Soaring· (Vox, June 1991), "I just thought it would be a good crack...All these bands into shocking people are as tame as fuck. I made everyone conver up the SS symbols and swastikas. I'm very anti-Nazi, actually. What they did was criminal. They put German art back about one hundred years." 
As for subject matter, here's MES himself with sarcasometer turned up full from a Sounds interview of the time: 'Records should reflect what people think at the time and it's tense in England at the moment. Everyone's worried about their mortgages and stuff. You know me, I'm a man of the suburbs.' 
I really have no idea what the song has to do with Nazis, or for that matter what the point is of dressing in Nazi garb with the insignia covered up. Anyway, the video is here, if it provides any valuable clues I'm too thick to dope it out.
La Monte Young's The Second Dream of the High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer consists of four notes played by eight muted trumpets, and was inspired, apparently, by the actual sounds of electric transformers, which Young liked to listen to as a boy:

This continuous steady hum is the ancestral origin of my work with sixty-cycles, which is the frequency that the electrical companies provide the power to us in the United States: 60 cycles per second. Everywhere we go, we hear this 60 cycle drone and, or, other frequency components that are related to this drone. Eventually I began to tune all of my music that I do in the U.S. with electronics to this 60 cycle per second drone, because even in today's year, 2001-2002, and even with the best equipment, there is still some residual hum. (60 cycles per second.) If you create music that is in tune with this hum, then there can never be an interference with the music that you are creating. It's the idea that it is the strongest drone in our vicinity.

A step-down transformer converts electricity from a higher to a lower voltage, and perhaps, apart from the homage to Young, Smith intended the refrain to suggest a lowering of the tension alluded to in the verses. 
There is a song called "High Tension Wire" on the Dead Boys' 1977 debut album, Young Loud and Snotty. The absence of a comma after "Young" was taken as definitve proof of society's degeneration by many at the time, but in the age of social media, the Dead Boys appear prescient. There's not really much connection between the songs, although they have a similar tempo. 

MES on the lyrics:
I think there's a lot of, like, information anxiety around in the world, people are trying to come to grips with computers and DATs and
TDKs and shit like that. They can't really handle it, so they get into this 
anxious state. It's like an over-anxious state, I see it all the
See note 3 for "TDK."
2. For someone who's known as a curmudgeon, MES has at times shown a surprising amount of contempt for middle aged people, or at least middle aged people other than himself; while he procliams his pride in "50 Year Old Man ," members of his own band come in for a dose of (admittedly, perhaps good-humored) contumely in "The League of Bald Headed Men." He sometimes brags that that the Fall still draws a lot of young people, as if this were self-evidently a good thing, and ever since the Hanley era he has stocked his band with musicians significantly younger than himself. Ageism? You decide, reader! It should be remembered, however, that he always has a sense of humor about these things.
3. CDTI is apparently Clean Diesel Technologies, Inc. TDK is a Japanese electronics company that makes popular casette tapes. According to Blue Moth on the Fall online forum:
I saw a movie, maybe it was one of those Highlander ones 
and a silly fight on a roof of a building and there was a huge glowing sign 
TDK behind these two fighting it out.
4. Dan points out that an old joke runs ""Life is like a kleenex, not much good once you've blown it." This doesn't quite work, does it? One blows one's nose, not a Kleenex...


More Information

Comments (28)

  • 1. Martin | 26/01/2014
There are at least 53 people called Jeanette Fletcher on the UK electoral roll. There are also many people with the name Michelle Spencer. I can't give links as the websites in question charge you for looking for more than one free name.
  • 2. Mark | 21/05/2014
If "'The Second Dream of the High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer" is supposed to have no apparent beginning, middle or end, do you think that's why this song fades in and out?
Leon Massey
  • 3. Leon Massey (link) | 06/03/2015
[image][/image]facial tissue in a brass bin at dawn?
  • 4. bzfgt | 28/03/2015
Leon, what am I supposed to glean from that link? I see a list of non-album releases but nothing about the lyric you quote, HTL is not mentioned...
  • 5. dannyno | 08/10/2016
"Life is nothing more than a disposable
Facial tissue"

Reminiscent of the joke phrase/saying, "Life is like a kleenex, not much good once you've blown it".
  • 6. Junkman | 05/03/2018
I took MES's line about his crowds getting younger to be him stating that he wasn't just appealing to a stale, aging fanbase. Of course, he could've been getting new fans that were his age or older - but that fact would've been invisible to him. Looking out from the stage and seeing young people was the concrete proof that he was still reaching new people.
  • 7. bzfgt (link) | 17/03/2018
Why is "aging" "stale"? Why can't old people be "new"? It seems like a conflation of different meanings of "old"--the antonym of "new," and the antonym of "young"...
  • 8. bzfgt (link) | 17/03/2018
Sorry, I get what you're saying, I hate that whole youth fetish business which made me skip over where you addressed that the first time I read your comment...I got into the Fall when I was 45...so there.
  • 9. dannyno | 09/07/2018
Jeanette Fletcher is strange but not in a horrible way
And Michelle Spencer is this tight

For what it's worth, the blue lyrics book has:

Janet Fletcher is strange,
But not in a terrible way,
And Michelle Spenser is dead tight,
Come and hear it today.

The spelling may be as accurate as the rendered lyric, there, ie. not very.
  • 10. dannyno | 06/09/2020
Typo in the url for this page!


  • 11. dannyno | 06/09/2020
  • 12. bzfgt (link) | 06/09/2020
I don't think there's anything I can do about that
Mining this interview
  • 13. Mining this interview | 14/11/2020
I'd like to ask you about a couple of songs from the new album. I like
'High Tension Line' a lot, can you tell me what that's about?

"Ehm... I just liked the music and I liked to do it like that, wanted
to make it bit of a classical-type ('Classical'-type?) sounding
song. Didn't go down to very well. But it's on the CD now, so let's
see what happens. It's good. The production was really good, I
thought, by Grant and me, it's good. It's a bit ahead of its time, I
think. Take a while to sink in. If you listen to it the first time it
sounds like the Rolling Stones or something, but if you listen to it
properly it's quite good. If you listen to it the first time it sounds
like any other Fall song, but if you listen to it properly it's
good. The arrangement is quite unique."

And the lyrics?

"It's just basically a statement, you know. I think there's a lot of,
like, information anxiety around in the world, people are trying to
come to grips with computers and DATs and TDKs and shit like
that. They can't really handle it, so they get into this
anxious state. It's like an over-anxious state, I see it all the

You say something like, 'It never used to concern me...'

"...but now it's getting me down, yeah."
  • 14. dannyno | 15/11/2020
Comment #13. Should be a law about linking to sources of quotations!

This one is another from the Miejer interview, text archived here: https://web.archive.org/web/20201115085004if_/https://sites.google.com/site/reformationposttpm/Home/bibliography/1991---early---miejer-interview
  • 15. bzfgt (link) | 13/02/2021
This is kind of funny:

" If you listen to it the first time it sounds
like any other Fall song, but if you listen to it properly it's
good. "

It's like the old joke, Fall music--it's better than it sounds
  • 16. DJAsh (link) | 15/11/2021
Re the facial tissue line :

From Kurt Vonnegut’s BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS: “ Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues?”
Spartan HB
  • 17. Spartan HB | 07/01/2022
With inspiration from DJAsh's discovery of the Vonnegut reference, my ears are hearing Smith acknowledge his source with a nod to Vonnegut. I think he likely says "that's Vonn." or maybe "acts Vonn." or even "thanks Vonn." with "th" too far from microphone to hear the start of the word. Definitely a Vonn.

"Life is nothing more than a disposable,
facial tissue In a brass bin (that's Vonn.)."

To me it seems like he is lingering on an abbreviated "Vonn." and pronounced to rhyme with Vaughan or thorn.
  • 18. dannyno | 12/01/2022
Comment #17. I'm not hearing the same thing.

Listened to all the versions, live and studio, that I have, and it sounds like "at dawn" now. But tricky to hear properly.
  • 19. dannyno | 12/01/2022

In a brass bin and spawn
Take it out, I notice face imprint

I'm hearing this:

... in a brass bin at dawn
I take it out and notice face imprint
  • 20. dannyno | 12/01/2022
Leon Massey comment #3 was also hearing "brass bin at dawn", I see.
  • 21. John (link) | 05/05/2022
Heard this for the first time the other day. On "High tension Line...Step Down", my mind makes an immediate association with "workin in a coal mine oops, about to slip down" (by Lee Dorsey, also covered by Devo). Very similar bits of language, phrased similarly at the end of the main refrain of each song. Almost feels like a reference, could be a subconscious thing from MES, or maybe no connection at all, but to me there's a connection anyway.
  • 22. dannyno | 01/08/2022
I have a theory. It's not a very strong theory, but it does at least suggest something that might maybe be checkable.

Jeanette Fletcher is strange but not in a horrible way
And Michelle Spencer is this tight
Come and hear her today

My theory is triggered by the "come and hear her today" line.

This suggests to me, this section of lyric - or part of it - might possibly have been borrowed from spiritualist/medium/clairvoyant literature/leaflets/advertising. "Come and hear her today" suggests to me someone performing in that line.

Whether the names are real, or made up, or amended, is obviously something I don't know.

As theories go, I admit, it's a bit weak. And it's not much to go on. But at least it suggests some possible research directions.
Jimmy Greaves
  • 23. Jimmy Greaves | 18/12/2022
For what it's worth, all diesel UK market Vauxhall cars for many years have had 'CDTi' in their name, eg an Insignia or Vectra 2.0 CDTi.

I've always assumed Mark's driving a diesel Vauxhall with a TDK tape playing on the cassette player. Then the car breaks down and he can't get any help on the phone.
david rathbone
  • 24. david rathbone | 26/07/2023
Here's that Miejer interview from comment 14 with a link that works:
Jordan A.
  • 25. Jordan A. | 10/08/2023
I recently happened upon this clip from the show Dallas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1VBTb3-HeQ

At the 2:45 mark, Sue Ellen tells Mandy that she is “nothing more than a disposable piece of facial tissue.” Given MES’s mention of Dynasty in the opening lyrics to Bill Is Dead, it wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate that he may have taken inspiration from another popular American soap opera of that era.
  • 26. dannyno | 29/08/2023
Jordan A, comment #25

Brilliantly spotted! That's undoubtedly the origin of the line.
  • 27. dannyno | 29/08/2023
MES, from Renegade:

I remember one year when I watched nothing but Dallas – it was great. JR: fantastic. Didn’t mind Dynasty either. Me and Elena like Neighbours as well

We do have other bits and pieces drawn from soaps, and there's an entire song (Susan vs Youthclub which has its roots in a story arc in Neighbours.

Already quoted back in comment #55, but worth recapitulating.
  • 28. dannyno | 29/08/2023
Comment #55 in the Bill is Dead entry here, I obviously mean.

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