Falling for The Fall

Mark E. Smith, Ghosts & Fanaticism

With the 2013 release of Re-Mit, Manchester’s legendary band The Fall marked more than three decades of recording with another memorable disc, their thirtieth—yes, 30th. The line up has changed time and again, the music has innovated over that time, from proto-punk to a more poppy tunefulness to electronica and new noise, but John Peel’s favourite band still fights on, sometimes crawling, sometimes dancing. At the center of the group always lies mastermind Mark E. Smith. He has famously declared, "If it's me and your granny on bongos, it's still The Fall." Some 40 or more folks have cycled in and out of the band over the years, as journalist Dave Simpson has chronicled. But Smith is right: it always sounds like The Fall.

There's an absolute certainty in his vision that can put some people off. Smith has at times been notoriously difficult with interviewers and journalists, at times cheekily proud of the fact. "The Observer magazine just about sums him up, e.g. self-satisfied, smug," he sings in How I Wrote Elastic Man, itself a song written to express his annoyance with people's failure to read the materials, as he clearly sings "How I wrote Plastic Man," a reference to the comic book hero. The Fall's music has influenced bands and artists (see his Tate Modern interview) but Smith insists on maintaining the picture of himself as just another working stiff. When an academic conference on The Fall took place in 2008 at the University of Salford, Smith's relatives buttonholed presenters at the pub, demanding to know who authorized it and Smith later called former Fall producer Grant Showbiz in the middle of his presentation.

The Fall are one of those bands that create musical Marmite: you'll find very few people who can take them or leave them. Most will adamantly fall on one side or the other of the divide—and some are even willing to come to blows over it. While living in upstate New York I recall an outing to a Beckett play in another state (yes, it is sometimes required to travel many miles to find culture in the US); unexpected snow made the trip through the mountains unexpectedly perilous and I was grateful that 50,000 Fall Fans Can't be Wrong provided a steady soundtrack to the tense drive. However, after the play as we jumped in the car to begin our return journey, my companion—with a stricken look—begged me, "Can't we listen to something else?" He had been traumatized by his first exposure to the band.

Why are Fall fans so decisively keen? The band supplies all the requirements for full-on geek fanaticism: a giddy wealth of material, obscure references to comb through, and boatloads of controversy. After all, one can only define orthodoxy by declaring others heretics. With over thirty years of material, you can have endless arguments about the relative qualities of the stripped down sound of Live at the Witch Trials in comparison to a more bellicose The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall or about which of the revolving band mates had the strongest influence on their sound at any given time. Like Star Wars fanatics, Fall fans have divided loyalties; there are informal synods to declare allegiances, like the comprehensive (and fan-run) site The Fall Online which hosts the Lyrics Parade, a torturously detailed archive of lyrics as printed, rumoured or divined. You get the sense that the site results from many hours of closed-eyed listening in old school headphones to the same track over and over, the turntable arm like a diving rod. Madness.

Some time ago, I attended a party where a couple of other Fall fans I know appeared. It didn’t take too long before we were all in the room where the sound system could be found; while our hostess’ back was turned, you knew we were slipping some Fall into the rotation and discussing with growing fervor which lyrics had cannibalized our frontal lobes at that particular time. Our hostess eventually spotted our intense circle of bowed heads and with a tone of imperious consternation demanded, "Are you talking about The Fall?" Unaccountably sheepish, we separated, casting agonized looks at one another as if to suggest "soon, comrade, soon."

A serious man
In need of a definitive job
He had drunk too much
Mandrake anthrax

I confess to being relatively new to Fall fandom—at least in comparison to those who’ve been there from the beginning. My first live experience came only in 2009 at the Mojo awards show in Kentish Town. I had actually been most excited about having the chance to finally see John Cooper Clarke, as well as the Buzzcocks, and only incidentally The Fall. Though somewhat deflated to find that we had arrived too late to catch Cooper Clarke, I nursed my ale and tried not to pout too much. My friends were ingesting pills of uncertain origin, but I had passed on the opportunity as usual. I know it’s a time-honoured tradition to obliterate as many brain cells as possible at concerts. I guess it's the geek in me that has always preferred (even as a teen) to be totally present for the music. And growing up off the beaten path, it was rare enough for to see remarkable bands: I wanted to memorise every moment.

When The Fall hit the stage, I was mesmerized at once. I can't put my finger on it. Maybe it was the novelty of Smith wandering around the stage, fiddling with knobs while the band thrashed away. It was the songs, it was the music, but it was something more. My friend picked up the lyrics book that night and we amused ourselves on the tube home by reading the facing page translations in German. The translation of "Stop mithering" as "hört auf, mich zu nerven," fascinated me, because Salfordian just doesn't translate. Later I Photoshopped my own poster of an accusingly pointing young MES with "Stop mithering!" in elaborate script. This sardonic warning against self-pity hangs on the back of my office door below a poster for Jim Jarmusch's Deadman in which Johnny Depp as William Blake aims a pistol at my head. The Fall supplies a sensibility that permeates your life.

A couple of days after the show, while idling along the Southbank, I picked up Renegade, Smith's story (or some of it) in his own words (though doubtless heavily edited by his ghost, Austin Collings). It reads like a rambling pub chat (and apparently more or less is) but Smith proves endlessly fascinating, talking about how he used to read tarot cards, how the people he kicked out of the band were "lads with no guts," how "women are more in tune with rhythms than men." Smith says, "I've done interviews where I've been purposefully arsey," but always he slips in just enough gems to make you read the next one, to buy the next release, to keep arguing about the meanings, the words, the music for another thirty years or more. As Smith says, "you can't fake that authenticity."

[An earlier incarnation of this essay appeared at Night and Day: The Spectator Arts Blog, 21 Feb 2011]