Today marks a full year since the passing of Mark E Smith, and the subsequent end of the road for The Fall.
As some who read the blog may have seen, I wrote a piece in February (published in October on the blog, and available here) for a university magazine commemorating his death and expressing my adoration for The Fall.
Truth be told, yes, I was a Fall fan, but I could never have said they were my favourite band. I was still in a weird phase of adaptation to their sound, the slow but inevitable recognition that their music stood above and alone from all their contemporaries.
The Clash were my favourite band at the time, and my lack of Fall understanding and knowledge was epitomised by my novice references to the infamous ‘Granny on bongos’ quote and the ‘oh my god they had so many members!’ line, which was wheeled out by just about every tribute article that came their way.
When I wrote the article, I had listened to six albums: Witch Trials, Dragnet, Grotesque, Hex, Wonderful and Frightening World and The Infotainment Scan (I’d missed out Room To Live in the thought it was a live album). Within the piece I referenced only the latter four albums, trying to make out as if I was really down with the evolution and transformations of The Fall and I knew what I was talking about.
So, when MES passed away, and I started listening to The Fall in more depth, I set myself a target of listening to every Fall album within two months. This was probably motivated more by university procrastination than anything else, but I thought it was doable.
What I hadn’t realised however, was how irresistibly addictive nearly every album is. I started off with Wonderful and Frightening World again, one which took a very long time for me to finally appreciate, and continued from there. I wish I had the time to do album-by-album reviews, however this is already being done by the YMGTA blog, and this piece would turn into a novel if I even dared to commit to such a task.
What I found on this journey was utter, utter enchantment. In short, it took me 10 months to listen to every album as I would find myself stuck on each one for about three weeks due to a total refusal to move onto the next.
Even the albums generally considered beneath the towering Fall standard still hold essential tracks – ‘Rainmaster’ on Cerebral Caustic, ‘The Reckoning’ on Middle Class Revolt, and, my favourite track of all time, ‘The Birmingham School of Business School’ on Code: Selfish.
And then there are the albums which are swaggering showcases of utter delight. Every record, even those not held up as classic Fall, had a certain charm or appeal – the sinister gloominess of Perverted By Language, the glorious absurdity of Levitate or the simple brilliance of Sub-Lingual Tablet, which I’ve grown to more and more in the past few weeks.
But what I feel is the most overlooked aspect of The Fall is their determined prolificacy. For every era of music, every movement, every decade and every year, there’s The Fall, lurking in wonderful independence in the background. Forget the fads of Britpop, Madchester and 21st century indie, there’s a Fall record to match, or better, any other release of the time and serve a much-needed hit of variation.
And trust The Fall to offer variation. Though some consider it a bit of an experimental, finding-their-feet sort of record, I think The Fall would be the only band ever to open an album with a post-punk stunner, a blues cover and then a demented drum ‘n’ bass frenzy full of Smith’s signature snarls, as they did on 1999’s The Marshall Suite. Who else would dare do that?
What I feel I missed out on however, was the romance of being a Fall fan during their first ten years or so. I get the impression, from the replies I receive on the blog from Fall fans of the time, that there was something special about following this messiah-like figure of Mark E Smith through the multitude of lineup changes and releases. To be a Fall fan, I feel, was to be unlike the others, to spit on the idea of normality and tuneful accessibility.
What’s fantastic, in my opinion, is how dedication to The Fall means dedication. Every fan who I’ve interacted with, be it online or in person (the latter being extremely rare) has an A-Z knowledge of them. I could probably ask anyone on The Mighty Fall Facebook group, for example, what their opinion is on a b-side to a single released in 1995 only in Germany and limited to a thousand copies (a hypothetical, exaggerative though somewhat representative question on the group), and those who’d reply would be true, learned Fall experts and offer their opinion with utter assurance.
It became clear that The Fall were a mesmerising gateway into other-worldly poeticism, destructive aural combat and reward and, of course, the best bass lines ever. As I delved further and further through their discography, it became apparent that all I was listening and discovering was The Fall, all discovery outside of their offerings had ceased. New music, for me, was The Fall.
And with this discovery came the reading. I am yet to read Smith’s Renegade or Simon Wolstencroft’s You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide (which I’ve heard is exceptional), but Brix’s The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise and Steve Hanley’s The Big Midweek were simply magnificent. Hanley’s deadpan outlook on the constant conflicts within the band were simply hilarious, while Brix’s story of simply bumping into Mark at the bar, and subsequently becoming one of the coolest women in rock ‘n’ roll history, was brilliant.
The highlight of The Fall’s story, for me, was the 1988 I Am Kurious Oranj album and theatre production. As stated earlier, who else, but The Fall, would perform their music with ballet by the Michael Clark Dance Company while telling a story about a former pope AND wheel out Brix sitting on a cheeseburger playing guitar?
With this newfound love, I opted on seeing Brix and The Extricated in October to relive some old Fall staples. What I hadn’t imagined, however, was bumping into Brix and Steve Hanley outside the venue.
I think Brix was in pre-performance psyching up mode, so I let her be, and talked to Steve Hanley. I introduced myself, and he was quick to assure me that I was ‘too young to be at this gig’. We talked about the blog (which I think he was aware of at this stage), and he also told me about how ‘Birmingham’ was recorded. Surprised at my love for the track, he commented that everyone viewed that era as keeping up with Madchester. Upon reply from me that I thought the song was much more than that, he assuredly and humorously responded, ‘Yeah, I know’.
That was the closest I’ll ever get to seeing The Fall, and was all in all a brilliant night, the highlight being ‘Glam-Racket’, which was delivered superbly by the group.
However, all of this, the music, the productions, the albums, singles, b-sides, live albums, compilations, whatever else you can think of, would never have happened without a true visionary, a lyrical master and a man so committed to the fans and music.
There’s something completely alien and other-worldly about Mark E Smith which simply can’t be explained. There are many times when I feel we aren’t worthy of receiving the lines he conjures up, particularly between 1980-85; for those who may not be aware of MES’ poetry, refer to ‘New Face In Hell’, ‘The N.W.R.A’, ‘The Classical’ or ‘Paintwork’ for a sample of his genius.
I think the justified obsession with all things MES is summed up when, during a television performance of Extricate track ‘I’m Frank’, he pulls out a guitar for about 10 seconds and plays a quiet chord during the breakdown into the verse. I wasn’t alone in my complete feeling of ‘what’s going on!?’.
I’ve seen on various Fall groups on Facebook the ‘MES is on guitar!’ sort of comments, but the greatest commitment came from The Fall In Fives, who went so far as sampling the brief stint on strings and amping up the volume as much as possible, just so we could all experience this slightly muted jangling sound for ourselves.
I’m not sure it was done from love of the song, but still. It’s stuff like this that could never be replicated by fans of other bands, and goes so far to show how a commitment to consistent releases and output is rewarded by total admiration and adoration. The idea that a man simply picking up a guitar can garner such a response from followers is simply brilliant.
Even with every interview I’ve seen, Smith holds this sort of self-assured superiority, which is respected by himself, the viewer and interviewer. Every line is delivered with secure, acerbic wit and humour in combination with a complete outlook of total awareness to the social environments of everyday people.
I’ll be honest, I don’t think I could stop confessing my absolute love for MES and The Fall. With my friends, I’m known to only ever recommend The Fall to others, and am a constant listener of my career-spanning Fall playlist entitled ‘Fall For The Fall’, which, at the time of writing, has 143 songs. It’s ten hours long, chronologically arranged, and by far the best playlist I have made or will ever make.
Quite simply, The Fall, in any lineup or variation, are the greatest band to have ever existed. And it is abundantly clear that they were probably one of the most devoted bands to their fans and their music ever. And the spearhead of this, the supreme leader, was Mark E Smith.
And to any Fall fan reading: of course, this is a sombre day indeed, and I’ve seen many on Twitter are takings days off and going on pub crawls to commemorate this most sacred of days.
But I think it’s always important to remember what MES remarked on national TV, when the Fall had reached 54th in the charts with This Nation’s Saving Grace: “The followers of The Fall are the salt of the Earth”.
Keep the records spinning, keep the Fall playing, and never forget that fact. RIP Mark E Smith, and thank you for the music.