Want to know the worst thing about Ebay? It auctions off my teenage years at around a fiver a slice. Search under Music > Vinyl and you’ll soon see why there’s a lump in my throat. There’s no need to list the bands, the albums and the semi-precious memories which go with them: they’re just shells on a beach.
Few bend down to pick them up these days. Amend the search criteria to Books > The Fall and you might hit on Paintwork: A Portrait of The Fall – 50p plus P&P; 0 bids. This usually brings forth an ironic cheer from the terraces, seeing as I wrote the damn thing. It got remaindered nearly half a lifetime ago.
As for The Fall, it’s always been Mark E Smith to the fore, an indestructible broom handle with a dozen replacement heads, tough, determined, single-minded, mouthing lyrics so rich and opaque that you’re either entranced or repelled. As their one-time manager Kay Carroll marvelled, “Mark plays his brain really well.”
On stage his delivery is bereft of theatricality, of exaggeration, simply unloading against a tight backdrop of gristle and swarf. From the band there are no histrionics, no posing. This will come as no surprise to anyone who stood around the foundry back in the mid-1970s, hearing, experiencing these new thrilling noises for the first time and who stayed around long enough to revel in all that followed. NME journalist Mat Snow nailed it when he said, “After a Fall record, just about any other piece of music sounds trite and sentimental.”
Nowadays The Mumfords only have to say fuck once a year and it’s regarded as the height of iconoclasm. Dearie me.
Anyway, with Smith having turned 60 this March I thought it was about time I confessed: I am estranged from The Fall. I’ve stopped caring. They’re not mine anymore. I get along just fine without them. That said, I have long fantasised about being invited onto Desert Island Discs and choosing eight Fall tracks.
“So, Brian,” asks Kirsty at the end of the show, “which of these would you save from the waves?”
“New Face In Hell.” I mean, who wouldn’t?
Three decades ago this indifference would have been as unimaginable as, say, the Berlin Wall being dismantled or Woolworths closing down. Not that it was love at first sight – it took Rowche Rumble for me to make a real commitment. Sure, I’d bought the Bingo Master’s EP and the follow-up single It’s The New Anything – there again I used to buy anything in those days, stuff by anyone in what MES loving called “the ’77 Shit-Pile” – The Drones, The Models, The Lurkers, 999 – but it was the tumbling racket of Rowche Rumble, a rant against Swiss drug giant Hoffman La Roche stupefying housewives with valium which captivated me on all levels. In the new decade I lapped up their Country & Northern classics – Fiery Jack, How I Wrote Elastic Man and, from the album Grotesque, Container Drivers. I was hooked and happy, a fan. And the hooks sank in ever deeper with the crimson imagery embedded within the likes of Spectre Vs Rector, Impressions Of J Temperance, and Jawbone and the Air Rifle, fantastical short stories about malevolence, changelings and clandestine worship, tales which were probably true in some corner of our scabrous nation, somewhere up north.
Brix & The Extricated aside, I’ve often toyed with the idea of forming a Fall tribute act called The Prestwich Cuckoos. Oh, I can hear you say, the vainglorious idiot fancies himself as a Great Pretender, hunched over the microphone, sneering misanthropically at the world. Not in the slightest. I know my limitations. I know I can’t hold a note in a council skip, let alone a bucket. Rather let me be Steve Hanley for a day, stick a bass guitar in my hands and let me loose on 2 by 4, or my children’s favourite Behind The Counter, Hanley’s bassline plunging repeatedly through the song, driving and commanding. It just has to be respected, admired, like the brightwork on a tramp steamer.
Smith himself praised Hanley’s playing:
“The most original aspect of The Fall is Steve on the bass. I’ve never heard a bass player like him in my life. I don’t have to tell him what to play, he just knows. He is The Fall sound.”
Ok, so Smith fell out publicly with Hanley years later, the well-documented on stage altercation leading to both Hanley and time-served drummer Karl Burns leaving the band, but Smith soldiered on, soon drawing in replacements… (Wikipedia will cheerfully fill in any gaps in the band’s Rabelaisian progress, alongside the obligatory discography.)
As for Smith, he has never really attempted to sing – “I don’t sing, I just shout, all on one note,” he declaimed on their second studio album Dragnet. I revel in the self-evident fact that he would never so much as even qualify for X Factor or The Voice. There again, neither would New Order’s Bernard Sumner nor Ian Brown of The Stone Roses.
And with equal righteousness I can say I only ever met one other Fall fan anywhere near approaching my level of devotion at that time, a designer whose graphics graced the sleeves of several Durutti Column albums (and whose overarching obsession was James Joyce). I even went as far as making a mixtape for him from all the bootlegs I’d accumulated as cassettes in Camden Market. Pushing it across the table in a restaurant just off Cambridge Circus I felt like The Milk Tray man, albeit a slightly less cultured one.
Around the time that Bananarama were busy saying nothing The Fall released Hex Enduction Hour [sic], their finest LP to date. It sounded so confident, so mature. The mere fact that part of it had been recorded in Iceland seemed so right, so brimful of integrity, a million miles away from the decadent Bahamian norm of a music industry so reviled by Smith. We were introduced to the Hip Priest, Smith as a kind of father-confessor figure. It had been inspired by certain big names of the day squeezing backstage to offload their guilt.
“I have to hear all the terrible things they’ve done, all the little sell-outs. And I’m sitting there with a tight smile…and I’m thinking, here’s us practically starving for the last five years and never compromising an inch and here they are, stinking rich, asking me for pity! Sometimes you really start to despise people…”
Most of the records we buy and don’t eventually sell or have nicked at a party, or swiftly pass off as birthday presents because we’d forgotten the date, have resonance. Hex was like that. My new girlfriend, a wide Alice band shaved outrageously into her hair right over the top of her head, cooked us Findus crispy pancakes in her bedsit’s lean-to kitchen. I was hitching to Southampton to see The Fall the following day (with that frisson of having no idea how I’d get back); it was late, the radio was on, and John Peel played The Classical, the outro repeating: “I’ve never felt better in my life…”
You were so right, Mark, so right.
We split up soon after. So it goes. Ok, I was crushed… Then out of the blue came an invitation to see her in Liverpool. Her postcard also said: “The Fall are playing at the Royal Court.”
By now The Fall were cranking out about an album a year. In Perverted By Language they had already moved on to something new and buoyant. I, on the other hand, appeared to be stuck in the same sorry loop. By the time I caught up with my beloved again – The Fall, I mean – at the Lyceum in London in 1984, she and I had long since finished for good. Now, when listening to The Wonderful and Frightening it brings two things to mind: her stoop-shouldered laughter and that that gig was the loudest I’d ever been to. I swear it’s what gave me tinnitus.
The last time I saw The Fall was in 1988 at Cardiff University Students Union on The Frenz Experiment Tour. The lighting gantry was fixed at a rakish angle, as if it had crashed onto the stage during the soundcheck and the band were content to play amid the wreckage. Standing there, quietly interpreting this as a metaphor for my life, I heard Smith pipe up: “My friends – let me tell you about my friends – my friends I cannot count on one hand, my friends don’t amount to one hand, one hand…”
Once again, spot on. This was the time of my first estrangements, a period of betrayals and withdrawals. I guess it had been brewing for years. You know how it goes, the small, trivial things balloon into room-size elephants that no one can see round and everyone slowly leaves the room by different doors. So there we were sat, we happy friends, in a north London beer garden arguing about Relax. (How could they possibly like Frankie Goes To Hollywood? What next? The Style Council??) All it did was shock. Yeah, but that bassline, Bri… I knew if Mark E Smith had been at the bar I could have called him over and he’d have sided with me, put them all straight. Remember that scene from Annie Hall when Marshall McLuhan is pulled from behind a poster stand in the cinema foyer by an exasperated Woody Allen to so emphatically validate his argument – I so wanted that to happen. But life’s not like that… Anyway, the betrayals got worse, complete. The Fall weren’t helping much either.
As much as I’d delighted in Michael Clark’s dancers performing bare-arsed to Lay of the Land on The Old Grey Whistle Test, I hated Telephone Thing. The track saw Smith had teaming up with electronistas Coldcut – a collaboration too far – with poor Craig Scanlon scratching out recycled Madchester funk on his guitar. It seemed like the worst kind of fancy dress. I was expecting a little more immutability from our relationship. But I wasn’t getting it. For Christ’s sake, I was still getting over Marc Riley being turfed out. And that was, what, eight years previously. Mark was adapting. I couldn’t. No coping mechanisms. And there’s me a lick-spittle Southerner and an ex-art student to boot.
Then at the height of my passion-aggression came the commission for Paintwork. Back in the days of an unrestructured Scritti Politti, Green Gartside had sung astringently about, “the myth and the cackle; the dull history of the groups you like the most.” But I thought, what the hell; my reasoning being, well, Smith hasn’t given his public The Story So Far, so I might as well have a crack at it. I was a bit uncomfortable with it though, this notion that publishing makes the words somehow definitive, authoritative – I didn’t feel like that at all. One of my favourite Fall maxims, scrawled on the toilet wall that is the cover of Hex, is Have A Bleedin’ Guess. So that’s precisely what I did. It was a long range snapshot at best. In order to apologise to the all and everyone for my utter presumption I asked the picture researcher to unearth something special for the frontispiece, namely that photograph of a young boy dressed in camouflage hat, nylon anorak and flared jeans standing in front of the notorious SORRY HAD TO DONE [sic] graffiti on the wall outside Headingley cricket ground ahead of a 1975 Ashes Test Match, members of the George Davis Is Innocent campaign having dug up the wicket the night before and filled the holes with sump oil.
The book’s front cover was, in today’s parlance, an Epic Graphics Fail – black, white and lime green, featuring pictures of the happy couple, Mark and Brix Smith. Only they weren’t. And as I hadn’t been invited to look at the proofs it ended up looking out of date from day one. All the while, Mr & Mrs Smith’s marriage had been disintegrating and by the time of its release – not to mention the release of Extricate – it had disintegrated completely. With impeccable timing, they divorced in 1989.
If only they’d used the back cover photo instead, MES incorrigibly sticking up two fingers at Peter Anderson’s lens. So much more appropriate. In fact there was a paucity of images of the early Fall, the band having been more outsiders than porky prime movers in punk’s vanguard, or maybe they hadn’t sufficiently look the part – The Fall had no Paul Simenon or Dave Vanian, no Gaye Advert or Siouxsie Sioux. They were just a bunch of scruffs from the wrong side of Manchester – “you know, not the University side” – in dodgy clothes and suspiciously uncut hair. Photographer Kevin Cummins, however, did have a stack of pictures worth having. Only he wouldn’t part with a single one without a green light from Smith which, to my enduring amazement, he gave. During an interview with Sounds on the run-up to publication he informed them, “It’s all, like, Smith up against all the odds. Which is true, isn’t it? A bit like reading The Bible.”
See? He’s not always the irascible grouchbag everyone makes him out to be. And he’s canny, too: I had to sign away 1½% for this sideways endorsement.
A year later it was reissued in Germany – The Fall have a sizeable following there, too – and thanks to having had an inspirational German teacher I was able to marvel first-hand at how they’d struggled to deal with references to Manchester City winger Tony Coleman – “the Keith Moon of soccer” – or adequately translate dufflecoat. Brilliant, just brilliant.
Remember the CD, the Compact Disc? In the Nineties it really took off. Those record company execs Smith had long railed against in the early days must have been turning cartwheels at the prospect of all those millions of back catalogue sales. Who can recall the bijou CD production plant in Virgin’s flagship Megastore, sectioned off from us punters by titillating glass walls? I remember laughing out loud finding a CD version of Dragnet on the store’s shelves. It felt so incongruous; this sleek, new shiny format so completely at odds with the album’s homespun roughness, the equivalent of Albert Steptoe taking a bath in the window of Selfridges at the other end of Oxford Street.
Truth be told, I hadn’t been entirely faithful all this time: I’d flirted with The Smiths via a Sony Walkman whose headphones leaked noise so badly that old ladies on public transport were compelled to tell me turn it off. Nirvana were a welcome slab of shuttered concrete but all that energetic disaffection was just too exhausting. For me, burning the candle at both ends now meant rocking my restless first born son to sleep at 3 a.m. to the video of Smells Like Teen Spirit on the forerunner of Channel 4’s The White Room and getting up at 7:00 to commute my life away down the M4. Thankfully, the UK’s record-buying public agreed with me that The Infotainment Scan was great. It put The Fall at number 9 in the album charts in 1993, and not just the indie charts either. Paranoia Man In Cheap Shit Room played at full blast in the middle lane helped me remain steadfastly unmoved as Blur became ever more Mockney and Oasis ground out anthem after anthem, always at the same witless tempo. My ears pricked up whenever I heard The Prodigy start kicking off, but that was short-lived, and briefly I fell head over heels for the Cocteau Twins. For about a decade. Until I became smothered by all that soporific beauty.
At The Light User Syndrome I let go… There was an attempt at reconciliation with the release of The Marshall Suite in 1999 – I fingered it in HMV but never took it home. It was their twentieth album. It wasn’t to be one of mine. Had I become one of those people who holiday in the same seaside resort year after, possibly at the same hotel, sat reassuringly in the same car eating fish paste sandwiches, listening to The Grateful Dead? For some reason The Fall had ceased to resonate. And for the life of me I still don’t know why.
Every now and then I would catch glimpses of the band and smile in that, oh yeah, I used to go out with her kind of way: Hip Priest playing at the climax of The Silence Of The Lambs as Clarice is stalked through the blackness by Buffalo Bill’s insectoid eyes, or Touch Sensitive featuring in the Vauxhall Corsa advert.
When finally I’d plucked up the courage to buy The Unutterable I knew almost immediately I shouldn’t have. As the Russian proverb says: “Never return to the places you once knew as a child, because you won’t find what you’re looking for.”
And so The Fall moved on to someplace new without me, and then further away still. The following year my children bought me A Past Gone Mad for my birthday. Which was nice. But I didn’t really cherish this darling retrospective as I should have and it soon became just one of a hundred tubes of silicone sealant I used to stop the world leaking in, against all that downloadable sludge, all that immaculately hygienic wine bar music set to a casual beat, the perfect accompaniment for those who prefer a good Chardonnay and a quiet night in to all that nasty driving round the M25 in search of a little ecstasy.
A further 12 studio albums have gone by since then and more than three times as many live ones and compilations. Talk about prolific. If he was a painter Mark E Smith would have his own dedicated gallery. I’m not ignoring the contribution of the legion of The Fallen (as documented so wonderfully in Dave Simpson’s book of the same name), it’s just that he’s, well, he’s the proverbial Duracell bunny, yeah? forever forging ahead, disdaining past works in favour of what’s coming next.
Writing this it’s dawned on me that it had indeed been the band and not simply their charismatic frontman which had held me in its thrall for so long. So for me The Fall probably were the last of the important bands to fade from view. And then in the new millennium it began happening for real, not a metaphor in sight this time. All those talismen (and women) began appearing in the obituary columns: Joe Strummer, John McGeoch, John Peel, Ari Up, Poly Styrene…
When MES eventually gives up the ghost I do hope some shabby band with catholic influences will have the good humour to stop mid-set and say:
“Oh, dear friends! I can’t continue this – Mark E Smith’s just been shot [Oh my God!]. We’ll have to do a tribute – let’s do Hassle Schmuck…”
In the meantime I’ll raise a glass and say cheers. In four languages at least.