When I first heard The Fall, I thought the music was annoying and incomprehensible. Then that was what became fascinating. — Stewart Lee, English comedian
Everyone who works for The Fall, you know, they’re just regular people. I wouldn’t pick them otherwise. I don’t want Fall fans in the band. — Mark E. Smith, lead singer of The Fall
Music has always played a big role in my life, as I am sure it has in yours. Recently, though, it has dropped off the scene a little. It is like the Morrissey line: I still love you, only slightly less than I used to. I am still listening to it, and a cursory scan of my recent online history shows that the three artists I have still been paying attention to are Bach (that would be J. S. Bach; apparently there are plenty of musical Bachs in that family tree), Charlie Parker (and be-bop associates), and the English band The Fall. Well, it’s eclectic if nothing else, so I’ve got that going for me.
A few weeks ago in these pages, I reviewed a book on post-punk and talked about British “Marmite bands,” groups listeners either love or hate, as with the tangy vegetable spread of the same name. There is probably no better example than The Fall.
I don’t believe anyone could “quite like” this English band whose career saw them work with avant-garde ballet troupes, release over 30 studio albums, and feature a vocalist who was a genuine outsider. I reviewed Colin Wilson’s debut book from 1956, The Outsider, a few years ago and tried to compile a list of genuine artistic outsiders. It was not a long list, comprising Michel Houellebecq, Takuan Seiyo, and Mark E. Smith.
Hailing from Manchester, The Fall began their career — which would see over 60 members pass through the ranks over almost 45 years — in 1976 when they released their first single, which was typically low-budget and with an intriguing title: Bingo Master’s Breakout. I knew this was something compelling and different as soon as I heard it and bought The Fall’s first album, Live at the Witch Trials, on vinyl. It’s still in my mum’s attic in England, along with other Fall albums.
The first song on this album hooked me on the band and I have never wriggled free. The lyrics are worth quoting at length. I believe it to be poetry of a very high standard, and I have never heard a song that so much lived up to its title and the lyrics of which I found so intense and immediate. For me, it makes The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” about as threatening as a nursery-rhyme. The song is “Frightened”:
Someone’s always on my tracks.
And in a dark room you see more than you’d think.
I’m out of my place, got to get back.
I sweated a lot.
You could feel the violence.
I’ve got shears pointed straight my chest.
And time moves slower when you count it.
I’m better than them and I think I’m the best.
And I appear at midnight when the films close.
‘Cos I’m in a trance.
And I sweat.
I don’t want to dance.
I want to go home.
Because I’m frightened.
I had never heard anything like it. This was the absolute quintessence of English suburban malevolence. “I’ve got shears pointed straight at my chest” — who wrote stuff like that?
The answer was that Mark E. Smith wrote stuff like that, and carried on doing so until his death four years ago at the age of 60. The singer performed his last gigs in a wheelchair. I say “the singer,” but Smith could not really be described as such. It is difficult to describe Smith’s voice. Imagine a fairly drunk northern English taxi driver who hasn’t slept for a couple of days, whose dentures are not firmly anchored in his mouth, and who is yelling into his cab radio with increasing annoyance, and you will be partway there.
Actually, “fairly drunk” was almost certainly an underestimate. Smith’s drinking — and his use of amphetamine sulphate — were to play a near-ruinous role in the band’s story. Those factors, as well as chain-smoking cigarettes, probably hastened his death. As Smith sings in “Fiery Jack,” a song about an aging drunkard: “Well, my kidneys burn in the small of my back.” Hallucinogenics also played a part in Smith’s early lyric-writing, which was all well and good, but increasing use certainly didn’t help when the band almost fell apart in the 1990s.
The Fall do not sound like any other band you have ever heard. As Smith himself said, there won’t be a Fall tribute band. As noted, you will either hate them, already love them, or be intrigued. Good luck. Smith was scathing about an American band I love called Pavement (and you can tell they worship England because they were not called Sidewalk). He said they sounded like good musicians who pretended to be crap to imitate The Fall.
Smith would regularly start Fall gigs by announcing that “we are The Fall, we are the Northern white crap that talks back. The difference between you and us is that we have brains.” Tony Wilson, Mancunian impresario and the man who discovered Joy Division, says that “Mark E. Smith is attitude personified.” This attitude came to the attention of the British music press of the time.
Bands in the 1970s and ‘80s often had a fractious relationship with the British music press, which was a big deal then. “Melody Maker,” almost picking at random, once put the band Suede (who had to change their name to London Suede in the United States for some copyright conflict) on their front cover. It made the band, who enjoyed a short reign as neo-glam kings. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, by contrast, hated the music press, but would regularly buy advertorial pages to make mission statements. Mark E. Smith was so loved by the New Musical Express (NME) that they ran an annual state of the nation address by him. But a song on the second album, “Dragnet” (still the best, in my view, and I bought it from the Rough Trade shop, if that means anything to anyone from that era), tells a different story, quoting from reviews that obviously needled Smith. “There’s a barrier,” he sings on “Printhead,” “between writer and singer.”
Sometimes The Fall are just ridiculous, but no less brilliant for their comic absurdity. The EP Grotesque (After the Gramme) features a song called “The Container Drivers,” which is a sort of childish rockabilly musical food-fight. It has what I can only describe as punk ukulele at one point. The lyrics show Smith’ awareness of politics, and he was always politically a creature of the Right, something the press ignored for reasons which should be obvious – i.e., institutional Leftism. From “Container Drivers”:
Communists are just part-time workers.
No thanks from the loading-bay ranks.
One Fall album is called This Nation’s Saving Grace, and in wilder moments I sometimes wonder if Smith is not the greatest Prime Minister Britain never had.
Another album title is The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall, and the band had a strange moment of Hollywood fame when Thomas Harris, the novelist who wrote The Silence of the Lambs, persuaded the director of the resultant movie, Jonathan Demme, to include a song from the band’s third album, Hex Enduction Hour. When creepy transsexual Jame Gumb is stalking through his house to the dungeon and the pit in which he is keeping his latest capture in order to make a woman-suit out of human skin, and at the same time trying to kill Jodie Foster’s FBI agent character Clarice Starling, the Fall’s “Hip Priest” is playing in the background, a suitably eerie soundtrack before the line I am sure you know from the film: “It puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.”
In the various documentaries scattered across the Internet, Mark E. Smith is often described as a “a genius.” I have never really been sure what that means, except that the word itself means a spirit in Latin. Genius Loci — the spirit of a place. It actually sums Smith up.
Smith was not a difficult musician to work with, or for; far from it. No, he is universally acknowledged to have been a complete bastard to work with and for. An almost impossible human being to reason with, often raddled with booze and amphetamine, Smith is the reason that the estimated 60 members of Fall over the years all left or were fired. Accounts of Smith remind me of Kirk Douglas’ comment when asked his opinion of Stanley Kubrick after the pair worked on the 1957 movie Paths of Glory: “He is a talented shit”. A concert promoter who knew The Fall, Alan Wise, is an obvious admirer of Smith, and yet says in a documentary, “He’s not a nice man.”
Tony Wilson said The Fall were more attitude than music. It is a very good point. If you play guitar, and you know The Fall and Joy Division, you will know that it is not possible to sit down with an acoustic guitar and play a song by either band. It is not music in that sense. “Ooh, look. I’ve got a nice acoustic guitar. I think I won’t bother with a Van Morrison song; I’ll go for Joy Division’s ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ or maybe ‘Iceland’ by The Fall.” Wilson says, in a documentary interview, “To this day I am not sure I like The Fall’s music. But I like The Fall.”
I have to do a top ten. Fall fans — yes, I am talking to both of you — may agree or disagree, and it will do nothing to convert those of you who find The Fall irritating and unlistenable. I won’t include any of the songs already cited, but here we go, in reverse order, and including sample lyrics:
10. “How I Wrote Elastic Man”
More bouncy-castle Fall rockabilly, about a writer who pushes himself to the edge to complete a comic book.
Life should be full of strangeness
Like a rich painting.
9. “I am Damo Suzuki”
Suzuki was the Japanese singer of the 1970s Krautrock band Can, and Smith was a fan.
Generous, valeric, Jehovah’s Witness
Stands in Cologne marketplatz.
Drums come in.
When the drums come in fast
Drums to shock into brass evil.
When the drums do come in on this song, after an intro not unlike Bauhaus’ grand guignol Goth hit “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” they are completely out of time. I mean, as out of time as it’s possible to be. Not like playing 3/4 over 4/4 even, but totally out of synch. It is a very discomforting song.
8. “The Classical”
This is a great shambles of a song. The key lyric is included here merely to indicate the point that no one made a fuss about this in 1980. Imagine the reaction in the UK today.
And where are the obligatory niggers?
Hey there, fuck-face!
Hey there, fuck-face!
7. “Touch Sensitive Music”
Just great for its chants, part glam-rock, part football terrace. Also, the video does what just about every Fall video does: It leaves you with a smile on your face.
I know, I know, I know.
And you’re dying for a pee.
So you go behind a tree.
And a Star Wars police vehicle pulls up.
I say, GIMME A TAXI!
6. “Dice Man”
Like his Mancunian compatriot Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Smith was a well-read man. “Dice Man” is obviously named for the novel by Luke Rhinehart (a pen name) in which the protagonist lives his life on the literal throw of a die he carries with him. The riff is straight out of Bo Diddley, and I am sure that it is no coincidence that Smith was in the wings of a TV show watching a band after his own had played. Bo Diddley himself — on the same bill — came up to Smith and whispered, “I saw your band, man. Now you are rock and roll.” Smith is clearly glowing with pride when he relates this story in a documentary.
Now I am the dice man,
A balls on the line man,
Do you take a chance, baby?
5.“Theme from Sparta FC”
I have to admit I like this partly because the opening riff is reminiscent of Afghan Whigs, a band I used to love and saw several times when they came to London. Afghan Whigs were a band whose founding members met in jail, which is about as rock and roll as it gets.
Smith is a great fan of football, and the song is, well, about an imaginary team called Sparta FC (Football Club).
Cheap Englishman in the paper shop.
You mug old women in your bobble hat.
Better go spot a place to rest.
No more ground boutique at match in Chelsea.
4. “Rebellious Jukebox”
The lyrics, and central idea, to this song from the first album is about as Mark E. Smith as it gets. It tells the story of a jukebox in a pub which decides not to play the songs the customers put their coins in to request, but the songs it chooses itself.
No sounds at first came out.
This machine had dropped out.
But it made music to itself.
Made music for itself.
The Fall recorded two cover versions which actually charted in the UK. Their version of R. Dean Taylor’s “There’s a Ghost in My House” was a perfect choice, a song every bit as weird as the band covering it. But it was their cover of “Victoria,” the song by The Kinks, that gave Smith’s band their biggest hit. In this time of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, it is good to remember the monarch whose reign she has outlasted.
The lyrics, of course, are not by Smith but a man with an equally British name, Ray Davies. Me and my mate met him once — Davies, that is — outside an off-license in north London. He is very tall. He spoke to us for ten minutes, and we talked about our favorite Kinks albums. Mine happens to be Arthur, or, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. It also happens to feature “Victoria.” I met Davies’ niece here in Costa Rica, and she calls him “Uncle Ray.” She claims to have been with him when a kid shot him in the arse with an air-rifle. What a strange world rock and roll is.
2. “In My Area”
A lot of Smith’s lyrics dally on the borderline between sanity and insanity. There is always a tension in his words, as there is often a tension inside the mind of someone who patrols that grey area between mental balance and imbalance. Smith is a great lyricist of mental infragility.
The dwarf plays pool to prove his height.
People play games when they lose at life.
There’s no sport, lad, just acid tension stomach flared.
A madness in my area.
I have seen the madness in my area.
In the mirror.
1. “C ‘n’ C/Stop Mithering”
This is quintessential Fall, for me. Partly based around everyday irritations (“mithering” in northern England means whining, kvetching, just going on about your problems), but with a gorgeous interlude about one of The Falls’s American tours. On one of these, Smith returned with a rather fetching girlfriend. Brix Smith changed her surname when she married Mark, and had already changed her Christian name because she liked the song “Guns of Brixton” by The Clash. For a while they were the first couple of British indie rock but, as a wife and guitar-playing member of The Fall, she lasted about as long as the rest, although is pleasingly non-acrimonious about the whole episode.
All the English groups
Act like peasants with free milk
On a route,
On a route to the loot.
Five wacky English proletariat idiots
Go to candy mountain.
It wouldn’t be a music piece by me if I didn’t drone on about how I met Smith. I didn’t, really. I had a ticket to see The Fall in Brighton and he was drinking in a pub on the beach, and so was I. I have never pushed musicians if I meet them, only speaking to them if I am invited into the conversation. I went to the bar for a pint and he was there at the same time.
Me: I’m going to see your band tonight.
Smith: Yeah? Well, I hope they fookin’ don’t make fools of themselves.
He smiled quite pleasantly, and took his pint of lager back to his table and drank it alone. Is it not strange to be drinking before a gig without any other members of your band joining you for a snifter? No. It means you are Mark E. Smith, a loner and a pisshead and a poet.
I think Smith was a poet in a different class; not higher than other poets, just different. His use of language is casual and slangy, but the confluence of ideas leaves you scratching your head but also amused — and with a strange urge to dance, just not in a normal way. People who are what the English used to call “not quite right in the head” used to listen to The Fall.
The Fall had the equivalent of a divine blessing when DJ John Peel took up the band’s cause. I have mentioned Peel before and he is sadly missed, having championed hundreds of bands over the years, part of whose success was often down to his imprimatur. He would have “sessions” where bands would come into the BBC studios and record three or four songs for his show. His producer and aide de camp, John Walters, wrote a letter to Smith telling him that he had seen The Fall in Croydon (very close to my hometown), and they were the worst band he had ever seen — “even worse than Siouxsie and the Banshees” — and would they come in and do a session? Peel estimated The Fall did at least 25 of these over the years, and probably sums up the ethos of both Smith and his various line-ups with his description of the band’s sound. The mighty Fall, he would say before a session. Always different, always the same.
* * *
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