Saturday, January 27, 2018

"the spark inside" - me and others on Mark E. Smith and The Fall

my first Fall record

Below is all my writing on The Fall (well, nearly all of it) in chronological order of the releases, rather than the order in which they were written.

There is also a links list to my favorite pieces of writing on The Fall by other people, mostly from the early days of the group, including Barney Hoskyns's 1981 interview and K-punk's trilogy of essays.

And there is an interview transcript with Martin Bramah on his time in The Fall and the young M.E.S. 

Oh and there's also a couple of choice snippets of M.E.S. on M.E.S.


                                                                                                             the Fall's most perfect record 

Out of my own writing, the missing bit here is the only time I actually interviewed Mark E. -  a piece that was part of a whimsical Observer package feature about how people with the name Smith were spending Christmas!  Had a look for it but it must be languishing with the hefty chunk of the Reynolds archive that's in storage (couldn't face bringing all that paper - there's so much of it - with us to LA when we moved - a decision subsequently regretted on a monthly basis). This phone interview with M.E.S.  would have been 1990. There wasn't a a huge story there to be honest - Mark was spending it with his mum and he was looking forward to being pampered and doted upon by various elderly female relatives. As others have reported, despite his reputation, Mark was unexpectedly pleasant. Indeed at one point, when I brought up the subject of his  image as a surly, doesn't-suffer-fools-gladly curmudgeon, he said "I'll have you know, Simon, I'm actually a very pleasant man."  UPDATE NOVEMBER 1 2018: HAVE NOW ADDED THIS PIECE TO THE SELECTION BELOW.


The Fall's greatest record

Oh, the other missing bit of course is Rip It Up and Start Again's Manchester chapter "Just Step Sideways" which is largely about The Fall and Joy Division. Which you can find in... Rip It Up and Start Again. But below I do include  a snippet from  Rip It Up's prologue -   a quote that has been circulating a fair bit in the last few days.

in some ways, on some days, my favorite Fall record


The Fall
Live At The Witch Trials
Step Forward
eMusic, 2004

by Simon Reynolds

In one early song, The Fall’s frontman Mark E. Smith exalted “the three R’s--repetition repetition repetition” The Manchester postpunk band got their schooling in trance-inducing monotony from The Velvet Underground and Can. On Witch Trials, their 1979 debut album, you can hear Television too, in Martin Bramah’s spidery, needling guitar lines, while Yvonne Pawlett’s glue-on-fingers keyboards make you flash on punkadelic Sixties garage bands like The Seeds. Now and then, on slower songs like “Two Steps Back”, there’s also a sense of disorientation and strangeness that recalls the early Doors. For Smith, seeing the world through askew eyes wasn’t an affliction, though, but a reprieve from the crushing mundanity of life in a Northern English factory town, evoked here on “Industrial Estate”--an uproarious rant about an area of Manchester zoned for heavy industry, where the ground-down workers numb themselves with Valium. 

To escape this living death, Smith and company turned to their own chemical remedies.  
“Underground Medecin” is a paean to amphetamine: “I found a reason not to die...” rejoices Smith, “The spark inside”. “Frightened,” conversely, evokes the downside of drugs: in this case, the racing thoughts, sleepless sweats and twitchy paranoia caused by snorting one white line too many. Smith’s rapid-fire snarl and see-through-you sneer have all the hallmarks of the “speed rap”. 

That’s probably what he’s referring to in the song title “Crap Rap 2” (although some have actually argued that Smith’s unique style of half-spoken delivery is an authentic English equivalent to rapping!). In that song, Smith famously defined The Fall as “the white crap that talks back”--proles who refused to buckle down and accept their allotted fate in the British class system. It’s a mission statement that pungently distils both the group’s spirit of insolent defiance and the crudely-hewn but indomitable force of their music.  

Bend Sinister
Melody Maker, October 4th 1986

by Simon Reynolds

The Fall have not stopped being The Fall. It's all here, on this their 26th long playing record: the wizened sneer, the unforgiving beat, the haggard guitar. The Fall roll on.

A vast body of work, around which a million words have been spilt, and still I don't feel nearer a notion of what they're about. The Fall don't represent or propose anything. They cannot be recruited to any scheme, clarified or filed away. They are this stubborn thing.

What spikes the lumbering wrath of The Fall is the vehemence of Mark E. Smith's invective. But these days even his targets remain shrouded and unclear. While The Fall's music has grown steadily more vivacious and approachable, Smith's writing has folded in on itself in an ever denser scrawl, beyond deciphering, let alone understanding. Sometimes the obscure object of his derision is recognisable as ... people like me, and then I'm suitably, pleasurably, chastened. The Fall, on leash, as periodic flagellation: "Who makes the Nazis? Intellectual halfwits." Ouch. I needed that. Perhaps that was the only thing I ever learned from Mark E. Smith.

The Fall are an example of the extent to which indie music has become a kind of commentary on pop -  a system which purports to represent us, but in fact excludes most of our experience. Indie-pop is a kind of parallel system, unacknowledged by POP, but bound in reaction. Like, say The Smiths, The Fall write about all the matter - squalor, maladjustment, antagonism - written out of pop's script. If Mark E. Smith represents anything it is bloody-mindedness, a recalcitrance towards those who would improve us out of our bad habits and prejudices.

They've been a bad influence. Groups like The Membranes and Age Of Chance think that anyone with "attitude" can get up and do it. The upshot of this is a kind of bolshiness without manifesto, an aimless spite: musically, a narrow interpretation of The Fall - beauty is a lie. These groups consist of nothing but anti-pop gesture. 

The Fall are un-pop too -  anti-dance, anti-spectacle, un-sensual -  but they have carved out a rival territory of alien beauty that they can exploit indefinitely. If the broad sweep of this music has been established, there's still endless scope for growth through internal complication.

Bend Sinister, their thirty-third album, shows that the Fall have a long way to go before they're exhausted. You've probably heard their version of "Mr Pharmacist", with Mark's great slovenly delivery, like his mouth was half-full of mushy peas. There are other indications that The Fall have been steeping themselves in Sixties garage music of late. Tracks like "Gross Chapel" sound as though The Fall have taken the wiry truculence of garage punk and bloated it into a juggernaut sprawl. "Shoulder Pads" is driven along by an absurdly jaunty keyboard riff that makes me think of Question Mark And The Mysterians.

As it becomes less and less clear what Mark E. Smith is on about, so The Fall's noise has come to seem more and more unearthly. When I listen I don't think of grime and rubble and delapidation, like I used to. I don't think of much at all. It's a noise to lose yourself in, something that clouds the mind, roughs you up a bit and leaves you a little deranged.


New Statesman monthly 'Pop' column, April 1st 1988

by Simon Reynolds

The Fall
Seminal Live
Melody Maker. 1989

by Simon Reynolds

Mark E. Smith

(mini-interview as part of The Observer's package feature on the kind of Christmas being enjoyed by famous people with the name of Smith)

The Observer, December 23, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Given his curmudgeonly image, you might expect Mark E. Smith to regard Christmas as a time to endure rather than enjoy.

"I don't mind it," he says. "I'd like it more if it was just for a couple of days. But when the whole country shuts down for two weeks, I find it gets on me nerves a bit. Christmas in this country just drags on and on. Apart from that, it's okay. You can't knock it, can you?"
Mark E. Smith's group, The Fall, are something of a post-punk institution. But, unlike most institutions, The Fall don't stand for anything.
In the 14 years of their existence, they have recorded a gargantuan body of work as demanding, wayward and cryptic as Dylan's, while Smith has been a perennial and voluble presence in the music press.
His Northern bloody-mindedness and bracing inflexibility of character has been reflected in The Fall's coruscating sound — and his views on the so-called festive season.
"Usually, I try to get away altogether. I try to avoid the claustrophobia of being cooped up with the family, and all the arguments," he says.
"This year, though, I'm spending it with my mum, 'cos she's on her own."
And how about the grisly business of giving? "I do all the present buying the day before Christmas. I'm not much of a shopper. I go by instinct. On Christmas Eve, the shops are clear.
"Overall, I enjoy New Year much more than Christmas. I used to live in Edinburgh until recently, and I like the Scottish attitude to New Year. I have a lot of friends up there — real friends, who don't know who I am, if you know what I mean."
Smith migrated to Scotland from his native Manchester after splitting up with his American wife, Brix, last year. During Brix's stint in the band, The Fall shifted somewhat in the direction of pop, and even enjoyed some chart success.
Now 32, Mark E. Smith says he's enjoyed the return to the single life. "It's fantastic, and I need space to work in anyway." Meanwhile, Brix is pursuing a solo pop career and has been romantically linked with violinist Nigel Kennedy.
Smith has his own connections with high culture. The Fall have collaborated with Michael Clark, most notably in a genre-trashing ballet, called I am Curious, Orange, in 1988.
Currently Smith is working on a musical, the details of which he prefers to keep under wraps. It's indicative of the singer's contrary nature that if anybody else in rock had dared to make similar dalliances with high art, they would have been lashed with his most scathing derision.
Smith has often fulminated about how rock 'n' roll was ruined when the students and art-college kids got hold of it. And he's long been the music press's token anti-liberal.
His out-of-kilter notions and pet bigotries are relished as an antidote to the right-on pieties of the alternative scene. In interviews he's typically to be found ranting about how wholemeal bread tastes like dust, or why nuclear weapons are preferable to conscription.
"I think aloud when I'm doing interviews," says Smith. "Sometimes the things I say are just a wind-up, but they get taken seriously. But if you're looking for an illiberal quote, then I can tell you that I believe we should be at war with Iraq right now."
If Smith has a creed, it's probably a kind of brass-tacks scepticism, a thoroughly old-school British distaste for humbug and cant.
"There's two things wrong with Britain nowadays," he says. "There's too much media, TV is too much in charge. And everybody's starting to take politics seriously again, now that Thatcher's gone.
"I was always brought up to think that politicians were all as bad as each other, that they were all idiots. I always thought that the good thing about Britain was that everybody thought politics didn't matter, whereas in Europe they think it does."
With his cut-the-crap nature, does he find Christmas nauseatingly twee? Or does he have a secret sentimental streak?
"Well, I'm actually a very nice bloke, I'll have you know. I tend to get written up in a particular way. Of course I have a sentimental side, perhaps overly so. I have a family and all that. I'm just about the only man left among 80 women. All the menfolk are dropping off like flies."
This Christmas, it seems, "our Mark" will be smothered firmly in the ample bosom of his family.

New York Times, 11 July 1993
by Simon Reynolds 
The Fall are one of England’s enduring cult bands. Formed in 1976 by the singer and lyricist Mark E. Smith, it evolved into one of the most critically acclaimed and influential groups of the post-punk era. In the mid-80's, the Fall was the prototype for the abrasive British genre of ‘shambling bands’. More recently, its coruscating sound and cryptic lyrics have been a major influence on the indie scene in the United States. Pavement, the most prominent band in the burgeoning American lo-fi underground, is indebted to the Fall, as are other up-and-coming groups like Truman's Water, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and God Is My Co-Pilot.
The Fall has signed with the hip independent label Matador, and the band's new album is its first for some while to be widely distributed in the United States. The Infotainment Scan (Matador/Atlantic 92263; all three formats), the Fall's 16th studio album, is one of the group's most accessible, so it may be that the band will reach a whole new audience, primed by Pavement, et al.

In its early days, the Fall was infamous for being listener-unfriendly. The second album, Dragnet, plumbed new depths of bargain-basement recording. On subsequent landmark albums like Grotesque (After the Gramme), Slates and Hex Enduction Hour, the Fall wove a dense, forbidding but – for those who persevered – captivating trance rock. Over implacable rockabilly rhythms, the band layered a thick wall of droning, distorted guitars in the tradition of minimalists like the Velvet Underground and the German band Can.
The Fall also experimented with techniques that involved degrading the guitar textures and distorting the human voice; one of Mr. Smith's favorite tricks was to feed his voice through a megaphone. He dubbed the band's style "country-and-northern," making a link between the raw primitivism of the Fall's sound and the surly attitude that's often attributed to the natives of Manchester, his hometown in the north of England.
Lyrically, he offered a bilious, withering dissection of British society. But instead of sloganeering, his songs immersed the listener in the grimy textures of working-class life. A self-educated avant-gardist from the wrong side of the tracks, Mr. Smith devised a distinctive fractured style that recalls the cut-up prose of William Burroughs.
As the 80's progressed, the Fall veered closer to pop with albums like The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall and This Nation's Saving Grace and even scored a number of chart hits. Meanwhile, Mr. Smith became a reliably controversial interviewee for the music press. His persona remains that of the classic British misanthrope, who scorns humbug and political cant whether it comes from the left or right. Mr. Smith's intransigence is best exemplified by his fervent belief in a man's right to kill himself smoking.
Musically, The Infotainment Scan may be one of the Fall's more approachable records, but Mr. Smith's lyrics are as caustic as ever, while his wizened sneer of a voice will always be jarring. Not for the first time, he aims his ire at what he regards as fatuous or regressive tendencies in pop culture. ‘Glam-Racket No.3’ takes a potshot at the current British youth trend of 70's revivalism. Over a fuzz-drenched riff and a stomping beat that's pure homage to glitter rock circa 1972, Mr. Smith decries nostalgia and makes a pointed jibe at the nouveau glam-rock band Suede, which is hugely popular in Britain.

The Fall's version of the Sister Sledge disco classic ‘Lost in Music’ may also conceal a pop-culture critique. The song was always an ambivalent commentary on dance culture's escapism (as well as the life of the professional musician), and Mr. Smith is probably using it to deride the British rave scene, which – like disco – is "caught in a trap" of druggy hedonism and mass amnesia. Paradoxically, the Fall's version retains much of the shimmering fleetness that made the original so enchanting.
The album's second side sees the Fall continue the flirtation with rave rhythms and the squelchy synthesizer textures of techno that it has indulged in on recent albums. Contemporary trance-dance has an obvious fit with Mr. Smith's early creed; "repetition in the music, and we're never gonna lose it." The song ‘Service’ layers an eerie mesh of vocal harmonies over a limber, shuffling funk groove. ‘The League of Bald-Headed Men’ seems to be a diatribe against gerontocracy, although it's hard to decipher whether its target is the decrepit fogies who rule Britain or the baby-boomer superstars who dominate international pop.

‘A Past Gone Mad’ is an anti-nostalgia rant layered over state-of-art techno squiggles and a hyped-up hip-hop beat, as it to proclaim that the Fall isn't afraid to move with the times. The band never has been, but the secret of its continued relevance is that the Fall never bends with the times. Mr. Smith and his band absorb whatever in the cultural climate is worth bothering with (what's not, he invariably scorns in song or interview) and make it swing to a rollicking, remorseless beat. Here's to the next 17 years of the Fall.

from the prologue to Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 (2005)   in a section where I'm discussing postpunk as a era of unprecedented innovation in terms of vocal delivery and lyrical style

The Fall's Mark E. Smith invented “a kind of Northern English magic realism that mixed industrial grime with the unearthly and uncanny, voiced through a unique, one-note delivery somewhere between amphetamine-spiked rant and alcohol-addled yarn.”

from the aptly titled Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews, a portion of the interview concerning the early Fall, with original member Martin Bramah

"... That’s what drew those elements of what became the Fall together--a common interest in obscure music. I remember when I first met Mark Smith, he was listening to the Doors. I had thought initially the Doors were a band like Bread--some American soft rock band!

Did you immediately become friends with Mark?

He was always Mark, always as he is perceived now--even before he created the persona.  Naturally a strange person to try to get know. I knew his sisters before I knew him. Aged 16, I was around at his house visiting his sisters and I was interested in the music that was coming out of the front room. He was sitting there with his girlfriend Una who ended up playing keyboards for us. He’s the kind of guy you skirt around initially. Very wary of people and quite aggressive, but obviously quite eccentric as well. He was this kid who wore a black leather jacket with a Nazi swastika arm band--before punk rock! He’d walk around Prestiwch like that--more to make a statement than anything. It was just perversity. He wasn’t a fascist or anything.

Weren’t members of the Fall actually communists, at one point?

We weren’t a political band in any way that made rational sense. We were just kicking against the system that was imposed upon us. If Mark wanted to piss people off he’d be a Nazi. It was a heavy Jewish area, Prestwich. Lots of wealthy Jews there… But Tony Friel, the bassist, was a member of the Communist Party. And there was that socialist ethic.

But Mark Smith himself was never CP?

Not as such. He’s not one for joining clubs. He’s contrary by nature. He’s always bucking the trend—he’s like, ‘you think you’ve got an answer but it’s not necessarily so. You’re kidding yourself, wake up and check out this angle’. His natural impulse is to upset you and disturb you, which is what I liked most about him—but it does make him hard to work with!

The Fall had that song, “Hey Fascist”, right? Not a fraternal greeting, but a put-down!

It was originally called ‘Hey Student’! Mark hated all the students in Manchester. At that point  we had the biggest student population in Europe . But then when we did Rock Against Racism Mark changed the lyrics to “Hey Fascist” because he thought it might go down better that way. 

Was Mark’s objection to students that they were square and middlebrow in their music taste?

Because he didn’t go to university, I suppose it’s the inverted snobbery of the working class kid sneering at the privilege of students. It’s just teenage kids thinking it would be funny to make a statement. It seemed irreverent.

You mentioned Tony Friel, the Fall's original bassist… How did you come across him?

We went to the same secondary school. I met him when I was 12 and I was attracted to because he was this eccentric kid who got picked on a lot, but he had this wild imagination. He’d always be in the corner of the playground telling these wild stories and scribbling in notebooks. A crowd of people would gather to listen to his mad flights of fancy.

So you were this gang of friends into weird music, and then you became The Fall?

We were already writing together before we discovered Sex Pistols. We had a musical empathy. Felt we had an insight into music. And were obviously pickled in all kinds of drugs. Taking a lot of LSD and magic mushrooms and really exploring music. We’d be in Mark’s attic, reading poetry and making noise on instruments We were all non-musicians. But we didn’t have a drummer and at the time it was impossible to conceive of doing gigs locally. What the Sex Pistols did was make us realize we could do it. Up until the Pistols, all the bands that played gigs came from out of town. They’d play at the Free Trade Hall or the Apollo. We’d turn up and sneak in the back door or sometimes pay for a ticket. But when the Pistols played at the Lesser Free Trade Hall we thought, 'we’re as good as that'.  So we immediately advertised for a drummer and threw a set together. I met Pete Shelley at this club called the Ranch Bar and told him we had a band, and he and Howard Devoto and Richard Boon, their manager, came to see our first gig at Northwest Arts. So the next gig was supporting the Buzzcocks.

Up in Mark’s attic, you were reading poetry?

We thought we were beatniks. We liked to dress in black, and we loved the Velvets. We loved the idea of Beat poets. Reading Burroughs and French existentialists, Aleister Crowley and WB Yeats. We were writing poetry because we weren’t writing music to start with. We all wrote words then. Bursting with talent, we were!

And you were already exploring psychedelics?

That was the culture in the clubs in mid-Seventies Manchester.  The 60s hippies happened and by the 70s, it was a way of life. There were a lot of casualties around but we were the next generation of kids. We saw all the hippies who’d blown their brains out and we felt we were wiser than that, but we were attracted to the experience. We learned from the kids who were older than us, people like John Cooper Clark. He was 10 years older and from that 60s generation When we discovered him living down the road from us in Prestwich, we started hanging out together. 

The Fall’s name comes from Camus, so despite being anti-student, you were far from anti-intellectual.

Not at all. We thought all your originality was knocked out of you at University. We were keen to learn what was interesting but we didn’t want to be force-fed. We’d all rejected what little education we had. I played truant whenever I could. But I was being primed to be factory fodder. We were fired up and keen to find out things for ourselves.

Initially we originally called The Outsiders, also from Camus, but then we realized there were three other bands called that. So we chose the Fall. It was Tony Friel’s influence, he was reading Camus. Mark’s idea for a name was Master Race and the Death's Heads. If he had got his way, history might have been very different!

Didn’t the name The Fall also embody a kind of concept or attitude? It has evocations of decline, the decadent phase of a civilization, but also the intimation of comeuppance--the mighty being toppled. The schadenfreude of watching the powerful being brought down.

It’s hard to define the concept of the Fall. We were trying to get to the bottom of things and express what was really bugging us. Mark was the one with the real vision, and that vision quickly became the Fall, but initially it was a real melting pot. It was like a poetry group at first. We used to share our innermost feelings in words and play our favorite albums. Mark bought a guitar but couldn’t play it.  I was already singing in another band so the first line up of the Fall was me singing and Mark playing guitar. It quickly switched because Mark was writing these mad, well-observed lyrics.  Our early stuff sounded American but Mark picked up on how to make Manchester interesting. 

In Manchester music generally there's long been that Northern patriotism thing--down with the effete, wanky South. Especially London.

It was more about expressing ourselves and getting the uniqueness across. We loved what was happening in New York. For me as a guitarist, Tom Verlaine was a big influence. And we loved the stuff in London too. But we didn’t want to imitate it. Mark managed to embody our angle on what was relevant. Some bands stumbled when they tried to politicise punk, but Mark saw that was silly and limited. We tried to leave that behind and explore the music from before punk that was more diverse. We listened to a lot of dub reggae and a lot of German music.

As a guitarist, did you have any particular ploys?

I was a self-taught player. Tony Friel was a better musician than me so he gave me some of the rudiments--how to make a bar chord. I was into discord, getting away from the regimented and the sterile. We were inspired. We knew instinctively that we could do it, and we wanted to do something different and make a primal statement.

So the first actual released thing by the Fall was on the Live at the Electric Circus compilation, and then there was quite a delay before the first EP, Bingo Masters Break Out!  got released on Step Forward. How did you hook up with that label?

We’d already recorded that first EP by the time of Electric Circus, but it didn’t get released for a year. I’m a bit vague about the Step Forward connection. Mark was managing the Fall along with Kay Carroll, his girlfriend. It was s London-based label and owned by Miles Copeland. By then I was kind of just the guitarist in the band. I just turned up and played.

So was that why you ultimately became frustrated and left? Mark taking over and The Fall becoming his band?

The Fall had been together for two or years, but it was a very intense period. We’d done a lot of work and received a lot of attention from the media. It was becoming very much Mark’s thing. I was sick of the way we were being treated as a band. What was initially a collective became a dictatorship. I felt full of confidence and ideas and was keen to do exactly what I wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong, I think Mark’s a genius but he was making it very hard for me to work with him. Mark’s not a musician so he couldn’t literally tell me what to play. He could only tell me what he didn’t like. But he had a vision of how he wanted it. But it wasn’t so much about the music, it was more how we were being treated as people on a daily basis.

And your last contribution to The Fall was writing three tracks on the second album, Dragnet?

I wrote three of the songs that went on Dragnet but I didn’t play on it. I left after Live At the Witch Trials.

And by that point, all the original members had left, apart from you and Mark?

We all left for our own reasons, and at different times, but when you look at it now there wasn’t much of a time lag between. Una Baines left about a year before me. Karl Burns, the drummer, left somewhere in between. Tony Friel was the first to go. Tony left when Kay became the manager because he thought it was a bad idea. He felt he’d invested a lot in the Fall. He’d come up with the name and he was the musician in the band and in his view he was teaching us how to play the bloody instruments. He left because his freedom was infringed. And he went off to form the Passage with Dick Witts.  

You know what, I think it was initially me that suggested Kay manage us. She was a friend of Una’s and she was hanging out with us, and she seemed level-headed. She was a bit older than us. At the same time, Mark was starting to go out with her. It  became a bit of a Yoko and John Lennon scenario. The girlfriend affirming his genius. Mark needed that encouragement, so I’m not saying it was all bad. But it’s the typical girlfriend interfering in the band scenario. But we didn’t all gang up and leave. At the time we all thought it was for individual reasons.

So was it tough for Una, having gone out with Mark, and now he’s dating her friend, and the friend is managing the band?

It was Una’s decision they broke up. Mark was more hurt by that. When I first met them Mark and Una were a real item—first love, teenage true love. They were an inseparable item. Then we formed the Fall and Una started seeing other people. She was off everywhere doing things and she kind of left the Fall thinking it wasn’t an important thing.....

You and Una then formed the Blue Orchids - did you see the group as the vanguard of a new psychedelia, music for "heads"? 

You can’t play down the influence of drugs on Blue Orchids and The Fall. The first drugs we got into was strong LSD. Pot smoking seemed lame back then--hippie guys who sat around stoned and did nothing. We were anti drugs at first and thought we could reach the psychedelic thing without the drugs. But in a club someone gave us some microdots, when we were about 16. The next day we went to Heaton Park and dropped it and spent the whole day on LSD. Heaton Park is a stately home, the nearest thing to a common in Manchester. And then we discovered psylocibin mushroom were growing in Heaton Park for free.  Someone told us that there were fields of these mushrooms. So from that point we were kind of pickled in magic mushrooms and LSD. We just made it our own. It was a free source of entertainment. We’d be munching these things and sitting in pubs and seeing the world in a strange way and getting ideas for songs about our local environment. The Fall was like Coronation Street on acid.

A Blissblog post from 2022: 

The Fall as sound / the sound of The Fall

During last week's agonisingly protracted and inadequately achieved eviction of the tapeworm-tenacious Boris, a couple of Fall-memes started circulating: 

"There have been 66 ex-members of The Fall in 40 years. There have been 42 ex-members of the government in the last 24 hours.(In the event, the total number of resignations topped 50).

And (purporting to express the PM's unfazed response to the welter of cabinet resignations)

"If it's me and your granny on bongos, it's the government".

The last one, of course, is a twist on something Mark E. Smith said in 1998, at once a quip and a serious claim to proprietorship:  

"If it's me and your granny on bongos, it's a Fall gig"

T-Shirt with truncated and grievously mis-punctuated ("bongo's", ugh) version of Mark E. Smith's quotable.

That got me thinking again about something that's been loitering in the back of the brain for some time now. For sure, M.E.S. is the sole common denominator running through The Fall's history and discography. And yes, Smith dominated his musician-minions and drove the whole entreprise along with his vision and cantankerous personality. 

Still, it feels lopsided to me, the way that - when it comes to serious critical discourse - Fall-scrawl almost uniformly, and seemingly unavoidably, boils down to Smith-scribble.

Case in point: the relatively recent publication Excavate! The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall. A gorgeous looking book, Excavate! includes essays from some of the sharpest commentators ever on Mark E. Smith and his wayward way with words. And it's an illustrative feast: record covers, lyric sheets, posters, flyers, zine pages, press releases, fan club missives, music press adverts...  The scope of the written content is incredibly wide and rich: there's pieces on Northern working men’s clubs and Northern factories, the urban geography of Greater Manchester, M.E.S.’s love of supernatural and horror fiction, parallels between The Fall and football fandom...

Yet curiously, amid all the words and all the images, there is a near-absence of the Fall as a sound – as the work of musicians.

There is more wordage expended – an entire essay, in fact - on Wyndham Lewis, that jaundiced-eyed  literary-modernist ancestor to M.E.S., than on what actual Fall members Martin Bramah and Una Baines and Tony Friel contributed. 

More on pre-cog than on the cogwork of Hanley + Scanlon + Riley.  


                             Close up zoom from this - back cover of  the first Fall album I ever owned


Of all Excavate!’s toilers at the Smith-y, Mark Fisher is better on this score than most, in so far as fairly regularly he’ll evoke the sound of the records or offer an insight as to what distinguishes the group as a musical proposition. But for the most part his K-punk masterwork, the three part epic "Memorex for the Kraken" - is a tour de force of maniacal exegesis. 

This tendency to treat The Fall primarily in terms of the lyrics  - something to be annotated and intertextually cross-referenced to other writers, to once-current affairs, to myths and folklore, to long-gone gossip, and even to long-gone music journalists –  recalls nothing so much as Dylanology. 

Secondarily, after the text and the context, the focus is on M.E.S. as public persona and one-of-a-kind personality - his eccentric opinions, his crooked perspective. 

Sound - even Smith as a sounding instrument in his own right, Smith's voice as an aural texture and set of self-invented incantatory techniques rather than a literary voice -  comes a distant third. 

The fact that his tangled spools of spiel reach us embedded in guitars/bass/keybs/drums can start to seem almost incidental. You might even come away thinking that another medium could have served Smith's vision just as well.  Or at least, it is rather too easy to take the sonic backdrop for granted -  to carry on as if the real thing to think about is the torrent of verbiage. 

That said, I don’t know if I’ve done much better in my own various Fall scrawls. In the reviews, and in Rip It Up, there’s a bit more of a sense of the band as a rhythmic engine and textural scourge. But Smith is irresistible! The knotty lyrics, the interviews with their caustic swipes and inversions of gliberal commonsense (my favorite ever =  Smith's loathing of wholemeal bread - "tastes like dust!"). And because the group's sound is a bit of a changing same, it’s easy to let it slip into the background, as if the Fall really were just M.E.S.’s backing band, the parchment for his unholy writ.

I am ashamed to admit that the names Craig Scanlon and Marc Riley do not appear once in my entire book.  (Steve Hanley does, but only in a photo caption!). 

The first incarnation of the Fall gets more namechecks – and actual quote-time (Bramah, Baines, Friel were all interviewed). But then that first Fall were more of a group-group, a democracy, for a while.

Still, even later on, with the roadies-turned-players firmly under the singer-leader’s thumb, barely ever allowed a peep or squeak in print interviews, I would venture that it's more accurate to say that Smith fronts the band, rather than that the band backs Smith. A subtle distinction – but this noise is too insistent, too rough, too odd-angled, to slip into the singer's subservient shadow. 

Could it even work, Smiths’ voice, disentangled from the thicket of this ramshackle racket?

I set myself a mental exercise: would I listen to the Fall’s music – its peak music – that string of singles from “Bingo Masters” and “Repetition” to “I’m Into C.B.” and “Cruiser’s Creek”, albums like SlatesHexWonderful and Frightening – without Mark E. Smith? Could I enjoy an imaginary dubstrumental mix?

You know what, I think I would. Of course that might be because I’ve heard it all before, so many times, with the singer integral and inseparable from the music. So perhaps I'd be ghosting his presence by memory, filling the gap.

And then the converse mental exercise: would I listen to M.E.S. on his own, delivering these same words, without the Fall's music?

Possibly. But unlikely. I don’t go in for spoken word much. And listening to the two Smith-without-Fall albums – The Post Nearly Man and Pander! Panda! Panzer! – I would say, he really needs the band.  Not just a band, but that band (dim memories here of being unswayed by the Von Sudenfed project with Mouse on Mars).

And then the final thought-experiment. Would I read Smith on the printed page, without the band, but also without the sound of his voice – without Smith as vocal-musician / magician? Doubt it, honestly. At the best of times, I'm not  much into rock-as-poetry collections  - rock lyrics detached from the rock.

These speculations are beside the point, though. It’s not even clear the Fall’s music could exist in the form it does, or would ever have existed at all, without Smith animating it, bullying it into existence,  or without the direction he gave his minions about that riff or this beat. The Fall belongs to a select  category of postpunk outfits where a non-musician plays a crucial role as aesthetic shepherd and ideas-editor - John Lydon and PiL, Ian Curtis with Joy Division, David Thomas in Pere Ubu.

You’d also have to take into consideration what the former Fall musicians -  The Fallen as Dave Simpson called them in his book of interviews with ex-members - did after Mark. Doesn't add up to a lot really. The exception is The Blue Orchids. But then Bramah & Baines were in the original Fall, contributed to its emerging gestalt, and then pursued their own poetic-mythopoeic-shamanic vision that flowered so wondrously with The Greatest Hit.

But it is a peculiar thing - this relative silence about The Fall as collective sound rather than as one man’s vision.

Tunes like “Middle Mass” (and the other tracks on Slates - as astonishing a reformulation of guitar, bass and drums as the first Television album) have yet to get their full due. Same goes for “Bug Days” on The Wonderful and Frightening World – the whole of that record's second side, really. And same goes for Hex's “Iceland” and “Just Step S’Ways” and “Who Makes The Nazis” and “Hip Priest” .  

Perhaps it's up to musicians to do the close analysis of what is happening with the guitars and bass and drums and keyboards. That type of craft-oriented knowledge seems likely to reveal as much about why we keep listening to these records as, say, an expert on H.P. Lovecraft. The reason to listen to this music is right there on the surface of the sound, rather than something you need to backfill with annotation.

(This new fan's effort, the blook You Must Get Them All: The Fall On Record, while discographically exhaustive, is not really what I'm looking for, judging by the bits I've seen). 

(The actual musicians in The Fall, so long silenced and sidelined in the music press coverage, have been piping up in recent years - Paul Hanley and Steve Hanley offering memoirs and the-making-of- books. Again, while the fly-on-the wall and nitty-gritty recording stuff is probably interesting, I'm not sure it's quite what I'm looking for, which would be closer to an Ian Macdonald-type analysis from outside, rather than a Geoff Emerick I-was-there recounting. Inevitably, these memoirs appear to have a lot of M.E.S. anecdotes and bad-working-practices stories, which again bolster Smith-centricity) 

The Fall sound – primitive and avant – is one of the great instantiations of the recurring mystery of the band. The emergence of a band-voice (different from the human voice that rides on top of it, although the band-voice should include that singer's - or speak-singer's - voice). That curious melding of timbres, tones and mode of motion that means you can recognize a great groop within less than a second, almost as soon as the needle drops in the groove. Somehow disparate elements cohere into an entity. Components that far more often than not accreted haphazardly, through happenstance: because of who knew who, or who happened to have a particular needed piece of equipment, because of geographical proximity, because of the randomness of who answered an ad or whether the phone got picked up or the ad-placer was at home when the interested party knocked on the door. This arbitrarily selected set of differing abilities, taste profiles and personalities miraculously manages to find a small area in which they converge, become one. It’s especially eerie and magical when the timbres of a singer and a guitarist meld (Morrissey + Marr).

And this magic is almost impossible to recreate after the band has disintegrated. Especially if the scattered members are rebuilding from a position of previous success. That enables each ex- to pick and choose. New recruits are less like equal accomplices in the venture and more like subordinates. They  tend to be highly skilled and chosen for their ability. The newly solo singer, or guitarist, is calling the shots. The resulting mentality is not that of a gang or quasi-family but more like executive/proprietor + employees. In such circumstances, it's vastly harder for a band-voice to emerge – that confined area of common ground in which the band finds its sound and then runs through the finite scope for its evolution. The new hired hands are too capable, too versatile;  they can play anything, and so they do

The Fall Mark 2 could have easily been like that, but the group weren’t that renowned yet, and Smith shrewdly, or instinctively, went with the close-to-hand, the roadies - still unformed, therefore moldable, able to cohere and evolve together as a unit rather than an aggregate of established highly-skilled players. The result was effectively the reformation of the band and the settling into its true, distinct and enduring sound. (Much as I love the singles on the Early Fall 77-79 comp and Live At the Witch Trials). 

As part of this exercise, I decided to listen to the Fall's uuurrv in chronological order - all of it, or as far as I could get before exhaustion got the better of me. Would it change my perspective on the highs and the lows?

Strangely, it almost completely confirmed the existing feelings. I did remember something I'd forgotten - what a rattling, crackling live album Totale's Turns is (a record I originally had on cassette taped off a friend's copy). But apart from that...  Dragnet, for some reason still, don't know why, never quite clicks with me. But everything else from "Bingo Master's Breakout!" through to Hex, remained in its exalted place. Then interest flagged, just like it did originally in historical real-time, with Room to Live and Perverted By Language. Only to recover dramatically with The Wonderful and Frightening World and attendant singles. After that, though... Well This Nation's Saving GraceBend Sinister, "Cruiser's Creek" and some of the other Beggar's-era singles are still pretty exciting. But then we reach that long late Eighties stretch of Kurious and Frenz and Extricate - and this was where I had to halt the exercise, on the cusp of the '90s.  Again, this replicated how I'd felt at the time: the pummel had become predictable. Only the occasional oddment grabbed the ears on this go-round. Like this Stranglers-ish anomaly. 

But no, I wouldn't bother listening if it was just Mark E and an OAP on bongos.  The Fall is a Group. Or was a group, when it was great. 

As someone on Twitter said, in response to the "If it's me and your granny on bongos" T shirt:

"If it's Scanlon, Hanley, Hanley, Burns and Smith, then it's the Fall


As so often, it takes Paul Morley to risk heresy and raise the unthinkable thought:  “What if he wasn’t a genius, he was just an old drunken tramp that when he got really drunk started to spout phrases that made a kind of sense, and we read too much into it, you know?” 


M.E.S. taking the piss  - or reflecting his actual views? Probably both.

A more expansive version of same 1983 manifesto

Going back to where this blogpost started.... my doubts about the excessive focus on M.E.S....  about Smith as a font of anything related to wisdom, clear sight, or sense - this has been affected by the suspicion that he'd very likely have voted for Boris and the Tories in the last election (he certainly wouldn't have gone for Corbyn). After all, he was in favor of Brexit - "I thought it was great... Still do". 

C.f. John Lydon piping up last week to say how much he admires Jacob Rees-Mogg for his well-bred courteous mien - and calling for a return to "civility" in politics!


Although I once reviewed a Fall live album, strangely I only ever saw the band live once, despite their hard-working persistence and their guest-list blaggability for a working journo. And that one-time encounter was  relatively early in the career. In 1982 they played a venue in Oxford called Scamps, located in Westgate shopping centre. Most of the week it was a discotheque, but they did put on NME-ish type bands once a week. At Scamps I also saw 23 Skidoo, Haircut 100, and, according to an old letter I found recently, Orange Juice (got no recollection of that gig at all). To my eternal frustration / contrition, I missed the opportunity to see The Birthday Party - an actual party took precedence that night. 

The Fall at Scamps, though - one of the most intense, cochlea-blistering gigs I've ever experienced. My ears were ringing for days after.  

And naturally the Fall websites have the full lowdown - it was April 26th 1982, it was the Hex Enduction Tour, and there's even a set list (and apparently somewhere an actual tape of the gig, if I felt like reliving it).

Look, Know

Mere Pseud Mag Ed

Fantastic Life

Tempo House



Joker Hysterical Face

Solicitor in Studio

Who Makes the Nazis?

Hexen Definitive

And This Day

Lie Dream of a Casino Soul

Prole Art Threat

And here's a poster 

And here's what they sounded like in Holland only a few weeks before the Oxford gig. 

Addendum 12/13/2022

And supporting my contention above, here's a new anthology,of scholarly work 
Always Different, Always the Same: Critical Essays on The Fall - judging by the table of contents, again there is this slant towards text and context. Some chapter titles:

‘A letter so simple, yet disgusting in a stroke’: writing-out the (typo) graphic strangeness of The Fall 

Psykick Dancehall – the paranormal world of Mark E. Smith and The Fall

"What’s a computer?” Corpus linguistic software v the complete Fall lyrics.

"Searching for the right word or phrase that would put a chill up the spine… Investigating the lyrics of Mark E. Smith using thematic and corpus-based discourse analyses." 

"Literary Perversion"

Other chapters seem to largely concern the cult of M.E.S. or his anti-hero, renegade status

The word "music" pops up just once in a chapter titled "I Am Damo Suzuki Lost In Music"  

This not necessarily completely indicative of the actual contents of the chapters, but.....  

Fall Writings By Others

The best things I've read on The Fall are still Barney Hoskyns's revelatory interview-essay and live review for New Musical Express in 1981, here preserved at subscription-only Rock's Back Pages. A non pay-walled version of the interview can be seen here

Mark Fisher at his sharpest in this klassik K-punk series of pieces Memorex for the Krakens: The Fall's Pulp Modernism.  Also an unfinished talk written by Mark to be delivered at a Fall conference in Salford in 2008, but never delivered owing to family bereavement. 

A vivid feature on The Fall in Iceland circa making of Hex Enduction Hour by Melody Maker's Colin Irwin

Another good piece - by the late great Richard Cook, in NME. Also his review of Hex Enduction Hour.

Dave McCullough (where's he now?) on The Fall same year, in Sounds

Andy Gill's excellent piece on on The Fall, 1981, NME

Dave Simpson in the Guardian writing about tracking down every former member of the Fall (a lunatic project that turned into his highly enjoyable book The Fallen)

M.E. Smith in his own words - Portrait of the Artist as Consumer, NME

Not properly scanned the obituaries and tributes as yet but here's Geeta Dayal's for NPR and a tribute from Sasha Frere-Jones for Village Voice.

And here's a  lovely tribute / memory-session from Jon Wilde (formerly Jonh Wilde, of Melody Maker renown) who interviewed Mark E. Smith no less than eight times, at We Are Cult website.

The Wire have constructed a portal to a heap of the magazine's writing on The Fall, including Stewart Lee's primer to their discography, interviews by Tony Herrington and Samantha Batra, and Simon Ford's account of the group's formation. 

Finally, more Fall thoughtage from me +  information + links at the Rip It Up and Start Again Footnotes blog

Mark E. Smith and rave - from a Rebellious Jukebox column on his fave records, Melody Maker 1994 July.

graphomania as record design - the untidy mind of M.E.S. writ large

M.E.S. liner scribblings as mise en scene for the music - styled as screenplays or script frags

 M.E.S. track-by-track comments in the throwback style of liner notes from the 1960s and earlier  except these are gnomic tangents, cryptic and/or barbed asides...