Anthropologists are agreed that Humanity can be divided into 3 main groups. There are the people who love The Fall. It tends to be love rather than like...mainly because you’ve got to put so much effort into it to get the benefits (It’s a bit like the 15 years training to be a Sushi chef, or fisting).
Then there are those who think that Mark E Smith is a poisonous alco-dwarf bellowing stream of unconsciousness nonsense like “Hogwartian dogtrumpet ahh” over the tuneless racket of soon to be sacked musicians.
The third and largest group is of course ex Fall Musicians. There about 50 of them who have been in (and mostly out) of The Fall over the last 27 years.
The thing about The Fall though is that it’s always been the sound of Mark E Smith’s vision of how a band should sound. The continual churn of musicians has changed the sound over the years and like a musical geologist you can identify the different eras of the band and the different layers of sound, but essentially it’s Smiths vocals, his delivery and his dense, baffling lyrics, stories and characters that define The Fall. It’s his bus and he’s driving.
And it’s his contempt for most contemporary values, styles and musicianship that have kept The Fall sounding unique and instantly recognisable. He berates the band on Slates with “For God’s sake don’t’ start improvising” and Madchester era bands were “Idiot groups with no shape or form, out of their heads on a quid of blow”.
He listens to Beefheart and Bo Diddley but basically has kicked all the line ups of his band into playing a distinctive Fall boogie. Discordant, relentless, layered but basically simple in structure
Smith’s vocals are best summed up in his own words on Your Heart Out, from 1979’s Dragnet lp. “I don’t sing I just shout-all on one note...aaah.” Surprisingly then on 1990’s Extricate album he comes close to a croon on Bill Is Dead.
They‘ve notched up a lot of cover versions. Last year they covered The Move’s I Can Hear The Grass Grow, They played it very straight, with the band wound tight under Smith’s croon (well it was 15 years since his last one.)
They cover White Line fever by Merle Haggard on the forthcoming album Reformation Post TLC. It’s their 26th studio album. Previously they’ve also done Victoria by The Kinks, R Dean Taylor’s Ghost In My House and Groovin’ With Mr Bloe.
The two most informative covers that actually show where Smith got his sound from is Black Monk Theme by the Monks and Mr Pharmacist. The Monks were a 60’s garage band of US soldiers who wore monks cowls and played simple, pared to the bone rock’n’ roll. (I defy you to come up with a better title than Boys Are Boys And Girls Are Choice). Mr Pharmacist originally by The Other Half shows his influences both musically and chemically.
There’s always been a belligerent non-academic intelligence about what they did. In the earliest stages of the group with Una Baines and Tony Friel the band used to write and play drug music in Salford bedsits to accompany the poems they’d write. Smith arrived late for an early interview because he’d been to an English literature evening class. His ex wife and ex Fall member Brix Smith said “He wasn’t educated, but he was extremely well read. The way he looked at the world was so different. Because he wouldn’t see things the same way, he wouldn’t speak the same way.”
Mark Smith sees the continual personnel changes and sackings as being like a football manager where every now and then you’ve got to get rid of the centre forward. Brix is now the owner of London up market jeans shop. (Pre Brix, Mark E always just looked like he’d got his clothes from the market.)
Steve Hanley was the bass player through some of my favourite Fall years. He had a really harsh middley bass sound, like shovelling gravel. After he’d been sacked he became a school caretaker.
Mark Riley was sacked after a legendary dance floor fight in Australia. After a lacklustre show in 1982 Smith spotted 4 of the band dancing to The Clash’s Rock The Casbah and stormed over slapping each of them in turn. Riley punched him back and had to find alternative work....first as a Creeper (one of the very few bands who did nail the Fall sound...as well he should ) and later as a Mark Radcliffe’s sidekick Lard and a Radio 6 dj in his own right).
The 1998 line up disintegrated after Smith attacked drummer Karl Burns (he who had been in and out of the revolving door Fall since the second single) on stage in New York.
Smith’s current wife (and current Fall member) Elena Poulou describes him as the best on stage mixer in the business. What she actually means is Mark E will go and mess about with the amps behind the musicians backs in an attempt to unsettle them.
In earlier years he would produce a kazoo or a squealing Dictaphone to produce similar chaos. It’s either a case of a tactical mastermind who is trying to coax an edgier performance from his band or it’s an out of control, drink and drug crazed megalomaniac who can’t stop messing about.
The proof’s in the results though and I’ve seen the Fall about 30 times over the years and seen some storming performances, with the band locked into a moment, concentrated and radiating malevolence.
You probably would not want him as a neighbour or employer but he is utterly unique, like a Punk Dylan who has just stuck to his musical guns and followed his own path (stopping at the pub on the way.)
His talent is almost certainly getting a battering from his lifestyle. Nick Cave has a similar self destructive past but he’s been able to write novels and a film as well as raising the standard of his own musical output. You just can’t see MES doing projects outside music.
When The Fall did the ballet collaboration with Michael Clark in 1988, Mark E Smith’s take on the 300th anniversary of William of Orange probably doesn’t stand up to rigorous academic debate. MES as a day time drinking Simon Schama anyone? Lyrically could he really just be spouting nonsense? Or is it just that it‘s different nonsense to anyone else’s?
Paul Morley said he sometimes he wonders if collectively, we may have all been had by MES.....we’ve spent all these years thinking that he’s a genius, but what if he is really just a pissed old tramp shouting at traffic.
Thing is though, for each year that I’ve been ready to write off The Fall, they’ve done something that makes me glad he’s still there....and there still isn’t anyone else who sounds like them.