During the latest Melbourne lock-down, I have been revisiting the music of The Fall. A strange (or should that be Kurious?) choice, but at a time when you feel like ranting (or mithering) at the absurdity of it all, The Fall make perfect sense. It might not always be comfortable listening, but sometimes you need a bit of grit and gristle as a catalyst to move on.
When exploring The Fall, it’s hard to know where to begin (and, just as importantly, how to end). Although they emerged from the 70’s punk movement and were associated with the Manchester music scene, The Fall identified with neither. But if punk hadn’t happened, and without that link to Manchester, I doubt they would have got as far. They out-lived all of their contemporaries, without the tired reunions or desperate comeback tours of their peers. Perhaps only Wire or Gang of Four can claim a similar longevity, but they both had long periods of inactivity.
Named after an Albert Camus novel, The Fall were not afraid to acknowledge their influences and interests, in particular those of their core founder and only consistent member, Mark E Smith. Scattered across lyrics, album covers, sleeve notes, press interviews and side projects, it is possible to find references to literature, art, theatre, dance, philosophy, politics, psychology, spiritualism and the occult. Elements of Wyndham Lewis, Samuel Beckett, Edgar Allan Poe, Aleister Crowley, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Blake, H.P. Lovecraft, Luke Rhinehart, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Jarry and Kurt Schwitters can be found strewn across The Fall’s output.
This should not be too surprising: during a 40-year recording career, The Fall released 30+ studio albums, 60+ singles and EPs, and more than a hundred live albums and compilations. Integral to their recording career are the two-dozen sessions The Fall recorded for John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 program. (Peel was an early champion, and often cited them as his favourite band – he is also credited with the quotation that provides the title of this blog.) It’s the sort of discography that will keep fans busy for years – and represents something of a licensing headache for record labels and music publishers alike.
The Fall’s prolific (and challenging) body of work only came to an end when Smith died in early 2018, although the posthumus re-issues and compilations have continued with almost indecent frequency – I hope his estate are keeping tabs.
Of course, with that sort of work ethic, quality control can suffer. Smith was equally feted and feared for his wilful determination and unwillingness to conform. His refusal to compromise or comply with current fads and fashion was certainly an admirable trait. But this steadfast and stubborn control over his content reveals a weakness – the absence of any discernible editorial oversight means that there is a law of diminishing returns, especially in the band’s later years. Although it must also be acknowledged that even on the last few albums, there was something of a return to form.
When Smith died, he was honoured with an obituary in the Washington Post, which must have had more than a few readers perplexed – (Mark E who? Marquis Cha-Cha of course!). Smith would have loathed/laughed at the attention. He had a love/hate relationship with journalists, but he also understood the value of the media to reach his audience, especially in the pre-internet heyday of the UK’s weekly music press (the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds). At the same time, he could be dismissive towards certain sections of his fans, although he saved most of his bile for other bands, especially those whom he felt were mere plagiarists.
Trying to summarise what The Fall represent musically is no easy task. Their antecedents can be traced to 1950’s rockabilly, 1960’s garage rock and 1970’s glam. In terms of outlook and attitude, it’s possible to discern similarities to American groups such as Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu, and German bands such as Can and Faust. Yet another reference point might be their choice of cover songs, ranging from The Kinks to Sister Sledge, from Hank Mizell to Lee Perry.
Another way to approach their music is to break it down into chronological chapters: the post-punk and dense sounds of their first few albums, the rapid evolution into art rock and neo-pop in the mid-1980s, the brief period with a major label in the early-19990s that saw a transition to a more electronic sound (and mild flirtations with techno and big beat), the peaks and troughs of the middle-aged years, and then the erratic coda in their dotage that showed glimpses of former glories. But this hardly does their back catalogue justice. If you asked fifty fans to list their top 10 tracks by The Fall, you would get as many different compilation albums.
I was fortunate to see The Fall in their early- and mid-1980s peak – so my own preferences mainly stem from that era – the run of albums that comprises “Grotesque (After The Gramme)”, “Perverted by Language”, “Hex Enduction Hour”, “Room to Live”, “The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall”, “I Am Kurious Oranj”, “Bend Sinister”, “This Nation’s Saving Grace” and “The Frenz Experiment”, plus the myriad singles and EPs dotted around those releases.
If pushed, I’d have to say my favourite track is “Leave the Capitol”, from 1981 – to me, it sums up what The Fall represent.
Next week: Eileen Agar – My Brush With Surrealism