The Fall – always different, always the same

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

Manchester, so much to answer for….

I spent most of the festive season in and around Manchester, once a focal point of the industrial revolution (and the home to dark satanic mills), now a city that is as much about technology and culture (and the location for MediaCityUK). Plus, it’s a city that takes its hedonism very seriously, a place where a table is simply something to dance on…

Manchester Town Hall – photo by Mark Andrew – image sourced from Wikimedia under Creative Commons

I have had a direct connection with Manchester going back nearly 40 years. Prior to that, Manchester for me was probably defined by its famous football club (and that other one), Coronation Street (the world’s longest-running television soap opera), and the Manchester Guardian newspaper (now one of the few remaining sources of objective news coverage).

Then, in the late 1970s, Manchester started producing some of the most innovative music in the wake of punk. Manchester was the home to cutting-edge bands, labels, producers, designers, writers and fanzines – many of which outshone the best of what even London had to offer at that time. Record labels such as Factory, New Hormones, Object and Rabid helped launch the careers of Joy Division, Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, Buzzcocks, John Cooper Clarke, Martin Hannett, Peter Saville, Ludus, Malcolm Garrett, The Passage, James and even Jilted John; while bands like The Fall, Magazine, The Frantic Elevators and The Distractions (plus fanzine City Fun) all added to the colourful mix. Then came New Order and The Smiths, followed by the Hacienda, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and the rest of the Madchester era (as brilliantly told in the film “24 Hour Party People”).

So Manchester’s cultural output from that period has definitely shaped and informed a lot of my musical (and reading) choices. Just before Christmas, it was announced that musician and lyricist Pete Shelley had died. Along with Howard Devoto, he formed Buzzcocks, who inspired many other bands and independent labels with their debut 1977 release, the Spiral Scratch EP (also one of the first UK punk records). Their appreciation of visual artists like Marcel Duchamp and Odilon Redon, and writers like Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus, Dostoyevsky and Gogol meant that (along with many of their contemporaries) they made music that was not just about 3 minute pop songs. Plus, these literary influences prompted me to seek out those Penguin Modern Classics – much more interesting than my high-school set texts….

Every time I visit Manchester, I’m also reminded of the wry sense of humour, and the general tendency towards gritty resignation (along the lines of, “If you can’t laugh about it, you may as well give up now”).

One example – while checking my luggage in at the airport, I had the following exchange with the staff member behind the counter:

ME: “How are you today?” (it being a very early morning during the festive season, and goodwill to all people etc.)

THEM: “I’m full of it”

ME: “Full of the joys of Christmas?”

THEM: “No, the flu”

Another example (see opening reference to tables) – a quotation from Mark Twain, appearing in a public art gallery, had been modified to read:

“Explore, Dream, Disco…”

And as if by way of reinforcement, for Christmas I was given two books, essential reading for anyone wanting to further their appreciation of Mancunian (and Salfordian) pop culture – “The Luckiest Guy Alive” by John Cooper Clarke, and “Messing Up the Paintwork – The Wit and Wisdom of Mark E. Smith”.

The late Mark E. Smith, founder of The Fall (and no relation to the band The Smiths…) led  a group famous for its longevity, its voluminous discography, and its revolving door of musicians. In reference to the latter, he once said:

“If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”

Next week: Startup Victoria – supporting successful founders