Mark E Smith is dead at age 60, lung and kidney cancer, dental problems. His band, The Fall, the greatest of the Manchester bands, released some 30 or so studio albums and lots of compilations and live albums.
Born in the same year as Smith, either 1949 or 1957, depending on which source you are prepared to believe, and some 14,620.8902 kms apart, I have always been a Fall fan, from the time I bought my first long player 20 Explosive Hits (1971), through the lure of Scott Walker, the gentle shores of The Doors and Jimmy Buffet, to the false dawn of grunge, to the overflowing world of today.
Smith’s death leaves me untroubled. There are broadly three categories of rock music deaths:
(a) Too early: Grant McLennan, Billy McKenzie, Dave McComb, Joe Strummer, Eddie Cochran, Bob Marley
(b) Took too long: too many to mention in this category, plus those that are not dead yet but really should be
(c) Just right: Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Michael Jackson (maybe in category b??), Sid Vicious, the Buckleys.
Smith firmly belongs in category (c). As we shall see.
It was in York Street, Subiaco sometime in the early 80s, maybe even 1980 itself, that I first heard The Fall.
What is this atonal out of tune shit? I thought. But soon I found with my one ear that there was richness abounding in the grooves of Grotesque (After the Gramme), for it was likely that album that I heard. Or was it the earlier Dragnet? Grotesque, their third studio album, has one of the all-time great Fall songs, Container Drivers.
This is not their town
Big cigars come out of the ground
Sweat on their way down
F. Jack’s a distant relation
Communists are just part time workers
And there’s no thanks
From the loading bay ranks .
Or maybe it was the 10” Slates (1981) which is bursting with an ebullient Fall. Smith said that Slates was for, ‘..people who didn’t buy records’. It has two all-time great Fall songs, Prole Art Threat and Fit and Working Again.
Fit and Working Again
I’m fit and working again
Walk down the road in the sun
I make a path through a forty strong gang
I’m fit and working again
My sick, think I’ve seen the tail end
I’m fit and working again
I used to hang like a chandelier
My lungs encrusted in blood
But the flex is now cut clear
I’m fit and working, dear
Took me ten years to write this song
Official film clip here Container Drivers
So started my Fall journey, as they say these days (at least I don’t claim to have had a conversation). An album a year my York Street friend said, and he was on the money. This is the same friend, by the way, who has denied ever owning a Crispy Ambulance album. I cannot attest to what other music he was playing at the time, perhaps at times I was listening to Throbbing Gristle, 20 Jazz Funk Greats for instance, and mistook it for The Fall?
There were two Fall albums in 1982, Hex Enduction Hour and Room To Live (not a live recording), followed in 1983 by Perverted By Language. Here the Fall started moving from the inchoate to the more coherent, or rather less incoherent. The latter LP has the essential Eat Y’self Fitter, for which they made a fab film clip…
Eat Y’self Fitter
I’m in the furniture trade
Got a new job today
But stick the cretin
On the number-three lathe
Went down the town
To a HM club
The sign had a cross
Through a couple well-dressed
They looked at my coat
They looked at my hair
An Easy Rider coot
Grabbed the edge of my coat
Said: ‘You’re too smart for here’
If you’re one of the set who say you can’t dance to The Fall, see 3.58 on.
In 1984 came The Wonderful and Frightening World Of… The start of a golden run of LPs, one of the greatest ever – not just by The Fall but by any band/singer. The music was more professionally produced but (fortunately) the words were no less caught in the gap between meaning and nonsense. 1
Lay Of The Land
The last Briton on the street
He’s in a radio fuzz
He’s dead and beat
No longer reflects our daft fate
We’ll leave this city
Hit a quick coach, take the town in Surrey
There’s no-one here but crooks and death
Kerb-crawlers, of the worst order
Where’s the lay of the land
What’s the lie of the land
With green moss
Sound of ordinary on the waves
Tiles drip from its roof
Home secretary has a weird look
After this came the stunning This Nation’s Savings Grace, 1985, and Bend Sinister, 1986. Not a dud track on either of them, every song a winner. Pitchfork gave the former 10/10 on its re-release. Here we find MES and The Fall getting closer to a more conventional rock sound, but they approach only.
My New House
My new house
You should see my house
My new house
You should see my new house
No rabbit hutch about it
I bought it off the baptists
I get the bills
And I get miffed
At the damn polyester fills
The interior is a prison unconscious
…According to the postman
It’s like the bleeding Bank of England
Creosote tar fence surrounds it
Those razor blades eject when I press eject
There was then a lengthy two-year gap to the next album, the somewhat disappointing The Frenz Experiment, though it did of course have its share of cracker songs, notably the seven-minute Bremen Nacht (the LP version of which is superior to the version on the CD). In the same year though they put out one of the greatest Fall albums, I am Kurious Oranj. It was intended as the soundtrack for the ballet I Am Curious, Orange, produced by contemporary dance group Michael Clark & Company, and loosely based on the 300th anniversary of William of Orange‘s ascension to the English throne (please, do it again). Not a mediocre song here, let alone a dud. Fortuitously I was in London, following an arduous tour of the Outer Hebrides on The Dog*, at the very time The Fall were performing the ballet. It was fantastic, Brix coming onto stage on top of a giant hamburger, one of the very best concerts (and only ballet) I’ve been to. 2.
(Dog is life/Jerusalem)
You don’t see rabbits being walked down the street
And you don’t see many cats on leads
Dogs pet dogs dogs rapacious wet dogs
Owner of dogs slow-witted dog owner
Owner of rabid dog saving fare for tunnel
Euro-dream of civil, civil liberation for dogs
Society secret society inevitable nightmare
Of drift dog pet dogs street bullshit
Dog shit baby bit ass-lick dog mirror
Dead tiger shot and checked out by dog
Big tea-chest-fucker dog
Black collar sends East German refugee back switch and crap pathetic
Of earth-like lousy dog role model for infidel doghouse continent
Most citadel dog-eye mirror hypnotic school slaver and learn
Rot from dog on grass and over nervous delicate dog
Detracts light from indiscrepant non-dog-lover
From the early 80s through to the late 80s The Fall released a string of singles, a few of which troubled the top 40. Some were nearly pop songs, others were almost FM friendly rock songs. Some had film clips, linked in this article. All could not be mistaken for anything other than a Fall song. I won’t list them all here, but an essential sample:
Totally Wired (1980)
The Man Whose Head Expanded (1983)
Oh! Brother (1983).
Kicker Conspiracy (1983). The B side is one of the great Fall songs, Wings. 3.
Couldn’t Get Ahead (1985)
Cruiser’s Creek (1985)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pem02CWn4Do (quite apposite for today’s world)
Mr Pharmacist (1986, The Other Half cover). Film clip here, has much in common with the above film clip…
Living Too Late (1986)
Hit The North (1987) Number 57 on the charts. The Fall do dance music.
There’s a Ghost In My House (1987, R Dean Taylor cover). Number 30 . A clean and neat MES can be seen on this film clip
Victoria (1988, Kinks cover). Number 35
Telephone Thing (1989). Veering into electronica?
Some of these appeared on albums at the time, some later appeared on extended CD releases and compilations, including The Fall A Sides and The Fall B Sides, both double CDs.
It seemed The Fall could no wrong. About 1989, I think, I saw them play at the Charles Hotel in North Perth and found them underwhelming, going through the motions. But what band doesn’t do that from time to time?
The albums kept coming, nine in the 1990s. All were of patchy quality with some fab songs mingled with some tedious stuff. Each album could be relied on to have at least one great song, four or five good ones and the rest varied between boring and terrible. The mid 90s were a low point. But just when all seemed lost they released two very good albums – The Light User Syndrome (1996) and Levitate (1997). Unfortunately then came The Marshall Suite in 1999, one of their worst to date.
Mark had gone 40; had the sheer number of albums, band break ups, separation from Brix, drinking ‘n’ smokin’, worn him out? As we turned into 2000 some fretted at Y2K, bunkering down in the desert with lots of beef jerky and Nutragrain, others wondered and worried about The Fall.
The new millennium (ok, it started in 2001 I know…) saw them with renewed focus. In 2000 came The Unutterable, a glorious Fall album that is one of my favourites.
Dr Buck’s Letter
To cheer myself up
Put the radio on, get the magazine out
And read about
The ‘Essence of Tong’
Checklist, I never leave home without
I wear them all year around
And seem to need them more often
It’s a habit
Three, Palm Pilot
It’s my lifeline
I think it’s my P.A.’s computer
She rules my diary and I download it
Four, mobile phone
Five, Amex card
They made such a fuss about giving it to me
But I, I spend more time getting it turned down
I was in the realm of the essence of Tong
The next album, Are You Missing Winner (2001) was a real stinker. However, the following five albums were all good. That takes us up to 2010, after that the four albums from 2011 to 2017 got steadily worse. The trajectory was clear. A big contributor to the decline was Smith’s voice; it was shot by the end. Pitchfork put it thus when reviewing their last album, New Facts Emerge (which they gave a generous 6.8):
‘Another potential sticking point for any Fall fan, new or longtime, is the current state of Mark E. Smith’s voice. Long gone is the untrained yet undeniably charming timbre that barked, squealed, and crooned through his band’s most prominent work; it’s been replaced by a bilious and phlegmy growl struck by age (he turned 60 in March) and many, many cigarettes. It’s not an easy sound to get used to, but on much of the Fall’s recent music, it’s clear that Smith is aware of how he sounds.’
There you have it. No need to mention the many different band line-ups, that a book has been written about the 60 or so former The Fall members, how Smith would seemingly capriciously sack band members – he is said to have once dismissed a sound engineer for eating a salad, later explaining that “the salad was the last straw”. Suffice to say that The Fall’s 31 studio albums (and let’s not forget the seven hours of John Peel BBC sessions) attest to Mark E Smith’s unique ability as a songwriter, bandleader, singer and performer. He died before his reputation suffered from putting out dross – as many bands have done way earlier than after 27 albums.
All hail MES.
1. There is a website , the Annotated Fall, devoted to textural analysis of Fall lyrics. Go down there and the day is gone. It tells us that the Pat in Pat-Trip Dispenser (1984) was a guy who briefly supplied drugs to the band- ‘Pat was a plump fellow from Hoboken, New Jersey. He was a fun-loving, beer-drinking kind of guy. He also supplied the group with speed. A few months later The Fall would pay homage to Pat, their tour manager, in a song entitled “Pat-Trip Dispenser.” In the lyrics, Mark remarks on his “imitation speed” and refers to Pat as “the Spine-Fuhrer of Hoboken’’. http://annotatedfall.doomby.com/
* One of Nick’s companions on that tour was our own Song List Rat…