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"
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.
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 Slates, Hex, Wonderful 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 Grace, Bend 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.
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).
Mere Pseud Mag Ed
Joker Hysterical Face
Solicitor in Studio
Who Makes the Nazis?
And This Day
Lie Dream of a Casino Soul
Prole Art Threat
And here's a poster