The first in a series of zer0 classicsis published at the end of this month: a new edition of Mark Fisher's Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Matt Colquhoun aka Xenogothic supplies an excellent introduction that puts Mark's ideas in the context of the blogging scene of the 2000s and the arc of his intellectual odyssey. And I've contributed a new afterword.
Despite the melancholy occasion - contemplating the absence of a friend and the glaring gap in the scene where his energy, insight and provocation ought to be - it was a really enjoyable piece to write. Fun, even. As well as taking the measure of Mark's achievement and reassessing the ideas of hauntology and the retro-critique that we jointly explored, I also took the opportunity to speculate: wondering where he might have taken his thinking next. It's a tribute to Mark that it's possible to still spark thoughts off his work in his absence. I expect we will be doing that for a long while to come.
File under overtaken by events: in the afterword I make a passing reference to "the endless fraudocracy of Boris Johnson". Well, that ended! (Or did it? He's still in Number 10. And the fraudocracy will doubtless flourish on, even in his - eventual - absence. The fraud is dead, long live the fraud).
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"
T-Shirt with truncated and grievously mis-punctuated ("bongo's", ugh) version of Mark E. Smith's quotable.
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.
Still, it feels lopsided to me, the way that - when it comes to serious critical discourse - Fall-scrawl almost uniformly, and seemingly unavoidably, boils down to Smith-scribble.
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
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 threepartepic "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 blookYou 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.
But no, I wouldn't bother listening if it was just Mark E and an OAP on bongos. The Fall is a Group. Or was a group, when it was great.
As someone on Twitter said, in response to the "If it's me and your granny on bongos" T shirt:
"If it's Scanlon, Hanley, Hanley, Burns and Smith, then it's the Fall"
As so often, it takes Paul Morley to risk heresy and raise the unthinkable thought: “What if he wasn’t a genius, he was just an old drunken tramp that when he got really drunk started to spout phrases that made a kind of sense, and we read too much into it, you know?”
M.E.S. taking the piss - or reflecting his actual views? Probably both.
Going back to where this blogpost started.... my doubts about the excessive focus on M.E.S.... about Smith as a font of anything related to wisdom, clear sight, or sense - this has been affected by the suspicion that he'd very likely have voted for Boris and the Tories in the last election (he certainly wouldn't have gone for Corbyn). After all, he was in favor of Brexit - "I thought it was great... Still do".
C.f. John Lydon piping up last week to say how much he admires Jacob Rees-Mogg for his well-bred courteous mien - and calling for a return to "civility" in politics!
Although I once reviewed a Fall live album, strangely I only ever saw the band live once, despite their hard-working persistence and their guest-list blaggability for a working journo. And that one-time encounter was relatively early in the career. In 1982 they played a venue in Oxford called Scamps, located in Westgate shopping centre. Most of the week it was a discotheque, but they did put on NME-ish type bands once a week. At Scamps I also saw 23 Skidoo, Haircut 100, and, according to an old letter I found recently, Orange Juice (got no recollection of that gig at all). To my eternal frustration / contrition, I missed the opportunity to see The Birthday Party - an actual party took precedence that night.
The Fall at Scamps, though - one of the most intense, cochlea-blistering gigs I've ever experienced. My ears were ringing for days after.
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
And here's what they sounded like in Holland only a few weeks before the Oxford gig.
And supporting my contention above, here's a new anthology,of scholarly work
Always Different, Always the Same: Critical Essays on The Fall - judging by the table of contents, again there is this slant towards text and context. Some chapter titles:
‘A letter so simple, yet disgusting in a stroke’: writing-out the (typo) graphic strangeness of The Fall
Psykick Dancehall – the paranormal world of Mark E. Smith and The Fall
"What’s a computer?” Corpus linguistic software v the complete Fall lyrics.
"Searching for the right word or phrase that would put a chill up the spine… Investigating the lyrics of Mark E. Smith using thematic and corpus-based discourse analyses."
Other chapters seem to largely concern the cult of M.E.S. or his anti-hero, renegade status
The word "music" pops up just once in a chapter titled "I Am Damo Suzuki Lost In Music"
This not necessarily completely indicative of the actual contents of the chapters, but.....
graphomania as record design - the untidy mind of M.E.S. writ large
M.E.S. liner scribblings as mise en scene for the music - styled as screenplays or script frags
M.E.S. track-by-track comments in the throwback style of liner notes from the 1960s and earlier except these are gnomic tangents, cryptic and/or barbed asides...
Luke Owen of Death Is Not The End has just today released a new volume in his compilation series collecting pirate radio ads from the '90s. Here's my blurb for Pause for the Cause: London Rave Adverts 1991-1996 Vol. 1.
"Back in the early ‘90s, whenever the pirate radio MC announced “a pause for the cause”, I usually pressed pause on my cassette recorder. That’s something I would regret years later, when ad breaks had become cherished mementos of the hardcore rave era. Luckily, back in the day I often left the tape running while I went off to do something else. So a fair number of ad breaks got captured accidentally for my later delectation. Not nearly enough, though. So in recent years I started combing through the immense number of pirate radio sets archived on the internet. Sometimes the tracklists would note “ad break” or “ads”, helping to narrow the search. But often I’d just stumble on a bunch in the middle of a pirate show preserved on YouTube or an old skool blog. A few of my original unintended “saves” and latterday “finds” are included in this wonderful collection by audio archaeologist Luke Owen. It’s the latest in his series of compilations of UK pirate radio advertisements, with this volume focusing on the audio equivalent of the rave flyer: MCs breathlessly hyping a club night or upcoming rave, listing the lineup of deejays and MCs, boasting about hi-tech attractions like lasers and projections, mentioning prices and nearest landmarks to the venue, and occasionally promising “clean toilets” and “tight but polite security” (“sensible security” is another variation). Some of these ads are etched into my brain as lividly as the classic hardcore and jungle tunes of that time. (Most rave ads incorporate snippets of current music, of course – big anthems and obscure “mystery tracks” alike). Names of deejays ring out like mythological figures: who were Shaggy & Breeze, Kieran the Herbalist, Tinrib, Food Junkie? Putting on my serious hat for a moment, I think these ads are valuable deposits of sociocultural data, capturing the hustling energy of an underground micro-economy in which promoters, deejays and MCs competed for a larger slice of the raving audience. But mostly, they are hard hits of pure nostalgic pleasure, amusing and thrilling through their blend of period charm, endearing amateurism, and contagiously manic excitement about rave music’s forward-surge into an unknown future. The best of these ads give me a memory-rush to rival the top tunes and MC routines of the era."
Here hear - and buy - Pause for the Cause, which is available digitally and as a limited-edition cassette.
Death Is Not The End has a regular NTS Radio show and this Sunday Luke will be playing a batch of radio ads not on the new compilation (including a few more of mine). It broadcasts at 8pm GMT on Sunday 10 July, then will be available on the archive via this link sometime early next week.
And here's a longer interview I did with Luke about his label and the interest in pirate radio transmissions.
Since then Death Is Not The End has out a collection of a different era of pirate radio - Brooklyn Pirates: Neighbourhoods in the Sky, 2014-2021 - compiled by David Goren, an audio archivist based in Brooklyn.
Here's a chat I had with Francesco Tenaglia for The Music Folder, a talk-series curated by Archivio Storico Ricordi, which investigates the intersection of music, memory, and arts - audio here, transcription there. This was conducted earlier in the year, so starts with talk about Get Back, the 8-hour Beatles documentary series and the uncannily persistent dominance and prominence of the Fab Four in the cultural landscape (a topic newly topical given 80-year-old Paul McCartney's headlining of Glastonbury),. Then it moves on to issues related to curatorial and annotative culture, obituary and elegy writing, the deejay as archivist, completism and collectoritis, and more.