I must admit I was toying with writing an appreciation of Mark E. Smith for this magazine just after the news broke about his untimely passing. Then, something stopped me. Maybe it was the amount and quality of press coverage after the event. There are plenty well considered, sometimes great articles online about Smith and his art [Cick here] and you will learn more about him and The Fall from them than you will from me. Thing is, even after reading them I felt that some element, some eminence grise, was still missing, that being Fall fans. It was understandable. Mark E Smith was a remarkable man, and his cultural achievements were many and there to be held up on Rock and Roll’s altar. And the last thing you’d want to read about is his singular fanbase.
But then, Fall fans have played a big part in my life. The ones I know seem(ed) to exist in an interzone whose reflected the man’s own interests and outlook. Something about Mark E. Smith’s music attracted a particular kind of autodidact, to wit: hard working types who were clever and imaginative if singular, normally provincial, sharply observant but usually tolerant, quietly political and sartorial, book readers and practical types, pub drinkers, actively into football and often a tad eccentric. And independent. The other thing – from my standpoint at any rate is – Fall fans aren’t old gits, often they are really young. My brother got his first Fall LP (‘Wonderful & Frightening World….’) at the age of 13 and he’s not looked back since, despite what my mother says.
I could play safe and give you a list of the classic LPs (there are a fair number) or I could make you listen to stuff that sounds like drunken pub rockabilly with a nutcase blaring out indecipherable lyrics in a Salford twang. But the Fall’s back catalogue is so big, and often so forbidding, I’ve tried to pick tracks that remind me of other people. Stories of hip priests in their own backyards, that may give you a way into this huge and often nuts body of work.
Back in 1986 I’d spend a lot of time in my mate’s bedroom. He had CB radio (he’d stuck up a bloody great radio in mast in his garden) and he’d painted his walls black in preparation for painting the solar system on them, before getting bored and leaving them black. His room had an ancient chest freezer in it which was full of bread that was so deeply frozen that it needed removing with an adze. He hated most music outside of Queen. He had two tortoises that shat everywhere. He was remarkably successful with the opposite sex despite never seeming to change his clothes (skin tight jeans, combat jacket, DMs). He hated The Fall especially, thinking them fit only for student pooves like me. The weird thing is he was the archetypal Fall fan. He could have been Mark’s disciple in many ways, reading up at night on astrophysics. But he really liked this track. One of Smith’s greatest in my opinion, and from his own play, The Life and Codex of John Paul I based on the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978. Any LP from this era (‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’, ‘Bend Sinister’), is worth it: classic Fall, tough, uncompromising and intelligent with some weird peeps round the twist.
The Fall seemed to catch their fans at a young age. This track from the brilliant late-Fall LP, ‘Fall Heads Roll’ reminds me of a time I had to interview Mark in a pub in Rotterdam. The talk was a mess saved only by a talk about German football and bus drivers in East Lancashire. The gig that night was great, though. One thing I remember was a large gaggle of teens going nuts at the front. There always seemed to be young kids at gigs, taking instruction from the Master. Somehow Mark E. Smith managed to get to the heart of what bothered contemporary youth-ah. Weirdly, the scally Fall fans at the Rotterdam gig turned out to be the brilliant band Rats on Rafts, who I ended up befriending some years later. This track also reminds me of my pal James from Walsall, who told me all about orange chips.
Jawbone and the Air Rifle
My mates Mark and Hag’s bedroom band, The Shentors, covered this track from 1982’s brilliant ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ LP. I remember being introduced to both (two Tyneside lads united by music, divided by North East football teams) in a pub in Newcastle (most probably the Egypt Cottage) as the only other person present who liked The Fall. Mark was – and is – obsessed by the band. The great thing about The Fall is that there seems to be a lyric for every occasion in life, however gnomic it may be. Such was the power of the word of Mark E. Smith, me Mark and Hag at one point decided to use Fall lyrics when talking to the opposite sex. Somehow it never seemed to work, especially on the boat or at the Stage Door. But then that’s what desperation in Thatcher’s Gateshead did to a young man. Still, the lyrics retain their potency. The words spoken by the bloke with the air rifle in this track could be a script trotted out from a malcontent UKIP fan. “Rifleman he say ‘Y’see I get no kicks anymore / From wife or children four / There’s been no war for forty years / And getting drunk fills me with guilt / So after eight, I prowl the hills / Eleven o’clock, I’m too tired to fuck / Y’see I’ve been laid off work’”
A classic Fall moment, filmed at Turf Moor back in the eighties when admitting to being a football fan was akin to saying you had leprosy. (Dig those barbed wire fences in the promotional video, millennials!) Smith had a keen sense of the idiocies of the game, here in 1983 kicking off at “Marble” Bert Millichip and “J. Hill’s satanic reign”; an era of lumpen tactics, violence and booze. (I always thought this song was about footwear rather than style of play but then I was 14…)
Big New Prinz
I remember seeing clips of this on the tellybox with my mate Debs who was studying fashion in Liverpool. The Fall, doing a ballet? With the notorious Michael Clark Company and the outrageous Leigh Bowery? Celtic and Rangers tops on ballet dancers? Brix E Smith sitting on top of a giant plastic hamburger? Me and Debs were suitably impressed, mostly by the colour and spectacle of it all. The idea that The Fall was some kind of “lads thing” is nonsense. Strong female personalities always guided the band, from Kay Carroll and Una Baines through Brix Smith to Elena Poulou. The Fall teaming up with the outrageous Clark to make a ballet about The Glorious Revolution was another twist and led to their greatest work in my opinion, the LP ‘I Am Kurious Oranj’. Shortly after this Debs gave up swanning round Bold Street and went off to train as a prison warden. She still likes The Fall mind. You can’t beat your brain for entertainment! Here’s a great clip of the band at the time
Fall Tips (well, mine at any rate): Frenz Experiment, I Am Kurious Oranj, The Wonderful and Frightening World, Country on the Click, Code Selfish, Are You Missing Winner?, Fall Heads Roll, The Twenty-Seven Points, Hex Enduction Hour, Extricate, Live at the Witch Trials, This Nation’s Saving Grace, Imperial Wax Solvent and a great introductory compilation, 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong.
I also recommend fellow Mag Dan Maier’s brilliant compilation LP, ‘Before The Fall’ which documents many of the covers the band did and gives a good indication of how clued up Smith was in matters pop.
RICHARD FOSTER – FOLLOW RICHARD ON @incendiarymagazine
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