Richard Cook, "The Curse Of The Fall"
New Musical Express, January 15, 1983, pp. 18-19.
THIS IS SPLENDID Fall country. From the bricked ugliness of the Victorian railway buildings the crawl of streets pitters up slopes, entwines a town centre crowned by a bright shopping citadel and passes out again into grimy Mldland hills.
Consumers bent by Christmas huddle the pavements, run under and past the outspread arms of a grotesque artificial giant: he is beaming a yawning grin under his perspex roof.
The irradiant glow of the new shops blinks against the older relics of the town -- churches sharpened by age into jagged points, graveyards dark as iron, the shells of ancient cinemas. Like a virgin shrine to a mysterious bourgeois aspiration, the principal arts theatre holds up its neoteric design and neon temperature sculpture, totems of civic pride. Tonight, it presents The Cannon And Ball Christmas Show, a selllout attraction. Nottingham is an excellent place for The Fall to play.
England stumbles into a New Year of crippling misery and empty prospect and The Fall are continuing to pursue their erosion of the consumed music that, for all its Christmassy gleam, is similarly stricken by poverty. In a year which saw their remaining early contemporaries finally estranged from their audience, The Fall began to seem stronger than ever.
Pop is traditionally out of joint with its times -- its formula of gay abandon a calculated reaction to surrounding despondency -- and the sour joke of Modern Romance's 'Best Years Of Our Lives' was a slug of sarcasm that even Mark E. Smith couldn't have pitched.
But Smith's own commentary on the times has moved far on from stand-up satire. While the 1982 Fail has remained true to sallow, scrawny energy of 'It's The New Thing' et al., its thrashing form has multiplied and arisen into a state of almost fantastic complexity: a continuously evolving swirl of aural collision, pristine noise, images electrified by unholy discontent squalor jolted by desperate rhythmic intensity.
And at its still, unmoving centre, Mark E. Smith dismantles the lyric form with the frosty alacrity of a man heedless of tradition. Truly, a child of McLuhan!
'Hex Enduction Hour', the first of The Fall's two long-players last year, was the most violent and uncompromislng record of 1982. Like a gutterful of despair-sodden dregs, it sprayed out the sludge in the sources of our terrible malaise -- lies, stupidity and selfish greed -- and proceeded to douse them all further in a soup of amplified retching and cut-up half-sense.
Much like any Fall record, in fact, except that Smith's group had crept almost unnoticed to a level of sophistication that challenged the given precepts of 'The Fall' as we had known them. The kind of music that was being played on 'The Classical' or the absolutely withering 'And This Day' had all the tension of skilled improvised music married to an unflinching grasp of form: tyrannical, claustrophobic, it smelt of decay and renewal in exact counterbalance.
As Barney Hoskyns noted, in the most penetrating analysis of The Fall to date, Smith had formulated a type of folk music: a return to an oral tradition that fashioned an ugly new set of features to graft over the similarly rancid roots of stone age rock'n'roll. His insistence on diffuslng specific polemics across trails of abstract messages and indistinct ravings, the product of a profound mistrust of sloganeering, led him end his group into a shabby domain where white rock had its nose rubbed in the dirt of its own real character--a mess of guitar scrape and stodgy, meat-substitute drums.
The Fall's triumph has been to recognise this and make something great of it. The secondhand black cat bones of R&B have been charred into peculiar foreign matter. And it is related entirely to the aural sense.
Miraculously, at a moment when pop has become besotted with its visual trappings, The Fall have made their strongest play for an identity based entirely in sound.
The mess of phrases and syntactical mischief which crawls across their album sleeves; the unlit gloom of their production ambience, a quality which compels the most detailed and attentive listening; the shadowy and ill-formed ensemble they make up in a stage performance; the nagnagnag quality of restless irritation, caught up and articulated in words that demolish rational symmetry and song structure that ignores sweet light and dark -- the totality of The Fall is a rejection of visual falsehood. The Fall's rise is the ascendancy of tribal man.
The beautiful irony, then, is that this scurvy music constitutes some of the most pure and unconfined expression you can expect to hear from a group born out of a pop culture. This is why 'Hex Enduction Hour' is closer to the raw and unrefined emotion of a genuine 'new wave' masterpiece like Albert Ayler's 'Spiritual Unity' than is any of the more easily digested exhilaration of a troupe like Rip Rig and Panic.
"It's GOOD, ISN'T IT, this death of the new wave? I'm trying to get it over to the group at the moment, how Britain's changed a lot. But I'm still trying to put me finger on exactly how."
Mark E. Smith and Kay Carroll are sitting with us in the smallest pub in Nottingham, a couple of hours before The Fall are due to play in the University refectory. In one of the last few weeks of the year, The Fall are taking their customary brief winter solstice at some of the country's less familiar venues. Why have The Fall survived?
"People try and pile us in with all that and say we're dead too. But we haven't done what we have to do yet. As long as it's still there to be done...this death is none of my concern anyway, Richard. We've never had a hit. Because the 'new wave' is dead it's better because we're not tagged with it any more."
"There's too much information," says Kay. "The way new wave things led to people becoming aware of all the manipulation around them made ordinary people very very cynical."
"You still," continues Smith, get people calling out for old numbers but...it's all a matter of taste. Sometimes we still do them. When we started this tour we threw one in from 1979, 'Dice Man', right in the middle of a set of all-new material. But they didn't call out for any more."
Part of a pop artisan's burden, surely. Although The Fall might never be disarmed constituents of an obedient popular culture wouldn't they disown the status of ignored outsiders?
"What it is --" Mark draws on a pint and thinks it out. His features indemnify the Smith persona, moist eyes, cheeks drawn tautly beck, barnet a clumsy sheepdog thatch. It is a face that it seems nothing could startle, full of intent but often so motionless that it's hard to imagine how R. Totale's spasms of rage could have come from it.
"We're like a law unto ourselves, and that's something that's very easy to slip away from. Like at the start of this year we were everybody's darlings -- we'd had a big upsurge, big audiences that we'd never had. I'd had enough of it. Then the Australian tour came up, so it was good to get away for a bit. We realised the value of Britain again after that."
Unconcerned at a policy that would leave rock businessmen weeping, Smith cracks a grin that makes him look boyish -- he is, after all, still a very young man, despite his veteran status as Fall leader.
Why is it that The Fall is so completely Smith's vehicle -- why does the rest of the group seem so anonymous?
"You've met musicians, for God's sake," bursts in Carroll.
"It's like, he plays guitar really well and Mark plays his brain really well."
"I'm not sure why it is," says Smith. "it's not as if they don't try and be personalities. It surprises me."
He manages to register no surprise in his voice. But there are more recent undertakings to discuss -- The Fall's Australian tour, for example.
"We played about 26 gigs in seven weeks. Yeah, we're known out there -- I think we actually had more fans before we went than after we came back. 'Totally Wired' was a big number there 'cos it's what Australian beer's all about.
"The country was like a perverted Britain. They have rock shows on TV every day, hours of videos from Britain -- we took a video out there and they showed about ten seconds of it because it was technically so bad. Like, it's either A Flock Of Seagulls or Simple Minds or heavy rock as an alternative. The Aussies went, expecting a British new wave type band and they didn't get on with what we were doing at all.
"The best thing about it was getting away from this scene. Their music scene is all smug and sewn up -- expatriates from London rule the roost and all the people who work for the companies are the laziest people under the sun.
"But New Zealand was dead good! Everything's so slow there, it's like 1954. We were in the fuckin' Top 20 there, which means about 800 records sold, but it's a big thing. It was full of surprises, y'know. I mean, there's loads of skinheads there. You always class them as the same as Australians but they were really different -- like Scotland and bloody England."
MARK THINKS OF SIX years outside the Top 20, watching Manchester bands like Buzzcocks and New Order become cossetted babies of acceptance. Of course, those groups could have come from anywhere, as Kay points out.
"You've only got to look at the music papers I've read lately," says Smith. "The bands now presenting an 'underground alternative' sound like our interviews did two years ago. All this thing about being from the North and slagging everyone else off -- it's all old hat. This is where Britain's changed.
"I live In the future in a lot of ways. I don't care what anybody says, The Fall are always, like, two years ahead. That's why the 1980 Fall attitude is prevalent now. People always say we're old-fashioned, two guiter line-up and all that, and that criticism comes from people who are being us as we were. It would be safe for me to just slag everything off in that way because everyone's doing it, even TV with Channel 4. It's not relevant any more."
Will there come a time whan The Fall has run its course?
"Obviously, yeah. I keep thrinking it's going to happen but it never does. When I've had time to work all that crap out I come back again. It's not something you band about, y'know?
"I disagree with your point about The Jam having our audience. If we had that audience I'd top meself, y'know. Have you ever seen a Jam audience? Pseudo-mods. They're not even teenage lads any more, they're people who used to buy Virgin albums, Ruts albums with nice covers. They're like, dullards. The Jam did get a lot of disaffected youth but what does that fuckin' mean?
"Our audiences get a lot better. I always think they're like a good comedian's audience. It's the first time we've played Britain and people have gone, that was really good to new stuff."
What would happen if The Fall got a hit?
"We're never going to get a hit because you've got to be some sort of bullshit before you're even signed up." Smith's patience is exemplary. "You start putting your energy into courting bloody cretins.
"One thing the lads make clear is that we separate ourselves from everything!" He growls the word with a laugh. "What is touted as an underground, an alternative..."
But that leaves you completely isolated.
"Because we are a law. And influential. People keep coming back."
Mark doesn't smile. He knows they will return.
Does topicality still fuel his writing ?
"You can be topical and subtle at the same time. Like that track 'Papal Visit' on 'Room To Live' was completely different from what you'd expect from the title. 'Marquis Cha Cha' is still the best song written about the Falklands.
"I'm dead proud of that record. A good cleaning-out of the system. It got misinterpreted a lot. We wanted to get 'Marquis Cha Cha' recorded and out in a fortnight as a single (it was subsequently pressed in small numbers and never actually released) but there were too many fuck-ups and we dropped It. The curse of The Fall!"
Perhaps that curse has lingered too long -- in this long series of intentionaliy grey recordings and deglamourlsed presentations, maybe this lever out of convention has itself become a rut. Perhaps the time has come to...
"Go for it!" barks Carroll.
"It's not a question of going for it, Richard," murmurs Smith,
"it's a question of distorting it and making it interesting. We haven't
really touched on the production thing yet. The raw sound is something we
can fall back on because no one else has that sound. I thought me ears were
getting jaded but when I put Radio One on I can't tell one song from another.