Don Watson, "Looking At The Fall Guise"
NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS, October 1, 1983, pp. 6-7
From 'Bingo Master's Break-Out' to 'Kicker Conspiracy' Don Watson takes a journey through The Fall's Northern landscape with Mark Smith.
MARK SMITH doesn't like looking back. Mark Smith the married man, sitting with his wife in this horrendous rock musician's hotel in West London, is quite happy. He's doing what he most likes doing: talking, drinking, smoking and revelling in the absurdity of his surroundings. He's feeding off the energy of the capital and watching it with a distanced and amused loathing. The horrible has always been an inspiration for Mark, whether in the fictional setting of an EC Comic strip, or in the events he sees around him. Apart from the Columbia Hotel, the prospect of a Northern soul night in the high-tech surroundings of the Hacienda is something which has recently aroused the sharp Smith sense of the grotesque. "It sounded great," he glories, "I didn't go myself, but apparently it was just like a procession of corpses.The DJs didn't know what they were doing, and they were just playing all these horrible Tamla Motown imitations. It must have been really disgusting in The Hacienda. I'd have loved to have gone."
YES INDEED, the horrors of life field no fears for this man -- except when it comes to looking back. His hatred of it extends almost to phobia level. "That was half the reason that Marc Riley had to leave," he explains, "because he kept on saying, Ah, it's not as good as this or that we did a year ago, and that is just not the point of The Fall at all. If we've ever had any videos done I've tried to keep the lads from watching, so that we're always looking towards the future and never towards the past."
Why this memoraphobia? It could be the fear of the retrospective disease that swamps British music; the apparently endless need to resurrect anything from the late '70s backwards. Or it could simply be that this new, smartened up Mark Smith, in his tab collar shirt and neat black suit, doesn't want to relive the greasy haired prole with the elephantine lapels in front of Brix, the sultry, blonde LA punkette he married on The Fall's last American tour. Whatever the reason, it makes my task more difficult; that task being to take a journey through the whole career of The Fall, to sort through the six albums, eight singles and a 10 inch and answer the question, just what the hell are The Fall anyway? Prole art aesthetic boot boys, or the vanguard of a new sound radicalism? Humourless industrialists, or directors of a comic theatre of real life freaks? Most of all what is this secret of The Fall? All of these questions may be answered in due course, but first we must ask where to start? For so long, The Fall seem to have simply been there that establishing a starting point is as difficult as predicting where they might end. The Fall have been that necessary touch of evil, the band who took a step sideways, and from their altered perspective sniped at the custom and regimentation which resulted from it. They were these enemies of culture who sought to question everything, to destroy established values and replace them with well, nothing. The Fall, although pinned as an alternative band, always fell shy of actually offering the alternative that was claimed for them. Behind their iconoclasm there was a frightened vacuum; nothing to latch on to and no readily assimilated images. They disturbed the equilibrium and, from the point of disruption, it was up to the listener to find his own way out. It was a challenge which many found offputting.
But what is the secret of The Fall? It's an age old question which the mystery of the sound has seemingly created. Amongst the majority of disciples and dilettante observers alike there is a seemingly unshakable conviction that behind this ramshackle organisation, there is a mysterious message, buried in the repetition, repetition, repetition.
Yet the only invocation of this repetition is of a Buzzcocks date in the Spring of 1978 and hearing that sound for the first time, on a pre-release tape bridging the departure of Subway Sect and the arrival of The Buzzcocks.
In that context, the sound of The Fall was an immediate shock, hovering between a mood of the moment and a biting parody, perpetually on the edge of a self-consuming burst of hilarity.
At the time that seemed to be the most important factor in The Fall. They were wallowing, as we all were in the same rock and roll nightmare, but they were among a select breed capable of seeing just how funny this whole this was. "Blank generation/ Same old blank generation, "they droned, as you looked at the vacant faces lining the front rows and mucus-dripping Shelley squealing "Don't spit, don't spit," you knew exactly what the voice meant.
Perhaps punk had meant something to Mark when he first started writing in '76, fired by a vague energy from a distant source. But by '78 there was nothing to glory in save the ugliness of the spectacle. And that was something to which Mark Smith was highly attuned.
"We'd always be laughing up our sleeves whenever we played with any of those old punk bands. Most of them were so bloody awful," he now says.
The art of The Fall, though, existed in feeding on the basically grotesque and distorting it to horror comic proportions.
"Play something that sounds like The Beatles," Mark would instruct the group of North Manchester semi-musicians he'd collected. Then, as the mad orchestrator, he would pick apart the noise, emphasising this, excercising that. Thus they arrived at The Fall; the Fall of prole plagiarism, a band whose identity derived from obsession and parody. Distorting and distending they arrived at a manifesto...
"We've repetition in the music and we're never gonna lose it. It's not so much of a motto now as when it was first written," Mark comments, "I mean, repetition, they've got machines for it now, haven't they?"
REPETITION, repetition, repetition. And the secret is. ..there is no secret. The Fall are as meaningless and as magnificent as a Buster Keaton sketch.
As Mark says, "People always reveal more about themselves than anything else when they write about The Fall."
Thus, the above words probably reveal very little about The Fall, but more about me. The Fall are essentially a mirror to your own obsessions: Barney Hoskyns found a strange and poetic course of cultural revolution; Richard Cook discovered a man with a long term fixation with the sheer power of music; and when I looked into the mirror of The Fail I discovered what ... A Northern boy with an obtuse sense of black humour and a fascination with comics and horror films. Strange that -- The Fall as some cold-war science fiction film monster, that penetrates the identity of the observer and confronts it with an image of itself.
When 'Repetition' finally appeared on record it was the B-side of their first single, 'Bingo Master's Break Out', a song Mark had written while on an excursion with his parents. Charting the decline of a bingo caller, it opens a poetic relationship between Smith and the Northern traditions of his upbringing that always contained more hate than love. Yet in the South, it was taken either at face value as a faintly charming Northern song, or it was canned off stage.
"That was where 'Witch Trials' came from," Mark comments with ill-concealed venom. "Because at the time I was always being attacked onstage for not being a punk. Here were these kids who had been heavy metal fans six months before and they were now attacking me for having long hair. And it was mainly in the South where it happened. People always forget that now we're liked so much down here, but in the beginning they used to really hate us. They were all into Chelsea and Generation X and crap like that."
The Fall were sniped at as outsiders, only partly by their own choice. Before 'Witch Trials' came out, though, there was a second single. The A-side, 'It's The New Thing', merely consolidated their position as the parodists of the scene, but the B-side, 'Various Times', revealed the full extent of the literary potential hinted at in 'Binge Masters'.
A Dr Doom tale of Nazi Germany, it packed all the atmosphere and the violence of a Heinreich Boll novel into a single song, '1940, no money and I live in Berlin/ I think I'll join up become a campguard/ No war for me/An old Jew's face dripping bread Everyone I meet now's the same/ No brains/A good case for the systems we want, we get. "
It was their ability to embody hatred that revealed the hard line anti-humanist streak revealed by Barney Hoskyns in his 1981 live review. They set themselves up not against the Left, but against the libertarian tradition that surrounded it, displaying an ability to penetrate a phenomenon rather than mouthing platitudes about it. Inevitably this brought them up against the small minded sections of the political community.
"We had all these fuckin' feminists who'd come up to us and say, You're sexist for wearing a leather jacket; or you're fascist for singing about Nazis. And now, exactly the same people come along and fawn and slobber all over me, and they've all got dyed hair and stuff. The people that are, behind this new punk thing. It's all very sinister.
"Even now we still get idiots ringing up and asking us to do anti-non-vegetarian benefits, and you can't understand why if they'd ever listened to The Fall.
THE SPIRITUAL continuation of 'Various Times' came up as the very first track of the 'Live At The Witch Trials' LP ('79). 'Frightened' remains possibly the greatest speed song ever written, an enormous swell of elemental instrumentation tensing behind a cracked vocal that alternates somewhere between object paranoia and sharp edged elation. After the uneasy high, 'Witch Trials' dissolves into a shambolic mess of parody and humour; a wonderful disorganisation in the midst of which a jukebox develops a mind of its own, and the prevalent industrial cliches of the day get a neat drubbing. Its an LP of stunted growth and seminal emissions, crap rap and sharp traps -- a trash classic in glorious monochrome
'Well, I'm glad you see the humour in that LP, says Mark. "A lot of people genuinely didn't. Even I sometimes almost forget the spirit in which the record was made. I mean I thought they were really funny ideas at the time, but then when the LP came out in the mainstream of all those rock albums it seemed to take the edge off the wit of it.
"Witch Trials was actually a pretty bad time for me, because we had a democratic band at that time end it was produced by Bob Sergeant and all that. Basically, it was a bloody good job the thing never took off -- that would just have been the end of us straight off."
Mark was more pleased with the follow up 'Dragnet', although it's a grey affair in retrospect, remarkable mainly because it first introduces the rockabilly motif that led to 'Fiery Jack' more than for its single tone dynamic. Its saving grace is 'A Figure Walks', perhaps the funniest of Smith's distortions of industrial cliches -- "a song written during a long walk home wearing an anorak which restricted vision by two thirds," it sounded like urban paranoia revisited.
"If you actually listen closely though," he points out,"it's not a human being at all that's following the character, it's actually this monster from outer space. I like to think of it as my big Stephen King outing."
But the rockabilly rumble that worked its way through 'Dragnet' was not to have its full effect until the following year (1980). And 'Fiery Jack', a pair of popping eyes and a couple of scorched nostrils above anything on the second LP, picked the brain of the sharpest snag. The Fall had fashioned, and ushered in an era when they just might have become pop stars.
The next two singles-- 'Elastic Man' and 'Totally Wired' -- both featured hooks of equivalent strength, if not the same madcap hustle that had made 'Fiery Jack' so wonderful. By the time they'd reached the last of the three, though, the production seemed to have become deliberately impenetrable, giving a rusty edge that maintaining the interest of the converted, but simultaneously killed off any commercial potential present.
"I suppose that's because I think anybody can write hooks," Mark comments blithely. "If you can get a Top 20 hit just by taking a title like 'Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry' and putting a toney voice on top of that dullard's version of that whole the-north-will-rise-again crap. .. it just shows you how easy it can be.
"I reckon, though, if something like 'Totally Wired' had been properly produced I would have heard things missing in it, like crackles which I thought out to be part of the sound. Actually, originally that song had the 'Grotesque' production and it was really clean - but then we re-mixed it to sound horrible," he adds with a grin.
At this time The Fall had split wide open. They were a contradiction: a band rotted in the North, reflecting its decay but at the same time detesting its stubborn intransigence. The only solution was a break-up; not of The Fall, but of the personality of Mark Smith, who developed the alter ego Roman Totale.
"I just wanted some character that I could talk through without it actually being Mark Smith talking," is the only comment Mark will make about the now deceased Totale.
But in his time, Totale was more outspoken about Mark Smith: " I don't particularly like the person singing on this LP," he said on the sleeve of 'Totale's Turns', "that said I admire his guts."
Totale was the old fashioned Northerner, the traditionalist in Smith, but he lasted only until the last track of the fourth LP, 'Grotesque'. A rambling play on flat words, flat caps and flat beer, The NWRA (The North will rise again, or possibly North West Republican Army) catalogues the white crap Northern attitude, part romantic rebellion and part stubborn call a spade a spade and yourself a peasant pessimism.
In the climax Roman Totale inglorious snuffs it. Somewhere in this loose brick and broken glass scenario the prole art threat was conceived, a couple of images born of confusion and reflecting contradiction. Here was where The Fall genuinely did pass all understanding and step over into the realms of the sublime.
The 10 inch 'Slates' extended into pale faced pictures of dramatic dance hilarity. For the first time, the lyrical power shot out on its own on 'Slates', leaving the music disjointed and splintered in its struggle to keep up; which is probably why Mark still listens to it now.
What is often ignored again is the humour of the artefact. 'Pink Press Threat', in particular, is an hilarious tabloid satire that got taken straight.
"That song actually started off as a play, about some commuter type bloke who flips out on leftism and gets caught up with MI5 and all that. I just compressed it and made more of a joke about it."
At the time, you could have been excused for thinking that Mark himself took the Prole Art Threat seriously.
"It was really an attempt to get through to a lot of people that tend to get just ghettoised into Oi music or something sad and pathetic like that because bands like The Fall never make any attempt to reach that sort of person. What we were really trying to do was break away from the raincoat brigade.
It's the irony of any parody where, as with the Alternative Comedians of the Comic Strip, the audience is comprised primarily of the victims of the joke.
"Yeah, it's quite dangerous really 'cause if you're not careful people start cottoning on and stop coming -- then you don't eat."
However parodic it might have been, the fascination with Northerness continued with 'Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul', released with typical timing, just as the laughable London fashionmongers had all discovered spontaneously that they'd always been into Northern Soul.
"That song actually did create quite a bit of resentment in the North because people thought it was being snobby and horrible about the old soul boys, which it was never about anyway. Because I was brought up with people that were into Northern Soul five years before anybody down here had even heard about it. But they've all grown out of it, which is what the song is about, but it wasn't putting them down at all. If anything, it was glorifying them, but not in the format of, where are those soul boys that used to be here?
"There are actually a lot of old soul boys who like The Fall, because that music was always offbeat and it gives them a feeling for the sort of wackiness that you find in our music. It's really funny because Dexys bust a gut trying to attract that audience and never even got close. All the kids I know just thought it was pathetic 'cause they were wearing the clothes they'd been wearing six years ago and ripping off all these horn riffs that they knew off by heart from the originals."
FROM THE power of poetry on 'Slates' and 'Lie Dream' to 'Hex Enduction Hour' is a long way indeed, as the musical power takes a peculiarly timed quantum jump. Suddenly it's simply the sheer immensity of the soundtrack that reaches beyond the words.
Recorded partly on an empty stage in Hitchin and then in a rock walled studio in Reykjavik, its sound is a radical shift, a hard nose to the windscreen burst of acceleration backed with a double drum line up, featuring Karl Burns from the 'Witch Trials' era in tandem with Paul Hanley. It was intended as a hard hitting reaction to everything around. and it was a huge critical surprise success. Just the same, Mark regards it as a dangerous period.
"I felt we were in danger of turning into some sort of big band, like the sort of epic rock sound that the Bunnymen were moving towards at the time, and that's never been the idea of The Fall. That's why 'Room To Live' was such a necessary album."
'Necessary' probably sums it up. It's by no means as bad as Amrik Rai (or indeed most of us) thought at the time; but if it is not uninspired it at least lacks conviction, with the air of a clear out rather than the energy of a strong restatement.
With that lapse, Riley gone and the failure of 'The Man Whose Head Expanded' to match the brilliance of its conception (a science fiction vision of an overload of books and films), you could so easily conclude that The Fall have run themselves into the ground, rotated so fast around their widening circle that they've ended up dizzy and done for. And yet this would discount the ability of the monster always to rise at the least expected point. Like the maverick villain in a tense pulp masterpiece, The Fall will always strike when they seemed to be dead and buried.
This time round, their hand reached from the grave at the Brixton Ace with a formula familiar in its basis but more startling in its effect than ever. Now they've hit the point home with the hard leather thump to the gut of 'Kicker Conspiracy', a new single that shows a bitter power when we might have erected complacency.
Mark may be happily married, but he's far from settled.
"We've just seen too much, right from the early days of idiots like Stiff Little Fingers shooting way up beyond us where you could see they had no real ability, now dullards like Heaven 17 hitting the heights with most pathetic versions of what The Fall did years ago. I do hate looking back in the sense of glorifying the past, but I do think you have to be aware of the fact that The Fall have always been ahead of their time, because it's realising that which will give us the impetus to move forward.
And this is precisely the virtue of their past work: not a call for The Fall of 'Repetition' or of 'Pink Press Threat', but a recognition that there is more to the repetition. The Fall's masterpieces are valuable because they were intended at the time to be so transitory, like the genius that sparks in a throwaway comic.
'On the new LP we've got the words 'We Are The Fall,' he continues, "precisely because we've seen so much dross in the last couple of years and we've appeared to stay in the same place while all these morons have risen above us. Now I'm trying to instill some pride in the lads; just state that we are The Fall and be aware of what that means."
So as The Fall continue undefeated, darkness falls on the tidy world of a West London Hotel, and from out of the deep there echoes a strange disembodied laugh....