Gary Hopkins, "free FALL"
ONE TWO TESTING, June 1986, pp. 34-37
Manchester's original Smiths, Mark and his wife Brix, have led The Fall to achieve a creative freedom and independent success. So what now?
Once heralded as the vanguard of the "independent alternative", The Fall are now as much a part of the conventional music scene as any other group.
What they continue to offer, though, is a unique stance that proves music need not be stagnant, bloated or corrupt -- that it can transcend the lowest common denominator.
With only Mark Smith (a true Northern soul) remaining from the original 1977 line-up, Fall music has remained strangely cohesive, characterised by its lack of overplaying and histrionics. Fall members seem to develop an almost telepathic understanding that can sound untutored but belies their intuitiveness and inventiveness. They take rock and forcibly knock it into a shape that is both exhilarating and essentially human. 'The Wonderful And Frightening World Of' is a self-penned description which rings remarkably true.
But characteristically, at a time when The Fall would seem to be at their most stable they now turn out to be drummerless.
In his pleasant Prestwich home Mark Smith relates that original Fall guy Karl Burns has left for pastures new.
It doesn't seem to have come as a surprise to The Fall's mastermind nor should it to dedicated Fall watchers.
If historical precedents are anything to go by it will probably usher in a new era of music and mayhem that matches, or surpasses, previous incarnations.
Although the Fall's music has always pivoted around Smith -- ably abetted by long-standing members Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley -- other Fall persons have come and gone with considerable regularity. At present The Fall are Mark Smith (vocals), Stephen Hanley (bass), Brix Smith (guitar/vocals), Simon Rogers (bass/keyboards), and Craig Scanlon (guitar), and no drummer.
Cruel jibers say that Smith turfs out members when they learn to play their instruments. Closer to the truth would be that he's aware of the need for fresh flesh to keep The Fall alive and to steer them away from complacency and repetition.
"Paul (Hanley, ex-Fall drummer) is just filling in for us 'cos he's got his own group," explains Smith, "so I'm throwing some things around as to what we're going to do.
"I don't even know whether to get a drummer. I'm thinking of using Paul when he's available and using other things, like a DX7 rhythm section, a rep sort of thing. We've proved how good we are with drums and I'm sure I could do it just as well on a machine. If I use Paul to provide snare and cymbals I'm sure it will be good."
Although the loss of Burns from a musical/technical point of view will be great, Smith is confident that making a decision to part with him will in turn foster new enthusiasm within himself as much as anyone else within the group. Mark Smith laughs as he reminisces.
"Some bands have riots when people leave. I remember when Karl left the group before in 1980 and we went on stage with Mike Leigh who's this big sort of chubby teddy boy who used to stand up and never play his bass drum. People in the audience wanted to kill him!
"It's pure biz to me. Rubbish. We're not like the fucking Who who have to stick together 'cos they're playing to 90,000 people."
Undoubtedly the music of The Fall has changed in the last two years, both in the way the group have approached recording and marketing and how they have been perceived by a larger public. On stage, Mark's wife Brix's smile became an antidote to the Smith scowl and when the group released as clean a pop as they'd ever tried in 'Creep' and 'Oh Brother' on Beggars Banquet it appeared that they'd decided to move on from a past that had Smith seeking perversely to create as dark and unpolished a sound as possible.
The truth was that The Fall's music over the years has been inconsistent on record, only spasmodically capturing their live intensity. Depth tended to get lost to dilution, as on the LP 'Perverted By Language'.
This seems partly through insensitive producers, and also through the group's laudable aim to steer clear of being given a coat of musical varnish. They didn't need to be tarted up in a studio. But often elements were lost.
"We used to put up with a lot of rubbish in the old days," says Smith. "You see, it's easier to see now that what we were doing in '81/'82ish was really out on a limb. People thought we were a 'personality' band, something just to be recorded. I never wanted to fuck around in the studio and still don't, but no-one encouraged it because no-one ever knew what you were going on about.
"In '81 we'd hire these studios and nobody would talk to us! We'd be working with people who just had no conception of what we were trying to do -- so that your immediate reaction is to lay down whatever you can and then fuck off.
"We did some recording recently and it's still an attitude in The Fall -- I don't know whether it's good or bad. I tend to think it's for the good."
Some critics thought that the band has recently moved from dangerous waters into the mainstream. Mark disagrees.
"I thought it was amusing to read that 'Nation's Saving Grace' was supposed to be accessible."
But it was certainly a step towards the band's ideal sound -- Smith and The Fall were given a halfway sympathetic producer who could record the group's playing strengths .
For the first time many people were able to hear The Fall in the same fashion as those who witnessed their live concerts.
Smith explains. "If you look at it technically, even in the old days we'd write a song and the main point of it was that the riff would be on the drums, but you couldn't do it that way because it was the new wave and all this shit, and the drums were supposed to be at the back.
"So all the attitude with Leckie (John, producer) is that he can record what the bass is doing and what the drums are doing. It's not effects that are involved, it's just what's there, bringing out what's always there. It was probably there on a few LPs but never brought out.
"It's still not right, 'cos you're always looking for that moment, that spontaneous moment.
"Sometimes the stuff we do now in the studio is great, it's just a shame that we can't do it straight onto lacquer but have to mix it and shit.
I used to think that three quarters of it was lost. I used to think it used to go right into the carpet, as they used to say."
While live performance has always been the group's strength, Smith is aware that continually having to 'play to eat' makes it all the harder to tread the boards.
"We've played too much in a way. I don't try and pretend that The Fall live experience is what it was. We go out, and we're great and that's it.
"You get tired, really tired. Playing great gigs live -- apart from the people who are really loyal doesn't do anything.
"I'm psyching myself up all the time for these live concerts and a lot of it is going through the ceiling.
"In other words I want to make it more exciting live. It's like what we did on the last LP with stuff like 'Paintwork'. I'd love to get that live, can you imagine what it would be like? With a real drummer you couldn't do it.
"I'll admit it, what I want is a well produced bedroom sound, to get the things that are confidential, but that you lose when you have to shout, to keep that noise value and still retain that excitement."
If in purely musical terms The Fall have improved, this is due to a number of reasons. The inclusion (three years ago) of Brix Smith, her involvement with Scanlon and Hanley and more latterly the inclusion of Simon Rogers, described by Smith as "classically trained", has changed the way The Fall create music. Was this an attempt to escape the musicianly barbs?
"I used to mention it because I thought the irony was very interesting. He joined for the same reasons as the rest of The Fall, they do it for love rather than anything else. Simon's very much an independent member of the band, he does film soundtracks and things, but when he gets going he's great.
"It's stimulating for me, because I like a lot of experimentation and sometimes if your knowledge of music is zero, you know, you can't get the things in your head over, but the beauty of working with someone like him is that you can. I allow him that independence.
"Brix has it of course, but no one else has been allowed it. If you're in The Fall, you're in The Fall as far as I'm concerned."
Although Brix joined the group after The Fall's tour of the US in 1983, her main influence, vocally and musically, appears to have coincided with the group's shift to Beggars Banquet. While contributing increasingly to songs within the group (she wrote the single 'Couldn't Get Ahead'), her own spin-off, The Adult Net, has enjoyed a degree of publicity and popularity with, to date, two single releases; 'Incense And Peppermints' and more recently 'Edie'. Oddly enough, when she became Mrs Smith he was unaware that she could play the guitar.
"It sounds ridiculous, that, but I just thought she was a singer and a bass player. When I heard her play guitar I said "You've gotta play for us." The idea when we got married was that she'd have her own group, which is what it's getting like now with The Adult Net.
"Sometimes I don't know what she's doing with it. She seems to want to do these sort of classic singles, she's got a sort of obsession about it. She's spending money left, right and centre. She just doesn't care -- which I admire. It's a sort of hobby which she's very serious about."
Both Brix and Rogers have obviously contributed to the newest Fall material, three tracks recorded in Bury that, by the time of this appearing on the bookstands, could well have been released. They carry on where 'Nation's Grace' left off, with contrasting styles and a mischievous mix on one track that has the drums pushed into the background and seemingly backing up Smith's claim that he's searching for ways to facilitate musical changes without altering character or "noise" quotient .
One song in particular, 'Hey Luciani', is based around the kind of event that seems to draw Mark Smith to it like a moth to a candle.
"Luciani was Pope John Paul the First, the one that only lived for a month," he explains. "I read this book that said he was killed because he was trying to get all these reforms through.
"He was really young and healthy when he took over and a month later he died. He wanted to kick out all these investors and bankers. The day before he died he drew up this list about who he was going to kick out. Then he was dead."
Such is the stuff that Fall songs are made of. Mark Smith has threatened at various times to write books or plays but apart from a German printed collection of Fall lyrics to date no other texts are available. It seems that, for the moment at least, he'll keep his more private thoughts under wraps, citing the cultural stigma of the printed word as the main reason for his acute reluctance to bring his idiosyncratic prose to the public eye.
"You end up by being patronised by the kind of people you dislike. It can wait. It's more of a challenge to get your lyrics through on records. I met Kid Congo (ex-Cramps) in LA and he bought the German lyric book and gave it to his mother.
"Now she reads it to him, she thinks it's the greatest thing she's read in her life, and he's sick of it!"
While Mark Smith can laugh at the way different types of people might approach the things he writes, he still feels bitter towards the way the UK independent record scene operates.
"I think it's the biggest scam ever perpetrated. I think it's a rip-off. The easiest way to make money nowadays is to set up your own independent label, sign up five bands, offer them 50 per cent minus costs. Easiest way to make money.
"The only people who make money are the independent labels. Then they come on as if they're as white as driven snow. You don't have any fucker starving on CBS -- not that I'd sign with them -- like you do on the independent labels.
"People are gullible. They'll do anything to get to the States or bring a record out. It's embarrassing. We were only ever on independent labels because we didn't have a chance in hell of getting onto a major.
"It's all come out nowadays -- the way people are told what to wear, what records to bring out. It makes me laugh to think the indie scene thinks it's an alternative to that. It's the same thing, they all want to be on record covers and bring records out.
"I have no nostalgia for '76. It's just a shame that people don't buy records any more. People got fed up being taken for a fucking ride.
"It's a con. 'The Cartel' is the best name for it. They virtually ran Beggars out of the indie charts because a quarter of Beggars is not independent distribution. So we don't get in the indie charts.
"It's like inverse racism," Smith laughs, "and jealousy as well."