Michael Azerrad, "The Fall of Our Discontent"
ONLY MUSIC (New York?), 1986, pp. 58-60
On stage at the Ritz in New York, the Fall are putting on their typically powerful, mesmerizing show. The band churns out discordant but catchy riffs over and over again, over and over again, teetering dangerously on the brink of monotony, and getting away with it in grand style. Leader Mark E. Smith hunches over the microphone, spitting out his darkly surreal lyrics like a sardonic drill, sergeant; his nasal talk-singing would make Rex Harrison turn over in his grave (if he were dead, that is). Smith's wife, Brix, gets the nastiest sounds out of a Rickenbacker guitar, which is usually thought of as a delicate, chiming instrument. The rest of the band follows suit, with seemingly little regard for the niceties of conventional Western tunings. They have always been a fierce live band, and tonight they're really kicking it out for a huge and appreciative New York city crowd.
The Fall (named after the Camus novel) sprang from Manchester, EngIand in 1977, during the 'salad' days of punk. Smith is the only charter member remaining, and he arguably is the Fall. He writes in a post-modern shorthand, a bristling embellishment on Orwellian newspeak; the music is correspondingly difficult. Smith says that "sometimes I crack jokes to people, only they're not really jokes -they're meaningIess; you just feel that whatever it is you said had to be communicated. So I put that in a song sometimes. You can't blame people for not understanding."
Helping people understand the Fall is Brix, the lone American, who came in to break the band out of an early '80's slump. Mark says that she's "put a lot of energy and rhythm and bounce" into the music. In concert, her Joan Jett School of Rock Modeling stances and bleached-blonde good looks provide a foil for Mark's frequently turned back and otherwise untheatrical stage demeanor. Hardcore fans might grouse about the way Brix has changed the band with her rock-ist glamour, but this is no John and Yoko thing--with Brix on board, the Fall have produced their best work .
Yet the Fall, like the Velvet Underground and Pere Ubu, may be one of those bands who are doomed to be termed "legendary" or "seminal"--words rock critics use when they mean to say that the band was great, but they didn't sell stacks o' records. As Big Daddy of it all, Smith is saddled with being the reluctant dean of the British underground rock scene; "I suppose it's because we were the first to start doing it," says Smith of the Fall's defiant anti-pop, "but it's no great thing to be. I don't know how many bands have sent me demo tapes and letters, and then they get successful and you read in the press that they're slagging us off. The journalist will say, 'Oh, you sound like the Fall, and they say, 'We never listen to their records,' and I know damn well they have. " And how many bands have listened to the Fall? "90 percent of the independent chart in Britain."
So it's understandable when Smith starts to sound bitter when he describes how other bands pinch his ideas. "A lot of these bands in the North of England just try to copy what we do, so they have these stupid titles for their songs, like "Man Locked In Fridge Saga" or something...you just have to think 'Ha, ha, ha'." A couple of years ago, Smith started singing through a megaphone on stage, to compensate for P.A. systems which were too clear. "I've stopped using it...a lot of other groups use them now as well, so I don't bother with it anymore.
The Fall's unique sound is ably translated into vinyl by their producer, John Leckie, who has worked with everyone from the Beatles to Simple Minds; if the sound is chaotic and distorted, it's supposed to be that way. Even so, the Fall's records have been sounding . 'better-produced" than they used to, but that's like saying that Times Square is cleaner than it used to be. There are still the startling, abrupt rhythmic and tonal shifts, but now their music is closer to conventional song structure. A band member who shall remain anonymous confided that Bend Sinister, the band's excellent new album, was made to be a little more accessible; the thinking seems to be that it is worth it to get points across more forcefully, at the cost of sacrificing some of the Fall's subterranean subtleties. The formula worked: Bend Sinister is a relatively accessible record for the Fall, but nobody in their right mind can say that they have 'sold out.'.
'Selling out' is more the province of Smith's peers, like Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen, or Morrissey of the Smiths (no relation!), who have come to look upon Smith as some sort of hip confessional priest, coming to him to complain about how they've sold out and can't make artistic music anymore. He really does seem like someone's really cool older brother, but Smith hates being the Arthur Fonzarelli of British rock. Of course, the British press has gotten in on the act, touting Smith as a kind of rock 'n roll Solomon, then taunting him in interviews in the name of Questioning Authority. "I don't know why they do it... I finally asked one, and he said that for rock journalists in England, their job gets very boring after a year or so, it's more interesting for them to wind people up...I was wondering why anyone would want to know what I think -- I mean, they ask me about politics and sport and all this crap."
So questions were kept strictly on the subject of music. Asked for his opinion of the American scene, Smith just came out with a high-pitched little "eh," punctuated by a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. Come now, Mark, this is a big country-there's got to be something going on here! "Actually, I am quite into rap. I think that's what's really moving. I think it's really good. There's quite an intellectual backlash against it right now in England people say it's violent and monotonous, which is what they used to say about us as well, ..that's strange, isn't it? I like the Get Fresh Crew a lot. " Still, don't count on finding any beat-box rhythms on Fall records in the foreseeable future: Smith hates drum machines. "I went to my sister's wedding, and they had these records on, and my mother said, 'C'mon Mark, you've got to dance -- you're in the music business,' and I said 'Look, Mother, I don't dance to machines.' It's the same damn beat, over and over." Smith's mother, by the way, is very into the band -- "Yeah, she's our biggest fan -- it gets embarrassing sometimes."
Mr. and Mrs. Smith have some outside projects, as well. Brix has just finished recording an album of "good, fun pop music" with her own band, Adult Net, and she's looking for a major label to release it sometime early this year. Adult Net does have a 12" out on Beggar's Banquet in the U.K. Mark just released a book of his lyrics, which he says, "just didn't sell. Books don't sell anymore. At school, they teach them how to run computers, rather than teach them an appreciation of literature." But Mark has another iron in the fire. "I'm going to do a play in December. I'm going to use one or two songs off the new LP, and I've got some really good songs that I've been keeping a while...historical songs. Very direct, not like the stuff we usually do. It's about murder and Israeli commandos and Pope John. It's a musical!"