Bruce Dessau, "Who needs Frenz?"

THE LISTENER, March 24, 1988, p. 45


'MY FRIENDS don't add up to one hand,' intones Mark E. Smith on the opening track of The Fall's recent album Frenz Experiment, their 12th in ten years. Perhaps this impish, wilfully recalcitrant Mancunian is being rather harsh on himself. Perhaps he is striving to live up to the kind of existential apartness that caused him to name his band after Albert Camus's novel.

Yet last week, a full-scale national tour culminated in a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon--hardly the solitary bedroom beginnings that Smith could once lay claim to. But Smith likes to bathe in the romanticism of rejection-while with ratchet-like purpose he watches his following increase.

In the early days, there were certainly plenty who would attest to Smith's eccentricities. In the late Seventies, there was one Fall fanatic who went to every concert just to get up on stage and give Smith a kicking, before being dragged off by bouncers. On the 1980 record, Totale's Turns, the song 'New Puritan'--recorded au naturel in Smith's home--is interrupted when our hero is attacked by a drunk, which, as the sleeve notes immortally explain, 'accounts for the tension on that track'.

Totale's Turns remains a unique document. Side one is possibly the finest-certainly the rawest-record of a concert ever committed to vinyl. The Fall had, in typically perverse fashion, undertaken a tour of Northern working-men's clubs, where they were met with both abuse and awestruck, slack-jawed silence.

During the Eighties, the rough edges have, one by one, been eroded. While Smith has remained a healthy dissenting voice, railing against the mores of modern England--from CB Radio ('I'm into CB') to the fashionable Northern soul scene ('Lie-Dream of a Casino Soul') -- his music, once an unpredictable hash of attractively addled punkfired art-rock, has acquired a calculating commercial sheen.

Of the original Fall, Smith is the only surviving member, seeming to confirm the myth that he ran affairs with a despotic hand. But just as it might have seemed that the band were evolving a truly indigenous, even provincialised form of modern folk music (albeit with the protest element concealed within a welter of post-William Burroughs, stream-of-consciousness beat-speak), the Fall changed.

On an American tour Smith married, and Brix E. Smith swiftly augmented the line-up as an extra guitarist. Although Smith's dissenting lyrics still come through, his Californian wife has undeniably been an important cog in easing The Fall towards the pop charts, and overseeing her husband's sartorial shift from Milletts' anoraks to Armani sweaters.

Releasing two cover versions as singles--R. Dean Taylor's 'Ghost in my House' and The Kinks 'Victoria'--has been both a cynical and a sharp way of garnering airplay. The former was an unpredictable straight retread of a soul standard, while the latter made more sense--Ray Davies's angular Englishness gelling well with The Fall's mutant brand of jingoism.

It seems that the two strands of The Fall can happily co-exist, although hit singles will never fully satisfy Smith. His spirit of adventure has resulted in collaborations with dancer Michael Clark and his decision to write a play, Hey Luciani, which ran at Riverside Studios. Meanwhile, tame commercial singles will continue to act as trailers for Smith's persistently egocentric, dark satanic albums.