Len Brown"Outspanding" (album review)

New Musical Express, ?date?1988

THE FALL -- I Am Kurious Oranj (Beggars Banquet LP/cassette/CD-ah)


"When I was at the Witch Trials of the 20th Century, they said: 'You are white crap. You are an aesthetic anesthetic. Your repetition will never be accepted' (The Fall, 1978)"

FRANKLY, I've never liked Mark E. Smith. It's nothing to do with the actual music, just the man himself. It's the Northern pub-rant voice, and the Burchillesque half-baked political stances, hell- bent on being controversial for the sake of argument and attention. Plus that arrogant attitude, that implication--live and on vinyl--that if you don't f---ing like what I'm doing, you're one of 'them!' (Southerner or Tory-Fascist Yuppie or Liberal Sensitive-Twat Middle-Class Socialist, take your pick). As if your very anti-MES-existence condones The Way Things Are.

Almost 10 years on from 'Live At The Witch Trials' (recorded December '78), Smith's still doing it; creating songs from scribbles on the back of old bus-tickets; mouthing off. Gleeful no doubt that all his Mancky post-punk rivals have either sold-up or turned to dust while he, Mark E. has been consistent.

We're told he's mellowed fast since turning 30. Some even suggested that he'd sold out, dabbling with those mediocre cover versions, not to mention the Hey! Luciani dramatic venture. Yet to his credit he's always experimented; there's a definite lack of safeness to Mark E. Smith's work, coupled with the awareness of musical and artistic developments around him. As a result, however esoteric it's seemed, Fall-style has never stagnated and become formula.

Looking back, I've always found it desperately hard to pinpoint exactly what MES has been on about (Empra's Nu Cloves perhaps). Thus it appears something of a relief, here with 'I Am Kurious Oranj', written and performed for Michael Clark's acclaimed ballet based on the 300th anniversary of the Dutch king William Of Orange's ascendancy to the English throne, that there should be an over-riding theme.

History's always been a major source of Smith's songs and, as 'Kurious Oranj' is a commemoration of the bloodless coup by Europe's top Prot against the Catholic tastes of James II, the tale also appeals to Smith's anarchic streak; harking back to those days when State-control was less sophisticated, when the subjects were less fast-fed and brain-led by the media and, as MES has said, "they had the right idea ... if the king was crap they got rid of him".

No 'Frenz' or 'Bremen Nacht', but Brix's 'Overture From I Am Curious Orange' (how Clark spells it!) sounds shockingly pleasant to the ear, the actual track 'Kurious Oranj' will soon have you on familiar bloody Fall territory. Like the Protestant Ethic And The Spirit of Capitalism put to music, in which a ska band seems to collide with an ice-cream van, it gives clues to Mark's view of the Prots v. Papists fracas (probably that they're all tossers: 'They were positively deranged/ They were kurious oranj)". Of course, King Billy is merely the nominal (anti) hero in this record of the ballet of the religious upheaval; just the starting point for another all-out Fall attack.

True there's the Dutch disease,'Van Plague' (geddit? as in Van Eyck, Van Basten, Van Rental etc), but elsewhere--without the Baked Beans, chips, swim-suit and burger visuals--the Celtic/ Rangers, bigotry connections are more difficult to make. 'Dog Is Life' is a ranting aside, with MES barking down a megaphone: "pet dog, street bullshit dog, shit and baby bit asslick dog ..."; 'Yes O Yes' seems to present planet Earth as God's dungheap; while the opener, 'New Big Prinz', could be about Billy or Mark himself; "check the record/check the guy's track record/hip priest!". But they're typical Fall songs rather than new ground breakers, and they fail to match the quality of say 'Bad News Girl' or the acid beat wit of 'Win Fall CD 2080'. More stunning still are the two wildly catchy / repetitive Smith solo compositions: 'Wrong Place, Right Time'--approaching the calibre of 'Look, Know'--and 'Cab It Up!', which seems to effortlessly take the piss out of London life.

No, there's no sign of mellowing here; in fact it's MES's confident humour that now makes The Fall so much more listenable. There seems to be a Brian Clough impression at the end of 'Yes O Yes'. And a memorably bitter-mad aside during 'Jerusalem' (co-written: William Blake/M. E. Smith); it's the highlight of 'Kurious' and a classic cover-cum-slice of anti- establishment Fall-bile: "I was-ah very let down-ah with The Budget-ah I was expecting-ah one million quid hand-out-ah/I was very-ah disappointed-ah/it was the government's fault-eh..." MES positively spits out the "green and pleasant land" public school/rugger anthem. If dark satanic mills could sing they'd snarl like Mark E. Smith.

So they've come, in 10 years, from Live at the Witch Trials to live at the ballet and 'Jerusalem'; through a difficult decade which few but The Fall have survived, if not intact, then certainly untainted. And, remarkably, they've retained the power to surprise, to provoke and occasionally outrage, that only The Smiths could pretend to possess in the '80s.

Coming to 'I Am Kurious Oranj' I'd half hoped to write it off as a kicked-together ballet soundtrack. Alas, the craft, creatively and sheer venom that still survives in Smith's Fall has foiled me.

Of course, I still don't have to like Mark; I can still argue he's unloveable, lacking emotional warmth, still think he's arrogant and looks like a cantankerous Mancunian welder. But as for 'Kurious Oranj', let's hear it for aesthetic anaesthetics and repetitive white crap. The bastard's gone and done it again. (8-ah)