Chuck Eddy, "End of the Line"

VILLAGE VOICE, January 17, 1989, p. 78


Formed in working-class (as if that matters) Manchester way back when Paul was pope and David Alien Coe LPs had "happy sides" and "su-i-sides," the Fall are the one punk band that never reneged on the promise. By which I mean not just that these Brits kept their eyes on some pointless "struggle" against the wind, but that they never looked back, never turned decrepit, never deflated noncomformity into some mawkish parlor game, never succumbed to any square's prefab notion of what a good time's supposed to sound like or say or do. Me, I gave up on Patti in '79, Pere Ubu and Wire and Elvis C. in '80, John Lydon in '81, Clash and Gang of Four in '82, T-Heads in '83, Mekons in '87; head Fall-guy Mark E. Smith meanwhile initiated this theoretically limitless mumbled-nonsense-under-skewed-ooze aesthetic. It was eventually adopted by a kazillion one-trick ponies (Buttholes, Huskers, Minutemen, Jesus and Mary Chain, Pussy Galore), and he kept plugging away even as said aesthetic grew more obvious than whatever it meant to confront, even as thespianism, shock tactics, and propaganda songs shipped his heirs off to history's glue factory. Sonic Youth, who pay split-second homage to the Fall in their "Teenage Riot" video and who'd sound lots different without 'em, have a fifth as many good records. The Velvet Underground is where Fall-primitivism mostly came from (also: Captain Beefheart, the garage, Naked Lunch, weirdo Teutonic droners like Can and Faust, weirdo Limey outcasts like Peter Hammill and Kevin Coyne and even John Lennon), but the V.U. quit after four albums, or maybe two. The Fall's got something like 17. So far. Then again, last year annoying old Siouxsie Sioux made testier music than Steve Albini (who's made a name reducing Mark E.'s history-mantras to corn), so for all I know prolific longevity means nothing.

No Fall stuff's ever made me gag, but certain spans of dry didacticism leave me unmoved, un-anythinged. Fall oldies lack crassness, Fall newies lack intensity, it all lacks libido. Like with the Angry Samoans or Sonic Youth, non-pigeonholed non-stasis and stick-to-itiveness continue to lift this ever-mutating combo above the postmortem throng, but like with the Sams and Sonics, it doesn't matter much anymore. None of which detracts from the unimpeachable fact that the new I Am Kurious Oranj (Beggars Banquet) is the best soundtrack to a Michael Clark ballet about a 16th century Dutch prince I've ever heard. Fall output since Mark's American bride, Brix Smith, took the guitar reins in '83 has almost been a hymn to domestic stability, real tight and tuneful, even perky, not so narrow or monolithic. I Am Kurious retains the clean textures and multimode scattershotness of recent years while trying not so successfully to regain some lost edge; there's nothing as creepy as a blotto Mark babbling in the back bus seat that his friends don't add up to one hand, nothing as dazzling as this oft-alleged reactionary (who once recommended that Band-Aid bucks be spent on birth control) out-neoconning the world in his proud semi-hit redo of the Kinks' "Victoria," both on the previous (and way accessible) Frenz Experiment. So the new one's some backwards stab at careerism, maybe. But from Gary Glitter glop to new-age Fela, from West Bank eulogy to William Blake hound fetish, from demiclassy overture to flower porn parody, it's a keeper nonetheless Marquis Smith's one of those rare gents who wouldn't know how to compromise (whatever that means) if he wanted to, and he obviously does. But what I've always appreciated most about him is that he always seems to know what he's talking about, even when he's going way over my head. He doesn't have to think back on all the crap everybody else in art school. Only a brainy loner's r'n'r dream could turn Status Quo's screwball "Pictures of Matchstick Men" into a snide treatise called "How I Wrote 'Elastic Man'," could locate a Frankie Lymon screech in the center of a harangue on junkies missing Christmas, or could find an urgent ulcer-laugh but no belt to wear in that pile of garbage over there in the corner. Smith hectors on about McCarthy and Mao, cockroaches and midges, psychomafias and petrodollars and psilocybin. He panics, invents new slang and pronunciations on the spot. Then he suddenly switches into German, the language of a land he's apparently convinced is haunted. Obsessed with Belsen and Salem (which ought to come off as cheap metaphors, but with him they don't), this evangelist has no sympathy for devils, and he's always lashed out at the normality his instincts tell him to embrace, fearing new superstitions could breed complete control. (Maybe they already have: Listen to "Second Dark Age," recorded in '79, and ponder how the '80s turned out.) He's at war with the technological death wish, wants to know what to do, whether there are worthwhile kicks that won't crucify him. In "Various Times," he signs on as a Nazi camp guard to avoid the front. His prettiest song's about visitors getting beheaded on a Disneyland ride. His band's named for a Camus novel, a moral breakdown, or the season the sun dies--any way you slice it, the end. I keep wondering when he'll fall apart. Don DeLillo (who, like Smith, essayed Oswald instead of JFK last year), writes in White Noise (a title echoing the first words on the Fall's 1978 debut single) that "the real power is wielded every day, in these little challenges and intimidations, by people just like us." That idiot next to you at the laundromat. It could be Smith's credo, and it's pretentiously paranoid, and in an age when better-not-take-it-from-me antisocialism's the norm, it's not even that fun a neurosis to partake in. Yet with still no countercultural "community" around I could ever imagine wanting to be part of, the moods and monologues on my Fall vinyl make DeLillo's theorem ring true. "I can't live in those people-places/They might get to know my actions," the voice snarls, gradually scaling this reduplicating pair of grind-away trance chords in "Frightened," about the only song I know that could earn that title. "I don't wanna dance/I wanna go home."

This mob's maddest music--'85's compulsive "No Bulbs" 12-inch, the highstrung first side of '79's Live at the Witch Trials, all that brooding double-drummed pore congestion crammed onto Hip Priest and Kamerads--is the raw gnaw of discontent, the 'loather's leap into something infallible, that's always made punk-weaned rock change its mind, turn smug. If Kurious Oranj isn't, it's not because Smith has changed his, but 'cause he realizes misanthropic murk can no longer move mountains. If he ever figures out what can, get out the way, okay?