David Shirley, "The Fall: Cranky, Brilliant
and Still Beyond the Pale"
?, mid 1993 (album) The Infotainment Scan
After 16 years and almost 20 recordings, The Fall's front man Mark E. Smith is finally showing his age. Time was, Smith's on--and off--stage rantings had a dangerous edge to them, the kind of caustic, on-target invective that infuriated liberals and conservatives alike. Not only did Smith's opinions keep the Fall's music out of the limelight (only John Peel has championed the band since the beginning), they also made Smith fear for his life every time he took the stage in one of the smoky, north England social clubs where the group first learned to play.
At 34, however, Smith seems to have settled comfortably into the role of the foul-mouthed but ultimately good-natured English eccentric. These days his complaints are less threatening and offensive, mostly limited to personal vendetta and mindless bar room banter. It's not exactly headline news to read that the guy is suspicious of minorities and college students or that he carries an unrelenting grudge against any number of unscrupulous record company executives and apostate band mernbers, or that he holds in utter contempt the self-congratulatory 'do-gooders' of Rock Against Racism and the disrespectful 'savages' in the Middle East.
But if Smith's opinions have lost their subversive edge over the years, the Fall's music has only gotten sharper, with the band gradually refining the odd talent they first displayed in the late '70s. A stringy-haired, belligerently unfashionable 18-year-old Smith formed the band in 1977 as part of the same DIY Manchester scene that produced the Buzzcocks, Joy Division and the Smiths. Although clearly inspired by both punk and the arty, experimental side of new wave, Smith had little patience for either movement. Punk, he predicted from the beginning, was a dead end, more blandly conformist than the status quo against which it rebelled. As far as art was concerned, he had even less sympathy for left-wing, avant-garde bands like Scritti Politti, Gang of Four and the Raincoats. 'There is no culture in my brag,' he snarled proudly in 'The Classical' more than a decade ago.
Although the ideas expressed in Smith's lyrics were often pedestrian, his band's technique was always defiantly experimental even before they mastered their instruments. A fan of Can, Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, Smith's goal was to strip down rock music to its simplest and starkest elements. Endlessly repeating the most perfunctory one-to-four riffs imaginable, the band demonstrated the disciplined austerity of late-70s New York bands like DNA and the early Ramones. Over time, the Fall learned how to bring the mix to cacophonous roar with the use of feedback, sampling, buzz guitars and electronically distorted bass lines. "Rock and roll isn't even music really," Smith once told New Musical Express's Graham Lock, "It's a mistreating of instruments to get feelings over."
From the beginning, the feelings in question belonged to Smith, pure and simple. Using a cut and paste writing method borrowed from William Burroughs, Smith combined newspaper headlines, literary references, graffiti--whatever popped into his mind--in an endless litany of angry aphorisms. However strange or unwieldy the lyric sheet became, the songs were held together by Smith's insistent, monotonous snarl and the insouciant 'huh' with which he punctuated each phrase. Smith's trademark hiccups may have caused every line to rhyme but they also made many of the lyrics virtually indecipherable. (Even after repeated listenings the refrain to "It's a
Curse" on the Fall's latest release sounds just like "It's a Cure song."
Over the years, the uneasy mix of the band's minimalist drone and Smith's extravagant vocal technique has been a recipe for both brilliant music and chronic instability in the band, with Smith frequently dismissing musicians for melodic insubordination or an unnecessarily overt display of talent. But after more than 15 years of musical chairs, the core ensemble seems for once firmly in place on the band's latest release, The Infotainment Scan (Matador/Atlantic), with guitarist Craig Scanlon, Steve Hanley on bass, drummer Simon WoIstencroft and Dave Bush on keyboards laying the supporting grooves for Smith's ongoing jeremiad against life in the late 20th Century.
The Infotainment Scan is a typically brilliant Fall recording. There's just enough ironic flirting with fashion to give the Fall's faithful following yet another chance to hope that the band is finally about to make it big. As usual, Smith is pissed off about everything imaginable - the burgeoning .nostalgia industry ('A Past Gone...
(my copy is cut there)