Dave Thompson, "Falling Forward"
ALTERNATIVE PRESS, September 1993, pp. 43-44
"If the Fall's Mark E. Smith ever found his kids listening to his record collection, he'd kill them. Dave Thompson speaks with a man who after more than fifteen years of making music still understands the whole point of rock 'n' roll."
His reputation precedes him with a vengeance, a troll-like curmudgeon with a bad case of the surlies. Even at his most disarmingly pleasant, Mark E. Smith has a name to live up to, one which is as uncompromising as the music he makes, with whichever bunch of misbegotten misfits he currently has in tow. Like, the New World Order is all very well. But would you believe a man who says he's never heard Led Zeppelin?
"It's true! I don't know what you're talking about. Sorry!"
What I'm talking about is "The League of Bald-Headed Men," one of half-a-dozen crackers which litter the latest Fall album, and whose riff, whatever Smith says, fell out of Led Zeppelin IV ("Misty Mountain Hop") as surely as surely can be.
The Infotainment Scan is the first new Fall album in three years to see the business end of an American release (since Extricate). It's also the first to actually do what the band's fans reckon should have been done fifteen years back--establish the Fall as a genuine Power In The Land. The Infotainment Scan entered the U.K. album chart at number seven, and while both World Party and PJ Harvey debuted higher, that is not the point. The point is, the Fall are not a Hit Record band, the Fall are not a multimega-million-dollar bash. The Fall are the Fall are the Fall, and that's all there is to it.
Smith is unphased by this sudden taste of success, unphased but not ungrateful. He acknowledges that marketing has a lot to do with the band's sudden high profile; normally, a new Fall album will sink or swim in the music press alone. Ads for The Infotainment Scan, however, have leaked into other media as well--there was even one in When Saturday Comes, an acerbic British soccer fanzine. The seriously raincoated Fall fan is dead-- long live the juvenile football hooligan.
"We've just come home from a British tour, and I noticed that the audiences really are getting younger. They're not even college age any more, and all the old geezers like me are stuck at the back."
Which, he says, is great. It's all too easy for a band (particularly one "like us" which has been around since the dawn of time at least) to settle down in front of its fans, and grow old alongside them; it's even easier when that band's greatest acolyte, BBC Radio disc jockey John Peel, is even older than they are.
But asked if the Fall deliberately courted the kiddies, turning in an album so delightfully poppy that it's hard to believe it is them (The Fall? Aren't they those miserable bastards who play their songs sideways, just in case a tune got in by mistake?), Smith instead launches into a ferocious denunciation of the band's last label, Phonogram.
"When we signed with them in 1990, after six years with Beggars Banquet, the deal was that they'd release our albums in the States. It was in our contract that they would do that. Then they decided it would be easier just to give us money instead."
The albums got over here regardless, but that wasn't what was at issue. The five or so years beforehand had seen the Fall's American impetus snowballing in a way few other acts can imagine, not only winning fresh converts, but trawling some mighty megaphones too. A recent Fall promotional sampler, Crash Course 84-92, boasts for its sleeve a collection of quotes from the band's famous fans: Thurston Moore, Jim Thirlwell, Jonathan Demme, and claiming to own "more than 25 records by the Fall," Superchunk's Mac McCaughn.
Kind words butter few parsnips, though, and having sold out their last American tour (again in 1990), the Fall were left looking on in limbo, while Uncle Sam opened his arms to a host of lesser Limey lights. "We were going to tour America this spring," Smith volunteers. "Until we saw there were about 30 other British bands over there at the same time."
Back to Phonogram. "Just before Christmas, the label started letting bands go. They sent eight others packing, then told me that we'd be kept on until April '93. We weren't selling enough records."
Smith decided to save them the bother of sacking him, and left under his own steam instead. The Infotainment Scan was recorded at New Order's studios in Rochdale, in his own time, on his own money, and only when it was finished did the Fall go back on the market, shopping the tapes around to labels who couldn't believe their luck. They ended up with Permanent/Total/BMG in Britain, Matador (through Atlantic) in America, and the rest as they say is... Tell me, Mark. Somebody coming across the Fall for the first time with this album, or maybe someone getting reintroduced after a long time away, what would they make of it all?
"I don't know. It depends on what they've heard about us."
He denies that The Infotainment Scan is the most commercial Fall album ever. He also denies that the world has finally caught up with them. "To say that would suggest that the Fall has always been willfully obscure," he says, "either that, or that the group hasn't developed over the years. It hasn't, and it has."
Rather, we (kind of) agree that at long last, the Fall are finally being accorded the dignity due a band of their age. Like New Order, the Cure and Depeche Mode ("Have you seen Dave Gahan's tattoos?" Smith asks. "They hurt him so much he's afraid to shave any more!"), the Fall have now been around so long that it's impossible to ignore them. So people buy their records instead.
It's been sixteen years since Live at the Electric Circus debuted the discordant raggedness of Smith, Martin Bramah and Tony Friel on vinyl; fifteen since "Bingo Master's Break-Out" gave a bellowed melodic substance to that raggedness. Since then, the Fall have lurched from incoherence to indispensability, been hosanna'd and hammered. But never have they been accorded a bona fide hit record. Did it ever get dispiriting waiting?
"No, because we weren't waiting. We never expected a hit, and we never not expected one." He points out, with courageous honesty, that album sales in general in the U.K. are now so low that it's really not that difficult to get a high chart entry. It's staying up there that's trickier.
So far, The Infotainment Scan has not disappointed, but before we elect the Fall to the pantheon of Punk Survivors Who've Stood the Test of Time, Smith insists we examine the company they'll be keeping.
"The problem today, and you hit on it when you mentioned Led Zeppelin, is that the kids--if that's what we must call them--are so busy rediscovering what their parents listened to that they're missing everything else."
His skin still crawls as he recalls a comment made by a member of Jesus Jones: "It was something along the lines of, 'Sgt. Pepper is my favorite album, because my mum used to play it to me every day'.
"That says it all! Can you imagine admitting to liking the same records as your mum? The whole point of rock music is listening to the music your parents didn't listen to. My dad was into George Formby (a popular northern English comedian of the pre-Presley era), and I listened to the Velvets. But if he'd listened to the Velvets, I'd have been into George Formby."
Rock'n' roll, he believes, is not circular by nature, but the tastes of its supporters should be. What goes around doesn't necessarily come around, which is why the current '70s revival, says Smith, is no more sincere than anything else which has been foisted on the marketplace recently.
"People listen to it because it's all they're given. Levi ads are into Steve Miller, and every time you turn on the television it's T. Rex. But if I caught my kids listening to my record collection, I'd kill them. Then I'd make them listen to Shostakovich."
With its subtle blending of all the disciplines Smith has been (and is) listening to over the years, The Infotainment Scan is as far from Shostakovich (and George Formby) as any music has a right to be. While Smith's own tastes these days stray in the direction of the rave scene, the album itself is beholden to no particular noise.
A nod in the direction of classic disco, most (but not exclusively) evident in a twisted cover of Chic's "Lost In Music," a hint of Gary Glitter (the cynically ranting "Glam-Racket"), and a convincing stab at metallic reggae (Lee Perry's "Why Are People Grudgeful?"), it's possibly the most complete Fall album in a decade. But is it complete because of what went into it? Or because of all that was omitted? Beyond the vocals which nothing could change, there has never been a formulaic Fall sound per se, just a shifting collage of reference points from which Smith draws as the mood strikes him. The day he sees that collage in the hands of other popsters, popsters whose understanding of the whole is screwed by their sense of the parts, he hints, is the day that the Fall finally fall.
He doesn't want the Fall to be remembered, like the Dolls or the Stooges or whoever, as the band which spawned a host of little Falls. "Influence," under those conditions, is simply another word for "losers," and simply by virtue of surviving this long, the Fall deserve so much more.
Rather, they should ascend to that same pantheon of greatness as the bands whose impact has never been replicated, whose sound can never be touched: a touchstone, not a looking glass; a role-model, not a xerox machine.
It's the only way forward for any of us.