B.N., "The Weird and Frightening World of The Fall"
INDEX (New York), 1996
Open up an English music paper these days and the names that roll off the page can only give one serious pause for thought: Killing Joke, Theatre of Hate, the Specials, the Buzzcocks, the Damned, GBH, Stiff Little Fingers, Alternative TV, Sham 69. Looming largest above all are the full page ads for the Sex Pistols, about to embark on their FILTHY LUCRE tour. So what year is this anyway? A quick check of the calendar will confirm that we are most definitely in 1996, but by the looks of things lately it might as well be 1976. (And who knew there was that much woodwork to crawl out of...)
As the Sex Pistols announce their reformation, claim in fact to be proud of their beer guts, and deny ever believing in that "hope I die before I grow old" business, Punk's Greatest Hits can be found on every store shelf. Seems like the twentieth anniversary of punk isn't exactly going by unnoticed, Just the other day on the news I saw people rioting in the streets of Buenos Aires and thought, well, another government bites the dust. But in actuality they were Ramones fans who couldn't get tickets to the band's seemingly endless farewell tour, Adios Amigos.
Stateside, things are a bit more dignified. After all, 1976 was our Bicentennial year. Back in London, Johnny Rotten was singing about a monarchy we had overthrown two hundred years before. We had had our revolutionary war, and we were going to sing about Redondo Beach and Little Johnny Jewel, from the Land of Treason to The Modern Dance. And the fact is, many of the best American bands from that time had never broken up, not the Ramones or Pere Ubu or the Cramps or Sonic Youth, so they've never had a comeback trail to follow. Still, the monstrously huge success of a few American post-punk bands in the early '90s set the stage for this current revival, which makes it our fault, by default.
For some of us who were there the first time around, there's little or no nostalgic feeling involved in this latest time warp. I, for one, am too old to be old - whatever that means. The phrase came to me in the middle of a totally kinetic set by an Austin band called The Motards, who are really young, and fast on their way to becoming the punkest band in the Lone Star State. Whatever they might remind you of, they're playing their own music, and it has nothing to do with a fairy tale of, or nostalgia for, a time they never went through in the first place. (How old was a 17-year-old twenty years ago?) It's not for nothing that the Lord High Fixers - who, by the way, were all in the audience that night- - have titled their new record, once upon a time called RIGHT NOW.
So here we are, twenty years down the line, and the only English band from the class of '75-77 that has continued to record and to perform, to reinvent itself and move forward from year to year, never bowing to crass commercialism or softening its criticism of those who do, is The Fall. Led by the mighty Mark E. Smith, they have maintained a tireless work ethic, their policy being to release music as continuously as possible, and, eventually, to put out more or less everything . To date, that's somewhere in the vicinity of sixty albums, singles, and EPs. They have been keen observers and harsh critics of social relations, consumer culture, political life, and the music scene itself - in many ways, heirs to the position of the Kinks as led by Ray Davies in the mid-60s. For Smith, as quoted in his always endearing style, "the punk think in a lot of ways was a big mistake because it taught a lot of people who thought they were naive to also think they were talented." The Fall remain, then, with the possible exception of the Mekons, the only continuously active band from that time.
Formed in Manchester in early '77 Smith remembers seeing the Buzzcocks and thinking, "Bloody hell! I can do better than that!" - The Fall neither looked nor sounded like the "official" punk of the time. They dressed shabbily, appearing on stage in street clothes, had straggly hair, and struck no programmed stage pose. Smith's songs were more like strange stories, full of odd characters, dark settings, and millions of words; in every way the polar opposite of punk's sloganeering one-liners. A sons like "We Got the Right to Work" and The Fall's "Bingo Master's Breakout" were quite simply miles and entire lives apart. Where punk was mostly simplistic, loud and fast one-chord wonders, The Fall's stark, hypnotic, and at times eerily slowed down sound was a unique hybrid of bare bones rock and Northern folk. (Acoustic guitars, rinky-dink piano, and even kazoos were featured on early tracks.) The Fall sound owed more to Gene Vincent's '50s rockabilly, the psychodrama that was the Stooges, Lou Reed's velvet drone, and Can, the seminal German band from the late '60s, than it did to the one-dimensional noise of the day. Theirs was a stream-of-consciousness flow and the band's alternately shambolic and rock-steady rumble. By the time The Fall began to play their own amphetamine-fueled rockabilly in early 1980 - well before its pathetic commercial revival -- they had transformed themselves into a genuinely rocking proposition. Where previously their music went straight to the brain, it now set upon the entire body, from head to toe. They would, over the years, reinvent themselves again and again, but always based on their original heady sound . It's not surprising,- then, that all these years later The Fall continue, and all the bands they had to open for and whose fans pelted them with beer cans and booed them off the stage - are nowhere to be found.
The reason The Fall are particularly interesting to think about just now is not simply because of their longevity in light of the revival of punk, but because in the space between 1976 and 1996 they managed to simultaneously stick to their guns, and to move forward. Wherever they went, whether back to the trash-rock of the Sonics' "Strychnine" or into super-produced techno, they would claim it as their own, a: Fall territory.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the space between their two most recent releases. The Legendary Chaos Tape is a CD re-release of a 1980 London concert that had only been previously available as a limited edition cassette, and was nearly impossible to find except as second, third, or even later generation copies. It is about as accurate a document of the early Fall as you're likely to find, perfectly capturing them at a time when they truly stood apart from it all the rest. in the course of a single set they could shift from the tribal, trance-like pulse of "An Older Lover" to the insistent, galloping "Prole Art Threat," and bounce back with a ramshackle, rollicking "Container Drivers" As heard here, The Fall lay claim, hands-down, to a definitive moment in punk that's somehow not really punk at all. It's something else entirely, but don't ask what it's called because it's something The Fall invented for themselves, and it's been copied, but never authentically recast by anyone else. Pressed to call it something himself, Mark E. Smith once offered, "Head music with energy."
Fast forward to the present, and that line might begin to describe The Fall in 1996 as heard on their new extended play single, "The Chiselers." Recorded over a full eight months time, it offers a highly distilled history of The Fall in its sixteen-plus minutes. But as tempting as it may be to refer to it as the product of a full eighteen years' work, it is both quintessentially "vintage Fall" and, at the same time, totally ground-breaking. It is easily their most labyrinthine recording to date, with innumerable vocal parts, different speeds, multi-tracked and echoed arrangements, odd knocking, unidentifiable sounds, and more than one false ending. There are rough, industrial slabs with scraping, metallic guitars, insistent drumming, and that distorted booming bass - the foundation on which their sound has always been laid. And then there are nearly hi-tech, studio-bound sections with shimmering, symphonic keyboards and angelic harmonies. There are things happening in the foreground (in your face), in the background (almost subliminally), and off to both sides at all times. A 360 degrees affair. And mid-way through, it gets very quiet, and very slow, as Mark E. Smith sings, "I try to think like you do, try to dress like you do ... I thought I was you ... You are not happy." It's the most poignant put-down in a career filled with pointed put-downs. But soon enough, the song's been revved back up to speed and you're once again pulled into its wicked undertow, another false ending, and even more white noise.
The Twenty-Seven Points, a mostly live double album which came out late last year, is also highly recommended among The Fall's recent releases. Complete with the joke/warning, PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT, INCOMPETENT MUSIC, it is probably the most unconventional live album you're likely to hear, Perhaps more than any other record since the birth of lo-fi, The Twenty-Seven Points brings the meaning of fidelity back on itself, literally defines it as being faithful or true to something - in this case to live music. (Warts and all.) These days, the off-hand, spontaneous, rough-around-the-edges style that's become so prevalent is beginning to seem almost mannered, or studied. Self-fulfilling prophecies aside, Mark E. Smith is the man who back in '82 was already singing about how "All the young groups know that they imitate, but I teach, 'cause I'm the hip priest." As witnessed on The Legendary Chaos Tape, The Fall pioneered the veracity of the shambling, messy racket, and not only in their music but in their often copied sleeve art, with it's hand-scrawled paste-ups, cut-ups, and cryptic notes.
One of the most amazing moments on The Twenty-Seven Points is when Smith seamlessly weaves lines from "Hip Priest" into the more recent "Big New Prinz," collapsing the two songs - and the years between them - into each other, with an extended scream on the word nuts as be sings, "He .. is ... fucking NUUUUUUTS!" Elsewhere, some drunken fan grabs a mic. during "Life Just Bounces," and happily rambles on until the end, when he warns the audience, "There ain't no refund." At least not with The Fall.
Late flash: A series of three retrospective albums featuring previously unreleased songs and alternate takes, covering the years '83-91 has just. come out -- Sinister Waltz, Fiend With a Violin, and Oswald Defense Lawyer compiled for Fall completists. But in the absolute PRESENT, and immediately on the heels of "The Chiselers," comes Mark E. Smith's collaboration with Peter Waterman and D.O.S.E., four different mixes and over twenty-five minutes -- of hard jungle/trip-hop/acid grooves called "Plug Myself In." It's about twenty light years from '76, or at least a few trillion miles away. B.N.