Tom Lappin, "Falling on His Feet"
SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY, August 3, 1997
Wanna join a band like The Fall? Just ask. Tommy Crooks did, writes Tom Lappin.
Pick your way through British rock music in the last 20 years and you'll find the staging posts tend to be charismatic loudmouths from Manchester. Liam Gallagher, Shaun Ryder, Morrissey and Ian Curtis mark the passing of the guitar-rock baton from one critically-acclaimed frontman to another.
Amid the vagaries of fashion though, one particular Mancunian has remained a constant, a curmudgeonly voice of edgy antagonism. He's Mark E Smith, who with his group The Fall has provided a steady chorus of literate complaint from the noisy margins of pop.
There have been times, notably the mid-eighties, when The Fall were in danger of becoming successful, of being accepted into the fold, even into the charts. Every time, with sure-footed bloody-mindedness, Smith has pushed his music further away from fashion.
So he soldiers on, releasing about three albums of new and compiled material a year, occasionally changing the personnel of his group, the only consistent element being the trademark Smith vocal.
Into this world last year came Tommy Crooks, an artist living in West Lothian, who had spent most of his time at art college listening to The Fall. Then, one morning in Leith Walk he bumped into Mark Smith. "I approached him and said hello," says Crooks. "They were my favourite band. A few days later I got a postcard from Mark, and then I sent them some photographs of my paintings and didn't hear anything for about a year. Then a letter arrived saying 'sorry for not crediting you on the album cover', with a CD of The Twenty-Seven Points album. I looked inside and there was my painting."
Crooks kept in touch and noticed that long-time Fall guitarist Craig Scanlon was missing from one album photo. Crooks boldly phoned the group's office and suggested that he was available and could play a bit. Several months later, they called his bluff.
"I got a letter saying 'can you play in Manchester in two weeks time? Here's a list of the songs we'll be playing.' I had to learn all these songs pretty much right away. Turned out we didn't play any of them at the gig anyway, we ended up doing all these new things. It was crazy, but great, very exciting."
Crooks slotted into a world where The Fall are a backdrop to Smith's vision, a tool for his creative gifts. Whisper the word democracy in a Fall dressing-room and you'd have the boys in the band wrinkling their brows and reaching for the dictionary.
"Steve Hanley and Simon Wolstonecroft, the bass player and drummer are the best rhythm unit you can find anywhere this side of Sly and Robbie," says Crooks. "But you would see them working on a tune and then Mark would just bowl in, say 'right lads, play this bit in that way, speed it up a bit there, do that like this,' and suddenly it would be The Fall. He is a genius like that."
Probably an intimidating one as well. After all the man's a legend, and Crooks had spent most of his 20s in awe, listening to The Fall's records in his studio, while he painted. Presumably it was a little scary going out on stage as a fully-fledged band member?
"Well it was like being put into the trenches. You just had to do it, and once you're on it's The Fall, there's no way back. There's no point being scared. Mark said we're doing this this and this, songs I'd never played. Then he said 'by the way Tommy you're doing backing vocals'. I sort of casually said, 'do you mind if I don't do the backing vocals?' Mark said 'Yeah, I do f***ing mind'."
Crooks is now enough of a member to be able to absorb a little of the band's self-sufficiency, the sense that the Fall are above everything else that is going on in the grubby music industry.
"I noticed Oasis were saying we're the best rock band in the world," says Crooks, "where in actual fact it's obvious The Fall are the best."
The Fall play Edinburgh Cas Rock on August 9.