25 years ago this
month, in a basement arts space in central Manchester in front of an
audience that included The Buzzcocks and composer Trevor Wishart, The
Fall stepped onto a stage for the first time. Simon Ford documents the
earliest moments in the life of one of the most uncompromising groups
of the age, and talks to original members Martin Bramah, Tony Friel
and Una Baines.
Everything has to
start somewhere, even a group that seems to have been around forever.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of The Fall's first live performance.
Fittingly for a group that soon became a byword for credibility among
members of the musical underground, the performance took place in a
basement space in central Manchester. It was the primal scene that set
The Fall on the road to creating a body of work which has been described
by Michael Bracewell, in his 1997 book England Is Mine, as being "as
important to the history of English pop as cubism was to the development
of European painting" - quite an achievement for a bunch of disenfranchised,
Northern working class youths.
But who were these
people and how did they meet? The oldest member of the group, Mark Edward
Smith, was born on 5 March 1957 in a quiet, leafy avenue in Prestwich,
about five miles north of Manchester city centre. The name of the area
derived from the Old English words 'preost' and 'wic', meaning "priest's
retreat' or 'the dwelling of a priest' - a fitting lair for the future
Hip Priest of legend. Smith was a smart kid: he passed his 11-plus exam
and went to Stand Grammar School in nearby Whitefield. Among previous
'Old Standians' was Lord Clive of Plassey (1725-74), famous for his
role in the expansion of the British Empire into India.
From an early age
Smith was healthily immune to the blandishments of pop music, preferring
instead anything that sounded strange or different: Black Sabbath's
"Paranoid", The Groundhogs, Van Der Graaf Generator. He left school
in the summer of 1973 and enrolled as an A-level student at St John's
College. One of his fellow students at the College was Una Baines. The
two had already met during the summer at a fair in Heaton Park. "When
I met Mark I was still wearing my black satin Marc Bolan jacket and
was into Bowie and stuff like that," Baines recalls. "But it was like
I was outgrowing that sort of stuff; the glam scene had become just
too commercial. Mark introduced me to The Velvet Underground."
Baines was a month
younger than Smith. They both found studying at St John's College financially
difficult and soon left. After a stint working as an office clerk, Baines
began training as a psychiatric nurse. She left home and rented a flat
with an attic on Kingswood Road, just round the corner from Prestwich
Hospital. Smith, meanwhile, was working as a clerk in an import-export
business on Manchester Docks. It provided a steady income at a time
when unemployment in Manchester and the rest of the country was growing.
His desk job also provided cover for his writing, and he took full advantage
of his breaks to use the office typewriters, tapping out short stories
and poems, fragments of which he would later transmute into lyrics,
inspired by the 'weird' tales of HP Lovecraft and the strung-out science
fiction of Philip K Dick.
One day in the mid-70s
(no one remembers when exactly), Smith and Baines were relaxing on the
couch at Smith's parents' house, listening to The Velvet Underground
and The Doors, when Smith's sister, Barbara, came home with two new
friends, Martin Bramah and Tony Friel. "Mark and I shared an interest
in music," Friel recalls, "and would spend many evenings listening to
records. Mark had an interesting collection, lots of bands I never listened
to before, like Can, and 60s US punk bands."
Bramah and Friel
had met at Heys Boys Secondary School. Bramah remembers Friel as "a
very eccentric boy. He got picked on a lot, but he had this wild imagination.
I was drawn to him because he was full of mad ideas and tall tales".
Bramah left school with just one 0-level, in art. "We were really just
factory fodder," he says. "It was a boys' school, very military in attitude,
so we just tried to avoid it as much as we could. We would wander into
town and do shoplifting. To be honest, most of the instruments we used
to start The Fall were stolen." Like Smith and Baines he lasted just
three months in further education. His teacher at Radcliffe Further
Education College described trying to teach him as like "pissing against
the wind". Friel left school without any qualifications but was determined
to make his way as a musician. "I always had an interest in art and
music," he says. "The first record I bought was The Rolling Stones'
"Get Off Of My Cloud". At the age of 11 or 12, I really got into Marc
Bolan, and he inspired me to play guitar." Friel, Bramah, Smith and
Baines would often meet at the Kingswood Road flat to take drugs (acid,
speed, magic mushrooms), play music and talk about what they wanted
to do with their lives. "We were totally wrapped up in music," Bramah
says. "it meant a lot to us. The bands we loved, we loved dearly, it
was our escape from what the world was offering us. Every weekend we
were getting out of our faces. But we didn't see it as a nihilistic
thing because to us it was a quest for knowledge, we were hungry to
see different ways of being. We were all writing poetry."
Soon after coming
together this quartet of friends decided to form a group. At first Bramah
was going to be the singer, with Smith on guitar, Friel on bass and
Baines on drums. It soon became apparent, however, that Smith was never
going to learn to play the guitar, and he swapped roles with Bramah.
Baines was also unlikely to be able to afford a drum kit and instead
she started saving up for a keyboard. Even then they might not have
taken it any further had it not been for the visit to Manchester in
June 1976 of The Sex Pistols. The four decided to go to the gig, at
the Lesser Free Trade Hall, after reading a reference to The Stooges
in Neil Spencer's legendary NME review of an early Pistols show. It
turned out to be an empowering experience, reinforced a month later
when The Pistols returned to Manchester and were supported by local
groups Slaughter And The Dogs and The Buzzcocks. As Bramah explains,
"The music scene was very different then. People didn't start bands
in Manchester. The gigs were all at big venues and bands came from out
of town and half of them were American. You didn't think you could really
do it, until the punk thing happened."
A new urgency was
injected into the group, but there was still the important question
of what they should call themselves. According to Bramah, Smith's nominations
included Master Race And The Death Sense and, somewhat less inflammatory,
The Shades. For a while they were The Outsiders, after the novel (L'Etranger)
by Albert Camus. When they discovered another group were already using
that name, Friel suggested The Fall, the title of another book by Camus
(La Chute}. At a draft stage entitled "A Puritan Of Our Time", La Chute
told the story of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a successful Parisian barrister
who came to regard his bourgeois existence as a sham and exiled himself
to Amsterdam where he became a self-styled 'judge penitent', prosecutor
of both himself and those he met. It was a perfect name for the new
group: simple, distinctive and evocative of the withering social and
moral critiques that would come to define Smith's lyric writing.
At the beginning
of 1977 there were few signs to indicate that Manchester would become
a centre for innovation, the site of a new wave in music. The consequences
of The Sex Pistols' appearances took some time to filter through to
live venues and works on vinyl. The first hint of what was to come occurred
on 29 January, when The Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch EP was released on
the group's own New Hormones label. The city's music scene continued
to develop out of the sight of the national music press, until Melody
Maker ran a story, on 14 May, titled "New Wave Devolution: Manchester
Waits For The World To Listen". The article focused on The Buzzcocks,
The Drones and Slaughter And The Dogs, and included a succinct description
of the local milieu by Tosh Ryan, who ran Rabid Records, the label which
had issued Slaughter And The Dogs' first single: "The area is so neglected,
so economically deprived and full of massive housing complexes, that
the mood of the place was right and ready for a new movement in music
with a markedly different criteria of success. What has developed is
peculiar to Manchester and I can only hope that instead of going to
London for future deals, the agents and record companies will come here."
An important component
in this 'new movement in music' was the Manchester Musicians' Collective,
which had been established at the beginning of the year by Dick Wilts
and Trevor Wishart. Wilts was a musician who had come to Manchester
to study percussion. With money he earned working for The Halle Orchestra,
he promoted concerts of contemporary classical music and became interested
in the idea of musicians organising themselves into co- operatives and
collectives. At the same time, Wishart was employed as a composer-in-residence
by North West Arts, the regional branch of the Arts Council. It was
Wishart's idea to set up a collective to share equipment and put on
gigs. "We wanted to know how these kids made music when they were musically
illiterate," Witts explains. "This was fascinating because we were overburdened
with knowledge about music, we were just playing other people's stuff,
and here were these kids coming along playing something from nowhere."
North West Arts
occupied an office, shop and basement cafe on King Street, one of the
most exclusive streets in Manchester's city centre. Witts persuaded
the organisation to let out the basement on Monday nights for the Collective
to use. From The Fall, it was Friel who first made contact with Witts
and the Collective. "It had quite an impact on me personally," Friel
says. "I met lots of interesting people and it turned me on to 'New
Music', which has been an interest ever since." Friel persuaded the
other members of The Fall to attend the Collective's meetings, and eventually
the group were offered the chance to play. There was one problem: The
Fall didn't have a drummer. Through a local advertisement they found
'Dave', an insurance salesman and rabid Conservative whose one attempt
at songwriting was entitled "Landslide Victory". He was far from perfect,
but for the moment he had to do. Another problem was that Una Baines
had nothing to play. The bank loan she had applied for in order to buy
a keyboard was still being processed. So with no instrument, she had
to stand in the audience.
No one involved
can remember the exact date of the gig, but Witts recalls the venue
as being "like a fashionable restaurant in the late 70s, with everything
white. It was done out like a small white cave. We just took the tables
and chairs out. Mark and Martin, who were taller than the others, had
to bend down because of the low ceiling. It wasn't really public, the
audience was just a group of other musicians sitting around listening."
Part of that audience
consisted of local heroes The Buzzcocks. "The first gig was recorded,
so somebody might have a tape somewhere," says Bramah. "It was a small
room and about half the audience was The Buzzcocks. Mark just let fly
with such venom from day one. I remember he just sort of reached into
the audience and virtually poked his finger up Howard Devoto's nose."
For Friel the gig
was the opportunity he'd been waiting for: "As you'd expect it was a
bit rough -just right! We were really pleased to have a chance to play
outside the bedsit. People were kind and it was very encouraging." What
hit the small audience immediately was the intensity of the group, especially
Smith, who, according to Witts, "howled the place down". Later, Baines
told Witts: "I don't know what the fuck he was doing. I've never heard
him do that before, it scared me!" Bramah was not so surprised: "It
was just welling up inside us all. That was the way we were living,
that was the way we felt and that was the way Mark was. I mean, if you
went out to a club with Mark he'd pick a fight with someone. But that
was just Mark: irrational and erratic. He didn't practise it, he didn't
plan it, he was just like that."
A belief in their
own creativity dictated against The Fall playing any cover versions
that night. Instead the set consisted of original material, including
the anti-racist rants "Hey! Fascist" and "Race Hatred" (complete with
its "What yer gonna do about it?" chorus), the bitter humour of "Bingo
Master's Breakout", and the adrenalin rush of "Psycho Mafia". The set
ended with an extended two-chord dirge titled "Repetition". The song
was almost a manifesto for the new group, albeit one laced with a heavy
dose of sarcasm, with Smith's lyric prophetically announcing, "Repetition
in the music and we're never gonna lose it".
The sound was poor
and the musicianship rudimentary, but the commitment, range and charisma
were there for all to see. It was a phenomenal debut but before The
Fall could move on, they needed to find a drummer who shared at least
some of the group's ethos. The answer was close to hand.
Prior to The Fall,
Bramah had been a member of a putative group called Nuclear Angel, which
also included Karl Burns. "I first met Karl Burns on the street," recalls
Bramah. "He had this picture of Hitler and two of his henchmen and one
had a ring round his head and Karl was insisting this was his father.
That was my first meeting with Karl Burns, this mad kid claiming his
dad was a Nazi."
Burns was a natural
musician on guitar and drums. Nuclear Angel never performed live but
used to rehearse in the cellar of a shoe shop off Deansgate (in Manchester
city centre) that was owned by the bass player's father. Here they would
thrash out New York Dolls and Stooges covers - until one night they
got carried away and trashed all their equipment. At the time Burns
had long hair and was into Heavy Metal, but Bramah persuaded him to
give the new group a chance. 'Dave' therefore holds the dubious honour
of being the first of many members to be sacked from The Fall.
The Fall's second
gig took place on 3 June at a 'Stuff the Jubilee' festival (1977 marked
25 years of the Queen's reign) in a space known as The Squat on Devas
Street. Earlier the group had attended an anti- Jubilee demo. "There
was about 12 of us," Baines recalls. "Someone tried to unfurl this banner
with "Stuff the Jubilee' on it and the police came along and said, 'Put
that banner down'. He refused saying it was his democratic right to
protest and they just pulled him into the back of a police van and kicked
his head in. So that was the end of the demo."
The Squat was situated
in a decrepit building that had once been the home of the Royal Manchester
College of Music. When the College revealed plans to demolish the building,
it was occupied by students who then successfully campaigned for it
to be turned into a live music venue. Other local groups appearing at
'Stuff the Jubilee' included The Drones, Warsaw (who would soon rename
themselves Joy Division), The Worst and The Negatives (which included
Paul Morley on guitar and photographer Kevin Cummins on drums). Baines,
who now had her own keyboard, remembers the night well: "I played the
national anthem with all these explosion sounds from my new keyboard.
It was called a Snoopy and the week after I bought it, it got reviewed
in Sounds or Melody Maker as the worst keyboard you could get - totally
slated. It was just the cheapest, but even so I never did pay off the
Later that month
The Fall played a Rock Against Racism benefit supporting The Buzzcocks
and The Verbals at North East London Polytechnic. As Martin Bramah explains,
there was always a strong left wing element in the group, but they were
wary of bandwagons: "The core of that left wing attitude was working
class struggle and that's what we related to. Una was a very strong
feminist and would be prepared to strike up an argument in a pub with
any man who said anything remotely sexist. Tony Friel was a member of
the local Communist Party."
These were politically
polarised times. A month later in August 1977 there were violent clashes
as demonstrators tried to halt a National Front march through Lewisham,
South London. Although appreciating the exposure Rock Against Racism
gigs gave the group, Smith found the populist and sloganeering attitude
of the organisers ideologically suspect. "I was disillusioned very quickly,"
he told lan Penman in NMEin August 1978. "I'd always equated left wing
politics with revolution... What happens is before you go on they say,
'Will you hold this poster up?', and it's a picture of Belsen: 'DON'T
LET IT HAPPEN AGAIN'. I would say, 'We're a political band, that's what
we sing about.' But they want you to make announcements between songs;
they see you as entertainment. You might as well be singing Country
Along with Rock
Against Racism benefits, The Buzzcocks continued to be the best source
of gigs for the new group. On 4 July The Fall supported The Buzzcocks
at the launch party of the Vortex at Crackers on Wardour Street, London.
The Buzzcocks were now the leading group in Manchester, and in August
signed to United Artists for £75,000, which must have seemed like a
fortune at the time. Record company interest in other Manchester groups
was stimulated by articles such as Paul Morley's cover story for NME
in July 1977. The cover line read: "Manchester: The Truth Behind The
Bizarre Cult Sweeping A City's Youth." The article featured The Buzzcocks,
Howard Devoto, Slaughter And The Dogs and The Drones. The Fall were
classed - alongside Warsaw and The Worst - as interesting newcomers.
Over the weekend
of 1-2 October the new Manchester groups put together their first real
collective show of strength. The venue was the Electric Circus, an ex-bingo
hall situated two miles north of the city centre. Like many Manchester
venues, it had seen better days, but its scuzzy informality was perfect
for the new groups and their fans. In fact it was the popularity of
the local groups that led to the club's downfall. The Electric Circus
had a legal capacity of 280, but the likes of The Buzzcocks were regularly
attracting audiences of 500 or more. By October the club was facing
closure due to numerous breaches of fire regulations.
The line-up for
the first night of the two day festival consisted of Manicured Noise,
The Swords, Big In Japan, Steel Pulse and The Drones. The second night
opened with Warsaw, followed by The Prefects, The Worst, The Fall, the
debut of Howard Devoto's new group, Magazine, and finally The Buzzcocks.
At the end of the night there was a stage invasion, and as with many
Manchester gigs of the time, John The Postman came on to sing a version
of "Louie Louie". Both nights were recorded by Virgin and selected tracks
were released on a 10" album, Short Circuit, in June 1978. The two songs
by The Fall - "Stepping Out" and "Last Orders", both dominated by Tony
Friel's lead basslines - represented the group's first appearance on
By the time of the
Electric Circus festival The Fall had found champions in the music press
in the shape of Paul Morley at NME and Chris Brazier at Melody Maker.
Both writers emphasised how the group's strong political content and
complex song structures placed it in a different league from its peers.
The Fall were growing in confidence and hitting a peak of productivity,
but they were still loosely organised as a collective, and decision-making
was increasingly difficult. In an attempt to solve the problem, a new
figure was brought into the group's structure.
Kay Carroll was
almost ten years older than the rest of the group and had already been
married, had two children, got divorced and was now a nurse at Prestwich
Hospital. It was there that she met Una Baines and she soon became a
regular at the Kingswood Road soirees, eventually moving into the flat.
"When I heard the band for the first time it blew me away," says Carroll.
"I wasn't expecting it at all, I wasn't expecting anything to tell you
the truth, but their sound was so hypnotic, they had a sound like Can,
and Mark's poetry was - and still is -just pure genius. I was hooked!"
As The Fall's workrate
increased, Smith's prolonged absences from his office desk became increasingly
problematic, and he eventually left to sign on the dole. It was not
long before he was joined by Carroll, who used part of her last pay
cheque to pay for a phone to be installed in the flat, so she didn't
have to use the public phone box across the road to book gigs. At the
end of October, The Buzzcocks released "Orgasm Addict", their first
single for United Artists, and set off on a UK tour. Among the support
acts were The Worst, The Flys and The Fall. Richard Boon, The Buzzcocks'
manager, was very supportive of the group and the following month put
up the money for its first studio session.
On 9 November the
group went into Manchester's Indigo Studios and recorded four songs,
"Bingo Master's Breakout", "Psycho Mafia", "Repetition" and a version
of "Frightened". The plan was for all the tracks to be released by Boon
on either New Hormones or United Artists as a 17 minute EP, but interest
waned as Boon's time was increasingly taken up with managing The Buzzcocks'
burgeoning career. The tapes were returned to the group and hawked around
various other labels, but none seemed able to deal with The Fall's uncompromising
attitude and commitment to self- determination over matters such as
marketing. The group thought about releasing a single themselves, but
as they could barely afford their own phone it wasy never going to be
a feasible proposition. (Three of the tracks, "Bingo Master's Breakout",
"Psycho Mafia" and "Repetition", were eventually released as the group's
first single in August 1978 on the Step Forward label.)
By the end of 1977
the Manchester Musicians's Collective had relocated to the Band On The
Wall on Swan Street in the Ancoats area of Manchester. Three groups
would play each week, with the takings, after expenses, being distributed
equally among the musicians. The Fall debuted there on 13 November along
with Trevor Wishart and Pride. The set ended with "Repetition", which
Smith prefaced with the warning: "This song's gonna last for three hours."
The year ended with
a Rock Against Racism benefit on 23 December at Stretford Civic Centre.
The Fall topped a bill that included John Cooper Clarke and The Worst,
plus an encore by John The Postman. An ultra lo-fi recording of The
Fall's set was recently released as Live 1977 by Cog Sinister/Voiceprint.
It was a significant gig for Friel, because, as Bramah announced to
the audience: "It's the bass player's last gig. It's like losing your
The main reason
for Friel's departure was his disapproval of the amount of managerial
control taken on by Carroll. Bramah and Baines were also concerned about
her growing influence and how it was affecting the internal politics
of the group. "When Mark and Kay became a team," Bramah explains, "it
became a bit of a dictatorship and that changed the band because we'd
started as equal friends. Kay was his enforcer, his strength and his
mouthpiece within the band. We all recognised his talent and just put
up with things, but I think Kay made it harder to be in the band, especially
for Tony, who thought The Fall were as much his vehicle as Mark's. He'd
thought of the name and was the primary musician within the band."
Friel had lasted
for just eight months. Baines left not long after in early 1978. Later
that year, Karl Burns departed, followed by Bramah in April 1979. Within
two years of forming, The Fall, with the exception of Mark E Smith,
had a completely new line-up, a pattern of attrition and renewal that
has been repeated to this day. After The Fall, Friel went on to form
The Passage with Dick Witts. He is currently the bass player in The
Woodbank Street Band. Baines and Bramah subsequently formed The Blue
Orchids, and a compilation of their work, A Darker Bloom: The Blue Orchids
Collection, has just been released by Cherry Red. In 1989 Bramah rejoined
The Fall but left again the following year. Today he still writes songs
and plays the guitar, but earns his living as a van driver. Baines works
at a community centre in Whalley Range, South Manchester. She helps
organise the annual Whalley Range festival and, showing admirable consistency,
is in the process of setting up a women's musicians' collective. As
for Mark E Smith...