MARK E. SMITH- THE FALL
The Conventional is Now Experimental
A multi-media rant by Jason Gross
(February 2018)(After I finished this essay, I felt a strange urge to pull out an old Ouija board. After an hour, I got this message:
Best ignore this soggy, pisshead writer who doesn't know shite about me or the Fall!
After that, I felt strangely compelled to get a pint of lager for the first time in a while)
No doubt that proud Mancunian Mark E. Smith would hate this article or hate anyone who wanted to glorify and consecrate the Fall, much less mourn his death. A much better tribute would be to toss his ashes in a vat of Guinness or on to the field before a Manchester United match or try to match him with a long rant about the man himself (which you'll see elsewhere no doubt). But we're not here for MES himself but to commiserate about this strange, ugly, wonderful, frightening beast called the Fall which was birthed in '76 and died with MES on January 24th.
"I'm full of surprises"
"I like people who dream or talk to themselves interminably; I like them, for they are double. They are here and elsewhere." - Albert Camus, The FallA Behind the Music segment about the Fall would have been full of entertaining stories from the rest of the band but MES would have been unapologetic about his vices. Drinking, drugs? Part and parcel of most any (non-Christian) rock band. Multiple marriages, sometimes to band mates? So be it. A guy who was cut out for fatherhood? The Fall was his only offspring and he was tough-love parent for sure, changing band mater like you'd change undies- also note that the butt of his jokes on "The Insult Song" (2007) are about the then-current Fall line-up. And though he was a crank who had a way with cutting insults, one of the many obits from the Guardian noted that his "extraordinary generosity and kindness" from former band mates too and no less of an authority than Brix Smith herself said that "deep down he was a door-opening, bag-carrying, sweet gentlemen." I think of him as something of a libertine in the mold of Alfred Jarry (see the book The Banquet Years for details) and as someone who would never thought of himself as punk but he embodied it, making ugly noise for years (John Lydon himself certainly admired him).
As a talky, pub-crawling soccer fan, he wasn't exactly your atypical Englishman in some ways. Granted that most bar flies don't name their band after an Albert Camus novel or slather noise over garage rock for dozens of albums or basically create the idea of art-punk.
His cynical eye wasn't just on display in his songs but also in his interviews where he'd breezily, happily pour invective on his targets and even turn the tables on scribes sometimes, demanding that they explain themselves as seen in these 2002 and 2007 interrogations
Even in his last interview in the fall of 2017 (again for The Guardian, who only stand behind John Peel as MES fans), he's deliciously cranky and cheerfully unsentimental, brushing off celebrating 40 years of the Fall and all previous versions of the band up to that point.
"I DON'T SING, I SHOUT"
The legacy of MES is a mess- a massive sprawling catalog of brilliance and junk. And he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
Alongside his sole presence in every line-up of the band, the fifty or so former band mates, some of whom would disappear and reappear years later, are also part of his legacy and a testament to his craggy nature. No known stage would have fit the band for their non-existent RnR Hall of Fame induction but the imaginary ceremony would have at least provided a classic MES bile-spewing speech to rival Alex Lifeson.
Throughout every version of the band, he proved himself an auteur, with several signatures running through all Fall records- even if it was just him and whoever else he wanted around him, you'd always hear twangy guitars, a thumping back beat, doomy bass, strident keys/electronics and MES ranting on top. But that was just the surface of the Fall- MES made it into a bizarre, sometimes mind-numbing concoction, not just by its staggering output (about 30 studio and 30 live albums plus numerous compilations) but also because MES' deceptively simple formula wasn't that simple at all.
Most of all, MES wasn't just a music fan, he was a crate digger. Even if you've never seen his record collection (rest assured he always had vinyl), you can tell that not just by the influences he'd parade around in his songs but also by the piles of records he plowed through to find the right song to cover. Looking at the many cover versions the Fall did, what does it say about MES that he redid songs by the Monks (three times no less), the Kinks, the Move, the Searchers, the Groundhogs, Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson, George Jones, Sister Sledge, Merle Haggard, the Beatles, Lee Scratch Perry, Henry Cow, Leadbelly, Iggy/Stooges, Gene Vincent, Lee Hazlewood, the Saints and Mothers of Invention? That's not even mentioning songs where he name-checks Zappa ("I'm Frank"), Beefheart (multiple times) and Can ("I Am Damo Suzuki")? Sounds like a real music nut, right? (you can hear a bunch of these covers on this playlist)
In particular, you could tell that MES dug 'roots music,' including rockabilly (especially on Grotesque (After The Gramme) and The Frenz Experiment) and garage rock but could never leave it at that, always mixing it with his outre impulses like the Stooges (another favorite of his). Fellow travelers Pere Ubu called their own trad/avant mash-up 'avant garage' but you could just as well tag MES and friends with that as well. Listen to "Pay Your Rates" and "Muzorewi's Daughter," which keep alternating between rockabilly swing and plodding doom, though most of the time, he merely ingeniously combined both impulses throughout Fall tunes instead of sectioning them off.
Every Fall Song Ranked, From Best to Weird to Sentimental
MES' uncontrollable avant impulses themselves are another Fall trademark. Posterity could go piss itself as far as he was concerned, not giving a shit or two about 'consistency,' with sheer output being a bigger priority. Even his flubs (Middle Class Revolt, Seminal Live, Room to Live) or snores (Cerebral Caustic, Are You Are Missing Winner, Bend Sinister, The Real New Fall LP) had gems hidden in them- "My Ex-Classmate's Kids" from AYAMW, "Hey Student!" from MCR, "Deadbeat Descendent" from SL, "Terry Waite Sez" and "Mr. Pharmacist" (BS), "Room to Live" (S/T). Even the album covers were adorned with hideous cartoons and scrawled handwriting, not exactly inviting except for his fellow misfits. Who else would use "grotesque" and "perverted" as album titles?
Fall diamonds in the rough playlist:
MES's idea of fun and weirding-out also included fucking around with entire albums, which was peachy by him too, particularly in his post-millennium output with The Real New Fall LP, Ersatz GB and Cerebral Caustic. Studio and live material weren't always divvied up either as he had no compulsion about putting them together in records like Totale's Turns, Seminal Live, The Twenty-Seven Points, 2G+2, Interim.
A hallmark of Fall records has also always been the "WTF" tracks where he went really lo-fi and included tape experiments and noise collages that had little or nothing to do with rock, flouting his love of kosmische (krautrock) music, staring in full with the band's mid-80's records: "Segue," "Couples vs. Jobless Mid 30s" (New Facts Emerge), "Fireworks" (The Infotainment Scan), "Paintwork" (This Nation's Saving Grace), "Symbol of Mordgan" (Middle Class Revolt), "Tragic Days" (Levitate), "Bonkers In Phoenix" (Cerebral Caustic), "Taurig" (Imperial Wax Solvent), "Das Boat" (Reformation! Post-TLC), "Pre-Mdma Years" (Re-Mit), "Unutterable" (The Unutterable), "Early Life of Crying Marshall" (The Marshall Suite), "Papal Visit" (Room to Live), "Crew Filth" (Code: Selfish), "Tragic Days" (Levitate) "WMC- Blog 59" (Grotesque). So, what the hell was MES thinking with all this weird shit? Some kind of self-destructive impulse? More likely, alongside his avant impulses, this was part of it was his way of destroying the idea of a Fall album as a sacred text. The WTF stuff wasn't filler- they were part of the Fall aesthetic, like it or not (he did). Enjoy an hour-and-a-half of this ear-wrenching material if that's for you:
Even more stranger than the strange songs is that MES actually let a more sentimental, kinder and gentler side peep through now and then. Don't believe it? There's "I'm Going to Spain" (The Infotainment Scan), "Bill is Dead" (Extricate), "Janet, Johnny & James" (The Real New Fall LP), "Weather Report 2" (Your Future Our Clutter) "Guide Me Soft" (I Am Kurious Oranj), "Midnight In Aspen" (Fall Heads Roll), "Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes" (The Unutterable), "Birthday Song" (The Marshall Suite), "Frenz" (The Frenz Experiment), "Gentleman's Agreement" (Code: Selfish) and "Jap Kid" (Levitate), plus a good piece of the 1991's Shift-Work album. In all, there's an hour's worth of counter-programming to the WTF playlist where you can hear another hour-plus of some of the strangest pastoral music ever (not to mention that he even did a few Xmas songs in the mid '90s'):
Of all of his crazed vision for his music, the most interesting one might be his lo-fi stamp that he put on the Fall's music. When they started out, recording their first album in one day, lo-fi wasn't a choice necessarily so much as a necessity. Later though, MES experimented with making lo-fi an aesthetic. LIsten to "I Feel Voxish" or "Hexen Definitive/Strike Knot" (both on 1983's Perverted by Language) where the band is heard cleanly while MES sounds like he's at the end of the hall yelling at us. A Part of America Therein, 1981 also has a noticeably shift of sound quality from track to track as recordings in different venues vary from clear to muddy, distant. Definitely not a casual mastering f-up but a well-considered choice.
MES wasn't gun-shy about lengthy songs either, which served his purposes in a bunch of ways. Even the first three albums have tracks that clock in around eight minutes but he didn't care about dramatic climaxes (like The Who or Zep) but instead, he just had a lot to get off his chest and just needed the band to riff continuously behind him until he said his peace. You could call him verbose and he'd tell you to fuck off- he just had a lot to say, at least early on. He'd come up with characters like the Hip Priest and Marquis Cha Cha and whole ongoing stories about them, plus seemingly endless, narratives like "Deer Park," "C'n'C-S Mithering" (a brilliant piece of post-modern music criticism), "No Xmas for John Quays" (especially live on Totale's Turns), "Slates, Slags etc." and "Hard Life In the Country," all when it seemed that he had a limitless notebook of thoughts and no need for an editor.
Not surprisingly, a lot of what he had to say was about casual observations, bizarre scenarios, esoteric notes, slaggings, and just good ol' savage anger (plus a bunch of Twilight Zone references), all of which puts him in punk territory where he liked it or not (he didn't). Towards the last Fall albums, the bile was still there but he had less words to cram into each tune. If there is one defining thread to every single Fall album, it's that scabrous spirit.
THE CD IN YOUR HAND
If there's any upside to a world without MES, it's that we're sent us running back to as many Fall albums as we can handle to remember what we missed, loved, hated and were just plain confused by.
Trying to figure out what had distinguishes their first album, 1979's Live at the Witch Trials (get the CD reissue which includes BIngo-Master's Break Out! and their live tracks from the Short Circuit comp), former Razor and Tie records A&R man Reuben Cervera had some useful thoughts:
"When I first listened to it in '79, I heard nothing remotely similar to that. I loved the production- the way the drums echo and the bass was almost ominous. Even to this day, the way it's produced is exceptional. I like how he went for this sound. It started their sound but it's different from anything else they did."
By the time of the under-rated and oddly jolly Dragnet (also '79) and Grotesque (After the Gramme) (1980), MES is already showing more gleefully confidence and getting more verbose as his rants became epic (see "The NWRA") and started showing off grumbly angular, repetitive blues riffs ala Beefheart by the end time of 1980's Totale's Turns- note the already prolific, break-neck output even early on. 1982's Hex Enduction Hour is a highlight for many Fall-er-ers and it's easy to see why- MES is in full force and the band's managed enough competent amateurism to match him and they sound unstoppable together as if grating noise was the new pop music.
By mid-80's, with the core of guitarist Craig Scanlon, bassist Steve Hanley and drummer Karl Burns having spent several years alongside MES, and the arrival of one Brix E. Smith, they had tightened up to become somewhat different band, sloughing off some of the caveman grind of early albums though this being the Fall, they still strived to be at least neo-primitive, If you ask most Fall fans when they thought the band was as its peak, they'll usually say 'the Brix Era' but MES thankfully didn't let the beast die when he and the Mrs. split up in the late '80's, keeping the animal grinding and trashing along for about 25 more years.
By the 90's, MES' yelps, squawks and off-hand vocal noises had receded into a cranky drawl, but he was always a ranter at heart. He also got more comfortable with studios, using effects and electronics not to gloss things up but to dirty things up (notice how he loved a static-like effect on his voice). And as much as he loved rockabilly/garage/roots, he didn't shy away from dance/techno as it invaded Manchester (the Madchester scene) and picked up on it brilliantly sometimes (The Infotainment Scan, Levitate, Code: Selfish, Extricate). The 2000 compilation A Past Gone Mad makes a good case that this is might actually be their strongest decade overall other than a mid-decade dip (Middle Class Revolt, Cerebral Caustic) and with unfairly lesser-known titles like Light User Syndrome and The Marshall Suite waiting to be rediscovered, though it's a shame that two '90's classics of theirs (Levitate and Code: Selfish) are out of print and not streaming-available either.
"My dialog is stock"
Also at the end of the millennium though, MES' imbibing got a little out of hand. This was also the era/error of messy album sessions and tours (Levitate, Light User Syndrome) and several sessions of house-cleaning of the band and massive band departures around 1997, 2001 and 2006. Like I said, a head-spinning Behind the Music episode awaits.
The turn of the millennium also had MES actually proving that he had a artistic life outside the Fall. Other than the odd collaboration with techno-mavens like Coldcut, Mouse On Mars plus Elastica memorably on "How He Wrote Elastica Man," MES actually put hadn't done a solo, mostly spoken-word albums per se until 1998's The Post Nearly Man and 2002's Pander Panda Panzer, which provided the memorable quote about his own death later.
Not surprisingly, the band's recording output slipped in early '00's with albums coming out less frequently, though 11 albums in 17 years is more than most bands could manage in their entire careers. Even Fall fans would say that the new millennium meant the end of the era of classic Fall albums, which MES would care less about of course. The albums seemed even more wildly uneven and as Cervera argues, 'more conventional, less grooveful' with the guitars higher in the mix for the first time since their '90's techno fascination. By the mid-00's, the band line-up had settled on a decade-long core of guitarist Peter Greenway, drumming Keiron Melling, bassist David Spurr though 'settle' also means more conventional too in this case. Trying to keep a 30 to 40-year-old formula fresh is tough for any ringmaster.
By then, MES' spew of words slowed down into jumbles of phrases, haltingly delivered at times as if he was struggling to get it all out. At times, his voice became low-down, grumbly and phlegmy, almost in death-metal, Cookie Monster territory (especially on final few albums). Lyrically, MES is less chatty and the lyrics are sometimes lazy ("Nate Will Not Return," "Das Katerer") or hilariously haphazard ("Mexico Wax Solven") or both ("Blindness"). Taking up some of the slack was keyboard player/wifey Elena Poulou who look several lead vocals herself (a Fall rarity up 'til then), sounding in chanteuse mode like her countrywoman Nico.
Fall post-millennium non-hits playlist
Even with all the caveats, you had to at least admire, if not love, the 00'-era albums: Reformation! Post-TLC has heartening Beefheart tributes and Imperial Wax Solvent is one of their most odd-ball platters ever (which is a saying a lot) with 3 WTF tracks, including the opener, plus two Elena features. And still, if you take the time to dive into their post-millennium output, there's some beauts waiting for you: try Fall Heads Roll and though their final one (New Facts Emerge where you can really hear MES feel his age) is a respectable near miss, the preceding Sub-Lingual Tablet (which pisses on Facebook and iPhones) and Re-Mit are their strongest albums of the '10 decade (see the playlist above for some more stray gems from then).
"We are The Fall, from the long, long days.
Not used to the countryside, they're half asleep"
Though video and album evidence show that MES regularly introduced the band at the top of the show, the few times I'd seen him/they in NYC, he never had a word to say to the crowd unless his band was roaring or plodding behind him. Without the studio/tape trickery to create the strange brew he loved to cultivate on his albums, MES would concoct other ways to make Fall shows unique, which included fucking around with the band. The first time I was saw them as at the Ritz in May 1990 for the Extricate tour- there, they romped through "Jerusalem" and "Black Monk Time" behind a giant blue abstract painting (similar to the cover of Extricate) as my friends and I danced wildly in a circle, with some people wisely clearing space for us. Fast forward to March 1998 when I briefly met MES the one time- I was there to interview long-time bassist Steve Hanley and mentioned to MES that I was a journalist, which didn't exactly impress him and he definitely wasn't in the mood to get interviewed himself. The show I saw right after that at Coney Island High turned out to be one of the last ones for Hanley as the band (in)famously had an onstage fight at another show in NYC with MES landing himself in jail and most of the rest of the band bailing on him.
Fast forward six years and MES is at the Knitting Factory for a show in April 2004, mostly seated after an accident that left his foot in a cast. He was mobile enough to walk around during the gig to occasionally unplug the band's instruments (for experimental, dub purposes I guess?). Later, he would walk into a corner, banging on a cymbal while the rest of the band confusedly looked at each other to ask "is the song over or what..."?). A staggering take on "I Am Damo Suzuki" (one of my fave Fall tracks) came near the end of the set, which was preserved for posterity here:
The last Fall gig I saw (which might have actually been one of their last NYC gigs?) was in the middle of another tumultuous period for the band. Long time band members Ben Pritchard and Spencer Birtwistle had quit in the middle of a mid-2006 US tour, leaving MES to draft members of Darker My Love to round out the Fall line-up. Even with all that mess, I gotta say that the June 2006 I saw them do at Southpaw in Brooklyn was probably the best, most energetic set I've ever seen from the Fall. Say all you want about the chaos that MES gathered around him- he was a force of nature who could always whip up musical insanity around him, in song and on stage, throughout it all. But obviously, it couldn't last. Even a hurricane croaks when its energy source disappears.
A NEW FACE IN HELL"I had the notion that, having exhausted the stock of musicians available in Manchester, he was left with no option but to throw himself out of the Fall"- Al Spicer, former editor of Rough Guide to Rock
"Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to their skepticism." - Albert Camus, The Fall
"I was 10 years old when I was born, I was 20 when I died, at 30, I was resurrected"- MES
When the word went out in June 2017 that MES and friends would do a week of shows at tiny Brooklyn venue Baby's All Right in September 2017, many Gotham fans wanted to be there not just because it had been for long since he/they graced us with their presence but also because we knew that this might be the last time we'd see him. Reports of his poor health were old news by then (the BBC had even mistakenly prematurely reported his death on his 60th birthday in March 2017) and there would be gig cancellation announcements even before the US shows were announced. Sure enough, a few months later, word went out that the Brooklyn shows were rescheduled for February 2018.
I warned friends that we shouldn't be surprised if he didn't make it out here, much less so for a week of shows when he was barely able to do several stand-alone shows in the UK. I even went as far to warn other fans that we might not have him around for long. A February 2016 interview with Channel 4 showed him to be sadly hunched over and speaking with difficulty- true, he's happy and enthused to talk about the band but it's obvious that time was catching up with him:
At an October 2017 gig in Newcastle, he had to appear in a wheelchair and similarly at the band's last ever show (Nov 4, 2017 Scotland; Glasgow), he was also wheelchair-bound. Maybe it wasn't a surprised then in December 2017 when we got the news that he/they wouldn't be coming at all to the States. Indeed, he would never make it out here again.
Credit where credit is due though- the guy literally rocked 'til he dropped. Compare that to Slayer, who are just a few years younger than MES and want to retire now or Sir Elton (age 70) who's now retiring from the road to spend time with his kids or the numerous 'final' tours of The Who and the Stones. Unlike Prince or Bowie, who both hid their health problems at the end, it was obviously for a few years now that MES wouldn't be with us long and he didn't care about hiding it, no matter how bedraggled he looked. He didn't want to slow down and wanted to keep touring, working despite his health (just try to imagine him follow a doctor's orders). As much as he loved hearing music or reading/watching sci-fi, he was too restless to sit around and do that and 'retire.' In 2008, he proudly proclaimed in song "I'm a 50 year old man!" which he pushes past 11 minutes and includes the TMI lines "I've got a three foot hard on/But I'm too busy to use it"- what classic rocker would have the guts to make that a song or get so explicit or hilarious about their own junk? You could put MES in a rocking chair, just make sure it was on a stage or studio with a mike.
He was could even must a memorable performance at Glastonbury as recently as 2015:
You can't even use the soggy old saw that he was raging against the dying light- he's been doing that since '76- in a way, he's always been an old crank and proud and unapologetic about it, maybe more so (appropriately) on the last Fall album, New Facts Emerge but that ugly, self-righteous, glorious howl traces itself all the way back to Live at the Witch Trials.
Of all the tributes to MES I've seen, the best (including some from The Guardian of course), the most appropriate one came from Swedish critic Andres Lokko who had to say (VERY roughly translated): "Mark E Smith acted in a universe of his own, unchangeably uncompromising his music, lyrics and, last but not least, his own wardrobe. In painstakingly thought-out chinos with creases along with a nice shirt under a V-neck wool sweater, Smiths sartorial approach and well-groomed side parting was a protest movement on its own: against every rock cliché – in favour of general courtesy and comfort." I think even MES would drink to that and it's worth a toast. Bottoms up.
Unofficial 1994 doc
Return to the MES tribute
Also see PSF's site about The Fall
Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER
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