Perfect Sound Forever

The Fall Reformation Post TLC, New Facts Emerge

by John Dougan
(August 2018)

"Check the record/check the record/check the guy's track record"
The Fall, "New Big Prinz" (1988)

I don't recall any writer referencing English Romanticist William Wordsworth in an analysis of the Fall so, fully cognizant that this might be a bit of a stretch, allow me to be the first. When asked to define poetry Wordsworth opined that it was "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes it origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." I'm not citing this in order to stake a claim in the shopworn debate over "can rock music lyrics be poetry?" – I'll leave that to others with more vested interest in such matters – but because the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" seems to perfectly fit "autocrat for life" Mark E. Smith's approach to lyric writing. Another aspect of the English Romantics of the 18th and 19th century was their emphasis on the authenticity of an individual's voice and their opposition to the inflexible parameters that governed neo-classicism.

Assuming you haven't stopped reading after that paragraph, or you're still reading and think I've belabored this analogy (because Smith himself seems the farthest thing from a "romantic" in the word's traditional meaning), the emotionalism of the Romantics and their foregrounding of the individual did not end when they all died, but was later embedded in the work of the surrealists, symbolists, and absurdists; poets and philosophers more likely to have found space on Mark E. Smith's bookshelf. And, since the band was named after a novel by French philosopher/novelist/absurdist/anti-nihilist Albert Camus, I stand by this slightly circuitous logic – at least for now.

But, in considering the Fall's final album and reconsidering one recorded 11 years earlier under extraordinary circumstances (or, given the general chaos that surrounded the band, maybe not so extraordinary) I will say, without hesitation, that while I enjoy both records I would never recommend either of them to a Fall neophyte. Such benighted ears would be better served with earlier masterpieces such as Live at the Witch Trials, Hex Enduction Hour and (especially) This Nation's Saving Grace. By the turn of the century, Fall records, despite the unconditional love and support of their biggest fan the late John Peel, were maddeningly inconsistent. At their best, the band, despite numerous personnel changes, were a pulverizing, riff-based, garage rock machine. However, when songs meandered and went off the rails and Smith's lyrics (normally his strength) became cryptic to the point of incomprehensibility, and his "singing" more garbled and mush-mouthed, even fans like myself, who would cut him quite a bit of slack when it came to bluster and bullshit, grew tired of making the effort, especially when it sounded as if Smith had zero fucks left to give. As he told Mojo's Ian Harrison in 2016, "It's all the Fall, innit, it's all up and down." And from 2000's The Ununtterable to 2017's finale New Facts Emerge, there was never a more succinct a summation of the band's output during this time.

As you could have guessed, there's a story behind the recording of Reformation Post TLC one that, even if you're familiar with it, warrants re-telling. According to Steve Trafford, Fall bassist from 2002-2006, the band had signed with the US indie label Narnack and in 2005 released the excellent Fall Heads Roll. An exhausting and poorly planned American tour found them at the Brickhouse in Phoenix. An argument with their tour manager (apparently Smith objected to his haircut) led to the manager quitting, and the band, who'd had enough of Smith's rancor and unpredictability, did a runner, leaving him and his wife/keyboardist Elena Poulou, stranded in Arizona (which sounds like the title of a Fall song). Trafford also remembers the support band's lead singer hurling a "rotten plantain" (more likely a banana) at Smith during the Fall's set. Elided from Trafford's account was that Smith allegedly attacked drummer Spencer Birtwhistle with a corkscrew (Such violence was not unusual when it came to the Fall. Fans remember onstage fisticuffs with drummer Karl Burns at Manhattan's Brownies in 1998 – it's on YouTube. Later that same evening, Smith, in an unforgiveable drunken rage, was arrested at his hotel after assaulting his then girlfriend Julie Nagel). After the Arizona mutiny, Narnack set him up with replacement musicians: drummer Orpheo McCord, bassist Rob Barbato, and guitarist Tim Presley, aka "The Dudes" who went to L.A. and, aided by guitarists Peter Greenway and Gary Bennett, and bassist Dave Spurr (Greenway and Spurr would remain in the Fall until Smith's death), hastily recorded Reformation Post TLC. What does the title mean? 'TLC' stood for "traitors, liars, and cunts."

This may be considered cheating but, when reevaluating a record released more than a decade ago, I think it's reasonable to dig up old reviews to see how it was received at the time. And, as expected, there was no consensus: reviewers in Mojo, Uncut, All Music and the NME were mostly enthusiastic, but Spin, Popmatters, Alternative Press and Pitchfork ("a mess, and not a very memorable one at that") were considerably less sanguine. On NPR, Robert Christgau praised the album, at least half of it, for having a groove that was "hilarious and unrelenting." Perhaps the most trenchant analysis came from some wag posting on the Fall website who said the album was "different and the same, messy and tight, satisfying and frustrating, confused and clear."

I hadn't listened to Reformation Post TLC in years. But right after MES died, I gave it a few spins and was struck not only by the Pitchfork reviewer's cluelessness but, befitting someone as sardonic and grudgeful as Mark E. Smith, heard it as a sort of concept album about grinding axes and settling scores with ungrateful ex-bandmates. The opening track "Over! Over!" begins with Smith's hearty cackle and a first verse that refuses to concede the Fall's career to such a pathetic mutiny: "I think it's over now/I think it's ending/I think it's over now/I think it's beginning." Not unlike James Brown, or Smith's hero Captain Beefheart, both of whom, with certain notable exceptions, impulsively hired and fired band members who couldn't cut it onstage or disagreed over salary and songwriting credit, Smith paid the cost to be the boss and he's going to have the final word. In his review in The Guardian, Alexis Petridis noted, paraphrasing the late British poet Philip Larkin, that "malevolence and spite are to the Fall what daffodils were to Wordsworth." See, what did I tell you about Wordsworth.

With each play, I realized that Christgau's (and Petridis') assessment was spot on, the grooves are taut and relentless, "The Dudes" play with great dynamism providing Smith the ample room he needs for his powerful emotions to spontaneously overflow. His semi-tuneful ranting is mostly clear and distinct, something that would deteriorate over the ensuing decade. His lyrics retain an inscrutability that are either the result of careful writing and editing or are simply extemporaneous word salads (the website The Annotated Fall is your best guide in parsing out meaning in Smith's more gnomic conceits). I thoroughly enjoyed Smith's clumsy warble on the cover of Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever" segueing into "Insult Song" which, on the surface, seems to take potshots at his departed mutineers. He even relinquishes the mic to Poulou for a lead vocal on "The Wright Stuff." I still haven't figured out what it's about, but her Nico-like voice is pleasant enough, even if the insistent "doo-doo-doo-doo" hook wears out its welcome over the track's nearly six minutes. Where Reformation Post TLC fails is in its final third, twenty minutes that could have easily been lopped off without anyone missing it. The biggest black hole is "Das Boat," 10+ minutes of witless fuckery that's little more than ambient studio sound. The nearly nine-minute "Systematic Abuse" at least has a groove, but Smith's ranting lacks focus and its point – the disaffection and boredom of everyday life – is made abundantly clear (including references to potatoes) early on making the last four minutes or so redundant. The shifting grooves of "The Bad Stuff" demonstrates the suppleness of the band, but Smith's vocals are replaced by fuzzy recordings of phone conversations. So, in sum, messy and tight, satisfying and frustrating, confused and clear.

From the release of Reformation through New Facts Emerge (2007-2017) the Fall put out 5 LPs and one EP, a fairly robust schedule considering Smith's health issues . Large scale tours were less frequent and gigs, even good ones, increasingly shambolic. Smith seemed indifferent, wandering the stage messing with Greenway's and Spurr's amp settings, or tapping out discordant notes on Poulou's keyboards. His most ignominious moment was walking onstage at the 2015 Glastonbury Festival having just pissed his pants – yes, it's on YouTube, and still they open with a great version of Reformation's "My Door Is Never." Hardcore fans were fine with such mishegas, others, however, claimed that the Emperor was indeed naked, embarrassingly so.

The recordings during this time – Imperial Wax Solvent, Your Future Our Clutter, Ersatz GB (which Smith supposedly hated), Re-Mit, The Remainderer EP, Sub-Lingual Tablet – all had their moments (especially Sub-Lingual), but unless you were John Peel-like in your admiration, it was hard to deem much of late-period Fall as anything approaching essential. The band, on the other hand, with the addition of drummer Keiron Melling, remained formidable, playing what Smith referred to as quintessential Fall "very abrasive music with what I thought was prose."

New Facts Emerge, released in July 2017 about six months before Smith's death, was never intended to be a swansong, despite the fact that Smith's body was giving out on him – his last few gigs were done in a wheelchair. The band (now without Elena Poulou whom Smith divorced in 2016) had recorded tracks for another album that only need vocals. With all this baggage, you'd have thought that New Facts Emerge might sound feeble and weak, the last testament of a dying man. But the album's opener "Fol De Rol" attacks you with one of the most pulverizing riffs recorded by any iteration of the Fall. Smith, his voice thickened and phlegmy from decades of excessive smoking and drinking, yells "Waiting/human dung/to start playing/Homeric Fol de Rol." I haven't a clue as to what he's on about, even The Annotated Fall acknowledges that its lyrical transcripts for this record are mostly speculative, but this is the not the sound of one going gently into that good night, but of a man who burns and raves at close of day. One reviewer called the album, "feral and acute." They were not wrong.

As farewells go, there might not be one more fitting than New Facts Emerge. Although, lyrically, it is Smith at his most abstruse ("O! Zztrrk Man" might be about footballer George Best, or it might just be garbled nonsense, or maybe a bit of both), he rails against the bourgeoisie as "pigs" and "cunts" singing a bit in French on the title track, and on the bizarre "Couples Vs. Jobless Mid 30s," which rumbles along for nearly nine minutes, he takes aim at, well, honestly I'm not sure who, but much of the anger and rage on this record resists easy interpretation. The album closes with "Nine Out of Ten," another nearly nine- minute track but in this instance, it's only Smith and guitarist Peter Greenway. According to writer and Membranes founder and bassist John Robb the track was about a review he'd written on his website Louder Than War, but the lyrics find Smith exorcising painful memories that may or may not be his own:

"I was in an orphan home since I was one
I was an orphan baby, all along
And when I was they gave me one out of
One out of ten

Then I was older
I was older
Made a home when I started
Nobody cared
If I was, a-baby, dead or alive."

The track seems to end at 3:31 then, curiously, starts again only this time it's just Greenway's guitar playing the same chord pattern, with slight variation, over and over for another five minutes. Smith is silent.

Maybe it's perversely fitting that the last track on the last Fall album ends with haunting imagery and five minutes of Mark E. Smith keeping his mouth shut. Maybe there was nothing more to say. I wish there'd been another Fall album which seems a bit silly when you consider they made about 600. No one needs all of them (sorry, John Peel), and even if these two are hardly essential, there are moments when you could convince yourself they are. "The world is too much with us/late and soon/Getting and spending/we lay waste our powers/Little we see in nature that is ours/We have given our hearts away/A sordid boon!" That could be a proper farewell from the irrepressible Mark E. Smith. But it's not. It's Wordsworth.

See the other items in our Fall post-millennium discography review

Also see our Fall tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER