Some of the Fall’s early oeuvre paid lip service to prevalent musical trends: it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Industrial Estate or Psycho Mafia passing for punk rock. But the B-side of their debut single, Bingo-Master’s Break-Out!, made clear that the Fall saw punk merely as the opening of a door, through which a unique musical vision, utterly unpalatable 18 months previously, might pass.
Repetition poured scorn on the increasingly codified punk movement in meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss style – “blank generation, same old blank generation” – and, over five painfully slow minutes of spindly guitar riffs and see-sawing electric piano, laid out at least part of his Krautrock-derived musical manifesto: “The three Rs – repetition, repetition, repetition.”
So lo-fi that the studio it was recorded in allegedly lobbied to have their name removed from the sleeve, the Fall’s second album, Dragnet, frequently sounded like a bleak winter’s night: dark, cold and eerie, filled with shadows. The flatly terrifying Spectre Vs. Rector saw them pushing forward into new musical realms: it’s genuinely hard to think of anything that came before it that sounds like it. The lyrics, meanwhile, told the story of an exorcism, displaying the influence on Mark E Smith’s writing of horror authors Arthur Machen, HP Lovecraft and MR James – the latter gets a namecheck in what might be loosely described as its chorus.
Fall fans can argue for hours about the band’s greatest album, but 1980’s Grotesque (After The Gramme) is usually in with a shout: from the frantic, scabrous “country and northern” of Container Drivers to the epic storytelling of its finale The NWRA, it never lets up. To borrow a phrase from William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, C’n’C–S Mithering offers the sound of Smith unlocking his word hoard: a kaleidoscopic spew of brilliant, vivid, imagery that shifts from Manchester to California, from an eclectic list of “things that drain you off and drive you off the hinge” to the state of the music business.
In the late 70s and early 80s, the Fall released one astonishingly potent single after another: Rowche Rumble, Fiery Jack, How I Wrote “Elastic Man”, Lie Dream of a Casino Soul. But Totally Wired may be the most astonishing and potent of the lot. A taut, aggressive, equivocal and witty paean to amphetamine sulphate, it offers a startling evocation of the drug’s effect. The frantically strummed guitars sound as if they’re being played by people clenching their teeth, the lyrics flit from imperious confidence to anxiety and paranoia: “I’m irate! Peeved! Bad state! Cause I’m totally wired!”
It may have been John Peel who first amended the Fall’s name by inserting the adjective “mighty” into the middle of it. They never sounded more worthy of that description than on the opening track of 1981’s Slates. Prole Art Threat felt like an assault: two breakneck minutes of pummelling drums and menacing guitar and bass, over which Smith spewed bile at everything from the new romantic movement – “hang this crummy Blitz trad by its neck!” – to the music press and the Fall’s record label Rough Trade, whose political leanings, (or, as he put it, willingness to “get out and apply the wet lib file”) increasingly chafed against his own: the following year, he would cause a degree of outrage by loudly supporting the Falklands war.
The sprawling Hex Enduction Hour was initially meant to be the Fall’s final album. They eventually made 27 more, which figures. The melancholy atmosphere of Winter (Hostel Maxi), the skewed garage rock of Jawbone and the Air Rifle, Mere Pseud Mag Ed’s assault on the music press: Hex Enduction Hour sounded like the work of a band with too many ideas to call it a day. In Hip Priest – a return to the eeriness of Dragnet that ended up on the soundtrack to Silence of the Lambs – it offered Smith’s most enduring self-portrait, perceptive about everything from his drinking to his commercial standing to, well, his perceptiveness: “From the eyes, he can see, they know.”
Despite his notoriously despotic rule over the Fall, and however much Smith enjoyed painting himself as the only member that mattered, their greatest records were usually a group effort, as evidenced by Wings. Smith’s lyrics are certainly extraordinary, a fractured time-travel saga that demonstrates his ability to twist language into shapes that sounded fantastic, even if you had no idea what they meant: “Purchased a pair of flabby wings, I took to doing some hovering.” But it also features one of the great guitar riffs, powerful but serpentine, and a band who now sounded like a machine, relentless and precise.
The Fall’s minimalist approach to rock music at its most extreme: musically, there’s almost nothing to Eat Y’Self Fitter other than an endlessly repeated two-note riff and two drummers clattering out a warped, uptight take on a Bo Diddley shuffle beat. It’s as compelling as anything they recorded, thanks to yet another extraordinarily inventive Smith lyric, that lurches unpredictably from ruminations on the burgeoning home computer trend and hippy singer-songwriter Kevin Ayres to lines that defy explication, but display an infectious love for the sound of words: “Portly and with good grace, the secret straight-back ogre entered, his brain aflame with all the dreams it had conjured.”
Once, the notion of the Fall recording a song as straightforwardly pretty as C.R.E.E.P would have been laughable, but the band’s music shifted considerably with the arrival of Smith’s first wife, the Los Angeles-born Brix, as guitarist: from 1983 to 1988, their music was driven by the tension between her pop sensibility and the Fall’s natural inclination towards minimalism and repetition. No let-up in the witty rancorousness of Smith’s worldview, however. C.R.E.E.P.’s charming riff carries a vicious pen-portrait of “a horrid trendy wretch” who seems to have committed the ultimate crime of being influenced by the Fall: “with hideous luck – he’ll absorb all your talk.”
Featuring another addictive and razor-sharp guitar riff, a variety of false endings and the kind of chanted chorus that betrayed Smith’s love of glam rock – typically, he claimed to particularly enjoy the work of Gary Glitter – Cruiser’s Creek might be the Fall at their most straightforwardly enjoyable, a single you could play the band’s most ardent naysayer and get a positive response. That said, it comes with a classically idiosyncratic Smith lyric, that turns a description of a hedonistic party into something strange and fantastical: “I’ve got nice pink bubbles in my mouth from what I’ve taken.”
1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace was another high-water mark in the Fall’s career: for a band whose detractors accused them of always sounding the same, it offered a fantastic breadth of music, from the dark psychedelia of LA to the reflective, acoustic Paintwork. Like 1983’s Elves, which borrowed the riff from the Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog, I Am Damo Suzuki saw Smith unexpectedly paying open homage to a musical influence. The mercurial former lead singer of Can would doubtless have appreciated the chaotic way the music whirled around Smith’s loving tribute: it sounds remarkably like the Fall attempting to play two completely different songs at once.
Smith was a brilliantly original songwriter, but the Fall were also occasionally brilliant interpreters of other artists’ material: their choice of covers was testament to Smith’s eclectic tastes, ranging from northern soul to obscure country and western songs to Sister Sledge’s Lost In Music. But their most celebrated cover remains the version of the Other Half’s obscure 1966 garage rock single Mr Pharmacist. It was a song that, with its gleefully druggy lyrical preoccupations and primitive riff, could have been made with the express purpose of the Fall alighting on it: it fit their oeuvre so perfectly, it may as well have been a Fall original, which perhaps accounts for the regularity with which Smith – not a man much given to nostalgic reflection on his back catalogue – returned to it onstage.
If you want evidence of Smith’s ability to confound expectations, then here it is. The last thing anyone might have expected the Fall to record at any point, let alone in the wake of their leader’s acrimonious divorce, was a tender, straightforward love song, but that’s precisely what Bill Is Dead is. Astonishingly, Smith and the Fall turned out to be as adept at capturing the headlong rush of new love as they were at depicting scorn and fury: Bill is Dead is gentle and pillowy, Smith’s vocal a kind of unguarded, awestruck coo: “Your legs are so cool.”
Bill is Dead’s rival for the title of the Fall’s least characteristic song. Edinburgh Man is wistful, gorgeously melodic, blessed with the seldom-spotted sound of Smith actually singing in something approaching the accepted manner, although such things are relative: he most resembles Lou Reed. His lyrics seldom dealt in expressions of his own frailty, but it’s on display here: he sounds weary of the struggle of life on the margins of rock music, weary of the persona he’s created. If the stories of Smith’s flashes of generosity and kindness, of his softer side occasionally poking through the cantankerous exterior, have a musical equivalent, Edinburgh Man is it.
The Fall had unexpectedly turned from a cult attraction and music press cause celebre into something of a commercial force by the late 80s: a combination of Brix Smith’s pop sensibility and a couple of well-chosen cover versions meant they occasionally skirted the lower reaches of the singles chart and made the pages of Smash Hits. How odd a state of affairs that was is highlighted by Free Range, a Top 40 single that had a hook big enough to end up on a TV advert for cars, but also had as impenetrable a lyric as any hit in chart history: a scholarly annotation online finds references to Nietzsche, Arthur C Clarke, a second world war anti-aircraft gun, Shakespeare, a Nazi-era German hit song, as well as a classic bit of Smith advice: “It pays to talk to no one. No one!”
Back to bilious business as usual. Glam-Racket’s savaging of the cult of nostalgia, set to a brutal updating of the “glitter beat” that had underpinned umpteen early 70s hits, was seemingly provoked by the first stirrings of Britpop. Smith’s succession of putdowns is witheringly funny – “you lecture on sweets,” he barks, disgustedly – but there’s also something sad and prescient in the lyrics. “You’ve cut my income by one-third,” Smith snaps at one point, pre-empting the way “alternative” music’s mid-90s shift towards the mainstream would haul the limelight away from the Fall, bringing to an end the brief moment where it looked as if their music might achieve wider acceptance.
The late 90s were a horrendous period in the Fall’s history, as Smith’s lifestyle appeared to take its toll both on their music and the band itself: a mess of penury, drunken violence, legal problems and terrible live shows. You would have been forgiven for writing him off, but 2000’s The Unutterable was a startling return to form as evidenced by Dr Buck’s Letter, a bizarre, improbable fusion of rockabilly guitar and electronic noise that begins by ruefully considering the departure of longtime guitarist Craig Scanlon and ends with Smith hooting with laughter at a self-important interview given by Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong.
A lifelong Man City fan, Smith was always good at writing about football, as evidenced by 1983’s Kicker Conspiracy. Twenty years later, he returned to the theme with a vengeance, penning a witty description of Greek fans intimidating Chelsea supporters at an away game. By now all pretence of the Fall as a band had gone but, remarkably, the hired hands backing Smith on Theme from Sparta FC sound as tight and fierce as the “classic” line-up had on Totally Wired. Remarkably, given that it was about hooliganism, Theme from Sparta FC ended up as the theme to Final Score on the BBC.
There’s an argument that, in his later years, Smith was either uninterested in, or incapable of, the kind of extended firework displays of lyrical ability that marked out C’n’C–S Mithering or Eat Y’Self Fitter. 50 Year Old Man proves that argument wrong: a lengthy explosion of hilarious, paranoid but startlingly self-aware vitriol that depicts its author in middle-age, baffled by current musical trends and the changed face of Manchester, addressing with some candour the Fall’s increasingly erratic output and making the fairly wild accusation that fabled alt-rock producer Steve Albini is “in collusion with Virgin Trains against me”.
All but the most devoted aficionados realised that Smith’s abilities were depleted by ill-health in his final years: it’s a bold Fall fan indeed that makes a case for 2011’s Ersatz GB over Slates or This Nation’s Saving Grace. Still, he continued to talk a spectacularly entertaining game in interviews and you could never discount the Fall entirely. If Smith’s genius struck more intermittently than it once had, it still struck, as on 2010’s Bury, a brutal take on garage rock that contains a line that could stand as the epitaph for Smith’s wildly original, idiosyncratic and occasionally perplexing writing. “This song means something,” he says. “Every song means something.”