When The Fall emerged from the Manchester punk scene in the late 1970s, surely no one could have predicted that they would still be around 30 years later, and, even more surprisingly, that they would still be making great music. The band has become a stalwart of the British indie scene, always changing personnel and musical style, yet always sounding just like the Fall. Or, as John Peel put it, they are ‘always the same, always different’.
The band was formed around vocalist and only constant member, Mark E Smith, in Manchester in 1977. Other musicians - well over 30 at last count - have come and gone regularly: some members stay for years; others leave, only to return at a later point; some only last a few weeks, never to be heard of again. But they all go eventually - whether willingly or not - leaving Smith to recruit new blood. Maybe this is what keeps the band fresh and moving forward.
Early releases saw a band clearly inspired by punk, but already pushing against the stylistic constraints of the punk sound. For example, their debut EP included the track ‘Bingo-Master’, a surreal and darkly comic tale of a bingo caller driven mad by his job - not typical punk subject matter - set to a meandering low-fi backing a million miles from the macho riffs of the Sex Pistols or the Clash. Like all the best punk groups, The Fall took the ideas of punk - the disregard for technical skill; the DIY ethos; the refusal to compromise - but ignored the rigid musical formula. As a result, their early albums still sound as strange and unique as when they were created, mixing short, catchy tunes with longer experimental pieces (influenced by Smith’s love of early 70’s German groups like Can), adding intriguing and often unfathomable lyrics, unusual instrumentation (i can’t think of another ‘punk’ group who used a kazoo!) and an innovative mix of styles (who else would have crossed punk with rockabilly? in a song about truck drivers!).
The Fall’s third album, ‘Grotesque (After the Gramme)’ (1980), was a particular highlight, and the beginning of a series of classic LPs released through the early/mid 1980s. This version of the band included Marc Riley (who would later find fame on the radio as Mark Radcliffe’s sidekick, Lard) on guitars and keyboards, Craig Scanlon on guitars, and brothers Steve and Paul Hanley (bass and drums respectively). Further albums and singles followed, most notably 1981’s ‘Slates’ mini-LP, and 1982’s ‘Hex Enduction Hour’. 1983 saw the departure of Riley, and the arrival of Smith’s wife, Brix, on guitar, and a move towards slightly more accessible material (though with The Fall such a term is somewhat relative!). Albums like 1983’s ‘Perverted by Language’, 1984’s ‘The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall’ and 1985’s superb ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ kept the quality up, but towards the end of the decade some fans had begun to feel that the band was bowing to the pressure for chart success: they released a number of cover versions as singles (like the northern soul track ‘There’s a Ghost in My House’ and the Kinks’ ‘Victoria’), and the albums lacked some of the intensity of old.
However, with Brix’s departure in 1989 the group seemed to abandon any commercial ambitions, and ‘Extricate’ (1990) mixed electronic influences with classic Fall riffs to great effect. They might not have been as consistent as in the previous decade, but throughout the 90’s they carried on releasing a new album every year, and all of them contained plenty of material worth hearing. 1997’s ‘Levitate’ was an interesting experiment with drum n bass, and ‘The Unutterable’ (2000) saw the band starting the new millennium on a high. As usual, group members came and went, perhaps even more regularly than before: a low point occurred in 1998 when three members quit during a violent argument on stage, reinforcing Smith’s reputation as a cantankerous leader. In recent years, there has been a deluge of poor quality live and compilation albums, and Smith has even released a couple of spoken word solo albums, which are perhaps only of interest to the obsessive fans (of whom, there are still plenty). Since 2001, the band has slowed its output somewhat, but they still make great records and tour regularly: if you catch them on a good night, they can be as good as any new band out there.
So, there you have it... 30 years, 26 studio LPs, over 40 singles, 24 John Peel sessions, about 30 live albums, and about the same number of compilations. It seems that the Fall just keep on going regardless of what anyone thinks. Sure, they’ve had their ups and downs, but no other group has created such a huge and varied back catalogue of quality recordings. And you never know, the next album could be a classic...
Submitted by Alex Wilson
Band members: um… Mark E Smith + loads more (over 40 different line up changes!)
“Northern White Crap that talks back…”
(‘Crap Rap 2’ Live At The Witch Trials)
To label Mark E. Smith the Godfather of Manchester music is no understatement; not least his beautiful, brazen belligerence and revolving door-I call-the-shots policy so akin to that Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Few recording artists on the globe can claim to share a thirty year body of work with such density, size and quality, only Dylan comes close. The Fall, then stand in fine company.
Like Smith would care. Through twenty-six studio albums, fifty plus compilations and myriad bootlegs, Smith’s band has raged and railed against everybody’s failings and hypocrisies including his own; few topics have been spared from his razor-wire tongue. And we can only be thankful.
Officially formed in and around Salford in 1976 (with Martin Bramah, Karl Burns, Una Baines and Tony Friel as Smith’s foremost comrades…for the time being) The Fall came together through a shared love of the outsider literature of Camus ( from whom the band take there name), Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and Yeats. Sonically absorbing the-fuzz-and-the-fuck-you from the Stooges, the dissonant “repetition, repetition, repetition” of the Velvets, Can, Neu!!! and the shamanic psycho-billy swirl of The Doors; The Fall machine was born.
Trawling through the bands extensive output from the wiry, lightning rush of debut Live at the Witch Trials (‘79) to career milestone Hex Enduction Hour (‘81) through to this years abrasive delight Reformation Post TLC, Mark E Smith’s stomping prowess as one of our great lyricists is never in doubt. From the macabre to the mundane, the malevolent to the hilarious, the surreal to the observant we must cherish his articulate, sometimes baffling gift of the spoken word.
Smith himself would no doubt resist all these facile comparisons and lazy pigeon-holing however as mere journalistic diaorreah. It matters not, brilliantly, perpetually disregarding of anything that resembles a “scene”, Smith’s band is stubbornly unique. Taking the weird and the wonderful of modern life and spitting it back at mainstream culture like Northern shrapnel, The Fall are not only one of Manchester’s most precious voices, but of music itself.
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