Mark E. Smith and The Fall
This extract is taken from The Wire Primers, published in collaboration with The Wire magazine.
The Fall made their first appearance on vinyl in October 1977, on a 10" EP of recordings from their local Manchester punk venue, entitled Short Circuit: Live At The Electric Circus (Virgin). The two spindly songs, “Stepping Out” and “Last Orders”, gave no indication that, nearly three decades and 27 studio albums later, The Fall would turn out to be the only group to survive the punk era with critical status undiminished and critical faculties intact. Over the years, the group has mixed rockabilly rhythms, pounding riffs, experimental collages, misappropriated electronica, a subversive pop sensibility, and a dark and often deceptive sense of the absurd. Frontman Mark E Smith’s immediately recognisable anti-vocals, stream of consciousness lyrics and left-field literary references create a body of work unequalled in scope and sheer size by any other rock outfit.
Smith, The Fall’s single longterm constant, is publicly disdainful of the cult of short-term nostalgia. Fall sets rarely include any songs older than the last couple of albums, unless they are seasoned covers of 1960s garage punk classics and old rockabilly riffs ripe for reinterpretation. Smith refuses to become a keeper of sacred relics, the living interpreter of his own back catalogue. The very notion of a Primer on The Fall would no doubt irritate Smith a little, as if someone were preparing his obituary, and the nature of the group’s output and the passion of its followers makes it impossible to agree on generally accepted highlights. The most recent Fall record is always the most important one.
Perhaps appropriately, The Fall’s recorded output has been in comparative disarray for some years, with semi-legal CD reissues mastered from scratched, skipping vinyl, songs mislabelled, and vital singles and session tracks completely overlooked. Compilation albums have been assembled from unsourced outtakes that were allowed to fall, in lean times, into the hands of unscrupulous labels, as if in exchange for plastic bags full of used fivers. There are more Fall live albums than necessary, and most are of a sound quality best described as no-fi.
Live At The Witch Trials
Castle/Sanctuary 2 x CD 2008 (orig. Step Forward LP 1979)
Castle/Sanctuary CD 2008 (orig. Step Forward LP 1979)
Castle/Sanctuary CD 2008 (orig. Rough Trade LP 1980)
All the early Fall singles are collected as extra tracks on the satisfyingly thorough Castle reissues of their first and second albums Live At The Witch Trials and Dragnet. From the opening notes of August 1978’s “Bingo Master’s Breakout” 7", The Fall were sheltering from the spit-storm behind the convenient punk umbrella, while in fact defining themselves in opposition to any prevailing orthodoxies. As youngsters, Smith and his cohorts were nourished by the 1970s counter-cultural drip-feed of Krautrock, Iggy Pop, Captain Beefheart and weird Prog, and it could be argued The Fall became Peel favourites in the 1980s precisely because they reflected a decade of digesting the DJ’s more extreme musical choices. The Sex Pistols may have inspired Smith to form a group, but there any comparison between the two ended. Live At The Witch Trials is characterised by Yvonne Pawlett’s cheap and nasty keyboard sound, suggesting a toddler channelling Van Der Graaf Generator. Producer Bob Sargeant attempted to counterbalance the group’s inherent griminess with a clean and shiny production job, resulting in a kind of grey, industrial psychedelia. Witch Trials suggests magic mushroom tea drunk from a dirty pub ashtray, an Ambrosian dishwater. It doesn’t taste very nice, but it’s probably good for you.
Although guitarist Martin Bramah and drummer Karl Burns were to be on-off members of The Fall for the next two decades, neither was present on Dragnet, which saw the arrival of three new members: future Radio 1 DJ Marc ‘Lard’ Riley and Craig Scanlon on guitars, and bassist Steve Hanley. Scanlon, a gifted interpreter of Smith’s often incomprehensible instructions, spent the next 15 years reining in his improvisatory tendencies to define The Fall’s majestically monolithic sound, alongside the similarly longserving Hanley’s overhead powercable bass boom. Both Witch Trials and Dragnet contain the kind of paper-cut, spiky post-punk currently plagiarised by contemporary pop groups, but The Fall’s vision remains too individual to assimilate easily.
Seven live albums of extremely variable quality document the group’s 1977–80 incarnations. The best is Rough Trade’s Totale’s Turns, capturing The Fall infuriating various northern working men’s club crowds as Smith audibly baits his colleagues into ever more intense performances. “Hey,” he asks a heckler, “are you doing what you did two years ago? Yeah? Well, don’t make a career out of it.” This acidic put-down could be used to sum up The Fall’s own ethos. The Castle reissue includes a Peel Session.
Grotesque (After The Gramme)
Castle/Sanctuary CD 2008 (orig. Rough Trade LP 1980)
Castle/Sanctuary CD 2008 (orig. Rough Trade LP 1981)
Live In London 1980
(orig. Chaos Tapes MC 1980)
A Part Of America Therein, 1981
Castle/Sanctuary CD (orig. Cottage LP 1981)
“C&N music is born,” declared Smith’s northern playboy alter ego R Totale on the sleeve of Grotesque (After The Gramme). The cover, a Friday night out Giotto fresco in lurid felt tip by Smith’s younger sister Suzanne, sums up Grotesque’s tone perfectly. This record, and its attendant singles “Totally Wired” and “How I Wrote Elastic Man” – both collected on the Castle reissue – moved The Fall yet further from the prevailing punk template. As Echo and The Bunnymen and their indie rock contemporaries posited a vaguely mystical post-punk psychedelia, Smith turned The Fall into kitchen sink realists who found Lovecraftian horrors lurking down the U-bend. Collapsed Country & Western cliches and rickety rockabilly rhythms pinned and mounted various contemporary social archetypes – CB radio enthusiasts, long distance lorry drivers and ambitious émigrés – with an accuracy that escaped other lyricists of the era. While Paul Weller stuck “KICK ME” signs on the backs of be-suited businessmen and ran away, “English Scheme” explained the English disease in a hilarious stream of consciousness splurge of social theory, with exquisitely detailed supporting evidence: “Your psychotic big brother who left home for jobs in Holland, Munich, Rome – he’s thick, but he’s struck it rich.” “Impression Of J Temperance”, “New Face In Hell” and “The NWRA” moved towards the expansive, narrative-driven epics that would characterise The Fall’s best work in the near future.
The 10" mini album Slates, issued the following year (and augmented with a Peel Session and a single on the reissue), pursued the same themes in less forgiving terms, with song structures sacrificed to relentless repetition, as if Smith and his cohorts were furiously scratching the tracks into the vinyl themselves. Slates includes the incendiary “Leave The Capitol”, a fevered vision of London at its most irritating, with buried lyrical nods to the forgotten mystic Arthur Machen, rendered over a pulverising descending guitar riff that never fails to excite. “I laughed at the great God Pan!”
Live In London 1980 is a sardine-tin recording of the group reaching towards ideas beyond their ability at the time, reissued with extra tracks. But A Part Of America Therein – 1981, though taped only a year later, reveals the group achieving its aims, with endless riffs approaching a trancelike effect. It includes a definitive, hallucinatory live reading of “An Older Lover”, against which the Slates version sounds stunted. As usual, there are extra tracks on the CD.
Hex Enduction Hour
Castle/Sanctuary 2 x CD 2008
(orig. Kamera LP 1982)
Room To Live
(Undilutable Slang Truth)
Castle/Sanctuary CD 2008 (orig. Kamera LP 1982)
Fall In A Hole
Castle/Sanctuary CD 2008
(orig. Flying Nun LP 1982)
Perverted By Language
Castle/Sanctuary 2 x CD 2008
(orig. Rough Trade LP 1983)
The Fall’s recorded output from 1982 and 1983 is incomparable and indispensable. Hex Enduction Hour remains their greatest album, and the Peel Session that preceded Perverted By Language documented the group on the cusp of discovering a new and unique mode of expression that mixed rock’s primitive structures with a transcendental, avant garde aesthetic. The Hex era is great art, made by people who did everything they could to avoid looking or sounding like great artists.
Hex Enduction Hour, issued in March 1982, is a master-piece contained in a studiously non-designed sleeve, on which Smith has been let loose with green Letraset and a black marker pen. Like the music within, it is ugly, intriguing, confusing, profound and beautiful. Smith’s lyrics balance recognisable fragments of narrative, and well chosen pop-cultural references with cryptically alluring phrases. “You won’t find anything more ridiculous than this new profile razor unit/Made with the highest British attention to the wrong detail/ Become obsolete units surrounded by hail,” he deadpans during “The Classical”. The music sucks you in with overdriven steamroller riffs, but kicks you sideways with the percussive clatter of the double drumkit line-up, the stop-start rhythms and the uncharacteristic use of improvisation. The psycho-geographical incantation of “Iceland” was made up on the spot, “And This Day” was edited from a 25 minute jam and the aforementioned “The Classical” includes a bass solo. The single “Look Now”, sung by Marc Riley, is omitted from the otherwise exemplary expanded Castle reissue, for indecipherable reasons.
Six months later, Room To Live – reissued with the rare live track “Words Of Expectation” – was considered a failure at the time, because of its refusal to follow the acclaimed Hex template. But its retreat into a loose-limbed, more fluid, fragmentary mode is typical of Smith’s characteristic refusal to satisfy expectations.
By the release of Perverted By Language, Riley had been replaced by Smith’s future wife Brix, whom he had met after a gig in Chicago, but the young American guitarist’s eventually civilising influence was yet to be felt. Instead, the album finds The Fall at a peak of non-rock. The extended workouts of “Smile” and “Garden” achieve an impossible super-density. Smith, who’d been digesting Wyndham Lewis, is at his most elliptically intriguing. The “Jew on a motorbike!” refrain of “Garden” and his declaration in “Tempo House” that “The Dutch are weeping in four languages at least” are just two of many Fall lyrics that still seize fans at inopportune moments. On Perverted the group channelled the twang of Link Wray into a vortex of vast, surreal mantras and dadaist call and response chants. The reissue includes essential singles from the period, such as “The Man Whose Head Expanded” and the football-themed thrash “Kicker Conspiracy”, live tracks and Peel Session album highlights that better the official versions.
Any live recording of this period is worth owning, including Live To Air In Melbourne and Austurbaejarbio (both Cog Sinister CDs) and the Bury 1982 set spread over the bonus discs issued with the inferior 1998 Cog Sinister reissues of Room To Live and the compilation Palace Of Swords Reversed. However, the superb New Zealand set, Fall In A Hole, finally reissued in a serviceable form, captures versions of the period’s best material performed with an improvisatory fluidity Smith usually discouraged and disparaged.
The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall
Beggars Banquet CD 1988, rec. 1984
This Nation’s Saving Grace
Beggars Banquet CD 1997, rec. 1985
Beggars Banquet CD 1993, rec. 1986
458489 A Sides
Beggars Banquet CD 1990
458489 B Sides
Beggars Banquet CD 1990
After Perverted By Language, Smith seemed to have had enough of leading Britain’s biggest unknown group and, emboldened by Brix’s way with a winning hook and a clothes iron, The Fall entered a new phase by signing to Beggars Banquet, the batcave-like home of Gary Numan, Gene Loves Jezebel and The Cult. For the remainder of the 1980s, The Fall became a commercially successful alternative rock act, despite making no obvious concessions to public taste. They appeared on TV shows such as The Tube and The Old Grey Whistle Test. They did not look appalling. Smith wore long leather coats and eye-liner, as if attempting to beat the black clad hordes at their own game. On Top of The Pops, BBC cameramen tried to film up the skirts of Brix Smith and keyboard player Marcia Schofield. There were videos, 12” remixes, interviews in Smash Hits, collaborations with ballet dancers and middle billing at summer rock festivals. Indie guru producer John Leckie built an ongoing relationship with the group. Everything had changed.
Their Beggars debut, The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall, marked a seismic shift of direction, with short, often poppy tunes and a minimal amount of the extraneous noise that had previously deterred listeners. Its attendant single “C.R.E.E.P.” was shockingly radio friendly by Fall standards. My cousin, who had an inverted cross painted on her bedroom wall, bought the album and enjoyed the sinister pagan chanting, copped from TV’s Quatermass series, that precedes its opening track, “Lay Of The Land”. “Elves” stole its central riff from The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and sold it back to a new generation of fans who didn’t recognise it. A previously undiscovered constituency was opening up, of disillusioned suburban teens, who a decade earlier would have been primed for punk but now wanted a new strain of outsider music.
This Nation’s Saving Grace is a stand-out amongst their five Beggars albums, and drew in the merely curious with a clean production, catchy choruses, and something of the Gothic grandeur that passed for drama during those dreary days. “I Am Damo Suzuki”, heavily indebted to Can’s “Oh Yeah”, flagged up The Fall’s Krautrock influences back before anybody could buy CD reissues to follow them up, and the opening instrumental, “Mansion”, fingered The Deviants’ “Billy The Monster”. The Fall were stealing from the greats. “LA” was a moody instrumental, in keeping with the nocturnal feel of the era, but the unerring repetition and impenetrable ranting of “What You Need” recalled Perverted By Language, albeit in shinier shoes. “Spoilt Victorian Child” and the contemporaneous, rockabilly-styled single “Couldn’t Get Ahead”/ “Rollin’ Dany” harked back to their thrash roots, and the moment in “Paintwork” where Smith accidentally erased a section of the tape confirms an ongoing faith in the artistic value of chance. This Nation’s Saving Grace took the best of The Fall and force-fed it to fans beyond the reach of John Peel’s end of year Festive Fifty countdown.
The following year’s Bend Sinister, despite the fan-favourite cover of 1960s garage group The Other Side’s “Mr Pharmacist”, lost some of the ground This Nation’s Saving Grace had gained in a quagmire of doomy songs, though “Dr Faustus”, a kind of marching song for small mechanical goblins, was clearly indebted to Krautrock group Faust. The Frenz Experiment (Beggars Banquet CD 1988) included an unexpected pop hit, a cover of The Kinks’ “Victoria”. Indeed, the Beggars period, which ended in 1990, is best enjoyed via the two 458489 singles compilations of A sides and B sides, which document The Fall either creatively crowbarring their individual aesthetic into a borderline pop format, or else enjoying the artistic freedoms and experimental opportunities that B sides offered in the pre-download era.
I Am Kurious Oranj
Beggars Banquet CD 2000, rec. 1988
I Am Pure As Oranj
NMC CD 2000, rec. 1988
I Am Kurious, Oranj was the soundtrack to a collaboration with the progressive ballet dancer Michael Clark on a piece loosely based on the life of William of Orange, which eventually ran at the temple of culture that was London’s Sadler’s Wells. With the ballet I Am Curious, Orange, Clark and The Fall created a mild media panic. Today broadsheet newspapers are required to run reviews of the latest Pete Doherty biography, but in 1988 there was no context in highbrow circles for The Fall. The high culture/low culture barrier was breached, however briefly, as ballet dancers with bare backsides twirled to the title track’s unusual fusion of offbeat reggae and seventeenth-century history. A spirited reading of William Blake’s “Jerusalem”, with its satirical sideswipes at compensation culture, reclaimed this righteous revolutionary anthem from rugby fans, public school assemblies and glib patriots. The stomping rewrite of Hex Eduction Hour’s fragile “Hip Priest”, entitled “Big New Prinz”, survived in live sets until the early twenty-first century, where Smith’s romanticised description of an undervalued artist became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A belatedly issued live album, I Am Pure As Oranj, captures the strange, hostile ambience of the dance event itself. You can hear the audience stiffen as Smith’s mumbled spoken word bit, “Dog Is Life”, fills the expectant auditorium, punctuated by the inappropriate applause of excited fans. Other rock peasants have briefly dabbled in the realm of high art. Few have done it while simultaneously enjoying hit singles and backing giant dancing hamburgers.
Fontana CD/LP 1992
Brix left Smith and The Fall, and The Fall left Beggars for Fontana – a major label, where powerful cybernetic arms were grafted onto the body of an act that, on the evidence of their final Beggars release, Seminal Live, had perhaps shown signs of weakening. As his contemporaries descended upon seaside towns playing the hits, Smith poured scorn on the burgeoning punk nostalgia bandwagon, fashioning instead a Fall that sounded undeniably contemporary by bringing the group’s sound into the digital age. A collaboration with dance producers Coldcut gave rise to the sublime stuttering beats of “Telephone Thing” on Extricate (Fontana CD/LP 1990), and by the following year’s Shift-Work Dave Bush was on board, credited with “machines”, augmenting a stripped-back quartet of longterm inmates Hanley and Scanlon on bass and guitar, with Simon Wolstencroft on drums. Live, The Fall began to sound like a computerised threshing machine, inexorably sucking everything before it into its gaping maw.
The standout album of this phase is Code: Selfish, with Smith’s visions of a future Europe on “Free Range”, and his comically acerbic deconstruction of thwarted provincial ambition on “The Birmingham School Of Business School”, simmering with barely controlled contempt. “The jumped-up prats/Laughing stock of Europe/Olympic bidding again and again/Exciting developments,” he spat at the desperate Brummies. Hanley’s distinctive bass playing, usually delivered as a powerful throb amidst gnarly guitars, discovered a new precision amongst the computerised rhythm tracks, and Scanlon was free to play textures rather than riffs. “The Birmingham School” even included a guitar solo, albeit one that sounds contemptuous of the very idea of guitar solos.
The Infotainment Scan
Castle/Sanctuary 2 x CD 2008
(orig. Permanent CD/LP 1993)
Smith split from Fontana before he was pushed, signed to the independent label Permanent and released The Infotainment Scan, now reissued with an extra CD of supplementary material. The album, which peaked at number nine in the national charts, adapted Sister Sledge’s “Lost In Music” to address the thorny issue of juvenile access to pubs and deconstruct the very notion of dance music. Smith found a sincere sentiment within Steve Bent’s novelty record “I’m Going To Spain” that seemed to echo his own cultural displacement, despite being sourced from the Kenny Everett-compiled World’s Worst Record album.
The Infotainment Scan has a strange and uncharacteristically wistful, melancholy quality to it. Lyrically, “It’s A Curse” and “A Past Gone Mad” nailed the noxious modern phenomenon of media nostalgia years before Channel 4 began building entire TV schedules around remembering the 1970s and 1980s – but both betray a feeling of regret, of being a man out of time. Smith rails against the world whilst realising he is no longer the tastemaker’s autodidact of choice. Even with a dance element to his music, he could pass for the titular subject of “Paranoia Man In Cheap Shit Room”, a fearful figure “in his early thirties/At the zenith of his powers”.
The Twenty-Seven Points: Live 92–95
Castle/Sanctuary 2 x CD 2006
The Infotainment Scan aside, the mid-1990s remains The Fall’s least interesting period; yet it’s their most thoroughly documented, with six live albums – two of them doubles – covering the four studio albums released during the muddled years from 1993–96. These are supplemented by around four dozen outtakes spread thinly and repetitively over eight compilations on the ominously named Receiver label. As Britpop flourished, recycling retro-Mod aesthetics, there was little space for Smith’s scorched earth attitude towards the past. Ironically, just as Pavement launched a career built on appropriating the sound of early 1980s Fall, the genuine article released a series of increasingly weak albums, vast portions of which sounded like a standard indie rock guitar outfit, albeit one fronted by a determinedly distinctive vocalist.
The 1994 Middle Class Revolt was the last record to feature the electronics of Dave Bush, and it was bulked out with high-fibre covers of The Groundhogs, The Monks and Henry Cow/Slapp Happy. Brix came back for the 1995 Cerebral Caustic, cowriting the album’s standout track, “Bonkers In Phoenix”, a satirical sound collage of summer festival experiences that basically graffitied over a sincere attempt at writing a genuine paisley-pop hit. She left for the final time during the tour for the 1996 The Light User Syndrome. The long-serving Craig Scanlon was sacked before the same album which, while offering some hope for the future, featured lacklustre guide vocal tracks over a sonic palette that’s cluttered and unfocused. The lead-in single, the 17 minute, three part “Chiselers”, described by Smith as “relevant to the recent experiences of Halifax Town football club”, was notable for its length and audacity, but arrived on the album proper in a truncated form.
The period is perhaps best represented by the unfairly maligned, Smith-assembled live double album The Twenty-Seven Points. The album adds found snippets and spoken word sections into a sometimes unflatteringly honest, yet always entertaining, portrait of a group in creative crisis, yet nonetheless capable of genius. “Idiot Joy Showland” is abandoned after less than a minute. The otherwise unrecorded live track “Noel’s Chemical Effluence” is a gradually uncoiling, lean and slinky slice of snake-charming music that ranks amongst the group’s finest moments. But, on the whole, Smith was a man adrift. There seemed to be no obvious way forward for The Fall. Something was rotten in the state of dear Mark.
Artful CD 1997
The Marshall Suite
Artful CD 1999
Voiceprint 2 x CD 2008, rec. 2000
In April 1998 the last line-up of The Fall with any link – apart from Smith – back to its earliest officially recorded line-up fell apart acrimoniously in New York, though fans who have seen the video of the group’s onstage collapse would be hard pressed to tell it apart from any number of similarly shambolic mid-1990s live fiascos. But Steve Hanley and Karl Burns were finally gone. This act of severance ultimately enabled the creation of a succession of completely new Fall line-ups. These gangs of anonymous young men, many only mewling infants when “Bingo Master’s Breakout” hit the racks, were creatively unburdened by a shared history, or any sense of what The Fall were supposed to be. This, in turn, unburdened Smith him-self, who increasingly resembled the last pink rabbit without any Duracell batteries.
The old gang’s last gasp, the ungainly but effective Levitate, finds Smith sounding hoarse and thrillingly incoherent over clattering electronica that has none of the streamlined power of Dave Bush’s contributions, and instead leaves the group in a heroic struggle with seemingly random hails of beats. In the midst of the chaos, courtesy of keyboard player Julia Nagle, comes the strange pastoral interlude in the middle of “Ten Houses Of Eve”, and the piano instrumental “Jap Kid”. Levitate works miracles with a Fall that had started to sound too much like itself, disguising them with multilayered vocals and noise for one last hurrah.
1998 saw Smith play gigs with hurriedly assembled three-piece line-ups, issuing the famous onstage disclaimer, “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” He released a spoken word album, The Post Nearly Man (Artful CD), but things became increasingly desperate. Then Smith returned with a new Fall that retained only Julia Nagle and The Marshall Suite, a record that ranks among the best of The Fall’s career. Guitarist Neville Wilding helped assimilate Tommy Blake’s rock ’n’ roll revenge number “F-oldin’ Money” and The Saints’ “This Perfect Day” into The Fall’s oeuvre and “Shake-Off” and “(Jung Nev’s) Antidotes” found new ways of meshing rock tropes, noise and Nagle’s increasingly pervasive keyboards and electronica, without falling back into familiar patterns. “Touch Sensitive” – a chart hit that never was – later enlivened a Vauxhall car commercial, and was followed by a minor squabble over royalties.
The following year, The Unutterable was the last Fall album to feature Nagle. The high point amongst a playful and personable set was “Dr Buck’s Letter”, a menacing yet amusing reappropriation of the text of an interview with UK DJ Pete Tong. It’s now available in a double CD ‘Special Deluxe Edition’.
A World Bewitched: Best Of 1990–2000
Artful 2 x CD 2001
The Real New Fall LP – Formerly Country On The Click
Action CD 2007, rec. 2003
In 2001 the compilation A World Bewitched gathered together various rarities and collaborations in an alternative history of The Fall’s 1990s output. It suggested a parallel career rather more daring than much of the decade’s official releases indicated at the time. The same year saw yet another entirely new Fall line-up (featuring guitarist Ben Pritchard, soon to become a key player) release Are You Are Missing Winner (Castle/Sanctuary CD). The group knocked out an un-apologetically simplistic set of high octane punk noise, free from feminine keyboard embellishments, as if to settle a score. In retrospect, Missing Winner is the sound of the new Fall clearing its throat before commencing the job of reclaiming the group’s reputation, and releasing its best album for over a decade.
The 2003 Country On The Click was retitled The Real New Fall LP after bootlegged versions made it out in advance of the official release date. This record and its attendant singles meshed the pop sensibility of the Beggars Banquet years with the cohesion of the high points of the early 1990s. “Mod Mock Goth” was an almost unbearably dense meditation on the Camber Sands All Tomorrow’s Parties event, while the sinister football terrace stomp, “Theme From Sparta FC”, could have been a number one single. The Fall were being extensively reviewed, rated and written about again.
50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong
Castle/Sanctuary 2 x CD 2004
Hip Priest CD 2004
Fall Heads Roll
Sanctuary CD/LP 2005
The Complete Peel Sessions 1978–2004
Castle/Sanctuary 6 x CD 2005
In 2004 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong bucked a trend of unfocused Fall compilations to provide the first phase-by-phase overview of the group’s history. Smith’s fond imaginings that younger fans outnumbered the league of bald-headed men always present in his audience were becoming fact. And some spectacular live shows did nothing to disappoint. Fall Heads Roll consolidated The Fall’s return to form, referencing the best of nearly three decades of different approaches. “Bo Demmick” and “Clasp Hands” rocked with the rockabilly rhythms of the Step Forward years. The monotonously mesmerising “Blindness”, though far better in its Peel Session form, referenced the glory days of “Garden” or “And This Day”. Lyrically, Smith now deals in fragments and found phrases, sounding like no one but himself. Even if the complete narratives of Grotesque and the pin-sharp social satire of The Infotainment Scan appear lost forever, his voice is once again uncommonly clear – especially so on the vital late period masterpiece Imperial Wax Solvent (Castle/Sanctuary CD 2008), and even on the digital cut-up collaboration with German duo Mouse On Mars under the name Von Südenfed, Tromatic Reflexxions (Domino CD 2007).
Recent live recordings include the 2G+2 album (Action CD) and Touch Sensitive Box (Castle/Sanctuary 5 × CD), which document the same line-up playing largely similar material over six dates. Interim includes rare returns to the early 1980s songs “Mere Pseud Mag Ed” and “Spoilt Victorian Child”, alongside spirited readings of new material in unusual settings. A fire alarm interrupts a rehearsal run-through of “Open The Box”, but is assimilated despite its persistence. Finally, the six CD set of the group’s 24 John Peel Sessions topped various polls at the end of 2005. Had it come out ten years before, it might have looked like a tombstone. Here lies The Fall and Mark E Smith. But luckily, Smith, though now in his fifties, is once again at the zenith of his powers and the Sessions collection is anything but a full stop. The Fall’s Peel box, and by association their recorded output in general, reads as a secret history of the last three decades of popular music.
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