Unlike those who had their responses already stored on their Google drive, I didn’t immediately rush to publish my response to the death of Mark E Smith, a man who meant more to me than just about any other creative human being during the period 1979 to 1996, mainly because I knew I needed adequate time to process exactly how I felt about the passing of a man I had semi-worshipped. A week on from his death, I now have an understanding of my feelings and would like to articulate them, without apology for their length.
The first and primary emotion I have is a slow-burning, deep and abiding, impotent anger at how his addiction to alcohol blunted the effectiveness and neutralised the genius of his artistic powers, by making his acerbic and imaginative wordplay almost unintelligible, as his slurred delivery receded to a bit part in the dull, functional Killing Joke lite bluster that the final, enduring, proficient and resilient incarnation of The Fall specialised in, for large periods of his later career. The drink was responsible for everything bad about him; the degenerating health, his shambolic appearance, like a pugilistic Wilfred Bramble and the maddeningly self-destructive urge to distance himself from anyone he came close to. Musicians, partners, fans; you name them, he’s pissed them off.
Secondly, and more importantly, there is a profound and unshakeable gratitude to his memory that borders on veneration for the times he bestrode the musical landscape like a colossus, while piloting a previous, glorious version of “my lads,” who were, without question, the finest band in the world, almost from their inception until the early 1990s. Literally no other band in the world could ever have come up with “Winter” or “The North Will Rise Again;” the symbiotic genius of Smith’s words and the band’s sparse, angular accompaniment was a rare folie a deux that defined a time, a place and a mood like no other English band I can think of.
The scornful contempt I feel for so much of The Fall’s post-millennium output is an obvious and highly personal reaction to the visceral sense of betrayal I felt at MES’s obstinate embrace of every possible wrong choice in life, both musical and personal, from the mid-1990s onwards. I’d believed in him. I’d trusted him. I’d venerated him and then, around 1996, he displayed more than just feet of clay; he showed his evil side and it was repulsive. I don’t think I have ever forgiven him for sacking Craig Scanlon, betraying Brix for the second time and leaving Steve Hanley in an untenable position; people who’d given the best years of their life to him and received nothing in return other than bile, scorn and condemnation. These acts didn’t just diminish the band, they diminished him as a person as his querulous ego and insatiable thirst trumped both his genius and hitherto charming contrarianism.
It took a while for the music to deteriorate to the same level his persona had, but once it did, there was no coming back, though I do admit that the flashes of breath-taking genius that all too rarely manifested themselves post 2000 shone like diamonds in the mouth of a corpse. Mark’s death has robbed us of the chance to experience any further contradictory peaks and troughs of emotion at his maddening, yet endearing, bombast. All we have is grief. All we have is anger. All we have is as loss as profound as that we felt after the deaths of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed. He was worthy of being held in such storied company, such was the regard I once had for him.
I have written about The Fall many, many times before: for Paint It Red, Leeds Other Paper, The Biggest Library Yet and for PUSH. I’ve done a couple of interviews with the great man himself, reviewed gigs and albums, as well as providing overviews of what The Fall meant to me. Elsewhere on this blog you can find posts outlining my recollections of the first time I saw them live in June 1980, an analysis about why they meant so much to me, as well as a review of the last, and final so it turned out, time I saw them live in 2012. You can read my thoughts as follows -:
During the course of their career, the 70 plus line-ups of The Fall released 33 studio albums, of which I bought 32; the odd one out being last year’s New Facts Emerge. In addition, before the quality control mechanism went out the window and seemingly dozens of random gigs of variably quality were churned out on CD with little fanfare and even less information on the sleeves, there were 6 live and part live / part studio albums that must be considered alongside the rest of their oeuvre, on account of the brilliance of performance, appearance of rare songs or radically reworked versions of tunes that would later be released. When considering those 38 albums, I can unequivocally state that the first 15 albums the band released were works of unarguable genius, containing barely a wasted second of material. They would be essential items in any respectable record collection. After a false step at the end of the 80s with the intriguing but flawed ballet soundtrack I am Kurious Oranj and the contractual obligation of Seminal Live, the band got back in the saddle with another set of releases well worthy of your time, as of the next 7 albums, 3 were brilliant, 2 excellent and 2 very good. However, 1996’s The Light User Syndrome was their first turkey, though sadly not their last. Its dire quality caused consternation as suddenly, The Fall had become mere mortals, in a year when the stories of Mark’s increasingly erratic behaviour became worryingly frequent as opposed to just tiresomely predictable in the years to come. Other than 1999’s The Marshall Suite, which is a classic, the remaining albums rarely had more than 2 or 3 tracks that made you leap out the chair the way the first eleven had done. In fact, from 2000’s The Unutterable to 2010’s Your Future Our Clutter, the predominant response on hearing them was boredom, such was the repetitive dullness of the samey content. I honestly don’t think I listened to any of them more than twice.
Live, I attended 21 gigs by Das Gruppe, as MES called them, in either Newcastle, sunderland, Belfast (while a student in County Derry), Leeds (I was living there), Edinburgh (Ken, another Fall fanatic, drove), London (John Peel’s 50th birthday party in 1989) or South Shields (a no-show in that seminal year of 1996), meaning I saw 20 performances by them. Obviously, I could have seen them more often, but sometimes circumstances dictate the contrary. While they did that great spot on The Tube in 1983, played the Riverside in October 1985, Newcastle Uni in 1987 Whitley Bay Dome in 2000 and the “new” Riverside in 2015, I couldn’t be at any of them as I wasn’t in town; hell, I wasn’t even in England. The first three I was over the water in the north of Ireland, the next one I was working in Slovakia and the last one, their antepenultimate Newcastle show, I was in Glasgow at a union conference. For a long time, the Guildhall gig of June 30th, 1984, on account of my mate Geoff getting married that day, and the Radio 6 Sound City festival of 2015, when all the tickets were ring-fenced for the great and the good, stood out as the only times they’d been in my city and I’d been forced to miss them. Then I abandoned The Fall.
In some ways, unlike the profound dislike I had for their recorded output in many instances, this was a rash decision as so often their live performances were still vital, essential entertainment. Sure, I’d seen a couple of boring shows, but only one dismal performance, at The Sage in 2005 when it became clear Mark’s drinking was more than a lifestyle choice; the last time I’d seen them, at a festival in Hoult’s Yard in July 2012, they were utterly splendid. However, the seemingly unbreakable bond of trust I’d placed in The Fall had shattered forever after the 1996 fiasco at South Shields Customs House, where Smith wouldn’t even take the stage and missing these late gigs didn’t particularly prick my conscience. The last twice they played Newcastle, in April 2016 at the Academy and October 2017 at the Boiler Shop, both venues where I’d never seen them before, I simply didn’t bother getting tickets. The gigs were on Monday evenings after work and I was in no doubt I’d probably see them again at some point. In the event, the Boiler Shop was the second last gig he ever played.
So, how on earth did I discover The Fall? Like so many other sounds of the late 70s, in common with a million others around the country, John Peel was the key. I’d known the name The Fall but missed out on their first 2 singles Bingo Master’s Breakout and It’s the New Thing as well as the debut album Live at the Witch Trials. It was the third single Rowche Rumble and second album Dragnet that set the heather blazing and hooked me, as both were played to death by Peel, who also had The Fall in session in October 1978, either on Monday 23rd or Wednesday 25th; I’m not sure which, but I’m certain it was the day before or after I’d seen The Buzzcocks on the Love Bites tour, for which gig I still have the ticket that dates it Tuesday 24th October.
The autumn of 1978 was possibly the most crucial period in my life, in terms of forming my musical tastes; in addition to The Fall, I also discovered Gang of Four, The Mekons, Subway Sect, ATV and a dozen other post punk outfits between September and Christmas. In the same way The Rolling Stones, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath had seemed tame and dated to the original punks, the English first wave of The Sex Pistols and their dull glam rock, The Damned and their musical reimagining of the Bash Street Kids, the pompous self-indulgence of The Stranglers and the dreadfully conformist commuter belt pop pap of The Jam, said absolutely nothing to me. Only the varied and experimental Buzzcocks offered a glimpse into what could be possible if imagination, innovation and a sense of daring were present. Then suddenly, via Rough Trade and Fast Product, here were a load of other bands prepared to sing loudly and out of tune in a regional accent, who made no bones about their lack of competence (the impossibly talented Gang of Four excepted) and who actually had something profound to say, which often came from a radical perspective and seemed to be jabbing a metaphorical index finger right in my chest. Rowche Rumble and its immediate successor, Fiery Jack, weren’t songs to spit and pogo to; these were songs that were there to convert you to the boundless possibilities enshrined in the creative word. Mark E Smith wasn’t just a quotable Mancunian poet, it seemed to me he was a visionary who used his voice as an instrument and he spoke directly to my heart and my soul. It is no wonder that Smith admired the work of William Blake; they were soulmates. Only Bob Dylan, who I similarly adore for his work between 1965 and 1978, had previously touched my heart and soul in the way The Fall did. The biting satire and surreal flights of fancy declaimed atonally by the Minnesotan and Mancunian sent my head in directions I’d never known before; it was if I’d discovered hallucinogens, opiates and amphetamines in my teenage bedroom, without ever seeing drugs never mind taking them. My life was changed forever. As the b-side of Rowche Rumble so eloquently put it, MES saw the madness in my area.
The first album I bought the day it came out was Totale’s Turns on May 14th, 1980; an auspicious Thursday, about 3 weeks before my O Levels. I remember it because it was a TUC Day of Action against the cuts and policies of the Tories under Thatcher, called after 1 year of her rule. Obviously, I didn’t go to school and spent the day mooching round record shops in the town, buying this album, ensconced in a plain, white cover defaced by dismal, spidery handwriting, from Listen Ear on Ridley Place. Absorbing it back home up in my bedroom was akin, not to a spiritual experience, but an initiation rite. On hearing Smith ask one bemused punter “Are you doing what you did 2 years ago? Yeah? Well don’t make a career out of it,” I understood what it meant to be a Fall fan and the dedication it required; contempt for hypocrisy, cant, conformism and just about everything that was safe and comfortable. That whole album dripped bile, including not just a live set, but the hitherto unreleased gem That Man and the frankly terrifying manifesto, New Puritan. It was as radical and provocative as anything the Vorticists, Dadaists or Futurists had said 50 or 60 years earlier, written with the same flair for the killer phrase and refusal to be cowed by the yoke of political uniformity. Mark E Smith called throughout his life for aesthetic rather than economic revolution. It was art, but not as we knew it.
The summer of 1980 saw The Fall settle on what I would always say was the classic line-up: Mark E Smith (vocals), Steve Hanley (bass), Craig Scanlon (guitar), Marc Riley (guitar), Paul Hanley (drums) and Karl Burns (drums). Other than the telepathic understanding of bands such as Teenage Fanclub, Yo La Tengo or Dirty 3, I struggle to think of a set of musicians who complemented each other as perfectly as they did. As alluded to in the links above, in the lee of the death of Ian Curtis and the shockwaves it sent through my generation, I experienced my first Fall gig on June 26th, 1980. It was a ramshackle, unyielding and deeply persuasive experience; they seemed to own the copyright on bare-knuckle creativity. You couldn’t argue with this band. In July they released How I Wrote Elastic Man and in September Totally Wired came out; a pair of powerful and pugilistic catchy pop songs that are among their best work. And then, just to show they could never allow the listener to settle, the wholly unsurpassable genius of Grotesque; After the Gramme was released in late October. Certainly, there was still the odd pop moment, the fabulous keyboard-driven New Face in Hell (the story of a radio ham murdered by the state, with his neighbour framed for the slaying) and the frenetic country and northern psychobilly of Container Drivers, including the incredible observation that “Communists are just part time workers,” but there was also incredible experimentation in the shape of WMC / Blob 59 as well as the first truly great MES narrative song, introducing us to the allegorical everymen father and son team Roman and Joe Totale, whose title perhaps described The Fall’s raison d’etre in those days; The North Will Rise Again.
The endlessly repeated Peel sessions, as well as catch-up purchases to plug the earlier gaps in my collection kept me going until 1981 and the release of the didactic discourse that was Slates. A mini album with 6 absolute killers, it knocked me sideways, showing the band could get even better: the almost austere Middle Mass gives way to the menacing An Older Lover, before Prole Art Threat, the nearest thing I’ve ever heard to a two-chord train crash, other than Dead Joe by The Birthday Party, comes hurtling by. Those three words described the force and impact The Fall had on the world; prole, art, threat. And then side 2 got even better Fit and Working Again includes the incredible lyric “I feel like Alan Minter.” I’ve no idea what it means, but it is brilliant, as is the mammoth grind of Slags Slates Etc before that infamous northern chip on the shoulder hoofs the Kensington white rastas running for taxis right in the bollocks; Leave the Capital. So, so brilliant and this release made up about a quarter of the set the next time I saw them on October 27th, 1981, at the impossibly seedy, low-ceilinged strip joint, Hofbrauhaus Bierkeller, underneath Newcastle’s (then) only gay club, Rockshots. I managed to get sat right on the stage about a yard from MES as they played songs I’d never heard but spent 6 months repeatedly singing in my head until the imperious Hex Enduction Hour was released.
Recorded partly in a disused cinema in Hitchin and partly in Iceland, released as the war over Las Malvinas was about to break out, it boasted 60 minutes of punishing, brutal genius. Can any other album have made its intentions so clear as the opener The Classical, greeting the listener with a cheery “Hey There Fuck Face?” There was, in my opinion, The Fall’s greatest song, the bleak, narrative Winter, with its astonishing tale of the mad kid who’s just got back from the backwards school Christmas party and looked like a victim of a pogrom. Coleridge was reimagined in the delightfully damaged Jaw Bone and the Air Rifle. Steve Hanley ought to have had an Oscar for his bass on Who Makes the Nazis? Then he should have had another for the next 7” release, Look Know. Riding the zeitgeist of summer 1982, the band quickly released the follow up Room to Live; Marquis Cha Cha talked about the South Atlantic imperialist misadventures and Papal Visit, with MES scratching out unlistenable violin parts, was done to wind up the families of the “Wythenshawe Jesuits” Hanley, Scanlon and Riley. For me, it was the drunken lurch of Joker Hysterical Face and the bass driven bile of Solicitor in Studio that really hit the high notes.
I alluded earlier to some important live releases; after Totale’s Turns, a tape only bootleg of the band at the Acklam Hall in Ladbroke Grove in 1980, a venue where I’d see them almost a decade later for Peel’s 50th bash, imaginatively entitled Live in London came out in March 1982. Despite the lousy quality, it’s a brilliant document of the evolving genius of the band, but it is dwarfed in sound and musical quality by the magisterial A Part of America Therein 1981; go listen to the power of Deer Park, or the crazed MC who is upstaged by Smith’s kazoo on the opening NWRA to see what I mean. After that there’s the live album and a half from New Zealand, Fall in a Hole that captures exactly the feel of a live show, as it was recorded one night in Wellington. It’s also the very last Fall release with Marc Riley in the band, as Smith fired him on a whim, on the day Riley was to get married. Ironically, brilliant though Marc Riley is, the Kicker Conspiracy / Wings double A side single in 1983 is probably the best 7” the band did, now down to a five piece. The fact New Puritan and Container Drivers from the 1980 Peel session came as a bonus disc helped as well.
Having ended relationships messily with former Fall associates Una Baines and Kay Carroll, Smith then branched out into untried waters, marrying Brix Smith, a Bostonian who joined the band. Back as a six piece, I saw them do the declamatory, doom laden masterpiece Smile on the Tube one Friday evening in autumn 1983. Here was I in the kitchen of a student slum in County Derry while The Fall played my home town. No worries; I bought Perverted by Language as soon as I got home for Christmas. Simply stunning; as Brix couldn’t really play it was back to the bang crash thud of the early days on Eat Y’self Fitter, but the highlight was Steve Hanley powering through Tempo House with his finest bassline yet, while Smith tells us “the Dutch are weeping in four languages at least.”
Where could they go from here? The answer, unexpectedly, was to move further into the mainstream. Brix, as well as making MES smarten himself up with Armani jackets and Paul Smith shirts, brought a pop sensibility to 1984’s Oh! Brother and CREEP singles, as well as the decidedly tuneful Wonderful and Frightening World album. The opener, another Hanley bass winner, Lay of the Land saw The Fall on the Old Grey Whistle Test, accompanied by Michael Clark, his dance troupe and a pantomime horse. Wonderful and Frightening indeed. That’s a phrase I could have used about Belfast at the time. A gang of us hired a university mini bus and drove down one Saturday to see them play Queen’s University. A great gig, though I was still shaking after being asked “are you a violent man?” by a somewhat menacing customer in The Hadfield Arms (then known as South Belfast’s most decorative IRA pub) when trying to see the football scores on Grandstand. We drew 1-1 away to Coventry incidentally.
Heading into 1985, the superb double A side 12” single of Cruiser’s Creek / LA (the only Fall song John Peel didn’t like) somehow ended up on the video jukebox in the pub where I worked; suffice to say, they were the most popular choice of the whole year. The album This Nation’s Saving Grace combined as many grimy, attritional traditional Fall numbers as pop ones and didn’t suffer from the departure of younger Hanley (Paul), to be replaced by ponytailed, Buggles specs wearing multi-instrumentalist Simon Rogers. Truly, he was the first of the million musicians who played with The Fall that I regarded as a hired hand.
In 1986 I graduated from university, came home to Newcastle for a month, then moved to London. During that month the doleful, insistent 12” Living Too Late was released. It appeared Karl Burns had left, and Paul Hanley returned for this release only. He’d vacated the drum by the time I saw them at The Riverside on June 12th. Simon Wolstonecroft was behind the kit and I got as good view of him when being slung off stage by the bouncers after invading it to hoof a few steps during City Hobgoblins. My time in the arid South East saw me working nights, so I hardly saw a gig in my time there or plays; consequently I missed Smith’s dramatic debut with Hey Luciani! But I bought records avidly, including that one, though Bend Sinister was one of the best. Tracks like US 80s/90s and Realm of Dusk actually were sinister numbers on a bleak disc of monochrome angst. A tough listen, but a rewarding one. Around then The Fall started releasing cover version singles; Mr Pharmacist, There’s A Ghost in My House, Victoria. I didn’t particularly get this decision, other than seeing it as a rather cynical attempt to break the charts that the earlier incarnation of Mark would have regarded with abject contempt. Perversely, though logically by Fall standards, all of them featured far more compelling original tracks that I much preferred.
There wasn’t an album or a gig to be seen in 1987 but, having moved to Leeds as a postgrad, there was a superb gig at the Uni in March 1988 and The Frenz Experiment album the same month. It’s as beautiful and rewarding as any of their releases and the best since Perverted by Language. The title track is beguiling and beautiful, while Oswald Defence Lawyer and the autobiographical Carry Bag Man are worth the price of admission alone. After this Simon Rogers left to be replaced by Marcia Schofield on keyboards for the ballet soundtrack I Am Kurious Oranj; there’s some quality stuff on there, like Jerusalem and Cab it Up and I definitely enjoyed the live show with Michael Clark and pals but having bought this album on cassette to get 3 bonus tracks (crap instrumentals typically) I’ve never truly engaged with it. The same band ended the decade with 1989’s contractual obligation, Seminal Live. The live side I can take or leave, but the wacky studio side, including the insistent Dead Beat Descendent, melodramatic Pinball Machine and gloriously pretentious Mollusc in Tyrol is a great listen. It was also the last album Brix Smith played on during her first stint, as her and Mark’s marriage split saw her quit the band, to be replaced, scarcely believably, by Martin Bramah, back on board for the first time since 1978.
I saw this line-up for the first time at John Peel’s 50th birthday party on August 29th, 1989 at Subterrania in Ladbroke Grove. Two new songs, a clutch of old favourites and a Gene Vincent cover for the guest of honour showed me the band were in rude health. After their set, I saw “my lads” hanging around the upstairs bar, sans MES, so spoke to a Fall member for the first time ever, giving 10 seconds of gushing effusive praise to which both Steve Hanley and Craig Scanlon responded with thanks and raised glasses. It seemed to me, as we headed towards a new decade, the third of the band’s existence, The Fall were ready to show how vital they still were.
I wasn’t wrong, as 1990’s blistering Extricate album, made by the same line-up as had played Peel’s bash the year before, though augmented with at least 5 guest musicians, preceded by the genuinely innovative single Telephone Thing, in collaboration with DJ act Coldcut, was an album utterly without weakness. The song that stopped the world in its tracks was Smith’s paean to his recently divorced ex-wife and deceased father; Bill is Dead remains the most beautiful and chillingly fragile number in the band’s entire catalogue. For the first time ever, MES gave us honest, transparent, emotive lyrics and we loved him all the more for that, especially as I noticed at their March 10th gig at sunderland Poly, he’d taken to performing with his lyric book on a lectern.
One of John Peel’s most oft quoted remarks about The Fall was that they were “always the same; always different.” Smith proved this in late 1990 by sacking Bramah and Schofield and replacing them with violinist Kenny Brady for Shift-Work, another excellent, melodic album that could have been Extricate II. It was crammed with highlights; Idiot Joy Showland railed against Mancunian baggy E culture, Edinburgh Man reflected on his recent move to the Scotch capital (presumably to get away from the Hacienda lot) and Rose, a gorgeous love song of acceptance and farewell to Brix. Strangely they didn’t tour this album, though they played a few festivals and their August 1991 Riverside gig was a Reading rehearsal and the nearest to a greatest hits set I’d come across. Ironically, the next night Teenage Fanclub played the same venue and I knew from that night on I had found a democratic band, as opposed to a dictatorship, that I would love ever more. Musically and attitudinally so different to The Fall, Teenage Fanclub have sustained me ever since. They are now, and have been since Mark E Smith’s antics enforced The Fall to drop the baton, the greatest band in the world.
Smith had shown on Telephone Thing an interest in dance music and the potential of samplers and other technological innovations. Consequently, Kenny Brady got the heave-ho and Dave Bush, on keyboards and programming, joined the band for 1992’s skull-crushingly oppressive Code: Selfish. An utter departure from anything they’d done before, it was a triumph with the disconcerting Birmingham School of Business School and the unlikely near hit single Free-Range nailing down an almost Ministry style aural assault. Their live performance at Newcastle Poly on March 21st was notable for a few reasons; firstly, they now played with intro and outro tapes, as well as an element of pre-recorded, pre-programmed percussion and keyboards. Secondly, I met Mark E Smith for the first time in my life.
Early in 92 I’d done a phone interview with MES for Paint It Red magazine, in which he’d extolled the virtues of cigarettes and called for the imprisonment of all vegetarians. He also mentioned he was about to marry for the second time (a brief, disastrous relationship with the ethereal Saffron) and indeed so was I, for the first and only time. On the spur of the moment I asked him if The Fall would play our wedding reception and he said he’d think about it. He mentioned we could have a chat after the Newcastle gig. With barely sustained excitement, Sara and I were led backstage about 30 minutes after show time. The band were sat round one table, drinking and eating, while Mark sat by himself chain-smoking at another. He was politeness personified, apologising when a stray swear word slipped out, giving out endless bottles of Holsten Pils and inquiring about our up coming nuptials. The wedding gig never happened because they were doing a round of European festivals, but on the morning of our wedding, a telegramme arrived at Sara’s parents stating; “Apologies for our non-appearance. Keep your nerve. Your pals Mark E Smith and The Fall.”
Indeed, the next time we saw them, on May 6th, 1993 at Newcastle University, MES presented us with a bottle of wine as an apology. He needn’t have bothered as the gig and that year’s album, The Infotainment Scan, were riches beyond belief. The cutting, sardonic assault on supposed suburban dandies on Glam-Racket and incredible reworking of Lost in Music were truly magnificent songs. The Fall continued to set the bar at a height other bands simply could not reach, a standard that was maintained on 1994’s Middle Class Revolt; now even louder with Karl Burns back as second drummer. Angry classics filled the album; particularly 15 Ways, You’re Not up to Much and Hey Student! Unfortunately, the only Fall gig I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for was their Riverside show on 3rd June, as we were on the 6.00 train to London for a wedding next morning and I couldn’t settle on concentrate. My malaise must have rubbed off on Smith, as it was after this he famously described the iconic Newcastle venue as “a Youth Club run by Communists.”
If you wanted to pin down the start of Smith’s decline, the failure of his second marriage and asking Brix to rejoin the band would be as good a place as any to heap blame. Of course, that isn’t to say the album as a 7-piece, Cerebral Caustic, wasn’t up there with the very best; The Joke, Don’t Call Me Darling, Bonkers in Phoenix are 3 sure-fire classics that bear the stamp of Brix’s pop sensibilities. As the band didn’t play Newcastle for over 2 years, it was impossible to assess group dynamics though. The live and curios album Twenty-Seven Points that came out late 1995 and includes one of my favourite Fall songs, Noel’s Chemical Effluent, bore no hint of the stormy waters that lay ahead.
The news in early 1996 that the unsurpassable guitar great Craig Scanlon had been summarily sacked was a shock. Even more so the album that followed, The Light User Syndrome, bar Cheetham Hill, was dross. Dave Bush had been replaced by Smith’s latest flame, Julia Nagle. Too many changes, the loss of a key member and a growing problem with drink and drugs for the dissolute singer was a recipe for failure. It got even worse in October that year, when a drunk and belligerent Smith refused to take the stage at South Shields Customs House, resulting in the law being called and the whole gig descending into the realms of farce. I talked to a frazzled Steve Hanley that night who seemed stressed to buggery by the whole thing. By the end of the next week, after the apparently worst gig they ever played at the Assembly Rooms in Worthing, Brix had left for good, sickened by Smith’s conduct towards her and the rest of the band. Before too long many others would leave as well.
1997 saw the release of the uninspired and uninspiring Levitate album that continued the sad and eventually more regular trend of only one decent track per album; in this instance, the brilliant Ol’ Gang. There was a tour in November. They pitched up at Riverside as part of it and it was a passable evening, though it’s the first time I’d noticed people leaving a Fall gig early or drifting off to the bar. Unfortunately, the old gang had soon had enough; after one debacle too many during a New York show in April 1998, Steve Hanley and Karl Burns left the band for good. Two years on from the low watermark of 1996, the shit finally hit the fan and The Fall ceased to be a functioning band; from then on, they became Mark E Smith’s hired hands, spending two decades going through the motions. Sadly, I have to concede that some of those motions were more than enjoyable, as that tiny flame of creative genius had not been utterly snuffed out.
Out of absolutely nowhere 1999’s The Marshall Suite was a solid gold classic and probably their last essential album, with Touch Sensitive the most joyous, uproariously good time number Smith had been involved in since That Man back in 1980. In late summer 1999, my mate Ken and I took a hike up to Edinburgh to see the band play a converted church as part of the festival. I didn’t know who the musicians were, but they made a glamorous racket and sustained an almost inaudible Mark (it could have been the mix) throughout.
A month after the Edinburgh, I moved to Bratislava for 2 years, teaching English as a foreign language. I got hold of 2000’s The Unutterable, but other than the ersatz spoof rockabilly of Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes, I know nothing about it, other than Smith and Julia Nagle had split up as she didn’t appear. Indeed, he’d already hooked up with Elena Polou, though she wasn’t in the band as yet. On October 9th, 2001 Sara and I received our decree absolute; the same night I saw The Fall play a brilliant gig at The Cluny, beginning with 1985’s I Am Damo Suzuki. It made me relatively optimistic for the release of Are You Are Missing Winner, but other than Bourgeois Town and the charmingly ramshackle My Ex Classmate’s Kids, it was disappointingly thin fare. Even worse was 2003’s Country on the Click which, bar the Theme from Sparta FC, which is not only a superb track, but also made MES a few bob, in the same way as Touch Sensitive did from being used on a car advert, after the BBC picked it up for Final Score, resulting in the infamous afternoon when Smith read the football results out and accused Ray Stubbs of “looking like one of the murderers in Strangeways.” While you had to laugh at that, the news that Mark had broken his hip falling on some ice after a damn fine gig at the Tyne Theatre, where it all began for me in 1980, in February 2004, was no laughing matter. Neither was his curt and mean-spirited interview on Newsnight the night John Peel died in October 2004. MES had evolved into a nasty drunk.
12 months later and Fall Heads Roll came out, by now featuring the latest Mrs Smith, Elena Polou. Many Fall fans claim Blindness to be Mark’s finest song from after 2000, but I just don’t get it myself. In fact, it’s another album I doubt I could recognise a song from, probably because only a week after getting the album, he disgraced himself with a shit show and petulant storm off stage at the Sage in October 2005. This time you could hear booing directed at the man we’d all fallen under the spell of so many years before. He was looking old, haggard and seemed to be either oblivious to his unacceptable behaviour, or wilfully, obstinately seeking to piss off the very loyal devotees who’d long defended him. It was the drink, the drugs and his deteriorating health of course, but such explanations cut no ice when you’ve wasted £20 on a ticket and the same amount on a night out, only to have it thrown back in your face. The CD went back in its box and hasn’t been taken down from the shelf these past dozen years or more.
However, a dog always returns to its puke and when Reformation Post TLC came out in early 2007 I dutifully bought it, listened to it twice and then filed it away. Another one I don’t know any of the songs from. A year later and The Fall were on at Newcastle Uni on Smith’s 51st birthday; March 5th, 2008. They were supported by the delightfully eccentric I Ludicrous and put in a good shift, though I only recognised Theme from Sparta FC and White Lightning, which were the encores. The majority of the set was the Imperial Wax Solvent album, from which only 50-Year-Old Man rose above the mediocre, which is more than can be said for 2010’s Your Future Our Clutter. Again, I’m in a minority here; I find it to be anonymous, wearisome and derivative, but it’s hailed as one of the best of the later albums. Personally, I prefer the unexpected mini-revival of the next two releases.
I finally had the chance to take my son Ben to see The Fall on November 4th, 2011. He was 16. He got pissed. Smith was 54. He got pissed. One of them was very late and had to be carried through the door. It wasn’t the bairn. Smith never got to grow old, but he certainly learned how to do things disgracefully. It was a superb night (my mate Raga’s first Fall gig since June 1980 in fact), with a random version of Psykick Dancehall thrown in for good measure. Again, I left feeling optimistic and subsequently felt vindicated by the encouraging Ersatz G.B. album that followed. Despite his voice now being accompanied by a bizarre whistle on account of his lack of teeth, Smith does a brilliant job on Nate will Not Return and the chunky, stolid I’ve Seen Them Come. Elena gets in on the act with the vaguely pastoral Happi Song, which justifies her time in the band for that alone.
In July 2012, I saw The Fall for the last time, headlining a festival at Hoult’s Yard off Walker Road, where I now go to the gym ironically. I hadn’t planned on this, but my mate Knaggsy, whose band supported The Fall on June 12th, 1986 at the Riverside though he’d not seen them since, got a couple of freebies from work. It was a triumph. They played Container Drivers, I got to shake Mark’s hand and he almost chinned a bouncer. Even better, 2013’s Re-Mit was a gem of a release. Sir William Wray, Hittite Man and Jetplane could easily punch their weight in a Fall top 50, I kid you not. The year ended on a further optimistic note with The Remainderer EP.
Were The Fall back for good? Sadly not; 2015’s Sub-Lingual Tablet starts off so promisingly with Venice with the Girls but deteriorates into another anonymous set of unintelligible lyrics over thudding, repetitive techno rock. It allowed me to go to Glasgow in May that year for a union conference and miss their gig with a clear conscience. 2016’s Wise Ol Man EP was another phoned-in thudathon by numbers and I accordingly absolved myself of the need to attend the 2016 Academy gig. Now the seal was broken, I didn’t even buy what turned out to be the final Fall album, 2017’s New Facts Emerge, though I suppose I will now, but I’ll never make up for missing that final appearance in October 2017.
Now Mark is Dead. What happens next? There can no longer be a band called The Fall; even with granny on bongos, without Mark the show is over. The inevitability of death, in whatever manner, is the tragedy of the human condition. As we grow older, our heroes for our youth, who were 10 or 20 years older, will all eventually die. We have their music, their books or their achievements on the pitch or cricket field to remember them by. With Mark E Smith, his decline was so marked and so expected, it can never be thought of as a shock. Rather, it is a jolt; a sharp reminder of our mortality and all he achieved, especially with “my lads” at his back. For 40 years nigh-on, The Fall have been my constant musical companions. I do not expect this to change as all those years I loved, adored and worshipped the band were the best times of my life. Goodnight Mark; you were The Fall.