The sheer prolificacy of The Fall—at the time of this writing, the band has, officially, 29 studio albums, 35 live albums, 47 singles (many of which are non-album tracks), and 40 (mostly terrible, lazy cash-in) compilations to their name—makes them one of the most daunting groups to ever not be found in your local record shop. I was going to write something about them for my old "Stuff I Like" feature, but there's so much to cover that any one post would be embarrassingly insufficient. Instead, I'd like to go through the band's long, turbulent history in steps, highlighting each distinct phase in their ever-evolving sound, which DJ John Peel aptly described as "Always different, always the same."
Emphasizing the band's unorthodox style, The Fall's story begins in characteristically un-trendy fashion. As punk started to gather momentum in the UK, dock clerk Mark Edward Smith and some mates used to meet and listen to records. Their tastes were eclectic—they loved Captain Beefheart, Can, and the Velvet Underground, to say nothing of Smith's fondness for Gene Vincent—and they adored writers as much as musicians. In an interview with Simon Reynolds in the book Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews, founding guitarist Martin Bramah says,
"We thought we were beatniks. We liked to dress in black, and we loved the Velvets. We loved the idea of Beat poets. Reading Burroughs and French existentialists, Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats. We were writing poetry because we weren't writing music to start with. We all wrote the words then. Bursting with talent, we were!"Stressing this literary angle (and further emphasizing this early, more democratic sharing of authority), bassist Tony Friel got the idea for the band's name from the Albert Camus novel . Like so many, this collection of rabble never fathomed the possibility of being a band, even though they almost exclusively listened to the unlikeliest musical heroes on the planet. Then, they saw the Sex Pistols careen through a show, and suddenly they knew anything was possible. The Fall picked out their insruments, wrote a few tunes and played their first gig as the openers for fellow Manchester legends the Buzzcocks on May 23, 1977
The band fell together quickly, faster even than the band could handle. Smith elected to be the guitarist while Bramah could sing, but when the group discovered Smith was writing exceedingly clever lyrics (and that he couldn't learn even the rudimentary basics of guitar-playing), the roles swapped. The rest of the friends filled in the other slots: Tony Friel took up the bass, while the keyboards went to Una Baines, then Smith's girlfriend and an outspoken feminist who established something of a precedent for strong, independent women propelling Smith's ostensible one-man show. A hastily found drummer, Steve Ormrod, bashed the skins for a while before the band switched him out for Karl Burns. Their local reputation grew rapidly; soon, the group signed to the Step Forward label and set to making their first EP.
When it came time to actually put some work on wax, though, things get a bit confusing. Before the band entered the studio to record what would become Bingo-Master's Break-Out!, they had two live tracks taped in October 1977 for the compilation live album Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus, a showcase for Manchester's growing punk scene. The Fall recorded Bingo shortly thereafter, but it did not see release until August of the following year. Likewise, Virgin's live compilation didn't actually come out until June 16. Which meant that the first major exposure to the band's music came in the form of a session recorded in May and broadcast June 15 on John Peel's BBC1 show.
That a Peel session should precede the first release of any Fall material is perfectly fitting for a group that became synonymous with Peel's legendary show. Spotted during their infancy at a gig in Croydon, Peel's producer, John Walters, sent Smith a letter calling the band the worst he'd ever seen and inviting them to come record for Peel at once. It was a match made in heaven: from this first session in 1978 through Peel's death at 65 in 2004, a period of 26 years, The Fall recorded 24 sessions for the great DJ, the most of any artist. The Fall averaged nearly one a year, a sign of Peel's unwavering support of the group. Peel will make numerous appearances in coming posts, and it feels right that an account of The Fall's material begins with him.
Several things are clear from this first session. First, as writer Paul Morley said in the 2005 BBC documentary The Wonderful and Frightening World of Mark E. Smith, The Fall were the perfect Peel session band because they were the ultimate showcase for the impact of Peel's adventurous programming. Recruited from pirate radio in the BBC's shrewd "If you can't beat 'em, hire 'em" approach to offshore stations, Peel brought underground music to mainstream radio. BBC1 was, and remains, the UK's pop station, and on that station, Peel played obscurities and extremities. Imagine, if you can, turning on your local radio station, filled with silly-voiced MCs and "alllllll the classic hits!" and hearing Napalm Death roar out of your car speakers. On Uncle John's program, that was your average Tuesday. Without him, who knows how, or even if, Smith would have heard all those weird bands that influenced him. He might have just been a rockabilly cat had Peel not put on Beefheart or the Velvets. Perhaps Peel's enthusiasm for the band can be explained by his recognition of how much it owed to him.
Second, Smith's propensity for never looking backward in his catalog is already on display. Although nothing of The Fall's had come out yet, the band doesn't play a single track from their EP or the two Short Circuit songs, instead running through four songs that would see release on their debut LP the following January. This set a precedent that continues even now; just go to the nearest message board reviewing recent Fall gigs to see pages upon pages of fans complaining that Smith only plays tracks from the new albums.
Finally, this session, when stacked against the later studio versions of these songs, demonstrates just how much The Fall benefited from the BBC's professional yet stark production setup. The Fall are clearly still getting it together on this session, with personnel already differing from the roster of musicians listed on the Bingo-Master's Break-Out! EP and the group still playing as something of a collective instead of Smith's personal vision. There's a punk energy and speed to these four tracks, with Martin Bramah's guitar clanging erratically and Yvonne Pawlett—having replaced a departed Baines after she and Smith separated and he started dating her friend Kay Carroll (who became the band's manager)—attaining a keyboard sound akin to the Stooges' live "pianist" Scott Thurston smashing away at some Fisher-Price toy. The space in the sound, a trademark of Peel sessions and what made them so perfect for spiky, angular post-punk bands, sounds crisper than what Step Forward would capture for their official versions. A second session, recorded at the end of November, came in the aftermath of the first EP, but once again Smith and co. played yet-unrecorded material that showed off their rapidly coagulating sound of rockabilly, Krautrock and punk.
Compared to the immediacy and historical importance of these first Peel sessions, the Short Circuit contributions and Bingo-Master's Break-Out! seem more like mere footnotes in The Fall's story. But that's unfair, at least in the EP's case. The title track gives the group away as a pop group at heart long before its mid-'80s turn to more hook-laden writing. Showing off Smith's silliness (and his singing, which soon morphed into more of a spoken-word delivery), the song is bizarrely catchy in Barmah's thin, strained guitar lines and palindromic structure leading out of and back to a plodding delivery by Smith over kick-drum beats. But it's "Repetition" that proves most important, perhaps the defining track of the band's pre-1980 music. It's something of a self-summary of the group's sound, Bramah's looped pattern of cascading single notes sounding like Tom Verlaine drunkenly tuning his guitar as Smith repeats lyrics and says, "We dig repetition/We've repetition in the music/And we're never going to lose it." Though Smith would incorporate a multitude of sounds and textures into the basic Fall noise over the years, it's always in service of a steady beat onto which Smith can pin his ravings. The song is also notable for perhaps the first instance of what would become a common occurrence of Smith's lyrical and musical plagiarism over the years when the frontman, perhaps inadvertently invokes Richard Hell's "Blank Generation" (repeatedly, of course).
Live at the Witch Trials, released in March 1979, shows the band belatedly putting out a full long-player well after the first wave of punk fizzled out. Johnny Rotten had reverted back to Lydon to front his own metallic, splenetic rant machine, Public Image Ltd., and The Fall's fellow Mancunians Joy Division were gearing up to put out their first LP in June. As such, the band's full-length debut emerged at as good a time as it could, situated at the first major showing of post-punk. Not that it helped matters; the album failed to chart, and even today it isn't the stunning statement that so many first LPs are, especially from the punk era.
Nevertheless, it's one of the band's more consistent albums. The strong opener "Frightened," lurches out in paranoid fits, Bramah's chords darted out in quick, short bursts as if he only stops long enough to get off a riff before going back into hiding from whatever is spooking the group. Smith, who gradually carved out a (not-undeserved) image for himself as a drunken brawler making up for his small, wiry frame, displays uncharacteristic vulnerability here. His lyrics sound as if they were written in the horrible come-down from a speed high (he even mentions being "amphetamine frightened"), blinking at the harsh light of the world around him and confused by the splotches of what he sees and thinks. "I feel trapped by mutual affection/And I don't know how to use freedom/I spend hours looking sideways/to the time when I was sixteen," he sings with a vocal clarity that would soon disappear.
The rest of the album, though not as raw as the Peel recordings of much of the same material, benefits from Smith taking ill for most of the band's allotted five-day slot in the studio, which resulted in the group recording everything in one day and mixing it the next. There's a rough energy here that lays a lo-fi foundation for pretty much the rest of the band's output. Even when Smith later got himself on labels with more money for production, he'd deliberately muck up the sound to make up for any unwelcome clarity.
The songs typically deal with the sort of street-level, working class snapshots that would become Smith's bread and butter, though they are typically more lucid here than in his more abstract, cut-up portraits. "Industrial Estate" and "Futures and Pasts" aggressively air grievances with stultifying English life, the former through socioeconomic outrage of working oneself to death, the latter a personal outcry of watching cycles of misery repeating before the band's eyes. The final track, "Music Scene" is the first extended Fall experiment, a lengthy fuck-you to seemingly everyone on the "scene," be it audiences, labels, or other musicians. Cynicism already underpinned Smith's delivery, but here is the first bit of outright contempt, Smith spitting bile over the scene that didn't even know the band enough to consciously reject them. Yet even this track has its goofy side, with Smith offering a time update at the six-minute mark out of the blue, and again at 6:40.
But if Live at the Witch Trials showed off disparate elements of The Fall—working class lyrics, warped narratives, pounding garage Krautrock and slower experiments—its defining contribution may have been in ultimately purging the band of its last remaining original members, fully confirming Smith as the band's driving force and making everyone else expendable. From here on out, everyone was officially cannon fodder for Smith's mad campaigns against what ailed him, and many have since been lost to his brutal direction. Given how ex-band members, when they can even be found and interviewed in the first place, all sound like they suffer from PTSD, I 've often wondered if they behave like veterans even while still in the group, the latest additions treated like green pups by those who have seen the horrors of the war theater.
Nevertheless, at this early, crucial stage, Smith consolidated the core of perhaps his strongest lineup, including the recruitment of his two longest-serving bandmates. Craig Scanlon replaced Bramah, bringing a more minimal, refined approach that suited Smith's needs perfectly. Steve Hanley then came on as bassist, pushing Marc Riley, who filled that role on Witch Trials, to guitar. The difference in the band's dynamic can be heard partially on the "Rowche Rumble" single that came out in July 1979: Hanley brings the bass to the fore like it had not previously been, punctuating Smith's rants and shrieks to create an inseparable tandem that would come to define The Fall's sound. As The Fall's sonic experimentations are always rooted in repetition and rhythm, the importance of the bass is obvious, yet Hanely's contributions are so stunning and invigorating that he can arguably be placed on a level of near-equal necessity to Smith. Many post-punks emphasized rhythm: Joy Division (and, later, New Order) drove primarily on Peter Hook's basslines, while Gang of Four got their funk on and Talking Heads went one further and took to Afrobeat. Yet The Fall, the least accomplished, least-tuneful one of the bunch, relies most on its bass, and even the ever-self-serving Smith took care to constantly praise Hanley for his work.
Meanwhile, the guitar interplay on b-side "In My Area" shows off how instantly Riley and Scanlon took to each other. Separately, their parts are simple and tuneful, with one playing an almost country-esque semi-boogie and the other lightly droning. Together, however, and with Pawlett's clumsy keys bumbling between the guitarists, the song is woozy and unsettling as Smith unloads his shambolic lyrics, which go off on everything from urban decay to political embarrassment to that old Fall lyrical staple, assholes who don't like The Fall. Between this and "Music Scene," it's clear that Smith's defensiveness and self-pity runs deep.
But the real showcase for this new lineup was Dragnet, the band's neglected, sporadically available second LP. Absent Pawlett's irritating keyboards, the group is left more polished and unified, albeit rougher and more aggressive. Riley and Scanlon don't play with any more sophistication than Bramah did (in fact, they may play with even less), but they maintain order in the din. If anything, the sound is worse than on the debut, more focused but less coherent, and when the band thanked the engineer "for his trust" in the liner notes, it may be not only because of his faith in the group but because that's about the only damn thing he did bring to this job.
The album opens with the ramshackle garage jam "Psykick Dance Hall," propelled by Hanley's thumping bass, the metallic clang of the guitars and Smith's shouted lyrics, at once powerful yet reedy, as if they used the 15th take of him screaming himself hoarse. You can hear Smith getting more confident with his lyrics, his direct barbs morphing into vaguer, crazier beasts. His observational style veers into the surreal, as it does when he remarks upon a computer center being across the road, and then that he saw a monster glowing on the roof. The latter is presented so casually against the former that it almost seems matter-of-fact, a dip into insanity that blurs into reality.
The rest of the record is no less weird, a deliberate move by Smith, as he noted in a 1980 interview with Cool. Smith says he chose the album title as a representation of his desire to "get rid of the pretentious element who follow us. 'Cos we were getting into a bad circuit with what we were doing...The sound's changed, right, so the people are obviously going to change." Flaunting his old-school roots, Smith bases the handful of straightforward numbers, like "Printhead" and "Put Away," not in punk but rockabilly, disconnecting even the most accessible tracks from the current fads. And if Dragnet sought to cull the trendy new hangers-on from those brave enough to soldier on with the band, no track did the job better than "Spectre vs. Rector." The band recorded the song in a warehouse, though it sounds as if they set up in one warehouse while the microphones were placed in an adjacent building. The guitars plod with malicious, thick repetition as Smith echoes out a demented mini-play referencing several horror writers and offering up a literary stroke of its own, a possession tale that doubles as an extended metaphor for the effects of The Fall's music, a horrid, hell-sent racket that ensnares and drives people insane in Lovecraftian mania. It's the closest anyone has ever come to replicating the murky, thudding frenzy of The Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray," and any listener who can get past it and want to hear more has passed the test.
The Fall closed out this brief first stage of their career with a fine but easily digested EP, "Fiery Jack," and they started the '80s with Totale's Turns (It's Now or Never), a bolted-together live album. The album has a lot of charm: it gives a sense of Smith's live antagonism, reworking the band's unofficial slogan, "We are Northern white crap who talks back," into a full-on taunting of the audience complete with the line, "The difference between you and us is that we have brains!" Smith's propensity for spontaneously ad-libbing lyrics leads to a few more potshots, aimed at the promoter and crap trendy bands (which involves another audience jab). But damned if the band don't suffer worse: their barnstorming version of "No Xmas for John Quays" is propelled by Smith's open abuse of the members, shouting instructions at them and eventually screaming "Will you fucking get it together instead of showing off?"
Yet the two awkwardly inserted studio tracks, placed not at the end of the live numbers but in their midst, are a drag, and sonically this sounds like a step-backward from the more complex, musically confrontational Dragnet material. It's almost as if Smith has to berate everyone to make up for how much more conventional things sound (especially "Spectre vs. Rector," which is curiously de-fanged). Nevertheless, Totale's Turns does sport great versions of the aforementioned closer, as well as "Muzorewi's Daughter," which transforms the lighter Dragnet version into something insidious and threatening. Nevertheless, it's a good-enough snapshot of the band's slapdash magnetism, and its cover, advertising the band in hilariously banal cities, is the first self-deprecating admission of the band's narrow appeal. (In 2004, the band put out their Elvis-parodying retrospective, 50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong.)
Still, the lasting importance of Totale's Turns may be the label for which it was made. The live-LP marked the band's move from Step Forward to Rough Trade Records, a place so laid-back that Smith and co. could continue doing as they pleased, even working for other labels when the mood suited (or Smith's abrasiveness offended the label's PC policies). Mere months after the release of Totale's Turns, the band would start consistently releasing great material, kicking off one of the best gold runs any artist or band has enjoyed and elevating The Fall to the legendary status they enjoy today. These first years showcase a band with incredible potential only occasionally realized, but not even the most ardent of early fans could predict what would happen next.