“If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.” So sayeth Mark E. Smith (MES), the mercurial, irascible, and incredible leader of the legendary post-punk band. It’s a quote that gets thrown around often in response to the parade of musicians (upwards of 60 by my rough count) that were hired and fired, joined and quit during the nearly 40 years of the band’s existence.
Another popular quote that has followed the band around since 1977 sets the template for the the Fall’s sound (or the “Fall Sound” as MES proclaimed it 30 years later on the album Reformation Post TLC): “Repetition in the music and we’re never going to lose it…This is the three Rs…repetition, repetition, repetition.” They felt this aesthetic deeply enough that those were the lyrics to a song on the band’s very first single.
Combined they provide the perfect rough guide for anyone experiencing the Fall’s music for the first time. The sound is constantly in flux, reacting to or absorbing influences from around them. And the music changes in some small or huge way with each person brought into the lineup. But no matter who is playing or in what style they happen to be playing, the emphasis is on repetitive melodies and clockwork rhythms. All the better for MES to sing, shout, spit, and snarl over the top of.
Every era of the Fall Sound has a precedent. The early days were informed by the ’70s greats who also knew a thing or two about repetition: the Stooges, Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, and the Velvet Underground. Their most creatively fertile and universally loved period (’81-’89) brought out the deeper influence of psychedelia, dub reggae, the ambient records of Eno, and glam racketeers like Bowie and T. Rex. During the ’90s, the electronic renaissance took hold of the Fall with techno, drum ‘n’ bass, and breakbeats providing the motorik drive. And for the last 14 years or so, it has been back to basics, with the band digging up their ’50s and ’60s garage rock, rockabilly, and country singles to serve as road maps.
The truly original component of the band in any period is, of course, MES. Even if he combines the attitude of Johnny Rotten at his most furious and embittered with the street poetics of fellow Mancunian John Cooper Clarke…that still doesn’t quite capture the essence of the skinny, jut-jawed firebrand that has frustrated and delighted fans and bandmates all this time.
MES has a bruising intellect, with the ability to grab bits and pieces of high- and low-brow culture to serve his needs. Classical literature, European history, the sci-fi visions of H.P. Lovecraft and William S. Burroughs, annoying adverts on the TV, slogans on his cereal box, stray commentary from punters on the street or in the bar…all of that and more have provided him with his rich lyrical fodder.
The x-factor, though, is the disgust with which he seems to view the world around him. Few people and few situations survive his withering gaze. In the waning years of the band’s career and MES’s time on this planet, he’s even started directing his bile inward, frustrated with his failing body and softening mind. Nothing, but nothing meets his exacting standards. Your only hope of survival is to keep your head down and let the man fiddle with the knobs on your amplifier.
The Fall’s discography is a daunting thing. Outside of the studio albums, there are dozens of great singles and EPs as well as multiple live albums of varying quality. And within each one of those are prime examples of what keeps their fans returning to the well again and again. Still, I reduced my exploration to just the studio albums because I feel like they do provide a good baseline for any new listeners to understand where the various iterations of the band were coming from. If you enjoy what you find here, I encourage you to keep digging into their catalog. There’s much more repetition where this came from.
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