The Fall Albums From Worst To Best
“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.
Ersatz GB (2011)
What a weird, discomforting turn for MES to make after reaching some creative heights on the previous two LPs. The vitriol is back in a big way, directed primarily at the younger generation of bands that call the Fall an influence: Snow Patrol gets a mention, while "Greenway" does a subtweet-style attack on These New Puritans. But he veers between sounding completely uninterested in bothering with his performance and sounding like a slurring, phlegmy, furious mess. He even emphasizes that latter element on tracks like "I've Seen Them Come," which at one point features the loud sound of what sounds like a slow, wet inhale.
His vocal work seriously undercuts what is another impressive showing by the other members of the Fall -- the same lineup that recorded Imperial Wax Solvent and Your Future Our Clutter. They sound rough and ready, enjoying the sounds of hopped-up rockabilly ("Mask Search"), proto-metal ("Greenway"), and foggy new wave ("Happi Song"). The impact of those stylistic variations get lost though when you're trying to reconcile with the wet slop that MES keeps dripping over it all.
Reformation Post TLC (2007)
If you were curious as to how MES felt about losing another set of bandmates, consider the comment he made to Q magazine that the title of this album referenced the fact that he'd gotten all the "traitors, liars, and cunts" out of the group. If that weren't enough, he pours some salt in the wounds by lyrically declaring this album to be the truest expression of the "Fall Sound": "No 'guitars dead' mob...no '80s reprobates...no laptop wankers overground." And the people behind the real "Fall Sound" were a half-American batch of players, including Tim Presley, who would go on to start White Fence, and a lineup boasting two bass players.
As we well know, though, there is no Fall Sound other than the snarky snarl of MES himself. The band can be what it wants to be as long as he's at the head of the class. Here, the group does a little psychedelic dance ("Coach and Horses"), plays a little sloppy tribute to their own cover of "White Line Fever" ("Insult Song"), try a little spacious new wave pop ("Scenario"), and gets delightedly freeform ("Das Boat").
Like most albums of this period, Reformation sure does drag on for a lot longer than it needs to. The title track alone takes up seven minutes with an incessant two-note bass riff and MES ranting in short maniacal spurts ("Black River! Fall Motel! Cheese State! TLC!"). When you figure out that this was the singer's response to his previous Fall incarnation walking out on him, and thumbing his nose at bands who get back together for no good reason, well, that only adds to the song's unforgiving nature. Like those former members, you'll likely be ready to walk away from the whole thing for the sake of your sanity.
The Marshall Suite (1999)
Thus we enter the curious third act of the Fall's history, a 15-year long period where MES brought on and disposed of band members with reckless disregard and, with them, anything resembling consistency on the band's last 10 albums. This period really began on the disastrous tour that they did to support Levitate, a jaunt that concluded with MES fighting with his bandmates on stage and back at the hotel, winding up in jail as a result. Hence, outside of Julia Nagle who, for some reason, stuck it out, everyone else was completely new.
That helps likely explain the roughshod quality of what we are given on this disc. They crib the music from an old Northern Soul single for one tune, slapped a couple of cover tunes on to it, let producer Steve Hitchcock remix a track that MES recorded with another group, and let the group rewrite a song from Levitate. And that's not including the tape collages here. This has to be one of the most slapdash Fall collections outside of the many live albums in circulation (or the CD reissues mastered from awful vinyl copies of the original albums). Caps must be doffed to those few moments on here when this gang of newbies find balance with MES: the cover of Tommy Blake's "F-'Oldin' Money" is a lot of fun, and there's a cool burn to "Anecdotes+Antidotes in B#." Hardly enough to make up for the slapdash material around, but just enough to keep it out of the bottom spot of this list.
The Fall's 19th album came along at a particularly fallow and fraught period for the band. According to several reporters, they were playing some terrible shows, and during the tour to support their last album, Brix decided she had had enough and quit mid-soundcheck. Tensions were running high and MES was looking to exert some more control over the whole affair. With Levitate, that meant taking on the role of producer and injecting his interest in current electronic styles into the mix. This all made for a mess of an album with drum 'n' bass beats punctuating "Ten Houses of Eve," the breakbeat pulse of "Everybody But Myself," and an industrial techno coating "The Quartet of Doc Shanley." Outside of those tunes, the album just feels lazy. They recycle the same music for two songs, throw down a really sloppy garage rock cover, and cobble together a really messy audio collage that is no fun to listen to. Even MES doesn't appear at all invested in his vocal performances or lyrical efforts. If anything, he seems hell-bent on turning his slurring voice into just another instrument to add texture to the mix. Interesting in theory, but darn near unlistenable in practice.
In spite of the few obvious influences that seem to creep into the Fall's work (the Monks, the Stooges, rockabilly, dub), the band never seemed beholden to them. When they would work those elements into their songs, it was never as a reference point. The pieces were being used for new ends in classic postmodern fashion. That's what makes Shift-Works a near-novelty in the discography. Here was the band actively and angrily responding to the rise of the dance-pop scene in their native Manchester. The "t-shirts and rubbish" techno scene, or as they dubbed it on the album, the "Idiot Joy Showland." The funniest element is that the band -- aided by future member Dave Bush and his sequencers, keyboards, and "machines" (as he's credited in the liner notes) -- managed to replicate the sound of the worms in shapeless kecks in bands like the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. Were it not for MES slinking and snarling over the top, you likely wouldn't recognize this as a Fall record.
Room To Live (1982)
Was it the relative success of Hex Enduction Hour (it was the first Fall album to sneak into the U.K. Albums Chart)that inspired MES to rush his band back into the studio in the summer of '82 to knock out another album before they left for a tour of Australia and New Zealand? Or was he just so thrilled by the results of that previous LP that he couldn't wait to see what he could come up with next? I say "he" because, according to some accounts, much of this LP was recorded by MES with only a couple of members of the group, leaving the rest out. Whatever it was, this was hardly the follow-up that fans would have liked. The players are gamely keeping up with material that they barely know, and the attempts at experimentalism (the squawking sax that cuts through the title track, the meandering sound collage of "Papal Visit") fall flat. Were it not for the seamy bass-and-scratching guitar minimalism of "Detective Instinct" and the jaunty "Solicitor in Studio," this would be a complete throwaway.
Are You Are Missing Winner (2001)
The revolving door through which members of the Fall walk through post-1999 starts its steady spin here. Everyone involved with Unutterable is gone, replaced by a bunch of young guns. "Not like the old one/We are The New Fall," they sing on opening track, "Jim's 'The Fall'" (a reference to new bassist Jim Watts, who wrote the music for that tune). And just like The Marshall Suite from a couple of years prior, the band didn't have a great deal of time to gel as a unit. This batch do better than most, however, as it's pretty hard to screw up garage-rock grooves if you have even a little bit of facility with your instruments.
This disc at least has a little bit of a fire in its belly. MES cranks up the crankiness to express some disgust at the spawn of his school chums, to warn anyone around him to steer clear ("Have I got 'I need advice' written on my forehead?" he sings in "The Acute"), and to toss a couple of fingers up in the face of a "Hollow Mind." He's having some fun with these tunes, perhaps thanks to the kick of energy brought out by a new batch of bandmates. He even pokes fun at the reputation he's earned, repeating "Smith is a bastardo" over a bumpy rhythm track written by guitarist Ed Blaney and drummer Spencer Birtwhistle. He's not only aware of how he's perceived by the public, he owns up to it.
The Unutterable (2000)
The notion that a prior recording session and a tour would have solidified things with MES and this still new lineup of the Fall gets completely shattered as this hot mess of an album moves forward. The first half is rickety but damn delightful, with guitarist Neville Wilding, bassist Adam Helal, and drummer Tom Head maintaining a steady rockabilly/garage beat that heats up (the devilish "Two Librans") and cools down ("Octo Realm/Ketamine Sun") as needed.
The back end of Unutterable is where things start collapsing slowly. Was anyone looking for a weird lounge-jazz ode to MES's favorite foods? Or a couple of dance remix tracks in honor of Smith's film career? Or that MES would cede vocal control to Wilding on the most Fall-like track on the record? I'm guessing not, but I might be in the minority on that front. Reviews of the album were, by and large, very kind to this record, seeming at least happy that MES was looking to try new musical ventures rather than resort to his old tricks. There is certainly something to that -- the fuzzed-up, synth laser swing of "Serum" and the motorik "Way Round" are pleasurable diversions -- but that shouldn't fool anyone into thinking this scattershot clatter has anything more to offer outside of brief flashes of decency.
The muddle that is the Fall's second LP must have come as a surprise to anyone following the band's career closely at that point. The group released one of their strongest statements yet just four months earlier with their "Rowche Rumble" single. The songs were still sloppy and wobbly but you couldn't deny that MES's lyrics and the band's playing had an impressive verve.
Dragnet, in comparison, feels like everything is crumbling apart as fast as they build it. The songs are playful and feel like they were constructed just a few minutes before the tape started rolling, but that doesn't suit this version of The Fall one bit. The tension needed to hold these live wire elements of the band -- particularly new guitarist Craig Scanlon and new bassist Steve Hanley -- just isn't there. It sure makes the moments of crystal clear cohesion -- the moody, powerful "Before The Moon Falls," the out-of-tune but joyous "Choc-Stock," and the Bo Diddley shuffle of "Dice Man" -- feel even more glaring.
MES, for his part, takes a post-modern tone on these songs, commenting on and delighting in the commercial disinterest in the band's work to date. He seems happy to be free of the "wage packet jobs" weighing down average blokes, and even happier poking fun at the "weak TV" and "weaker tea" being fobbed off as British pop music. Looked at through that lens, perhaps the entire album is a big fuck off to the establishment. If you want us, England, you have to sift through our shitty guitar playing and lyrical references to Lovecraft and Ray Milland to find us.
Code: Selfish (1992)
If your hope was that the Fall would steer clear of further dalliances with heavily sequenced beats and the glossy intrusion of synthesizers by the release of this album, your disappointment is understandable. From the get-go, the long-term members of the group (Steve Hanley and Craig Scanlon) had to worm their sonic approach into the work being done by drummer Simon Wolstencroft and the now full-fledged member Dave Bush. And there are times when the two sides find synthesis like the call-and-response of "Return" or when the stutter-step '50s pop edges out the techno hubbub on "Two-Face!" The rest of Code: Selfish gives off the stench of a misconceived remix album. I don't think it is merely that Bush and Wolstencroft got the reins of the band either. MES has shown at least a passing interest in electronic fare (cf. "(I'm) In Deep" from Coldcut's What's That Noise; Von Sudenfed, his collaboration with Mouse on Mars). This album and Shift-Work from a year earlier combine to feel like a weird detour that, for a while, you weren't sure the band was going to find their way back from.
The Frenz Experiment (1988)
In one of the documentaries around about New Order, a rock critic commented on the band's brilliant decision to add a female element into their midst after the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. I feel like that same feeling carries over to fellow Mancunians the Fall. That feminine perspective came out a bit when Brix joined, but you can feel the larger holes being poked in the masculine façade of the group with the introduction of keyboardist Marcia Schofield. This might be a result of it coming after the comparatively down Bend Sinister, but the songs on The Frenz Experiment have a decidedly lighter touch to them. "Athlete Cured" bounces on a riff lifted from Spinal Tap and little sputtering keyboard exclamations, the spiraling "Get A Hotel" comes out surprisingly Doors-like with its little spikes of Hammond organ and Wolstencroft's drum rumbles, and they even dared to take a swing at the Kinks' "Victoria" (earning them their highest chart performance to that point). Hell, even MES's Nazi ghost story ("Bremen Nacht") and JFK assassination theorizing ("Oswald Defence Lawyer") are leavened by swinging music, cut through with honking synth work by Schofield and producer/bandmate Simon Rogers. Letting some air in the room did them some good, but the extra oxygen has made them a little dizzy.
Your Future Our Clutter (2010)
A cloud of mortality hangs over this record. And its appearance is an understandable one considering MES was on the other side of his 50th birthday and spent much of the year surrounding the recording of this album in a wheelchair after breaking his hip. That's a true marker of one's fragility, so who wouldn't be thinking about the inevitable end.
As he's proven since, MES is not going to go out quietly. Using the same band that he recorded Imperial Wax Solvent with ("The best lineup I've ever had," he told The Independent around the time of the album's release), the Fall rage and reep, snap and snarl out these nine tunes with a strength that belies the frailty of its fallen leader. MES doesn't shy away from the subject of his accident, taking us with him to the scene of the crime ("Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor"), to share his frustration at being hospitalized post-accident ("Chino"), and poetically wonders aloud about the aging process and what that means for his future ("Weather Report 2").
His band bolsters him up rather than letting him wallow. These young bucks sound as spirited and agonized as they did just two years before, adding in elements of Morricone-like landscapes, pure punk, and simmering mid-tempo balladry. What this also includes though is some long outros that wrap some songs up with nasty clouds of synth-based burbles and squeaks. It's like a dream where you run right into a pool of thick, black goo.
Fall Heads Roll (2005)
Again, though we know the story didn't turn out so well for Ben Pritchard, Steve Trafford, and Spencer Birtwistle, the three men playing as the Fall for this LP (they quit the band in the middle of a U.S. tour citing MES's psychological and verbal abuse as the deciding factor), let's marvel one last time at what they accomplished here before they departed. Pritchard is on fire throughout these 14 songs, conjuring up visions of Craig Scanlon, Ron Asheton, and Bo Diddley at various times. The rhythm section pounds and grinds behind that racket, holding tightly to the lock groove repetition necessary to drive these songs forward. Trafford, especially, finds a way to mesh the melodic attack of the Fall's best bassist Steve Hanley with his own more aggressive approach to the instrument.
And oh my does MES sound impassioned and, at times, ferocious through much of Fall Heads Roll. He could give a fuck about you idiots getting stoned all the time or anyone who might think that he's still a "work in progress" or the modern consumption of music. He's more concerned with the death of Hunter S. Thompson, and holding hands with someone in New York City.
The album surely didn't need to be this long (the non-MES number "Trust In Me," the reprise of "Midnight Aspen," and the folky "Early Days Of Channel Führer" could all have been cut out of this album without anyone missing them), but the lean, meaty attack carries you through the few fattier moments lying around.
The Light User Syndrome (1996)
The guitar work of Craig Scanlon was something that, by this point, Fall fans likely had started to take for granted. He was in the mix since their debut, and the scratchy, strained quality of his playing was crucial to much of the band's best work. So when he was sacked by MES in early '96 (a decision the singer has since regretted), his absence opened up a glaring hole in the sound of the material that would become The Light User Syndrome. And try as she might, Brix couldn't fill the space on her own. As much I love what she brought to the Fall in both of her stints in the group, her guitar playing was far too mannered and straightforward. She needed a Scanlon or a Bramah to provide some necessary six-string friction.
Producer Mike Bennett likely felt as I did as Brix's guitar doesn't take the lead role on this LP. Though she co-wrote a few of the songs, the record seems more curious about what newest member Julia Nagle could bring to the table with her keyboards and what Simon Wolstencroft was doing with his programmed drum beats. The most bracing songs on the record then -- "He Pep!," "The Coliseum" and "Cheetham Hill" -- are those that embrace the synthetic side of the band.
The canvas of this record strangely turned out some of MES's most widescreen views of British culture and politics. He seemed to predict the July 1996 bombing in Manchester with his song "Powder Keg," gave lip service to the changing demographics and attitudes of the middle class of his home city ("The Coliseum"), and picked apart the tensions still present in the current geopolitical landscape ("Hostile" and "Oleano"). His concern for his country is palpable and provides The Light User Syndrome with a surprisingly warm heart.
I Am Kurious Oranj (1988)
The Fall's second release of 1988 is indeed a curious one: a soundtrack written to accompany a performance Michael Clark & Company, an avant-garde dance troupe known for their outlandish outfits (ass-revealing body suits and Heinz bean can costumes, for example) and modernist movements. Footage from the performances at the '88 Edinburgh Festival revealed how well the two meshed up, if only because the band bent itself into some strange shapes for Clark and his dancers to work with. They tried their hand at reggae, musique concrete, glistening new wave, and gliding English folk.
With the theme of the piece being William III's ascension to the throne, MES explored various theories and stray pieces of the historical record. He uses the rumor that William brought venereal disease into the nation as a platform to discuss the varying explanations for the AIDS crisis ("Van Plague?"), performs a piss-take on the English hymn "Jerusalem" as commentary on the struggles between Protestants and Catholics both in the king's time and in modern-day Ireland, and on the title track further connects the wars of the past with then-current conflicts.
Ultimately, this album is a bit of an outlier to the group's long timeline, an artistic excursion by the band into some untested waters. They don't stray that far, of course, considering the album as gave us their brilliant "Hip Priest" rewrite, "New Big Prinz," and the pure pop of "Cab It Up!" Yet, it feels less like a Fall album than anything before or after. The band was involved, recording under its name, but the intentions behind it put it at a remove.
MES's statement about this lineup of the Fall being the best he's ever had is certainly been borne out by the fact that their most recent full-length features the same membership featured on the previous three LPs. It has been both a boon to the singer's lyrical efforts and way for him (as heard on Ersatz GB) to get a little lazy. This record doesn't veer too hard in one direction more than the other, but from song to song leans lightly to one side. He can get fierce (check out the snappy "No Respects Rev.," a track apparently written for hopeful inclusion on the Twilight soundtrack, or his jeremiad against modern air travel, "Jetplane," that appears to call out the band Elbow) just as often as he can get slobbering and lost ("Noise," "Sir William Wray"). And let's not even mention the weird screeching he does on "Victrola Time."
The music alone -- the potent mixture of garage-rock sneering and Krautrock sleekness -- is enough to support the feeling that the next few years of the Fall could be great ones (the most recent EP and live album also aids in this feeling). But it's also good to hear that MES's wordsmithery is still on point even if his enunciation leaves a lot to be desired. His Victorian-style ghost story meant for Twilight has some genuinely creepy imagery. His anti-drug messages (in both "Victrola Time and "Pre-MDMA Years") are as witty and wise as ever. Even his more freeform beat poetry ("Kinder Of Spine," "Jam Song") kick up some remarkable lines ("When the LP came on/It erased the brain of the man we held dear") and uses of meter ("Happy glued to some plant red/Green of the green of the bed of the breadcrumb").
Imperial Wax Solvent (2008)
MES has never had the most mellifluous of singing voices. His is maybe a notch above Lou Reed's in the speak-singing rankings. That voice has still has been one of the most recognizable aspects of the Fall, something he likely realized early on. And as he's gotten older, he hasn't shied away from using all the flaws and changes to his vocal chords when she sings. You hear that in sharp relief on Imperial Wax Solvent, a record made with another batch of new players and MES letting his stretched out, phlegmy voice rattle through it all without fear.
Of course, he also knows when to ease up on the throttle, turning at least one song over to his wife, keyboards Elena Poulou -- the jaunty and catchy as hell "I've Been Duped" -- placed perfectly on the album after an eleven-and-a-half minute barrage of complaints on getting too old for the club scene and being too exhausted to do anything with his "three-foot rock hard on."
And why shouldn't he sound ragged and wrecked when every bit of music blasting in the background is as ragged and wrecked as his voice? As all good guitarists who join the Fall should, Peter Greenway shows no fear throughout these 12 tracks. He just makes little adjustments to perfectly capture the mood: a Beefheartian fuzz attack for a cover of the Groundhogs' "Strangetown," a Cramps-like rumble on "Tommy Shooter" and "Wolf Kidult Man," and the string-scraping blues-psych of "Exploding Chimney." With chops like that, it's no wonder MES still keeps him around all these years later.
The Infotainment Scan (1993)
Anyone who doesn't want their favorite bands to evolve and adapt a bit to the times in which they live is fooling themselves. But that's what made the previous two albums feel like such odd birds. It wasn't the Fall adapting, more like uncomfortably trying to keep up with the pop charts (or was it a sly commentary on them?). The Infotainment Scan feels more like the band showing that they're paying attention to what's going on around them, but aren't beholden to it. The wry wink, the post-punk groove, the broiled pop has returned with a vengeance. They peel off the leeches sucking the life out of Gary Glitter and T.Rex records ("Glam-Racket"), have more rumbling fun at the expense of the bean counters in the music industry ("The League of Bald-Headed Men"), and find a graceful way to let Dave Bush have his MIDI-driven fun amid the kind of disquieting, repetitive rock that made The Fall who they were (his Madchester notes on "A Past Gone Mad" and "Service" add some nice bounce to the mix). There's still a strangely sanitized quality to it that feels unsatisfying. That it found the band shedding almost entirely the techno baggage that weighed down the previous two studio albums, and that the English press finally started paying attention to the Fall again leading to this album breaking the Top 10 in the U.K. Albums Chart upon release, might be skewing people's opinions of it a bit. For American audiences who missed out on Shift-Work and Code: Selfish due to both not being released Stateside, Infotainment didn't have the headier punch that we were bracing for.
Bend Sinister (1986)
The constant state of flux that is the Fall has another oscillation with the firing of drummer Karl Burns -- replaced fairly quickly by Mancunian Simon Wolstencroft -- and MES's complaints about the "psychedelic sounds" that producer John Leckie would add to it. That should give some indication as to the collective mindset that went into these sessions, which resulted in a murky album cut through with occasional shards of bright light. The darkest figure here is MES, weighed down as he is by customs issues he ran into in Boston ("U.S. 80's-90's"), a drunk fan trying to steal the backdrop they used for live shows ("Bournemouth Runner"), and the slasher film imagery ("There's a blood silhouette through the ceiling sky," he repeats) and fruit-based interjections by Brix that infect his take on the Faust story ("Dktr. Faustus").
Bend Sinister remains a fascinating listen because just as you feel like you're getting sunk into the morass of dour lyrics and avant-plod, they yank you right out of it with jaunty cuts like two versions of "Shoulder Pads," the short, cutting "Terry Waite Sez," and their blustery take on the Other Half's 1968 garage rock nugget "Mr. Pharmacist." The pendulum swings hard on this album, but it makes for an often-exhilarating ride.
Live At The Witch Trials (1979)
The key detail to this album is that the band had all of one day to record their debut. They had been booked for five, but front man MES fell sick, scuttling three scheduled days of work. That little factor is both the best and worst thing that could've happened to this LP. The sonic template for the band was well in place -- guitar lines scratching at incessant keyboard melodies, the rhythm section in a constant hurry to keep up -- but they had no time to perfect it. Karl Burns' occasionally sloppy drum fills and the bum notes pop up throughout. (Of course, 35 years later, that wonky quality feels downright charming.) As well, the truncated sessions offered MES and co. no chance to help rescue the weaker material here. With some extra time, perhaps producer Bob Sargeant could have talked them into hacking MES's tirade against the current "Music Scene" in half or finding the rhythmic center in "Two Steps Back."
For its various audible flaws and sketchy quality control, MES turns in a very cohesive set of lyrics here. He's as frustrated as his punk peers with the state of his home country -- "The crap in the air will fuck up your face...boss can take most of your wage," he spits during "Industrial Estate" -- but he's just as frustrated with what the music scene has devolved into. Drugs are infecting the scene ("There is no Christmas for junkies," "amphetamine frightened") as well as the whiff of fame promised by shady record execs ("And aye you're a good lad/Oh here is a new flat/That stupid twat"). The reports we're hearing from these witch trials are very grim, but we can't look away.
Middle Class Revolt (1994)
As if to reassure fans that their dalliances with electro-pop were behind them, the Fall open their 1994 album with a smattering of "Groovy Train"-style nonsense that quickly fades away and is replaced by a hip-swinging bit of pop that befits the band much more comfortably. If anything, it sounds like the band trying to reclaim some of their prior power. Dave Bush takes a tertiary role in the songwriting, adding color and texture to the album and ceding the reins to Steve Hanley and Craig Scanlon, who co-wrote all the original songs on here. The result is the band's best album in at least five years, an engaging collection that looks back to their past (the vicious "Hey! Student" could slip into the track list of Perverted By Language unnoticed) and comfortable embrace of their particular present (the chiming, playful, modern "You're Not Up To Much" and "Behind The Counter"). Like the best of the Fall's post-1990 work, the songs work best when they play with the tension between the sheer catchiness of the music and MES's most acidic lyrics. His crankiness, as ever, toes the border of being endearing and annoying. We can delight in his jibes at the younger generation, his surely ironic relationship advice ("You gotta be cheerful-hearted/There's at least 15 ways to leave your man"), and his efforts to speak on behalf of his frustrated bandmates that have to accept getting a fancy bottle of wine in exchange for putting up with MES's bullshit. Though we know now just how awful a tradeoff that eventually wound up being for everyone in the group, for an album like this, it seemed worth it.
As you've likely picked up over the course of this list, the Fall are a test case for how much the sound and shape of a band's music can change with the addition and removal of a person from the group. With Extricate, it was pretty glaring, as it was the first album recorded following the divorce of MES and Brix. The echoes of her influence are audible throughout, but the agitated quality she brought to even their poppiest singles has definitely been excised. The remaining band members -- and returning champion Martin Bramah, the guitarist who originally left after the release of Witch Trials -- gamely try to keep up appearances with some itchy trigger-finger guitar pop, pasty-faced funk, and a light country shuffle. That live wire that someone like Brix or Marc Riley could inject into the proceedings was sorely needed to tie all this together. It also didn't help that MES apparently decided to go minimalist. This might have the fewest lyrics of any Fall album, and without his toothsome antics, there's precious little to glom onto. On the other hand, Extricate also features his most emotionally affecting song, "Bill Is Dead," a lightly played ballad that MES pours his romantic side into ("Just lately seeing you...I am renewed/I am aglow...these are the greatest times of my life"). Considering his romantic stresses of the time, it's probably necessary to read those with a tinge of irony, but hearing him play the Romeo for at least one song offered a nice counter to his otherwise curmudgeonly spirit.
Grotesque (After The Gramme) (1980)
The move to the still-fledgling indie label Rough Trade did wonders for the Fall. And it came at just the right time as the band was hitting their creative stride as songwriters and players. They had already proven their mettle with a pair of incredible singles ("How I Wrote 'Elastic Man'" and "Totally Wired") and some of that inspiration carried over into these sessions. Some of it is still very tattered around the edges, but the majority of it finds that unique static charge that made their '80s work so compelling.
For as much as MES has been painted (by himself and others) as the puppetmaster of his band, he's been very much reliant on the efforts of others to bring out his and the Fall's best. Credit then for this creative advance should be doled out to both the album's producers (Grant Showbiz, Red Krayola leader Mayo Thompson and Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis) and bandmates Craig Scanlon and Marc Riley. Together they all helped mold some of MES's more fevered visions, like "C'n'C-S Mithering," his sprawling screed at the vapidity of the music industry, and "The N.W.R.A.," a literary vision of political upheaval in Northern England. And when the songs are tightly wound (the short jabs of "English Scheme" and "Pay Your Rates"), they keep everything on track and on time and (at long last) in tune.
Cerebral Caustic (1995)
I'm still not entirely clear what drew Brix Smith back into the orbit of MES and the Fall, but for the '94 tour in support of Middle Class Revolt, she was back on guitar and vocals. And when they hit the studio for this LP, she re-assumed her role as co-songwriter and foil to her ex-husband. Whatever the reason, her return was welcome, if this appropriately titled album is any indication. Cerebral Caustic sounds as if the previous seven years of the Fall simply didn't happen. Outside of some modern production touches -- MES doubling up and obscuring his vocals in a variety of ways, the cleaner recording sound -- this could be the follow up to Frenz/Oranj. Everyone on it sounds more keyed up than ever, outside of Dave Bush, whose work is mostly obscured by the double-guitar attack of Brix and Craig Scanlon and the doubled up drumming of Simon Wolstencroft and Karl Burns. "Feeling Numb" and "One Day" have plenty of six-string bite to them, and the glammy "Don't Call Me Darling" feels particularly nasty. It also appears that MES was finally embracing the possibilities of the recording studio. Not just through his own vocals, but through sonic exercises like "Bonkers in Phoenix," a Brix ballad that he took great pleasure in remixing like a dub plate, speeding up her vocals, cutting in some asides of his own, and lovingly screwing with. Though history proves differently, it certainly felt like a full Fall renaissance was underway.
The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country On The Click) (2003)
The wordy title of this disc was apparently necessary because an early version of the record wound up online, forcing MES to revamp a bunch of the material on it. By all accounts, the changes were vast and, from the descriptions I've read, he altered the tracks for the better. The proof is on the finished product: The Real New Fall LP is one of the strongest entries in the band's catalog in six years, with both MES and his band (most of the folks who made Winner, and new drummer Dave Milner and new keyboardist/new Mark E. paramour Elena Poulou) thrillingly locked together.
I'm not sure that there's anything we can point to as an explanation for everyone upping their individual games here. The band might have started to learn just how to please MES through the trial and error of Winner and locked into the perfect Can-meets-Sonics steps. And I daresay that Ben Pritchard kicks out some of the best slash-and-burn guitar work heard on a Fall record since Craig Scanlon's dismissal. The quartet of players gave MES all the puzzle pieces, complete. Then he got to have some fun taking them apart and making some new pictures and adding his own fragments and colors through his arch, pointed lyrics.
Listening to this record, it finally dawned on me just how in the moment MES is as a songwriter. There's no grand plan in place, he's just letting his particular muse hold sway. If that means writing a song in support of Brian Wilson ("The worm in the bacon of BB/His name was Love...Mike's gift was only poison"), or grousing about the indelicateness of British football fans, or even a few apocalyptic visions, so be it. After nearly 30 years of music making, he's put his trust in that muse. Thankfully, this time around, it gave him some great material to work with.
The Wonderful And Frightening World Of... (1984)
The move to Beggars Banquet, one of the largest indie labels in the U.K., and the introduction of producer John Leckie into the mix sure didn't move the Fall towards more commercial intentions. If anything, they dared to turn in some of their most challenging work in ages.
It had to look especially like that considering the friendly, poppy tone of the singles they recorded and released around the same time ("C.R.E.E.P." and "Oh! Brother"). No punches get pulled here. MES thumbs his nose at the wave of pop and rock acts emerging from Scotland ("Elves"), throws his awful downstairs neighbors under the double-decker ("Craigness"), and depicts an awful day at the happiest place on Earth ("Disney's Dream Debased"). Were it not for the rockabilly-infused, feedback-laden clatter and windy dub experimentation going on throughout, this could be a straight-up punk record.
It's easy to see now the growing influence that Brix was having on the tone of the Fall's work here. The songs co-written by her and MES -- "Elves," "2 x 4," "Disney," and the rabid opener, "Lay of the Land" -- burn hottest on this LP, and she had a hand in getting Gavin Friday, leader of the Virgin Prunes, to memorably lend his quavering voice to two tracks here. If there is still anyone out there scoffing at her inclusion in the Fall fold, let this album be a firm rebuke to that line of thinking.
Hex Enduction Hour (1982)
The Fall hit their stride in a big way with album #4. Here, they've connected even more deeply with the repetitive rhythms and searing guitar duels that would keep them in good stead for the next two decades. The backbeat is beefed up further with the addition of a second drummer (Karl Burns), giving their rhythms a hint of hazard; there are moments during "Jawbone and the Air-Rifle" and "Mere Pseud Mag. Ed." where the whole operation feels in danger of collapsing in a mighty, screeching heap. By the skin of their jagged teeth, they make it through in one piece. And when they settle into a slow-burning groove as on the epic-length "Winter" or one of their signature songs, "Hip Priest," the feeling is deliciously skin-crawling. This sound has an obvious effect on MES. This album is him at his most fearless, spitting out Proustian stories of wandering down a street ("Winter"), a strange tale of a hunter lost in a cemetery ("Jawbone and the Air-Rifle"), and a meandering, strangely poignant ode to the country where most of this LP was recorded ("Iceland"). Like the music surrounding them, his lyrics are rich with detail and incident, humor and anger.
Perverted By Language (1983)
After the stumbling diversion of Room To Live, the Fall right the ship and come up with another near-masterpiece as a result. You get the sense that even the band was beginning to understand how to bring the best work out of MES and vice-versa, possibly due to the amount of touring they were doing by this point. In his book The Big Midweek, bassist Steve Hanley talks about how some of the songs for this album came about during soundchecks, tour rehearsal sessions, or were built from scratch in the studio. In fact, it's Steve's basslines that drive much of this album: the bubbly melody that kicks off "I Feel Voxish," the high-pitched rhythm of the incredible album opener "Eat Y'self Fitter," his work playing against the vocal line on "Hotel Blöedel." This album would be so much less impactful without his presence.
The confidence MES must have had in his band allowed him to attempt some Dadaist exercises in language throughout. "Fitter" sounds as if he has clipped lines from newspaper adverts (the title was apparently a catchphrase on Raisin Bran boxes at the time) and is commenting on them in turn. "Voxish" was his self-proclaimed "sound experiment," where he gets playful with meter and alliteration. There's no grand scheme or point being made; it's just a man delighting as he perverts the Queen's English.
Another figure that may have had an impact on the album was MES's American wife, Brix Smith. As has been discussed throughout the albums from this period, her injection of pop smarts to the songwriting pushed the Fall in some fascinating directions through the '80s. She only pops up twice on this album -- singing and co-writing "Blöedel" and singing background vox on "Fitter" -- but it's no surprise that those are two of the catchier tunes on Perverted, with the latter coming as close to a verse/chorus/verse as you'll find here. She loomed large in the band's legend, and it all started here.
This Nation's Saving Grace (1985)
What makes this Fall record stand head and shoulders above the rest? Certainly it sounds just as vitriolic, spiny, poppy, and artful as the other albums that populate the upper third of this list. How did this one win the race?
For all its stylistic shifts and barmy artistic experiments and MES giddily realizing he can sing about pretty much anything -- his freshly bought Salford home, his hatred of Los Angeles, his favorite Can vocalist -- this strangely comes away as the band's most cohesive album.
I think it has very much to do with the creative push-pull happening in the songwriting. The impulses of the songwriters were going in a half-dozen different directions: the pop leanings of Brix, guitarist Craig Scanlon's art-rock intentions, Steve Hanley's lateral post-punk, the classically-trained weirdness of newest member Simon Rogers, and, of course, MES's cut-and-paste rockabilly/garage. Put together, the elements sparked and fizzed and turned into a pulsing, glistening mass of sound.
Rogers' attempt to write a straightforward rock song emerged as the herky-jerky 6/4 "Spoilt Victorian Child," and his loopy "Paint Work" became a patchwork pop tune thanks to a wonky cassette recording done by MES. The organ stabs and cyclical bass line of Scanlon's "What You Need" became a wobbly cart ride down a cobblestone street. Brix slathered on the technopop glitz to give "L.A." the proper coating of sleaze to match her husband's disgust with the city. And "I Am Damo Suzuki" stitches together elements from various Can songs in service of a loving portrait of the mercurial singer. Impressively, all these disparate threads and slippery, zig-zagging takes on the "Fall Sound" connect together smashingly. Take one element or track away, and the whole thing would unravel.