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Wonderful And Frightening: Remembering And/Or Rediscovering Mark E. Smith And The Fall

It doesn’t matter if you’re a curious teenager with a Spotify account or a graying zealot sitting on decades worth of accumulated vinyl: Sooner or later, there will be a heretofore barely-surface-scraped cult band to be reckoned with, one whose enthusiastic following and pervasive influence somehow still hasn’t yet permeated your brain. I front sometimes like I’m a real hardcore music-geek type — building 100-song playlists sourced entirely from the grimiest, most obscure songs Madlib sampled, or having multi-tiered opinions on which Sun Ra albums are the best of certain periods (1978’s Lanquidity is a must), or going into a Discogs k-hole after wondering what else there is in the world of noisy lo-fi ’90s Japanese psych after getting knocked stupid by Tokyo Flashback. But even if I pared back my dork level to “can name more than two Krautrock bands,” I’d still feel late to the party when it comes to the Fall. For more than 15 years now they’ve felt like that yawning chasm of a taste gap for me, one of the things to shamefacedly slot into the sentiment that you cannot call yourself a true music obsessive until you hear ________.

The moment I learned of Mark E. Smith’s passing on Wednesday at the age of 60, the first thing I thought was “holy shit, I should put on something from This Nation’s Saving Grace.” The second thing I thought was “wait, what else have I really heard besides This Nation’s Saving Grace?” at which point I found myself wondering why a 40-year-old critic who’d been fiending over music for three-quarters of his life even had to ask that question. Yeah, I knew enough to laugh the first time I saw that iPad commercial with the kid asking “what’s a computer?” but the Fall don’t seem like the kind of band that a casual listener can just Greatest Hits their way through and be done with it. Even if they’ve lent themselves well to at least one compilation that suggests it might be a strong starting point, said compilation, 458489 A Sides, was released 27 years before last summer’s swan song New Facts Emerge, and I’ve heard good-enough things about that one that fashioning some kind of chronological “stop caring here” point seems useless. Even the kinds of personnel upheavals that led Smith to allow for “me and your granny on bongos” as a canonical version of the Fall don’t typically portend some kind of extended fallow period for the b(r)and. There’s a somewhat more recent release, 2004’s hilariously titled 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong – 39 Golden Greats, that expands the parameters a bit — but let’s face it, not only does 50,000 fans feel like an underestimate, 50,000 songs would, too.

And that’s the stumbling block: positioning your band as the focal point for a small but fervent group of evangelicals who stump for a massive and unwieldy catalog is a hard enough sell when the music has a chance to grab you right away. The Fall… kind of don’t. Unless you’re wired to, anyways, and those with an instant predisposition towards elliptical lyrics and repetitive drones that hammer away to the point of near-hostility seemed to have lucked the fuck out with that particular group, I know that much. But people who Get It before you do often feel, mistakenly, like adversaries in these cases. To someone in their early 20s, like I was when I first encountered Fall advocates, trying to negotiate an internet minefield of music-fan opinions at both the most enthusiastic and the most prone-to-kneejerk-dipshittery time in a fan’s life is intimidating at best. That fervor feels like a cold stare, a flicked ash, and the irritated calculations of someone who’s too often wasted their time arguing with someone at length when that poor dope would just be better off sticking with the White Stripes or something. This, of course, is a stupid assumption, but sometimes a stupid assumption is the only thing saving someone from having to wipe the blood and brick dust from their head after hours of banging it against the wall trying so hard to Get It. It doesn’t help that as personalities go, Mark E. Smith isn’t the most amiable type. He was, even as fans might admit, a man who was not just apart from the mainstream but easy to clock as too antagonistic to the uninitiated. Not just side-eyeing certain lyrics of “The Classical” as problematic, but actually factoring in how he almost dictatorially controlled the people closest to him, including his alienation of creative catalyst ex-bandmate/wife Brix Smith and his violent assault on Julie Nagle. That’s the kind of rep that makes full devotion seem even further out of reach to the unconverted.

But I wound up at This Nation’s Saving Grace somehow way back when, and I don’t even remember on whose terms — it could’ve been the taste of someone I trusted finally getting through to me, or it could’ve been me pushing my skepticism aside for just long enough to take a gamble on the album that Rate Your Music still ranks as their best by a sliver as of less than 24 hours after Smith’s death. (I gave it four stars a few years back. Could be a lowball.) And Robert Ham, who took the impressive and exhausting gesture of ranking all their albums when there were only 30 of them (there’s now 32), swears by it on this very site — so there you go. What I do know is that it got its hooks in my sleeve, if not yet my actual arm proper, finding a lot to like in its clobberish impact and Smith’s ear for finding the same pleasure in the power of groove-driven repetition as my favorite dance and hip-hop producers did. The lyrics stuck, too — spoilt Victorian child! is a turn of phrase that comes across as the “cellar door” of irritable Mancunian drawling, and opened the door to new levels of vitriolic amazement. After a protracted messageboard argument-fueled series of “this guy’s voice is irritating” and “these lyrics are pointless” and “I guess the music’s all right but it’s no Hüsker Dü” flag-plantings, I had to take at least something of an L. I thought I hated this band: how did they click? Why did they click?

The (all-too) easy answer is influence. I’ll come right out and say that as far as their most famous purported stylistic heirs go, Pavement was kind of an acquired taste to me, so attempting to get into the Fall when I was still trying to work out whether I actually liked Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain felt like trying to go from gefilte fish to hákarl. And yet there was MES barking out along with Elastica on Fall tribute “How He Wrote Elastica Man” and I still think The Menace is hell of underrated so maybe there were some dots I still had to connect. (For differing generations and/or tastes, substitute Coldcut, Inspiral Carpets, Edwyn Collins, or Gorillaz where applicable. For a man with no range, the man had range.) I suppose it helps when you know the reach, start to get the jokes, finally begin to hear the nuances in words that initially just sounded like free association, and then the roadmap — the grid, really — draws itself before your eyes. Beefheart + Can + Velvets + Link Wray? Maybe, for starters; god knows that’s a reductive set of references, but that’s where you have to plant yourself sometimes. And the talismanic power of those names strung together is a hell of a jolt, I gotta admit.

Once you hear those threads tie together, finding the other ones that wove through their ’80s post-punk peak and onwards becomes almost archeologically fascinating. Hey, I know this nutty garage rock single — they’re doing a great version of it. Here’s them messing with a Rodgers/Edwards classic. Oh wow OK now they’re trying everything at once, what the hell, is that a turntable. It’s not that they’re the kind of cult band that thrived merely because they’re such outsiders — it’s because they’re the kind of band that really starts to speak to you the more far-flung and open-eared your tastes get. Knowing just where Smith and the Fall stood in the whole musical continuum, inside and outside of it at the same time, makes all that vast discography seem less like an obstruction and more like a chance for a whole bunch of revelations. No wonder John Peel, who championed everything from early psychedelia to hardcore jungle, fell so hard for them — and him on the cusp of 40 at the time, too. Maybe Mark E. Smith passing is the only way I’d be sure to have a chance at catching up with the countless volume of music he put into this world — a world he saw with a jaundiced eye that seemed more and more understandable with each passing album. It’s never too late to start a cult, much less join one, and I’ve got my next step planned already. What’s to get? I’m excited to find out.