Readers of a certain age will no doubt recall the once-ubiquitous series of Paul Masson Wine television commercials starring an inebriated Orson Welles intoning: “We will sell no wine . . . before its time.” (Need a refresher peek? Here). I’m reminded of that cultural touch point as I consider today’s installment of Favorite Songs by Favorite Bands. So before we get started today, let’s set a stage: Imagine me sitting here at my computer desk this morning, swirling my cup of coffee grandiosely in your direction, staring deeply into your eyes, and declaiming with uncomfortable sincerity: “I will favorite no band . . . before its time.” Aaaaaaand . . . scene!!
Of the dozen bands covered in this series, Butthole Surfers were the only one that I would have declared as my favorite relatively soon after their inception, their recorded debut, and my first exposure to them. That said, all of the first seven bands I cited in this series were within their first decade of operations at the time that they rose to the top of my personal musical pile, though the record industry’s high-speed assembly line approach to album releases in the ’60s and ’70s meant that some still had sizable catalogs by the times I most adored each of them. That changed when it came to my relationship with Hawkwind, who were nearly a quarter-century old when I judged them to be my favorite, some 17 years after I first heard their music. Ditto with The Residents: they took my personal title ~30 years after their inception, and ~15 years after I acquired my first Residential album. Having made this shift in approach (which must clearly be indicative of my deepening wisdom, patience and discernment)(no?), it seems we shan’t be going back, as that “let it mature” approach is certainly in full effect when I consider the arc of my fandom for The Fall.
As was the case with Butthole Surfers and The Residents, I acquired my first Fall record soon after the musical annus horribilis of my Plebe Year at the Naval Academy, when I was forbidden from openly owning and operating music reproduction devices. (Though, as discussed in the XTC article, I did cheat on the listening front with a small collection of then-favorites, even as my new acquisitions dwindled into nothingness). The Fall had formed in 1976 in England’s Greater Manchester, after founder and guiding light Mark E. Smith was among an audience of about 40 people at the Sex Pistols’ legendary June 4th show at Lesser Free Trade Hall. A statistically improbable number of Smith’s fellow attendees also went on to secure legendary status with such acts as Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths, Simply Red, and The Buzzcocks (who had organized the event), often aided and abetted by Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson, producer Martin Hannett and journalist Paul Morley, all of whom were also at that transformative gig.
By time I purchased my first Fall record, the group had replaced all of its original members except for Smith (in some cases, more than once already), and had five full length studio albums, three live albums, one compilation album, nine singles and two EPs to their name, plus Slates (1981). I cite that final item in a “cheese stands alone” fashion, because if you ever want to start a never-ending argument with a serious Fall fan, just express a strongly-held opinion as to whether it is an album, an LP, a mini-album, an EP, or something sui generis, its own unique category, Slates is Slates. (I’ll tell you where you can best engage in that argument a little later in this article). Those early trends of high personnel turnover and high productivity despite it were to continue throughout the Fall’s long and vibrant career.
Whatever you may choose to call it (for the record, I go with “EP”), an import copy of Slates was my first Fall acquisition, having caught my eye in the bins at Annapolis’ Oceans II Records, where it stood out by being a 10″ record (the rarest of pressing sizes at the time) with a dramatic cover image, and interesting song titles and graphics. I don’t recall having read much, if anything, about the group before then, though I suppose I might have, since they were already seen as being important figures of the emergent post-punk milieu in the U.K. But it was ultimately the interesting visual weirdness of the record that grabbed me, not any overt critical prompting. Well, that and the fact that it seemed like Oceans II might have over-estimated demand for the disc, as they had multiple copies of it, modestly priced for an import. Sold!
Slates was (and remains) wonderful, and from there I moved on to purchase the record considered by many to be their finest, Hex Enduction Hour (1982), which is indeed a stone-cold masterpiece. I picked up a few more of their earlier records, though not a complete collection, liking some a lot (e.g. Grotesque (After the Gramme) from 1980), and some not so much (Dragnet, from 1979). I also wasn’t at all wild about Hex‘s follow-on album, 1982’s Room to Live, which felt to me at the time like a grievous step in a wrong direction, and seemed even more so when I later learned that guitarist-bassist-keyboardist Marc Riley had been pushed out of the band after its creation. I attributed a lot of the sounds I liked in the Fall’s mix to Riley at that point, perhaps correctly, perhaps not. He also featured strongly in the songwriting credits on many of my favorite Fall songs, so my sense of the situation was that the group had lost a very important member, and was likely to be less interesting going forward as a result. I stopped buying Fall albums for a long time after that, but I did always pick up the various records released by Riley and his subsequent group, The Creepers, which were pretty okay, I guess, but not much more. (If Marc Riley’s name rings bells for you, he later went on to be a popular and influential radio figure in the U.K., a status he actively holds to this day).
As things played out, mostly unbeknownst to me at the time, Mark E. Smith replaced Riley with his new American wife, Brix, and together they spent the remainder of the 1980s producing the most popular and, for some, the most successful work of the group’s long career, before Brix and Mark divorced in 1989. She later returned for a pair of albums in the mid-’90s, and is also something of popular media figure in England to this day, currently playing in a group called The Extricated with several other key former Fall stalwarts, including the Hanley Brothers, who recently inspired this supplemental music nerd adventure.
Some time after Brix’s first departure and the demise of Riley’s Creepers, I acquired a pair of Fall compilation albums during my great “Sell All The Records (All Of Them!) To Buy The CDs” era: 458489 A-Sides and 458489 B-Sides. Those discs provided excellent synopses of the Brix era, which sounded pretty darn good to me, and made it clear that I’d bet on the wrong horse, post-Hex. Those compilations led me to more deeply re-investigate that era with fresh ears and eyes, and I enjoyed the experience, most especially The Wonderful and Frightening World Of The Fall album from 1984. (Ironically, I guess, these days I’m back where I was before those 458489 discs in terms of my Fall listening, and I rarely spin anything from the Brix era of the group).
I occasionally checked in with The Fall through the 1990s and early 2000s (a mixed bag era, for sure), though they were largely a side concern for me to be read about in the music press, of intellectual news interest as much as being an act that actually moved me musically in real time. But then another compilation album served as a catalyst for refueling my passion for their catalog, and my need to fill the gaps in my knowledge and experience of same. This one was called 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats (2004), and it first caught my attention primarily for its clever and self-effacing appropriation of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, the King’s 1959 greatest hits collection. This compilation made the ’90s era seem much more interesting to me than it had in real time, but more importantly, it also made me go grab the group’s latest studio record, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click) (2003 U.K. release, 2004 in the U.S.) and it was utterly brilliant, their best album since Hex Enduction Hour to my ears, and still one of my very favorite records by the group, or by anybody else.
So I was suddenly afire for the Fall again, at which point another key facet of my relationship with the group emerged after I was searching for some band information and stumbled upon what was known in 2004 as the Official Fall Website, before Mark E. Smith insisted in some fit of pique that the site be removed completely from the web. At that point, the site became known as The Unofficial Fall Website (2006-2007), and then settled upon a more value-neutral The Fall Online (2007-present). A key component of that website, then and now, was its community message board: The Fall Online Forum, or FOF to its friends. The granular and macro levels of passion, knowledge, and opinion, and the volumes of academic-quality research, interpretation, writing and data there were (and mostly remain) at levels very rarely seen among the fandom of any other nominally rock-based bands of my acquaintance, with the possible exception of the Grateful Dead. It was smart, thorough bordering on the obsessive, and often a very funny read at its best, and it directly contributed to my emergent Fall fixations, not to mention the establishment of some excellent friendships.
I just lurked about and read the FOF from 2004 to 2007, but didn’t actually engage there, because I’d learned from experience already the value of what I call “Serial Monogam-E.” Meaning: I understood how much of a time and energy suck being part of a busy online community can be, so I generally choose to be active in one and only one such community at any given time. My primary interactive attentions through the early 2000s were housed and directed at the priceless and peerless Upstate Wasted (which later became Upstate Ether) website, discussed in more length here. But by 2007, that Albany-based community was winding down and I needed to find a new online home, just as the FOF was conducting one of its occasional cup competitions, in this case to determine by group acclamation over a long elimination bracket process, which was the very greatest of all Fall songs at the time. (For the record, “Leave The Capitol” won; you can hear it in my own Top Ten list below).
In order to vote in that Fall Cup, I had to formally join the Forum, which I did on June 21, 2007. Some 10,000ish personal posts later, I’m still a member there, though I tend to take long breaks from it these days, including being on such a sabbatical right now. As with most lightly- or non-moderated public forums, the FOF often descends into discourse and discussion that I find distasteful, typically driven by the most relentlessly prolific community political trolls and/or by the “must respond to every post” practitioners, typing lots, while saying little. (To be fair, I’m sure there are people at the FOF who feel that way about me when I am most active there). When the Fall were a going concern, the yucko stuff tended to be a readily ignored side track, a minority portion of the much greater whole. But in the absence of any meaningful current Fall talk (the group are no more, alas), the FOF is often now filled beyond tolerable capacity with self-indulgent, shit-stirring streams of sigh-inducing spew. As with my Serial Monogam-E premise, I also believe that when something voluntary that is supposed to be fun stops being so, one must also just stop doing it. I miss some of my friends there, but life’s too short, etc.
I do (and will) make a point of returning to the FOF more actively for an occasional game hosted there called MIU (“Mix It Up”), now just past its 31st installment. It is built on a premise of players providing each other with mix CDs where all identifying information about the songs thereon is removed, and mix assignments are made by a volunteer coordinator, so that nobody knows who created the discs they receive. This approach forces the recipient to write a public review on the FOF without a bunch of preconceived notions about the artists or genres featured. After the review, the mix creators identify themselves, and provide explanatory reveals of their discs, and it’s a very fun way to approach new music. I’ve been gifted songs I love from bands I thought I hated, discovered all sorts of interesting obscurities from bands known and not, shared some of my own off-the-wall favorites, and been pleased when they resonated with others. So while I’m currently in “off” mode with the FOF, I have let friends there know to alert me when the next MIU gets underway, as I will head back for it.
While my personal designee for Favorite Band moved on in other directions a few years after The Fall finally reached “its time” for me (to return to dear dead Orson’s tagline from our introduction today), I never again set the group aside, but instead purchased every subsequent studio album upon its release. I became deeply fond of what ended up being the final incarnation of the Fall, beginning with 2008’s Imperial Wax Solvent: Mark E. Smith (of course), guitarist Pete Greenway, bassist Dave Spurr, and drummer Keiron Melling, plus keyboardist (and wife of Mark) Elena Poulou, on all but their final album, 2017’s New Facts Emerge. That line-up stabilized a group known for its massive personnel turnover, until it was sadly ended by the untimely death of Mark E. Smith from cancer on January 24, 2018. (My heart-felt and real-time obituary for Mark is here).
That day certainly came as a shock for the fandom at large, though there had been signs that all was not well for some time before Mark flew away. The group had announced a (very rare) set of American dates in the autumn of 2017 to support New Facts Emerge, and played a few English gigs after the album’s release, but cancellations (including all of the U.S. shows) were rife. Smith’s onstage appearance during his final concerts (wheelchair bound, arm in a sling, face terribly swollen) was cause for alarm for some — while others saluted the great man for honoring his commitments, doing his job, and being with the audiences who loved him, doubters be damned. I tend to side with the latter camp.
I have long considered Mark E. Smith to be the same sort of musical genius as George Clinton, or Captain Beefheart, or Brian Eno, or David Thomas. They are all organizers and shepherds with very clear visions of what they want from their songs, along with the persuasive skills to extract stellar performances from musicians who might never before nor ever after ascend to such heights. None of those aforementioned visionaries are ace guitarists, or skilled keyboardists, or deeply technical arrangers, or even particularly good singers, but the players they surround themselves with — their teams — are managed in such deft ways as to spark and deliver brilliance, time and time again, in original and often highly unusual styles.
Mark E. Smith was also that greatest of literary devices: a character. Quotable, irascible, intelligent, badly behaved except when he wasn’t, wearing his opinions on his sleeve, sharing his tastes with anyone who’d talk to him, largely unfiltered, mostly impolitic, deeply irreverent, consistently cantankerous, and entertaining to the Nth degree, always. I just liked watching and listening to him talk, even if I couldn’t understand what was coming out of his mouth much of the time. There’s none like him that I know, and none likely to ever fill such a unique creative niche, for so long, so well, again. Simply brilliant. Deeply missed.
There are about 520 songs which were recorded or played live by The Fall over their long and prolific run. Soon after Mark E. Smith’s death, I posted a couple of articles of appreciation about him and The Fall, and for one of them, I trawled through that catalog and posted a list of my Top Ten Fall Songs. I revisited that list today to see if it still held water for me, and it most definitely does, so the roster of songs below is the same now as it was then. Which makes sense, I suppose, since the group is defunct, and I’m not at all interested in any vault trawling for half-baked posthumous releases. I default to studio album versions for the links embedded in my list, though many Fall Fans will often cite Peel Session or other live versions as definitive. There’s no right answer, ever, when it comes to The Fall.
One final note: I resisted the urge to change the title of this post to “Favorite Songs By Favorite Groups #11: The Fall,” because Mark E. Smith regularly insisted that The Fall were not a band, but were a group. Or a gruppe, when he was waxing Teutonic. I’m sure that distinction meant something important to him, but I can’t say precisely what that something might be. I ended up keeping the title as it is on the other posts in this series, but do consciously refer to Smith and colleagues as a group here in this post itself, as he would have wanted. Bless.
#10. “Dr Bucks’ Letter,” from The Unutterable (2000)
#9. “Mountain Energei,” from The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country On The Click) (2003)
#8. “Who Makes the Nazis?,” from Hex Enduction Hour (1982)
#7. “Weather Report 2,” from Your Future Our Clutter (2010)
#6. “Alton Towers,” from Imperial Wax Solvent (2008)
#5. “Leave The Capitol,” from Slates (1981)
#4. “Fall Sound,” from Reformation Post TLC (2007)
#3. “Fantastic Life,” from “Lie Dream of a Casino Soul” Single (1981)
#2. “Blindness,” from Fall Heads Roll (2005)
#1. “Noel’s Chemical Effluence,” from The Twenty-Seven Points (1995)
Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.
Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.