Back when I wrote and posted my original Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series, one of the longest pieces in that sequence of articles was about the always-remarkable British post-punk group, The Fall. The length of that piece was necessary because The Fall group themselves had an exceptionally rich and complex personnel history, their body of work was immense and wildly varied, my own relationships with and reactions to the group’s work are deep and broad, and because I also have a long involvement (since about 2004) with one of the key virtual communities of Fall fans, namely the Fall Online Forum. Which is populated by a truly incredible assortment of smart and interesting folks whose passion for the Fall and for its late chief, Mark E. Smith, can border upon, or often blow completely beyond, the levels of musical, lyrical, historical, and cultural obsession that most creative artists can ever dream of inspiring.
Around early 2017, a relatively new member of the “FOF” (as Fall Online Forum regulars typically cite it) going by the handle of “Steve69” began to be highly active on the message boards there. We clicked and connected fairly early on during his time there, in the ways that online friendships blossom around shared interests, or shared worldviews, or shared approaches to virtual communities, or shared experiences. I later learned his real-world surname was “Pringle,” which prompted long discussions online (because of course it did) about what that name evokes in the UK (i.e. a type of “jumper” — which we know as a “sweater” here in the States — once favored by Mark E. Smith himself) and in the USA (i.e. a pre-formed potato chip sold in tubes).
Both Steve and I have had periods of absence from the FOF, which can be truly wonderful for its over-the-top passions and enthusiasms continually expressed there on the most incredibly wide array of topics, but which can also occasionally become exhausting precisely because of those passions and enthusiasms. At some point in early 2018, Steve and I were both on FOF Sabbaticals, but were still keeping in touch via email. He posited an interesting idea for a deeply ambitious writing project called “The Fall in Fives,” within which he would evaluate every song the Fall had ever released (there were over 500 of them) in randomly generated groups of five titles.
It was a crazy undertaking, on some plane, but as someone who has routinely launched crazy undertakings on my own website (including this little Fall-inspired adventure), I was supportive and encouraging of his idea, and offered some small tips and pointers on how to roll it out on WordPress, and to promote it via social media. As is the case with most online projects like that, things started slowly, but the quality and depth of Steve’s posts quickly caught the attention of the Greater Fall Community, including numerous former group members, who weighed in or offered perspective on his project. Many other FOF members (both Steve and I returned to the Forum as his project was taking off) also chimed in to provide pointers, express enthusiasms, and offer occasional outrage, with fellow obsessive Fall-site creators bzfgt (The Annotated Fall) and dannyno (The Flickering Lexicon) playing particularly important roles in the Forum’s meta-analysis of Steve’s own analyses.
As Steve got deeper and deeper into the thing, and as it became clear that, Dear God, he was actually going to finish it, The Fall in Fives emerged as a truly interesting, engaging, and borderline encyclopedic online resource for all things Fall. But given the purposeful “mix-master” approach to hearing and evaluating songs from all over the group’s catalog in no discernible order, and also not content to rest on his laurels, Steve then expanded and adapted content from The Fall in Fives to document and consider the Fall’s recorded output on a more intuitive album-by-album basis, dubbing that second project “You Must Get Them All” (more on that title below). And as if that weren’t enough, he then also launched a fun and well-produced series of podcasts to supplement the whole, huge thing.
As wonderful as that online body of work became, anybody who has created large and complex web projects knows that keeping such projects from quickly succumbing to the entropy of the Internet is a constant struggle, and many of the very best online resources at any point in time soon become unusable as image and video files are removed, links break, comment bots and human trolls swarm, browser and content management technologies change, etc. So, having been barking mad enough to create The Fall in Fives and You Must Get Them All in the first place, Steve boldly set off to re-format the whole thing for print. He pitched it to Route (a “terraced publishing house in the north of England with a principle commitment to authentic stories and good books”), who bit on the project, and have brought it to market this month in the form of a truly magnificent book:
The title of the book (and the website that preceded it) comes from a quote by legendary English DJ John Peel, who was deeply committed to the Fall and their music, hosting the group for live “Peel Sessions” 24 times between 1978 and 2004. That quote appears on the back cover of Steve’s book:
People write to me and say, “I heard The Fall, which record should I get?” And I never have any hesitation in telling them: you must get them all, because it’s impossible to pick one . . . and in fact, I’ll go further. I say: anybody who can tell you the five best Fall LPs, or the five best Fall tracks, has missed the point, really. It’s the whole body of the work that is to be applauded.
And now, it is also Steve Pringle’s detailed and delightful analysis of that whole body of work which is also to be applauded. Running to 656 pages, You Must Get Them All organizes, explains, and evaluates the Fall’s entire tangled history, with each and every release, and each and every song, and each and every group member being documented, discussed, and appreciated.
The book’s main text is formatted chronologically around the Fall’s 33 studio albums. (Which seems a simple, non-controversial sentence for me to write, but numerous Music Nerd Wars have been fought on the FOF and elsewhere over whether that “33” number is real, accurate, or meaningful, with key arguments hinging on whether the Fall’s brilliant 1981 release, Slates, is an album, or a mini-album, or an EP, or something else). Within each chapter, Steve discusses the personnel and personal forces at work within the Fall, cultural and political happenings surrounding the group for context, the recording processes, locations, and key collaborators for each album, Steve’s own critical reviews and musical analyses of each and every song, summaries of contemporary reviews and reactions, and an overall critical evaluation of each record as an entity within the spectrum of Fall sounds.
The main text is then followed by a series of really valuable reference appendices, discussing The Fall’s Peel Sessions, Fall Compilation Albums, Fall Live Albums, and a “Who’s Who” wrap-up of the countless players, producers, engineers, label chiefs, disc jockeys, promoters and more who played important roles in the Fall’s long history. There’s also a fantastic introduction from Paul Hanley, drummer-keyboardist from what many would consider to be The Fall’s finest era; many former Fall figures have written books over the years, and having read most all of them, I would say with no hesitation that the finest and most insightful writer among that crew is Paul.
And I would also now label Steve Pringle as another most fine and insightful writer. As a person who reads a lot of books about music and music-making, I can tell you that there are generally two types of tomes within that genre. First, there are vast and sprawling books that detail every single nuance or factoid about artists and their bodies of work. Such books are generally very useful as reference, but consuming them can often be about as exciting as reading a phone book or a TV Guide, with little-to-no actual good writing framing the details. Then at the other end of the spectrum, you often get super-artful, beautifully-written books filled with rich, florid text and arching long-form narratives, but often at the expense of detail, or even accuracy, when an author feels the need to bend the story to fit the desired plot points and denouements.
It is exceptionally rare to find books of music journalism where authors demonstrate equal skills as diligent researchers, accurate archivists, exceptional educators, and evocative story-tellers, but Steve Pringle has most definitely achieved that exquisite balance with You Must Get Them All. The Fall’s story is a marvelous one, told by Steve with taste and style, funny and fun in parts, tragic and awful in others. There’s no force-fitting or glossing-over of elements to support a pre-planned creative progression, and even the Epilogue (describing the group’s final days and Mark E. Smith’s untimely death) avoids the types of false sentimentality and over-generalization and myth-making that many similar books succumb to in trying to package nearly a half-century’s worth of happenings into one neat and tidy, well-wrapped bundle.
And on the flip-side, the depth of detail presented herein is just as powerful, and just as effective, and just as well-organized as one could ever expect from such a complicated career retrospective analysis. The structure of the books is solid and sound, and I love the ways that Steve uses foot-noting and asides to add bits that are fun, or helpful, but not necessarily essential to the main narrative, should a reader wish to not go yet another layer deep into the group’s creative architecture and approaches. Because of this balance, You Must Get Them All also becomes that rare volume that can conceivably be of equal value to the most ferocious Fall Fans, to those readers who may be dipping their toes for the first time in the Fall’s sea of riches, or even for those curious souls who may just want to read a fascinating story about an eclectic and important collection of artists and personalities.
It’s a winner, at bottom line, and I highly commend it to your attention accordingly. And I also commend Steve Pringle for his persistence of vision in bringing this work to completion. It was a fun privilege to sort of see the whole thing coming together over the past several years, and there were so many points along the path where most people would have said “enough” and congratulated themselves on their achievements to date. But not Steve, who took a passing idea and turned it into a massive reality, to the benefit of so many fans, listeners, and readers. Bravo!