Saturday, 30 January 2021


”What really went on there?
"We only have this excerpt”
- ’Cruiser’s Creek’

After Mark E Smith died, now two years ago, every pundit, pontificator and professional sofa-sitter had to briefly pretend they were a great fan of the Fall. And really enjoyed that ‘chat’ with him which was really an excruciating anti-interview in which he’d stayed obstinately taciturn throughout. Then probably went to the nearest pub and waxed lyrical with a painter and decorator for the next three hours. But now all that chaff’s blown away, it’s the time to ask what it was which made the band so memorable? And when were they at their mightiest?

Stewart Lee, a rare example of a celeb who not only got the Fall but seemed to hit it off with Smith when interviewing him, has cheerily admitted that when he first heard the band he found them terrible. (“I just thought 'This is absolutely awful. This bloke can't sing, it's repetitive, it doesn't make any sense, all the things are out of tune, it just goes on and on the same. I hate it'. Then I heard it again and for all those reasons I thought, 'This is also brilliant'.”)

Me too, truth be told. It was only through John Peel playing them so persistently that I finally got there. Were I first hearing them today, with the ever-present and too-easily-pressed skip button, I’d most likely never have made it. As it was, antagonism became repellant fascination and finally devotion.

And for the reasons Lee gives. You didn’t see through the apparent draw-backs, such as Smith’s lack of singing ability. (The way some say they got inured to Dylan’s drawl.) Those apparent obstacles just transformed themselves into unique strengths. Everything that was wrong about them became what was right, everything that didn’t fit suddenly did. They didn’t change, the Fall were just the Fall. Your brain reoriented around them.

Were they a punk band? In Britain, punk largely followed the same trajectory as Bart Simpson, when he got briefly famous as the ‘I Didn’t Do It Kid’. It had been defined early by the infamous ’Sniffin’ Glue’ slogan: “here’s a chord, here’s another, now form your own band”. The upside of this is that a lot of people did form their own bands (the Fall included) and sometimes this was even a good idea.

The downside of this is that there isn’t really much to do after you’ve played your two chords apart from play them again. Consequently, most bands found themselves trapped in diminishing returns. Yet those who tried to venture further found all-too-often those two chords were all they ever really had. They became like rejected suitors, valiantly springing back with different hairstyles, extra instruments or other gimmicks but hopeless in the fact that the lacking lay in their very selves. Many bands went into half-life after their first album. Sometimes their first single.

But the Fall found themselves able to venture far and wide, while always keeping the magic two chords with them. The title track ’Repetition’, from their first EP, proffered their oft-quoted mantra – “repetition in our music and we’re never gonna lose it.” It kept them going for the next forty-two years, even if – as everyone knows – the only constant was frontman Mark E Smith.

Did they ever lose it? That's a thorny issue among fans. But most would agree it was the years from that 1978 EP which were to provide the band’s golden age – and the subject of what follows here. Here we’re taking it up to <i>’Perverted by Language’</i> in 1983. (Their silver age, which by my reckoning runs up to 1989’s ’I Am Kurious Oranj’, may be covered at some future point. You never know.)

Like many a band from that era, the Fall were galvanised into action by seeing the Sex Pistols. And listening to that first EP, ’Bingo-Master’s Break-Out’ (recorded in ‘77 if not released until the following year) you can hear that on the title track. Happily, it’s more influenced by Rotten’s sardonic humour than the normal numbskull social commentary and earnest promises to “the kids”. A sense of humour Smith then filters simultaneously through Northern miserablism and arch Surrealism.

This was when most band responded to the Pistols by switching from faux-American accents to Mockney. (Even, most risibly, Edinburgh band the Exploited.) While Smith’s singing was so Mancunian people commented his mouth sounded full of mushy peas. Guitarist Martin Bramah has commented “Mark picked up on how to make Manchester interesting”, resulting in “’Coronation Street’ on acid”.

The soul-sick Bingo Master is titled but never named throughout the song, as if there was no extracting him from the job he’d grown to loathe. So showbiz, the standard dream of escape from routine, becomes just another rote job. And, via transposing bingo calling into a punk number, rock music itself is drawn in. “Wasted time in numbers and rhymes/ One hundred blank faces buy” could easily refer to a moribund rock star, hauling himself on stage and going through the motions “for the fans”.

But it’s the EP’s flip-side, with the track ’Repetition’, where the band’s other influences come to the fore – the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Can and Faust. If it’s most famous for confirming the brand’s credo (quoted above)its slow, rumbling tempo is at least as important to their sound. The initial burst of noise, and promise to "get real speedy" lull the listener into believing some lead guitar action is about to break in, whereas what you get is the very opposite.

Despite their beginnings, the Fall identified more as an underground than a punk band. (Smith had a particular disdain for punk fashion which he saw – in many ways correctly – as a successor to glam, against which he preferred the hippie underground.) As we’ll see, the covers of the first two albums are anti-bucolic, imagery which suggests an inverted version of psychedelia. Wikipedia gives one of its features as “dechronicization”, or ”permit[ting] the drug user to move outside of conventional perceptions of time”. And Smith said “the last thing you want is regular time”.

But if they didn’t extend time like psychedelia tended to, they slowed it, made it sluggish. The track sounds like the players were trying to achieve some sprightlier tempo, but have their hands mired in glue. It sounds like a bad drugs experience which in enveloping you overcomes time, the clock hand failing to turn. (All of these are, of course, good things.)

And all at the height of the expectation that 'punk' songs were short, fast and spiky. (Think of the Clash's “the band went in, knocked 'em dead, two minutes fifty-nine.”) These days there are Godspeed tracks you can't put on without being late for work the next day. But back then pushing past five minutes was almost anathema.

And even after those punk days were done, the Fall still seemed to beam in from a different reality system. These being ye olde days of LP records, people were forever asking me if they were playing at the right speed. I remember someone taping one off me, in a particularly perverse act, too slowly. I took to the tape, often asking to hear it.

Then, hidden away on the flip side to their second (and most forgettable) single, came the hugely significant 'Various Times'. It was the first Fall song to focus on time, serving up scenes from past, present and future. The moral – and you can almost use that word – is that time’s a useless appendage, as no-one ever learns anythinguseful from it, to the point where it finally gives up on us. (Time’s end was predicted for Nineteen Eighty.)

It’s to Buddhism what Satanism is to Christianity, adopting all the precepts but only in the negative. Here there is nothing but the wheel, a mirthless merry-go-round where no-hopers live their lives in a state of bad faith, learning nothing over and over again. (Later songs would return to this theme, such as ‘Backdrop’, with it’s dig at “the re-run which is your life”.) It’s a classic piece of Smith misanthropy.

But what’s most important here is the combination - the time-blurring themes set to the time-distorting non-standard tempos. Music seems to affect the process of time. Listen to gabba and then acoustic blues, or to a symphony and then some top twenty hits. Time will not seem to be passing at the same rate at all. And the sinister slowing spells the Fall cast on the tempos of rock seemed to denude time, as if overpowering it, in a way which went well with tales of time travel. Smith was wont to claim he was (or had been) psychic, one indication of which was his aura stopping any watches which came near him. More of that sort of thing anon...


  1. Enjoyed this, thanks. (It was three chords not two though!)

  2. I think it was Peter Christopherson who replied "but who do you need so many?" That just strengthened his point!