It was announced tonight that Mark.E.Smith, the leader of the Fall, had died, age 60. The person who told me was Marc Riley on BBC 6 Music, who had actually been in the Fall in their early days. He got kicked out by Mark.E – who was a very curmudgeonly person – as did many other band members over the years. It must have been hard for him to talk about it tonight, because they clearly had not been friends for a long time, and yet they had deep roots together. Marc abandoned his Who’s on my T-Shirt? competition, a Wednesday staple, and mainly played Fall records in the last part of his show.
The Fall are a band that I have always been interested in, without being a massive fan of all their music. There are a few tracks I have really loved, and I wrote about them in my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey“. This is what I said:
The Fall were – still are – an extraordinary band. Fronted by Mark E Smith, the band otherwise features a revolving cast of characters. But the basic sound remains the same: jagged guitar riffs, jerky bass lines, and Mark E declaiming over the top. He’s gone a bit dancey and electronic at times; he had a short spell in the lower reaches of the pop charts in the mid-eighties; but in the end Mark E Smith has ploughed his own furrow, ranting and sometimes raving, ever obscure lyrics, always interesting. I’ve dipped in and out of The Fall’s music over the years. I’ve bought a few albums and usually found them fairly hard work. But there have always been tracks where I’ve thought, this is brilliant! So I find the compilations have done it for me. When vinyl was still king, I picked a couple of excellent compilations covering different stages of The Fall’s life. “Palace of Swords Reversed” came out in 1987 and covered songs from 1980 to 1983. “458489 A Sides” (1990) did the same for 1984-89, as the title suggests. These and later tracks have been replicated and extended by a couple of great CD compilations: “50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong” which covers the earlier years, and “A World Bewitched”, which does the same for the 1990s.
My favourite Fall song is “Totally Wired”, which came out in 1980. It’s a pretty basic bit of rock’n’roll in which Mark E tells us how he comes to be totally wired – drugs and coffee basically. He’s angry and worried. It’s a song on the edge. And it has one of those magical moments, when something kicks in and takes the song onto a higher level. In this case, after a few rants the bass switches tack and just does a deep dun-de-dun-de-dun at the end of a line. Then does it again. It doesn’t sound like much on a page, but it hits me every time. It’s in keeping with a lot of this music I’m including under post-punk – the bass takes on the role of a lead instrument. Simple – we’re not talking about intricate bass solos – but singing.
From around the same time, I really liked “How I Wrote Elastic Man”. A crazed, almost rockabilly riff, and lyrics which are full of self-loathing and random connections. I could not tell you what it all means, but it sounds like it means something. Elastic sometimes sounds like plastic. The newspapers get a mention. So do lots of other things. But I can’t tell you what. No matter, Mark E still isn’t happy.
The pop period – well, not exactly pop, but close – yielded some of the most memorable songs. This was second half of the eighties. It was probably because they had a bit more melody and coherence. Not better than the rest, but easier to relate to. Still left field, quirky, but more rooted in the music of the time. The biggest hit was “There’s a Ghost in My House”, a fairly straight cover of the R. Dean Taylor original from ‘74, which reached No 30 in 1987. Yeah, biggest hit No 30. I was a bit surprised when I checked that: I’d have guessed it was something like No 8. It was certainly on the radio a lot. The next biggest hit, reaching the dizzy heights of No 35, was also a cover: a version of The Kinks’ “Victoria”. Again pretty faithful. It was just typical that biggest hits for such a distinctive and challenging band as The Fall should be cover versions. The pop period included a number of other songs which invited you to dance and sing along – in an arsey kind of way, of course. Songs like “Hey Luciani”, “Telephone Thing”, “Mr Pharmacist”, “Hit the North”. The latter had a brilliant B-side called “Australians in Europe”. A fast-paced punky thing. Didn’t say an awful lot more than Australians in Europe, but aligned to the music it conjured up all sorts of images. And it just amused me that this might be something that Mark E Smith was agitated about.
That was the essence of The Fall. Agitation. Jerky, aggressive music, sometimes danceable. Angry or bewildered or totally obscure lyrics, delivered in Mark E’s shouty fashion. Always issuing a challenge – this is me, take it or leave it. John Peel loved the band and supported them until the day he died. I can see why, and the tunes I’ve described here are real favourites.
As I said in the book, my favourite tune is “Totally Wired”. There’s no official video that I can see, but this one has the studio recording of the song.
Thinking about it, one of my new favourite bands, Goat Girl, sound like the Fall may have been an influence – certainly “How I Wrote Elastic Man”. Mark.E.Smith’s legacy will live on.
He died young by today’s standards. I really like Totally Wired! Your excerpt from “I Was There” is brilliant.