In some ways, I think it’s probably remarkable Mark E Smith made it to 60. Well known for his drinking, not to mention his love of amphetamines (it comes up A LOT in Fall lyrics), Smith lived life on the edge for what seemed to be all of his adult life. None of this removes the sadness of the fact that, as of today, we no longer inhabit the same reality as does the unique Mark E Smith.
I figured the best way to memorialise Smith and his mega-project known as The Fall, a band that had over 60 members come in and out of it over its 40+ years existence, a band that was entirely built around Smith’s musical personality (despite him not playing an instrument) and singular worldview, would be to talk about my favourite four Fall songs.
It was actually hard to choose which four to pick. The Fall are like no other band in so many ways, not least of which is that they do not conform to the standard band trajectory of inspired beginning that leads to fan base, followed by trying to milk the same basic musical ground for as many years as possible. Nor is The Fall like other bands who break out of this mould, like The Beatles – the Fab Four managed to continually improve by evolving their sound drastically. As John Peel said of the The Fall: always the same, but always different. Somehow The Fall continued to sound fresh, whatever year their latest album came out in, while still sound exactly like The Fall.
Here are my four picks:
1. Who Makes the Nazis? (1982) – from the album “Hex Induction Hour”
The album Hex Induction Hour might just be a good place to start if you’re wondering if The Fall is for you. Not just because a lot of Fall fans think it’s their best album (I’m not amongst them), but because it is their most in your face statement of intent. It was, at the time, meant to be The Fall’s last record.
“Who Makes the Nazis?” is the standout track for me. The lyrics continually ask the question posed by the title, only to come up with a list of things only Mark E Smith would possibly think of. “Intellectual half-wits”, fine, but then we also get “bad TV”, “arena badges” and “buffalo lips on toast, smiling”. The chorus tells us that the Nazis are “long-horn, long-horn breed”. It’s one of those things that works because it’s The Fall.
I love how all the instruments apart from the drums lay out near the end; a slightly out of tune ukulele pops up, becoming the only harmonic instrument. Over this, Smith tells us, “When you’re out of rocks, just give them real soul”.
2. English Scheme (1980) – from the album “Grotesque”
This is a song that is very much of its time, but has become relevant again thanks to the approaching post-Brexit Britain. It recalls a period when Britain was certainly less than “cool” and indeed, as shows like Auf Wiedersehen, Pet immortalised, reminds us that there really was a period when Brits went abroad to the continent in search of better work.
“O’er grassy dale, and lowland scene – come see, come hear, the English Scheme,” Smith starts with, and over a punchy two minutes elaborates on what the English Scheme as of 1980 looks like: bad chests, scrounged fags, Peter Cook’s jokes, bad dope. “The clever ones tend to emigrate” we’re told, before Smith adds: “Like your psychotic big brother, who left home – for jobs in Holland, Munich, Rome”. The middle-classes, accepting unquestioningly some half-witted, recycled Marxism as the solution to all the country’s problems (sound familiar?) “talk of Chile while driving through Haslingden” and “point their fingers at America”. “If we was smart we’d emigrate,” goes the final line.
3. Frightened (1979) – from the album “Live at the Witch Trials”
Despite the title, “Live at the Witch Trials” is not a live album – although their third album would be recorded live, and in suitable Fall fashion, mostly in a leisure centre in Doncaster in front of people who sound like they weren’t impressed. Called “Totale’s Turns”, it often features Smith berating his bandmates while the song is in play. “Stop fucking about and get it together!” he tells the bass player at one point in “No Xmas for John Quays”. The bass line instantly improves as a result.
“Frightened” is the very first song on the very first Fall record. And it is as great an introduction to the world as any band has ever made.
Over a brilliant, laconic riff, Smith gives us an introduction to his mind. “Someone’s always on my tracks” he starts with, paranoid from the start. “I feel trapped by mutual affection – and I don’t know how to use freedom”. There’s not much more I can say about this other than you should not allow yourself to expire before hearing it.
4. I Am Damo Suzuki (1985) – from the album “This Nation’s Saving Grace”
Damo Suzuki was the lead singer of a German band called Can. Suzuki was a Japanese kid doing a gap year style tour of Europe. He was busking in Munich when he was discovered by the band, who had just lost their lead singer. Together, Suzuki and Can made some weird albums together.
“I Am Damo Suzuki” is a sort Can tribute. It doesn’t really sound like Can, although it has elements of their style – the bizarre relationship between the drums and the rest of the instruments, for instance, which isn’t quite right and yet feels intentional. Yet the song still sounds like The Fall. Smith does a sort of half-impression of Suzuki, while saying things like “Soundtracks, Soundtracks – melched together, the lights, the lights above you.” He still sounds like Mark E Smith.
Phil Beesley says
For me, it is Container Drivers.
But from recent work — which has been less exposed than the early stuff — “50 Year Old Man” can be bonkers.
I remember hearing I am curious orange, probably on John Peel’s show sometime in the early 90s, and it had stuck with me ever since. We have lost a singular British talent/tyrant.