At the end of Part 2, I described The Fall as “kind of obscure”, which I can already foresee will annoy several of you. Well, you may have a social circle who know all about Mark E Smith and his miraculous career, but I can guarantee you that the band is not a household name, even in England. They called their best of album “50,000 Fall Fans Can’t be Wrong” for a reason. Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s move on.
The Fall, for those of you not involved in a social circle where this information is assumed knowledge, were a band that was formed in Prestwich, a suburb of Manchester, north and slightly west of the city centre, in the mid-1970s. Even if you’ve never been to Prestwich, if you’ve spent any significant time in the north of England you can imagine it fully: a high street filled with dilapidated shops, the only businesses doing decent trade being the old man pubs that are copious (in Prestwich they are all John Holt pubs, which helps make them bearable). At least that’s what it was like in the latter half of the 20th century – I’m sure someone will respond to this telling me about the latter day gentrification of Prestwich.
The band very soon became Mark E Smith, the lead singer of the group, and whomever he recruited into the fold. This was cemented by the fact that every original member of the band other than Smith left the group before they even recorded their first album. “If it’s your gran on bongos and Mark E Smith, then it’s the Fall,” Smith himself once said.
The Fall recorded “Room to Live” in a hurry during the summer of 1982. Their last album, “Hex Enduction Hour” was only three or four months old at the time and had got the band more press than their previous outings. Anyone else would have rested on their laurels for a wee bit – not Mark E Smith. He probably thought he needed to strike while the iron was hot. In fact, it says a lot about the project that was The Fall that “Hex Enduction Hour” was meant to be the group’s last – that idea really didn’t last long then.
Most Fall fans are a bit down on “Room to Live”. It falls in a gap between two eras of the group’s history: the early Fall, from the beginning until “Hex Induction Hour”, and the band after Smith met Brix Smith, an American guitar player he would marry and bring into the group almost simultaneously, who changed the group into a more poppy outfit over the course of six studio albums that spanned the rest of the 1980s. Fall fans tend to either think the pre-Hex era is supreme, or think the Brix era was best. “Room to Live” feels like a go between and gets forgotten.
That “Room to Live” sounds dashed off doesn’t hurt it in my opinion; having this quality actually helps the album, given The Fall’s style. It starts with “Joker Hysterical Face”, a song driven almost entirely by Steve Hanley’s bass line. Hanley, it should be noted was the only member of The Fall whose tenure and importance to the band’s history and sound rivals Smith’s. He joined the band in 1979, shortly after the recording of “Live at the Witch Trials”, the group’s first full length album. Most of the band that recorded “Witch Trials” left the group shortly after the recording, and Smith asked Hanley, who was a roadie of sorts for the band at the time, to join. He stuck around almost 20 years, only leaving following an infamous on-stage brawl occurred in New York City, after which every member of the band bar Smith’s wife (not Brix – he had divorced her and remarried another musician who joined the group as well in the interim) quit. Hanley’s bass lines were as key to The Fall’s sound as Smith’s singular delivery. Anyhow, the album doesn’t really take off until the second track, “Marquis Cha Cha”, a song that could well be my favourite Fall tune of all time.
This is where we get into politics a little bit, namely Mark E Smith’s. Most casual observers assumed him to be a hardcore leftie, although even a temporary glance at his habits as an employer should have given anyone a second thought on that account. “Marquis Cha Cha” concerns a working class Brit who travels to Argentina for some unknown purpose and while there gets persuaded by the junta to be the DJ for an anti-British propaganda service assumedly meant for the Falklands. The narrator (the Marquis) wrestles with his conscience throughout, reasoning that Britain “never did a thing for me” so “good riddance”, yet still wishing it to be known that “I am not a traitor” while accepting that he can “never go home” after what he’s done. Eventually, the Marquis gets screwed over by the junta itself, very possibly after the British successfully defend the Falklands and Mr Cha Cha instantly becomes surplus to demand.
It’s a good example of how interesting Smith’s politics were. He spoke for years about having left the Labour Party right around this time, with the Falklands being a particular sore point. “I would go in the club and be told the war was a waste of money. We should just give the islands to Argentina. I was arguing ‘Hang on. We’re talking about a military dictatorship, in a country that’s made a career out of hiding Nazi war criminals. You want to give in to that lot?’ No one agreed with me, so I left,” said Smith in an interview when asked about the song. Smith was also patriotic (but not nationalistic), something else that distanced him from Labour, particularly the Foot-led Labour Party of the early 80s. In fact, I think Mark E Smith is one of the best artists to study if you want to understand the difference between the old working class Labour support and the liberal left that tends to be middle class.
The one really negative thing to say about “Room to Live” – and something that probably explains why even a lot of Fall fans don’t take this album to their hearts – is the final track, “Papal Visit”. It is, in my opinion, the only bad song the Fall ever recorded, and it is unfortunately completely and utterly terrible. It is just noise (and not even interesting noise) with Smith mumbling incoherently in the background. For about six minutes. Still, the rest of the album is great – “Hard Life in the Country”, a great diatribe from a city dweller coming to terms with his fear of all things rural (“You get a terrible urge to drink”), and “Detective Instinct”, which is simply about how perceptive one Mark E Smith happens to be, are standouts.
Next time: a man leaves the greatest American punk band of all time after a lawsuit rips it apart to accidentally make one the greatest albums in the world no one really knows about to this day!
I found a copy of Mark E. Smith’s book “Renegade” in a charity shop recently – one of the best books I have read all year. As a result I have been starting to listen to The Fall’s work, a resource that will probably last me the rest of my life!