These two new books are a timely reminder of a group whose shocking individuality has been obscured by virtue of their sheer longevity. A reminder this band is not that nauseatingly cosy term "an institution", but a force distending with sinister intent the boundaries of what pop music can do. To use a better cliché; unique.
The Fall are a band that veer between sonic blank noise and insanely catchy pop straddled by tuneless, beguiling vocals, avant garde yet down to earth, exponents of prole realism yet shot through with the most abstruse surrealist and sci- fi imagery. They sing about unemployment, sulphate, time travel, evil ash-filled side-streets, dope, assassinated popes, grimy damp-ridden flats, demonic possession, goblins under the floorboards and football. They’ve been through over sixty line-ups while riding, deriding and surviving punk, 80s indie, Madchester and Britpop. They predicted Terry Waite`s kidnapping and Manchester’s IRA bombing in album releases two weeks before each event. Mark Edward Smith is unique alright.
Middles’ book is misleadingly credited, it is definitely his book, written with Smith`s co-operation. Middles is remarkable amongst journalists in being a genuine friend of Smith, a man who’s perpetual baiting of interviewers has included trying to put his fag out on the face of the man from Loaded (understandable perhaps.) This is the more personalised and subjective work, filled with Middles’ own evocative memories of the Manchester punk scene and astute observations on the contrast between the city’s past and present, rather than the minutiae of past band members (though it does list all sixty-odd line-ups at the end.)
Smith’s own contributions (as well as those of, endearingly, Mark’s mum Irene) mean that it’s unquestionably MES’s voice at the story’s centre.
Simon Ford’s book differs like a technical drawing from an impressionist painting. It’s a much more linear narrative filled with a lot more facts in general. Without Smith to interview the voice is given over to old reviews and The Fall’s vast army of often disgruntled ex-band members. MES appears here as a sinister, enigmatic background presence, the author has strong respect for his talent but is clearly disdainful of his excesses.
The same story though, is told in both. Smith, a plumber’s son from Prestwich in Manchester (not Salford as prolier-than-thou Mark claims himself,) showed signs from an early age of the traits that would mark his leadership of The Fall; fierce individualism, stubborn bloody mindedness, pugilistic troublemaking, powerful intellectual curiosity, fascination with literature and philosophy, strong interest in the psychic and occult, and a wry observation fused with both pride and contempt in his pedestrian
A bright grammar school pupil, Smith dropped out of college due to lack of interest and funds, the emergence of punk saw him link up with similarly disillusioned and inspired working class teenagers to form The Fall. His habit of dropping band members that didn’t suit started even before their first 1979 album, Live At The Witch Trials.
Gaining a moderately sized but fervent fan-base over the next two decades the Fall transcended their early Velvets-Can-rockabilly-punk fusion to a slightly more radio friendly sound with Smith’s incongruously glamorous Californian rickenbacker-toting wife Brix in the 80’s. They went on to embrace techno elements in the 90s and beyond.
There’s quite a few humorous anecdotes in both books. They mainly revolve around Smith’s acerbic and sodden personality, starting with the filthy cat-shit strewn flat that he thought would be acceptable to his rich newly-wed Brix. He faces down countless indifferent and hostile crowds, baffles theatre and gig-going audiences alike with his bizarre stage plays Hey Luciani and I Am Kurious Oranj , batters Marc "Lard" Riley in a New Zealand nightclub, intimidates Morrissey in the offices of Rough Trade, blanks author Michael Bracewell in an amazingly misconceived on-stage public interview, and tells the NME and Jo Wiley to fuck off when they give him a Godlike Genius award. The increasing drunken abusiveness towards his band at the end of the 90s, that saw him arrested in New York for on-stage assault, may lose the sympathy of many.
But despite Smith’s sometimes appalling behaviour (more akin to WMC piss-artistry than rock star excess) even the put-upon ex-group members themselves are unanimous in their admiration for his lyricism, his ability to inject the mundane with the macabre. With Mark you get the best of all worlds. It’s fun to hear about the antics of a Man City-supporting smart-mouthed feral yob, but you’re unlikely to hear the influence of Blake, Dostoyevsky, Lovecraft and Camus with Liam Gallagher. Both on record and on-stage, even when he’s at his most vicious there’s a strange wisdom about Mark’s utterances that reels you in despite yourself.
Where both books ultimately fail is in capturing the core of the main man or the real appeal of The Fall. Ford’s characterisation of Smith’s disillusionment with socialism and anti-liberal views on the Falklands, CND, Europe and third world aid as those of a working-class Conservative is a gross oversimplification. Its an odd Tory who detests everything middle-class and whole-heartedly supported the Moss Side rioters. Even Middles’ frequent interviews don’t give a really clear picture. But then no-one could ever agree on their enigmatic allure. In his trawl of albums Ford specifically cites Hex Enduction Hour as superior to Grotesque, Infotainment Scan above Middle-Class Revolt, and The Unutterable above The Marshall Suite, to which I fractiously reply no, no and no.
Reading both books is enjoyable and adds to your knowledge of the group, but only listening to them, time and again, provides the faintest understanding. Knowledge and understanding are of course very different things.