Icon: The Fall

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

Contributor
on 07.11.13 in Icons

Roughly 75 people have been members of the Fall over the last 35 years or so, but only one of them has been in every lineup: inimitable vocalist/lyricist/ranter Mark E. Smith, whose singular and monomaniacal vision drives the band. Smith’s a bristling, hyper-literate, deeply eccentric presence, with a thick Manchester accent and a permanent scowl directed at a world that can’t keep up with him; he’s also got an ear for a riff like nobody’s business. His musical heroes include primitivist garage bands like the Seeds and the Monks, as well as Krautrock experimenters like Can and Faust. From them, and from the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” he realised the power of ranting over a repetitive groove.

For Smith, great music happens on the fly, by following instinct. Time and again, he’s disrupted the band in mid-flow, ordering them to do the opposite, the impossible, the unthinkable. Countless members — and, often, entire line-ups — have quit in anger. Some later returned to the fold, realizing that this dictatorial anti-muso had somehow been right all along…until the next bust-up.

Such were the building blocks from which the legend of The Fall was built. From their earliest days as discontents of punk rock hegemony, the Fall evolved into a spiky hedgehog of a band in the early ’80s, kicked in the back door to the new wave party later that decade, opened themselves up to electronics and wild stylistic experimentation in the ’90s, took on a heavier, tougher sound in the ’00s, and are still evolving. Many bands have based their entire sound from a single Fall song, and Smith himself is at once one of the worst — and best — singers in rock history. Now more than ever, the Fall’s catalogue deserves to be explored in depth. — Douglas Wolk, Andrew Perry and Jayson Greene

From Most to Least Essential

Slates

The Fall

The 1981 EP Slates is the crown jewel of the Fall's catalogue, and as much of a magnificent misfit there as the Fall was among its post-punk peers. Its arrangements and production are much tighter than anything they'd tried before: "Don't start improvising, for God's sake!" snaps Mark E. Smith, as someone in the band starts taking liberties with the title track's two-chord barrage. But very few songs are both as bizarre and as catchy as the paranoid, fragmentary spy-movie rant "Prole Art Threat," which always sounds like it's about to collapse and never does, or "Leave the Capitol," which keeps diving into and resurfacing from its mammoth chorus riff. The original six-song EP is expanded to album length here with that year's marvelous single "Lie Dream of a Casino Soul" — a loving, biting burlesque of the Northern soul scene — and some radio oddities, including "C 'n' C Hassle Schmuk," a version of their live standard "Cash 'n' Carry" that mutates into a berserk parody of "Do the Hucklebuck." — Douglas Wolk

Hex Enduction Hour

The Fall

The Fall's fourth, darkest and densest album is in fact exactly an hour long, with a two-drummer lineup grinding out repetitive, churning riffs while Smith declaims knotty, furious, half-abstract phrases about Nazis, a bitter priest, desolate English landscapes and being "humbled in Iceland." It's effectively rock as a way of getting people to listen to poetry readings. But the poetry is amazing, and so is the rock — they'd invented a musical and lyrical idiom that sounded unlike anything before it, and as hard as the album can be to take on a first listen, it opens up like a dark flower with repeated exposure. Hex Enduction Hour had an enormous influence on the American post-punk scene, too — bands from Mission of Burma to Pavement echoed its shadowy, gnarled riffs. — Douglas Wolk

Having weighed "punk" in the balance and found it nowhere near messy and nasty enough, the Fall made a second album that shoved conventional ideas of fidelity into the dustbin of history. Mark E. Smith shrieks, gnashes and squeals, the band's way out of tune, the mix is trebly sludge, and it sounds fantastic. Contempt for pop normalcy is one of Smith's big lyrical themes here (although the band does work up a raging approximation of rockabilly on "Dice Man"); the other one is his fascination with H.P. Lovecraft's evocations of unimaginable horror, especially on "Spectre Vs. Rector," which seems to be about a disastrously failed exorcism. Dragnet also introduced the team of guitarist Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley, who'd be the instrumental core of the Fall for the next 15 years. — Douglas Wolk

Grotesque (After The Gramme)

The Fall

The Fall began their initial tenure at Rough Trade with a frothing-at-the-mouth live album, Totale's Turns, that recapitulated their first two years, then took a huge leap forward with the two singles that open this edition of the 1980 album Grotesque: character sketches jacked up on trucker speed, backed by a band that always seemed about to twitch free of the riffs holding it together. Grotesque, though, is where they broke loose from everybody else's idea of songwriting: These are songs as horror fiction, as fragments of cosmology, as anti-tune demonstrations (which are more convincing in the context of "The Container Drivers"' outrageously hard-and-fast rockabilly), as cultural revenge fantasy. Mark E. Smith's lyrics and performances are both defiantly working-class and indignantly highbrow — the narrator of "The N.W.R.A." imagines a Northern English counterrevolution after some kind of conquest that corrupts even his own song "English Scheme." And if you're curious about where Pavement got their signature sound, look no further than "New Face in Hell." — Douglas Wolk

The circa-2000 lineup of the Fall was a mighty beast, and their final document was largely made up of songs they'd been road-testing for a while ("Ketamine Sun" had mutated from the band's live cover of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons"). For its first 35 minutes, it punches as hard as anything they've done — "Cyber Insekt" is the rockabilly/techno/Lovecraft hybrid they'd been stretching toward for years, and "Dr. Buck's Letter" is a brilliant, barbed trip-hop piece in which Mark E. Smith works out new and sinister uses for his voice (and takes a sideways swipe at BBC DJ Pete Tong). The album loses its way a bit toward the end, with a handful of half-baked experiments and "Das Katerer"'s recycling of the eight-year-old "Free Range," but it's still a treat to hear Smith finding new ways to abuse new technology. — Douglas Wolk

Cerebral Caustic

The Fall

The Fall's new guitarist in 1995 was the last person most of their fans would have expected: Brix Smith, who'd left the band and divorced Mark E. Smith in 1989, and seemed to have been the subject of some rather venomous songs on Extricate. But she fit right in: Cerebral Caustic was the poppiest thing they'd done since Brix's initial tenure in the group (she sings the very simple, very catchy choruses of both "Don't Call Me Darling" and "Feeling Numb"), and maybe the most playful record in their catalogue. "The Joke" was the Fall's standard concert opener for years; "The Aphid" is the closest thing they've made to a novelty dance number. Unmissable bonus track: "Glam Racket/Star," a blazing, Brix-augmented rewrite of an Infotainment Scan song. — Douglas Wolk

The '90s were a rough time for the Fall, with extensive lineup churn and a lot of half-realized projects. Weirdly, the side-projects, singles tracks, covers and castoffs collected here amount to a fine, if all-over-the-place, album. Mark E. Smith always seems to get a creative jolt out of collaborations outside the Fall (like the Von Südenfed album from 2007); his guest appearances on D.O.S.E.'s "Plug Myself In," Inspiral Carpets' "I Want You" and Long Fin Killie's "The Heads of Dead Surfers" are delirious with power. The Marshall Suite-era bonus track "The Real Life of Crying Marshall" is one of the band's most successful hybrids of electronics and raw riffing, and the reggae covers "Why Are People Grudgeful?" and "Kimble" point out the Fall's relationship to the weirdest Jamaican deejay records. Only a guest shot on Tackhead's remake of the first Fall single, "Repetition," falls flat: Smith's never been much for revisiting the past. — Douglas Wolk

Live At The Witch Trials

The Fall

Miles Copeland financed the Fall's debut LP on a shoestring in December '78. It was recorded and mixed in two days flat — not at a live gig, as the title implies, but live, one-take, in the studio. And it sounds that way. Smith had already fired half his band, including sometime girlfriend and provider of plinky-plonk keyboards, Una Baines, and the other half would be hurled through the Fall's never-still revolving doors immediately afterwards (they wanted to go New Wave). Here, the Fall sound-world is every bit as gnarly as the wasteland on the front cover. There couldn't be a starker contrast with the pre-punk idyll of, say, Yes's Tales from Topographic Oceans. In Smith's lyrical universe, urban alienation ("Frightened") and the wretchedness of contemporary pop ("Music Scene") are each documented with biting austerity. There is, however, unquestionable humour in a rock 'n' roll song that just goes "Yeah, yeah, industrial estate" ("Industrial Estate"). — Andrew Perry

The Light User Syndrome

The Fall

The revitalized, Brix-enhanced Fall lineup of 1996 roars out of the gate on this messy but vigorous album, their first following the firing of longtime guitarist Craig Scanlon during the eight months' worth of sessions for their "Chiselers" single. (That exhaustively reworked song turns up on this reissue in all three of its versions.) The band essentially recorded The Light User Syndrome on their own, with Mark E. Smith coming in to add vocals at the end, and the best songs here are tight, taut and riddled with nagging hooks. It's full of great Fall moments, like bassist Steve Hanley hammering at a low note in the cod-German "Das Vulture Ans Ein Nutter-Wain," or the heavy-breathing give-and-take between Mark and Brix on "Spinetrak." A half-as-long version would rank among the Fall's best records, but too many throwaways, retreads and ill-considered covers weigh it down. — Douglas Wolk

The Infotainment Scan

The Fall

Undercutting themselves is one of the Fall's specialties, and this 1993 set is both the closest thing they've made to a straight-ahead pop album and some kind of cruel parody of a pop album. The three covers that anchor it are a disco-era Sister Sledge song about the power of music, with whose lyrics Mark E. Smith takes many liberties; a medley of two misanthropic Lee "Scratch" Perry songs, played as cheerful uptempo dancehall reggae; and an obscurity lifted from a compilation of the worst songs ever, which Smith sings with all his cracked heart. Its highlight is "Glam-Racket," an appropriation of early '70s revivalism that savages the same music it embraces. And even though the band is just about the most rhythmically locked-in Fall ever recorded, Smith can't resist throwing monkeywrenches into the mix everywhere. — Douglas Wolk

Room to Live: Undilutable Slang Truth!

The Fall

After Hex Enduction Hour, Smith quickly returned to the microphone thanks to his disgust at the Falklands War, launched in spring '82 by Margaret Thatcher, to rescue the tiny mid-Atlantic islands from an Argentinean invasion — or, to curry votes for the impending election, depending on your level of cynicism. "Undilutable Slang Truth" screams the subtitle. Smith saw this album's remit as being a kind of truthful newsreel, amid obscured media reporting in the so-called "fog of war." True to form, his writing's too covert for that, and "Hard Life in Country" is little more than a gratuitous snipe at one of his great bugbears, the rustic lifestyle. "Marquis Cha Cha," though, serves up a monologue from a nauseating Brit expat in Latin America (were the Falkland Islanders worth rescuing?!). The album's brighter and funkier, but suffered an unjust commercial fate, as indie Kamera folded soon after release. — Andrew Perry

Imperial Wax Solvent

The Fall

Tromatic Reflexxions, the terrific album Mark E. Smith made with the members of Mouse on Mars (whose Andi Toma turns up here on "Is This New") under the name Von Südenfed, may have re-convinced him that spending a bit of effort on production was a good idea. In any case, this 2008 set found yet another new lineup's grumpy, minimal rock riffs augmented by curious studio gestures and abrupt shifts in fidelity. Its centerpiece is the jaw-dropping rant "50 Year Old Man" ("...and I liiiike it-uh!"), the longest studio track the Fall have ever released, in the course of which Smith accuses Steve Albini of being "in collusion with Virgin Trains against me." The best piece of songwriting here, though, may be the fist-in-the-air punk rocker "I've Been Duped," for which keyboardist Eleni Poulou takes over lead vocals. — Douglas Wolk

Through the '90s, Smith kept moving, but into increasingly murky sonic waters. Though feted by Nirvana and Radiohead, he fell on hard times, made embarrassing spoken-word appearances for chump-change and became legendary for erratic behaviour. Scanlon and Hanley quit, as did an entire line-up after a fistfight onstage in New York. Thereafter, he hired in a young bunch of Northerners, and with this 2003 album, finally returned to doing what he should've been doing all along — spitting out withering and/or brain-befuddling verse over primeval rock noize. The stand-out: "Theme from Sparta FC," which scarily enters the mind of Eastern European soccer hooligans. In a hilariously Fall-ish twist, it is used as theme music every Saturday on BBC TV's football coverage. Sadly, this whole combo walked out several years later, after Smith stubbed out a cigarette on their tour bus driver's back (he was doing 80 mph at the time). Smith and new wife Elena soldier on. — Andrew Perry

This 2010 set is the closest post-2000 Fall has come to approximating the sound of late-'80s Fall, down to the "ah-ah-ah-ooooh!" backing vocals and rockabilly swing of "Hot Cake." It's also got the broadest range of tone they've attempted lately: This lineup tends to default to rocking out (and "Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor" thrashes as hard as anything in the catalogue), but this time they get to slither and canter a bit too. The album's jewel is its closing track, "Weather Report 2," which finds Mark E. Smith in a rare elegiac, meditative mood (despite sentencing the cast of "Murder, She Wrote" to death), until a low digital throb sweeps the song away. Smith tries to take over again; by the end, he's whispering "You don't deserve rock 'n' roll."

2013's Re-Mit is some kind of landmark for the Fall: they've managed to keep a fairly consistent lineup together for five years and four albums. On the straightforward hard-rock tracks here, the core of guitarist Peter Greenway, bassist David Spurr, keyboardist Elena Poulou and drummer Kieron Melling don't get a chance to show much in the way of personality, unfortunately — nobody ever gets to dominate a Fall song instrumentally any more. But Smith keeps on discovering new and intriguingly horrible things he can do with his voice (see, for instance, "Kinder of Spine," a delirious, mushmouthed conversation with a spider that seems to be a sidelong response to the Monocles' garage-rock oldie "The Spider and the Fly"), and his attitude is not even slightly mellowed with age. As he described the single "Sir William Wray": "The idea of the song was to be anti-music...Stick that up your arse, X Factor." — Douglas Wolk

Fall Heads Roll

The Fall

If even your album titles are jokes about how many people you've kicked out of your band, you might have a problem. By the time of this 2005 set, the Fall's modus operandi was for band members to come up with minimalist hard-rock riffs and repeat them endlessly while Mark E. Smith did his thing. When the riffs connect — particularly on the brutal one-chord stomp "Blindness" — Fall Heads Roll swings like a grizzled old boxer. When they don't, it comes off like the work of a third-rate pickup band with a really weird singer (and, for some reason, four other vocalists fill in for Smith on "Trust in Me"). The wild card is the single: a terrific, forceful cover of the Move's 1967 garage-rock classic "I Can Hear the Grass Grow." — Douglas Wolk

Middle Class Revolt

The Fall

In 1994, the Fall had a bit of an acid-house hangover, and this oddly sluggish and bilious album was the result. Mark E. Smith sounds restrained and distracted on most of the original songs here, being carried along with the mechanical thwop of this lineup of the band rather than slashing against it. "Behind the Counter," with its mammoth Steve Hanley bass riff counterpointed by a flurry of dancefloor keyboards, seems to have been the sound they were aiming at, but most of Middle Class Revolt's successes are minor, or involve going back to an old well — its high point, the clattering rocker "Hey! Student," had been in the band's set lists as "Hey! Fascist" in 1977. — Douglas Wolk

Are You Are Missing Winner

The Fall

This 2001 set — for which Mark E. Smith introduced an entirely new-except-for-him lineup of the Fall — has exactly one good song on it, and it's a great song: the terrifying, sinuous loop-groove "Crop-Dust." Otherwise, it's a nearly unremitting headache, padded out by a godawful nine-and-a-half-minute "experimental" Iggy Pop cover, bludgeonings of Leadbelly and R. Dean Taylor songs, and a practice-space jam with Smith muttering bits of songs we've already heard. The current edition appends even more half-formed tracks from singles, including "I Wake Up in the City," which is the awkward three-chord stomp "My Ex-Classmates' Kids" with a different set of lyrics. — Douglas Wolk

Four gigs into an American tour in 2006, most of the Fall quit and flew home. Two days later, Mark E. Smith and keyboardist Elena Poulou played their first gig with three American musicians. A week or so after that, the new Fall lineup began making this exhausted, inchoate, indifferently recorded album; the new guys were among the least distinctive who'd ever been in the group, despite Smith trying to prop them up (or maybe mock them) with "Fall Sound" and shout them out (or, probably, mock them) with "Insult Song." The riff-rocker "Systematic Abuse" had already been in the Fall's live sets for a bit, and it's better formed than a lot of the rest of these rambling jams, but eight-and-a-half minutes of it are far too many. — Douglas Wolk

Ersatz GB

The Fall

"I don't like any of them," Mark E. Smith said of the songs on this 2011 album, a year and a half later. "You've got to be honest for the fans." If you want to hear why the Fall are a great and deeply original band, there are many, many options. If you want to hear Mark E. Smith make a way-too-long joke about Nate from Gossip Girl, gargle "I had to wank off the cat to feed the fucking dog!" over a riff lifted from a Greek metal band, be cantankerous about laptop computers, surround himself with the most uninspired and monotonous arrangements of his band's career, and substitute vocal filters and mumbling for a near-total lack of anything to say, there's Ersatz GB. — Douglas Wolk