There’s always that sense of denial. “How could it be?” David Bowie, Prince, Keith Emerson – living legends who were abruptly no longer living. Despite their general appearance of good health, they’d all apparently been battling more than they’d let on. Not Mark E. Smith. He wore it all on his face and in his bones; performing with black eyes, in a wheelchair, or fall-down drunk, he looked like a man who’d spent more time in the back of an ambulance than a tour van. He’d once resembled a young Beatle, all mop-topped and fresh faced, until he abruptly started aging in dog years. I mean, even his Manchester spirit brother Shaun Ryder took a break from the lifestyle and tidied up – Mark E. Smith left this planet on a four-decade bender. Their 2008 album Imperial Wax Solvent featured a song called “50 Year Old Man”; my reaction was, “holy hell, he’s only 50?” And yet they’d keep on chugging. New album after new album – what’s that, 30, 31, 32? Endless tours, supported by a long parade of energetic young men whose only dream was to play in The Fall and occasionally catch a right hook in the face. Last year it’d been reported that he was unwell; he actually cancelled some gigs, which is not a good sign, given the amount of illness and injury he was known for soldiering on through.
But man, even by MES standards, he looked rough…puffy-faced and confined to a wheelchair, plus he’d stopped shaving, which was the one standard of personal grooming he’d actually kept up with. He did not look like someone who was long for this world. And yet he’d always seemed so immortal, so remarkably consistent. His face may have changed, but his voice never did. There is still no such thing as a bad Fall album, nor is there one which sounds like anything other than The Fall. New Fall albums never gathered much hype because there isn’t much to get hyped about; they’re all sort of similar, they’re always pretty good, and they come out like clockwork: if not this year, then the next. They had singles, they had a little chart success, and the music press were always fond of them (the feeling was not mutual), but there’s no era, no album, no single that defines them. They always just were. And yet, there it is, right on their RYM page: Disbanded: January 24, 2018.
50,000 Fall Fans Can’t be Wrong was the one I started with, about 12 years ago. I admit, it was the wickedly funny title that got me. I’d always been intrigued – Mark Prindle loved ’em, they were name-dropped by half the bands I liked…but man, that discography just looked so daunting. Either I wouldn’t like them and I’d wonder if I’d picked the wrong album, or worse, I would, and would wind up spending years tracking down and absorbing their catalogue. The latter won out eventually, of course. But it started here; I’m no fan of getting into a group via compilation, but for The Fall it is practically a necessity, because then the questions of “will I like them?” and “which albums do I get” answer themselves.
The set kicks off with “Repetition”, from their first EP, which essentially wound up being the band’s manifesto – “All you daughters and sons/who are sick of fancy music/We dig repetition/Repetition in the drums”. Perhaps more than a touch satirical; “we are the blank generation”, after all…but this is it. Catchy bass line, tight drum fills, repeat, repeat, repeat. I dare to say that “Repetition” itself is not a very good tune; it’s kind of dinky and minimal, with a slow tempo that almost sounds confrontational. But this is a great introduction to the band – like a video game whose first level is remarkably straightforward and unchallenging, so too is “Repetition”, revealing the band’s inner mechanics and just a sliver of what they plan to do with them.
The rest of the puzzle is unveiled rather shortly – “Fiery Jack” showed me how fun the group could be, “Totally Wired” how jumpy, and “The Classical” how vulgar. But all this stuff was great; halfway through I thought I’d found my new favorite band, especially when the last four tracks came around – “C.R.E.E.P.”, “No Bulbs”, “Spoilt Victorian Child”, and “Cruiser’s Creek”; how did they not hit the Top Ten? On to Disc 2…the reviewers tend to say this one ain’t as good, though it must be said that the band’s late-90’s nadir is hardly a nadir. The tunes on the second disc are a bit more stylized; sometimes folky, sometimes electric, sometimes they tap into that whole Madchester thing that probably drew heavily from them in the first place. Still quite good, though I agree this second disc doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first, perhaps due to the track selection, which misses a lot of the best stuff – where’s “So What About It?”, “Cab It Up”, and “4 1/2 Inch”?) And only one track from The Real New Fall LP, a true late-career triumph? I’ll stop there – it’s stupid to complain about a compilation that tries to compress dozens of CDs worth of material into two, because in the end it just can’t be done.
That said, I still dug this from start to finish, listening a few more times before deciding to delve into the Fall headfirst. No, they didn’t quite become my favorite band, and no, I still haven’t heard them all yet. If 30+ studio albums weren’t daunting enough, you’ve got a bunch of EPs, tons of live recordings, and nowadays most pressings of their studio albums comes with a bonus disc of outtakes and alternates. Normally you could take or leave this stuff, but man…The Fall truly are different every time they take the stage, and they had a reputation for not getting the albums quite right; rare is the Fall LP that couldn’t be improved through the addition of certain singles and/or non-album tracks, or the swapping of superior alternate takes. Mark E. Smith famously claimed he gave his albums a good “once over” and then put ’em out, and frankly I’ve no reason to doubt him. Such was the brilliance of Mark E. Smith; it all just sort of came out at a steady pace, and it was up to the listener to sort it all out. I could write endless paragraphs on the lyrics alone, or Mark E. Smith’s vocal delivery, which was always so uniquely slurred and strained. He was often imitated (lookin’ at you, Mr. Murphy), but no one else had that voice. If nothing else he’s got to go down as one of the very finest non-singing vocalists this planet has ever produced. I’ve not got much else to say…I wish I’d spent more time listening to this band, but there are only so many daunting catalogues one can take on over the course of a lifetime. I probably know two thirds of it, though I imagine I could go back to an old gem like Bend Sinister and it would all sound new to me. It bums me out that there will never be another new Fall album (okay, there may be one more), because I still love the way they managed to always sound so up-to-date without compromising their sound. He always had something to say. The body may have gone, but the mind was always there. Gonna be weird not having you around.