By all accounts the leader and most consistent member of The Fall, Mark E Smith, was an irascible and puzzling figure; a contrarian and working class autodidact, whose lyrics were a mix of the absurd and the inscrutable. Smith died last week, aged 60 and given his intake of speed and alcohol, it’s a surprise he lasted this long. He was only outdone by Lemmy, whose own consumption for the same substances led many to believe his demise was imminent. Unlike MES, Lemmy managed to hold out longer till he died in 2015, aged 70.
I became a fan of the Fall (some might say I was obsessed) in 1979, when I was introduced to them by a friend, who also introduced me to Gang of Four. In fact, for the first part of the 1980s, I probably listened to The Fall more than any other band. I’m not going to offer a retread of the obituaries that you’ve no doubt read in the pages of the popular press. My tribute is to the music of The Fall, who are unlikely to continue as a band now that MES is dead. I mean, what would be the point? The Fall was MES.
This is ‘No Xmas For John Quays’ from the album Live At The Witch Trials. The title is a play on words, the John Quays being the junkies who still have to find a fix on Xmas Day. There are a few things happening in this song. First, in the song’s introduction, MES explains “The ‘x’ in Xmas is a substitute crucifix for Christ”. Christian fundamentalists and hilarious right-wingers will often claim that the use of the abbreviation ‘Xmas’ is blasphemous. If only they did as much reading as MES, eh? Second, is the way he namechecks the tragic Frankie Lymon, who died of a heroin overdose in 1968 at the age of 25. He was shooting up in his teens. It’s the way MES sings/screams “Talking about Frankie Lymon. Tell me why is it so”? Then there’s the humour “Good King Wenceslas looked out. Silly bugger, he fell out”.
This is the first Fall single that I bought, which I played repeatedly on Hot Valves, my show on Radio Fiona, a land-based pirate station that broadcasted to North Hertfordshire and East Bedfordshire. It sort of reflected my foolish taste for speed, which I gave up for the last time in the Summer of 1983.
In 1981, The Fall only released one single, ‘The Lie Dream of a Casino Soul’. I like the single both for the music (obviously) and the typewritten sleeve notes on the back, which are as inscrutable as the lyrics. Is “Dyckoff = Deutsche Kendals” related to the lines “No nerves left Monday morning and I think I’ll cut my dick off. The trouble it got me in”? Maybe it is. It’s hard to tell.
Although only one single was released in 1981, the same year saw the release of the Slates EP, which was on 10 inch vinyl, meaning that it was too long to be a single and too short to be an album. For some unexplained reason, Slates reminds me a lot of the first and only time I went to the Stonehenge Free Festival. This is ‘Fit and Working Again’, which is the first track on the second side.
This is the B-side to the 1982 single Look, Know, which contains the memorable lines “Do you know what you look like, before you go out” and “Happy memories leave a bitter taste”. Classic MES. It’s difficult to believe it now, but there was actually a CB (Citizens’ Band) craze in Britain that had been inspired by the 1978 Hollywood film, Convoy. I often found it weird to hear Brits going around saying things like “10-4, good buddy” and “Eyeball, eyeball”. My next door neighbour in Letchworth would spend all night on her CB radio and you could hear her talking to her insomniac pals through the thin walls.
Until Brix Smith joined The Fall after marrying MES in 1983, The Fall didn’t do cover versions of songs. That changed with the release of ‘Couldn’t Get Ahead’ in 1985, whose B-Side was ‘Rollin’ Dany’. This was followed by Bend Sinister in 1986, which included the single ‘Mr. Pharmacist’. I rather liked the B-side, ‘Lucifer Over Lancashire’.
In 1988, the band released the album I Am Kurious Oranj, whose title was a play on title of the 1967 Swedish film Jag är nyfiken – en film i gult (I Am Curious (Yellow)). The film caused controversy for its use of simulated sexual intercourse and was banned in some American states. I Am Kurious Oranj saw the band join forces with Michael Clarke’s contemporary dance company. MES was known to be a fan of reggae as well as Krautrock and 60s garage punk, and this track has an identifiable reggae backbeat to it.
Shortly after the release of I Am Kurious Oranj, I began to lose touch with The Fall, but every now and again, I’d hear a new song like this one, which I played before a gig to get me into the rhythm. This is the official video for the song ‘Free Range’.
This blog post could go on forever and there a loads of Fall songs that I could easily include, like ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’, which uses a Casio PT-1 or ‘Couldn’t Get Ahead’, so I’ll just finish with this one.
Farewell, Hip Priest.