It's the New Thing
I've played in bands, on and off, since the late 1970s, but am still in touch with the vocalist of the first, 4 Minute Warning. It was he who texted in the middle of my latest band's practice to break the sad news of the death of Mark E Smith.
I got into The Fall in 1978 when their 2nd single 'It's The New Thing' came out on Step Forward, the label run by Mark Perry of ATV and Sniffin' Glue fame. Three years later, in March 1981, I saw The Fall for the first time, at Edinburgh's seminal punk venue Clouds, supported by two local bands also championed by John Peel, The Prats and Visitors. It was a particularly fertile period for the Manchester band, touring on the back of 'Grotesque After The Gramme' and showcasing the forthcoming 'Slates' E.P.
Smith leaves a massive legacy. 32 studio albums. 32 live albums. 40 compilations. But the defining aspect of The Fall was that the music was driven by Smith's idiosyncratic lyrics. His caustic writing lay at the heart of The Fall. He could be contradictory, telling one journalist he preferred Bernard Manning's stand-up misogyny to anything that might be framed as 'topical' or 'alternative'; although you suspect that, as with many of his alcohol-laced outpourings, he was merely delighting in winding-up the type of imagination-free, pretentious wannabes he lambasted as 'pseuds.' There was also the fierce integrity that ensured that while The Fall never savoured much in the way of mainstream success (not as if they ever courted it anyway) they retained hugely loyal fans. They may have started by appealing to the leather-jacketed punk rockers who would pogo and spit at most bands preceded with 'The' in the late 1970s, but Smith didn't so much shy away from being pigeon-holed as punk or post-punk as pour utter scorn on the very idea his band could be categorised alongside Siouxsie and The Banshees or Adam and The Ants or any number of The Fall's contemporaries who ended up as Top of the Pops regulars.
Attacked by a drunk
'Totale's Turns,' The Fall's 1980 live album, was so far removed from conventional live rock n' roll it was hilarious. According to Smith's sleeve notes, it was partly recorded before an '80% disco mating audience.' Two tracks were taped at home while 'said home was being attacked by a drunk.' Smith was also at his acerbic best, antagonising the punk fashionistas in the crowd: "Are you doing what you did two years ago? Yeah!?! Well don't make a career out of it." But he seemed to reserve his main gripes for the rest of his band, and by the last song, 'No Xmas For John Quays', he is berating them for perceived slackness: "Will you lot fucking get it together instead of showing off!"
Never destined to become a stadium-filling band like the U2s or Coldplays of this world, The Fall were nevertheless a huge 'cult' band with a diverse fan base and a habit of cropping up in places you'd least expect them to. They soundtracked the BBCi football results ('Theme from Sparta F.C.') They provided the sinister backdrop to the serial killer's murky lair in 'Silence of the Lambs' ('Hip Priest.') Their ragged anthems made an unlikely but apt soundtrack for Scottish choreographer Michael Clark's ballet 'I Am Curious, Orange.'
I saw John the ex-fox, sleeping in some outside bogs
The immediate post-punk era in Edinburgh spawned an outburst of creativity, with musicians exploring new horizons, record labels springing up and clubs like J Js (above Valentino's in East Fountainbridge) celebrating the innovative soundscapes. We'd go there on Thursday nights and listen to everything from Pete Shelley to Heaven 17, Blue Rondo A La Turk to Bauhaus, Fire Engines to The Higsons. You could take your own singles along, and on one occasion I handed the DJ a batch of 45s including The Fall's latest, 'Lie Dream of a Casino Soul.' When the rattling drum intro crashed across the club's PA, the floor cleared, leaving myself and a mate dancing shambolically to this paean to Northern Soul, against a backdrop of bemused New Romantics.
"Craig. Give the lad a beer."
I saw The Fall a number of times in Edinburgh and Glasgow over the years. One particular highlight was in 1985 at Coasters, the latest incarnation of what had been Clouds, just after 'This Nation's Saving Grace' had come out. At one point I spied Smith dodging into the cloakroom that was doubling as the changing room on the night. Nervously I knocked on the door. The man himself opened it and eyed me suspiciously. "I've got some stuff I've written to show you," I blustered, digging out some typewriter-written short stories I'd jammed into my pockets earlier 'just in case.' (These were sub-James Kelman efforts; although one, 'Legless in Gatsby's,' about my getting barred from a long-gone Edinburgh nightspot, did get published in my local newspaper, Gorgie Dalry Gazette.) Compared to anything this Mancunian wordsmith could produce I'm sure Smith crumpled them into the nearest bin after skimming the first few paragraphs of Scottish dialect. But I did arrest his attention. He looked over his shoulder and snapped to his guitarist: "Hey, Craig. Give the lad a beer." I was duly handed a tin of Carlsberg Special from Mark E Smith. I arsed it before the end of the night, but it was eventually given pride of place on a shelf in my bedroom, like some sporting trophy, until my Mum mistook it for one of my Dad's empties and chucked it out.
Customary adjustments of amp settings
My last Fall gig was in Edinburgh's Liquid Rooms in the early 2000s. They were as fabulously unpredictable as ever, or at least Smith was. The rest of the band churned out all their new riffs with professional tightness. But Smith appeared from stage-left long after the others had kick-started proceedings, his gait unsteady as he proceeded to perform his customary adjustments of guitar amp settings before repositioning elements of the drum kit. Eventually the drummer got so pissed off with this that he kicked his kit apart before storming off stage. As gigs went, it was chaotic and mesmerising in equal measures.
The Fall's final performance was at Glasgow's Queen Margaret Union on November 4 2017. Smith's last song was 'Stout Man.'
The Fall, as featured in the music press, 1978-1982
Finally, a montage of my own cuttings of The Fall culled from Sounds and NME at the peak of my obsession with Mark E Smith's band 1978-1982.