The Fall. 32 studio albums (and counting…compilations etc. one can only guess), 66 band members, and one constant element – the enigmatic, grumpy, exasperating Mark E Smith. And with his sudden passing, I must sadly use the past tense, no slur on those foot-soldiers, for whom membership in The Fall was almost some kind of Post-Punk National Service.
Since 1976, The Fall has confounded listeners with a steady stream of challenging, shambolic and often surreal music. Sounding like nobody else, they unwittingly created genres before they had names, and spawned countless imitators.
DJ John Peel championed them from the start, right to the end of his own too-briefly curtailed existence. His quotes on them varied, from, “The Fall, always different, always the same.” to, “The question I’m always asked about The Fall is what album should I get to start my collection? My short answer is you have to get them all.”
Originating from Manchester (Salford), Smith took the band name from French writer Albert Camus (‘The Outsiders’ was the original choice). Strangeness, a D.I.Y. approach to record sleeves (again before that was a “thing”) and an almost belligerent ranting style aimed at the listener became their calling card. His lyrics were abrasive, sometimes unintelligible, and at other times mystical poetic genius. Not to overlook the barbed, acerbic humour that ran through his output, a product of his working class roots, working in a meat factory and at the docks before forming the band.
Their instantly recognisable sound often disguised the fact that they were an enthusiastic covers band (most albums featured one), and they tackled and re-invented songs by artists as diverse as Captain Beefheart, The Move, Gene Pitney, Sister Sledge and most notably, psychedelic band ‘The Other Half’, their version of ‘Mr Pharmacist’ being the definitive one in most people’s ears.
Despite his world-weary looks and heavy drinking, he had a string of glamorous wives; often conscripted as band members to earn their keep.
A friend of mine once got a Manchester taxi and Mark E was driving, ekeing a living between albums. I first saw him perform in 1983, 25 years later I caught him again in Brussels and I’m pretty sure he was wearing the same shirt. There will never be another Mark E Smith, and consequently never another The Fall. The world is a vasty less interesting place a a result.