by Nik Rainey
It's twenty years after the would-be insurrection of punk rock, and it shows - most of the wild-eyed soldiers that made up its ranks are stooped shadows of their former selves, every last one of them a bunch of grumbling old men. Only one footman remains on the front lines - Mark E. Smith, the indefatigable, inscrutable frontman and ill conscience of The Fall, probably because he was a grumbling old man from the day he left the Manchester docks and, inspired by his Link Wray, Can, and Big Youth records, decided to give this rock 'n' roll thing a bash. And so it has been, through a collector-smothering outlay of releases and more lineup changes than a South End station house on St. Patrick's Day, and so, it seems, it ever shall be. Without a single hiatus in two decades, Smith and whatever group of sidepeople he can tolerate that week have held fast to the dictum presented on their first, statement-of-purpose single in December '77: "Repetition in the music and we're never gonna lose it." A Fall record is a formulaic thing, which is not as damning as it sounds - they simply have the right formula: a simple, inspired guitar riff repeated indefinitely over a raw, circular rhythm, varying degrees of weird sounds over the top, and somewhere in between, the tone-deaf locution of Mark Smith ranting on about something. What it is, you can't quite be sure (even if you have the lyrics written out in front of you), but somehow, it's dead-on right. The very definition of a cult band - apart from sporadic charges up the British pop charts and the very occasional US radio semi-hemi-demi-hit, The Fall remain a taste palatable to a vociferous few - but their influence looms large over modern music, and their resilience and creative consistency are truly astounding given the constant upheavals running throughout their long and bumpy existence.
The period covered in Beggars Banquet's current six-disc reissue campaign, 1984-89, comprises the bulk of the "Brix years" (or the "Linda McCartney era," depending on your sympathies), when the arrival of Mark's California-born wife on guitar (she made her debut on the transitional [but brilliant]Perverted by Language in '83) prompted a recasting of The Fall's signature sound, cutting their rough-trademark working-class scrabble-punk with traces of pure pop, bolstering Smith's surrealistic social satire and skewed sound experiments with settings of focused rock energy that brought them within the outside bounds of accessibility. The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall (1984), now nearly twice the length of the English vinyl original due to the many contemporaneous tracks tacked on over the years, bursts with expanded possibilities, opening with the high-velocity punkabilly sprint of "Lay of the Land" and assaying every stylistic detour to follow with blithe confidence, whether it's the surprisingly cheery crankiness of "C.R.E.E.P.," "Oh! Brother" or "No Bulbs," the umpteenth appropriation of the "I Wanna Be Your Dog" riff on "Elves," showcases for longtime six-string scrapper Craig Scanlon like "Draygo's Guilt" and "Craigness," or the frankly pretty "Disney's Dream Debased" (inspired by a decapitation at Disneyland - typical Smithian subject matter, typically obfuscated). The Virgin Prunes' Gavin Friday guest-yowls on three tracks.
This Nation's Saving Grace(1985) completes the transformation, cementing their ability to be both of the pop moment and miles beyond it simultaneously, resulting in one of their full-fledged classics. (The album proper begins and ends with the same theme, a trait common to classic rock records for the last thirty years.) From the moment Smith recites the distorted, oblique threat that introduces the compact rock melée of "Bombast," the superb balance between the crotch-focused imperatives of conventional rock 'n' roll (Karl Burns' drums and Steve Hanley's bass combine with a focused power uncommon for this band of contrarians) and The Fall's defiantly original attack gives the album, with no two songs similar stylistically, a brilliant consistency. The tom-tom-driven clap-along chant of "What You Need" (which, according to Smith, includes "a vid of Iggy Stooge," "sex behind cabinets," and "the book Theft Is Vision by the brothers Copeland" [a sly swipe at the charlatans at his first label]), the inspired guitar figure that bolsters "Spoilt Victorian Child," and the first glimmers of synth on a Fall record in "L.A." (complete with Russ Meyer quote) are all fabulous, but the album only gets more wonderful as it gets weirder, climaxing with the indescribably eccentric "Paint Work" (one of their finest numbers ever) and the Can tribute "I Am Damo Suzuki" (Grand Guignol guitars and violin skreek over an "Oh Yeah" beat). Bonus tracks include the first of many great covers, Gene Vincent's "Rollin' Dany," and two more top-notch single sides, "Couldn't Get Ahead" and "Cruisers Creek," an honest-to-God party anthem (a party only slightly less horrific than the one in "Sister Ray," but still...). Novitiates to the Hip Priest are hereby advised to begin here. Flush with success, Smith began to get ambitious. He wrote and mounted a play,Hey! Luciani, about the one-month reign of Pope John Paul I and various shady dealings in the Catholic Church (the great, chiming theme song is regrettably nowhere to be found on these discs), and created a thematically-linked trilogy of singles and LPs, the "Domesday Pay-Off Triad," to go with it. 1987's Bend Sinister (title courtesy of Vlad "the Nymphet Impaler" Nabokov) is the full-length statement of the trio, grafting some of Smith's most caustic diatribes to darker, sparser music, like fellow Mancunians Joy Division opting for homicide over suicide. Smith hates the album now, and it's not nearly as exhilarating as its immediate predecessors, but there's dour power in numbers like "R.O.D." and "Gross Chapel - British Grenadiers," along with nifty curveballs like the obscure garage nugget "Mr. Pharmacist" and the daft fantasy "Shoulder Pads" (in which Smith imagines himself "a superhero in harlequin keks"). Difficult but rewarding. (The U.S. version of Domesday... combines tracks from all three records and reshuffles song order more logically.)
Out of the darkness and into the lightweight,The Frenz Experiment (1988) draws The Fall closer to the prevailing winds of late-'80s Britpop, smoothing out some of their idiosyncrasies (and, not coincidentally, proving more successful in America than they had before or would since). With the twin-babe presence of Brix and new keyboardist Marcia Schofield adding a little much-needed(?) sex appeal, The Fall crafted one of the least challenging records of their career, which is not to say that it isn't enjoyable. "Frenz" is like an extended, laid-back take on the pacing fade-in of their 1979 single "Various Times," "Bremen Nacht Alternative" and "Hit the North part 1" are silly fun, and the covers of the Kinks' "Victoria" and Holland/Dozier/Holland's "There's a Ghost in My House" are so nearly sincere they're frightening. But the two oddball narratives that close each "side" - "Athlete Cured" (a tale of East German Olympic sabotage that not only rips off its central riff from Spinal Tap's "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight" of all places, but may have hastened the fall of the Berlin Wall so East and West could join together and try and puzzle out what the fuck he's talking about) and "Oswald Defense Lawyer" (wherein Lee Harvey rises from the dead, acts as his own counsel, hugs the corpses of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, and gives an interview to Spin - or something like that) - prove that Mark E. Smith is still one strange, commercially untamable motherfucker.
Before the end of that same year, The Fall dipped their toes into multi-media waters once again with the commission of a score for a ballet. Hunh? Yes, you read me right. This was no David Byrne high-brow dilletante move, however, as the photos accompanying I Am Kurious Oranj demonstrate - Michael Clark's dance dramatization of the 17th-century rise to power of William of Orange included such sights as a guy dressed as Elvis hobbling around the stage on crutches and ballerinas dressed as, you guessed it, oranges - so The Fall's presence was pretty evenly matched in visual terms. Fittingly, many of the songs on Kurious are couched in history. The Fall's history, that is. Never before had they been so flat-out self-referential ("New Big Prinz" recasts their '82 classic "Hip Priest," the lyrics of "Overture" consist solely of Brix rasping lyrics to other Fall songs, and several tracks amount to "Stars on 45"-type dance remixes), which, along with slight numbers like "Yes O Yes," left them vulnerable to charges of backpedaling from some corners. Yet, in retrospect,Kurious is a perfect snapshot of a band, a country and a planet teetering on total collapse and Smith channels the tension into a handful of brilliant songs. "Dog Is Life/Jerusalem" begins with an anti-canine rant, then contrasts William Blake's famous paean to God and country with a portrait of late-Thatcher era disgruntlement. "Guide Me Soft" is stark and surprisingly beseeching. "Van Plague" acidly dissects casual heartlessness in the age of AIDS ("Father takes it in his stride/Says `back in the closet, son'"). And "Bad News Girl" obliquely hints at domestic strife, and, sure enough, Brix left Mark and the band shortly after the record was completed.
Which brings us to Seminal Live (1989), concluding the Fall's affiliation with both Brix and Beggars Banquet with a release that some consider the least essential of all officially-released Fall records. All things considered, you could hardly blame them for bowing out with a tossed-off contract breaker, but the record (actually half-studio, half-live) is not quite the half-baked kiss-off that legend might dictate. The studio stuff includes one last great Brix-age single ("Dead Beat Descendant"), the obscure country lament "Pinball Machine" (with banjo, violin, and an ill-advised attempt on Mark's part to actually sing), and three tracks that bring The Fall full-circle to the casual experimentalisms of Perverted by Language. ("Mollusc in Tyrol" is indescribably bizarre.) The live half, while not a patch on stage documents like Totale's Turns or Fall in a Hole, provides a nice summation of the Beggars/Brix years, with a bona-fide oldie ("Pay Your Rates") thrown in as a ringer and a weird touch or two for spice (that guy drunkenly haranguing the crowd before "Cruisers Creek" wouldn't be Bill Grundy [infamous for getting the Pistols to say "fuck" on afternoon TV], would it?). Get this one last, but get it anyway.
These six discs represent a mere slice of The Fall's assault on rock convention, now loping into its third decade. Their integrity and refusal to bow to fad or fashion except as it suits them remains a model of the punk ethos and an iconoclastic beacon for unorthodox music-makers the world over. If you've yet to acquire this singular taste, these records are a fine place to begin, but be warned: if, once hooked, you find yourself liquidating all your assets to buy up the back catalogue and wind up-ah talking-ah like this-ah all the time-ah, I'm not to be held responsible-ah.