After the dissolution of his long term allies in 1998, Mark E Smith reinvented The Fall with arguably two of the band’s greatest recorded achievements.
“Where were you fuckers? The guy pulled a gun on us and you were nowhere to be seen!“. It was April 1998 and The Fall were about to play the final gig of a shoe-string US tour at New York’s Brownie’s club. Mark E Smith arrived in a particularly bad mood having just been held at gunpoint by a taxi driver and tensions were running high in the dressing room prior to the show. “Maybe it’ll teach you not to kick everything! How come he didn’t do us all a favour and pull the trigger”, shouted back trusty long-time bassist-come-road-manager Steve Hanley.
Vehemence and wreckage spilled over onto the stage as MES started goading drummer Karl Burns by removing his cymbals and attacking the drum kit. This lead to Burns going berserk, jumping the kit and assaulting the singer. Hanley tried to separate them in a haze of flaying limbs as they fell backwards onto the bass rig, but the ever-sartorial Mark E Smith wasn’t finished yet and started berating the band into the mic: “I was assaulted tonight and where were these three? This animal, this idiot and this Scotsman?”.
He continued his rampage by whipping his microphone towards new guitarist Tommy Crooks who promptly gave him a kick up the arse. Hanley, in a last-ditch attempt to continue the gig by playing the intro to the title track of their current LP Levitate, was scotched when MES dismantled the microphones before violently pulling Hanley’s bass lead. The remaining members eventually head for the dressing room while MES and keyboardist Julia Nagle attempt to carry on, but it’s over. The night wouldn’t get any better. MES in a drunken rampage ended up being arrested by New York police officers for assault and ongoing altercations at his hotel, was handcuffed in the back of a police car and served a three-day jail term in a cell in Manhattan. Exhausted and depleted, the onstage fight at Brownies was the tipping point, and the old Fall flatlined and split.
After a near-perfect run of albums in the 80s and into the early-90s, the reminder of the decade was tough on this Manchester post-punk institution. While their records were still strong, including CEREBRAL CAUSTIC (1995) ★★, THE LIGHT USER SYNDROME (1996) ★★★, and the unclassifiable LEVITATE (1997) ★★★★, for a band whose list of former members warrants its own Wikipedia page, the 1990’s was a decade that bought about label changes (Permanent, Jet, Artful) and multiple personnel updates including the reintroduction and subsequent dismissal of guitarist and ex-wife Brix Smith. Firing long-term guitarist Craig Scanlon in 1995 was a mistake, and now with the departure of bassist Hanley whose fearsome bass work defined the Fall from 1979, and drummer Burns amid the onstage chaos, this was surely rock bottom for Mark E Smith.
But after 20+ years and countless albums, rock bottom turned out to be a great place for MES to be. He didn’t take a bit of hardship lying down, in fact it rekindled his artist force going on to recruit guitarist Neville Wilding, bassist Adam Helal (and early in the sessions, Karen Leatham), and drummer Tom Head, who all joined him and Nagle in London’s Battery Studios in late-1998 to record the first in a two-album resurgence with this hermetically sealed line-up, achieving a successful blend of garage rock and electronica on the extremely underrated THE MARSHALL SUITE (1999) ★★★★½, their second release on Artful Records, ushering in the Mighty Fall’s post-modern phase.
Despite including some killer moments of infectious breakbeats, abrasive guitars, and smeared, squirming electronics, such as the extraordinary single Masquerade, on Levitate the band sounded fractured and deranged. The producers enlisted for the Levitate sessions up and left early-on in proceedings taking the session tapes with them, so MES ended up producing the album himself. The result was one of the weirdest and messiest releases in the band’s discography, and with it’s nod to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica album cover, Levitate has always divided fans and critics. So perhaps the split in NYC wasn’t a big surprise after all; but bouncing back with a new energetic garage band, while keeping in tact their integrity and refusal to compromise with an album as good as The Marshall Suite, was.
The album has aged well and its high points are numerous. Smith’s bleak, wry humour wrapped in off-kilter techno production is conveyed via his sardonic Manchester accent, and his vocals have been reinvigorated to near career-best levels of insolence and menace throughout this cohesive batch of thirteen tracks. Three songs are covers: the fuzzy Mancabilly stomp of F-‘Oldin’ Money, a 1959 track by American rockabilly singer Tommy Blake, is twisted and experimental and a wonderful moment early on in proceedings. Bound is originally a 1974 soul instrumental by The Audio Arts Strings titled Love Bound, and there’s a fine garage cover of This Perfect Day first released by seminal Australian punk band the Saints in 1977. Nev Wilding’s guitars are at such a high-octane pitch on this album that the production is literally rocking the needle off its groove on any given track, particularly on speaker-thrashing opener Touch Sensitive. This vicious rocker about hard-living, beer-swilling types is a pacey singalong and one of the band’s most well known songs mainly due to an edit that was used in the UK as a soundtrack to an advert for the Vauxhall Corsa.
While The Marshall Suite launched a new era in The Fall’s astonishing history, it also consolidated the fact that MES was still in complete control of his unique artistic vision. The scintillating Shake Off and urgent electronic synth-based colossus (Jung Nev’s) Antidotes do not abide by any conventional musical rules, with looped strings and crashing drums underpinning Smith’s echo-laden drawl – they sound huge without slipping into bombast. Smith is coining outrageous rhymes and distilling complex wordplay into punchy, lasting images over industrial-tinged grunge music. The pretty Birthday Song even finds MES attempting a bit of balladry in the vein of Fall classic Edinburgh Man, to great effect. There’s also two skeletal sound collages of weird and obscure dance beats that wash over you as the album builds on some of the electronic rhythms and beats of its predecessor. The Marshall Suite is diverse with a weird commercial appeal, while remaining abstract and songless in parts creating a jumpy insecurity as the band tread a fine line between genius artistry, quirkiness and terror.
Long time Fall album cover designer Pascal Le Gras‘ artwork has a smudgy bleakness that mixes the obvious (dollar bill = F-‘Oldin’ Money) with the abstract. The album remained out of print for over ten years and in a back catalogue bursting at the seams with scores of reissues, it was a notable absentee until 2011 when UK indie label Cherry Red released a long-overdue 3 disc edition.
After continual touring, Smith and his new cohorts then galloped straight into their twenty-second album, resulting in the vital THE UNUTTERABLE (2000) ★★★★★, released in November on Eagle Records. The album was recorded in Manchester and London in mid-2000 and to say the band, and producer Grant Showbiz, are in fine form is a massive understatement.
The songs are regularly exceptional, consisting of all original material unlike the cover-heavy The Marshall Suite. Again the very proficient band consisting of Nagle, Wilding, Helal, and Head had really settled in by The Unutterable, and there was a good atmosphere within the band as they maintain a steady rockabilly/garage stomp that can catch fire and cool down as required. And catch fire they do. Regularly. The album also benefits from the crisp production from long-time Fall soundman/producer extraordinaire Grant Showbiz, as the sound is crisp and enticing throughout. It opens with their best song about an insect since ‘Ladybird (Green Grass)’ from 1993’s The Infotainment Scan. The oscillating Cyber Insekt and its Fall-patented Mancabilly meets Ballroom Blitz grind, underpinned by drummer Head’s rattling momentum, it features backing vocals by Julia and guest Kazuko Hohki from the Frank Chickens. With a naggingly infectious guitar line and dynamic riffing accompanying some oblique MES non-sequiturs, its the perfect opener:
Film of film on book-rack
Book of film
Book on station track
Two Librans is backed by super-heavy guitars and bass and a snarling chorus – probably the most exciting straight ahead rock song The Fall ever recorded: Two Librans / Reflect-ah! This gigantic Fall rocker also includes observations on Oprah Winfrey, Peace Studies and Chechnya, and Wilding, Helal and Head excel bringing their relentless rock. Equally effective is the ominous start-stop chug of W.B. with its singular-uh speak-singing-uh lyrics that are adapted from great English poet William Blake’s A Song of Liberty:
Rome didn’t matter or come up
But Heaven and Hell did
And look up
The fire, the fire is falling
And look up, look up
Packed with ideas, The Unutterable is as compelling an album and well-crafted set of songs that MES had ever devised. The first half of this masterpiece is flawless and ‘front-loaded’ ie: the more conventionally-structured or accessible songs are on the first two-thirds of the record, and some of the more experimental stuff brings up the rear. He sounds as engaged and forceful as ever showcasing his most playful (Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes), rocking (Sons of Temperance), and downright weird (Midwatch 1953) tendencies. He even lets guitarist Wilding write and sing the energetic swamp-thrash number Hands Up Billy! The intriguing Dr Bucks’ Letter features a heavily processed and distorted keyboard underneath a catchy synth line, yet another Fall career highlight. MES growls something about regretting losing his temper with a friend and appears to dispraise superficial materialist society. In the song, Smith lists his five essential items: sunglasses, music, PalmPilot, mobile phone and American Express card. He even chuckles to himself in a very endearing way as he recites the list. Priceless.
Hot Runes is a short but catchy-as-hell number which resembles say, Guest Informant from 1987’s The Frenz Experiment, and on motorik Way Round Mark sings about his hatred of roundabouts with some eerie Dr Who-esque synths in the background.
The thunderous album centrepiece Octo Realm/Ketamine Sun began life as a cover of Lou Reed’s Kills Your Sons and features a rich variety (and quantity) of synthesizer effects. Once it settles into its devastating circular groove, Mark starts with his K-k-k-Ketamine Sun….. . The synth laser swing of Serum is all pounding industrial-strength drums, dive-bombing riffs, and speed-freak vocals, with Smith’s repeated numbers 101 and 101.1 are not explained in the context of the song, perhaps alluding to some chemical property of the serum:
Many have found pleasures in curvaceous women
Their undulating curves upper and lower
But what I really need is a glass of cold water
Smith’s canny turns of phrase are all over the techno tape collage throb of Devolute which makes great effect of overlapped vocals and random lyrics, particularly on headphones:
What would life be like without music and comedy?
The title track is a one minute spoken word piece but it all fits together perfectly into a wonderfully cohesive whole, and he sprinkles sparky synth washes over album closer Das Katerer which oddly has exactly the same riff as Fall classic Free Range from Code: Selfish.
The Unutterable was the first and only Fall ‘official’ studio release to be issued on CD only, without a corresponding vinyl version. A double-LP set was eventually issued through Let Them Eat Vinyl in 2014. Once again the album cover was the work of the great Pascal Le Gras’, his last cover for a Fall studio album. What we have is brutal simplicity of the monochrome title against a kaleidoscopic variation on some boxers, contrasting neatly for an album achieving a successful blend of garage rock and electronica.
In conclusion, The Fall have made some of the best music in the history of mankind and these comeback albums from the brink were an exercise in creativity and inventiveness forever, from a band that, by all rights, should’ve burned out long ago. The fact that Mark E Smith could pull together these musicians and record two timeless albums in the space of two years was nothing short of heroic. As for what happened next, it all came apart again in 2001 when Wilding and Helal quit over money disputes, and Nagle had had enough by then as well, leaving MES to create yet another new line-up of The Mighty Fall.
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