The Fall – It’s On Forever

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. 

Devolute

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?”.

mesbHe 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.

tf3

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_Fall_-_The_Marshall_Suite

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. 

Tom Head (drums), Neville Wilding (guitar), Mark E Smith (vocals), Adam Helal (bass) – Julia Nagle not pictured.

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.

51otmEupqUL._SS500The 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
Cyber Insekt

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

Untitled5Packed 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.

album1410_5

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.

MES

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.

References & Further Reading:

♥  You Must Get Them All

  The Fall Online

♥  Fall Tracks A-Z

♥  Buy The Fall Albums – Let Them Eat Vinyl & Cherry Red Records

  Top 50 Songs by The Fall

 The Fall in Fives

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48 Responses to The Fall – It’s On Forever

  1. Great article! One minor thing – MES was never married to Julia Nagle.

  2. badfinger20 (Max) says:

    I’ve checked out a few songs after your last article about them…you are the first person that I’ve heard about them. I like C.r.e.e.p., Eat Y’Self Fitter, and Bury!… They are very different and original.
    Great article…
    I was hooked after “How come he didn’t do us all a favor and pull the trigger”….lol that is intense!

    • Thanks for checking it out Max. Good luck on your Fall journey! I would recommend The Unutterable.

      • badfinger20 (Max) says:

        Ok thank you. I was going to ask you where to start.

        • Great stuff Max. I’d also suggest checking out a few individual (super cool) songs and explore from there:
          No Bulbs
          Cruisers Creek
          Two Librans
          Glam Racket
          W.B
          Masquerade
          Bill Is Dead
          Contraflow
          New Big Prinz

        • vollsticks says:

          If you’re a vinyl collector, don’t buy the red-cover “Testa Rossa Mixes” version of The Unutterable, a friend bought it and it sounds AWFUL

          • Thanks for the head’s up. I’ve seen that around but am sticking with my vinyl record from the early-2010’s.

            • vollsticks says:

              The Let Them Eat Vinyl copy in the gatefold cover? That’s the one I have, it wasn’t given a release until 2014, and according to Discogs comments was pressed twice–first pressings have stamped matrix numbers which end in “A”, second pressings end in “B”. Also the latter is supposed to come with black inners, the former with white–but my first pressing came with black inners, so I don’t know what to believe regarding that.
              The artwork looks fantastic at 12″x12″, doesn’t it?!?

            • Great artwork that’s for sure. Thanks for the info vollsticks, you’re well and truly across this.

  3. Excellent review. That brings back to the Fall. Now I have to put the only one lp I got (the light user syndrome I think) on my player and search for those you mentioned.
    I didn’t know about the split circumstances in 98. What a clash!

  4. Ralph Beauchamp says:

    Great write up of an excellent band.

  5. odell01 says:

    Nice to see a reminder.

  6. Excellent, comprehensive overview of some albums in The Fall canon which I need to acquaint myself with, having lost touch with them many years ago. I remember seeing them play Cardiff University Students Union in the early 80’s. After the gig we got back stage and into the dressing room where Mark E. Smith was in imperious form – popping every pill sight without even bothering to ask what they were!!!

  7. vollsticks says:

    Great article! I literally just pulled the trigger on a first pressing of The Marshall Suite–not cheap but I got a decent discount for making a good offer. I have the LTEV Unutterable first pressing too, what a fantastic LP. I only know “F-oldin’ Money” and “Touch Sensitive” from TMS so I can’t wait to give it a spin! The Fall are the only band with which I will go to dementedly impecunious circumstances to collect!

    • Great work vollsticks, I have a couple of vinyl pressings from the early 2010s and they sound crisp and strong. An ever increasing collection of The Fall on vinyl and CD. Great pickup and thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

      • vollsticks says:

        No problem, thanks for a wonderful article! I think “Dr. Buck’s Letter” is one of the best Fall songs committed to tape, and the whole Unutterable LP is beautifully consistent. As much as I love the 1979-1989 period of the group, the post-1998/2000 iterations really float my boat. Certainly everything from AYAMW to NFE are WELL worth hearing–the only average LP in the run is Ersatz GB, although that has some fantastic songs too. I just love the Greenway/Spurr/Melling/Poulou stuff so much. Especially everything from TRNFLP to YFOC, with the former, Fall Heads Roll, Imperial Wax Solvent and Reformation! Post-TLC making up a pretty damn untouchable quadrilogy of albums! I love Re-Mit and Sub-Lingual Tablet, too.
        Smithy got beaten down (repeatedly) but came out swinging, and in the process created some of The Fall’s most vital work.

        • Amen to all of that vollsticks. I 100% agree. A big fan of 1999 onwards and up until New Facts Emerge. And you are once again spot on about that incredible lineup that is Greenway/Spurr/Melling/Poulou. Your Future Our Clutter is one hell of an album, as is Imperial Wax Solvent. What a genius to be able to come back time and again with yet another killer (in the end a long-term) lineup, thanks again for the great insightful comments.

          • vollsticks says:

            No, thank you! I know TRNFLP, FHR and Reformation were made with several different line-ups…maybe they should just be classed as “The Poulou Era”?! Steve from the excellent Fall In Fives blog made a fantastic case for “Mrs. Smith Number Three” as being quite wrongly downplayed in the history of the group by some journos and fans. Iirc I think she may be the third longest-serving member of the band (I’ll have to double check but I believe she was with them from 2001 to 2016, maybe even early 2017?). Her contributions to the later material are invaluable if you ask me. I love her Nico-esque lead vocals on tracks like “Happi Song” and her buzzing, burring, burbling synth work was a vital component of the last iteration of that Fall Sound!

            • Steve Pringle is spot on regarding The Poulou Era. She was in the band for what 15 years? Underrated for sure. I love her keyboard contributions and her vocals, a personal favourite being I’ve Been Duped from the excellent IWS (I think!). I agree with you her sound is very much a signature of that version of the band. So many great songs with her in the line up it’s ridiculous. I’m a big fan of Contraflow. There’s also a podcast with the Hanley Brothers who have recently interviewed Eleni, worth a listen.

  8. vollsticks says:

    “I’ve Been Duped” is fantastic! Great song from a great LP! No duds at all on that record whatsoever (have you heard the “Brittania Row” version included on the 2LP Cherry Red Fall Sounds Archive green splattered vinyl? Without looking at it I think it has three tracks not on the original and different mixes of most–it has a version of “Taurig” with the lyrics restored to the mix–apparently M.E.S wiped them, at least according to Grant Showbiz)! I don’t think there’re any dud songs off TRNFLP, either. I love both the UK Action and the US Narnack pressings (which has…two? extra songs and longer mixes of the ones off the UK LP).
    I have the Eleni episode on now! Oh! Brother is such a great podcast. The Grant Showbiz episode was really great but I’ve heard ’em all. Thanks for the heads up or I wouldn’t have known about the new episode! 🙂

    • Not a bad track on IWS that’s for sure. 50 YOM, Wolf Kidult Man, Latch Key Kid, Can Can Summer, so many awesome tracks. I haven’t heard “Brittania Row” but will look into it. Certainly no duds on TRNFLP. Another masterpiece. I am making my way through the Brothers podcast, Grant Showbiz up next. I assume you’ve seen this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F19wbaOmSTQ

      • vollsticks says:

        Fucking “Can Can Summer”!!! One of my faves off IWS! Love everything else you mentioned too! According to the inner sleeve notes and back outer sleeves, the Britannia Row sessions were completed in a day, though I presume that is referring to the actual MIXING, not the recording. I have the 2019 Cherry Red RSD translucent yellow vinyl reissue, then a year later they release the 2LP version with the Brittania Row mixes (both remastered, too–and by the same guy, Andy Pearce–but the latter release sounds quite a bit better than the former. Extra tracks are: “Ponto”, “Smith And Mark”, “Inferior Product Man” and the aforementioned vocal mix of “Taurig”. The consensus seems to be that it’s not M.E.S reciting the lyrics but possibly Andi Toma from Mouse On Mars (of the great M.E.S collaboration LP “Tromatic Reflexxions” by Von Sudenfed–a tour through electronic dance music with Smithy ranting in his inimitable way-it even has a fucking grime track on it! Well recommended!), maybe the latter and Eleni mixed together….
        Oh yes I’m well familiar with that performance! Have you seen the VH1 live performance of “The Mixer” with just Brix, Steve Hanley, Si Wolstencroft and Julia Nagle? Brix and Steve playing acoustics? I’ll link if you haven’t, it’s the most incredible version of the track I’ve ever heard!

  9. vollsticks says:

    No problem mate, it’s a great performance, isn’t it?! So glad you enjoyed it!
    I’ll let you know when The Marshall Suite lands, it’s coming from Italy so may be a few weeks….

    • Thanks again vollsticks, its an incredible version of a great song. I’ll be interested in your thought on TMS.

      • vollsticks says:

        I got TMS yesterday…love it! It has the daring, eclectic approach of Levitate but has the production and song-craft of The Unutterable. And I think it might actually be a more consistent LP than the latter–in terms of “consistency of quality”–because the “aural palette” is all over the place, like Levitate in that respect! I love the hard, bassy breakbeats (the first press is LOUD! but not overly-compressed and clipped-the hihats are very good for a product of the “loudness wars”!) and the dub-like quality of “Finale: Tom Raggazzini”. Great choice of cover versions, too! And the final track! Wow! Italian house minus the beats, just that piano and a few dabs of synth, it’s masterful, really!
        POSSIBLY M.E.S sounds better on The Unutterable but it’s not a “deal breaker”. I think it’s cool how The Fall went from a trio of really experimental, breakbeat-ey records to a straight up, raw, scuzzed-out, Stooged-out garage-punk LP with Are You Are Missing Winner.
        Fave tracks so far: “Touch Sensitive”, “F-oldin’ Money”, “This Perfect Day”, “Inevitable”, “Finale: Tom Raggazzini” and “On My Own”. Bloody great!

        • vollsticks says:

          Sorry, I keep calling “Tom Raggazi” “Tom Raggazzini” for some reason

          • I’m getting it mixed up too. Reminds me too much of Ragazzo solo, ragazza sola!

            • vollsticks says:

              Hah! That never actually occurred to me! I dunno if the title purposely matched the song so well (yeah, that’s a stupid comment to make about ANY song, I know, but hear me out!), ’cause “Ragga” is a Afro-Caribbean-derived Black British form of reggae–kind of the music that bridged the gap between reggae sound systems and the jungle/drum ‘n bass explosion over here in the UK. So the fact that “Tom” is basically a dub track makes the title extra-flavourful, I think. This is just my theory, I haven’t analysed the lyrics too closely yet! But the BASS–fuck me I can feel it in my chest cavity at “+41” volume on my home amp! Like I said damn that first pressing of TMS is LOUD!!!

            • Hope you’re enjoying it. Sounds like you’re giving it a good listen, rock on!!

        • Great to hear vollsticks. Thanks for the insightful comment as per usual, always great to hear from you. I’ve been keen to get your thoughts on The Marshall Suite. Stooged-out garage punk I like that, it’s certainly here. Are You Are Missing Winner is another scuzzed out LP, I really like it, flaws and all. I wish I Wake Up In the City was on it. Your favourites mirror mine. I also like Antidote and Shake Off!

          • vollsticks says:

            Thanks mate hope you’re well! Yeah, I’m really enjoying TMS a LOT. Like I said, maybe more than The Unutterable? I played them back-to-back today and, well, what a listening experience that was…”always different, always the same”, as John Peel memorably said. I mean it doesn’t really signify much but is as good a way of encapsulating the contradictions, peaks and troughs of The Fall Sound as any!
            The Flitwick “Rude All The Time”/”I Wake Up In The City” 7″ is included on the Cherry Red Fall Sound Archive 2LP AYAMW on the second record. It’s already going for twice it’s RRP on sites like Discogs (at minimum). it was listed as Out Of Stock on the day of it’s release on the Chery Red site so I’m glad I put in my pre-order for it as soon as I heard it was getting a reissue! Oh and the vinyl remastering sounds great–it’s the most “live” sounding studio LP I think The Fall ever did. Great record. Incredibly under-rated, I also really, really like it!
            “Antidote” and “Shake Off” are great, we have similar tastes in The Fall’s music, for sure!

  10. Pingback: You Must Get Them All | Steve Pringle | THE PRESS | Music Reviews

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