I’m still processing the death yesterday of Mark E. Smith, leader and only permanent member of incredible UK band The Fall. With over 30 studio albums, and nearly the same number of live albums (plus compilations, one-offs, etc…) and a bunch of non-album singles, it’s hard to absorb everything the band ever managed to put out. A good place to start, I suppose, would be 458489 A Sides, a (tongue-in-cheek) ‘hit’ singles collection that comprises all their single-release A sides in one place from the period of their birth through 1989. If nothing else, it’s a great way to listen to these cuts (some of which didn’t end up on any ‘official’ full-length) in one place. Of course, that leaves out one of MY favorite all-time Fall singles ‘High Tension Line‘, because that song came out in 1990.
Lots of people like to put dividing lines on a band’s musical worth, output wise. We all know those who say “well, their stuff was good before X or only after Y but not -” and they draw a line in the sand. Full stop. You are not to enjoy (this) band (before or after) (X or Y) because I say so. Some people say a band lost credibility, or went soft, or modern (wouldn’t they have been ‘modern’ when they started?), or some other nonsense. I’ve been guilty of this myself, so I’m not without blame. Most bands do change their sound as they evolve. Let’s be honest with each other, shall we, because The Fault is honest, if nothing else. A band generally has to change their sound to adapt to a changing musical landscape, or (as was the case with disco or the ultra-clean, overproduced sound of the mid-80’s) to even get their studio time funded. These types of conceits don’t exist as much in an age where you can setup an OK recording studio in your house for under 10 grand. Most people only have limited listening time though, so a band you loved at 19 may not reverberate with you at 29, especially if their sound has evolved while you, yourself, were evolving in parallel. Whether it’s to maintain sanity, or for commerciality, or because yeah, they’re sell-outs, most bands change their sounds. Few of them are allowed to get away with it.
This is where The Fall were gloriously different. They changed their sound like most people change their socks – frequently, regularly, routinely. Ask ten people, they’ll probably describe the sound of The Fall in ten different terms. It was punky, dubby, shambolic, jangly, messy, loud, brash, electronic, lo-fi…get it? What kept The Fall going was the fact that each time Mark E Smith fired someone, he brought someone new in who would, inevitably, bring his or her own influences into the overall sound. So, the thing that scares most fans (a new band member, oh no!) was The Fall’s saving grace (and this nation’s…that’s a joke. Some of you get it). What kept The Fall relevant was their ability to shift with, and respond to, the times. While appearing to embrace the ‘new’ sound (whichever sound was in vogue at the time), lyrically, Smith was always commenting on it whilst the band was ‘aping’ it. The Fall were always in on the joke, and many people just didn’t get that. And sure, Smith didn’t sing, per se, as much as bark, growl, spit words. Brilliant words, bitter words, angry words, odd words. There really were few lyricists who could do so much with so little. Odd couplets, repetition (lots of repetition), edifice hiding behind art.
Honestly, I’m not sure any iteration of The Fall would be allowed to survive today. To have been able to survive in a corporate-controlled record-selling world is even more impressive, especially given all their stylistic shifts, lyrical impenetrability, and musical left-turns. I get it, The Fall aren’t most people’s cup of tea, but they produced so much music, there’s something in their catalog for you. You just have to have big enough ears to be willing to seek it out. Good luck out there.