The 1970s is an era characterised by economic upheavals, increased political awareness and new liberties for women. A 'pivot for change' it bequeathed new freedoms to young people in Britain, already heirs to the after-effects of 1960s liberalism. Self-expression and a new attitude towards individualism was reflected in many areas of society including fashion, the arts, and in popular music. Rock music in particular became more progressive, bold, and extravagant, giving rise to new subgenres like progrock, jazz rock, folk rock, soft rock, and in Europe glam rock. Some rock music followers sought the new heavy metal, hard rock and garage music as alternatives with many feeling the rock genre had lost some of its original primacy. One young teenage group in England at the time shared this view. They responded with their own style of anti-sanctified, anti-pathos garage rock, and were beginning to strike a chord by the close of the decade.
'An Act of Right'
It would be easy to paint a bleak scene for recent school leavers Mark E. Smith, Una Baines, Martin Bramah and Tony Friel in their home town of Prestwich in the autumn of 1975. Nearby Manchester, once a Victorian powerhouse of the world had become a waning post-industrial city with high unemployment. For them it was never cause for dismay. Avid readers of science fiction, fantasy and the Beatniks and authors like William Burroughs, Alistair Crowley and W.B. Yeats, they would meet regularly to recite poetry. Mark E. Smith claims they started up a group as "an act of right" to shun the popular music of their time. They preferred music such as Krautrock, Iggy Pop, Captain Beefheart, and The Velvet Underground.
"Mark and I shared an interest in music and would spend many evenings listening to records. Mark had an interesting collection, lots of bands I never listened to before, like Can, and 60s U.S. punk bands." recalled Tony Friel.
"The music scene was very different then," Martin Bramah recalled. "People didn't start bands in Manchester. The gigs were all at big venues and bands came from out of town and half of them were American. You didn't think you could really do it, until the punk thing happened."
Punk Rock was largely unknown and 'underground' in Britain at that time, but suddenly it had a new vanguard under the guise of a London-based band called Sex Pistols. Much in the same vein as The New York Dolls in their appearance, they were an English brand of brash exhibitionism which was reminiscent of an earlier underground group, The Stooges. Sex Pistols reached Manchester on 4th June 1976, having rapidly gained popularity and notoriety across Britain. In an audience of less than forty two people (including many other soon-to-be famous local musicians) were all four members of the newly formed Prestwich group who immediately recognised the potential of the new DIY music ethic the Sex Pistols espoused. Mark E. Smith, who would soon become the mercurial frontman for the group, recalled the feeling within their new garage group after this breakthrough:
"But the basic thing was '76 - it was a recession in England. It's not as bad now, I don't care what anybody says. It was a fuckin' bad time, I was lucky I had a job. But anybody you'd meet was on the dole so, like, getting anybody with a drum kit who would be all right was totally out of the question. So we waited.......about eight or nine months to play before we even get a drummer......As far as I was concerned, it wasn't about trying to get our pictures in some paper or magazine or other - like it is with a lot of bands nowadays - it was because of sounds, of wanting to make something, to combine primitive music with intelligent lyrics. The punk scene had just started, and when I first saw the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in '76, I thought my lot are not as bad as that. We're better. We just need a drummer."
Martin Bramah(above) recalled: "We weren't a political band in any way that made rational sense. We were just kicking against the system that was imposed upon us.....We were already writing together before the Sex Pistols. We had a musical empathy, felt we had an insight into music. And were obviously pickled in all kinds of drugs. Taking a lot of LSD and magic mushrooms and really exploring music. We'd be in Mark's attic reading poetry and making noise on instruments. We were all non musicians..."
"Writing about Prestwich is just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno."
from Smith's autobiography, Renegade: The Lives And Tales Of Mark E. Smith
An urgency to begin performing took hold but there was still the important question of what they should call themselves. In 1976 it was The Outsiders, but in 1977 they would emerge as The Fall named after an absurdist novel by the author and philosopher, Albert Camus. With a renewed impetus, and the addition of a drummer, The Fall debuted at North West Arts basement, King Street, Manchester on Monday 23 May 1977, supporting a local punk group, the Buzzcocks. What hit the small audience immediately that night was the intensity of the group, and especially Smith, who, "howled the place down" according to venue promoter, Dick Witts. "They looked like a garage band, anti-fashion, with threadbare jumpers and they obviously had 'it' " recalled Richard Boon, manager of the Buzzcocks.
Paul Morley's cover story for the New Musical Express, the leading national music magazine in July 1977 was entitled, "Manchester: The Truth Behind The Bizarre Cult Sweeping A City's Youth". The article featured The Buzzcocks, Howard Devoto, Slaughter And The Dogs and The Drones. The Fall, Warsaw (renamed later Joy Division) and The Worst (a Manchester punk band) were listed as "interesting newcomers".
The Fall line-up in 1977 (l-r) Una Baines, Martin Bramah, Mark E. Smith, Tony Friel
Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus is a compilation album of songs recorded live at the Electric Circus, Manchester, on the 1st and 2 October 1977. These are the earliest known recordings of The Fall.
A succession of gigs followed in 1977 and 1978, including new drummer, Karl Burns, who would strengthen the band's sound further. Mark E. Smith quickly established himself as the group's natural innovator, earning the group considerable exposure in the musical press, and recording their first single recordings "Bingo Masters Breakout" in August and "It's The New Thing" released in November, 1978.
Martin Bramah recalled the feeling in the group in 1978, "It was just welling up inside us all. That was the way we were living, that was the way we felt and that was the way Mark was. I mean, if you went out to a club with Mark he'd pick a fight with someone. But that was just Mark: irrational and erratic. He didn't practise it, he didn't plan it, he was just like that."
Richard Boon, manager of the Buzzcocks funded their first album which was recorded in one day. It was described as, "a rugged mixture of lo-fi punk, loose Krautrock and rockabilly". Music journalist Danny Baker saw The Fall on 13th January 1978 at Huddersfield and would later recommend to Miles Copeland III (record producer at Step Forward recording company) to release Live From The Witch Trials. Their debut album was finally released on 16 March 1979.
rise of The FALL...
The admission to the group of Mark E. Smith's new girlfriend, Kay Carroll led to changes and a new line up by the turn of the decade.
Tony Friel and Una Baines had left The Fall at Christmas 1978. Smith began "to lead by sheer force of talents, ideas and charisma" according to the biographer Mick Middles.
Martin Bramah and Karl Burns would also leave by April, 1979 - Friel, Bramah and Baines "needed a slower pace, a steadier line of progress" which they would all later find in their newly formed group Blue Orchids.
As The Fall's manager, and backing singer, Carroll began steering the group away from the musical collective ethos into a more intensive production ethic with Carroll and Smith taking the helm and finding new musicians. Carroll strove to keep stability by organising regular gigs and tours with fierce determination.
Smith used the development to take control of musical direction, deliberately shunning a signature sound that might define them in the new post-punk era and injecting a withering social critique to their song lyrics. Smith would rarely audition musicians preferring to take on young musicians who could be moulded to The Fall ethos with an emphasis on 'garage' rock.
Fall music was described as "primitivism and repetition", abrasive guitar-driven sound, cryptic lyrics - seemingly with their own syntax, and often sung or vocalised atonally - a trait which would feature in their music to this day. The music critic, Steve Huey described Smith's lyrics as, "abstract poetry filled with complicated wordplay, bone dry wit, cutting social observations and general misanthropy."
"The occult is not in Egypt, but in the pubs of the East End - on your doorstep basically"
Mark E. Smith in 1980.
By the early 1980s the British musical press associated The Fall with new genres such as Post-Punk (experimental, and artistic punk) and New Wave (experimental rock with lyrical complexity) but these genres did not adequately account for The Fall's anarchic garage music; nor did it touch on Mod Revival popularity either. The Fall were not liked by people associated with the Manchester music scene in the early 1980s, "...it was like, punk, and then it was new wave an' all that; we were just separate from it, we just went our own way really."
Smith had more to say about his views on authenticity and keeping things real in his autobiography:
"A lot of people have lumped us in with punk, but I've never aligned myself with it. I didn't want to be part of a scene, never have. And I knew it wasn't going to last. Once that quick statement was over, most of the main players couldn't handle the fall-out: they were like a bunch of shell-shocked army majors stuck in time, endlessly repeating their once-successful war cries. When you're dealing in slogans like The Clash and the Pistols, it's hard to keep that shit fresh."
Smith recalled their work on the third studio album release, Grotesque (1980): "It’s horrible how much people try to shape what you do. I had a lot more untapped anger back then. And hearing other people’s silly verdicts on what I did just made me worse. Everybody was giving me shit, journalists saying people don’t want to hear songs with a story, where are the messages and why aren’t you addressing the political climate? I even had problems with the group as well, they didn’t like it, couldn’t get their heads around it. They wanted to be The Jam. But in my eyes, Grotesque was the first record that worked as a whole..."
"We're having a bit of a difficult time cos people are coming along and sort of liking us as opposed to the last few years where it's just been getting up people's backs. Gotta change your tune."
Mark E Smith - NME, 1981
Slates (1981) divided fans despite some good material including the popular track, Leave The Capitol, which was a statement on how London might suppress some freedoms for outsiders.
The Fall spent much of 1981 touring Europe and America for a second time, which included visiting Iceland to play several gigs. Inspired by the country's post-apocalyptic landscape they tested newly developed material for a new album that they envisaged might be their last. Two years of frustration with their record label, and not being able to strike a chord with the indie record buying public they were hoping that their five years of "bad luck" would come to an end in 1982. The group switched from the Rough Trade Group label and join Kamera to limit any further creative interference.
Hex Enduction Hour (1982), aptly named by Smith, referred to the group's upcoming sixth year of performing and final hour (also the record's running time) and it was recorded partly in Reykjavik, and in Hitchin, England. The album's release and subsequent upturn in sales would take The Fall into the UK charts in Spring 1982 and is regarded by critics to this day as their seminal album.
Image, Identity, Individualism and Aspiration: the 1980s arrive in earnest
By the end of 1983 Britain was beginning to embrace the liberalisation of credit and a more consumerist society. Popular music too would reflect individualism and aspiration with the British youth responding to it regardless of their political allegiances.
During a second tour of the USA, Smith met the American West Coast Pop guitarist, Brix Salenger. They soon married and Brix joined the group and would have a significant influence on The Fall's chart success and presentation. This included a change to a more fashionable look and appearances on the new Channel Four TV channel and its TV music show The Tube which showcased independent music. The years 1983-89 found the group scoring British chart hits with singles from a string of highly acclaimed albums: The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (1984), This Nation's Saving Grace (1985), Bend Sinister (1986), and The Frenz Experiment (1988).
The Fall line-up: 1984, (top, l-r) Craig Scanlon, Karl Burns, Simon Rogers
(seated, l-r) Mark E. Smith, Steve Hanley, Brix Smith
I Am Kurious, Oranj (1988) was written in a matter of weeks for a ballet, a theatrical collaboration between Smith and ballet dancer Michael Clark, and led to The Fall performing a concert in Amsterdam for the Queen of The Netherlands. Simon Rogers, a classically trained concert musician would also join the group for a short time as bass guitarist and keyboardist and producer, while Steve Hanley took paternity leave.
Mark E. Smith (1976 - present), and Brix Smith (1984-89 and 1995-96)
Brix and Mark later divorced, and Brix left the group in 1989. This coincided with the brief return of one of the co-founders, Martin Bramah. Brix would also return in later years, as would other former group members, in what became a much more collaborative period.
Embracing the digital era
Smith embraced new digital technologies and diversity in a new change period of popular music including the 'Madchester' scene. Disregarding this pop fashion on his doorstep, and following a brief sabbatical to Edinburgh in 1990, Smith returned with Shiftwork (1991), an album of popular music song structures with tracks like Edinburgh Man. The follow-up album, Infotainment Scan (1993) was the most successful chart album to date.
The group would then be influenced again by the addition of keyboardist and programmer, Julia Nagle between 1995 and 2001. Her distinctive electronic sound could be heard on the albums, Levitate (1997) and the techno styled album, The Marshall Suite (1999). Following Nagle's exit came the influence of Smith's third wife, German keyboardist Elena Poulou, who gave albums Your Future Our Clutter (2010) and Ersatz GB (2011) an invigorating resonance with her style of synthesiser percussion.
The Fall's Elena Poulou (2002 - present)
There have been numerous personnel changes over the years (over 50 different line-ups so far) which have marked changes in progression, music, style and profile, and differing success, though long standing Fall bassist, Steve Hanley, characterises The Fall as only having had ten proper members with many musicians being little more than session musicians and fill-ins.
In August 2004 The Fall recorded their 24th and final John Peel Session - a highly regarded progressive music show that had been running since 1967 on BBC Radio 1. "The Fall - always different, always the same." said the music presenter, John Peel, "...a band by which, in our house, all others are judged".
In 2005, Smith was recognised with a "Contribution to Music Award" by the Diesel: U: Music Awards - a growing music support network, tracking down unsung artists and giving them a platform to the industry. Mark E. Smith and The Fall have influenced many artists to this day including Pavement, Arctic Monkeys, Happy Mondays, Sonic Youth, Franz Ferdinand, Faith No More and many others.
Smith's lyrical and vocal style has changed over the years. Reviewing the album Your Future Our Clutter(2010), Ben Ratliff of The New York Times wrote,
"His words are like misheard bits of official reality: fragmented lyrical announcements, copy heisted from the data cloud. They sound inspired by advertising slogans, old pop songs, witness depositions, soccer commentary. They can be paranoid or macabre, but not boringly so.....Close listeners will have heard changes over time in that voice. It used to break and squeak; now it can turn into an outrageous phlegmy bark. His signature - an echo of a final syllable (in which Mark would become “Mark-ah”) — has receded; and over the years the hissing he once loaded into the letter “s” has fully extended into the letters “t” and “d.” (From the new song “Chino”: “When do I quit-tssss?”).
The 30 studio albums, 36 live albums, over 50 single releases, and 50 compilation albums including unreleased original material have garnered The Fall a reputation as one of the world's most prolific indie groups on the scene.
the utterable Mark E. Smith
Although the focus of attention has always been on the iconic frontman The Fall have always had accomplished musicians and songwriters contributing to the diversity of their music e.g. Martin Bramah (lead guitar), Steve Hanley (bass), Karl Burns (drums), Craig Scanlon (guitarist), Marc Riley (guitarist), Simon Rogers (bass, keyboards, producer), Pete Greenway (lead guitar). However, the dye-in-the wool appeal for Fall fans is unquestionably Smith who has been described as the "Agitator in Chief", "Defender of The Fall", and a protectorate of the Fall output. Smith is the lyricist and vocalist of the group overseeing cadence, music direction, style discipline and production. Melody, bass and percussion and other aspects of composition are freedoms extended to all.
The Fall is managed like a business by Smith. Past members might describe him as idiosyncratic, unpredictable, unsettling, atypical - a puritanical artiste. Many others know him to be humorous, congenial, and insightful, and whose musical oeuvre is collaborative.
Ex- Fall drummer Paul Hanley recalled in 2013 how Smith had helped mould his career in music at a young age, "It changed me. I was only 16, and 23 when I left. It made me who I am. It was great, actually.....if your boss is a bit of an asshole it's not the worst thing in the world.... if he has just took you to Australia for 6 weeks......" Steve Hanley added, "People seem to think it was hell. We were travelling the world and playing music....."
Louder Than Words Festival 2013 in Manchester, ex-Fall members. (l-r) Steve Hanley, Si Wolstencroft, [Dave Simpson - interviewer], Paul Hanley
Any story about The Fall is not complete without mentioning the rifts and disagreements, and attrition. An assessment of Smith as a creature of bad feeling based on ex-members' parting shots is often seen as the incomplete story by some ex-Fall members with mixed feelings and studied empathy.
For instance, Paul Hanley compares him to the European Cup winning football manager, Brian Clough of the 1980s - a brilliant, unpredictable, opinionated, disciplinarian, who is intent on keeping everyone on their toes like a drill sergeant, refusing to accept mediocre performance. Mark E. Smith himself has praised another pre-eminent manager, Sir Alex Ferguson - a man unafraid to change his respective line-up to maintain future success.
Nevertheless all ex-Fall musicians have said they have witnessed pettiness and resentment and caprice often leading to passive-aggressiveness and a tantalising behaviour on the part of Smith. British music critic, Barney Hoskyns reflected on this while reviewing Steve Hanley's autobiography, The Big Midweek: Life Inside the Fall in The Guardian,
"Alcohol and amphetamines combine to make a grotesque martinet of Smith, the possessed "Hip Priest" who revels in belittling his accompanists – The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, indeed. Smith isn't the first bandleader to make life miserable for his employees: everyone from James Brown to Beefheart himself has done that. It's only sad that a Salford lad who started out with such a democratic ethos should eventually turn into such a persecutor."
In interviews he can "question all of our quotidian accommodations" Word magazine's journalist Roy Wilkinson wrote, "A kind of inverse national treasure - a frothing antimatter John Betjeman." An anathema to many onlookers, but after nearly 40 years he is endemic to The Fall's wide and continuing appeal.
An article in the New York Observer in 2000 attempted to capture Smith's character,
"Mr. Smith was not put on this earth to glorify and sanctify our most hallowed institutions; he came to shout them down. For the past quarter-century, he has survived in the rock world by making inspirational anti-rock music: a grating, strange, uncompromising brand of funk over which he muses, pontificates, rants and blurts like some backwoods evangelist spitting fire and brimstone at a medicine show. All in all, it’s pretty entertaining – if you can make out what he’s saying."
Acclaimed English stand-up comedian and writer, Stewart Lee, described his appeal,
"For me, Mark E. Smith’s work is one of life’s few constant pleasures, yet to say I admire him would be an exaggeration. One may as well admire sleet. Your admiration is not a necessary element of the conditions required for wet ice to fall from the sky. Mark E. Smith will continue regardless, with or without anyone’s approval.....I come to admire Mark Smith more and more, as one admires a caged cat, its determined air, strong eyes, and cruel mouth, a beast of brains and savage certainties. There is something so alluring about that famous lack of forgiveness. Looking on, from a safe distance, the fiery paradoxes of Smith’s nature appear oddly inspiring."
On stage bust-ups and band break ups in New York in 1998 and in Phoenix in 2006 put Smith back in the spotlight affecting his ability to attract venues for future tours. A series of testy interviews with music journalists followed which led to further criticism and ridicule in the press.
Smith has since admitted that he had an alcohol dependency at the time and put it down to stress. Steve Hanley put Smith's behaviour down to the pressure of managing the group alone (as was his wont) and financial strains. Other band members say it was the pressure of high expectation, resisting the temptation to sell out creatively when offers for back catalogue tours would have been lucrative. Perhaps, ultimately, this is Smith's double-bind.
The Fall in 2005 before their acrimonious break-up during a tour in the USA
Despite the difficulties Smith continued to confound music critics by rebounding from his personal problems. Smith and Poulou completed their American tour in May 2006 with a new line up including L.A. based musicians, Tim Presley and Robert Barbato of Darker My Love, and drummer, Orpheo McCord of The Hill. Smith fondly nicknamed them "The Dudes".
The Fall line-up in 2006 (above) "Reformation!" (below) music video from the album, Reformation Post TLC (2007)
Reformation Post TLC was released in February 2007 and a music video released as a tie in for the tour promotion - a scintillating, revengeful track for Mark E. Smith named, Reformation! showed that Mark E Smith was back to his best.
"We are The Fall!"
Following a successful tour The Dudes left to resume their own bands' commitments back in the USA. Dave Spurr, Pete Greenway, and Keiron Melling (stand-in musicians during the Reformation Post TLC album tour) joined the group permanently and this line-up have been together since 1st June 2007. They recorded their 5th studio album together (8th for Poulou and Smith) in November 2012, and continue to play to packed venues and festival concerts around the world, returning once again to critical acclaim with Re-Mit.
Following a tour of the UK and Europe in 2014, their much anticipated new studio album, Sublingual Tablet was released in May 2015 charting at #8 in the UK ahead of an invitation to perform at the 2015 Glastonbury festival.
For the moment this is The Fall. Holding true. Hard as nails. Long may it continue.
The Fall in 2013 (l-r) Pete Greenway - guitar, Keiron Melling - drums, Dave Spurr - bass, Elena Poulou - keyboards, Mark E. Smith - vocals