BY BRIAN W. MURRAY By the time I came to The Fall they were already well established as (post-) punk iconoclasts, their unique brand of contrarian, literate sonic terrorism already highly regarded by musos-in-the-know, of whom I knew virtually none. They surfaced late-night in my bland suburban adolescent realm in the form of the new video for “New Big Prinz,” an immediate classic amidst their dizzyingly vast output.
I remember it being, well, orange.
Steve Hanley’s throbbing, pulverizing bass line heralded their trademark relentlessness. Over the piledriver rhythm, Craig Scanlon’s jagged, cascading guitar somehow meshed with Brix Smith’s incongruous jangle-pop-strum into a vertiginous whirl. Avant-garde dancer Michael Clark pranced and pirouetted in an Elvis-emblazoned denim jacket and fright-wig, with, um, crutches. Over, under, sideways, and down through the din of tightly wound chaos, a shag-headed, speed-gaunt bloke ranted in an impenetrable nasal Northern drawl, barking about long draughts, rockin’ records, and not being appreciated. This was, I would soon learn, the hip priest: Mark E. Smith.
What the fuck was going on here, anyway?
Arty, arcane, uncanny, mesmerizing — it was everything I wanted that I didn’t know I wanted yet. I didn’t even know if I liked it. Was it brilliant? Stupid? Inane? Were they insane? Was it art? Did it even matter? Just listen to that riff!
I was hooked.
Utterly unlike anything else, it was a fantastical exit portal out of my restless teenage doldrums. Thus began for me, and a fiendish cult of disparate but like-minded souls, a lifelong devotion to the strange and wonderful world of The Fall.
After obsessing over the latest in a seemingly endless stream of Fall records, everything else became increasingly, hopelessly uninteresting. Searching for lyrical clues, you’d be confounded as to just what MES was on about, as the LP sleeves only deepened the mystery of Smith’s inscrutable word salad in a Burroughsian cut-up collage puzzle: his word/image virus was contagious. Time-travel tropes, Lovecraftian psychic horror, Nietzschean cosmic pessimism, anti-rockist tirades, Huxleyan mind-warps, exploding pop-culture gas-bags, bawdy dancehall rave-ups… like peering into the eyeholes of Duchamp’s Étant donnés through an eccentrically skewed lens onto the savage and grotesque history of the British Empire.
A starkly sarcastic, self-styled intellectual in working-class drag, MES would mock fellow Mancunians The Smiths (no relation) for posing in front of the Salford Lads’ Club, a place they’d be summarily laughed out of by his dad’s builder/plumber mates. Smith’s cognitive rigor seemed to maintain a stubborn dignity like a shield to deflect the insipid pop onslaught of the boring, uninteresting, mundane, unoriginal, and, worst of all, the obvious. This was typified by his disdain for the ambitions of musicians, either amateur or trained, insisting on referring to The Fall as not a “band,” but as a “group.”
In the immortal words of John Peel when describing his favorite group (not band), The Fall were “always different, always the same.”