Ever since they first appeared, in the immediate aftermath of punk in Manchester, the Fall have divided opinion. Aged just 17, their leader, one Mark Edward Smith, gleefully picked up the make-your-own-rules vocal gauntlet laid down by Johnny Rotten (although, typically contrarily, he considered the Sex Pistols to be “crap heavy metal”). He quickly became notorious for his almost atonal vocalizing, delivered in a defiantly harsh Lancastrian accent. His words were razor-sharp, scathing, sometimes bafflingly oblique, but also blackly funny.
For Smith, great music happens on the fly, by following instinct. Time and again, he'd disrupt the band in mid-flow, ordering them to do the opposite, the impossible, the unthinkable. Countless members — and, often, entire line-ups — would quit in anger. Many later returned to the fold, realising that this dictatorial anti-muso had somehow been right all along… until the next bust-up.
Mark E's musical heroes include primitivist garage bands like the Seeds and the Monks, as well as Krautrock experimenters like Can and Faust. From them, and from the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray," he realised the power of rapping over a repetitive groove.
Such were the building blocks from which early Fall records were constructed. The band became a by-word for dour, entrenched, post-punk militancy, but, after Smith's Californian wife, Brix, entered their ranks in 1983, they quickly and quite miraculously morphed into some kind of pop band — no match for Duran Duran business-wise, but tuneful and peerlessly inventive.
I met Smith in 1993, after he'd separated from both Brix and his major-label paymasters. During a liver-busting binge of which I have only the haziest recollections, he colourfully lambasted everyone from Smiths drummer Mike Joyce to Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul's Cathedral. Through much of the '90s, Smith was best known for such rantings, for being drunk, speed-crazed and insane. Fall records became impenetrable, even missable. He was reportedly often close to penniless.
In the heritage-conscious Noughties, however, contrary to a time-honoured line from "Hip Priest," Smith's influence is avidly appreciated: many bands have based their entire sound from a single Fall song, and Smith himself, it's agreed, is at once one of the worst — and best — singers in rock history. Now more than ever, the Fall's catalogue should be explored in depth.