The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Fall Sound

The Fall and Mark E Smith As A Narrative Lyric Writer
Taylor Parkes , March 19th, 2010 10:40

Add your comment »

Dry preamble: in amongst the barbs and the factory clatter, on albums The Fall recorded many years ago are a number of songs which function as linear, self-contained short stories. Often referred to only in passing by those who've had a bash at unpicking The Fall, these devilled folk tales stand-out in retrospect as something unique. Despite their use of something-like-narrative, these songs are tricksy, in their way as harshly original as anything The Fall ever did (and therefore anything in popular music, creepy as it feels to say so); their ambition is massive and usually realised, and they deserve a second, third, fourth look. Not least because they're plainly essential to any understanding of Mark E Smith as a writer ( opposed to that tongue-poking, squirrel-chopping “national treasure”, a nightmarish finality which must keep him sweaty and awake some nights, unless he's now too self-assured to care).

Delving into this half-forgotten aspect of The Fall is perilous at best, because it's unavoidably retro (Smith has written no explicit story-songs since The Frenz Experiment in 1987), and because it comes dangerously close to lit-crit, a terrible way to approach any record, especially the thunderously uncooperative records of The Fall. Writing in depth about the words of Mark E Smith is not (necessarily) inappropriate, or (automatically) doomed to irrelevance - there have been several fine, on-point pieces in that vein - it's just that The Fall's work is awkward by nature, and both by accident and design does not surrender readily to textual analysis, least of all that strict (pseudo-) academic approach used by writers good and bad, in lieu of anything better. The problem: The Fall are not built from the same stuff as critical or analytic writing; they're not part of the same world as the logic used to pick them apart. The Fall occupy a unique spot, equally unsuited to simplistic rock-crit and the dust-mouthed world of seminars and PowerPoint. “Unique”, as in “correct”.

So you have to sneak up on them, from illogical angles, quietly. It's not a question of whether The Fall, or Smith's lengthier pieces of writing, deserve to be taken seriously (or even how seriously they deserve to be taken). It's about determining the kind of seriousness with which to take each track, or each single line, or The Fall. Because The Fall are a rock & roll group – an extraordinary rock & roll group, progressive and traditional in equal measure, but one which has rarely strayed from certain fundamentals (MES always got it: "Rock & roll isn’t even music really. It’s a mistreating of instruments to get feelings over.") It's a flawed grasp of rock & roll which scuppers so many "serious" analyses of The Fall - and a flawed grasp of their unusual seriousness which makes lightweight appraisals seem smug and inadequate. No band's work has ever been so tempting and so frustrating for music writers: so swollen with meaning and yet so hard to read from a “proper” critical distance. Smith's whole body of work is a trap for unwary critics – a hand-painted sign reading “THIS WAY FOR FREE CAKE”, hammered into the lip of a swamp. Just as it should be; just as all music should be, probably, and isn't.

As for dwelling on the past, it does make some sense to go back and poke around, if just this once, just for this. In general, there's something a bit perverted about busying away at new interpretations of something crumbling off Dragnet, while The Fall push on into a 21st century that didn't see them coming. Better things to worry about. But this particular aspect of The Fall is now sealed in time - Mark doesn't write short stories any more – and besides, it's the one part of his “old” writing that's never been properly addressed. And anyway, some of us haven't got anything better to do (than claw towards a broader, if not deeper understanding of the stuff which helps us stay alive, or at least, semi-ready for the struggle).

And Meanwhile And Meanwhile

It should be said, early on, that Mark E Smith is not technically a very good storyteller. Few of these songs obey the basic rules of narrative; character development is not a priority; it's sometimes less than obvious what the bloody hell is going on. Two reasons why it doesn't matter: firstly, in storytelling as in playing rock & roll, being technically good is not important when you happen to be a genuine one-off. Secondly, these songs aren't meant to work like that. In terms of form and structure, The Fall's narrative songs owe very little to the straightforward short story, neither are they derived from the folk ballad, or from Chuck Berry's in-car anecdotes, like most of the shit that came before them. And without being limited by the old demands of narrative, or rhyme, or metre, or anything, they work.

They work because of Smith's understanding of the form: rock lyrics aren't literature, they're not poetry, they can't be and must not be, but that's not to say they can't be used the same way. Rock lyrics' relationship to “serious” writing is roughly comparable to rock's relationship to “serious” music – both provide access to the talented but untutored, and the resulting looseness offers an incredible freedom to those prepared to find it and use it. Few do; even writers who've clearly been influenced by The Fall tend to lack the guts (or desire) to go this far, the skill to pull it off, or the sense of words operating differently in different conjunctions with music and performance.

On the page, 'Spectre Vs Rector' – The Fall's first really ambitious lyric, from 1979 – looks messy and coughed-up, a jumble of occult invocations and vague atmospheric suggestions. There's a plot, there are characters, there's an order to events (tension – action – rescue – aftermath) which is pretty clearly defined, but it looks scrappy, the lines don't all flow as they might, and so on and so on (B+). The experience of listening, though, is something else. 'Spectre Vs Rector', heard, makes perfect and horrible sense. As a recording (all smudged and muffled, dank with the echo of derelict warehouse space) it's chokingly, almost illogically powerful, and behind that distant thunder the words you can pick out are vivid, and authentically ferocious:

Spectre blows him against the wall
Says direct: “This is your fall!
I've waited since Caesar for this!
Damn Latin, my hate is crisp!
I'll rip your fat body to pieces!”

Writing about this song in 1988, Mark Sinker argued that “no one has so perfectly studied the sense of threat in the English Horror Story - the twinge of apprehension at the idea that the wronged dead might return to claim their property, their identity, their own voice in their own land”. And this is all present in 'Spectre Vs Rector', but so is a sardonic, authorly distance. There are no histrionics, no spooky finger-waggling, no onstage attempts to replicate possession through the medium of mime. 'Spectre Vs Rector' takes the HP Lovecraft line - that society's orderly facade is not so much blinding us to a greater cosmic truth as shielding us, from the horrors of an untamed universe - and rams that home with a hollow, drunken laugh. But the track ends abruptly, not just with a dead stop but the inorganic zwoop of someone hitting pause on the tape recorder; closing the book, sealing in the presence. You can come out now. It was only a story.

Fall-narrative is like this: free of the formal demands of literature, the words spin loose (and occasionally cop out), but always impose themselves through that assertive, insubordinate authorial voice rather than anything else. There's often no real flow to these stories, just a rough sequence of events and observations, loosely arranged. Sometimes even that's missing: 1987's 'Haf Found Bormann', in which Mossad track down the errant Nazi, tells its tale entirely without narrative. A series of mocked-up radio communications, voiced by Brix over the squeals and rumbles of a freewheeling, riffless Fall, it just hovers, dangling ideas, implied events: “Refer Paraguay/ Refer Vatican/ Refer P2/ Great glory to God/ Haf found Bormann."

Elsewhere, stories are condensed to the point where they make no “sense” at all. 'Prole Art Threat' is clearly saying something about revolutionaries (political or cultural), wet-liberalism, surveillance and containment, but it's impossible to decipher, even to pick out goodies and baddies (and that's with Smith's annotations, which split the text into lines spoken by several characters - “Man With Chip”, “Gent In Safe-House”). It reads like the first draft of a radio play, screwed into a ball and pissed on. And yet it's one of the most exciting Fall lyrics, partly for the childlike fun of trying to piece it together, partly for its sheer assonant exuberance: “Hang this crummy blitz trad by its neck – pink press threat!” No surprise that the recording features probably The Fall's most amphetamine-amplified performance. Perhaps Smith intended 'Prole Art Threat' to make sense, then drifted midway into garbled, speedy incoherence; perhaps it's abstract just for the hell of it. It doesn't really matter, although you might think it should. As narrative, it's hopeless (and unlike the modernist writing it recalls, it doesn't matter much what's beneath its spiky conker-shell); what it does is stimulate, set the mind running in seventeen directions at once.

As a piece of writing – title and all - 'Prole Art Threat' calls to mind John Carey's widely-derided (and yes, pretty half-baked) book The Intellectuals And The Masses, a relativist diatribe against literary elitism which argues that since the early 20th century, the guardians of high culture have felt so threatened by ordinary folk that they've sealed off their domain via aesthetic obscurantism, found new ways of locking out the under-educated with new art of worthless and needless complexity (denying a simple audience their simple pleasure). The militantly unsnooty Fall are a fine rebuff to this argument, which could only emerge from a philistine or an academic – both for their refusal to even acknowledge any highbrow/lowbrow split, and for that furious conviction that complexity is (or can be) more than a combination lock. “Stuff your simple pleasure” could be the message. “We are not here to cheer you up.” What, then, are we chip-munching non-graduates meant to make of these jagged, unfriendly lines? The answer turned up amongst the speedy graffiti on the sleeve of Hex Enduction Hour: “HAVE A BLEEDIN GUESS.”

No Read-Outs

In 1983, Smith claimed his work was mainly about searching for the right word or phrase that would put a chill up the spine.

The lit-rock lexicon, and its general aesthetic (when not pseudo-noble pseudo-savage, or self-conscious sub-Beat babble) is at heart Left Bank/ red wine, a hopeless sentimentalism. Words are chosen for their pleasing colour, and the purpose of those words is to beguile and distract and, in the end, to charm. Their aim is not to convey information, rarely even real emotion, more a vision of the writer as Writer (sat up with a bottle of Jacob's Creek and 12 Marlboro Lights at 2am, the little devil) - or else as some bruised Everyman, shaking a smooth fist at the sky. It's fundamentally romantic, in at least one sense (and always the wrong sense), a gross romanticism degraded not just by its own status as commodity, but by its lousy, self-serving sneakiness.

Smith's use of language (to this day) has nothing in common with all that fake-French self-regard. It's jarring, un-sensual, Anglo-Saxon: beauty comes in slabs (“the blue shiny lit roads”), and the rest of the time it's attack attack attack, elbows and knees, the words stirred in with all those shrieks and hisses. Meaning might take second place to sonorance, and always the aim is to hone a keen edge (no wonder Smith once remarked that he envied German-speaking singers):

So R. Totale dwells underground
Away from sickly grind
With ostrich headdress
Face a mess, covered in feathers
Orange-red with blue-black lines
That dripped down to his chest
Body a tentacle-mess
And light blue plant-heads

These salty word-storms occupy the furthest possible point from the “literate” songwriter's infuriating, ingratiating glibness.

If HP Lovecraft was the main influence on Smith as a storyteller, his use of language was shaped primarily by Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticist painter and writer whose self-declared “Enemy” status always appealed to the young MES. You only have to glance at Lewis' (extraordinary) writing in the first issue of the 1914 Vorticist journal Blast to spot the stylistic roots of early Fall-talk – see here or here for starters. Smith clearly has more than a passing, posing interest in Vorticism (the concept of anti-pathos, most of all, is crucial to his early work) but of course he can't be placed in any tradition, since he's not a student of any particular school, and besides (as ever), it doesn't work like that. Great claims can be made for MES as inheritor of this or that, and not always empty claims, but with this comes the risk of losing focus. Initially, Lewis' writing got through to Smith for the same reason (and in the same way) as the work of Gene Vincent or the pulpiest pulp novelist: its threshing energy, strange and direct, can penetrate fog. That first impression is the most important, in terms of influence on “this kind” of writer, whose work is as deep or as shallow as you like, but is by necessity always concerned with the instant; with effect.

And then, folded in and blending, are countless lifts from William Blake, obscure reggae tracks, advertising slogans and technical jargon, episodes of The Twilight Zone, clippings from semi-literate local papers - anything which, taken out of context, can still amuse or invigorate. It's language used as a tool of attack, but it's also an attack on language, its limitations and inadequacies. In Smith's delivery (that flat shove, all those reptilian tics) every word is onomatopoeiac, every sound is a signal. This approach gives his stories a gleaming immediacy, but also a kind of distance. It's why they seem to be happening inches from your face, in some other dimension you can only perceive with your guts. It's why, when you reach out to take them between thumb and forefinger, to spin them around in the light, you can find yourself clawing at air.

When I Was In Cabaret

It's become a cliché to point out The Fall's sense of humour. When they “had” to be defended against vague but persistent charges of dour Northern griping, there was some kind of point to this - but let's face it, most people have got the joke by now. It's still not always so easy, mind you, for everyone to tell when Mark is taking the piss (the old familiar, oft-told story that The Fall were set to sign to Motown, until the company man heard the first lines of 'The Classical'... being a case in point).

'The NWRA' - “the North will rise again” - details a botched revolution, a doomed secession, a spontaneous rising “from Manchester right to Newcastle” soon perverted by stupidity and opportunism. It's partly a vehicle for yet more jibes (at demagogues, halfwitted vanguardists, the appropriation of working-class energy by sharp kiddies with an eye for the main chance), but it's also more than that. “TV showed Sam Chippendale” - Sam Chippendale being co-founder of the Arndale chain of shopping centres - “No conception of what he'd made.” It's one of their more cynical lyrics: the masses, in Fall songs, rarely behave like crowds (“ordinary people are never as daft as you think,” sez MES), but here they do, and in what should be their big moment it becomes their undoing. Misanthropic and vaguely absurd, it's got plenty to say for itself - but it's also a kind of joke. 'The NWRA' is parable, satire and shaggy dog story. There's no correct way to take it.

When The Fall do out-and-out comedy, of course, you really know about it. 'Solicitor In Studio', their jab at TV chattering-shows (and at starry-eyed “professionals” who jump at the chance to participate), is still one of their funniest stories, revelling in public catastrophe as proper retribution for a basic lack of pride – and like most good send-ups of the media, it seems to grow more relevant with time. 'I'm Into CB', a cautionary tale of sorts and one of the really great half-forgotten Fall songs, is funnier still. Against a two-chord riff that's immobile and hysterical, its immobile, hysterical anti-hero transcends his social inadequacy by sitting alone with a CB radio, conversing in jargon with total strangers - a topical satire that's found new relevance in the last decade – and ends up in a (grimly inevitable) spot of bother. It features probably Smith's most careful characterisation, and in these great, unreliably-narrated lines, something that could be comic pathos, were it not so brutal: “My father's not bad really,” shrugs the CB spod, perpetually shut in his upstairs room. “He got me these wires and bits.” A pause. “Apart from that, he talks to me hardly...”

But in fact most of these stories, when you take a close look, are as much about that ash-dry, tar-black wit as anything. Sometimes that's just Smith covering his tracks; more often, it's futile to even begin the unpicking of a song until you've acknowleged - and preferably got - the perverse, macabre humour at its (racing) heart. In 'New Face In Hell' a radio ham chances upon unspecified government badness, and is stitched up a treat; Smith's never been shy of a good conspiracy theory, or the often-dubious lure of “secret knowledge”, and it's tempting to see 'New Face In Hell' as a serious comment on nefarious government business. But look again: it's only a story. More like some warped, over-compressed sitcom than genuine conspiracy rant, you can picture these events on blinding-bright BBC videotape, switching to murky 16mm whenever someone goes into the garden. “You never can tell, you never can tell,” Smith used to mutter over the final bars, when The Fall would perform the song live. “The dead cannot contradict, sometimes the living cannot... like all the old stars claim to have known Marilyn Monroe...”

Better still is 'Marquis Cha Cha', The Fall's response to the Falklands War - no joke, this one, but streaked right through with a mordant/morbid wit. A British oaf, relocated to Argentina (“football and beer much superior”) is pleased to accept the offer of a radio job, broadcasting junta propaganda to arriving British forces, like a Sun-reading Lord Haw-Haw:

It is a good life here...
Gringo gets cheap servant staff
Low tax, maybe a dusky wife

While Smith was unfashionably pro-Falklands War (on the grounds that the Falklanders were British subjects, “like it or not”, and thus entitled to some kind of protection from armed invasion by fascists in big boots – “you wouldn't like it, you know”), it's a safe bet he'd have been left un-charmed by the cynicism with which the war was used as a handy channel for jingoism. 'Marquis Cha Cha' isn't what you'd call even-handed, but there are hints of ambivalence, albeit blurred by inch-thick sarcasm:

Intelligentsia - although your radio has been jammed
Heard talk about by chance
Educated kids know what they're on about
You've been oppressed for years
Hear Rosso-Rossos over there
And you have cha-cha clubs
You should hear real Rosso-Rosso stuff
I understand ya
I'm from a town called M-M-M-M...

Anyway, useful idiots outlive their use:

But that broken-down fan
They never fix it, them dumb Latins

...and the traitor is dispatched with a swift bayonet. 'Marquis Cha Cha' could be convoluted satire of the British left's complacency, or just extended character study (the character in question being more than usually rotten). Whatever, its mockery is endless, and its absolute success on its own strange terms is so spectacular that however you choose to hear it, it's hard not to give in to a cawing, derisive laugh.

Move Into The Light Of The Moon

Mark Smith's interest in the supernatural goes beyond storytelling. “I used to be psychic,” he once (or twice) remarked, “but I drank myself out of it.” Those of us with no faith in this stuff tend to feel that the state of being “psychic” is better explained in other ways, such as misinterpretation (via confirmation bias) of coincidence, clutter and the brain's malfunctions - this kind of tutting rationalism, though, isn't so useful to rock & roll, which feeds from cracks in logic.

Musicians and songwriters have always been into this stuff, partly because it suits them, partly because they tend to enjoy drugs so much, partly because as auto-didacts they can pick and choose their “evidence”, and partly because performing music can be quite persuasively transcendental. Like fasting, madness, or the use of LSD, it can tap into areas of human consciousness which are rarely accessed, but experienced with an other-wordly intensity – derangement so potent that it feels like clarity. Certain states of mind, experienced just once, can place a chill on the everyday, forever. Short hop from there to feeling a presence, which could be God's breath, or dead pets, or something much nastier. Smith, of course, never made the trad-rock move into mysticism, or the spurious benevolence of Eastern gurus: his view of matters spiritual was always Lovecraftian, curious-but-cautious, the unknown a largely negative energy. Talons tapping on the window pane. No wonder he kept drinking.

This kind of thing came out in Fall songs, most of the time at least, via the good old fashioned horror story. After 'Spectre Vs Rector', the best Fall horror is 'Impression Of J Temperance', a fantastic and deeply nasty song, in which Cameron the town vet drops in on an isolated dog-breeder, and helps deliver some puppies:

The new born thing hard to describe
Like a rat that's been trapped inside
A warehouse space near a city tide
Brown sockets, purple eyes
Fed with rubbish from disposal barges

In a way, this too is humour (albeit so dark and perverse it's not even meant to raise a laugh), with the pay-off doubling as a punchline:

No changeling, as the birth was witnessed.
Only one person could do this.
“Yes,” said Cameron
“And the thing was in the impression of J Temperance...”

Still, Smith the psychic has a message from the other side: all that is fantastic leagues against you. It's there in 'Wings', a sci-fi spectacular, a slight variation on that time-honoured time-travel theme, the “butterfly effect”: actions in the past distort the present, with crushing consequences on the traveller's return (cf Ray Bradbury's A Sound Of Thunder). There's nothing very new in Smith's take on the story – except that the time machine's been replaced with a purchased pair of “flabby wings”, a violet span of welded flesh – but the power of the detail here is as strong as in any telling of this tale, and the pay-off is delivered with furious glee. Returning to the present day, “the place I made the purchase no longer exists”:

So now I sleep in ditches
And hide away from nosey kids
The wings rot and feather under me
The wings rot and curl right under me

It's a common trope in horror and sci-fi that the overly-curious must suffer disproportionately, simply for messing with the order of things. These Fall fables follow that tradition with half-crazed enthusiasm. When rock's smug hedonists get into the occult, it's invariably as a kind of celebration, generally inspired by that joker Crowley (Aleister that is, not Gary), or the church-baiting hi-jinks of Anton LaVey. Smith, the cynic and disciplinarian, has no time for magick as excuse for goth-orgies; the paranormal is another threat, another pillar of his paranoia.

Of course, it's not always easy to tell when Mark is taking the piss. 'Jawbone And The Air-Rifle' is probably The Fall's clearest, cleanest story-song, relatively orderly and easy to follow – but still, it's a riddle. An unemployed poacher's wayward shot disturbs a nocturnal cemetery worker. With the pointless malevolence of a disgruntled spirit from MR James, grave-keeper hands poacher a conciliatory gift:

Here is a jawbone caked in muck
Carries the germ of a curse
Of the Broken Brothers' Pentacle Church
Formed on a Scotch island, to make you a bit of a man!

…and unthinkable horrors ensue. Part morality tale, a rural British Twilight Zone, and part supernatural horror, it seems. But onstage, Smith gave the song a cackling spoken intro: “here's a wee tale from the Anthrax Island!” The ovine mandible came from poor contaminated Gruinard, then, site of bio-weapon tests in the Second World War, and its “curse” may be of a more prosaic nature. There's a real-world parallel here: the Dark Harvest Commando, a terrorist group active around the time the song was written, depositing packages of Gruinard soil at several strategic locations, demanding the island's immediate decontamination. There's also a hint of the Angry Earth: as the “rabbit-killer” sinks into bone-sired horrors (“no way can he look at meat”), nature might just be getting its own back. Of course, you can't imagine Smith, hater of the countryside, enthusiastic carnivore and hammer of the urban squirrel (yeah, yeah), really sympathising with any of this nonsense - besides, the music is a giant arrow pointing forwards. But then MR James didn't believe in ghosts. It makes a good story. It's only a story.

Street Signs You Never Saw

That's the thing, though: what does it mean?

'Winter' is another occult chiller, this time noticably lacking in humour (unless you count the gag about the lawn of the alcoholics' dryout house being “littered with cans of Barbican”). Its mood is sombre and its words are freezing cold. The events of a pale afternoon, the sky the colour of bone: Smith meets a disturbed seven-year-old and looks on as the story unfolds, fantastical and revelatory, and as usual, doing no one any good. “Then he seemed the young one - but now he looked like the victim of a pogrom.”

'Winter' is about soul transference, insanity as a visionary state, the bleakness of the British street, an urge to escape the quotidian and fear of what's beyond. And it's a mystery:

On the first floor of the dryout house was a replica dartboard
And the man on the floor,
His soul went out of the window, over the lawn
And round into the mad kid
"Please take this medallion
Please wear this medallion
It's no sign of authority
Put the gold on, put it on
Courtesy winter

His soul went into the mad kid
And the man on the first floor said
I just looked round
I just looked round
I just looked round
And my youth, it was sold.

There's a chill to these lines that's hard to fathom, even before you start to piece together the song's disordered plot. Something in there makes you tremble.

Meaning is not always The Fall's first consideration, because it doesn't have to be, but their sharp-sided puzzles have little in common with the try-hard “freakiness” (or silly-arse sub-mysticism) which renders so many rock songs ridiculous. It's like the difference between surrealism and what the kids call “random” - one involves the careful juxtaposition of disparate ideas which, when placed together, become explosive; the other is just mental incontinence. The authentically strange is hard to market, hard to contain, because it's fundamentally and unavoidably disturbing. What sells is the commonplace, rearranged with chuckles and delivered with wide eyes – that is to say whimsy, preferably wrapped in that awful, affected love-me vibe (although this kind of shit gets old pretty fast, which might be why every charity shop in Britain has at least two copies of Russell Brand's My Booky Wook). There's nothing whimsical about 'Winter'. Its flat, brumal mood and nipping menace just unnerve and unsettle.

Two white doves 'cross the sky
Look like krakens
And sometimes
That little...
Makes me tremble
Courtesy winter

You don't have to be weird to be weird – no wonder Mark E's ariel quivered when he chanced upon that phrase - and when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. 'Winter' is about... er... nothing, but it's one of the most affecting Fall songs of all, and one of the strangest things that happened in the English 1980s.

See also 'Garden', possibly their single most dense and tantalising lyric, a weir of words and a snapped narrative that draws you in, then turns its back. There's no plot, but there's incident, of sorts:

The first god had in his garden
From the back looked like a household pet
When it twirled round, was revealed to be
A three-legged black-grey hog

And then:

The second god lived by mountains that flowed
By the blue shiny lit roads
Had forgot what others still tried to grasp
He knew the evil of the phone
He knew the evil of the phone
The bells stopped on Sunday when he rose

And then:

He's here!
He's here at last!
I saw him!
I swear!
He's on the second floor!
Up the brown baize lift shaft!
He's here!

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? You could interpret the events of 'Garden' (with its ringing open space and jumping heartbeat) as a less-than-rapturous second coming - or just as a song of suburbia, after-the-gramme. It doesn't matter; it's impenetrable. If it had wanted you to understand, it would have been clearer. Dig in with both hands, by all means; sooner or later you'll just turn up your own stupid face staring back at you, slack-mouthed. What 'Garden' is “really” about is the imagination, the power to create what you can't control, the limits of understanding. And if you just want to think of it as gibberish, well you'd have to ask Mark, but I reckon that's probably OK too.

After 'Garden', these narrative songs became rarer, mostly light comedies in that diseased suburban-sitcom style: 'Cruisers Creek', an anti-climactic tale of narrowly-averted office party carnage, or the exhaust-fume saga of Tap-tastic 'Athlete Cured'. Most of the time, MES was doing... something else. Perhaps he felt he'd gone as far as he could with those tales of mystery and imagination. Perhaps they were boring him. Perhaps he'd just started having more fun. Who knows? Funny time. There were still plenty of songs in which things happened, but they became scenes rather than stories, travelling inwards or outwards more than forwards. Smith and Michael Clark's 1987 ballet, I Am Curious, Orange, suggests a sustained narrative but in fact has none at all, while (by all accounts) anyone attending Smith's play from 1986 Hey Luciani: The Life And Codex Of John Paul I expecting any kind of coherent plot would have left feeling pretty stupid. Since a slight drying-up in the (somewhat dissolute) late 90s, Smith has recovered his words, and the words have recovered their power and potency, but there's been no return to the story-song (maybe just because it would mean going back). The Fall are doing fine without that stuff, anyway. Concentrating these days on their still-disorientating power and sway, they're as worthwhile as they've ever been - possibly more so, because after all, they're happening NOW.

These songs are worth going back to, though, because they're unique, and because they repay a bit of study, provided you don't lose sight of the fact that this is The Fall, with all that entails. In a way, you could say, these songs are the least original and least incredible things in The Fall's back catalogue, because in choosing to tell stories they give up part of the freedom afforded by that new configuration of rules worked out from '78 to '83. Alternatively, you could say that they're perfect examples of how to use that freedom to do anything - and are, besides, the strangest, darkest, wildest stories ever told in song.

But anyway, the greatest tribute it's possible to pay: I can't even read back through this stuff without laughing hysterically at myself. Fuck's sake, man. These songs happen in the corner of your eye - when you turn your head they vanish, or else assume a form that can't be described in (other, inferior) words. It's like anything. This happened, then that happened, then something else happened to happen, or maybe didn't happen... and it never matters like you think, because nothing ever happens like you think. That's the way, isn't it? Things just happen. Or don't happen. That's about it. It's only a story.

Analysis is academic
Some thoughts can get nauseous

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.

Mar 19, 2010 3:57pm

This piece makes me want to prance afuckingbout.

Reply to this Admin

city hobgoblin
Mar 19, 2010 4:24pm

Great piece of writing. It always amazes me how revelatory MES's lyrics are when you see them written down. The songs have a visceral punch when you listen to them, you experience them and somehow understand them without really decoding them. Every time you go back to something like Winter or Garden there is something new there for you. But what is amazing is that if you ever read the lyrics you get a different, but equally valuable experience from them - the songs spin off in new directions and reveal new dimensions and angles.

It's the same if you ever hear a good cover version of a great Fall song, like the excellent, slowed down folky electronica version of English Scheme that came out a few years ago. You could go back to the well a thousand times and there would still be more there for you.

I've been listening to these songs for 30 years, and I listen to plenty of other stuff too but as I get older I can't shake the view that The Fall are art, and everything else in rock and roll is just music

Reply to this Admin

Mar 19, 2010 10:45pm

Superb read

Reply to this Admin

Mar 19, 2010 10:51pm

surprised you didn't mention the Ballard influenced lyrics of 'Various Times' from 1978. everyone's got their own favourites though.

Reply to this Admin

Socco McSwain
Mar 20, 2010 11:06am

It makes the real ale fizzy and black. Like Irish lady blushes.

Reply to this Admin

Nick Walters
Mar 20, 2010 1:41pm

Spectre blows him against the wall
Says direct: “This is your fall!

It's actually, Says "Die wretch! This is your fall!"

Which makes it EVEN MORE ferocious!

Excellent article BTW.

Reply to this Admin

Mar 20, 2010 3:06pm

slowed down folky electronica version of English Scheme that came out a few years ago

where do i get this

Reply to this Admin

Mar 21, 2010 5:21am

None of this makes very much sense to me. The words or images don't mean anything on their own. Its always been about the drama and the hard work. The Fall are special because they are honest.

Reply to this Admin

city hobgoblin
Mar 21, 2010 10:32am

In reply to :

It's by Woodcraft Folk. I've got it on a limited edition CD released by Harmonium. It may be available somewhere else.

Reply to this Admin

Johnny Nothing
Mar 21, 2010 11:11am

When I stop trying, then I get it, as with all the best things in life.

Reply to this Admin

Mar 21, 2010 12:22pm

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

Yes I like that. I find this recent trend of over analysis quite sad really. I got the little German orange book when it first came out. Knowing every word took something away. Best treasured at a distance I say.

Reply to this Admin

Mar 21, 2010 12:55pm

Great article. However, put simply, I adore The Fall but never feel the need or wish to closely analyse thjeir music/lyrics or why they tower above all other music I appreciate. As Peelie once said - 'They are The Fall and that is all you need'.

Reply to this Admin

Masal Bugduv
Mar 21, 2010 9:13pm

I always loved the line in 'Athlete Cured' when we find out that the athlete's brother spends an hour turning his engine over and MES says 'citizens in my street are also partial to this.'
It makes me think that the genesis of the whole song is an irate MES sitting at his typewriter while some poor sod outside is tinkering with his motor...

Reply to this Admin

e knyvett
Mar 22, 2010 11:25pm

When I listen to The Fall, or when I did on a transistor radio circa 1980, they are one of only two or three bands that actually make me laugh. I can't really say precisely why. But I think it's partly this heroic attempt to recount epic tales of weirdness against the scratchy and repetitive northern canvas. Perhaps in the same way I found myself attracted to the otherness of girls for the first time back then, I was also drawn to the compelling otherness of The Fall.

If the songs made more sense we'd move on. The sense of mystery can be found in, say, Eraserhead, or The Turn of the Screw, but not that northern sensibility of what it was like to live in the grim, half-realised semi-post-industrial mundanity of northern English suburbia back then. And still now, probably.

In my mind, I don't get the lyrics quite right, but it doesn't matter. In my head the end of Leave the Capital goes something like 'Power resides in Welsh caff caravans, all the paintings you recall, all the sidestepped cars, something something something, and the wild dog downstairs'. Garbled, but the feeling and the content and the spirit are completely intertwined.

Great piece, thank you.

Reply to this Admin

Halpin Joanna
Mar 24, 2010 9:57am


Reply to this Admin

Mar 24, 2010 12:20pm

In reply to e knyvett:

i think you nailed it. we are all a lot happier for them. 14 years ago while still in england i interviewed for a job in austin, texas. i went for lunch and the place i went to was playing the fall - corny perhaps, but suddenly it did not feel so far away. i have been here ever since and the fall have been through twice, i think. they are as much a mystery to me now as they were when i was 13 when i bought lie dream. i love the mystery, the honesty and all the happiness they bring. many of us were lucky to have john peel reveal them to us in the early days through the sessions etc. i don't know what else is out there, but i think it would be hard pressed to match the contradictory and uncomfortable nature of the fall that keep us smiling. they are an enigma, and this article captures this. i just don't think anyone is remotely close to knowing what the words may mean.

Reply to this Admin

Mar 27, 2010 10:54am

dont be to hard on yarself... it matters and it doesnt.
Like all great challenges and questions, and ultimately makes you.question.
And Mark E Smith is.great Art.

Reply to this Admin

Mar 27, 2010 10:59am

dont be to hard on matters and it doesnt.
Like all great Art it challenges and it counfounds. and ultimately challenges you.
Mark e great Art.

Reply to this Admin

Nick W
Mar 29, 2010 5:15pm

Making any kind of comment about what makes The Fall so good or analysing their lyrics is an open goal to accusations of being pretentious - but this is a very good stab indeed.

I've always thought if you wanted to give an alien an idea of what it actually feels like to live in England then this is it in sound and music. In other words it's pretty amazing but often bloody hard work.

The Fall are totally authentic - few other artists let alone musicians can make that claim.

Reply to this Admin

Adam Makewell
Mar 30, 2010 12:58pm

Great writing,I am glad I discovered The Fall many years ago .

Reply to this Admin

Mar 31, 2010 2:34pm

In L.A. a drunk is sick on Gene Vincent's star - ha! ha! ha! ha!

Reply to this Admin

Mar 31, 2010 2:34pm

In L.A. a drunk is sick on Gene Vincent's star on Hollywood boulevard - ha! ha! ha! ha!

Reply to this Admin

Nigel DS
Apr 3, 2010 10:07am

Ill drink to that...

Reply to this Admin

Apr 26, 2010 9:24am

In reply to Nigel DS:

that Fall nearly signed to Motown is such a crusty old that point in time nearly every underground band in the UK got a letter from Motown asking them to sign...

Reply to this Admin

fiery jack
May 6, 2010 1:24am

Excellent. Immortality

Reply to this Admin

Aug 30, 2010 10:23pm

Enjoyed reading this thoughtful and enlightening article - thanks.

Reply to this Admin

ryan c
Sep 22, 2010 1:34am

this is absolutely fucking beautiful. thank you for writing this.

Reply to this Admin

Sep 29, 2010 12:46pm

Great article. Wings - check; Winter - check; Athlete Cured - check.
Hotel Bloedel deserves a mention:

"2013, Philippsburg Confederate graves are uncovered,
Throwing new light on this 19th century conflict,
Sparking a repeat.
These southern spectres were disease ridden, dusty, organic
And psychic."


"Gregoror, satiated walking thru' capitol,
Stumbles on two thousand dead Thai monks in SS uniforms.
Then fled to Hotel Bloedel, outside Nuremberg,
A long way south, to a reasonable smell of death."

Eat Yerself Fitter deserves a nod, as does Hard Life in the Country.
There are few lyrics that commit well to the page. Bob Dylan's don't, and nor do Lou Reed's. Indeed, the only lyricists that come to mind that can match Mr Smith in this respect are David Gedge, Ian Svenonius, David Byrne and perhaps Morrissey.
Just my opinion of course - I'm sure there are others.

Reply to this Admin

James Marriott
Mar 28, 2011 7:22pm

re: "These songs happen in the corner of your eye - when you turn your head they vanish"... I've always loved the dismissive way MES keeps saying "anyway" throughout Winter, as if EVERY other word, every strand in the story is a digression in a rambling anecdote. Brilliant stuff.

Reply to this Admin

Jul 29, 2011 7:13pm

just found this - great article!

Reply to this Admin

Dec 7, 2012 12:25pm

great review - i agree with a lot of what was said, particularly the line about the thing blending into the background if not concentrated on intently - i bought it a few days ago and have only listened twice, both times whilst writing. i got the impression of a beautiful but subdued album, with few peaks. Scottsdale House Cleaning

Reply to this Admin

online deals
Dec 27, 2012 8:29am

The Fall's work is awkward by nature, and both by accident and design does not surrender readily to textual analysis, least of all that strict (pseudo-) academic approach used by writers good and bad, in lieu of anything better. The problem:

Reply to this Admin

Free Samples
Dec 27, 2012 11:23am

It always amazes me how revelatory MES's lyrics are when you see them written down. The songs have a visceral punch when you listen to them, you experience them and somehow understand them without really decoding them.Thanks

Reply to this Admin

Sep 18, 2013 11:43am

Mark E. Smith is the greatest living lyricist. Bar none.

Reply to this Admin

Feb 4, 2014 1:20am

links are all dead :(

Reply to this Admin

Seán Hickey
Nov 12, 2014 12:46pm

Really enjoyed this piece. I came late to full-blown Fallheadedness, but am so so glad I did. Quite simply they reach a part of me that no other band does-and I listen to loads of varied stuff. What they do is irreducible, and that makes them great.This piece acknowledges that, and says, lovingly, as much as can be said. Beautiful.

Reply to this Admin

Jul 16, 2015 12:43pm

I really loved reading your blog. new year 2016 happy new year 2016

Reply to this Admin

arch Stanton
Feb 11, 2016 10:04pm

When you part of the wonderful and d frightening world of and you don't really know what you should do about it,it's good to know that other people caught up with the same dilemma can find a forum to maybe try and share some of the revelation of this phenomena with other brethren I mean there are many who don't live in the same musical dimension but they are still my friends,but the fall are,well,what they are.....mark e smith and etc

Reply to this Admin

Dec 10, 2016 4:17am

ave a visceral punch when you listen to them, you experience them and somehow understand them without really decoding them. Every time you go back to something like Winter or Garden there is something new there for you. But what is amazing is that if you ever read the lyrics you get a different, but equally valuable experience from them - the songs spin off in new directions and reveal new dimensions and angles.
It's the same if you ever hear a good cover version of a great Fall song, like the excellent, slowed down folky electronica version of English Scheme that came out a few years ago. You could go back to the well a thousand times and there would still be more there for you

Reply to this Admin

Jul 6, 2017 1:52am

Really enjoyed this but 'There's nothing whimsical about 'Winter'. It made me laugh out loud when I first heard it (well almost) Are you being perhaps Smithsonian?
'There was a feminist's Austin Maxi parked outside with anti-nicotine, anti nuclear stickers on the side' - the portrait of a 'backward' kid in the black archbishops hat with a green fuzz skull and crossbones 'gimme the lead, gimme the lead - I'll take both of you on' Surely, even in his own impenetrable way this is Smith laughing through a twisted smile. His comic spleen at it's best (which you get at 3.15)

Reply to this Admin