Lost Loves & Exploding Cars: Author Dave Simpson On The Curse Of The Fall
, April 16th, 2010 06:05
Dave Simpson, author of The Fallen - Life In And Out Of Britain’s Most Insane Group, shares his fears that searching for Mark E. Smith's discarded bandmates may have cursed his life
It was a Friday evening and I was on the way home from a gig when I suddenly had to answer the call of nature. I was in the middle of nowhere but in the darkness saw a tree. So I pulled over and stopped the car. The second I got out I felt my foot land in a deep puddle, tumbled over and managed to sprain an ankle. For anyone else this would have been a normal incident. But at the back of my mind I could hear Mark E. Smith singing the lyrics to Touch Sensitive: "So you’re bursting for a pee. You go behind a tree." I knew instantly that the sprained ankle was no coincidence - but yet another incident of the Curse of The Fall.
It all started in 2005, when I interviewed Mark E. Smith for The Guardian and embarked on a Herculean mission to track down everyone who’d ever played live in his group, The Fall - a list which ran to 43 musicians (at the beginning, this number would increase almost immediately) and who were dotted around the globe in places as far apart geographically and culturally as Portland, Oregon and Rotherham. This became the book The Fallen - Searching For The Missing Members Of The Fall. I found former heroin addict bass players in dingy flats; looked for a missing drummer on remote hillsides around Burnley; was followed by the police and found another drummer, who hadn’t been heard of for almost 30 years, had become a roofing salesman and Freemason. I was asked "Why you looking for ‘im? Who wants to know" and told "If I tell you any more, I’ll have to kill you." But along the way I encountered some fascinating characters and developed an even more fascinating insight into one of Britain’s most legendary, if secretive groups - and heard all manner of tales of comedy, horror, genius and madness involving The Fall’s mercurial leader, Mr. Smith.
Smith’s father had run a small plumbing firm and since 1976 he had run The Fall like a small trading company, with Smith as general/foreman, hiring and firing at will and seeing disgruntled employees march off without recourse to an industrial tribunal. Often, some of his best workers were recruited from down the pub - local lads who could barely play an instrument who who were somehow coaxed into making some of the best British music ever by Smith’s demented/inspired methods. A sort of musical equivalent of Brian Clough - the legendary football manager who took a Nottingham Forest team of misfits and miscreants to win the European Cup, twice - Smith’s core philosophy was "creative tension" or, as ex-members put it, a cross between a real life chess game where the musicians were the pawns and an extreme psychological warfare version of the carrot and the stick.
I heard of rapturously received gigs being followed by Smith’s complaints that his musicians were "Playing like a fuckin’ pub band"; dressing room inquests that went on for hours; band members being held hostage in dressing rooms and even being kidnapped and blindfolded. Some stories were inspired - how Smith could record a hit record in the back of a Transit at 70 mph; others chucklesome - the great man falling asleep in a hotel lift and spending the night going up and down between floors to the bewilderment of American tourists making their way to breakfast; some were both comical and disturbing - members being abandoned at foreign airports, tour bus drivers being drenched with beer while driving; drummers being fired Mafiosi style with a fish’s head outside their door and guitarists being turfed out of the van in Swedish forests. I heard of drummers being fined a fiver every time they hit a certain drum; bass players who were so traumatised by their time in The Fall they turned to acupuncture, transcendental mediation, free jazz or even training to become a travelling minstrel. For Smith, The Fall’s continued relevance relies on constantly "freshening up" the line-up. There is never a shortage of musicians - willing victims - because everyone wants to say they were in the mighty Fall (even, in some cases, for under an hour). I’ve often thought that, deep down, I may even be among them. My formative experiences were mostly bound up with The Fall. My first girlfriend, Carol, gave me my first Fall album - 1980’s Grotesque (After The Gramme), which she gave me under the dining table in brown paper, like it were pornography. I had my first pint of bitter over the road from my first Fall gig, which was in a room called the Riley-Smith Hall which I believed OF COURSE had been named in honour of The Fall singer and then-guitarist, Marc Riley. When The Fall had a hit with the Kinks' 'Victoria', I was dating a Victoria. Suzanne, my partner of 17 years, sealed her status as the love of my life when she moved in clutching Live at the Witch Trials. My dad had been a bingo-master - the title of The Fall’s first single.
It was Brix Smith who first told me about The Curse of The Fall. Brix was an American who met Smith Stateside and joined The Fall/became his wife and moved to Smith’s homeland Prestwich/Salford, where her US accent would prompt enquiries like "Ello luv, are you having a nice holiday?" Brix - who played guitar in The Fall and was married to Smith from 1983 until 1989 (returning to the group, but not the marriage, briefly in 1994-1996) - told me of her belief that Smith’s fabled and acclaimed lyrics were more than just profoundly insightful, but that he was actually psychic. She revealed how she’d once been caught by the current in the Caribbean and heard Smith’s voice in her head telling her never to turn her back on the sea. She told how 1986’s 'Terry Waite Sez' had predicted the Church Of England’s Special Envoy’s kidnap; how 'Powder Keg' had warned about the forthcoming Manchester bombing; how 1992’s 'Free Range' had warned of the "trouble" about to sweep Europe in the form of the Bosnia-Herzegovina ethnic cleansing; how 'Kicker Conspiracy' predicted the gentrification of football two decades before Roy Keane’s infamous "prawn sandwiches" rant.
Brix also talked of another side to this: cross Smith and you may end up cursed. In particular, a journalist had once incurred the great man’s wrath and had been told "I fucking curse you. You’ve got the curse of The Fall". Two days later the journalist had been in a phone box when it was hit by a car. Was it now my turn? Had my quest to find the Fallen got too close to Smith’s guarded "secrets" and resulted in him psychically giving me a Curse of The Fall?
There’s been a few signifiers: weird solitary eagles hovering above me as I tried to find Karl Burns and a car suddenly appearing in my remote village bearing the number plate "MES" (obviously, since Smith can’t drive, it must have been driven by a secret Fall agent). The more ex-members I found, the more I really did seem cursed. My Fiat Punto blew up and with the advance for the book I bought a new MG, only to drive it into a river. My beloved Leeds United (Smith, of course, supports rivals Manchester City) were relegated, then deducted 10 points, then 15, then signed "footballers" who could barely kick a ball. I was struck down with particularly nasty food-poisoning and thumped by one of our own fans at Leeds United. Most painfully of all, Suzanne - my partner of 17 years, since before the Extricate album - announced she was leaving me, her dissatisfaction having apparently started when I was "finding all those people in The Fall". Inevitably, she dumped me for a trucker, a 'Container Driver', the title of my favourite Fall song.
Last year’s publication of a paperback version as The Fallen - Life In And Out Of Britain’s Most Insane Group (containing even more ex-members) seems to trigger another bout of the Curse. On the plus side, I have a new girfriend, who spookily confessed her favourite gig ever was The Fall in Leeds in 2006 (where I had also been in the audience) before she knew about my awful Fallen past. However, in the last few weeks alone, I have been duffed up by the new next door neighbour (who took exception to my playing 'Control I’m Here' by Nitzer Ebb quite loudly - would this have happened if it had been a track by The Fall?) and my latest car has blown up again. The first garage I took it to botched the repair completely and expensively, the next one sorted it out but drained my wallet. Needless to say, within hours of receiving it back running as good as new, I’d hit a concrete block on the motorway and managed to write off two wheels.
I’d actually stopped looking for the Fallen after failing to find Karl Burns, a drummer who’d been in the group for various spells before disappearing off the face of the earth after punching Smith onstage in New York in 1998, when Smith lost virtually an entire line-up. I knew roughly where Karl was - he emailed, but then the trail went cold - but decided to respect his privacy. But one thing I know about Karl is that he’s working, married and very happy. Whether he really is in a remote hillside and has never played the drums again, there’s a man who clearly knows how to banish the Curse of The Fall. Unless penning this article for The Quietus results in the breaking of the Curse, I fear I need to find Karl in order to lift it. As soon as the car comes back from the latest in a long line of garages, I’m driving off into the hills again.
The Fallen - Life In And Out Of Britain’s Most Insane Group is published by Canongate - details are on www.thefallenbook.co.uk.
To read a Tome On The Range Piece on the book, click here.