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Remembering Kay Carroll Of The Fall
Fergal Kinney , June 9th, 2020 08:40

Fergal Kinney speaks to Marc Riley, Una Baines, Martin Bramah, Paul and Steve Hanley, Elena Poulou, Liz Naylor, John Robb and Geoff Travis to get a sense of just how important Kay Carroll was to the development of The Fall

Between 1977 and 1983, Kay Carroll – who passed away at the weekend aged 71 – managed The Fall, from the release of their debut Live At The Witch Trials to their consensus masterpiece Hex Enduction Hour. During those years, Kay Carroll masterminded a coup to turn The Fall from democracy to dictatorship. On her watch, a ragtag group of Prestwich dropouts would become a national act, spearheaded by a polished and enigmatic media performer whose control over The Fall was total. Though those six years marked her only involvement in the music industry – a brief interregnum in a long and distinguished career as a carer – Carroll should be understood as one of the great managers of the punk and post-punk moment, alongside Bernie Rhodes and Malcom McLaren.

If you recognise that Mark E Smith’s role with The Fall was that of conduit and custodian of what was essentially an idea – an idea manifested as The Fall – then Kay Carroll was central to the development of that idea and its execution, providing the group with theoretical principles that would be upheld until Smith’s death in 2018. What she understood was that a revolving door would actually be beneficial, rather than detrimental, to The Fall project.

Born Kay Sullivan 27th December 1948, she spent her early years in West Gorton and the central district of Ardwick, before being moved to Whitefield in North Manchester following the 1960s slum clearances. By her early twenties, Carroll was working as a psychiatric nurse at Prestwich Mental Hospital – documented by Martin Parr in a celebrated 1972 photography series – and married with two children. Carroll left her marriage and began to further her interest in music and countercultural ideas. “Leaving my children was one of the biggest and one of the few regrets of my life” she explained in Simon Ford's Hip Priest, “it still haunts me, but I was such a selfish bastard when I think about it. If I could turn back the clock and change it, I don’t think I would though, because everything that happened to me in the last twenty-six years would also have to change.”

The hospital was home to a pot-smoking hippy underworld, which included future Fall member Una Baines. She and Carroll bonded over Pink Floyd, Can and Hawkwind, and the former soon introduced her colleague to the band she was in with her boyfriend, called The Fall. One of the paradoxes of The Fall is that for all of Smith’s vocal opposition to hippiedom, the group emerged from a Prestwich milieu that owes much to that same fuggy counterculture. “Prestwich was very magic mushrooms at the time” remembers Liz Naylor, one of the editors of City Fun magazine and key figure on Manchester's post punk scene. Carroll met Mark E Smith for the first time while she was tripping on LSD. Baines and Smith split up and soon afterwards the singer and Carroll became romantically involved.

Baines speaks with genuine affection about her former friend and colleague. “I remember we were going on a trip to Paris and we spent the night chatting to this philosophical guy at London Victoria station” she says, “and he told us, ‘You can die anytime you want to, you know that don’t you?’ When he left Kay was like, I’ve found out what I needed to know, 'Let’s go back to Prestwich.' A few times I thought about sending her a friend request [on Facebook], but I always decided to leave it there because it had been such a time of upheaval."

As would become a theme in Smith’s life, he quickly professionalised the romantic relationship, bringing Carroll in as manager. “You can be like Faye Dunaway in Networkwas her brief from Smith. She used her final hospital wage to buy a phone for Smith's Kingswood Road flat – no more bollockings were to be dealt out to promoters from Prestwich phone boxes – and rented a two-roomed office and rehearsal space for the group. If they weren’t there, Smith and Carroll would be drinking pints in the Foresters pub or hosting druggy after-hours sessions at Kingswood Road.

The pair were united by a vigorous interest in the occult. Smith claimed in his memoir Renegade that they would charge for tarot readings to "housewives with a bit of money" around North Manchester suburbia. Like Smith, Carroll would speak of having psychic powers. “There was a lot of rumours about her being a witch, being into witchcraft” says Liz Naylor. Naylor remembers Carroll arriving at a potential new rehearsal space: “She stepped in, announced it was haunted and The Fall never set foot in there ever again.” Carroll's mother opened a psychic centre on the corner of Bury New Road. That this centre was formerly a dance studio provided the catalyst for the astonishing disco exorcism ‘Psykick Dance Hall.’

Carroll’s management style was abrasive, aggressive and based on a desire for The Fall to succeed without selling out – there would be no major labels, but neither would she stand for being ripped off by the indies. “It is impossible to manage The Fall” explained Carroll to Mick Middles, in the book he co-authored with MES, “you have to sit on top and tug the reigns a bit, this way or that, and hope they respond but, mostly, they will all tug in different directions and then me and Mark will shout and get our own way after a lot of arguing.” The musicians that recorded the group’s first EP Bingo-Master's Break-Out! began to leave – Una Baines and Tony Friel first, followed by drummer Karl Burns and guitarist Martin Bramah following the release of their debut album.

Bramah had co-written the majority of Live At The Witch Trials. “Martin’s guitar playing and songwriting was so important to that band” explains Marc Riley, who joined on bass in 1978. "That they were willing to sacrifice that to get a complete grip on the band, and then bring in me and my mates... She gave Mark the courage and the power base to take the band over. She was one of those people that you could rarely win an argument with, even if she was probably wrong she’d just keep going.”

But 1979’s Dragnet vindicated Carroll’s strategy, an astonishing record performed with a band of teenage recruits. “She had some influence on getting me in” remembers Steve Hanley, who would stay in his role for twenty years, the long-suffering lynchpin on which the Fallsound was sculpted. “I knew it wasn’t a democracy when I joined, but the setup was the setup. She took us all over the world, I owe her a lot.” Carroll would co-write ‘Muzorewi's Daughter’ with Smith, one of the standout tracks on the second album and the high watermark of the Fall’s pulp horror modernist writing. Carroll soon found herself referenced in one of the band's tracks. 'An Older Lover Etc.’ from Slates was widely understood to be a reference to Carroll, who was nearly a decade his senior.

Following that album’s modest success, Carroll negotiated a deal with Rough Trade. “I have nothing but brilliant memories of working with Kay” remembers Geoff Travis, “she was very, very important to the whole thing. I slept on the floor of their flat in a sleeping bag during the recording sessions for Grotesque. The thing about her was that she’d had a job in the real world, and that’s the difference with The Fall. These people had a sense of the real world, it wasn’t like a bunch of art students who decide to form a band. She was lovely with me in particular, though it all went sour when we signed The Smiths. The two biggest bands in Manchester, I can understand that rivalry.”

That sourness resulted in The Fall dramatically leaving Rough Trade to join short-lived metal label Kamera to release the high watermark album, Hex Enduction Hour. “I think Kay’s part around this period has been overlooked” offered Smith in Renegade, “she was like a financial wizard." Manchester writer and punk musician 

John Robb remembers a meeting with Carroll about booking some shows: “I’d never met anybody like that before. I remember saying something pretty sarky to her and she just went, ‘Don’t feed the hand that bites.’ I could never work out whether she was being double clever, or she’d just got the phrase wrong.”

Carroll’s maxims would quickly become Smith’s maxims – Steve Hanley remembers her battle cry of “What the hell does he think he’s doing, behaving like a fucking rock star?”

“I was always guardian of the camp” explained Carroll in Dave Simpson's book on the numerous ex-members of the group, The Fallen, “nothing and no-one got by me.” Martin Bramah remembers Carroll being “protective of Mark when people were starting to want a piece of him, and he wasn’t used to it. She gave him a cushion to develop the Mark E Smith persona, that wasn’t really complete until she left. When she went, that’s when he became the Mark E Smith that we know now. He took on a lot of her attributes, how to deal with the media and journalists, all of that he learnt from Kay. She was very warm when she wanted to be, but she could tear a strip off you if she felt like it, one of those working-class women who just dominate a room.”

Though Smith’s previous girlfriend Una Baines had been in the group, Carroll marked the beginning of a long line of women who would shape The Fall's story in crucial ways - be it Elena Poulou, Julia Nagle, Brix Smith or Pamela Vander. “Mark Smith was never a man’s man” explains Robb, “there was quite a feminine thing about him really. He always had girlfriends in the band, and was managed by women, there was always his sisters too. In the 1970s that was quite an unusual thing.”

“It’s something that Mark always does isn’t it?” says Naylor, "he has this really strong female figure that acts as a go-between for him and the world, and she was the first one.”

Though Carroll could be an abrasive personality, that she was operating as a female manager in an overwhelmingly male industry is central to the need for that abrasion. “Yes she could be a difficult character” Naylor says, “but there was lots of fondness for her and her real commitment to the countercultural scene at that point.” Geoff Travis agrees, “you’ve got to understand too that those lot were taking so much speed at that point that they were just... hard to communicate with.”

That Carroll and Smith essentially brought in a bunch of untrained, untrendy teenage musicians may have appeared quite a strange thing to do to outsiders. But not only did it cement Smith’s power base within the group, it allowed them to make great art, while avoiding giving the impression of being great artists. Right or wrong, The Fall was a game of hard graft, serving time, working for the boss - and to what great results, even if such methods are an anathema to the 'creatives' of 2020.

In a revealing passage of his book, The Fall, Mick Middles remembers being rebutted by Carroll for suggesting that Smith’s lyrics had the potential to become novels. “They don’t need to be expanded into prose” she countered, “it’s wrong to suggest that because something arrives in novel form, it is somehow more important or has more aesthetic value than a song.” Speaking to Dave Simpson in the book The Fallen, she further explained “I brought an ideology to the Fall, and Mark carried it on.” Paul Hanley, who had just left secondary school when he joined up, remembers telling Carroll that he’d not be going to college to concentrate on the group. “Her and Mark took me to one side and said you really should carry on with your education and do your A-Levels. I wasn’t happy about it but I’ve always been grateful to them both for that. It was Kay’s idea and Mark fully supported it.”

Smith and Carroll’s relationship began to deteriorate for all of the traditional reasons that romantic and professional relationships deteriorate. During a heated discussion outside a bar in Boston on a US tour in 1983, Carroll walked out on the band. “It’s quite a brave thing to do” reflects Paul Hanley of that decision, "to overnight leave your job, your home, your relationship and the country that you’re from.”

“Mark is very astute, incredibly manipulative when he wants things to happen without confrontation for himself” reflected Carroll in Hip Priest, “I saw this behaviour over and over again, and don’t get me wrong, it’s not a complaint, it’s one of Smith’s more enigmatic qualities that intrigued me. Well, it did until it happened to me.” 

Smith met future wife and Fall guitarist Brix Smith on that same US tour, the pair returning to Prestwich and Brix moving into Kingswood Road. Carroll stayed in the US and built a new life for herself working in the care sector and then living on the East Coast until 1990. In 1986 she caught the Fall at a New York show, quipping of Smith’s leather coat “who do you think you are, Marc Bolan?”

In later life, she would provide care for patients with HIV and AIDS, as well those with head injuries. “My job was to cognitively retrain people with short-term memory deficits” explained Carroll in The Fallen, “some things never change.” 

Carroll never returned to the music industry, and lost touch with the majority of her Manchester connections across the 1980s and 90s. When Mark E Smith died in January 2018, she wrote a long Facebook post that became public, detailing the story of her final encounter with Smith. Returning to Prestwich on family business in 2011, Carroll walked out of a charity shop in Prestwich Village centre and there was Smith at a bus stop with carrier bag. When Smith asked why she’d returned from America, Carroll replied “Oh, I decided to come back and kill you.” She had been through drug and alcohol recovery, and noted that Smith made no comment on her not drinking, offering to buy her non-alcohol beer. Elena Poulou, Smith’s then wife, remembers speaking to Carroll on the phone later. “She was very funny” she recalls, “we didn’t speak about The Fall, just private stuff. She was very important for The Fall.”

“You were a complex character my friend" wrote Carroll of Smith in that 2019 tributel "unwavering, a brilliant writer of prose and poetry. A visionary. You perceived things that not many people could see, let alone wanted to see. You were at times so funny and loving, and yet could be so infuriating, hard arsed, and yes cruel, but you also knew how to turn on the charm and reset the bar, and it changed people, and for me, it was for the better.” Kay Carroll, who was widely known as Kay Bateman later in life, changed The Fall for the better – a brilliant manager and individual in her own right. The Fall were lucky to have her. Fantastic life.