The Fallen- Searching For The Missing Members Of The Fall: Reviewed

Dave Simpson nearly went bonkers tracking down everyone who's been given the boot from The Fall. John Doran finds the resulting tome to be essential reading for every Fall fan.

The Fallen – Searching For The Missing Members Of The Fall

Dave Simpson


Two months ago: It’s quite late at night and I’m drunk riding the Northern Line towards The Mucky Pup off Essex Road hoping for a late drink. An urban camper gets onto the packed carriage and prepares to make a short speech. People start reading books and papers about two inches from their eyes. His face is slightly leathered and perma-tanned – a sign of street life, perhaps, but not necessarily sleeping rough that often. He has light, wiry hair and looks in relatively good shape. He’s certainly a lot more sober than most people on the carriage, me included. He walks past injecting his oft recited spiel with just enough vim and vigour to get a couple of donations to the sleep chest. As he walks past me he notices my ludicrously big Wu Tang Clan T-shirt and says: “I’ve met them. Old Dirty Bastard was a right mad twat. It was at a festival – I was playing with a band. You’ve probably never heard of them – The Fall.”

He walks to the next carriage and starts again. I stagger out of my seat and follow him down the tube. I tap him on the shoulder with one hand, scrabbling for change with the other: “The Fall? I love The Fall.”

He brightens slightly: “Yeah, they’re pretty good.”

I apologize: “Sorry I didn’t have any more money to give you. The Fall are my favourite band.”

He says he would love to stay and talk but he has to get money for a hostel. That it isn’t a scam or anything. Then he adds reassuringly: “Don’t worry about it mate. You’re alright.”

He smiles a smoker’s smile and leaves. At first I think he is reassuring me about the money but then I realize he is sympathizing with me because my favourite band are The Fall. He’s homeless and he feels sorry for me. He may be down on his luck but I am still stuck in the trap of the band, like the butterfly on the cover of Dragnet.

It’s very late but I have to tell Luke. After a series of phone calls he exclaims excitedly: “I think you’ve found Karl Burns.

Karl Burns turns out to be the central character in Dave Simpson’s fascinating, amusing and ultimately moving new book The Fallen in which he tries to track down most of the previous members of The Fall. Burns, an on-off drummer in the legendary post punk group, is the shadowy presence at the periphery of this account of a newspaper article which developed into a year-long obsession that cost the author a 17-year relationship and his peace of mind.

The concept is so simple you could be blamed for thinking it was one of those fall-of-Rome-style books about a bored journalist pushing a fridge full of tennis balls round Moldovia. But Simpson’s quest to find out the true nature of – quite simply – one of the best groups that has ever existed will chime with anyone who has ever interviewed or read an interview with Mark E Smith, or encountered his autobiography Renegade (written in conjunction with Quietus writer Austin Collings, read The Quietus review here).

“The Boss”, as he is almost universally known by former members, is adept at controlling all the information that the public get to read about the arcane way he manages the institution that is The Fall. Although very few former members (or The Fallen as Simpson dubs them) wish to say anything disloyal about their former task master, their their testimony unwittingly paints a Francis Bacon-esque, but mostly loving, portrait of someone who is part Torquemada, part William Blake, part Percy Sugden, part Casanova, part Alan Sillitoe and so on and so on.

His tale, which resembles a British, provincial take on Apocalypse Now! where Kurtz (Smith) is encountered by Capt. Willard (Simpson) before the latter gets on the boat. His travel up the Nung River into Cambodia begins after Smith brushes off Simpson’s enquiries about the former members with his (they’re all either too old or too pally with him or too into jazz to be in The Fall any more). So Simpson, a veteran Melody Maker and Guardian hack, decides to find out for himself by tracking them all down.

The result is the yang to Renegade’s yin. The book is as repetitive and as reassuring as a song by the group. No one wants to point the finger of blame at Smith, regarding torture, kidnapping, abandonment in deserts, forcible drink and drug sessions (in some cases lasting for years), mental cruelty and the like as a small price to pay for being close to genius. Not Steve Hanley, the long suffering bass player who was a member for 19-years. Not Ben Pritchard, who was kicked out of a transit van in Texas with no money because he was suspected of dipping into petty cash. Not even Tommy Crooks, who was part of the infamous onstage bust up in New York that nearly saw the Salford bard get sent to Riker’s Island. In fact, pretty much all of this fascinating list of supporting characters say they would return to the group if they were given the chance.

There are several incidents which prove that if anything Smith has under exaggerated the strange and frightening world surrounding his vision of alternative rock music. Whereas he describes The Fallen as being like astronauts returning from a particularly fraught space mission, the truth seems to be even more intense. All of them talk about it taking years to get over the experience – with some turning to drugs, meditation, therapy and even jazz to help them recover. The universal experience seems to be one of post traumatic stress disorder combined with Stockholm Syndrome.

Smith’s methods of maintaining ‘creative tension’ are bizarre but logical, sometimes calling to mind the brainwashing techniques used by David Koresh and the Branch Davidians or psy-ops torture as used in Abu Ghraib. From regular dousing in beer, being blindfolded in tour vans, being subjected to non-stop Bob Dylan and then being told “not” to play anything like him, being told to play the drums while standing on a stool, being told to play the drums while Smith dismantles the kit, being abandoned at service stations with no money, there is little here that a ‘normal’ member of society would put up with.

One of many theories that the book divulges is that Smith is trapped in some kind of horrible feedback loop which is slowly driving him insane. He feels that tension is necessary to create the Fall Sound. And as the group’s reputation has snowballed over the years, the means of creating this tension has grown out of all proportion. This isn’t helped by the fact that his fearsome paranoia causes him to take more and more control of the group causing him to become more stressed, causing him to drink more causing him to become more paranoid.

A slight sprinkling of clumsy mistakes (for example, they didn’t release a single called ‘How He Wrote “Elastica” Man’ in 1980, or ever, that privilege obviously went to Elastica) doesn’t stop this from being a snappy, funny book which paints a warm picture of how creativity and art don’t just belong to the YBAs or other chattering class-approved figures but also to ordinary folk who feel disaffected with the lot that life has offered them. Brix – who probably knows Smith as well as or even better than anyone else – sums up succinctly: “When anything would get too good or big or too smooth he’d fuck it up on purpose.” Echoing what Simpson had kind of suspected all along: it doesn’t matter how crazy or drunk he seems. He’s the one who’s in charge, keeping his beloved group just far enough away from the mainstream to keep them relevant forever.

If you really want to know what it’s like being a member of The Fall, move to Prestwich and drink in The Greyhound, there is a good chance you will end up on tour with them before the end of the year. If this sounds too daunting you should pick up this fascinating and odd book instead.

Four days ago: I’m on the Northern Line – this time sober. He gets on again and spies me before he starts his spiel. He spies my copy of Simpson’s book: “Ah, you like The Fall right? I remember you from the other week.”

I nod and give him a couple of quid saying: “So you’re Karl right?”

He laughs: “No I’m not Karl. I won’t be in that book. I used to roadie for them and then on tour Mark got me to stand in on keyboards.”

He says his name is something like Buzz and walks off talking about a tour of America. And he’s gone. I’ve no idea who he is. Maybe Simpson can look into his identity while he writes the sequel.

The Quietus Digest

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