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Hip Priest - The Story of Mark E.Smith and The Fall by Simon Ford

The late John Peel has a lot to answer for.  A few months ago I came across three (yes three!) books about The Fall in the Reading Broad Street branch of Waterstone's bookshop.   I thought that Mark E.Smith must have died, or at least have been given a knighthood.  

I first heard The Fall when I was at Leeds University in 1978, on the Peel program of course.  Back then they were very rough indeed, but I was impressed enough to seek out and buy Bingo Master's Break-Out! and Live at the Witch Trials.  I followed them through Dragnet, Fiery Jack, How I Wrote Elastic Man, Totally Wired, and on to Hex Enduction Hour in 1982.  After that, I must have become more responsible, for the only other Fall records I bought were The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (1984) and Bend Sinister (1986).  Then I lost track of them completely for several years.  It was only when I started listening to BBC Radio 6 on broadband that I learned that The Fall, or rather Mark E.Smith and the current version of The Fall, are still active and producing good stuff in 2004.

The key element of The Fall has always been Smith's inscrutable lyrics which are completely unlike anything else in contemporary music.  A lesser, but still important feature has been the driving wall of noise produced by the rest of the band.  The overall effect is best summed up by quoting Danny Kelly's description (NME 1984 Nov 10):

"The wall of rhythm generated by the Hanleys and the great and loyal Karl Burns is huge and brutal.  Craig Scanlon and Brix Smith drill shockingly harsh metal guitars into the heart of the beast.  Where the babblings of the wordSmith used to be a part of an urban guerrilla cell - mercurial, fragmented, chancy - they now find themselves riding atop Krupp's wet dream, a black, invincible war machine.  The noise is crude, cruel, inescapable and authoritarian.  Smith has always been a lucky bastard, chucking his writing bag of words into the music like a carcass into a set of propellers, to watch the result spin off not as gore and offal, but diamonds, a tour de force of inexplicable sorcery."

As well as quotations, Ford's book is full of interviews with many past and present members of  the band, some interviewed specially for the book, others culled from old music magazines and books.  Smith comes across as almost impossible to live and work with, and one has to admire the dedication of Steve Hanley, Craig Scanlon, Karl Burns, Martin Bramah, Kay Carroll, Brix Smith, and the others for sticking with him for as long as they did.  Whenever the band looked like it was getting to be successful, Mark E.Smith would insist on making a new start, for example by changing their record company.  On one occasion Smith apparently fired his whole band because they wouldn't make the sound that he wanted.  A few days later he went and got his ears syringed and found out the problem had actually been in his hearing, not in their playing.  But they stayed because they were in awe of his ability to come up with ideas and words.  Some of this awe comes across in reading Marc Riley's reaction after the recording of 'Iceland' as recounted by Colin Irwin (Melody Maker 1981 Sep 26):

"No, we didn't know what he was going to do either," says Riley in a state of euphoria later. "He just said he needed a tune, something Dylanish, and we knocked around on the piano in the studio and came up with that. But we hadn't heard the words until he suddenly did them. We did 'Fit And Working' on 'Slates' in exactly the same way.Yeah, I suppose it is amazing really..."

As Ford says, once you have been a fan of The Fall you can never escape it: even now when I walk past a pelican crossing and it goes beep-beep-beep... in the back of my mind I hear Mark E.Smith spitting out:

Got eighteen months for espionage,
Too much brandy for breakfast,
And people tend to let you down,
It's a swine.... 
Fantastic life!

Ours is not to look back, ours is to continue the crack.  (Argggh!  I think I had better go and lie down.)

Reader Comments (2)

There was a nice tribute to JP on The Now Show
last month where they "sang" a song entitled:

"Let's have A Minute's Noise For John [Peel]"

I thought it was rather touching - so I made a short MP3
that it available on request.

December 21 | Unregistered CommenterGavin
I heard that version of the Now Show and I also thought the Peel piece was rather good.

I first heard of Peel's death when I saw a cartoon in a newspaper of him at the pearly gates with Saint Peter saying to him "I used to listen to you when I was young".
December 21 | Unregistered Commentertristram

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