L: Live 1977


Year Zero for many. One of the most important years in the history of modern music. I mainly refer, of course, to the release of the Shadows’ ‘Twenty Golden Greats’ collection and the formation of the legendary Toto. I have several friends who live in 1977 and refuse to budge – not because of Toto and the Shadows, mind.Writer Tom Wolfe was the fifth Beatle in 1977, now he’s the third. You don’t need me to tell you that those days were very different. Ask Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall.

In 1977 I was 13 years old and in my third year at comprehensive school. My clothes were so badly fitting and unfashionable that I could’ve probably been recruited by The Fall. Even my hair was as unstyled and dishevelled as the band. Of course thay had kudos and I had credibility issues. The Fall? They didn’t care about cred. When Lou Reed died Steve Albini wrote :

“I didn’t have the kind of epiphany many people did to VU or Reed’s music. I liked some of it, loved some of it, and didn’t care for some, but the arc of his whole thing is just undeniably great and inspirational. 50 years of following his muse, whatever it happened to be at the moment. His music will either hit you or not, but one thing ought  matter to anybody who thinks music or art is worth pursuing for its own sake; Lou Reed, he did not give a fuck. Did not give a single fuck. I think of myself as not giving a fuck most of the time, but once in a while I wish to Christ I could give not a fuck as thoroughly as Lou Reed.”

It occurs to me that Albini could be talking about Mark E Smith at various points in his career.

The band playing on this album do not give a fuck about the audience in front of them. They know that they will find their audience at some point in the future and they won’t give a fuck about them either. The Fall, to me, have nearly always been more krautrock than punk, especially live. Live, The Fall are formidable and usually exceed expectations. On some nights they are transcendent. Even now.

Perhaps I should talk about the album.

Most bands wouldn’t consider it for release. I’m not sure how official it is but the sound is generally awful by modern standards. Useless radio stations like Shoutsport cut callers off when their phone emits one click and the punters of today expect flawless sound. This would have been recorded on cassette, the hieroglyphics of music transcription to many, with all of the attendant fuzz and distortion. At times it resembles playing a record with a fuzzy needle (not a euphenism).  Nonetheless, a very energetic performance by a version of the band that never made a record. MES is hilarious when berating the audience (similar to ‘Totale’s Turns’).I refuse to quote him because I want you to listen to this. The songs still leap out despite the rudimentary recording equipment.

In all of their early glory . . .

K: Kicker Conspiracy


It wasn’t always the case that seven year olds knew all of the stats for players in European football leagues. There was a time before Sky TV when football thrived and the likes of George Best and Johan Cruyff were heroes to many who saw a tiny fraction of the games these geniuses played but who had the nous to recognise their considerable abilities without some ex-player turned pundit discussing their slowed down highlights with replays from two dozen angles. There was a time when football fans were allowed to make up their own minds. I don’t care if I’m classed as a ‘look back bore’ but I’m glad that I grew up in a pre-Murdoch era when, even on the BBC, football quiz questions weren’t suffixed with ‘in the Premier League era’. The assumption is that the Sky era created a better top flight. What we have now is one that only a few wealthy teams can win: a much more predictable division whereas the old First Division was fiercely competitive. This was a division that Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur were relegated from in the 1970s. This was a division that you could have a crack at winning with a couple of good signings and a prevailing wind behind you (the incredible newly promoted Nottingham Forest team of 1977-78). This was not a meritocracy although the stronger teams would buy the better players from the top two divisions. It was from the First Division that Forest and Aston Villa launched their successful European Cup campaigns. That would be the much harder to win version of the unfortunately named Champions’ League.

Imagine having a music chart where only bands signed to major labels with huge promotional budgets can get to number one . . .  errrr . . .

Once upon a time football wasn’t fashionable in Britain.

It fits in with the contrary nature of The Fall that, just as they were about to enter their most noticeably commercial era, they released a song about football during a time in the decline of its popularity due to perceived widespread hooliganism and the relative failure of the English national team. Football was often in the press for negative reasons in the late 1970s and early ’80s because of the media’s preoccupation with violence in and around football grounds. Governments and media commentators of the day failed to see this as a social problem that was articulating itself in the mass gatherings at various football grounds around the country and, instead, concluded that it was exclusively football’s problem. Only in and around these stadia did British people behave so abominably. Educated types did not leap into this debate and defend the sport in any great numbers so football fans became folk devils and insurrectionists. Insurrectionists against what? No one was saying. Everyday morality, I suppose.

It’d be pointless to deny that there was the risk of violence at some matches in the early 1980s but I refute the commonly held assumption that the football was poorer in those days. Football was pretty much as it always has been: some very dull matches; a lot of watchable games and a few classics. The football press nowadays seems to be made up of gullible reporters who accept received ‘wisdom’, such as the Sky era saved football, as statements handed down by God himself. It’s like the birth of Christianity (ChristSkyanity) with the Sky Gospels being held up as, well, the gospel truth. The greatest football match I ever attended was at Roker Park in 1985 when Clive Walker scored a hat trick for Sunderland against Manchester United when SAFC were 0-2 down against a team that included Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside and, until he was sent off, Mark Hughes. The greatest goal I ever witnessed in the flesh was Tony Woodcock’s goal for Arsenal at Roker Park in 1984 which, I swear, was an unstoppable shot from the centre circle. Never seen any footage of it but same applies to the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen. Football players did wonderful things on the pitch in those days but it wasn’t all on film. The best players made more money than the average working man in those days but it wasn’t gated community and Bentley money. They still walked among us, my friends.

We need to get our game back from these fucking salesmen.

This is the football world that Mark E Smith chose to write about in 1983. Not the world that the Lightning Seeds and two comedians (so-called) wrote about in the welcoming Euro ’96 era. Of course The Fall approach is resolutely musically uncommercial while the release format is more buyer friendly. This jarring, stop-starty song was released as a double single with some earlier ‘educators’ for new Fall fans. The Peel New Puritan was one of the tracks on the second 7” which is a bit like giving a £10 note away with every £5 of goods bought. That version of New Puritan is just about as good as it gets Fall-wise. No matter how good Kicker Conspiracy is this version of New Puritan, as I’ve said before, has a hint of Holy Grail about it. Add in the indisputably classic Container Drivers and you have a double 7” of serious muscial quality before you even broach the a-side. Kicker Conspiracy is a song that keeps coming to a stop and is as harsh sounding song that harks back to Hex Enduction Hour while reaching forward to the sometimes jagged, sometimes left field pop-punk of Perverted By Language. It is a song with a forward and backward reach. Even then Smith seems to be talking about real fans leaving the game as well as incompetent administors. The music, though, is peerless angular post-punk. No one, at this point, could write a parody Fall single as they were still producing classic after classic. The bottle was far from empty.

I haven’t mentioned Wings. God knows that Kicker is a song for the ages but many Fall fans would cite Wings as their favourite Fall track. And no wonder: a great buzzing guitar riff and driving rhythms mark this out as a memorable floorboard shaker with literate ambiguous lyrics. All four songs on this single required different ways of listening. Wings might have worked well on the Perverted By Language album but not so much on the next set of records where the band travelled in a more commercial (for The Fall) musical direction.

It could have been so much worse by this point. The Fall weren’t the successful underdogs that Nottingham Forest of 1977-78 but they were still climbing through the divisions and heading upwards. I suppose that in the end, if we average it all out, they end up like the Blyth Spartans team of, again, 1977-78 who had the greatest cup run of any non-league team in the last hundred years. Not just in the Premier League era.

J: John Peel Sessions

Peel UNCUT 2006 01

If you have children you will probably have played that game where your child presents you with two unpalatable options and you have to choose one. For example, what would you rather do: eat your beloved pet dog or drink drain cleaner? Or wander through Syria wearing a placard saying ‘Christian Over Here!’ or play for Newcastle United? What kind of heinous world would we be living in if people were really presenting us with these hideous options? What if this hypothetical fiend told you that you can only keep one Fall item or you will be forced to listen to the collected works of Kasabian for all eternity? Which item would you keep? I know most of you would choose that single with Elastica but what can you do?

If I were ever to appear on Desert Island Discs, which is about as likely as me becoming the ruler of Mars, my records would be subject to the mood I was in on the day I’d picked them, and my book would be some difficult tome that I’ve always struggled to complete (Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, Bleak House or Infinite Jest), but my luxury would definitely be The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004. Presumably there’s a cd player on the island as there is definitely a record player (the very premise implies this)  – and some electricity I assume. This would be the Fall artifact that I would keep above all others. In Fall terms this collection is historic.

There have been unsatisfying Fall gigs and less than fabulous albums but the Peel sessions consistently brought out the best in The Fall. A school of thought exists that Smith wouldn’t deliberately fuck up when the eyes of the world were on him but when the stakes were lower he might lose the plot in some small or massive way. South Shields 1996 is one example.  I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking but those who do would argue that the BBC work is great because the audience was large and Smith was keen to show the world how good his band was. They were also recorded very quickly so none of the tampering with the tapes that Grant Showbiz grew to dread was possible. The Peel sessions, when originally broadcast, would be heard by a massive audience – way beyond the usual Fall audience, which was in itself pretty significant, if fluctuating, in the time covered by this box set. The only times that the band would be heard by larger audiences than this would be at festivals or on television appearances.

Different days. Now you’d struggle to find the BBC giving a band likeThe Fall these regular opportunities. Nowadays making music seems to be a posh boy/girl career choice. Risk and poverty free because the family money will support you through the low selling years. We’ve always had privately educated musicians but now the music world is proliferated with them. A load of ‘indie’ Cumberbatches. Nonetheless, the BBC is a great institution which has contributed vastly to cultural life in this country and elsewhere. Alas they can only work with what they have at any particular time. John Peel’s son is a BBC 6Music presenter these days and, while the bloke does his best, he is snookered when it comes to contemporary music. His dad had Prag Vec, the Au Pairs and Throbbing Gristle but poor old Tom Ravenscroft has Seth Lakeman et al.

That may be a middle aged man’s view but I do listen to 6Music a fair bit and that is what I hear. As it gets later in the day the more reliant they become on old Peel sessions and In Concerts because they know that it is what their audience at that time of day want. The Peel show was, for me, the most important radio show in modern musical history. Many are the musicians who owe their livelihoods to initial exposure on one of Peel’s programs. If Peel were still alive I’m sure he’d be filling his airtime with great new bands as well as older gems. The BBC have never successfully filled the 10pm til midnight slot since he gave it up. There have been as many ‘new Peels’ as there have been ‘new Dylans’ and none of them have ever proven to be the real thing – in both cases.

While The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks is always cited as Peel’s favourite song (I wonder if he ever regretted saying that) The Fall were always said to be his favourite band. They are also one of the bands most closely associated with his show. So much so that when Peel died Mark E. Smith was one of the people Newsnight turned to to talk about him. It was an eccentric appearance by MES to say the least.  The Fall did twenty four sessions for the Peel program and, as you’d expect, the quality is a little variable. Not as variable as the albums I’d argue as none of the sessions disappoint in the way Are You Are Missing Winner does. The worst session in this set would still get a four star review. One of the beauties of a Fall session in the day was that you would get to hear new songs that hadn’t been recorded for albums at that time. Some of them were transformed radically by the time they made it to the record. The 1998 versions of Masquerade and Jungle Rock are so great that they make you wonder what went wrong in the studio when they were recording Levitate. Even songs that were great when they made it to record are sometimes surpassed by their session versions: Contraflow and Blindness, for example. For me the version of New Puritan from the September 1980 session might well be The Fall’s greatest ever recording. It is a stunning and peerless piece of music. Unsurpassed. My favourite session is the March 1983 recording which includes Smile, Garden, Hexen Definitive – Strife Knot and Eat Y’self Fitter. The previous session was the 1981 classic that featured material from the mighty Hex Enduction Hour and I thought that might prove to be their peak, especially after the disappointing Room To Live album. I can recall hearing (and excitedly taping) this session as it was broadcast and having my faith in the band restored.

No career encompassing greatest hits-type album or box set could do The Fall justice in the way this collection does. This is the band at their best. Play Blindness from disc six and tell me I’m wrong. There is no way I can do this justice in this blog either. If you have any interest in The Fall (and you wouldn’t be reading this if you haven’t) you need to own this collection.

One small beef I’d have with this collection is that it doesn’t include the David ‘Kid’ Jensen and Janice Long sessions that the band recorded when on Beggars Banquet. Would only require a small title change: ‘Peel and More’ or ‘BBC Sessions’. Everyone knows the Peel sessions were the most important but I want the lot! So do you . . .

I can’t end on that negative note. There are about seven hours of Fall music on here and I reckon that there are no more than ten disappointing minutes – if that! Even if Peel had never heard the albums these recordings would justify their position as his favourite band.

John Peel knew the score.

I: Interim


Seems an appropriate record to relaunch this blog after a four month absence. You didn’t notice that I was gone? I suspected as much.

The Fall discography is vast and is the non-studio section is littered with all sorts of anomalies and unclassifiable releases. While I typed that sentence there were probably four Fall live albums and two dubious compilations released. I would wager that even Mark E. Smith hasn’t heard every Fall release. I’d also bet that he wasn’t there for the recording of some of them. During the recent court case surrounding Touch Sensitive it was said that Smith wasn’t especially careful about what he signed off. This is how The Fall have ended up with one of the most cluttered and confusing discographies of any band in the history of rock music. You can put fifty dyed in the wool Fall fans in a room and ask them what the first Fall album they heard was and you might end up with thirty five different answers. Someone might even say Fiend with a Violin. And they’d still be ‘real Fall fans’ not those who missed the cold Tuesday night in Grimsby.

One of the advantages of being a Sunderland fan is that no one ever accuses me of being a glory hunter or ‘Johnny come lately’ (‘You only started supporting them when they barely escaped relegation those last few years.’). Same with being a Fall fan. Yeah, yeah, they had some minor hits in the ’80s but  . . .

I’ll just mention at this point that I love my seventeen year old daughter, Hannah, more than life itself but I was pretty disgusted when she said to my cousin Helen last week, ‘I used to support Sunderland when I was a kid but now I’m not sure I support anyone.’ How many exclamation marks do you want?

Interim is one of those unclassifiable albums. It says ‘Rehearsals + Live’ on the sleeve but it is actually a decent introduction to the band as they were at that point. It includes some of their better tracks plus some of the older songs they were still playing in their set at the time. It falls between Real New Fall LP and Fall Heads Roll in terms of studio album chronology but the Peel Sessions box set was released around the time of FHR, completely eclipsing it. This was one of those periods when Fall loyalists were informing passive Fallers that this was one of the phases when the band were back on form. This has happened with Bowie, Dylan and the Stones over the years but is more frequent with The Fall due to the regularity of Fall releases and the diverse nature of Fall fans. I don’t think Interim attracted any glory hunters.

This isn’t an album I play very frequently but, when I do, I wonder why I haven’t played it for a while. Usual answer: there are ten thousand Fall albums out there. The versions of the more recent tracks fare better on this album than the older ‘classic’ material. The version of Sparta is very striking with a really tight band performance and Eleni’s menacing vocal interventions. Blindness thunders along in a spine tingling fashion. Impossible to mess that song up – although Smith had a good go on Later. The unlikely influence of John Barry’s James Bond soundtracks is evident on the short I’m Ronney The Oney although it sounds like there is a stylophone being played in the mix. Green-Eyed Snorkel is a hyphen shifting (or ‘hyphen-shifting’) live version of Green Eyed Loco-Man. This is followed by a stunning version of Mad Mock Goth. Both tracks are superb versions of contemporary Fall tracks. I loved the tightness of this version of the band but I missed the experimental elements of The Fall. The diverse and daring The Unutterable was still a recent memory.

What we now know is that they weren’t that far away from another implosion.

H: Hanley, Steve

Steve Hanley

One of the most tolerant men in the music business judging by his brilliant autobiography, The Big Midweek, and one of the least bitter. Mark E Smith must have had kittens when he first heard about Shanley’s book, but his inevitable worries were misplaced because it certainly wasn’t a hatchet job. I think there is an expectation that when a former member of The Fall writes their book it will be a MES book by proxy. Not so thus far. Of course there are numerous tales about the boss man but both Hanley’s and Funky Si’s books have been genuine autobiographies. Brix’s book might be the one to fear, Mr. Smith.

Apparently Brix told Hanley that Mark loved him because he thought of him as ‘the sound of The Fall’. It was hard to imagine The Fall without Hanley’s bass sound when he was in them. It was often the dominant or most noticeable element of the mix on their recordings, often driving the songs. Hanley hasn’t been a member of the band throughout my daughter’s entire life so far. In three days it will be the seventeenth anniversary of the fateful Brownies rumpus that led to the exit of the most loyal of Smith’s ‘Jesuit lads’. Now that Hanley has broken his long silence we know that this was the final straw and not the sole reason for his exit. There is a genuinely poignant moment in the book when a cuffed and cowed Smith asks Hanley to come with him to the police station. Hanley, patience at an end after a difficult and frustrating period in the band, makes a stand and refuses. The spell is broken.

Since his departure I reckon the only really killer bass riff on a Fall record – one that has leaped out at me – has been the one in Blindness. One that was played, but apparently not written, by Steve Trafford on Fall Heads Roll. And where can we find Steve Trafford now? Well, he is a very busy and talented musician but he can also be witnessed alongside both Hanley brothers, Jason Brown and Brix Smith Start playing guitar in Brix and the Extricated. Small world. Fall world, actually.

I saw this group play a vibrant and thrilling and expectation-exceeding set in Leeds last week. This is no tribute act. This lot are throwing themselves into this and enjoying themselves in the process. When Hanley left The Fall it was expected that he would show up somewhere else soon enough as he was a well respected bass player. Apart from the Ark project there was very little else. Stints in The Lovers, with brother Paul another ex-Faller and current  Extricated member, and Factory Star, with another estranged Fall member and musician of note, the mighty Martin Bramah, did not seem to fill that Fall-shaped hole in Shanley’s life. Famously he then went on to become a site manager in a Manchester school. Having to deal with boisterous school kids can be no challenge to the man who stepped on stage and into the studio thousands of times with Mark E Smith.

Steve Hanley’s contribution to the history of The Fall goes way beyond a few anecdotes, however. He wrote, by his own account, one hundred songs for the band but his imprint is all over most of the songs he recorded with them. Take a song like Words of Expectation. When you remember it what do you hear first? Smith’s words? Not me. Smith’s lyrics and delivery are compelling but I always think first of that throbbing, curling bassline carrying the song along. Hanley routinely steals Fall songs the way Jack Nicholson would steal films with smallish cameos and secondary parts. I would argue that the signature Hanley sound really became noticeable on Slates, in songs like An Older Lover etc. and Middle Mass, and on Hex Enduction Hour, with the land of a thousand basses piece that is The Classical. From then on there are countless standout Hanley moments. I always loved his playing on U.S. 80s-90s, a song my then six year old daughter took notice of when she heard me playing the Peel box when it came out.

Hanley was a stalwart. He played through the divisions with The Fall and stuck with them when things took a turn for the worse financially and in terms of popularity in the nineties. A little like Gabriel Batstuta sticking with Fiorentina when they were relegated in the nineties (were the nineties bad for everyone?) – except that Shanley wasn’t an imaginary card waving, ref baiting, diving douche.

They built a statue of Batistuta in Florence so maybe they’ll put up a monument to Hanley somewhere in Manchester. Perhaps on the site of the old family pie shop or in Mark E Smith’s garden in Prestwich.

Even in the heated and argumentative world of Fall fandom there must be a consensus that Steve Hanley is one of the good guys and one of the most important musicians ever to be part of the group. If not the most important.

G: Guildhall, Newcastle (30th June 1984)

Fall Guildhall

It’s a beautiful building, as you can see. The Guildhall is part of Newcastle’s famous Quayside which had been the subject of some embourgeoisement (yes, I have done ‘A’ level sociology – alas I didn’t pass) in recent years. When I was a mere teen you’d go down there and expect to see Fagin’s proto-chav crew from Oliver Twist pickpocketing silk handkerchiefs – or, seeing as it was Newcastle in the 1980s – nicking Woodbines and WMC clubcards from unwitting, sometimes half-cut, punters. You think I’m making cheap jokes? Not so. The 1970s and ’80s were when the Geordie stereotype came into its own. The shirtless Toon fans you clocked at matches in the era when Murdoch’s lackeys hyped the Keegan team as ‘the entertainers’ (that season when they were twelve points ahead and still didn’t win the league was certainly ‘entertaining’ to us Sun’lun fans) were the sons or younger brothers of the folk I walked amongst on the Quayside and elsewhere in my late teens/early twenties.

Nowadays you go down there and you can see the Sage music venue (where The Fall played during the recent 6Music Festival and walked off in 2005) and the Baltic (modern art gallery) over a river spanned by the Millennium Bridge – all of which belong to Gateshead, and were chiefly financed by Gateshead Council and its sponsors.  While once Gateshead was the disfigured child hidden in the attic, now it is part of Newcastle-Gateshead so Newcastle can cash in on its Quayside beauty.  Once Newcastle only coveted the athletics stadium in Gateshead now they want to piggyback on its artistic and architectural credibility. Newcastle City Council tends to forget that they too have their own areas of aesthetic beauty, architecturally and naturally, and don’t need to grab at Gateshead’s coattails.

Unbelievably Newcastle City Council had plans to close the City Hall recently. This is where the likes of Led Zeppelin, Mott The Hoople, The Clash and Motorhead had played over the years. Many great bands had performed there but Newcastle was looking across the water at the bands playing at the Sage’s larger hall.

Local politics. Pathetic really. And short term.

Back to the ’80s. Decent venues for all of the bands being played on Peel and championed by NME, almost a guarantee of quality then, were scarce in Newcastle and its environs. The Dunelm Hall in Durham City was nearly always an unsatisfactory venue; the Mayfair was too large for some bands and the iconic Riverside wasn’t yet built (my God, that was a venue!). Thus bands ended up playing in odd places according to their expected audience size.

In 1984 I popped my Fall-playing-live cherry. Although I’d been an enthusiast I hadn’t turned up at a Fall gig. Why? Opportunity and lack of finance. I’d been buying their records regularly and, just after this performance, I stood my ground as I was threatened with fist and bottle by a drunken fiend/friend who had said that Oh! Brother was a ‘sell out’.  I have to say that part of my reason for appearing to calmly stand my ground was that I was stunned by alcohol myself.

The tickets to this gig informed the attendees that they needed to bring their own booze. I don’t think I took much but I did take my girlfriend of the time. She seemed to enjoy it but was a keen Simple Minds fan. Still, she was a woman of some beauty and had the good taste to love Bowie.

I have a bootleg of this gig and this reinforces the idea that I wasn’t wrong when I recall being at an impressive Fall performance. This performance included Garden one of the greatest Fall songs.  This song was nearly my ‘g’ for this blog but I had written about it previously. I have a weakness for longer, repetitive, talky Fall songs like Garden and, I suppose. Smile, the set opener. The forgotten classic Words Of Expectation, another mid-paced wordy gem, had cropped up in a Peel session earlier that year.

This was a very tight band and, while more commercial than previous incarnations, were not playing greatest hits sets. Shock! They had already recorded TWAFW album, and were playing some of those unfamiliar songs, but still had a foot in the bold and wonderful frightening world of the Hex-era band. The current album. Perverted By Language, was a true bridge between the avant-punk Fall and the pseudo-avant-punk Fall of TSNG et al (if it can be given this label – I’d argue that TSNG features the best of every element of the band, including their avant-garde factor and is only ‘commercial’ in a very limited sense). This was a period of genuine progression and change.

So, I suppose that I lost my live Fall virginity to a creature that was in a state of flux and who had been a thing of beauty but was about to become more attractive and accessible to more people. They certainly chugged along wonderfully that night, my post-punk butterflies (he says, gagging on the awkward analogy).  They were about to become more beautiful but only in an awkward geeky way. They never became Duran Duran but they did make an impact with their Brix-influenced Top Shopness, eyeliner, 501s and, more importantly, abrasive bubblegum guitar riffs garnished with the jaded and literate espousings of MES.

Strangely, because of the nature of the venue, substantial daylight, this was Summer after all, leaked into the room through the large uncovered windows as the band played. It was a little like watching an indoor festival set. The light was a triviality as the band were captivating.

In those days no one present took their eyes off The Fall.

F: Funky Si

A simon

In Spinal Tap the band comedically lose a succession of drummers and there have been fewer iconic drummers in rock music than, say, lead guitarists. Keith Moon, John Bonham, Charlie Watts and a few others but in the punk/post-punk era who is there? Stephen Morris for his Joy Division work and Karl Burns (of course!). I suppose this was an era where virtuoso musicianship was unnecessary, even frowned upon. Try telling that to Dave Greenfield, mind. The Stranglers’ own Rick Wakeman. Drummers in punk/post-punk bands are loved in the same way that Beatles fans love Ringo Starr – not for his musical ability, which I would never question, but for being part of a band they love. This music is less showy and in The Fall Mark E Smith would not tolerate any ostentatious displays of virtuosity. The legends imply that North Korea is the only regime stricter than that of The Fall.

Funky Si is, of course, Simon Wolstencroft the bullet proof drummer of The Fall from Bend Sinister to Levitate. A stint that lasted from 1986 to 1997. Fall years are like dog years so that’s quite a stint for a Fall member. This period and more are covered in Si’s self-deprecating book You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide. This is one of a spate of Fall-related books which will surely peak next year with Brix Smith-Start’s book about her time as a Fall member and MES’s wife. She was no Yoko Ono, that one. I reckon that her book might be kinder to Mark than some people, including Mark I’d imagine,  are anticipating. A bit like Oliver Stone’s film about Richard Nixon.

One of the things about the Fall books I’ve noticed is that there is very little score settling going on. There may be some hideous anecdotes about their treatment by Smith but they usually forgive or excuse his actions. Even Frank Lampard, a saint according to the British media despite his 9/11 and Ayia Napa transgressions, used his 2006 autobiography to blame other people for England’s failures in a World Cup in which they were expected to succeed (in whatever way English success is measured in football). Not so in the case of ex-Fall members. They’d all go back. Perhaps not Hanley,S. MES is portrayed as a post-punk Alex Ferguson in these holy texts.

Famously, Si opted out of The Smiths because he wasn’t fond of Morrissey’s voice and also missed out on Stone Roses despite a lifelong friendship with Ian Brown. Si, a middle class kid, took up a career in an unpredictable industry and augmented his earnings with various other jobs. You have to admire his work ethic and the fact that, for all his mistakes, the bloke doesn’t have any malice in him. In his book he comes across as a nice bloke prone to the odd mistake.

My God he goes through some drugs. mind!

Si drummed through one of the most interesting and fertile periods in Fall history. Commercial success, television, charts, addiction, ennui. The good, the bad and the heinous.

To my mind he was the quiet one. The John Entwistle or John Paul Jones of The Fall. Both had their moments in their respective bands and both were part of the band vibe. At the same time they both had signature songs in their band’s repertoire: Entwistle with My Wife and Jones with No Quarter. What was Si’s signature moment? I’d say the beat that gives New Big Prinz its immediacy and alternative disco dance appeal. I suspect Si might go for the cover of Lost In Music – The Fall as envisioned by Nile Rogers.

Being funky and all that.

E: Early Years 77-79

early years big

The first of multiple Fall compilation albums and certainly one of the most valuable. This was released between Slates and Hex Enduction Hour – three very diverse releases in a twelve month period, all of them essential. Early is more a less a mop up of the best of the non-album tracks from that period. Mainly but not exactly that.  If you play the three releases in recording order there is a very clear evolution in the band’s sound. All three are equally satisfying and the evolution is not, to my mind, in quality but in style. Three very large steps.  Your choice of Fall listening is a thing of mood.  Sometimes only I Am Kurious, Oranj hits the spot and at other times I might only want to listen to The Unutterable. There is joy to be had from all of their different incarnations. For me the same applies to Bowie, Kraftwerk, Dylan, Can, Beefheart  . . .  anyone with an extensive and varied body of work.

On here are some of the first Fall tracks that thrilled young Master Tagomi. Most notably Bingo Master’s Break-Out and Rowche Rumble. Both took a couple of listens. mind. At the time of this album’s release it was possible to be very familiar with all of The Fall’s released material (and unreleased Peel sessions). I can remember me and my mate Micky punning on Fall lyrics and titles to each other as we knew this stuff so thoroughly. Stewart Lee has a joke about a bloke in the eighteenth century being the last person to have read all of the books published in his lifetime – there must be one about the last person to have heard all of The Fall songs released in their lifetime.  All of the singles, b-sides, unreleased tracks on semi-official live albums, whimsical pieces hummed by Smith at sound checks during tours of the Balkan nations . . . the shebang.

That extensive Fall song knowledge was achievable in 1981; nowadays it would represent the result of a lengthy stretch of solitary confinement with a broadband connection, a spotify account, access to Amazon and incurable and regrettable  monomania.

Biscuit tin drums, weedy guitar, plinky plonky toy keyboards, rattly bass and intermittently in tune vocals. You have to love it but it makes Hex sound like a River Deep, Mountain High Spectoresque wall of sound. It is a truly great Fall album and if this was the result of a recording session to make an album you’d rank it very high in the band’s oeuvre. Every track is great in its own way.

There are indisputable Fall landmarks on here like Fiery Jack, Repetition, It’s The New Thing and the two singles I mentioned earlier, but there are also great but less well known pieces like the darker sounding Second Dark Age and In My Area. Psycho Mafia is a very raw chunk of proto-post-punk music with the usual stream of consciousness lyrical genius of first decade Fall. Only bands of the standard of Wire and ATV had audiences that were prepared to rise to the challenge of this mix of avant-punk and fractured lyricism.  This was a great era for The Fall but there were other similarly fruitful periods in the offing.

The thrilling but aurally challenging Live 1977 offers up a different ‘early’ Fall but yet another version that satisfies. I like potatoes but not all of my meals are potato-based. I like chicken too. And some days I want neither.  Most Fall followers are similarly dietary diverse. If you’ve been around them for a while I needn’t explain further.

I’d already heard an awful lot of music by 1981 and I hadn’t settled on what type of music fan I was – still haven’t – but at some point I did listen to The Fall and think, ‘This is a special band to me.’ It happened with Bowie in the mid-1970s and, while this album was not the key, I do think Early Years went some way to cementing The Fall in my canon of great bands.

The Fall compilation, I’d say.

D: Drums

 Drum Fall

You mention two drummers and people think about Adam and the Ants and Antmusic in particular. Although the dual drummers are more evident on Kings of the Wild Frontier, the former track has become more embedded in the British consciousness. When I last saw The Fall in York at the end of August the drumming was the thing I took away from that gig. It was the kind of night you can only have when you see The Fall: the knife edge near-chaos and utter unpredictability. It always looks like an accident when they pull it off but they do it so many times that it can’t be. And those two drummers? You have to wonder how they manage to communicate onstage with just nods and looks.

Afterwards it was Can that came to mind. Not just the whole improvisational schtick that I thought was going on, but also that hypnotic and cyclical style Jaki Liebezeit had. Bolstering the band and making himself heard when required like in Halleluhwah.
These were some of the founding principles of krautrock and post punk skin pounding – surely.

On impulse Hannah (my daughter) came with me to see Whiplash at the cinema last Saturday. Hey, we roll with our mood so we just went. Aggressive, sweary bandleader/teacher vs young musical idealist/dreamer would about be an over simplified summary. Recognise anything? An amazing film. A five starrer – but you know what I mean, don’t you . . . ??? Drum bloke just about broken but always prepared to go back for more because the bandleader/teacher was offering him a unique experience with an amazing end result. In Dave Simpson’s book it is clear that most of the musicians who have been in The Fall miss the experience no matter how bitter their Mark experience was.  The character in Whiplash is a monster and is in no way MES, but the idea of getting the best out of musicians through a bit of gyp is one most Fall followers recognise.

And the film was about drumming. Within an hour of seeing it I was remembering those drums in York and imagining this drum-enthused kid on one of the Fall drum stools. There is a poster he looks at in the film that claims that if if you end up in a rock band you have failed as a musician. Ah, the delusions of the jazz man. Technique, technique, technique.  But what about raw emotion and excitement? Hip Priest is drum dominant but hardly a masterpiece of technique. The drums are used intelligently and to the demands of the song not the musician.

I think that the kid in the film would rather drum for Mark than for any other rock band leader.

In the MES autobiography he discusses his dislike of guitarists. One of the most cited facts about The Fall is their turnover. One of the least quoted facts is that some Fall drummers do get to contribute to their pension plans. I’d argue that Mark is reasonably fond of drummers. He loves keyboard players but he doesn’t get upset about drummers too often. Funky Si and Karl Burns have put in lengthy stints that have only been rivaled by gruppe  legends Steve Hanley and Craig Scanlon. He seems to have a respect, in the sense that he respects any musician, for drummers.

Steve Hanley often mentions ‘the commandments’ and early drummer Mike Leigh was not required to shave off his ‘tache and lose his teddy boy attire because he was up to the job. Simon Wolstencroft was not asked to end his friendship with Ian Brown despite Smith’s apparent dislike of the Stone Roses man.  At the York gig Daren Garratt, the newest member and second drummer, seemed to have the ear of Smith and was pointing things out to him in his A4 notebook. Missed cues, lyrics, the setlist . . .  who knows? The newest drummer. Work it out.

If you want to be a member of The Fall and not get the MES hairdryer then the drummer seems to be the job.

Currently the job is filled.


C: Call For Escape Route

escape route big

Ah, the Beggars Banquet period (also known as the Brix-era to many) , , , when The Fall regularly troubled the lower reaches of the charts and wore nice clothes; when The Fall were always on free singles given away by music papers; when MES was interviewed by the music press every week; when The Fall were playing to ballet loving punters at respectable venues; when The Fall were asked by kids who’d seen them in Smash Hits to play Pat Trip Dispenser (according to MES) . . .

When Fall records were available in a bewildering range of formats. ‘Would you like any condiments with your Fall record, sir?’

Man, you could get boxed 7″ singles; 12″ singles with posters; albums with free 7″ singles . . .

Really, this time was heaven for Fall followers. You could see them in decent venues; they were on the radio – and not just Peel – and they even appeared on the telly sometimes. For many Fall purists it was too much and this was the sell out that we were promised would never happen. Yes, the band were sometimes more tuneful and media friendly but the rough edges, obscure lyrics and leftfield approach were all still present but the records were being recorded in better conditions with higher budgets and sympathetic producers. It is likely that the band would have split up if not for Brix’s intervention and the Beggars contract. Smith had said, at the time of Hex, that he felt the group were reaching the end of their life.

I love, and I mean love, Fiery Jack, Bingo-Master’s Breakout, Grotesque and all of the early Fall but I also love the Brix/BB version of The Fall. I love later versions of The Fall too. I’m glad that they have changed and moved on – evolved even. Much as I adore Slates I don’t want thirty other variations of it played by aging musicians stuck in a rut.

This e.p. is one of the earliest Fall 12″ singles and included a free 7″. Clearly Beggars felt that this combination would stand a better commercial chance than a five track 12″.  C.R.E.E.P had been released as a 12″ which included a poster and a hideous and unnecessary extended remix of the original track. Same could be said of the extended remix of Oh! Brother. This was the problem with 12″ singles: superfluous extended inferior remixes. I can remember vividly the horror that was the 12″ remix of The Smiths’ This Charming Man. Traumatic. Almost.

Draygo’s Guilt is a great bridge between some of the hard rocking on The Wonderful and Frightening World . . . and the sophisticated pop/post-punk/Loaded-era Velvet Underground/ smoothed out Can krautrock repetition of This Nation’s Saving Grace. The two drummers beef up this track and create a terrific rhythmic urgency. It pounds some! Clear Off! is a menacing track that features an amazing echoey bass sound. The two songs on the bonus 7″ were groovy and all that and felt like they were gratis, but the jewel in this particular crown was No Bulbs which was exactly The Fall song that this particular writer wanted at that time. Throbbing and driving and the most Velvet Underground guitar ride that The Fall ever created. This was the song that convinced me that I was listening to the best band in the world. The next album – after a period of contemplation – corroborated that feeling. If I was the leader of a cult who wanted to convert people into Fall fans this would be one of my gateway songs. In 1984 Lou Reed probably would have murdered all of the drug dealers in New York just to write this song.

‘They say damp records the past.
If that’s so I’ve got the biggest library yet.’