What does it sound like?:
Ah The Fall. At the last count there have been approximately 286 compilations all with the same basic premise: where do you start if you haven’t started?
Part One: Me and The Fall
I go back a bit with The Fall. I saw them at least three or four times: from memory at Oxford Poly, at a WOMAD, at Finsbury Park and lastly about ten years ago in Leamingon Spa. They were a ‘Peel band’ shared with sixth form friends, and I acquired copies of most of their albums working backwards from Slates. They’re all worth significant amounts of money now. They were one of ‘our bands’ to break through to Top of the Pops and magazine covers in an era when indie was still just that. Like many, I lost touch with them in the early nineties – a combination of immersion in dance culture, careers and families. They’re one of the bands that me and Ms Moles agree on, which helps.Mp3s and streaming have allowed me to explore I can find lots to like in their work after Middle Class Revolt, but it’s individual tracks rather than albums. Before that it’s as good an imperial period as anyone in rock.
Part Two: So why this then?
I can see the Fall catalogue is vast, and many-sided. They made singles, many of their best tracks, that are not album tracks. There is an unending stream of live albums of varied ‘quality’. The Fall Peel Sessions is an entire catalogue in itself. I can see the argument for this. A single ‘greatest hits’, much like The Beatles 1, merely scratches the surface and is an exercise in exclusion as much as anything. So a triple retrospective seems like a Minimum Viable Product where a Fall overview is concerned.
CD 1 – These are tracks I have listened to for over thirty years. There’s not a bad track here. The very first track, Repetition, is the entire Fall canon in miniature. A brutally produced Krautrock-esque beat, bontempi keyboards, and over it all MES ranging far and wide on the subject of repetition, from Chairman Mao and mental hospitals to Richard Hell. The journey in 18 tracks from this to the polished indiepop of Oh! Brother with its proper production and Brixish backing vocals, is startling. Just as no-one would recommend that someone new to the Beatles starts with Please Please Me, so I would recommend that someone new to The Fall starts here – so perhaps starts with The Singles 85:89 A-sides rather than this…or listens to CD2 of this compilation.
CD2 The peak years. Everything that they try on his appears to come off: upbeat pop (Hey Luciani!), covers that sound like their own tracks (There’s A Ghost In My House), downbeat introspection (Living Too Late). There can’t be any question about the qualities of these individually, but listening to them one after another is not the best way to appreciate their genius. Eventually cream cakes pale and the body craves veg soup. Tracks of pop lightening like Hit The North or Cruiser’s Creek work so well because they’re in amongst tracks of that are heavier on the meandering avant-garde riff and stream-of-consciousness lyrics than verse/chorus/middle eight. Here it’s all latter. There’s a conviction and precision about all these tracks.
CD3 The Fall catalogue splits in two. There are 16 studio albums after The Infotainment Scan, IMHO their last wholly great LP. A ‘Greatest Hits from the less successful half of their career’ is not really viable as a standalone is it? But here as the last CD of three it works brilliantly. There are tracks I never really engaged with, and though the band could never make a wholly satisfactory album, they could still write a zinger of a track. Free Range, Bury. Sparta FC, Powder Key and many others are revealed as corking tracks. It’s only at the very last stretch that The Fall’s powers fail them and they become what they’d always threatened to be, a paraody of themselves. Smith’s trademark yelp/scream gives way to asthmatic slurred noises, clearly not those of a well man.
Part Four The music:
‘Always different, always the same’ – is a quote that does The Fall a disservice. I think it implies that over music that stayed the same, MES would lay his unique world-view down. Or it’s the other way round, and his lyrical obsessions never change over ever-evolving music. Either is a simplification. The Fall’s musical make-up was as unique as it’s lyrics: taking krautrock, rockabilly and new wave and mixing them up into an instantly identifiable sound. The propulsive drumming and guitar riffs of The Fall at their best, sweetened often with surprisingly pop keyboard melodies and in the eighties in particular backing vocals, have lasted incredibly well. Scanlon and Hanley, guitar and bass throughout the peak years, were as vital as MES to their sound. No surprise that their departure in the mid-nineties dealt their sound a blow from which it never really recovered.
What does it all *mean*?
Granadaland, industrial estates, Manchester City Centre, The Observer Magazine, hip priests, pubs, his American Express card account, – The Fall are the most English of bands. I’ll leave you with a discussion point: was MES the most astute chronicler of Englishness, in his case with an added flavour of Northern-ness, since Ray Davies? His stream-of-consciousness and repetition has been incredibly influential: Daft Punk Are Playing At My House for one could be a MES lyric.
Goes well with…
Might suit people who like…
The Fall do not soundtrack your life. They are not a panacea, a comfort or background. They are a jolter, a wake-up and above all, in their own world. They do not come to you. They do not suit people who like…