Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Mark E. Smith & The Fall": Book Review

“Always different, always the same,” so the late John Peel commented on his favorite band. With ninety-six songs in twenty-four Peel sessions recorded over twenty-six years [reviewed by me on Amazon US a few years back] with perhaps nearly as many line-ups, this Manchester-based band, or now, business enterprise under its manager, Mark E. Smith, continued to present its vision—or is it his?—of unclassifiable songs, originating alongside punk or lumped with post-punk. They have outlasted even Peel. Smith and whomever he hires churn out weird tales. As a gnarled, snarly, inverted assemblage, spoken-word recorded on Dictaphone or cassette, it may mix with assaultive garage riffs, twisted rockabilly, repetitious Krautrock, off-kilter pop, and relentlessly inventive, if bafflingly referenced lyrics snarled and spat, cut-up or crooned. This challenging, entertaining, and maddening sound is directed by one who was there at the beginning, but one who claims from the start not to have identified with punk, or even to have liked most of its music.

An academic presentation of Smith and his band’s contributions may contradict the “Prole Art Threat” of “Northern white crap that talks back,” to use two of its leader’s venerable phrases, but the time is right, argue Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan from perhaps the closest university to Smith’s home turf, in Salford. They compile twenty contributions, from professors and theorists, fans and artists. Of course, these cite Baudrillard and Foucault, Deleuze-Guattari and Guy Debord, as well as the online lyrics that decipher Smith’s transmissions, and the interviews and confrontations he has arranged as part of his carefully sustained cranky public persona to bait the press whom he professes to mock and distrust.

This pose as North Manchester Northern English outsider, from a band who took its name in 1976 from Camus’ novel instead of “The Outsiders” as an alternative choice, comes with fiercely regional, if often impenetrable, allusions. Yet, in spite of Smith’s stance, the band deserves to be treated as intellectuals. From a famously autodidactic leader, a teen dropout, the lyrics, artistic representations, and music of The Fall pose a formidable body of work that keeps itself fresh by never staying the same.

Goddard and Halligan place The Fall within a chaotic, shape-shifting, straight-talking, diligently crafted ethos. This Northern attitude, they suggest, “effects an oblique take on the world, neither essentially condemnatory nor celebratory, neither entirely humorous nor doleful.” Rather than measly or slovenly, this approach instead boasts the steady (or shaky) skills of Smith and those now his hired hands. Twenty-eight studio albums to date, about one a year, enrich a legacy few musicians can match.

Richard Witts rejects the mythologizing of Tony Wilson’s Factory Records and Joy Division in the era that spawned The Fall; Madchester’s reign in the early ‘90s receives contempt for its exclusion of The Fall from its narrative. This book aims to restore the Fall to a scenario less council flat and more urban Modernist. Katie Hannon’s account of the band’s Mancunian roots circles this editorial attempt without ever pinpointing what makes Smith’s embattled, beloved Northside of the city so different from the Southside that Factory and Wilson championed.

One difficulty of this study is that for non-Mancunian readers, the locality that roots Smith in his sounds and words does not translate easily to those of us who have only the band’s many records to listen to and struggle with. The academic contributors tend to stress The Fall’s “psychogeography.” However, the actual sounds of the band, the quirky appeal of Smith’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery, the unexpected nature of the songs: these do not always get the verbal depth they deserve.

For instance, Hannon touches upon Smith’s anarchic and esoteric nature, his cut-up similarities with the Beat poets, his early work with mental patients at Prestwich Hospital, and his Velvet Underground-like influences, but such promising comments take about as much space in her essay as it took me to type them here. Mark Fisher’s solid article on Pulp Modernism concentrates, as do many chapters in this study, on the earliest albums, those from around 1978-82. This is understandable, as Grotesque (1980) presents a vision of Northern England as (al)chemically derived and demonically deranged as any conjured up by Smith’s beloved stories by M.R. James or Arthur Machen.

Fisher invites the reader to become a critical listener: “The rockabilly on ‘Container Drivers’ or ‘Fiery Jack’ is slowed by meat pies and gravy, its dreams of escape fatally poisoned by pints of bitter and cups of greasy spoon tea. It is rock and roll as working man’s cabaret, performed by a failed Gene Vincent imitator in Prestwich. The ‘What if?’ speculations fail. Rock and roll needed the endless open highways; it could never have begun in Britain’s snarled up ring roads and claustrophobic conurbations.”

This essay stands out as one that leads the audience along into a closer hearing of the music and a reading of the lyrics. It moves between the songs and their content so interpretations arise. In what Andy Wood sums up as “the war against conformity,” he reminds us how The Fall gain scant attention even in standard punk and post-punk accounts. Smith rebelled early against the simplistic slogans and agitprop politics of his punkish, then “rockist” peers. The subtitle of this volume sets up politics as a main field of inquiry, but it seems for Smith that clichés and dogmas sprang from those marketed as rebels as rapidly as from the corporate system they claimed to resist, as they signed to major labels. The appeal of The Fall is that they reject the easy chants, the notes that never take you by surprise.

This restlessness ignores conventional musical finesse, and in this way stays true to punk’s spirit. Yet the essays themselves tend to idolize earlier versions of the band with its dynamic closest to the (post-)punk era. This conservatism by many contributors diminishes the notable mid-‘80s shift when Smith’s then-wife Brix entered. She instigated a more accessible, less-DIY production (often under the inspired guidance of John Leckie, who is never mentioned) that attracted more listeners abroad, greater distribution, and frequent radio play.

Too many nods to the punk era overlook much of what fans call the third period of the band, post-Brix (even if she among fifty-odd others was not alone in quitting and then rejoining the line-up at least once!) This incarnation of the band has been as unstable as any pre-Brix, but this decade’s strong albums such as The Real New Fall LP (2003) and Fall Heads Roll (2005) get passed over, as do the inventive The Light User Syndrome (1996) and astonishing Levitate (1997), two records that remain the best of the ‘90s by any band, let alone one twenty years on by then.

Other essays treat improvisation, Badiouian ethics, the Peel Sessions, otherness, sonic distortion, typography, Smith’s handwritten labels and collages (see any Pavement cover for an visual and sometimes a sonic homage to him that Smith resented greatly) , and fanzines. These entries rightly examine these impacts from various media. Yet, with so few illustrations as to make their absence in the cases of the visual elements all the more frustrating, the paucity of editorial inclusion of necessary images weakens the usefulness of this ambitious, often perhaps too-sober (Smith’s lyrics remain rare for me: I laugh and/or snicker aloud when hearing some) study for those who do not have all the albums and singles in their original and varied vinyl versions to call up for consultation.

To sum up, for me as an academic but first of all a longtime fan, this entry to the “Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series” succeeds partially. It reminds the committed audience of the curious spell Smith and bandmates cast over their listeners. Yet, it falls short in many essays of capturing the visceral punch, the amusing lurch, and the impressive range of the musicians whose talents Smith has been able to harness.

All the same, those in Media Studies will welcome its philosophical citations and theoretical apparatus. Erudite newcomers may gain grounding to shuffle the back catalogue if not so much the erratically great and predictably middling later recordings; these are overlooked by many writers here. Experienced listeners will gain necessary context that supplements two books published in 2008: Renegade, Smith’s odd autobiography strangely itself “ghosted” by or to Austin Collings, and the “whatever happened to?” tracking down by Dave Simpson of all the ex-members he could find that appeared as The Fallen.

These bookend Goddard and Halligan’s compilation, and play off of what Janice Kearns and Dean Lockwood show (and they to their credit summon up Imperial Wax Solvent [2008] as a contemporary witness to Smith’s powers of conjuration) as Smith’s eerie craft. From his own ghostwritten, dictated account, they quote him: “I wanted to write out of the song… I wanted to explore, to put a twist on the normal. People think of themselves too much as one person—they don’t know what to do with the other people that enter their heads.”

John Peel mused that this pioneering band still sounded terrific years later, unlike James Taylor. Smith emphasized, ten years into the band: “Most people of my age, their tastes atrophied 20 years ago… I genuinely dread the idea of that happening to me.” An early label, who released some of the band’s best singles, was called Step Forward. That sums up this enigmatic, elusive, and illusionary, shambolic, inspired and demented band under its visionary leader. “The Fall are about the present, and that’s it.” (Featured at PopMatters with my title, "The Sound of an Autodidact's Snarl" 1-24-11. Posted to Amazon US 1-27-11 & 2-20-11. Thanks to "Stefan" for an eagle-eyed correction via PM.)


C. Margery Kempe said...

I ordered this book about a week or so ago and I'm even more eager now to have it arrive after your review. I'm a latecomer to The Fall, but no less enraptured for that. I'm glad you highlighted the humour as that's one of the strongest parts of their appeal.

And great to stumble across another wandering medievalist, too. Cheers!

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

K.A., thanks for the comment. I finally got copies (imports, thus the delay as I waited for prices to go down) of both MES' ghostwritten autobiography "Renegade" & Dave Reynolds' "The Fallen," to follow this book in my own pursuit of their appeal. I've listened to them for about thirty years, but I haven't read about them much at all-- they don't get much attention out here!