The Fall: “difficult music” as art ?

Just one of many iterations of the legendary post punk group; circa 1984 (image copyright Michael Pollard)

“ There is no culture is my brag
Your taste for bullshit reveals a lust for a form of office
This is the home of the vain!
This is the home of the vain!

Hey there fuckface!
Hey there fuckface!
There are twelve people in the world
The rest are paste
This is the home of the vain!
This is the home of the vain!”

— The Fall, “The Classical” (1982) lyrics by Mark Edward Smith (lyrics courtesy of http://annotatedfall.doomby.com/pages/the-annotated-lyrics/the-classical.html )

cerbic. Misanthropic. Abrasive. Impenetrably dense. Too dissonant. The music and lyrics of the English post punk band The Fall have been described using these and a dozen other rather uncomplimentary adjectives. In a span of over 40+ years Mark Edward Smith and a revolving door of unique musicians of fluctuating talent gave birth to a enormous compendium of music; The Fall gifted our universe with 32 LPs (and numerous EPs and singles) in their lifetime — collecting critical laud, indie credibility and even the occasional scholarly dissection.

Yet despite such accolades the band never rose above ‘cult fave’ status among music listeners. The few friends I exposed to their music have echoed detraction seen online and elsewhere; namely criticisms such as “this is not music”, “sounds like someone went to town on some pots and pans”, “that guy’s not even singing”, “what is that bloke even ranting about?” etc. While I do not agree with these sentiments, I can appreciate subjective differences, especially when the art form being scrutinized is decidedly noncommercial.

Still, my favorite band of all time clearly has a dedicated cult following; I am not alone in Fall love affair (the largest of the group’s Facebook fan groups currently has almost 6,000 members). In discussions with fellow “Fall-o-philes” many have echoed similar opinions; confirming the music and lyrics of Mark E Smith and company as initially audibly inscrutable….albeit richly rewarding upon studied and repeat listens. It’s no surprise that this rich, many layered density inherent in certain “difficult music” can be found in several of the artists who were The Fall’s direct influences; acts such as Can, Captain Beefheart, The Monks, The Stooges and the Velvet Underground.

Now lest one thinks I am a pop music elitist I should acknowledge that my musical tastes include elements from the entire spectrum of 20th century human musical output; my Beatles LPs reside comfortably alongside records from Motown, Deep Purple, Neu!, alt-country, Sun Ra, The Flamin’ Groovies and Lizzo. I don’t care where on the hipster indie <-> corporate ogrish gamut an artist’s record label lies….if I dig it I dig it. Perhaps my ultra tolerant ears are a by product of my maternal family’s musical DNA. Maybe it’s the natural “sound exploration” I have undertook since early high school…always traveling the dial, haunting used record shops and gabbing incessantly to all who can stand my prattling about new bands, new beats and new ways of hearing guitars, drums and keyboards being beautifully mistreated. I just know what I like when I feel it.

Yet when it comes to the music of The Fall the rules of structure and even what constitutes “good” and “bad” composition are rendered irrelevant; that is the repetition and the abrasion, the snarling cynicism and the purposefully out of tune clattering somehow do the impossible : create a cohesive beauty despite all of the seemingly discordant and disruptive parts. There is a reason I return again and again to their records. They’re deathless.

Late ’00s iteration of The Fall (copyright unknown)

“I couldn’t live in those people places
They might get to know my actions
I’d run away from toilets and faeces
I’d run away to a non-date on the street

Cause I’m in a trance
And I sweat
I don’t want to dance
I want to go home

I feel trapped by mutual affection
And I don’t know how to use freedom
I spend hours looking sideways
to the time when I was sixteen

Cause I’m in a trance
And I sweat
I don’t want to dance
I want to go home”

— The Fall, “Frightened” (1978) lyrics by Mark Edward Smith (lyrics courtesy of http://annotatedfall.doomby.com/pages/the-annotated-lyrics/frightened.html)

A Friday night alone with some good brews and a post punk classic LP (photo courtesy of author)

Let’s delve in some brief anecdotal exposition.

Recently one evening, while my wife was away at a conference, I engaged in one of my favorite adult home alone past times: cracking open a stout, dropping some Fall wax on the turntable and cranking the volume up to completely socially unacceptable levels (thankfully we live in an isolated house in the woods). In this particular case I opted to re-experience the band’s moody masterpiece Hex Enduction Hour (1982).

It’s an LP I know by heart, my ears being bathed in the album’s dissonant brilliance, atonal riffs and snarling rants countless times. Still, like many Fall records, it is truly deserves the label deathless art; the music never not sounds freshly original and relevant.

As I sauntered around the living room, cold beer firmly grasped in hand, visualizing Mark E Smith’s wordy diatribes against being universally unappreciated while Karl Burns’s percussion assertively accentuates Steve Hanley’s slithering bass lines I felt an almost transcendent dissociation from the reality that I was merely “consuming music”. Amidst the onslaught of aural barrages emitting from the speakers I temporarily lost myself to the music —emotionally trekking through the ever-growing depths of the intensity summoned by the band’s bottomless resonance. It was like being escorted into a giant warehouse of sound, hearing and feeling every rack, every aisle of understandable noise.

By the time “Fortress/Deer Park” hit its full groove, amplified by Marc Riley’s insistent organ grind and a dual drummer attack supplied by Burns and Paul Hanley I was in full ecstatic flight. And it was then when something funny re-occurred — despite being the umpteenth listen of the song I started to hear bits of instrumentation and sounds I hadn’t noticed ever before….not once in my previous 100+Hex spins (to be exact it was a bit of Steve Hanley basswork). I was astounded. How did The Fall manage to bury so much complex and nuanced layering into their records? The revelation was so immediate I quit my juvenile half-assed dancing and sat down…thereby reserving the very top of my body all of the energy it would need to further appreciate the remainder of the record. By the time “And This Day”’s last notes ended and the needle lifted from the record I had heard my favorite Fall album somehow new again.

Hearing it fresh again and again. A quality of music rarely experienced in my life. But it happens….almost exclusively while experiencing artists such as The Fall….a band whose very foundation was in fusing the difficult and non-commercial with art, honesty and originality. They weren’t the first rock band to use out of tune guitars, bargain basement keyboards and unorthodox drumming — but they utilized their experimental methods to create a sound that still seemed “correct”. And Mark E Smith, for all his publicized faults, was the grand master of this avant-garde carnival — directing the band towards greatness all the while gruffly and mumbly ripping to shreds anything and everything that irked his worldview.

Like those auteur film directors whose best works are not fully discerned until one has engaged in repeat viewings I place the The Fall firmly in that bucket of artists whose best work is not truly appreciated once; the art they created (and yes it IS art) is dense enough to survive endless listens. It’s alive. It’s incredibly always evolving.

It’s deathless.

“Distractors, constructors conniving, come here
Dressed in suits, grow talons
Everyone clenched, black, horrid

And sometimes they say “Hey, you’re messing up the paintwork…
… thumbprints are on the paintwork”
And sometimes they say “Hey Mark, you’re just spoiling all the paintwork”
And sometimes they say “Your thumbprints are on the paintwork””

The Fall “Paintwork” (1985); lyrics by Mark E Smith (courtesy http://annotatedfall.doomby.com/pages/the-annotated-lyrics/paintwork.html)

Sums it up nicely (photo courtesy of NME)

I write when I’m not downing $20 craft beers at indie shows, petting shelter cats, reading Russian history or playing (and losing) wargames.

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