Bend Sinister was the first, after I heard “US 80s-90s” on Triple J, but I’m pretty sure that I read Mark E Smith’s writing before I’d heard a note of The Fall’s music, in a weird one-page article in a Christmas issue of the NME:
Do not fail to miss the view-perspective of Hoalingen Station that the recently extended Publex offers. Your host thereof is Stingdorf Carthwaite, 34, who will happily point out all the amusing quirks of the now obsolete industry that lies beneath your balcony in the bottom of Raddingron Valley. Sti, a retired mobile-Op, also doubles as MC (squared) – his Apple DX9 backing him up tremendously during his renditions of ZZT, Band-Aid & Videogame tunes of the ’80s.
– excerpt from YOUR PUBLEX / TRANSPORT MAP OF HOALINGEN STATION
This brings back an eidetic memory of Guildford station where a westie nerd with affected clothing and manners had dutifully bought the rag, then at its Stalinist peak. This was beyond my wildest expectations. I remember standing stock still on the footbridge, wondering what the hell it was. It seemed to be science fiction — at that time I could only read sf and fantasy, other forms of literature seemed impossibly dull — but it was experimental, blending a sordid and ruinous reality with a cookie-monster-like appetite for cliches and banalities, like the New Wave authors I was already addicted to but without all the hippie crap. There’s a lot of dodgy racial stuff going on too, but I didn’t notice that at the time, it didn’t stand out against the cultural background of 1980s Sydney, I’m ashamed to say.
I think I understood barely one quarter of it but was dying to find out more, and so I bought Bend Sinister and then in a crate in Merrylands found In A Hole, which I had no way of knowing was an unauthorised bootleg and eventually kind of a rarity, a raucous and lo-fi live recording from their 1982 New Zealand tour. It sounded horrible and fascinating at first listen, and I got hooked. And became one of those Fall fans. You’ll know what I mean if you were around at the time.
In the last couple of months my son, who’s almost 18, has gotten into the Fall, or “the drunk guy”: this is the family name for him because it’s what the kids called him when they were much younger and heard him on the car stereo. So when the news broke that Mark E Smith had died and the kids were still over in the Americas on holiday, I got a couple of solicitous fb messages making sure I was ok. I was still upset about Ursula Le Guin the day before.
On Thursday my grief took the form of obsessively posting lyrics to Twitter and chasing up videos on YouTube, and listening to In a Hole and his 2007 collaboration with Mouse on Mars before I went to bed. Then on Friday morning I watched the video for “Hit the North”, which isn’t their greatest work but the music video is tongue-in-cheek and cute, and I lost it, just wept.
A lot of people describe the Fall’s sound as annoying but then there were the fans. It’s not without reason that MES wrote more songs attacking the people who bought his records than any other artist I can think of. There was a time in the late 80s when me and a friend communicated exclusively in Fall quotes, WHAT’S A COMPUTER? EAT Y’SELF FITTER! WHAT YOU NEED, AN OVEN MITT, FOR YOUR VERBOSE KITCHEN until our peers intervened with threats of violence. It’s like Monty Python for indie wankers, it gets into your system, although the class background is miles apart, music hall rather than university revues. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that MES has more than a little in common with Spike Milligan: acute intelligence, well outside the Oxbridge culture pipeline, a knack for absurdism and catchphrase, gifted parodist of the degenerate language of bureaucracy, tends to crack up at own jokes, fairly awful racial politics.
After the early 90s I lost touch, I was trying to fix my own mental health problems. Being an angry young man is a real fucking trap if you’ve got depression, and the spite and fire of MES were entangled with too much of what I was trying to get rid of. The closest I’ve got to knowing what the Fall sound like to a non-fan, just bitterness and meaningless in-jokes. But I came back eventually, catching up on the best of the post-90s stuff on the 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong compilation, downloading my favourites on iTunes because I can’t play vinyl any more.
There’s no way to brazen this out and pretend that it’s not nostalgia, but the voice in my head scolding me for this is that impossible-to-satisfy ideal from my youth, a kind of Stakhanovism of artistic cool, never look back, keep your eyes locked on the gleaming horizon of future creative genius. “Are you still doing what you did last year,” as MES scolded a fan who gobbed on him at a gig in the punk years. It was always a bit ridiculous, especially if you were from the arse end of the planet.
But here’s the thing: MES actually did it. He was inspirational. On the second album he sang a line adapted from William Blake, “I must create a new scheme / or live by another man’s”, and he was an autodidactic smartarse from Manchester who actually forged his own vision of the world. It may seem perverse but despite the snarling vitriol and wilful obfuscation there’s a generosity to this, the line he scribbled on the cover of Hex Enduction Hour, ‘HAVE A BLEEDING GUESS’ was an invitation as well as a threat.
It collapsed in on itself, sped onwards by drink — I saw them live in 2010 and it was better than I expected but also upsetting because he looked ruined, and the last track on the album I bought after that show, Your Future Our Clutter, felt prophetic of his dissolution: “The whirlpools get wider and wider,” he whispers over a distorted buzz. “You don’t deserve rock ’n’ roll.” The one thing he always believed in. I haven’t been game to listen to that track since he died.