“Look at the woman of thirty-nine
Look at the man of forty-nine
You can read their lousy lives
You can see their ugly face lines” – “Futures and Pasts,” Live at the Witch Trials, 1979
* * *
When I heard that The Fall’s frontman (and only consistent band member) Mark E. Smith had died, I didn’t even realize The Fall released a new album in 2017. I consider myself a pretty good fan, I can name a bunch of their albums, know some of their songs inside and out, have read dozens of interviews and articles about the Fall – and yet it totally slipped my radar they had a new album. But to be honest, Smith just got too much for me and after album after album, just got a bit burnt out by how their sound would have that similar weird feel, but just wasn’t as amazing as it could be. I kind of feel for him how I feel about other grumpy British singers I have loved – “You were so there for me few years ago, but now I don’t know who you are.” I felt this most deeply when I discovered one of his last interview where, in the midst of his drunken rambling, complained about the millions of Syrian refugee men fleeing war to Britain when they could stay and fight in Syria.
Okay Mark, I know you are punk as fuck – but shut the fuck up.
There is no way to give a primer of how to listen to The Fall (although upon request, I created a playlist of some of my faves). A quick google search and you can see recommendations from Stereogum and Pitchfork. But I find it impossible to tell someone with what album to start with. Most writers talk about which album they accidentally bumped into when they started listening to the Fall.
If you do need to hear an album from start to finish, I’d recommend the first Fall album I ever listened to, Hex Enduction Hour. It starts off almost like a rave with “The Classical.” There are two drummers and interlocking beats and bass that almost make it seem there are several tracks recorded on top of each other. There are five amazing musicians that bring this whole album together – just to push back at the common notion that Mark E. Smith was the be-all and end-all of The Fall. He definitely gave the band direction, but he managed to work with some amazing muscians. And then there is the timeless song “Who Makes the Nazis”, probably a recommendation for those wanting a soundtrack to fighting fascism. The song is wild and attributes middle class culture to the rise of fascism.
This album is a favorite among many fans. But it’s one of those albums you can listen to in all its totality – something that can’t be said for most of The Fall’s catalogue.
Did I tell you that The Fall are really weird? The lyrics are all over the place and Mark E. Smith isn’t that great of a singer. It is an assault on any sense of normative music you hear in other music genres. Some songs don’t have a beginning, middle or end – but can be a stream of consciousness with repetitive lyrics buried in deep bass and drums that just abruptly end. It is impossible to find a sense of narrative in the lyrics, you can’t tell if they are being serious or sarcastic. Yet there are moments when you get lost in the overlapping beats with the random intrusion of some wind instrument or synthesizer.
But while the Fall never reached the same level of popularity as other post-punk bands like Joy Division or Siouxsie and the Banshees, let’s just say that the level of experimentation and weirdness has infiltrated a lot of current punk and indy music today. For example, listen to The Fall’s biggest hit “Totally Wired” and then listen to LCD Soundsystems “Daft Punk is Playing at My House.”
It is a cliché to say that The Fall and Mark E. Smith did different things for different people. What The Fall did was show a mirror to Western societies and reveal the decay of politics and fame. To reveal the decay of working class struggle. And the cynicism of any attempt to make life better. And they did this not by explicit political lyrics (although they exist), but to tear apart normative musical practices as a way to jar listeners that rather than try to improve what we have, we might need to start over. And when we start over, there can’t be rules to undo the dead structures that pretend to give us life. The Fall provided the half chanting/half screaming with repetitive drums that would spell our doom.
Screaming “I don’t want to be a victim. I don’t want to be a victim.”
Post-Punk and the Prairies
I accidentally bumped into The Fall at the Regina Public Library, where there was some city civil servant who felt it was necessary for the Regina library patrons to discover post-punk. Someone felt it was necessary to have New Order, Gang of Four and The Fall in the cassette catalogue. That is were I saw and on a whim borrowed Hex Enduction Hour. I was 16 and had heard of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division, but had no idea what The Fall was.
After hearing the Hex, I returned back to the library and also found This Nation’s Saving Grace. If you are wanting a bit more melody, you can actually hum along to some of the songs on this album. You can definitely dance through the whole album. But it’s still dark and weird.
Since that time, Fall albums came in and out of my life. It needs to be stated that in 1983, Smith’s wife Brix Smith Start began writing tracks for The Fall and joined as a guitarist and adding vocals. I didn’t notice this until I heard their 1988 album The Frenz Experiment and at the time, I found it incredibly rare to have a woman participate in a mostly male band and still stand out with amazing feminine hooks through various songs. Kind of reminded me of Kim Deal in the Pixies, except with better 1980s punk fashion.
You can’t really trust your feelings when you are a teenager. But let’s just say that it was incredibly powerful to be brown, living in pretty middle-class Muslim-Pakistani family where expectations on becoming the model minority of Western Canada was constantly drilled into my head – and then listen to The Fall. You have this backdrop where no one talked about why we were the only few brown families in the street and why we would either ignore or outright mock the poverty and violence experienced by Indigenous people in the same city. By that time, I was pretty much on my way to becoming some weird goth type. But I have to say The Fall gave me that little push. A few minutes in, my body accepted the erratic drums and bass with Mark E. Smith screaming over and over again “This is the home of the vain.”
I felt I was catapulted into a different universe.
There was no political epiphany, just a very pure, punk feeling that everything we were suffering to protect wasn’t worth anything.
And the Fall being in some ways a very typical punk British band, there was a way through the years to be part of my soundtrack as I learned and dreamed of undoing the colonial structures that brought my family to Canada and undo the dream that we assimilate as much as possible. I don’t think Mark E. Smith imagined that would happen to some random brown girl in the prairies.
Mark E. Smith came from a working class background and similar to other punk and post-punk bands that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s – they were aesthetically provocative but not always explicitly revolutionary. He even worked on the docks. The story is he went to a Sex Pistols concert and decided he could front a punk band and so he created The Fall. The alienation of working class poverty and emergence of Tory culture that would pave a new political direction for the West provided rich inspiration for many punk bands including The Fall. But Smith would never identify as a revolutionary and would turn into a bit of a conservative curmudgeon at the end of his days. Yet the music of The Fall would directly challenge the dreams of Britain and the West – openly mock media, mainstream cultural institutions and disparage any strict revolutionary program to offer change.
Some might find The Fall a bit on the nihilistic side, but I think Mark E. Smith was too cynical to openly adopt any political program or solution out right. Yet I always felt no matter intention he might have with the music, the very aesthetic nature of chaos, challenging new musical limits with experimenting beats and lyrics and rejection of “high culture” was weaved into counter-cultural, political scenes.
He would probably sneer at my application of his music to my politics as someone dedicated to revolutionary socialism. He would not care about my identity and what the music meant. But even the most important contributions are made by people who are imperfect in so many way.
How Do We Remember the Imperfect Heroes?
While the deaths of our music heroes make us reflect on why they mattered and why they should be our heroes, this is hard to do for Mark E. Smith. After spending this week reading article after article, obituary after obituary – it is clear that Mark E. Smith was a musical genius and pretty hilarious, but he did not do it alone. He continuously disposed of many great musicians (the tally is over 60 band members over the career of The Fall) and he remains one of the problematic punk heroes of my youth. He was violent, mean, been accused of domestic violence and would ruin peoples careers on a whim. The singer of Fucked Up Damian Abraham wrote in his tweet, “RIP to one of the most difficult, problematic, geniuses punk ever produced, Mark E Smith, and I hope everyone he hurt and abused over the years is able to find peace some as well.”
And it is perhaps in this imperfection where the real heart of The Fall resides. That in its music, Smith was holding up a mirror to us to reveal the disgusting hypocrisy, how we fall over ourselves for the famous, unable to tear things apart to see the gunk inside. He would laugh at any accolades that would name him some visionary or hero – when he received awards for his work, he would insult the award givers and everyone there. Even though he was also there. To receive the award.
It was the imperfection of The Fall and Mark E. Smith that revealed a basis to expose the imperfection of the society they emerged from. I never found that Mark E. Smith wanted to rise above and provide direction, but rather show that they are a product of the dehumanizing, violent society where he emerged.
When amazing musicians die, you can’t help but recall the various times of your life when their music was part of your life. Re-listening to The Fall is not only about the weird lyrics and the repetitive drums, or the more catchy tunes that had hand clapping and hooks. It is a somatic feeling of biking around Regina late at night around the generic neighborhoods that shielded white families from the violence just north of the city. The hetero-normative family structure that hid the violence and sexual abuse within families. And that the feeling of tearing it all apart would never stop.
And he never stopped. He would growl and scream while in a wheelchair, slowly dying on stage – it was his job but he never sold out. I can only imagine the power he felt by taking his fans on his out of world, experimental, half screaming-half spoken word fest year after year. And for him to even lift me out of my prairie home to a world with droning beats and him singing, “RELAX-UH” – I have to admit that there is a lot of genius in a musician I would never like if we met in person.
But with his erratic singing and experimental sounds you won’t hear anyone else, The Fall is the perfect soundtrack for those that need to tear things apart. To dismantle and start over again.
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Sharmeen Khan is a Toronto-based South Asian feminist and socialist with more than two decades of experience in movements and activist media. She has been an editor with Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Change for 12 years and currently organizes with No One Is Illegal - Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter @colonizedmutant