Want to get into The Fall but don’t know where to start? Del Pike presents the ultimate beginners guide to Mark E Smith and Co.
The Fall. The great dividers. To some the genius of Mark Edward Smith knows no boundaries, his endless rambling containing some of the greatest wisdom in modern music. To others that rambling is nothing more than an insane racket from a man out of time.
Much like trying to get into Star Trek, The Fall’s catalogue is vast and for the absolute beginner, where do you begin?
It is possible to plough through a dozen albums before you find the one that does it for you. To date, The Fall have released 31 studio albums over 41 years, along with 32 live albums, 40 compilation albums and 59 singles and E.Ps. For completists, they have also released five part studio/ part live albums. How many fans can truly claim to own all these releases?
The thing is, Smith hasn’t always been the bloke beyond his years, with his torn leather jacket and weather beaten face. There was a time when he was vital and young, spitting venom just the same but in a more coherent register. He wasn’t beyond the odd commercial single either. Only a trawl through his entire career can truly show how much the band has changed and how eclectic their influences and output has been.
It is difficult to refer to The Fall as a band seeing as Mark E Smith is the only constant. So frequent has been the turnaround of band members that a book, THE FALLen by Dave Simpson was published in 2009, an account of all previous members and the origins of their arrivals and departures. A re-print boasting “Now with added ex-members” suggests how difficult it is to keep up. Since the band set out in 1976, band members has tallied somewhere between 60 and 70, with Mark’s wife Elena Poulou only recently leaving an empty space behind the keyboard. Time for that famous Smith quote… “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.”
Smith’s vocals have fronted The Fall as a punk, post-punk, rockabilly, noise terror and even dance band over their tenure, and each album, right up until the recent New Facts Emerge offers something new. They are a band who should be past their prime, but despite some recent disappointing live appearances The Fall on record barely falter.
So back to that eternal question, “Where to begin?”, in true Julie Andrews style, let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start, as Planet Slop guides you through all 31 studio albums and provides some guidance for the lost and needy.
1 . Live at The Witch Trials (1979)
Not a live album as many still surmise, but a bold opening statement from a five piece Fall that included radio legend Marc Riley on bass. The repetitive five minute Frightened that opens the album is as appropriate a career starter as you can wish for, a companion piece to Repetition (on the CD release) and this only leads to better things. The childish vocals of Rebellious Jukebox, the ranting No Xmas for John Quays and the standout Industrial Estate, and we’re still on side one. There is little to fault in the eleven tracks that make up this debut and if you wish to start your long journey at the beginning you will be rewarded early on.
Standout track: Industrial Estate
Most Fall-like title: Crap Rap 2 / Like to Blow
2 . Dragnet (1979)
The second album came within the same year as the debut foreshadowing the rapid release pattern that The Fall were to maintain throughout their career. Minor line-up changes had already taken place but the profile of the band was already in place. Smith cries out “Is there anybody there?” to a cheer of “Yeaahh!” at the start of the album and echoes of The Monkees’ Pleasant Valley Sunday soon give way to a fervent rockabilly bassline and we are into Psykick Dancehall. This is a typical Fall song of the era like most of Dragnet. It doesn’t quite have the impact of the debut and perhaps came too soon after, but there is much to enjoy. A few throwaway tracks here and there before the final flourish of the wonderfully Beefheart-esque Spectre V Rector and the rockabilly Put Away.
Standout track: Psykick Dancehall
Most Fall-like title: Muzorewi’s Daughter
3 . Grotesque (After the Gramme) (1980)
The move to Rough Trade Records appears to have brought a more dynamic sound on Grotesque. There is a lot of humour on the album and Smith finds some of his trademark quirks that have continued to stay with him for almost four decades. The tendency towards 50s American influences in tracks like Pay Your Rates and The Container Drivers is strong and a new pop sensibility can be found in tracks like New Face in Hell. The Lengthy The NWRA (The North Will Rise Again), taking influence from The South Will Rise Again was an example of Smith re-appropriating for his own needs, in this case from the Deep South to Manchester. Grotesque triumphs in moving The Fall’s story a step and gaining a wider audience, winning them their first entry in the UK independent chart at No1.
Standout track: New Face in Hell
Most Fall-like title: W.M.C – Blob 59
4 . Hex Enduction Hour (1982)
Ditching Rough Trade after just one album didn’t do a lot of harm clearly as Hex Enduction Hour remains a fan favourite and an example of The Fall reaching an early career high point. Stories circulated that Motown understandably withdrew their interest in the band after hearing Smith’s cry of “Where are the obligatory N****rs?” at the start of opening track The Classical. Taken out of the song’s context and intent, this is no surprise, but The Classical stands as a true Fall classic, as does Hip Priest. The album has a more bombastic sound with its seven piece line-up, but Smith is as curmudgeonly as ever. The sinister Who Makes the Nazis? and the frantic Mere Pseud Mag. Ed are worth the ticket price alone.
Standout track: The Classical
Most Fall-like title: Mere Pseud Mag. Ed
5 . Room to Live (1982)
The first non-essential Fall album is essentially a rush job following the splendour of H.E.H. Clocking in at just 36 minutes over seven tracks, it feels more like an E.P. There are some great tracks here including the surprisingly catchy Joker Hysterical Face and Hard life in the Country but we could all live without the self-indulgent Papal Visit. There are moments on Fall albums where Smith’s whims draw a complete halt to proceedings and this is one of them.
Standout track: Joker Hysterical Face
Most Fall-like title: Solicitor in Studio
6 . Perverted by Language (1983)
A brief return to Rough Trade and the introduction of Mark’s other half, Brix Smith brought a welcome new sound to The Fall and a great sleeve. Opener Eat Y’self Fitter is unlike anything the band had done before with its call and response lyrics and choppy delivery. It also came with an amusing music video, much to the dismay of Smith leading to another departure from the label. Tracks like I Feel Voxish and Garden showed an ability for the band to be more melodic, obviously, these elements varied with each successive line up. The band were entering a golden period at this time.
Standout track: Eat Y’self Fitter
Most Fall-like title: Hexen Definitive / Strife Knot
7 . The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (1984)
A fan favourite and within seconds it is easy to see why. Lay of the Land with its sinister chanting leads into the most frantic rockabilly riffs of The Fall’s career and one of their finest songs bar none. The inclusion of not one but two drummers (pre-dating The Melvins by some years, though admittedly post-Adam & The Ants and – gulp! – Gary Glitter) make this a pounding, infectious album that barely lets up. Those old enough to remember the two drummer line up of Paul Hanley and Karl Burns have only the fondest of memories. There is a much cleaner production in these tracks, particularly on Elves and Craigness and on C.R.E.E.P and No Bulbs which appear on later versions of the album. Elves, for the record is brilliant. This relationship with the Beggars Banquet label was to produce some of their finest albums of the 80s.
Standout track: Lay of the Land
Most Fall-like title: Disney’s Dream Debased
8 . This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)
Regarded by many as their finest album, This Nation’s Saving Grace contains all that is great about The Fall. Bombast, Spoilt Victorian Child, L.A., My New House, so many treasures. Some hidden gems too in the Can referencing I Am Damon Suzuki and the rampant clatter of Gut of the Quantifier. Its always worth noting what non-album singles were released at this time, tracks like Couldn’t Get Ahead, Rollin’ Dany and the classic Cruiser’s Creek now thankfully appear on the re-released version of the album. This stands up alongside The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead and New Order’s Power Corruption and Lies as one of the great indie albums of the decade. Oh Manchester, so much to answer for.
Standout track: Spoilt Victorian Child
Most Fall-like title: To NK Roachment: Yarbles
9 . Bend Sinister (1986)
And the magic continues. Classic Fall in the shape of Mr Pharmacist, a cover of the single by the psychedelic garage band, The Other Half from 1966. Still a live favourite, Mr Pharmacist started a trend for cover versions of Smith picks to appear sporadically on Fall albums. Sharp production values continue to divide fans of early Fall albums but the tendency toward music videos and catchy tunes starts to widen their audience. Dktr Faustus and The Bournemouth Runner are obvious favourite tracks and US 80’s-90’s provides a much more commercial feel to the sound of The Fall with obvious riffs and even something resembling a chorus.
Standout track: Mr Pharmacist
Most Fall-like title: Gross Chapel / British Grenadiers
10 . The Frenz Experiment (1988)
A slight drop in quality here, but only a fleeting mis-step. Tracks like Carry Bag Man and The Steak Place are exercises in repetition that lead to nowhere particularly worthwhile. High points like the staccato Bremen Natch are welcome reminders of The Fall’s capabilities and Kinks cover Victoria is not only the clear standout track but also gave the band their highest chart position at No 30. A Motown cover of R.Dean Taylor’s There’s a Ghost In My House also appears on re-releases. A worthy but non-essential Fall album.
Standout track: Victoria
Most Fall-like title: Oswald Defence Lawyer
11 . I am Kurious Oranj (1988)
The band’s second album of the year is a much more pleasing affair and surely their most unusual release. The album was written as a soundtrack to Michael Clark’s I Am Curious Orange ballet, based on the 300th anniversary of William of Orange’s ascension to the throne. The Fall appeared with the ballet company and a live version of the soundtrack was released in 2000. Although uneven and disjointed the album includes some remarkable songs including Big New Priest, a reworking of Hip Priest from Hex Enduction Hour and a version of William Blake’s Jerusalem. Wrong Place / Right Time and Cab it up fall easily into the canon of timeless Fall songs. Non -album track from this time, Deadbeat Descendent is another truly magnificent Fall track. The image of Brix Smith atop a giant burger from this period has become almost iconic.
Standout track: Jerusalem
Most Fall-like title: C.D. Win Fall 2088 AD
12 . Extricate (1990)
As The Fall move uneasily into the 90s with a divorce between Mark and Brix leaving the band Brix-less and a post rave period that left the band in search of a new identity, it was time for a change. Telephone Thing is perhaps The Fall at their most diverse, but not necessarily best. A collaboration with dance outfit Coldcut didn’t suit the band too well. Early Fall member Martin Bramah returns and provides much needed traditional rockabilly guitars to an otherwise dance driven album and anchors the album well. Two of the five tracks on side one are covers by The Monks and The Hollies, but Bill is Dead reveals a completely new side to The Fall, a tender love song of all things. It sounds a million miles away from Live at the Witch Trials and shows the range of Smith’s skills.
Standout track: Bill is Dead
Most Fall-like title: And Therein…
13 . Shift Work (1991)
Shift Work is a curious album in that it once again sounds a little too crisp and polished for The Fall, but this does enable us to hear Smith’s lyrics more clearly, a good thing on tracks like Idiot Joy Showland and A Lot of Wind, both attacking TV and Smith’s former teacher the shamed weather man, Fred Talbot. Tracks like Edinburgh Man and The Mixer hear Smith in fine voice, yes actually singing rather than shouting, Edinburgh Man is an unusually content song too. The four piece line up, the smallest in their history sound incredibly robust and this is an enjoyable rather than challenging Fall album.
Standout track: Idiot Joy Showland
Most Fall-like title: Idiot Joy Showland
14 . Code Selfish (1992)
This is one of those albums that has fallen under the radar somewhat, partly due to its techno influences that place The Fall as a band at odds with their era. It works on tracks like Birmingham School of Business School and less so on throwaway tracks like So-Called Dangerous. Hank Williams’ Just Waiting just feels out of place.
Standout track: The Birmingham School of Business School
Most Fall-like title: The Birmingham School of Business School
15 . The Infotainment Scan (1993)
A great Fall album in an otherwise uninspiring period. Hardly a duff track on this cleanly produced and incredibly tidy album, even a bizarre cover of Lost in Music does little to disrupt. Opener Ladybird (Green Grass) and Glam Racket kick start the album and introduce a new maturity to Smith’s vocals, controlled and impassioned. The League of Bald-Headed men is an unlikely standout and only the deranged Paranoia man in cheap shit room loses its way somewhat whilst retaining just a little Fall magic.
Standout track: The League of Bald-Headed Men
Most Fall-like title: Paranoia Man in Cheap Shit Room
16 . Middle Class Revolt (1994)
A largely uninspiring Fall album, loved by few fans. Probably one to leave alone if trying to get into the band early on. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with the songs here, they just fail to leap out. Some moments in tracks like Behind the Counter and the catchy Hey Student! Save the day but this is unfortunately a disappointingly pedestrian album wedged between two belters.
Standout track: Behind the Counter
Most Fall-like title: Symbol of Mordgan
17 . Cerebral Caustic (1995)
As Brix Smith is welcomed back to the fold, The Fall get right back on track. Cerebral Caustic contains some of the very best of The Fall. The Joke is a great opener and the uncomfortable Don’t Call Me Darling is inspired, with Brix screaming the title like she means it against a killer tune. Tracks like Feeling Numb and One Day are better than anything from Middle Class Revolt. Some mental moments like Bonkers in Phoenix and North West Fashion Show add to the surreal enjoyment of this undervalued Fall album.
Standout track: Don’t Call Me Darling
Most Fall-like title: North West Fashion Show
18 . Light User Syndrome (1996)
A tumultuous time for the band with a drunken Mark E Smith shedding band members like dandruff, and heading up disastrous live performances. Surprisingly, this seems to have not affected this fine album. Light User Syndrome, much like Cerebral Caustic is a goldmine of great songs and demands to be heard. The haunting Hostile is like nothing ever heard on a Fall album, with Smith delivering a moving monologue and Powder Keg is just stunning, a song that strangely seems to predict the IRA bomb that destroyed Manchester’s Arndale centre. Spinetrak is an immediate Fall classic as is The Chiselers, available only on re-issues. Covers come in the form of songs by Gene Pitney and Johnny Paycheck. A contender for first Fall album purchase.
Standout track: Powder Keg
Most Fall-like title: Das Vulture Ans Ein Nutter-Wain
19 . Levitate (1997)
Being released on an obscure label means this album is hard to pick up for less than £30, but it’s well worth it, and not just for completists. The Fall were still in bad shape after losing members due to Smith’s difficult traits and the demons of drink and drugs. Both Craig Scanlon and Karl Burns were casualties of this period seeing The Fall lose two long standing and valuable members. The album still stands proud though with tracks including the mesmeric Ten Houses of Eve, the single Masquerade, Spencer Must Die and Levitate. The album isn’t short of strange covers either, a novelty record Bob McFadden’s I’m a Mummy, Hank Mizell’s rockabilly classic Jungle Rock and the dark and haunting I come and stand at your door which had previously been performed by The Byrds and Pete Seeger.
Standout track: Spencer Must Die
Most Fall-like title: The Quartet of Doc Shanley
20 . The Marshall Suite (1999)
The Fall are on a noticeable return to form here which is surprising as they are down to two members, Smith and Julia Nagle. The pair collected members as the recording unfolded. It’s a mess, but a brilliant mess, stretched bizarrely over three sides with a live fourth. Album opener Touch Sensitive found its way incredibly onto a Vauxhall ad, and we’re only on track two when Smith delivers another old rockabilly cover in the form of Tommy Blake’s F-‘oldin’ Money. Another cover, This Perfect Day originally recorded by Aussie rockers The Saints is a high point. The true standout here is Jung Nev’s Antidotes, which sounds more like Led Zeppelin than The Fall, following a similar patter to The Beastie Boy’s Sabotage into the bargain. This is just one of many absolute sonic attacks on this heavyweight album.
Standout track: Jung Nev’s Antidotes
Most Fall-like title: Anecdotes+Antidotes in B#
21 . The Unutterable (2000)
A new era and another label. The Unutterable is another mixed bag that barely wavers in quality. The heavy soundscaping of the previous album continues here and the album kicks off with the manic Cyber-Insekt to set the scene. 15 tracks allow the band to experiment a little and Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes is a rare foray into bar-room jazz. Smith’s disbelief at the modern world is never more apparent than in the rambling monologue against an infectious beat in Dr Buck’s Letter. At one point there is even a suppressed laugh. This is an album that takes a few goes to get into but is well worth the effort.
Standout track: Dr Buck’s Letter
Most Fall-like title: Octo Realm/Ketamine Sun
22 . Are You Are Missing Winner (2001)
If the second half of this album was as good as the first, this could be their best yet. Starting with the great Jim’s “The Fall” and a blistering cover of Leadbelly’s Bourgeois Town, the album is flying already. Crop-Dust is an overlooked gem, a real triumph that shows how effectively Smith and Nagle salvaged the virtually destroyed band. Ben Pritchard’s guitars and Spencer Birtwhistle’s drumming are a force to be reckoned with here. My Ex-classmate’s Kids is another classic and R. Dean Taylor is exploited once more with a cover of Gotta See Jane. Ibis Afro Man, a re-working of Iggy Pop’s African Man is one of those self-indulgent drones that all Fall fan’s dread and the album goes on a downwards spiral from here. The true definition of a game of two halves.
Standout track: Crop-Dust
Most Fall-like title: Reprise: Jane – Prof Mick – Ey Bastardo
23 . The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click) (2003)
And so it begins. Country on the Click (or whatever you choose to call it), heralded a true golden period in Fall history. Back on track in terms of finding a workable identity without relying on dance trends or pop fads, acidic lyrics to compete with their debut run of albums and a band so tight they were untouchable. The production in the next few albums is pristine and it really suits the band now. One of the strongest albums and a great intro to the band, opens with the brilliant Green Eyed Loco-Man, the wonderful Mountain Energi and the bona fide Fall classic, Theme From Sparta FC. Ben Pritchard has become as important a component of the band as Smith and the new missus, Elena is on keyboards at last. There is a gang mentality noticeable throughout this album. Other high points include the folky Janet, Johnny + James, the nagging Contraflow, a cover of Lee Hazlewood’s Houston and the frantic Proteinprotection which would re-appear as their Christmas single, We Wish You a Protein Christmas. Buy Now.
Standout track: Theme from Sparta FC
Most Fall-like title: Last Commands of Xyralothep Via M.E.S
24 . Fall Heads Roll (2005)
The genius continues. In musical terms they have never sounded better. Ignore the shonky opener Ride Away and stand in awe at Pacifying Joint, What About Us? (a song about Harold Shipman), and Youwanner. Anyone in doubt of The Fall’s capabilities should look no further than Blindness, the killer blow here. Used in America for a Mitsubishi ad, but better remembered as one of the most powerful Fall songs ever. A powerhouse of an album, best served live.
Standout track: Blindness
Most Fall-like title: Early Days of Channel Führer
25 . Reformation! Post-TLC (2007)
Another surefire hit for The Fall, very much in the same mould as Fall Heads Roll, just a little less consistent. The first three tracks Over! Over!, Reformation!, and Fall Sound, are loud and shouty as the exclamation marks suggest and sounded great live. One of their most successful covers, Merle Haggard’s White Line Fever pops up to stem the flow and from then on its business as usual. Mrs Smith takes lead vocals on the witty The Wright Stuff and the only downer is the turgid Das Boat, another surreal trip into Smith’s brain we can live without
Standout track: Reformation!
Most Fall-like title: Systematic Abuse
26 . Imperial Wax Solvent (2008)
Another fan favourite this, and one which still provides live fodder. Written as Smith reached his half century, 50 Year Old Man is a rambling monument to middle age and proves that he could still raise a laugh when looking his mortality in the eye. There are some pure rocking out moments here that foreshadow their next album, Wolf Kidult Man and Latch Key Kid being just two. Elena gets another blast at a humorous lyric in the strangely hypnotic I’ve Been Duped and there’s yet another great cover in T.S. McPhee’s Strangetown, sounding like it was written for The Fall. A smouldering classic, this release.
Standout track: Wolf Kidult Man
Most Fall-like title: Senior Twilight Stock Replacer
27 . Your Future Our Clutter (2010)
A singular release on Domino (Arctic Monkeys / Clinic etc) and this is a pure Desert Island Disc. This is The Fall at their absolute blistering best and their last truly great album. Live outings of this material pre-album release where like a whack over the head for Fall fans. Relentless bass lines, chugging almost rap-like lyrics and deafening shouting defined those shows. It feels like a concept album with recurring characters and cryptic lyrics, each track segues into one another and it demands to be heard in its entirety every time. Of the nine tracks, seven are over five minutes long, making this an album unlike any other in their canon. Bury Pts. 1+3 plays out an elongated lo fi intro that on first listen sounds faulty before bursting forth in full Hi Def, Mark and Elena harmonising “I’m not from Bury!” The galloping Cowboy George plays out like a high octane Western soundtrack and the perfect pairing of Hot Cake and Slippy Floor is the best in manic rockabilly The Fall have ever offered. The sonic assault is only halted by a faultless cover of Wanda Jackson’s Funnel of Love and The Bill is Dead like Weather Report 2. A towering triumph after just 31 years.
Standout track: Y.F.O.C / Slippy Floor
Most Fall-like title: Mexico Wax Solvent
28 . Ersatz GB (2011)
The fact that the 2011 line up included the same line up since Imperial Wax Solvent is evident on Ersatz GB. Following on from the mind-blowing previous album, the band are tighter still and tracks like Nate Will Not Return and Greenway are infectious by their driving forceful rhythm. Whilst the overall quality of tracks here is not as consistent as on Y.F.O.C, there is still some great work here. Taking Off retains the clarity of production found in the early 00’s albums whilst Cosmos 7 is a full on aural assault. No covers here but Greenway is based on the track Gameboy by Anorimoi, a comic Greek band, with new lyrics by Smith. Of course it is.
Standout track: Nate Will Not Return
Most Fall-like title: Laptop Dog
29 . Re-Mit (2013)
The cracks are showing a little on Re-Mit. Not a bad album but not essential either. Smith’s vocal delivery is deteriorating and whilst there is certainly genius in those there lyrics, it is getting more and more difficult to understand. Lead single here, Sir William Wray is a great tune, the line-up now unchanged over four albums, but lyrically, this is a drone. The spider themed Kinder of Spine is a similar affair, garbled lyrics but a killer tune. The inconsistency of the album places it in Middle Class Revolt territory and it is difficult to detect what Smith was trying to achieve here. More satisfying was the Remainderer E.P released the same year.
Standout track: Hittite Man
Most Fall-like title: Pre-MDMA Years
30 . Sub-Lingual Tablet (2015)
Although critically acclaimed with some reviews claiming this their best album in years, it lacks the consistency Your Future Our Clutter and Smith is once again allowed to ramble a little too much (see the 11 minute plus Fibre Book Troll on the vinyl version). Venice With the Girls is an amusing and upbeat opener and Dedication Not Meditation poses the question “Pierce Brosnan, how dare you prescribe sad grief and bet wet pills?” Intriguing. Smith rants about modern life in fine style making the album very much a product of its time and there are some vintage Fall moments, partly helped by the enduring line up of almost a decade and a second drummer in the form of Daren Garratt. A cover of The Stooges’ Cock in My Pocket is given a fresh set of lyrics as Stout Man and tracks like Junger Cloth and Auto Chip 2014-16 would sit well on any Fall album.
Standout track: Dedication Not Medication
Most Fall-like title: Auto Chip 2014-2016
31 . New Facts Emerge (2017)
And as if by magic a new classic Fall album arrives. New Facts Emerge comes hot on the heels of one of the worst live performances I have ever witnessed at The Arts Club, so it is a massive surprise and sigh of relief to hear the greatness of Your Future Our Clutter return. The pointless grumble of the 30 second Segue gives way to the riotous Fol De Rol, an aural assault that will delight any Fall fan worth their salt. Brillo De Facto similarly slaps you in the face with a jackhammer punch. Much has been written about the brief Victoria Train Station Massacre in light of the Ariana Grande gig disaster, but clearly this unfortunate title is just a coincidence, written before the event. Couples V Jobless Mid 30s is the expected Smith rant which drones for a while but then turns into a wonderful Can like treasure with some lush Greenway guitar work.. The band save the best to last with the indie pop splendour of Gibbus Gibson, the brilliant Groundsboy and the almost sinister but mesmerising closer, Nine Out of Ten, which is probably the score this album deserves.
Standout track: Fol De Rol
Most Fall-Like title: O! Zztrrk Man
If you still feel daunted after that, the Mark E Smith endorsed 50.000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong is a great introduction with 39 key singles and album tracks from 1979 to 2004, and similarly the priceless John Peel sessions box set includes every recording from the great man’s show over six discs.
Enjoy your journey, it will be long with many rewards, and not too many potholes – ah!!
- Image: Vicky Pea