Hey, Student! It’s a Beginner’s Guide to the Fall

By
Mark E. Smith. Photo: David Corio/Redferns

There’s been much talk in recent years about how the advent of streaming services — and the limitless listening possibilities they present — has induced a paralysis of choice. Too much music, not enough time to listen to it, and not nearly enough brain capacity to process it all. Well, long before Spotify was a thing, fans of the Fall were already all too familiar with that feeling.

Between forming the Fall in 1976 up to his death last week, ringleader Mark E. Smith coughed up 31 proper studio albums — and this is to say nothing of the EPs, live albums, compilations, box sets, and outtakes collections that seemed to spontaneously multiply like water-doused mogwais. (You can scroll down their Spotify albums list for a full 30 seconds and still only make it to the mid-1990s.) But the Fall didn’t just release an overwhelming amount of music; they released an overwhelming amount of overwhelming music.

The Fall were simultaneously the most primitive and evolved band to come out of punk, their sound an ever-mutating grotesquerie of roughed-up rockabilly, debased garage-rock, corroded Krautrock, soccer-hooligan chants, and, diseased dance music. And on top of it all, Smith unleashed a Pollock-like splatter of words that blurred the lines between street-level documentary and dystopian sci-fi, capped with a signature-uh vocal-uh tic-uh that rendered his lyrics as post-punk pig Latin. But while Smith may be the No. 1 reason for music-critic thesaurus searches on the word “cantankerous,” the Fall could mold their metamorphic punk into something resembling a pop song on occasion. Of those 31 albums, 10 actually managed to crack the U.K. Top 40, and Smith was enough of a national treasure to get invited onto the BBC to read out football scores (if not quite world-famous enough to warrant a last-minute addition to last Sunday’s Grammy memorial reel).

All of which is to say the Fall’s discography becomes a less-daunting prospect if you take the boiling-frog approach. If you’ve read all the best-song-list tribute posts from last week and think you’re ready for full-album indoctrination, use this step-by-step guide to acclimatize yourself to the wonderful and frightening world of the Fall, from their most accessible work to their most inscrutable. (Sure, you could start with a compilation like 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong, but those are for tourists, and we know how Mark E. Smith felt about them.)

ENTRY-LEVEL FALL

Hex Enduction Hour (1982)
In light of Smith’s passing last week, 2017’s unsteady-as-she-goes New Facts Emerge will go down as the Fall’s unintended swan song. But Hex Enduction Hour is the sound of the Fall playing as if it were their last album. Frustrated by the band’s lack of success and its deteriorating relationship with their label, Rough Trade, Smith expected the Fall’s fourth album to deep-six the group. But on the brink of death, the Fall found everlasting life. Thanks to the addition of second drummer Karl Burns, Hex Enduction Hour captures a band on the warpath, powered by a rhythm section that rumbles and crushes like a tank and a lead mouthpiece shooting out barbs like bullets, making this the go-to Fall record for Stephen Malkmus and Buffalo Bill alike.

Best line: “You won’t find anything more ridiculous / than this new profile razor unit / made with the highest British attention / to the wrong detail” (“The Classical”)

This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)
The mid-’80s were the Fall’s “pop” period, thanks in large part to the arrival of Smith’s American wife Brix, who brought a more tuneful sensibility to the fore by countering her husband’s rants with cheerleader-worthy chants. This Nation’s Saving Grace is the creative summit of their union, the rare Fall album that feels less like a jumble of tracks and more of a cinematic, conceptually structured piece (complete with the ominous, scene-setting intro “Mansion” and psychedelic interstitial “L.A.”). Even at their most omnipotent and grandiose, the Fall still swing like a chain-wielding street gang on “Spoilt Victorian Child” and “Gut of the Quantifier,” but This Nation’s violent outbursts are balanced by moments of understated cool, like Brix’s desert-twang tease “Vixen” and the absolutely sublime lo-fi drift of “Paintwork.”

Best line: “What have you got in that paper bag? / Is it a dose of Vitamin C? / Ain’t got no time for Western medicine/ I am Damo Suzuki” (“I Am Damo Suzuki”)

Fall Heads Roll (2005)
Two decades and infinite personnel changes removed from the Fall’s ’80s chart infiltrations, Smith had a new wife/creative foil (keyboardist Elena Poulou) at his side and a renewed vigor. Building upon the promise of 2003’s The Real New Fall LPFall Heads Roll flexes a sinewy muscle the band hadn’t worked since the early ’80s, with tracks like “Blindness” and “What About Us” instantly crashing the canon of the Fall’s most menacing songs. But Fall Heads Roll also features surprising displays of bonhomie — on the spirited romp through the Move’s 1968 garage-rock nugget “I Can Hear the Grass Grow,” you can almost hear Smith smile. (Alas, the revelry was short-lived — the following year, the core of Smith’s band walked out on him mid-tour. He responded in kind by naming the next Fall album Reformation Post-TLC — that would be “thieves, liars, and cunts.”)

Best line: “There was a man going round all the time / He was dishing out drugs / He was a doctor / Dishing out morphine to old ladies / I said, what about us?” (“What About Us”)

INTERMEDIATE-LEVEL FALL

The Frenz Experiment (1988)
While This Nation’s Saving Grace is the Fall’s certified ’80s mid-classic, the less-celebrated Frenz Experiment is arguably a more easily digestible record. Buoyed by a faithfully upbeat cover of the Kinks’ “Victoria,” it would become their first album to crack the U.K. Top 20, and the track list is rife with equally snappy numbers like “In These Times” and “Carry Bag Man.” Even the nine-minute epic “Bremen Nacht” flies by in a breeze, retrofitting the band’s rockabilly jones for goth night at the local strobe-lit alterna-club. The reissue currently available on streaming services also includes essential non-album singles from the same era, including the synth-powered stomper “Hit the North Pt. 1” and their ragtag cover of the Holland/Dozier/Holland northern-soul standard “There’s a Ghost in My House.”

Best line: “I’ve no time to sit comfortable down / But I still need armchairs round my home / To put carrier bags on” (“Carry Bag Man”)

The Infotainment Scan (1993)
Following Brix’s split with Smith — and, by extension, the band — in 1989, the Fall’s days as a chart threat seemed to be slipping away. But by 1993, the caustic post-punk that the Fall had pioneered a decade previous was being thoroughly mined by discordant American indie rockers and budding Britpop stars alike, and with the band signing to hip label du jour Matador Records in the U.S., The Infotainment Scan became the most anticipated Fall album in several years. But true to their contrarian nature, the Fall responded to the renewed attention with a series of curveballs: a shockingly sleek cover of Sister Sledge’s disco classic “Lost in Music”; the ska-powered Lee Perry/Joe Gibbs mash-up tribute “Why Are People Grudgeful”; a rendition of ’70s-pop obscurity “I’m Going to Spain” that could be the prettiest tune Smith has ever crooned. And on marauding originals like “Paranoia Man in Cheap Shit Room” and “The League of Bald-Headed Man,” Smith and the Fall parade like geezers crashing the dance floor at a student disco night and chasing the punters away, making The Infotainment Scan the most playfully eclectic album in the Fall canon.

Best line: “Stop eating all that chocolate / Eat salad instead/ In fact, you’re a half-wit from somewhere or other / Why don’t you bog off back to Xanadu in Ireland?” (“Glam Racket”)

Your Future Our Clutter (2010)
The Fall’s final decade of output was paradoxically defined by Smith’s most stable lineup since the band’s ’80 heyday and the loosest, most scattershot music of his career, forsaking traditional song structure for improvised grooves and extended rambles delivered in an increasingly phlegmy voice. But the one glorious exception is Your Future Our Clutter, the Fall’s last great album. Here, they sound as taut and totally wired as their early-’80s incarnation, rising out of lo-fi murk into the hi-definition throttle of “Bury, Pts. 1 & 3” like some swamp creature on the prowl, and steering the jazzy swing of “Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor” into an extended blues-punk blowout that makes it the only Fall song that would sound right at home on Led Zeppelin II.

Best line: “Trimidine is kicking in / And barbiturates are kicking in / I said where are Britain’s lowest prices? / I don’t make rice with screwdrivers / Or fry chicken with a trowel / Where’s the bus depot?” (“Mexico Wax Solvent”)

ENTER-AT-YOUR-OWN-RISK FALL

Dragnet (1979)
The Fall’s second album came just six months after the first (Live at the Witch Trials), but presents an even starker contrast between the band’s primordial punk roots and their increasingly exploratory instincts. You can hear that tug-of-war happen in real time on the opening “Psykick Dance Hall,” which swings wildly between brittle indie-disco and revved-up garage-rock spasms. Dragnet is also the first album where the Fall tap into their powers of hypnosis, locking into the sinister back-alley prowl of “Before the Moon Falls” and the Morse code, cowbell-clanged pummel of “Spectre vs Rector,” all while Smith transcends from the realm of mere punk carnival barker to oracle of the underground.

Best line: “I don’t sing, I just shout / All on one note / Sing, sing, sing, sing / Look at me, I just ding” (“Your Heart Out”)

Perverted by Language (1983)
Technically, this was the first Fall album to feature Brix, and while her pop acumen comes to the fore on the wistful, acoustic reverie “Hotel Bloedel,” most of the material predates her arrival. So in essence you have the last guttural gasp of Fall Mk 1, a final expulsion of shortwave-radio punk propulsion (“Neighbourhood of Infinity,” “The Man Whose Head Expanded”) before they started getting invites to appear on the telly. Consider the opening “Eat Y’Self Fitter,” the ultimate litmus test of Fall fandom — if you can get through its repetitive seesaw swing and jackhammered beat for six minutes and still have a smile on your face, consider yourself signed up for life.

Best line: “Winston Churchill had a speech im-pe-pe-pediment / and look what he did” (“Tempo House”)

Are You Are Missing Winner (2001)
If the Fall’s more accessible ’90s output suggested the band was settling into middle-aged respectability, Are You Are Missing Winner provided a first glimpse of the anarchic abandon that would flourish on so many of the band’s post-millennial releases. (Case in point: “Ibis Afro-Man,” a nine-minute disemboweling of Iggy Pop’s “Africa Man” that layers wildly different recordings of the song overtop one another to the point of madness.) But this chaotic collage of a record is anchored by some finely chiseled rockers like “My Ex-Classmates’ Kids” and “Hollow Mind,” both powered by the sort of tense acoustic riffs that leave blood on the strings.

Best line: “You had it all / You’ve seen it all / But I reply / You don’t know fuck, shit” (“Hollow Mind”)

Hey, Student! It’s a Beginner’s Guide to the Fall