Mark E. Smith—a well-read dockworker and the self-professed psychic son of a plumber—had his brain lit up by the seemingly endless possibilities of punk’s first wave and, more important, its American roots in the late-sixties sonic garage assaults of The Stooges and the demonic blues howls of Captain Beefheart. In addition, he brought in the heady repetition of German krautrock pioneers Can and the crafty dubwise tracks being laid out in Jamaica by a host of revolutionary producers and DJs. All played vital roles in shaping a musical revolution that would gradually sweep over the sleeping music industry and its comatose mainstream audience in the next decade, and inspired Smith to form a band with a handful of equally disenfranchised co-conspirators in late ’76. The group took their name from the title of Albert Camus’s aching post-war meditation on the futility of existence and performed their first gig the following April in a cramped Manchester basement.
Now, after almost thirty years, innumerable lineup changes, endless tours, and dozens of studio albums, compilations, and live recordings, Mark E. Smith and the latest incarnation of The Fall are back and packing a vengeance with Fall Heads Roll. The new studio album, on NYC’s Narnack Records, weighs in at just under an hour and finds the band in outstanding form. If this is your first exposure to The Fall, it will be a perfect introduction; if you’re already familiar with the band, you certainly don’t need me to tell you to buy the album, because you already own it.
Every Fall fan can recall that one specific lyric from a song—half-spoken, slurred, or shouted—that flicked the hidden switch in their brain, transforming them into a rabid fan of certainly the most prolific, and arguably the greatest band—regardless of genre—that exists on the planet. I was seventeen when This Nation’s Saving Grace was released in ’86, and it was during that summer—as a powerful, organically grown hallucinogenic aura held sway over the suburbs of Northern Virginia—that my epiphany arrived by way of a cassette blasting from a recently copped boom-box precariously balanced atop the peeling vinyl roof of my father’s ‘72 Cutlass…
There’s a party going on down around here
Cruiser’s Creek, yeah
Watch the shirttails flapping in the wind Sidewalk running
See the people holding from the back
There’s a party going down around here
Cruiser’s Creek now
...parked behind a strip mall on a very late humid night as amber pools from the overhead streetlights glistened like diamonds on the asphalt—not unlike impossible islands ringing a too-familiar landscape, as my friends and I waited for the first hints of a hazy sun to reclaim a semblance of normality. And when dawn eventually arrived, the world would thankfully never be the same.
Mark E. Smith’s fragmented lyrics—speed-and-alcohol-infused stabs at surrealism colliding into straightforward meditations on the banalities of the everyday; cynical takes on everything that the media-saturated West holds up as a smug token of its self-importance—are masterfully interspersed with fully loaded bass hooks and rattling guitars. The rhythm section is as punishingly relentless as it is sublimely brilliant. Smith’s trademark delivery hangs the lyrics within these relatively claustrophobic soundscapes, and it’s up to the listener to take what they can from the chaos shrouding them.
The opening track on Fall Heads Roll, “Ride Away,” ambles forth with a nod to the Junior Murvin and Lee Perry classic “Police and Thieves”:
From Genesis to Revelations, yeah
The next generation will hear me
All the crimes committed day by day
No one tried to stop it in any way All the peace makers turn war officers
Hear what I say, hey, hey
The Fall twist the opening around before settling into that familiar reggae rhythm, as Smith’s voice surfaces and reclaims the tune with:
You spread lies and discontent
I wish you could see yourself
You drive them away Through hill and valley
Ridin’, Ridin’, ridin’
...while capturing the original’s lazy determination and all of its integrity.
The standout tracks on Fall Heads Roll include the darkly surreal looking-glass perspective of “What About Us?” which opens with the lines:
I am a rabbit from East Germany
I was very happy
And I could get anything I want
I was so happy
It gradually shifts into a narrative delivered from the perspective of Dr. Harold Shipman, who murdered over two hundred of his elderly female patients with diamorphine, was sentenced to life in prison, and hanged himself the day before his fifty-eighth birthday. “Midnight Aspen” and “Midnight Aspen Reprise” bookend the crackling buzz-guitar-infused “Assume,” and cast a surprisingly reflective and melancholic sidelong glance at what could have been the waning days in the life of Hunter S. Thompson. “Blindness” is my favorite track on the album, and one of the best songs the Fall have recorded in decades. A seven-minute-long bass assault over one hook repeatedly bashing against the side of your head—it’s like hearing a lost Can track crashing into an industrial strength Cabaret Voltaire loop, shot through with Smith’s indecipherable lyrics…on one leg and begging a blind man for mercy. It’s as claustrophobic as it is brilliant. A cover of the Move’s ode to LSD, I Can Hear the Grass Grow, gets a straightforward yet glistening retro-pop sheen, as Smith delivers the lyrics in earnest; in a perfect world it would be playing on the radio as you read this, while you’re buying groceries at Key Food and standing on line at the post office. And finally, “Trust In Me,” which features guest vocals from Shelby’s Kenny Cummings, who was happy to relate how this song was knotted together from a series of long germinating coincidences:
Shelby were just about to ink a deal with Gigantic. I’d been up to the offices many times that week, and knew The Fall were in the studio, which is in a room adjacent to the label office. I was hoping to run into Mark and Co. but never did. Then, late one night when we came up to actually sign the papers, sitting in the lounge was Mark and Elena (his wife and The Fall’s keyboard player). When I walked in, he looked up, and I said, “Hey, I know you!” He found that completely disarming and stood up and shook my hand. Brian Devine, the president of the label, was a little alarmed at my candor, but Mark immediately started chatting. He wanted to put his arms around me and tell me all about the way things should be. Elena was wonderful and very charming. We talked about kids, and she said that the picture of her kid was in her keychain (which was a picture of a little monkey—she doesn’t have kids). Anyway, as the papers were signed and photographs taken, suddenly Mark stood up and told me that he wanted me to sing on the record and began shaking a piece of paper at me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Elena explained that I should go into the studio and see if I could come up with a good melody for this song that they were working on. I walked into the studio and the producer and engineer both looked at me like I was crazy and wondered who “authorized” this. Then Mark came storming in and said “Have a go!!!!” and walked back out. So I sat in the studio with Ding (Fall bassist) and Billy Nord (Narnack Producer), and worked on a melody on the synthesizer. The next thing I know I’m in the vocal booth with his lyric sheet and singing away. I did about ten takes, and it was all over. Then they drug in Phil Schuster (Shelby’s bass player—who doesn’t sing) and he did what he could. Then Billy and Ding got in on the game. It is my voice that is the main melody, and the others who are adding color. Unbelievable. What a night!
The Fall have sustained a remarkable longevity, and it has been a real pleasure for me and legions of their fans to have experienced this band—as Mark E. Smith has molded an ever-changing lineup over the last three decades. I find it hard to imagine what the last seventeen years of my life would have been like without the relentless outpouring of gems from this indisputable genius.
Donald Breckenridge is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, and co-Editor and co-Founder of InTranslation. He is the author of more than a dozen plays, and four novels including, And Then, which was published by Godine/Black Sparrow in the spring of 2017.