Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Fallen - Dave Simpson


"We are The Fall." as Mark E Smith declared on the debut album 'Live At The Witch Trials' back in 1978 "Northern white crap that talks back." And almost 40 years later, on stepping onto the stage at any Fall gig Mark still introduces the band by declaring "We are The Fall" even if it's just him and his granny on bongos. It's a pertinent point for amongst other things The Fall are famous for having a bewilderingly high number of line-up changes over the years and it's this that journalist Dave Simpson has chosen to write a book about, naming it - naturally - The Fallen.

In excess of forty musicians have passed through the ranks of The Fall in almost as many years and Simpson makes it his mission to track down each and every one of them though his reason for doing so is never really made clear. He's a Fall fan, of course, or perhaps that should be a 'Fall obsessive' and it seems to him to be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
"Ha ha ha ha ha. You're crazy!" says former lead guitarist Marc Riley who along with all other ex-members that Simpson approaches, still agrees to be interviewed. For Simpson, he imagines the former members might hold the key to the legends of The Fall and that they're a piece of social history, as in decades of music seen through the eyes of the foot soldiers. Mark E Smith, however, fails to understand and finds it all very boring: "I don't understand the big deal with it." he says "They came, they saw, they fucked off and now I no longer see them. The Fall are about the present, and that's it."
Mark also fails to understand why former members are so quick to talk about their Fall-years (or days): "It's as if they've been to Vietnam or had a particularly fraught space-excursion and their senses have been obliterated. It's all they can talk about, it's all that remains in their fried heads. I'm thinking about setting up a post-Fall-syndrome therapy hour. That'd chase a few wolves from the door." And as often is the case, there's a lot of truth in what Mark says because what comes over in the interviews Simpson conducts is that the former members are indeed in need of some form of therapy and use their interview as a way of getting it for free. There are certain things some of them still can't bring themselves to talk about: dark, drug induced secrets; demons they still shy away from addressing, though strangely they all say they'd return and play with The Fall again if asked.

Of all the former members, the most interesting is Kay Carroll who from 1977 to 1983 sang backing vocals but more importantly, was the band's manager. By all accounts Carroll was (and still is) a formidable woman who terrified her fellow band members. She was also Mark's girlfriend at the time. According to Carroll, The Fall's entire 'no sell-out/outsiders' stance was her creation, her 'musical instrument'. "I brought an ideology to The Fall and Mark carried it on." she says.
The ex-member offering the best insight into The Fall is perhaps not by coincidence also a woman, that being Brix Smith, former guitarist/backing vocalist/'stylist' and also Mark's wife at the time of her being in the band. According to Brix: "Like a great painting, what people make of The Fall is actually a reflection of themselves." This idea is expounded upon by ex-member Marcia Schofield who played keyboards, who suggests that The Fall are a mirror and Mark E Smith is "a walking, cultural Rorschach Test."
The thing about these specific offerings is that not only are they from women but they also echo my take on Albert Camus' book The Fall (see a previous review), from which Mark, of course, took the name for his band. And it's funny that of all the people interviewed by Simpson - including Carroll, Brix, and Schofield - none of them not once mentions Camus' book or even hints that they've ever read it.

Simpson just about succeeds in his quest but apart from an article in The Guardian and the completion of his book, in the end he actually has very little to show for it. In fact, he seems to have lost more than he's gained for not only has his girlfriend of 17 years left him - tired of taking second place to his Fall obsession - but he's also received withering condemnation from Mark E Smith himself for 'the hatchet job on Fall members past and present'. But then what did he expect? Particularly as at times in the book he comes across as a stalker, even at one point lurking around outside of Mark's home and asking neighbours if they know who lives there? And sure they do. "Mad Mark", as one of them replies with a shrug, as if to say 'And? So what? What's it to you? What's it to anyone?'

And so consequently, if as Brix Smith suggests The Fall simply reflects and as Marcia Schofield suggests that The Fall is a mirror; what we're left with at the end of the book is a not very flattering portrait of the author Dave Simpson going through a very long and slow nervous breakdown. The one unexpected blessing for him being that though he's not actually become a member of The Fall, in a certain way he has become a member of The Fallen who like the others belonging to that particular club who he's tracked down and interviewed, seems to be in need of some form of therapy.
John Serpico

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Renegade - Mark E Smith


Teenage Kicks by The Undertones was John Peel's favourite song and The Fall were, of course, his favourite band which was a pretty high accolade indeed. So what is it about The Fall that sets them not only apart from but head and shoulders above their peer group? It's not their sound as their sound's always changing, it's not their lyrics as they're often indecipherable, and it's not their image as they're practically anti-image. No, I reckon it's the idea of them.

Behind The Fall lies an interesting and unusual intelligence borne from the backstreets of Greater Manchester and baptised in the white heat of the original punk wars of 1977. During that famously hot summer of revelations, unlike most other young contenders they declined to ingratiate themselves with the punk crowd and instead struck out on their own, not pretending or trying to be anything other but themselves. Their uniqueness sprang from them being enthused with a sense of literacy brought about through self-education, and their interest in and curiosity with the world of the ordinary. Behind the mundane and the normal lies wonder and fright and this is what The Fall shone a light upon, and - I should hasten to add - continue to do so almost 40 years later. And when I say The Fall, to be more precise I mean, of course, vocalist Mark E Smith.

Ghost-written by journalist Austin Collings, Renegade - The Lives And Tales Of Mark E Smith is neither an autobiography nor a memoir but rather one long, hilarious monologue. I suspect it was a relatively easy book to write as all it would have required was a copious supply of drink, a tape recorder and free rein given to Mark to talk. This probably wouldn't have worked for most people but then most people aren't Mark E Smith - thank heavens. In fact, there is no-one quite like Mark E Smith. He's a complete original and as his fans all appreciate, an absolute genius to boot.
So what does the vocalist of The Fall have to talk about over the course of a whole book that he hasn't already discussed before in all the years of interviews he's done? To be honest, it's difficult to know where to start but let's give it a go:

Apparently, one of Mark's relations fought against the Zulus at Rorke's Drift and in the film starring Michael Caine he was played by actor James Booth. He was the pissed, laid-up-in-bed, proletarian soldier; on the skive with a boil on his arse.
As a child Mark would have to babysit three of his younger sisters and two of their friends all aged about five, so he devised a game called 'Japanese prison camp' which as the name implies if enacted today would probably be investigated by the social services. "What can you do?" says Mark "It's hard work bringing up kids. Japanese prison camp was the perfect solution."
At sixteen he started smoking: "I don't think you need it really before then. I couldn't see the point to it. You can't appreciate it then." Before taking up smoking cigarettes, however, at the age of fifteen he was taking acid: "I was on acid before I even had any pot; pot was for hippies. I had no problem with the acid because it was proper LSD."
Before starting The Fall, Mark shared a flat situated at the back of a mental hospital and he would often invite patients in for a cup of tea, play them some rock'n'roll and let them watch a bit of telly. Whilst the nurses would all sit cross-legged on the floor, teaching the patients yoga and playing them Pink Floyd, Mark would take them down the pub for a bit of normality: "Sometimes I think I did more good than all the nurses put together. It's where my dislike of hippies came from, I think."
According to Mark, The Clash were better than the Sex Pistols but so too were the Glitter Band. Geoff Travis and the Rough Trade label are nowhere near as radical as they think and being signed to them was "like living in Russia", asking such things as "What exactly is a Prole Art Threat?" Tony Wilson of Factory Records was like Engels but rather than having twelve-year-old girls working in a factory like Engels did, Wilson had The Happy Mondays. Mark's always got time for Bez, however, and so too for John Cooper Clarke. 
Alvin Stardust was "cool", George Best "a great bloke", Leigh Bowery "a proper artist", Pete Waterman "a good worker", and The Searchers "brilliant song-writers, very underrated." And "nothing touches" the film Dead Man's Shoes. He's "a big fan" of film director Lindsay Anderson and comedy actor Leonard Rossiter who played Rigsby in Rising Damp but he's never like Noel Gallagher. Joe Strummer wasn't the "saviest cultural commentator" and his politics "were all over the place"; and as for BBC media graduates, they're either "Jo Whiley-ites" or they dress like Mork and Mindy.
Writing about Prestwich, in Manchester is "just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno". Primark sells "some alright stuff at a fair price. Go and shop there; you don't want to be walking around like an urban scarecrow". Bargain Booze is a particular favourite shop of Mark's: "You can get some good offers there". Mobile phones are "a disease. People ringing each other up all the time, talking about tomato sauce and what's happening in their car. They're as much an addiction as drink, but less sociable". Proper pub landlords tell you to "drink up and get another or leave", libraries are full of "repressed stormtroopers gawking at you", there should be "more ashtrays on morning TV and presenters wheezing", taking speed helps Mark sleep, and people fail to realize that "99.9 per cent of people with a healthy diet will eventually die". And so on ad infinitum.
Mark's dad had a few good opinions too. Regarding people naming their kids 'Keegan' after Kevin Keegan he would say: "Stop hanging around with people like that. You should get away from people like that". And: "If you're feeling too sexy have a glass of water and a run round the backyard".

When writer and critic Sean O'Hagan reviewed Renegade for The Guardian, he suggested it may be the funniest music book ever written and I suspect he may well be right. I'd be reading it on a packed-out train on the way home from work and I'd be laughing out loud to it. I can't imagine what any of the other passengers thought but then none of them cared to ask what I was reading. Not that the name Mark E Smith would have meant a lot to any of them.
Mark hoped that Renegade would turn out to be a kind of Mein Kampf for the Hollyoaks generation, and though I don't think it's quite that, it's certainly unlike any other book stocked in the music section of Waterstones. And you don't have to be a Fall fan or even to know anything about them to enjoy it. 
According to Mark, he's always wanted The Fall to be "the group that represents people who are sick of being dicked around; those that have a bit of fight in them", and I think that's a very accurate description. And that same description could also probably apply to this book.

John Serpico

Monday, 1 December 2014