Sometimes little reminders spark big digs. The remainder of a torn ticket stub in the drawer, a fuzzy portion of an old music video on YouTube, a yellowed newspaper clipping, or a snippet of an almost-forgotten song on the radio — these are the little blips often encounter accidentally that fire an urge to start searching and researching the who, where, when, and why of obscure rock bands and their weird histories. It keeps me busy on weekends.
I caught a great live review of a U.K. concert this week — a write-up on Mojo magazine of sort of a Manchester-style showcase with The Buzzcocks, The Fall, macabre hipster poet John Cooper Clarke (anyone remember his performance of “Health Fanatic” in the 1981 rockumentary Urgh! A Music War?). All three punk-era survivors were on a co-bill at the HMV Forum in London.
Critic Ian Harrison noted that most of the new members of The Fall “looked like they weren’t even born in 1977, but they seem fiercely drilled.” He described the band’s frontman Mark E. Smith as the “chief inquisitor, wandering the stage, occasionally interfering with the amps and bashing a cymbal while cawing cryptic accusations out of the corner of his mouth.” He added a bit about a “blistering triple-punch of songs from 1979.”
I like a lot of those early Buzzcocks songs, the fast and distorted ones with the punkish energy, but I’ve been deeply in love with (and endlessly puzzled by) the edgy, scowly art-rock of The Fall.
Reading Harrison’s review reminded me of my first experiences with The Fall, and kindled a mildly frantic search through my album collections for the earliest Fall releases on hand — the band’s second album Dragnet (released on Step Forward in the summer of 1979), and the adjacent singles “Rowche Rumble” and “In My Area.”
I located Dragnet on CD and “Rowche Rumble” on vinyl. With Smith as the permanent ringleader, The Fall’s roster was in constant rotation; the band’s lineup at the time of these lo-fi, trebly, garage-spirited early recordings included Marc Riley on guitar and vocals, Craig Scanlon on guitar, Steve Hanley on bass, Mike Leigh on drums, Yvonne Pawlett on keyboards.
Smith grew up on ’60s garage rock and early U.S. “punk” as a teen. He got into Iggy, Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and Krautrock bands like Neu and Can at an early age, too.
Tthe stiff repetition and dissonance of Smith’s punk and Kraut influences, but raw bits of vintage rockabilly made their way into many of the early muic, foreshadowing things to come from the band into the 1980s.
A deep dive back into the wonderful and frightening world of The Fall often requires literary research as well. This week’s adventure was inspired by words on a page, and it concluded with even more, as I thumbed through three recent books on the band.
British author Simon Ford’s Hip Priest: The Story of Mark E. Smith and The Fall (Quartet) — a dense, highly readable account of the band’s and Smith’s history — from their awkward beginnings through the Beggar’s Banquet and early MTV years in which the band flirted with modern forms of pop music. Dave Thompson’s A User’s Guide to The Fall (Helter Skelter) also details The Fall’s career and chronicles each recorded session and release in a year-by-year account. Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith, the singer’s amusingly biased, slang-riddled autobiography (written with Austin Collings), meanders through the unexpected victories and bleak downturns of Smith’s unique career — from the 1979 recordings through the present.
Good reads, weird music, dusty seven-inch jackets — that Mojo review pointed me into the right direction.
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