After a messy on-stage altercation at New York’s Brownies club on April 7th 1998, Smith parted company with his then band, including bass-player Steve Hanley, a cornerstone of The Fall’s initial two decade run who, between 1987 to 1993, had helped wrestle The Fall into the Top Fifty.
Obituary wisdom has it that the twenty years following the severing of his last links with the punk era Fall represent a protracted decline for Mark E Smith, and the second half of The Fall’s career displayed little of the twisted pop sensibility that had entertained fans from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. But, by considering the actual recordings the group made in the period, rather than the soap operas that barnacle its underbelly, it’s easy to make that case that, in his last decade, Smith finally captured the Fall Sound that had always been buzzing in his head. And he did this for better or worse, by accident or by design, and whether it was what you wanted The Fall Sound to be or not.
The Marshall Suite
19/4/99, Artful Records CD: ARTFULCD17; cassette: ARTFULMC17; LP: ARTFULLP17 (2 LPs). Reissued 25/4/11, Cherry Red Records CD: CDTRED491 (3 CDs).
With keyboard player Julia Nagle the only link to earlier incarnations, but with human torch guitarist Neville Wilding newly attached, The Fall produced an album far better than fearful fans had expected, cherry-picking styles from its whole history; the smart weird pop of near hit Touch Sensitive; feral rock and roll covers like Tommy Blake’s F’-oldin’ Money and The Saints’ This Perfect Day; the electronic maelstrom of Shake-Off; and the Zeppelin-channeling power-dirge of (Jung Nev’s) Antidotes. The triple CD reissue features superior Peel sessions, Wilding driving This Perfect Day at 100mph without a map, and a coruscating XFM live set.
6/11/00, Eagle Records CD: EAGCD164. Reissued 10/11/08, Voiceprint CD: VP451CD (2 CDs).
Old comrade Grant Showbiz produced an uncharacteristically clean set under disinfected laboratory conditions, dusted with sometimes incompatible electro-frosting. The sterile setting didn’t suit Wilding’s impulsive ethos, though he combusts during Two Librans and Hands Up Billy. Dr Buck’s Letter, assembled by bassist Adam Helal on pro tools, is nonetheless a Fall classic, Smith reciting a facile Pete Tong questionnaire over menacing swamp funk. Lou Reed’s Kill Your Sons is reshaped into the sinisterly shimmering Ketamine Sun, one of The Fall’s best blue sunshine visions. The 2008 reissue includes uninteresting demos
Are You Are Missing Winner?
5/10/01, Cog Sinister/Voiceprint CD: COGVP131CD LP: COGVP131LP. Reissued 29/5/06, Castle, CD: CMRCD1352 with bonus tracks
Even to fans used to Smith’s handbrake turns, the dirty garage minimalism of Are You Are Missing Winner, recorded with little finesse by an anonymous line-up of unknown urchins, was a shock. But it was the first step toward the style that sustained The Fall’s final, imperious and imperial, phase. There’s no keyboards here and precious little structure, just vast monumental riffs that Smith can wander about in at will; sturdy and flexible forms built for impulsive vocal improvisations and on-a-whim expansions. The mysterious Ed Blaney co-writes, Bourgeois Blues is reappropriated from Leadbelly via The Panther Burns, and The Troggs’ I Just Sing Inspires the psychedelic stomp of Crop-Dust.
Live At The Knitting Factory LA 14th November 2001
19/2/07, Hip Priest/Voiceprint CD: HIPP017CD
Live In San Francisco 19th November 2001
17/6/13, Ozit – Morpheus Records LP: OZITDANCD 9014 (2 LPs)
Touch Sensitive Box Set
Patronaat, Haarlem, The Netherlands on 6 April 2001
Melkweg, Amsterdam, The Netherlands on 7 April 2001
Concorde 2, Brighton on 17 April 2001
Crocodile Cafe, Seattle on 20 November 2001
The Knitting Factory, New York on 23 November 2001
14/7/03, Castle, 5 CD box: CMYBX752
(Studio recordings mid 2001 and American tour of November 20th 2001 – November 25th 2001) 10 June 2002, Action Records CD: TAKE18CD
Live At The Garage London 20th April 2002
29 January 2007, Hip Priest/Voiceprint CD: HIPP016CD
Live At The ATP Festival 28th April 2002
19 February 2007,Hip Priest/Voiceprint CD: HIPP018CD
In bewildering Fall fashion here are no less than nine full live shows, boasting often challenging degrees of fidelity, drawn from a mere five months from November 2001 to April 2002. Over-documenting a slimmed-down line-up based around newcomers Jim Watts on bass and Ben Pritchard on guitar, these fluidly brutal versions of songs from 2001’s then unloved Are Your Are Missing Winner?, and 2000’s difficult to replicate live The Unutterable, reveal a ragbag of recruits learning the ropes en route, and discovering shat-pants courage and red-eyed resourcefulness they never knew they had in them.
Creative Distortion (22nd September 2002)
22/9/14,Secret Records CD + DVD: SECDP088 (2 CDs + DVD)
Yarbles (22nd September 2002)
29/9/14, Secret Records LP: SECLP104
Creative Distortion, misleadingly released in shorter vinyl form as Yarbles, sees an uncharacteristically nostalgic Smith play popular tracks from the back catalogue live, for one night only, presumably in exchange for a plastic bag of cash. The new line-up deliver a radical but powerful reinterpretation of 1992’s Free Range, enhanced by Eleni Poulou on keyboards, another loyal musician wife of Smith’s, who was to define the group for fourteen years.
Mark E Smith – Pander! Panda! Panzer!
23/9/02 Action Records CD: TAKE19CD
The Fall vs 2003 single
2/12/02, Action Records CD: TAKE20CD;7″: TAKE20
2002 offered Smith’s second spoken-word album, following 1998’s more digestible Post Nearly Man, and a lone single. Its lead track, Susan Vs Youthclub, featuring drummer Dave Miller’s Faustian pulsations, bridges the provocative reductionism of Are You Are Missing Winner? and the cyberpunk fusions of the forthcoming album.
The Real New Fall LP, formerly Country On The Click
27/10/03, Action Records CD: TAKE021CD; and LP: TAKE021. Released in different form in the USA, Narnack records, 15/6/04 CD: NCK7018; and LP: NCK7018.
We Wish You A Protein Christmas
8/12/03 Action Records CD: TAKE22CD: and Double 7″: TAKE22
Live At The Knitting Factory New York 9th April 2004
29/1/07 Hip Priest/Voiceprint CD: HIPP015CD
Interim (Live and Rehearsal Studio August and September 2004) 1/11/04 Hip Priest/Voiceprint CD: HIPP004CD
2003’s The Real New Fall LP, Formerly Country On The Click, is one of the great Fall albums, an embarrassment of riches so plentiful no-one knew how best to present it, the Pritchard/Poulou/Watts axis at its zenith. An early pirated mix was suppressed, and the UK release was swiftly followed by a US version with different mixes. Grant Showbiz got the meeting of studio trickery and as-live excitement exactly right this time, The Fall now a space rock steamroller, a post-punk Hawkwind, with Smith’s lyrics clear and focused in a way they would rarely be again.
Theme From Sparta FC became a BBC football staple, Green Eyed Loco Man mixes ayahuasca with bin juice, Mountain Energei and Janet, Johnny & James lope like lupine late ‘70s Iggy Pop. With extra tracks on the Protein Christmas single, essential outtakes on the Interim album, contemporary live material, and a superb Peel session in the vaults, surely someone can find it in themselves to knock together a four CD edition?
Fall Heads Roll
3/11/05, Slogan Records, CD: SLOCD003; and LP: SLOLP003.
Fall Heads Roll is the one that got away. Ben Pritchard and Eleni Poulou were now paired with bassist Steve Trafford and the Are You Are Missing Winner? era’s drummer Spencer Birtwistle. By design or necessity, Smith assembled the vast pulverising krautobilly riff blocks of Pacifying Joint, What About Us, Assume, Bo Demmick, Youwanner and Clasp Hands in such sturdy dimensions that the exact location of his presence in a song was irrelevant. The album gave us both the mighty throb of Blindness, one of the great doom-funk Fall workouts, and the surprisingly plangent tones of Pritchard’s The Early Days Of Channel Fuhrer and Trafford’s Midnight In Aspen. But somehow, many of Fall Heads Roll’s key tracks rocked inexplicably harder in non-album incarnations, Blindness’ Peel session take remaining the definitive reading.
Typically, the reliable and pliant line up that produced Fall Heads Roll folded somewhere in Phoenix Arizona on the 7th of May the following year, six months after the album’s release. Less than 48 hours later Smith and Poulou were on-stage in San Diego with a new American Fall, culled from the LA psychedelic band Darker My Love. A revealing bootleg shows them almost pulling off a set of songs they’d presumably learned from the records in a day while Mr and Mrs Smith drove West towards them, and an uncertain future.
Reformation Post TLC
12/2/07 on Slogan Records, a label of Sanctuary Records Group, CD: SLOCD007; and LP: SLODV007 (2 LPs)
Last Night At The Palais (1st April 2007)
24/8/ 09, Sanctuary CD & DVD: 2713432
Sometimes billed as “Mark E Smith and his American Fall”, Smith and Poulou and their swiftly hired hands pulled off another great album in the shape of Reformation Post TLC, repurposing some songs the line-up Smith abandoned in Arizona had already made studio stabs at, any writing credits erased. Smith chooses to credit himself with the composition of the opening track Over! Over!, which must be a surprise to the members of The United States Of America, who wrote and recorded exactly the same track in 1968 under the title Coming Down. But this quibble aside Fall Sound, Systematic Abuse and Reformation (essentially Can’s Mother Sky retooled) find the fluid and road-worn Americans concocting more of the flexible repetitive drone-grooves now best suited to Smith’s wayward wordplay.
As usual, these tracks flourished live in a way the studio never captured, but the playful Insult Song shows how happy Smith was with his American indie apprentices. The US release featured longer versions of two tracks, and the subsequent live album, from the final night of the Hammersmith Palais, saw a hybrid British-American Fall deliver superb selections mainly from the last two albums. And then the Americans were gone. With their beards.
Imperial Wax Solvent
28/4/08 Sanctuary CD: 1765729; and LP: 1766796
Here, Smith stabilized a core quintet of new boys Peter Greenway on guitar, Keiron Melling on drums, and Dave Spurr on bass, with Poulou still on keyboards, which was to remain more or less constant until his death. It’s also on Imperial Wax Solvent that Smith chose most obviously to escape from the prison of perceptions of himself as post-punk’s premiere poet, and instead pursue a kind of studied incoherence. Smith’s new vocal range of visceral animal growling could descend into any section of a song at will, and defied the analysis of the English Literature graduates and beard-kneading academics running Fall lyric websites. The eleven minute 5O Year Old Man is a manifesto for the next decade, a rockabilly rumble with minimalist trance-like repetition, spiked by a country and western breakdown midsection, that snarls satirical assertions of impotent power in a barely understood gurgle.
Your Future Our Clutter
26/04/10 Domino CD: WIGCD245; and LP: WIGLP245 (2 LPs)
Domino cracked the whip and The Fall danced, delivering a career high point, 32 years in, and one which makes a compelling case for the Greenway/Spurr/Poulou/Melling incarnation as being as adept at channeling the indefinable spirit of The Fall as the Hanley/Scanlon/Brix combos always held in nostalgic fondness. Smith’s daring and suicidal vocal leap up the octave on OFYC Showcase is one of the great Fall moments, and there’s not a duff track here on an album characterized by bulldozer brutal repeated riffs, spindly surf lead lines, Poulou’s perfectly pitched keyboard embellishments, and twangy fifties boogie. It closes with the whispered threat, “You don’t deserve rock and roll.”
14/11/11 Cherry Red CD: CDBRED500; and LP: BRED500
Smith often followed a successful and coherent album with a deliberate attempt to sabotage any developing identity, but Ersatz GB continues YFOC’s quest to combine everything he appeared to love about post-war popular music in one epochal package. Cosmos 7 is cosmic greaser rock and roll; Taking Off is bass heavy space rock; Nate Will Not Return’s stuttering post punk pogos on the spot for six minutes; Greenway provides a dense thicket of hard rock within which Smith growls his guitarist’s name; Happi Song is a sublime moment of psychedelic trance-pop voiced by Poulou; Monocard showcases eight minutes of Smith’s evolving ruined throat vocal range. It’s another great album that’s easy to love.
13/5/13 Cherry Red CD: CDBRED580; and LP: BRED580
9/12/13 Cherry Red CD: CDMRED600; and 10″: BREDEP600
Live Uurop VIII-X11 Places In Sun & Winter Son
27/10/14 , Cherry Red CD: CDBRED599; and double LP: BRED599
Live In Clitheroe (25th April 2013)
22/4/17 Ozit – Morpheus Records LP: OZITDANLP 8029
Re-Mit was studio album number thirty and The Fall showed no sign of slowing. Check Smith’s explosive gutteral land grab for the listener’s attention on the highly combustible wig-out of Sir William Wray, his mastery of rock’s essential inarticulacy undimmed. We kept writing about Smith as a wordsmith. But I think he knew that rock and roll was also about the sheer power of precision-bombed consonants and vowels. Smith’s “ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba”s could say as much as his finest Philip Dick-induced poetry.
Swapping in a few songs from the subs’ bench of the subsequent Remainderer EP, such as the barked swagger of the title track, the skeletal I Wanna Be Your Dog steal of Rememberance R, or Smith and Puolou’s Lee And Nancy in Hell duet-duel Touchy Pad, would have elevated Re-Mit, the least convincing release of the group’s majestic last decade, into the premier league of final Fall albums.
Live Uurop, actually recorded between 2008 and 2013, finds the consolidated final Fall power through its current repertoire with both finesse and fury, a combination that had eluded many earlier incarnations, as Smith continues to mutate into a compelling and deliberate hybrid of street preacher and Oliver Reed’s wolfman. Live In Clitheroe is an uncharacteristically sensible reading of the current set, prefaced by a fascinatingly listless introduction from the promoter.
11/5/15 Cherry Red CD: CDBRED660; double LP: BRED580
Wise Ol’ Man
19/2/16 Cherry Red CD: CDMRED666; and 12″: BREDEP666
Fans should be pathetically grateful that Smith survived to complete this particular phase of The Fall, Sub-Lingual tablet being another superb release. Thirty eight years in, and two years from close of business, Auto-Chip 2014-2016 is one of the great Fall songs of all time, and a 20 minute reading from The Highbury Garage that’s surfaced on Youtube could be the group’s finest live moment. Greenway’s inter-tangled licks chime and slither over ten minutes of high-speed motorik kraut rhythm, making for an immersive experience which is simultaneously both mind-bendingly psychedelic and yet vein-poppingly invigorating. It breaks down. It builds again. And it never lets go. Thrusting relentlessly forward in the same furrow, Fibre Book Troll comes a close second. The accompanying Wise Ol’ Man ep features another lengthy disruption, All Leave Cancelled, alongside stray remixes and live tracks.
New Facts Emerge
28/7/17 Cherry Red CD: CDBRED706; 2×10″ LP: BRED706
On The Fall’s final lp, sadly without Poulou on side, Smith took the persona of the incoherent animal-shaman he’d been perfecting for the last decade to a whole new level of total theatre. On Fol de Rol, Greenway’s perfectly considered keening guitars swoop over clattering rhythms around Smith’s ravaged roars. Who is he on Couples Vs Jobless Mid 30s? Some haunted seer, possessed by all-knowing goblin spirits, that torment and taunt you from an indeterminate point way back in the mix. The opening of the Shakin’ Stevens like Second House Now, where Smith’s ‘ba ba ba’s initially defy the song’s rhythm and then meet it head on, is a masterpiece of comic timing. The joyful and perfunctory loudhailer gobbledygook of O! Zzztrrk Man is, like so much of The Fall at their best, joyously, absurdly, laugh-out loud funny. Gibbus Gibson, interpreted by some as a comment on the moon-faced appearance Smith’s medical problems gave him, is a spritely rock and roll number that could have appeared on a Seventies Fall b-side, while Groundsboy too has something of that ‘country and northern’ swing of the same era.
And how fitting that the last song The Fall released in Smith’s lifetime, Nine Out Of Ten, a final respite to critics he felt had underrated his group, is an extended unaccompanied ghost guitar vamp from which Smith is absent for the last six minutes, having finally walked, head held high, out of his own movie.
The run of nine studio albums from 2003’s The Real New Fall LP, Formerly Country On The Click to 2017’s New Facts Emerge is a sequence of great recordings any band, at any time in their career, would have been proud of. And the fact that it came at a point where most would just cash in credit earned on former glories makes it even more remarkable. Listeners still longing for the anti-pop hits of the Late Eighties-Early Nineties, or the integrated electronic sheen of the Phonogram era were to be perpetually disappointed. Instead, from 2005’s Fall Heads Roll onwards The Fall were, brilliantly and permanently, in the same realm of cosmic garage rock minimalism that spawned the stand out epics of the early eighties glory years; I’m Into CB, Deer Park, And This Day, Garden, Smile and Cruisers’ Creek.
But Smith had shed the burden of being the clipped and articulate wordsmith in chief to become instead a kind of abstract presence, haunting his own work and with growls and slurs and yammerings and hammerings that reaffirm rock and roll’s primal power to bypass sense. It was still music your dad would hate, even if you were now your dad.
The Fall toured relentlessly until the end and the albums rolled out with rigorous regularity. The last decade saw a permanent unit grow in confidence and audacity. Far from being a decline, the last ten years in particular of the group’s 21st century career could be argued to represent the final fulfillment of whatever the fuck it was The Fall was supposed to be all along. We were privileged to have been around to witness it. What really went on there? Well, as of now, we’ll only ever have these extracts.
Stewart Lee, writer/clown