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The Masthead

When you hold something dear you protect it in the most peculiar ways. Like countless other students, I discovered The Fall via John Peel, and part of the vicelike grip they put on you, like a hot desk lamp in your face during an interrogation, was that your position as a listener was always in question. Circa Middle Class Revolt and “Hey! Student”, they satirised and dissected the kind of class distinctions of which I was just beginning to become aware, and was (to a fair degree) a beneficiary. They were plugging keyboards back into rock just when the instrument was the least fashionable, and there was inscrutable age in his voice; it was obvious their path was outside the usual narrative arc of commercial music.

At that time, inspired by the existentialist philosophy I was obsessed with back then, I was aggressively protective of the personal connections I had to music. Ergo, I avoided working my way through The Fall’s albums – precisely to avoid the received wisdom of what was good and what was not. And I deliberately avoided background reading on The Fall, because I didn’t want them to fade into the background. Instead, I read the Albert Camus book that inspired their name on a regular basis, in the manner of someone doing furtive reconnaissance of a patch of land they hope they might some day make their own. I was fascinated by what groups did right now, in real time, rather than the artificial space of the studio, so I listened to The Fall’s many Peel Sessions, especially the between-song chatter and tension, as well as Mark E Smith’s unexpected collisions with music outside his comfort zone, from Coldcut’s DJ culture to the lairy big beat of DOSE.

Taylor Parkes, writing in Melody Maker in the mid1990s, proposed the theory that Smith’s inimitable vocals were a way to try and push music beyond the artificial constraints of language. It was seductive, but seemed a little scientific for a group whose words had such a strong connection with pisstaking pub chit-chat. Also, it didn’t quite nail what I found so original in The Fall, which was how the space and connection between the members of the group felt different on every session and gig – as all bands do in real life – and this ambience yielded sounds even more enigmatic than ambient music itself. On “Fit And Working Again” I could hear a whole other whirl of people in motion underneath the band itself, and wondered how they got such guitar sounds as “Wings”.

My connections with The Fall have always been disconnected and hermetic, intentionally so. I remember “Leave The Capitol” – “It’s a hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square…” taking on a foreboding charge when I moved to London and had no sense of where I fitted in it. So when I read The Wire in the late 1990s, and The Fall and Smith were now discussed in forensic investigative detail, new worlds opened up: Arthur Machen, HP Lovecraft, Philip K Dick. I had never even sensed a connection between The Fall’s ramshackle rumble and the future worlds of Can. I realised that in my self-centredness I had missed much of what made The Fall, and a lot of the music of The Wire, tick – the upending of the hierarchies of high and low culture, the way a rock group might become a vehicle for ways that people could work together (and sometimes, as has been well-documented, forcibly control each other).

The Fall’s albums of the 2010s – Your Future Our Clutter, Ersatz GB, Re-Mit, Sub-Lingual Tablet and 2017’s New Facts Emerge – were thought to be a mess, which is why they will prove fascinating for many years to come. Smith never gave up the struggle to keep the voice active, to maintain that tension between him and the rest of the group, whether it took studio overdubs, monstrous gargles or recurring tics. Now, listening back to “Prole Art Threat”, its layers of meaning and compressed ideas are still unreadable, and after Smith’s death in January will forever remain so. “Get out the pink press threat file and brrrptzzap the subject… It’s a new prole art threat, so it’s recluse, safehouse time”. I don’t know whether I’m in the safehouse or out of it; or where this wonderful and frightening man is. Derek Walmsley


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Issue 409 March 2018 £4.95 ISSN 0952-0686

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