It was most interesting when Mark E. Smith, during a recent newspaper interview, mentioned that author William S. Burroughs’ experimental album Nothing Here Now But the Recordings was a major influence on his own art. Released in 1981 on London’s Industrial Records label, it was made up of audio tape experiments by Burroughs from 1959 to 1965, an amazing, cacophonous, and generally creepy 45-minute pastiche of readings and ambient street sounds. Smith, the founder and longtime mastermind behind The Fall, the greatest, most resilient band from the post punk era of the late 1970s, could definitely relate to Burroughs’ lo-fi audio projects, as that same cut-up method, both lyrically and sonically, has been a major part of The Fall’s sound for decades. Not only that, but Smith’s own savage wit in his lyrics echo the same pitch black humor found in Burroughs’ own prose, and when you look at Mr. Smith now, you see a 47-year-old man who’s developing a wrinkled, wizened, Burroughsian visage of his own, as the man now looks much older than his actual age indicates.
The Fall has such a small, yet highly devoted following, that if you asked any Fall fan what their favorite song is, or what album is the best place for beginners to start, you’d get a different answer every time. The fact that The Fall has released close to 50 singles, 25 studio albums, and dozens and dozens of live albums and compilations since 1977, has made The Fall one of the most difficult bands for anyone to get into. In the past, if you didn’t know a Fall fan, but still wanted to learn more about them, you had an extremely daunting task ahead of you, as you were left wondering, “Where do I begin?” Well, help has finally arrived, as Beggars Banquet has, at long last, assembled the very first career-spanning Fall anthology. Facetiously titled 50,000 Fans Can’t Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats, as both an ironic nod to the band’s cult following and a play on the legendary Elvis Presley album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, with multiple images of a scruffy Smith replacing the King in his garish gold lame suit, it’s just what many curious newbies need, as every phase of Mark E. Smith’s long career is documented. Neatly laid out on chronological fashion, the 39 tracks in question make up one of the finest best-of compilations that we have seen in years.
Fall fans will always bicker about what was not included on this album (I can hear the complaints about the omission of “I Am Damo Suzuki” right now), but at least the majority of the band’s classic songs are present. You’ve got the dark, rockabilly-driven “Fiery Jack”, the caffeinated intensity of “Totally Wired”, and Hex Enduction Hour‘s fantastic “The Classical”, a spectacular, double drum-propelled jam inspired by both the Velvet Underground and Can, two other major influences on Smith’s compositions. Many people regard the period where Smith’s influential wife Brix joined the band as a guitarist, from 1983 to 1989, as the band’s finest hour, as The Fall came as close as they’d ever get to a commercial sound. The upbeat, shuffling “Kicker Conspiracy” teeters for four minutes, but never falls apart, and “C.R.E.E.P.” is insanely catchy, thanks to Brix’s backing vocal melody, and a synth melody that’s actually gorgeous. “Cruiser’s Creek”, from 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace is one of the band’s finest moments, as they launch into all-out garage rock, while the anthemic “Hit the North” sounds like a twisted take on Motown, with its loud blasts of horns, and the 1988 cover of The Kinks’ “Victoria” is endearing, thanks to the band’s snappy performance, and Smith’s singing (yes, singing).
What’s really driven home when you hear this double CD is just how great a lyricist the curmudgeonly Mr. Smith really is, as the music of The Fall always centers around the distinctive voice of Smith, whose style is closer to spoken word than singing, as he snarls, drawls, and often slurs his way through songs with that Mancunian accent of his, always punctuating each line with an “ah” for good measure. The early B-side “Repetition” has Smith immediately establishing himself as a major lyrical talent, as he skewers both pop music and modern culture, sneering, “We’ve repetition in the music/And we’re never going to lose it… This is the three R’s: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition-ah.” The brilliant “How I Wrote Elastic Man” is one of the greatest songs about writer’s block ever written (“I’m living a fake/ People say, ‘You are entitled to and great’/ But I haven’t wrote for 90 days”), and the savage “Hip Priest” tears at music critics with Smith’s razor-sharp verbal barbs. Smith is at his most dryly funny on the 1984 B-side “No Bulbs”, as he describes his fruitless search for a belt in his messy flat, winking, “The former tenant was anti-corporal-punish/ Meant well, but it came to nothing,” while 1991’s “Telephone Thing” has Smith combining paranoia with more sly humor: “How dare you assume I want to parlez-vous with you?/ Sorry to be so short with you/ But I’m tapped.”
A major flaw in retrospectives like this one is that there’s always too much focus on the band’s later years, but in The Fall’s case, they’ve been putting out such consistently good material for so long, as Smith’s constantly rotating backing band has now topped 30 members since 1977 (as I write this, word has it that two more members were fired). It’s a pleasure to see their post-1990 output so well-represented by such tracks as “High Tension Line”, the ska tinged “Why Are People Grudgeful?” (with the snarky wordplay of “different/death for rent”), “M5”, and the flat-out terrific “Touch Sensitive”. Even the band’s most recent album, 2003’s The Real New Fall LP, is represented, with the intense “Green Eyed Loco Man” closing out the set.
The compilation’s producers have done an outstanding job culling the best of The Fall’s extensive catalog, as no album is given preferential treatment, the CD offering a very well balanced overview of the band. Anyone who wants a good introduction to The Fall need not look any further; sure, not all essential songs are here (how can there be, with this band’s massive catalogue?), but 50,000 Fans Can’t Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats serves its purpose perfectly, inspiring the listeners to decide for themselves what album to try next. New fans might want to start catching up pretty quickly, though, because the inimitable Mark E. Smith is showing no signs of slowing down.