The frightening, wonderful world of Mark E. Smith and the Fall offers decades of music and dozens of albums to sift through for the one that best represents what they are all about.
Anyone picking just one album to represent the Fall, those titans of repetition, repetition, repetition, is faced with a simple problem: there's too much music. In a way that almost no other artist or band has managed (Bob Dylan is the only comparable case I can think of), their output of original albums is too massive, too changeable-yet-the-same, and too decade-spanning, to make choosing just one album to represent them seem sane, let alone easy.
Coming out of greater Manchester in 1976 like a bad dream, the Fall … or rather, Mark E. Smith, the genius/drunk uncle/curmudgeon who is the band, and who famously told John Peel, "If it's me and your granny on bongos, then it's a Fall gig"… has persisted ever since. They've persisted in the face of astounding band-member attrition, drunkenness, multiple marriages and divorces for Smith (usually with collaborators), obscurity, minor chart success, and album after album after album after album…
Among casual music fans, like the patrons of the used CD store where I have worked, and where I recently re-listened to several Fall albums while trying to decide on one, they are mostly hated. I presume most of our readers have some idea why, but if not, just check out this video, of the Fall playing "Winter" in 1981, and remember that the store's clientele are mostly normal people, not the kind of hardened rock devotees for whom "Winter" is actually appealing. There are exceptions. Extricate (1990) proved strangely popular with female coworkers and patrons alike, including one very sweet old lady who wanted a copy for exercise music! 1992's Code: Selfish -- my personal, sentimental favorite -- had most people kind of grooving along. And as long as I skipped past the first few lines of "The Classical", Hex Enduction Hour (1982) always went over as a treat. But mostly you had people asking what that racket was and why we were listening to it, plus the odd older couple asking if our stereo was malfunctioning. I'm sure I should have been sneeringly contemptuous of them, but mostly I just felt awkward.
Any record which would sum up the Fall in total would have to be a little unpleasant, rumbling, and discordant; maybe even a little off-putting. I'm looking for the album that most defines the overall work of Mark E. Smith and the Fall, not necessarily their best. It's important to look not only to what they actually sound like (though that's important as well, of course), but to what the many, many people who have only read about them or have only had glancing acquaintance with them take them to sound like. Note that I am considering CD issues here, not necessarily the original vinyl releases. Many of the Fall's records made it to CD with many extra tracks appended, from singles and other releases, and often these were some of the best songs there. And at least in North America, these albums are virtually impossible to find any other way.
There are a few obvious choices I'd like to reject out of hand. The classic near-trilogy of Hex Enduction Hour, The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall (1984) and This Nation's Saving Grace (1985) is, to my mind, right out of contention. The Wonderful and Frightening World… has many great songs, but some of the best have Gavin Friday squawking away. As much as I love that, it would be like considering "Radio Song" as one of the definitive R.E.M. songs (only, you know, less shit). This Nation's Saving Grace comes the closest. The second side of it is certainly astounding, but ultimately the deranged crypto-funk of "Gut of the Quantifier" and the weirdly pastoral "Paintwork" drag things a bit out of the mainstream of that classic Fall sound.
Hex Enduction Hour, meanwhile, is… err… it's too good to represent the Fall's career. It is focused, it is coherent, it is probably their best Statement (of what, I do not know) as originally conceived. Yet being a Fall fan means, among other things, coming to terms with the way they produce plenty of total crap. Not that our candidate has to have bad songs, but Hex Enduction Hour lives on a plane above other Fall albums in a way that disqualifies it. If you asked me what Fall album to give a novice to make him, um, fall for the band, I might pick Hex Enduction Hour. But if you wanted me to grab one to prepare that novice for what being a Fall fan is actually like, in practice, I'd have to choose another one.
Instead I offer 1986's Bend Sinister, made just after This Nation's Saving Grace. It's one of my favorite Fall albums, admittedly, but mostly for how dank and grumbly its sound is. It has slow-building, abstract epics. "Gross Chapel – British Grenadiers" takes forever to get going, wonderfully, but once Smith starts drawling out "Sing ta ra ra ra ra ra / For the British Grenadiers", it has an oddly potent kick. It has old garage covers; "Mr. Pharmacist" is still a staple of the band's live set. It has pulp modernist weirdness; "R.O.D." opens up the album like a Lovecraft update of Yeats' rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem. It has crypto-social-political commentary ("US 80's-90's" and the snotty "Shoulder Pads" tracks) and a song in which Brix Smith repeatedly shouts out "Banana!" for emphasis (called "Dktr. Faustus," naturally). It has in-jokes. Did you know the "Bournemouth Runner" was a guy who took off with their banner at a show in Bournemouth? It has a sort of pop move in "Living Too Late," which would almost be conventionally structured if not for the bits where all of the music slides down a hill temporarily and Smith tries his falsetto. It ends with something called "Auto-Tech Pilot" that is pretty much the Fall by numbers.
Bend Sinister, from its black, photocopied-snapshot cover on down, is the only Fall album I've heard yet that hasn't surprised me at all, which makes it the perfect choice for the ur-Fall album. I heard it nearer to the beginning of my Fall fandom than to now, but everything I've heard since has put me off-guard at least once. Bend Sinister is the one time I got pretty much what I expected. I love it. I'd even rank it up there near the top of my Fall hierarchy. But it also does tend to encapsulate everything fans love about the band and others often find trying. Let someone who's never heard them hear "Riddler!" and see what they tell you. If a friend ever asked me for an introduction to the band and I didn't have time to make a mix, Bend Sinister is what I would hand over. It is the surest way for new listeners to tell if the Fall is going to be worth their effort. Which track on the album they like best would even give me pointers as to where in the Fall universe I should lead them next.