The Fall: Singles 1978 – 2016 (album review)

Does the world really need another Fall anthology? Yes, absolutely, and this is it.

Singles 1978 - 2016
The Fall
Cherry Red
1 Dec 2017

In his comprehensive exploration of post-punk, Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds sums up the Fall’s sound as “Drug music, mostly, but not blissed-out pastoralist or cosmic buffoonery. Instead, the Fall trances out to the primal monotony of Can, the methedrine-scorched white noise of the Velvet Underground, and 1960s ‘punkdadelic’ bands like the Seeds. “He’s speaking primarily of the first wave of Mark E Smith’s group that produced such classics as “How I Wrote Plastic Man”, “Totally Wired”, “Rowche Rumble”, their manic cover of “Mr. Pharmacist”, and the band’s statement of purpose, “Repetition”. It’s an apt description of their whole, though, as the band morphed through its dozens of lineups over the years, the only constants being Smith and his core philosophy.

Smith has stuck to that core philosophy of repetition and dissonance in such a way that when one hears a Fall song, it’s instantly identifiable as such, but not in the same way of bands like AC/DC and the Ramones. Where those bands reveled in finding variety in sonic sameness, Smith’s Fall are more adventurous. What one chooses to repeat, after all, can always be something different. Sure, Smith’s nasal, speak-singing is instantly identifiable, but even the instrumental remixes found among the B-sides are immediately associable. The consistent use of bass as a lead instrument, the always off-kilter keyboard melodies, the oft-times neutered guitar that when let off the leash growls all the more violently: these, too, are definitive characteristics of the Fall sound.The collective force is hypnotic and seductive, angry yet beautiful, sonically violent but physically transcendent.

Over the years, Smith has been many things to many people, but whatever the label bestowed, be it genius, ogre, provocateur, etc., he is above all one of us, and this is, perhaps, his greatest value and greatest gift. Mark E Smith is not cut from the cloth of the standard pop star. He is not to the manor born with an art hobby that easily translated into a career, nor is he a middle class art school grad (or dropout). He’s a standard, working class bloke who decided that being a standard, working class bloke was a load of shit and who has, for 40-odd years, demanded to be heard.

Mark E Smith is the perpetual outsider who refused to be overlooked and who demanded entry to the inside even while spitting equally on everything he’s found or left behind. Dissatisfied with our disinfected world, he is equally critical of master or plebeian, despising what he sees as the corporate inhumanity of the ruling upper classes, the fawning conformity of the middle class, and the willful ignorance of the working class. Smith, the former shipping clerk now arguably a voice of his generation, stands alone in bold proclamation of the assurance that anyone is capable of doing what he has done, yet he stands pretty much alone in having done it.

He’s had his champions and his longtime fans, but feels he owes no one anything. When John Peel died it made sense to seek out Smith for insight and recollection since there was no performer for whom Peel was a more passionate, fan boy advocate for than the Fall. But Smith’s dispassionate response disappointed and offended many for its perceived lack of appreciation for all Peel had done. Yet, for Smith, the working class Mancunian, his reaction was completely in keeping with his upbringing and perspective. Peel wasn’t a friend; he was a guy that was doing his job and, from Smith’s perspective, doing it well since he had the taste and vision to appreciate the Fall’s work.

On the subject of doing things well, Cherry Red’s Singles 1978 – 2016 offers possibly the best-yet anthologized introduction to the Fall’s extensive and explosive canon of work. Available as a three-CD collection of “A Sides” or in a Deluxe edition featuring four additional CDs of “B Sides” it’s an amazing listen from start to finish. There’s always going to be some quibbling over exclusions (Where’s “Big New Prinz” or “Eat Yerself Fitter”?), but these collections do a valuable service to anyone curious to investigate this important band but intimidated by the sheer volume of available product.Not to mention, of course, the roughly 30 or more collectives of musicians joining Smith in recording under the name over the years.

The set is attractively packaged and, if lacking in the typical scholarship of box sets (historical/appreciative essays, archival photos, and the like), it nonetheless is organized according to an informative curatorial perspective. The “A Sides” booklet reproduces the front face of every single while listing date of release and identifying all participating musicians. The tracks are organized chronologically and identified by year on the disc cases as well. It’s a slim and efficient package that places emphasis on the songs themselves.

As an album band, the Fall has had its ups and downs, but as a singles band they were consistently strong, and it shows here. All the classics from their beginnings to their late ’80s commercial peak are here, and the later-era band is equally well represented by anthemic cuts like “Touch Sensitive” and “Theme From Sparta F.C. #2”. Meanwhile the “B Sides” collection features favorites like “No Bulbs”, “God Box”, one their most sinister sounding songs, and their expertly excavated Gene Vincent cover of “Rollin’ Dany”. In all, it’s a reminder of Smith’s singular artistic vision.

There are few artists in the history of rock and roll who have persisted as long, as adventurously, and who have been as consistently captivating (if not always great) as Mark E Smith. Certainly, no solo Beatle matches his oeuvre. This anthology demonstrates the breadth of Smith’s accomplishments spanning five decades.