The Big Midweek: Life inside The Fall
Steve Hanley and Olivia Piekarski
Pontefract: Route, 201?
I have been listening to The Fall, off and on, for more than 40 years and I own dozens of their LPs. From the very beginning (Dragnet was the first LP I bought and it remains probably my favourite, perhaps in part for that reason), a Fall record meant two principal things, the occasionally manic mysterious ranting from frontperson Mark E. Smith and the bass playing of Steve Hanley. Around these two central characters, a variety of others floated around, making more or less of a contribution on the way – the group has always had a constantly rotating membership, owing in no small measure to the abusive and exploitative Smith, as it has now emerged. Hanley left the group during one of the periods when I was not listening much to music and, as I have picked things up again, I have been acquiring albums not necessarily in chronological order. Although some of the new ones are OK, they really cannot compete with earlier work – I know that is always dispiriting to read and it may be influenced by nostalgia and hatred and fear of all change (I don’t like the new pound coin) but I think it may be because, as I have learned from this remarkable account of life as a member of the band, the rapid decline of MES. Where once his lyrics were dense, difficult to understand and often challenging, over time they have tended to become abusive and intolerant and his penchant, on stage, of turning off the amplifiers of band members who have been irritating him indicates a measure of contempt not just for the audience but for the music itself. As I write this, news came through earlier today that a series of shows in America has been rescheduled as Smith has been hospitalised and cannot possibly travel anywhere. Given the nature of his lifestyle over an extended period of time, it would not be surprising if he fails to make old bones.
In this memoir, Hanley and co-author Olivia Piekarski describe the bass-player’s life with The Fall in all of its plethora of emotions, ranging from the exhilaration of actually playing on stage to the boredom of travelling on tour and taking in, along the way, celebrations of friendship and creativity to the bitterness of being betrayed. Here he is on life while gigging:
“We’ll pack up after a gig, drive all night and most of the day, get to the next venue, unpack, set up, play and repeat the whole process, snatching the odd hour or so of sleep on the way to the next place. I’ll nod off looking at the back of [drummer] Karl’s head and get jolted awake by a pothole minutes or hours later, still looking at the back of Karl’s head (p.108).”
However, “These are the places you learn your craft. How to make one riff sound good for a quarter of an hour.”
For extended perods, the band is poor and Hanley is obliged to make ends meet by doing shifts in his dad’s pie shop and having to put up with abuse about how he was going to be a legendary rock star from various family members who, being Irish, are very familiar with the profanely sarcastic mode of discourse. When brushes with good fortune do occasionally arrive (often with the assistance and support of the late, great John Peel), they are quickly shunned, frequently through Smith’s wilful refusal to make the music as good as it could be – it is evident throughout the book that he has little interest in the music itself. After all, he once infamously declared that ‘if it’s me and your granny on bongos, then it’s The Fall.’
Further, when good times beckon, the spoils are not equitably distributed. Under the influence of a good woman (his quondam wife Brix), Smith splashes out after a tour of the USA and subsequent interest from a record company:
“The deal goes through and it’s good enough for Mark to buy a BMW, only Brix has to drive it because he doesn’t like driving. He is never sober enough for a start, plus he’s not into the idea of authorities like the DVLA knowing who he is and where he lives (p.196).”
This introduces another of the themes constantly running through the book: the drinking. Smith is drunk at the beginning of the book and remains so for the next 440 pages. There are some drugs but it is the drink that really matters as it both keeps people going through difficult conditions and, also, inspires the acts of lunacy and destructiveness which keeps the band from achieving what it might have done. Hanley himself admits to a problem with it but this, it seems, is bound up with the experience of creating and performing music. For people who have not ever seen The Fall play live, there is not much of a performative element to any particular gig, unless it is Smith and his increasing desire to destroy the sound balance or provoke a fight with a disaffected band member. Instead, it is all about the rhythm and the experience.
Fair-minded and likeable throughout, Handley is a friendly and credible narrator and it comes as quite a shock finally to reach the inevitable ending: “… one thing’s certain, I’m never going to play bass with The Fall again (p.440).”
John Walsh, Shinawatra University