The Fallen: Life in and out of Britain’s Most Insane Group
Edinburgh and London: Canongate, 2009
In a slightly manic attempt to interview all the former members of The Fall, Dave Simpson of The Guardian spent from 2005-7 chasing around the country in his car, apparently risking his mental health as well as his marriage. He lists 50 such people and a few others who managed to evade him, including the almost legendary drummer Karl Burns (I was at the Top Rank in Reading when the band, supported by The Birthday Party and an outfit from Iceland whose name escapes me, were at the beginning of the double drums line-up). It seems to be a somewhat quixotic thing to do: the later Mark E. Smith, vocal vocalist until his recently untimely death, once claimed, ‘if it’s me and yer grannie on bongos, it’s The Fall.’ He certainly went through periods of treating band members as the musical equivalent of factory hands, to be hired and dismissed as and when the need arose. His arbitrary decisions as to who was to be accorded credit for writing songs is another sign of the tyrannical reign of a man who would claim credit for himself while being unable to play a single note on any instrument (apart from the toy violin used as the basis for ‘Who Makes the Nazis?’). The banfd itself was kept on a relentless schedule of touring and recording, both of which could be derailed by Smith himself as his behaviour became more erratic and his belief in his own superior understanding of music led to him throwing out weeks of detailed recording work in order to use low-fi demo tracks instead, in the same way he would fiddle with the amplifiers and equipment during live gigs. Does it matter who was involved along the way?
Of course it matters. Anyone who has been enchanted with the work of The fall in any of their various manifestations will, surely, want to know more about what it was like to be part of the group, how the music was made, what were the relationships between the various members and so forth. To a considerable extent, Simson has achieved this, despite the fact that the great range of people involved means that none of them will be dealt with at any length and, also, despite the fact that (for the readers, at least) the most important and interesting aspect of their lives was their relationship with a central figure who is effectively absent from the action. Fall fans will know the intensity of the early music, which brightened with the arrival of Brix Smith when the group achieved a modicum of mainstream success, although nearly always with the cover songs they disdained in the early years. After their divorce, the band changed direction and Smith’s drinking, always extensive, reached a new level as the appetite for whisky which flowered during his sojourn in Edinburgh, took a firmer grip. Is this what really happened? “From the outside, with Brix gone and The Fall making more and more non-commercial music once again, it seemed as if Smith had almost deliberately sabotaged his own success, as if he’d started to fear that too much was beyond his control, or that existing in the ultra-mainstream wasn’t very Fall … live reviews of the period comment less humourously on Smith’s condition, noting how he was suddenly looking aged and was often visibly drunk while performing (pp.193-5).” Smith, of course, passed up on the opportunity to provide real context on this period in his autobiography, Renegade, which is often hilarious and scabrous but not always long on self-awareness.
So much for what The Fallen is not; what is it? It is as good an exploration of what it was like to be in The Fall as might be wished. Most commonly, the experience is likened to a drink and drug-heavy cult. “Cults dictate what members wear and where they will sleep (including sleep deprivation techniques). From what I’ve heard so far of The Fall, they don’t sleep very much and Fall musicians almost universally have short hair and basic, functional clothing (p.166).” Most members of the Fallen also retain a devotion to the cult leader that seems difficult to explain, not least by Brix herself, whom he seems to have treated very badly. She speaks of him as a poet and, less persuasively, of having psychic powers such as precognition, while also being a challenging colleague: “She claims he was ‘never, ever sober. He was irrational and scary and almost impossible to work with. When you’re young you can metabolise it and keep [the lifestyle] under control, but it got out of hand (p.154).’” She herself managed to escape and recreate herself, first with the help of punk violin star Nigel Kennedy and then with her third husband and reinvention as a fashion star and pundit.
Others have retained a measure of their younger selves, despite apparent reinvention. An important early figure was Kay Carroll, who helped forge the dictatorial nature of being part of the band:
“I track down Kay Carroll – now married and surnamed Bateman – to Portland. Oregon, where she’s working as a doctor’s assistant. Even with several thousand miles’ distance, I get an immediate sense of the character who so ‘terrified’ the Hanleys [i.e. bassist Steve and drummer Paul] when she emails to ask if I’m ‘a stalker.’ Credentials suitably established, she breaks several decades of near silence to mail me an hour of taped Mancunian vitriol (p.75).”
These episodes are a delight and fascinating in what they reveal about the music and they ways the songs were written and played. Now that the band no longer exists (although it is rumoured that there is one more LP to be released and no doubt previously unreleased and perhaps not very good footage is yet to be discovered), it seems to be a suitable moment at which to celebrate its achievements. This is a book that will help with that.