In what must have been September 1985 (when I was 13) I started seeing the above image on posters around my hometown of Sheffield. I wasn’t clear if it was advertising music or politics. Subsequently I started reading the music press, in which Mark E. Smith’s ensemble were ever-present. For around seven years, from 1987 (when they had their first Top 40 single) to 1993 (when they had a Top Ten album), you could legitimitely call him a pop star.
I tried hard with The Fall. At one point I ‘owned’ (what a quaint concept!) all of the albums from ‘Extricate’ to ‘Middle Class Revolt’, but I couldn’t call myself a fan. His manner on and off record was wilfully obtuse, his public statements drunk and ornery, his lyrics oblique and the music mostly discordant. There was the occasional glimpse of a more lilting and reflective side to their work which appealed to me, but overall the cut-up-William Burroughs/indied-up-Captain Beefheart mixup left me, if not cold, then certainly not warm enough to qualify as a Proper Fall Fan.
At the same time, I’ve always had a sneaking regard for real fans of the group. It seemed like a genuine sub-culture. The congregation at Fall gigs (I must have seen them three or four times) shows a stubborn attachment to something difficult-to-like that I find endearing and admirable. It seemed like a really cool club to belong to and I kind of wished I’d shown more curiosity back in 1985, when I was a disaffected schoolchild looking for an identity. Maybe if I’d gone for ‘Bend Sinister’ instead of ‘Please’ or ‘The Frenz Experiment’ instead of ‘Bobby Brown: The Remixes’ I would have gone on to become cool.
It’s a cliché whose truth I’ve recently had occasion to observe that all parents want their (now our) children to experience what we never could. In relation to The Fall I left it too late. I’d like to give my own daughter the chance to rectify that mistake on my behalf.
So far, although she’s been responding with animation to the music that I’ve exposed her to, it’s mostly been pretty accesible stuff like Prefab Sprout and Belle & Sebastian. Nursery rhyme pop, if you like. Twee stuff. (Or, given that we’re in 2017, snowflake music.) Now she’s two months old I think it’s time for her to start branching out. (Plus I think that lots of their songs are genuinely great, whether or not that’s deliberately the case I’m never quite sure.)
For my purposes I’ve chosen a series of tracks which I personally love (or at least don’t mind) and have chosen a time when her mum is out to avoid any unnecessary arguments about inappropriate childrearing techniques. I have provided a Spotify playlist should you wish to repeat the experiment with your infant – in the case of emergencies, go to track 12.
- ‘Totally Wired’. This is one of the group’s early singles, very much a post-punk product with jagged edges. I was a bit late for post-punk, being born in 1972, but I did grow up listening to the John Peel Show, so the abrasiveness of the music is something I appreciate. To say that my daughter would struggle to tell the difference between Devo, Magazine and Wire is no exaggeration, because she was born in January 2017. The phrase ‘it’s like punk never happened’ was rarely better employed. Hence she struggles to get past this first hurdle. Although she neither starts screaming or falls asleep, she does start moving her head in a slightly disturbingly frenetic manner, one which suggests the grating guitar is getting on her incipient nerves. We have to abandon the attempt after one minute and eleven seconds in case her head falls off and we end up on the front of Woman’s Weekly looking sorrowful and accompanied by the headline ‘TOTALLY WIRED: I lost my baby at two months because I was writing a tongue-in-cheek online thing about The Fall’.
- ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ is (according to those who know about these things) one of the Fall’s very greatest 45 minutes*. ‘The Classical’ is tuneful and the baby perks up (she’s in a jolly mood due to a recent infusion of milky-wilky). Unfortunately as soon as the second track (‘And the day’**) starts she goes puce and makes it clear why Fisher Price never use The Fall to soundtrack their products. There’s too much going on and from a newborn perspective it’s an audio nightmare. I quickly change to ‘Billy’ by Prefab Sprout, which she’s heard around 300 times, and once I’ve taken advantage of a pause for breath to angle her miniscule ear towards the speaker she stops bawling immediately. Mark E. Smith 0, Paddy McAloon 1.
- ‘Victoria’. This feels like a bit like cheating because it’s a straightforward version of a Kinks song which The Fall covered in 1987, and which gave them a top 30 hit. It’s a cheerful if jingoistic romp and goes down extremely well with the baby, who takes very kindly to being bobbed around the living room in a lively BUT NOT IN ANY WAY DANGEROUS manner.
- ‘Edinburgh Man’. Always a personal favourite, I’m hoping that this single-handedly turn her into a lifelong fan. She looks quite wistful, like she’s reminiscing about long-ago visits to the festival in Auld Reekie. Whatever she is thinking, it’s probably not that, but I add this to the mental list of songs to play when we need her to calm down a bit. Thanks, Mark.
- ‘Bill is Dead’. I wonder what Mark E. Smith was like as a baby. Mine falls asleep immediately both times I play this and misses the epically tender bit at the end. One day if she ever hears the Happy Mondays she might notice that this sounds a bit like them slowed down.
- ‘The Mixer’. This is an extremely accessible and fun conventional pop song. They’re aren’t any Fall songs which sound like The London Boys, but this one has got handclaps on it. My high hopes are dashed, however, because my wife reminds me that it’s bath time and after that she (the baby) falls fast asleep for seven hours. I’m feeling pretty knackered myself so I’m not about to wake her up so I can play her ‘The Mixer’ by The Fall.
- ‘Free Range’. Released in 1992, this seems to be about the European Union in the year when borders opened up. I feel pretty sure that given his relentlessly chippy persona Mark E. Smith would turn out to be in favour of Brexit, but as it happens he seems to have been uncharisterically silent on the topic, although he did keep his end up by saying some quite twatty things about refugees last year. Sadly I don’t remember anything the baby did when this was on, but she did seem to quite like ‘Birmingham School of Business School’ from the same album, maybe because for the first time she was able to relate to the lyrics, as the opening lines go ‘wa wa waa wa wa waa wa wa wa wa wa’. Maybe it was one of the very first songs that Mark E. Smith wrote.
- ‘Reformation’. One of the few Fall songs from the last twenty years that I know and like. A curious thing about The Fall is that although the singer doesn’t seem to do much apart from write lyrics, drink alcohol and periodically sack the other members of the band, they do maintain a distinctive but varied sound. This one is almost metallish in its ferocity, so I play it quite quietly in order to avoid any disputes of the aforementioned variety. If you didn’t know that newborn babies could be nonplussed, you do now.
- ‘Facebook Troll’***. In doing ‘research’ for this piece the title of this one caught my eye. It’s actually two songs because it’s medleyed with one called ‘No Xmas for John Quay’. I can’t make head or tail of the lyrics and the music is shit. Maybe when she’s a bit older my daughter will be able to explain to me what it means. For the time being she stares at one of the speakers for a bit in a way that suggests her nappy needs changing.
The result, then: Inconclusive. To close, just in case my daughter should ever come to read this, I’d like to paraphrase the ending of ‘London Fields’ by Martin Amis (someone who’s been looking almost as decrepid as Mark E. Smith himself): “So if you ever heard something, when you weren’t even two months old, like catchy-but-dissonant post-punk music, a bit like the Stooges but fronted by a verbally incontinent and cantankerous Mancunian drunkenly shouting half-remembered chunks of HP Lovecraft short stories mixed with items from his shopping list, it was The Fall. It was The Fall“.
* ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ is actually 60 minutes long.
** Spotify happened to be on shuffle.
*** Spotify gets the title wrong, it’s actually called ‘Fibre Book Troll’.
Thank you to members of the excellent Fall online forum at http://z1.invisionfree.com/thefall/index.php?showforum=7 for occasional fact- and spellchecking.
(Incidentally, the Bobby Brown album I referred to wasn’t actually called ‘Bobby Brown: The Remixes’ but ‘Dance!…Ya know it!’.
That last correction did not come from the Fall online forum.)