Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#5]

The Fall are a post-punk institution: an avant-garde band of shambolic renegades controlled and manipulated by enigmatic Mancunian mastermind Mark E. Smith. Their music is dissonant, unpleasant, thunderous, venomous, cerebral, and remarkably inventive. Smith is widely recognised as being one of the most original writers in the history of rock music.

Smith presaged the legion of cryptic alt-rock wordsmiths that followed in the ‘90s and ‘00s, his influence imprinted upon the songs of Pavement, Guided By Voices, Half Man Half Biscuit and Joanna Newsom. The influence their music has had on the countless "indie" groups formed since the band’s inception in 1977 is incalculable.

The Fall have based their career around a powerful form of awkward and inscrutable cacophony, taking an anti-culture, anti-counterculture stance. The Fall dislike both sides of the cultural fence, defining themselves as themselves: impenetrable, uniquely The Fall.

To me, there have been few bands who can write songs as strange, original, breathtaking and addictive as The Fall. And so, with that preamble, we get to the topic of Dave Simpson’s fantastic book, The Fallen. Dave is your average Fall obsessive: the sort of man who knows the set-list from a 1983 gig in Oslo, or what colour shirt the fifth drummer was wearing at a gig in Brixton 1986. Fairly common behaviour among fans of the definitive cult band.

He’s also a reputable music journalist for the Guardian, but for the purposes of the book, he’s a man on a mission: to track down everyone who was ever in the Fall. The band has a high turnover rate of members to keep the music fresh, you see, and Mark E. Smith (MES) notoriously flings people out the band whenever he feels like it. The premise of Simpson's book is, essentially, an exercise in decrypting the psyche of MES, exploring the reasons why this speed-abusing, alcoholic, foul-mouthed lout is able to keep producing such staggering work.

We meet long-suffering members of the band who discuss the wall of disdain erected between MES and his musicians, the power games he uses to manipulate guitarists into producing such unique sounds, and his numerous public humiliations. Smith’s idol is clearly
Captain Beefheart, from whom he takes the notion that graft, punishing labour, and making musicians uncomfortable yields the greatest results. Simpson expounds on these theories, painting MES as a cult-leader, bully, and bumbling genius. All three are equally valid.

Simpson’s book is a treat for the Fall fans who are familiar with the prominent band members and their contributions to the music. The story of the band is such a whirlwind of hilarious anecdotes, bust-ups and bizarreness, that Simpson rightly keeps a journalistic distance and crafts these tales without too much mock-incredulity. He also introduces an appropriate warning against the Curse of the Fall: those who come into close contact with the band are destined to fall spectacularly from grace.

I think of Fall in terms of the Victorian artists – suffering for their work, spending most of their lives in poverty, being underappreciated in their lifetime. Simpson compares MES to a Victorian taskmaster, another apt image. MES is certainly an unpleasant and bellicose individual – this is quite obvious – though he wields a strange magnetism. We listeners are his battered wives, refusing to let go of our tyrannous love.

The nagging question, then: does this book appeal to non-Fall fans? Yes. There are no bands in existence as interesting and worthy of your attention as The Fall. Rock books are usually fawning tales of millionaires having fun at the expense of their fans. This is the anti-rock book. It’s an avant-garde statement in its own right. Simpson, despite coming from a contrasting world to MES, would have made a great addition to the Fall.

In fact, as the book ends, he too joins the ranks of the Fallen. No spoilers, but I hope the guy’s OK.

We end, appropriately, with a song. This is the slack-snappingly magnificent Eat Y’Self Fitter:

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