A sense of finality permeates Weather Report 2, the remarkable closing track on The Fall’s 2010 album, Your Future, Our Clutter. From within a disquieting sonic labyrinth, Mark E Smith addresses the listener, both in sorrow and defiance: “you gave me the best years of my life.” YFOC is one of the great Fall albums, with its shift in tone towards introspection — and, with its conjurings of medication and hospital treatment, the first suggestions that all might not be hunky dory in terms of Smith’s health.
“The whirlpools get wider and wider,” he warns, yet Weather Report 2 arrived seven years too early for a swan-song. That would be Nine Out of Ten, four studio albums later on 2017’s New Facts Emerge. It’s a fittingly strange and disordered finale for a band of many iterations, uncompromisingly wrought by a singular personality with zero inclination towards musical perfection, and barely any respect for trained musicians.
Around 1976, Mark E Smith quit as a clerk at the Salford Docks and formed The Fall (named after the Albert Camus novel), largely with the idea of using it to present spoken-word poetry. (It later emerged that he was flirting with the idea of wholesale performance art — as ‘Flyman and The Fall’ — and in his 2008 book Renegade, he still describes his vision of the group as a vehicle for “primitive music with intelligent lyrics.”)
Early line-ups featured partner Kay Carroll (a formidable presence, who acted as manager) and friend Martin Bramagh (who left—although he briefly rejoined many years later—when it became clear that Smith wanted, and was going to get, total artistic control). For a short while, this nascent Fall resembled a democratic unit, until the unchanging way of things began with the dismissal of the band’s first drummer, the late Steve Ormrod. (In his superb book The Fallen, Dave Simpson goes to remarkable lengths attempting to discover the stories of all those sacked by Smith. In these accounts, another Fall co-founder, Una Baines, tells of Smith’s early interest in feminist groups and Marxism, and Steve Hanley, the longest-serving member by a country mile, offers his view on the Fall dynamic: "The Fall works best when it's Mark and four or five normal people who he can bounce ideas off. The trouble is that after a while in The Fall, you're no longer normal.")
Hanley walked away in 1998 after a bizarre on-stage fight between Smith and the band in New York. His book The Big Midweek makes it abundantly clear that nineteen years in the service of Smith had been an utter trial. Nonetheless, somewhat diffidently, thanks are offered for "the opportunity and unique life lessons.” You suspect that Hanley was appreciated more for his work ethic than anything else. Only one person would ever exert any real creative influence on Smith: Laura Salenger (aka ‘Brix’) met him in 1983 at a gig in Chicago, married him, moved to Manchester, and within a few years The Fall were doing chart-friendly singles, including covers of R Dean Taylor’s There’s a Ghost in my House and The Kinks’ Victoria. Smith could be seen on TV pop shows, a mischievous outsider resplendent in spousally-approved attire. While Brix beamed from the latest video, the others appeared to be wondering what the hell was going on.
The end of his marriage to Brix spelled the removal of any glamour attached to Mark E Smith and The Fall. Her out-of-the-blue return in the later 1990s resulted in a few albums which, while fine enough, failed to spark. By then Smith’s drinking had entered the realm of a discipline, his appearance an homage to mundanity, a kind of inverted Northern dandy with what the comedian Stewart Lee described as the fashion sense “of a middle-aged, lower middle class alcoholic, who dresses up as smartly as possible before sinking six pints at the bar.” Smith, as Lee correctly spots, had turned into one of his earliest characters, ‘Fiery Jack,’ from 1979. “I sat and drank for three decades. I’m 45. My face is slack. And I think, think, think. I just drink, drink, drink. Too fast to work. Too fast to write. I just burn, burn, burn. I eat hot dogs. I live on pies. I’m 45.” The young Smith had written his older self, and always did claim, earnestly, to have pre-cognitive powers. (Free Range and Powder Keg are held up by Fall analysts as songs that predicted major events.)
"This is what not to do," Smith once told The Fall, after playing them a Bob Dylan album. His arcane instructions to the band (“don’t play like Bon Jovi or Radiohead”; “hit it like a snake”) are like those given to Joy Division by another Mancunian genius, Martin Hannett, during the recording of Unknown Pleasures. But unlike Hannett, Smith refused to slave over the completion of an album; you get the feeling that he found such behaviour indulgent, and a betrayal of his working-class roots. As he told Melody Maker in 1993, his method was to record an album, listen to it to check for mistakes, and move on. “I can listen to all that when I’m, like, 60,” he said, eerily anticipating his final age. There are very few mentions of The Fall’s previous work in Smith’s interviews. Live sets treated the notion of fan favourites with contempt, always majoring on the latest couple of albums and new material. In Renegade, Smith says this: “The Fall are about the present, and that’s it.”
In addition to his numerous collaborative projects and two spoken-word solo albums, Smith appeared on the BBC’s Final Score programme, reading (and gleefully altering) the day’s football results. Rather pricklier was his contribution to BBC Newsnight’s live-to-air tribute to the recently departed DJ John Peel, who’d often cited The Fall as his favourite band. Unctuous eulogies were expected; Smith did not play ball, and they perhaps should have known better. In his time, Smith did crop up on television a lot, usually on little-known English or European live music shows, sometimes unfailingly polite and engaging, other times—such as when interviewed by a petrified Lauren Laverne—a nightmare.
The final line-up of The Fall held stable for a decade, allowing Mark E Smith to grind his way towards a distillation of his vision of 1976. By the time of New Facts Emerge, The Fall sound wasn’t simply ‘Can-esque’ or ‘garage influenced,’ it had been brutally pared into a hypnotic canvas for Smith, dementedly rendering England’s consumerist domesticity down to abstract fairy tales and HP Lovecraft/Arthur Machen-inspired horror. The writer Harry Sword puts it well: “the commonplace ‘everyday’ as a carnival bizarre of infinite grotesque fascination. The Fall are as much psychic channel as band. A physical place, almost: some sideways dimension where you tap into coded truths, odd anomalies and sinister parallels among the static…”
"It is said you are remembered for the rules you break,” commented Brix, in response to her ex-husband’s death. “But for Mark E Smith, there were no rules." The words echo a particular line in the last verse of Nine out of Ten, the last album’s last song — not that Smith would ever have seen it as his final work. Gigs were still being booked, valedictory performances given, often from a chair, though it became common for shows to be cancelled on the grounds of ill health. Smith’s mind-set, as ever, was to work, to move forward, yet a rare and atypically emotional message after one cancellation in November 2017 felt like, and proved to be, a farewell: "A Message to All, to All. From Mark E Smith/The Fall group. As I, like Pr Rupert leave Bristol with my tail between my legs, I wish to give my great apologies to everybody. This idiotic idea to do both shows was purely my idea... Hope to replace shows within 4-6 weeks. In the interim we have eight new songs ready to go and will try and let you hear a few before Christmas. From head patient to you, the patients. I love you all but cannot embrace you all, Mark E Smith."--Neil Jackson
Review of An Abandoned Orchid House by Talitha Rise
This album appeared in a link in my in-box earlier this year. It is the debut from singer-songwriter Jo Beth Young, working under her Talitha Rise moniker (and it is available not only on standard CD or download, but also on vinyl).
Where to start with this impressive and mature debut album? It’s been garnering superb reviews elsewhere, which are rightfully deserved, as Jo Beth is an original and intelligent songwriter with a wonderful voice. Listening to this album was a revelation and took me back to the mid-1990s. I loved (and still love) music with loads of guitar and testosterone —nowt wrong with it— but it was then that I discovered Tori Amos, who opened my ears to a new kind of music.
That feeling of revelation accompanied me throughout this amazing album. Jo Beth is one of the finest talents to emerge in the last few years, as demonstrated by the wonderful Lifeboat and the atmospheric and haunting Orchid House, the nearest that we get to a title track, with its exquisite violin counterpoint to her vocals, defining the word ‘ethereal.’ This album is pure transcendent beauty, with an innovative musicality weaving a sonic tapestry around evocative, image-filled lyrics on Hungry Ghost and Bloodfox. However, my favourite track on an album full of radiance is the amazing River, with its wonderful chorus and driving rhythm. In fact, there is no bad song on this album: it is an emotive and accomplished debut which announces the arrival of a major new musical force, and the pictures that it paints stay with you forever. Could An Abandoned Orchid House end up being the album of the year? Yes, I think it very well could.--James R. Turner