By Chris Morley
If falling could be translated into music note for note, what would it sound like? The question seems to have haunted Mark E. Smith for years; so much so that the leader and sole constant member of The Fall has seemed to push people in and out of his revolving door so often that most are unsure as to where he turns from record to record, and indeed how it might sound.
But the story is as compelling as it is downright odd in places: ‘they are always different, they are always the same’ said noted fan and Radio One legend John Peel, as good a summary as any. Our journey begins in Manchester in 1976, when Smith formed the first incarnation of the collective alongside keyboardist Una Baines, bass player Tony Friel and guitarist Martin Bramah as an extension of drug-infused performance poetry readings, with inspiration courtesy of the likes of Can, Captain Beefheart, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground helping the decision to move into music.
Their first live outing came in 1977, with early favourite Repetition outlining a simple manifesto as the Bingo-Master’s Break Out EP confused and enthralled in equal measure the following year. As will become apparent, change then came quickly: Friel and Baines quickly bailing out, Marc Riley (yes, that one) and Yvonne Pawlett taking their mantles after a chaotic succession of brief stand-ins.
Smith’s autocracy was blamed for the disruption, his decision-making processes as enigmatic as his lyrics, the turmoil reflected in the perfectly disjointed music he and his rogues gallery were making from their first album Live At The Witch Trials to around Hex Enduction Hour (1982), and The Classical. Ramshackle in places perhaps, but rationally so? The debate starts here…
Looking back over an extensive history (29 albums in all, from 1979 to last year’s Ersatz GB) so full of change, the supporting cast never the same as the editor chops and changes seemingly at will ( listen to any Fall album and no two songs sound the same), it can be something like walking in on the tail end of any given conversation having not heard the preceding points, a sort of haphazard journey to who knows where with a motley companion you’re not sure you entirely trust.
And if further proof were needed of the iron grip on power maintained by the erstwhile front man, consider this: there have been around 66 members of the group since its inception, with around a third of those lasting less than a year before either getting the boot or leaving, making Mark E seem more like a football manager than band-leader.
But who are the star players in all of this? Kay Carroll (1979-83) must be worth a mention. Providing percussion and backing vocals as well as serving as band manager from Dragnet to Room To Live before her romantic relationship with the founder petered out on a 1983 US tour. Next in our rogues gallery is Marcia Schofield, former keyboard player from 1987-90 departing after a group jaunt to Australia and a four-album stint from The Frenz Experiment to Extricate, though it is hard to edit so many interesting stories across many years to fit this article. However, Dave Simpson’s ‘The Fallen: Life In And Out Of Britain’s Most Insane Group’ is recommended as further reading.
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