A hell of a ride.
A simple drum pulse, with a few accented tumbles, and the snottiest voice to grace English music outside of Johnny Rotten—so begins “Bingo-Master’s Breakout,” the first track on the mammoth box set of career-spanning singles from The Fall, the infamous Mancunian post-punk band.
Led by the famously irritable Mark E. Smith, who makes David Thewlis’ character in Naked seem wholesome in comparison, The Fall has gone through dozens of band members (if you’re reading this, chances are you were in the Fall at some point) and has released 30 or so full-length albums, making for a truly intimidating discography.
And the box set is no different. Spanning nearly 40 years of music over seven discs and nearly 120 songs, it is a hell of a ride. Whatever their lineup, The Fall has always had the right kind of spastic sound to complement Smith’s vocals and lyrics, which sound a bit like if Anthony Burgess decided to front a band and sing exclusively in a kind of mock-droog-speak.
That said, there is something to be said about the earlier lineups, culminating in a series of utterly captivating albums in the first half of the 1980s. Songs like “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man,’” which was released in the run-up to their 1980 album Grotesque, show off a band of almost Velvet Underground-like originality, combining ‘50s rock, garage and simultaneously proto- and post-punk with a hyper-literacy verging on surrealism. All of this is of course combined with a maniacal dark humor and unplaceable sense of irony and self-deprecation.
It’s easy to miss how funky this band was—think of the Smiths at their grooviest (“Barbarism Begins at Home,” say), then ramp it up several notches and add a genuine sense of danger and violence. New Order, the Cure, U2, the Smiths, R.E.M. and others—it’s hard not to get the feeling that these bands were crucially influenced by The Fall, making them indispensable for understanding anything about the past several decades of alternative music.
Listen to a stone-cold classic like “Cruiser’s Creek” from the 1985 album This Nation’s Saving Grace and think of a year in which it wouldn’t be the coolest thing around.
True, after you’ve heard a certain number of Fall songs in a row, it starts to get a little repetitive and overwhelming—the price they pay for sounding so stubbornly themselves. They’re not all winners. But there are plenty of surprises that keep the momentum going. “Hey! Luciani,” for example, is an utterly bizarre song from a play Smith wrote about Pope John Paul I. “Telephone Thing,” from 1990’s Extricate album, sees them doing the “Madchester” thing to great effect. “Ed’s Babe” from a 1992 EP sounds a bit like The Fall tipping their hat back to the Pixies, a band that owes them a great deal.
Things start to slip in Disc Three—both lyrics and music start to sound a bit like The Fall paying tribute to themselves rather than coming up with anything especially original or forward-thinking. That said, there are some gems. The lo-fi, acoustic “Rude (All the Time)” is a revelation, for example, finding ways to be menacing without relying on any staples of their sound. The next song, “Susan Vs. Youthclub,” is an effectively decadent, pulsing number. But there are too many songs that make one’s attention slip no matter how charitable a listener one is. A bit like Guided by Voices, the later material can be great, too, but it often reminds the listener of earlier songs that it sounds like, and is better than it. Some of these later songs are “too well-produced” and so don’t quite have the edge of the earlier, rawer material.
Disc Four gets us back on track, since it—along with Five, Six and Seven—comprises B-Sides from the band’s career, starting with some classic cuts from the late ‘70s. “Repetition” is a slow and sexy tune that exemplifies what a spellbinding vocalist Smith can be. “Various Times,” too, is one of Smith’s and the band’s greatest performances, a taut, dynamic piece with oblique, doom-laden lyrics. “City Hobgoblins” is the kind of tour-de-force of get-on-your-feet nonsense the band excels at. “God-Box,” released in 1984, is wonderful, syncopated evil.
The band basically couldn’t miss in this period. “Clear Off” has an interesting, clean and relatively more melodic sound. “No Bulbs” is one of the many terrific numbers Mark co-wrote with Brix Smith, who contributed a great deal to the band’s classic period. Other highlights include “Petty (Thief) Lout,” “Hot Aftershave Bop” and the softer, moving “Entitled.”
Again, the closer to the present we get with the B-Sides, as with the singles, the less compelling the music becomes. There’s the Madchester, techno-y stuff, which is considerably less engaging, then there’s the return to their “original” sound, albeit in an overproduced way with considerably less subtlety and more filler noise. But there are still winners throughout—just to mention a few from different periods, “Dead Beat Descendant,” “British People in Hot Weather,” and “Antidote,” served well by some Bonham-esque drumming and deranged Smith vocalizing.
“Janet Vs. Johnny” from the early 2000s is a stunner, by far the highlight of Disc Seven, which otherwise features fun but not especially memorable songs, with the exception of the gonzo-western “Cowboy Gregori.”
From the late 1970s to the late 1980s/early 1990s, depending on how generous one is, The Fall was as interesting as any band around. Their greatest downfall was making too much music, one could argue, but sticking through the less interesting material is well worth it for the occasional gem even in their later years. With Smith’s health in tenuous condition, it’s not clear how much longer the band will be around, which makes this sprawling, carnivalesque set a whirlwind experience of the madness and sublimity of one of England’s greatest bands.