I’ve held off on The Fall simply because I couldn’t trust myself not to get silly about them. I’ve loved them – adored them – unconditionally for almost 30 years. And when I say them, I of course mean him: Mark E Smith.
This track, ‘Slates, Slags etc’, is taken from the 1981 mini 10″ LP Slates. It’s probably my favourite Fall record, not least because every song on it is an absolute winner. But also because it’s a very cool, and quite strange, artefact (I believe I’m correct in stating that both Steve Albini and Peter Buck rate it very highly for the same reason).
In those days, The Fall had an air of mystique about them and, odd as it may seem now, Smith was regarded as something of a working-class intellectual. The funny and intriguing sleeve notes – typed and scrawled by Smith – are enough to give that impression. E.g. the following description of ‘Slates, Slags etc’:
“Full bias content guaranteed. Plagiarism infests the land. Academic thingys ream off names of books and bands.”
When I first got into The Fall I regarded them as an art band. A cool, working-class art band. But as the years passed and Smith slowly, surely and erratically shed his intellectual pretensions, it became clear that The Fall were essentially a garage band with a mouthy, working-class poet for a singer. If anything, it’s the simplicity of that dynamic that makes them all the more special.
Here y’are, this is what I love about them: I’m constantly amazed at how they manage to be so unutterably great.
Take this song. Ostensibly it’s a just a garagey riff with some bloke shouting nonsense over the top. But then it’s much more than that. Why does it sound like it was recorded in a store cupboard? What’s with the feedback and the barely discernible female voices? Why isn’t that riff just played on one guitar, nice and clean (after all, it’s a great riff) as any other rock band would do? And what the fuck is Smith going on about, especially with all that ‘valley of wheat’ stuff?
I love the fact that Smith doesn’t leave things alone. He’s not a musician, he can’t ‘sing’ in the traditional sense, but somehow he has this knack of turning basic rock stuff into something else entirely. Something strange and a bit unexpected, but still working within the recognisable rock idiom. Brilliant.
When I listen to this song, usually at full blast, I frequently get tears in my eyes. The key to appreciating The Fall is (probably obviously) appreciating Smith’s voice. Here it’s at its best – defiant, authoritative, strange, powerful, loud, sarcastic, bitter, clever and funny. (If you think it’s just a bloke shouting, have a listen to the many indie bands influenced by The Fall who thought it was enough to have a bloke shouting.) What makes The Fall utterly unique is the uniqueness, and greatness, of Smith’s voice. And it’s probably the unlikeliness, perhaps the wrongness, of Smith – almost everything about him – that I find so moving.
Oh, and what I also love about this song is that Smith articulates his approach to musicians and, particularly, to what he thinks The Fall should be about: “Don’t start improvising for God’s sake.” He keeps his boys and girls on a very tight leash.
And yes, that’s Marc Riley (of Mark and Lard fame) on backing vocals.
See, I knew I’d get silly about them.