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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: The Fall
Why it’s daunting: At more than 30 years and (with the new Your Future Our Clutter) 28 studio albums, The Fall is one of the most prolific and longest-running bands to ever squirm out of the British post-punk scene, but its frequent stylistic shifts—thanks primarily to leader Mark E. Smith, who tends to sack his bandmates whenever the wind changes—makes it difficult for newcomers to find a proper point of entry. The group’s biggest fan, John Peel, once famously said that the reason he loved his favorite band so was that “they are always different; they are always the same,” by which he meant that Smith’s caustic speak-sing renders even his greater leaps of faith (into say, flaccid Eurovision synth-pop or mock country) into something that’s still unmistakably The Fall.
But by that same token, neophytes could easily come away with a blinkered or even completely inaccurate impression of what the band is capable of, based solely on a handful of out-of-context songs. Not helping matters: a seemingly bottomless well of redundant, repackaged compilations, assemblies of alternate studio takes, and live albums that confuse even the most diligent collectors. And did we mention that The Fall’s most consistent qualities are its tendency toward repetition and abrasion, while Smith’s hectoring, peculiarly pronounced-ah! vocal style is often put into the service of freeform absurdist narratives full of slanting Wyndham Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft references, inside jokes about obscure British estates and long-gone politicians, and surrealist wordplay that values meaning less than rhythmic punch? Add all that to Smith’s hunchbacked, cantankerous anti-charisma, and it’s little wonder The Fall has always retained an air of cult exclusivity.
Possible gateway: 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats
Why: As Bruce McCullough once declared on The Kids In The Hall, “Greatest-hits [collections] are for housewives and little girls.” But there are two reasons that otherwise sound rule of thumb doesn’t apply to this 2004 compilation: 1) The closest The Fall ever came to having a “hit” was in its tongue-in-cheek covers (both included here) of R. Dean Taylor’s Northern soul sleeper “There’s A Ghost In My House” and The Kinks’ “Victoria”—neither of which could be considered successful enough to have created “casual Fall fans” to whom this comp would appeal. 2) In distilling the entire history of The Fall down to two CDs, longtime band historian Daryl Easlea does an admirable job with an unenviable task, easily supplanting the only other worthy Fall compilation, 458489 A-Sides, which took it comparatively easy by limiting its scope to the band’s more “accessible” mid-’80s streak.
Indicative of its thoughtfulness, 50,000 Fall Fans wisely starts off with “Repetition,” which is pretty much the Rosetta stone for understanding the band: Over a ham-fisted two-chord drone of cheap keyboards and a spidery, deliberately plinking guitar riff (The Fall: one of the few bands capable of making a guitar sound tongue-in-cheek), Smith snarls, “We dig repetition in the music / And we’re never gonna lose it.” That there is the gauntlet, and if you find you can dig it too, the rest of 50,000 is about exploring all the wonderful, frightening places repetition can go, as The Fall’s M.O. is intellectualizing that sort of deliberate amateurism, often turning it into a ballsy, brutally funny, meta-textual piss-take on the very idea of making music. (It’s also a primal blast without all the smarmy, rock-crit justification.)
Missteps abound, of course, and they’re sure to rile folks for whom this compilation is unnecessary. (The Infotainment Scan’s reggae pastiche “Why Are People Grudgeful?” instead of the far superior—and far more personal—“Paranoia Man In Cheap Shit Room”? Two tracks from Middle Class Revolt and zero from 2000’s stellar The Unutterable? No “Bombast,” “New Big Prinz,” “Oh! Brother,” or “Theme From Sparta F.C.”—yet we get “High Tension Line” and “Crop-Dust”?) But while it isn’t a complete picture, for a band as given to reinvention as The Fall, 50,000 does succeed as a compelling argument for, as Peel averred, the band’s remarkable consistency. No matter what sound it chooses, there’s still that glorious “repetition in the music” that it never lost, and even as 50,000 winds down with august tracks from 2003’s The Real New Fall LP, it becomes clear that Smith’s misanthropic bile, although noticeably more cloaked and congealed in its delivery, has only been fermenting all these years, like a particularly acidic wine. For a primer on why The Fall continues to fascinate long past its prime, you couldn’t do much better.
Next steps: Once you’ve heard examples of every kind of band The Fall could be, pick your era and start from there. Enjoy the sarcastic-young-man, spastic-punk energy of “Totally Wired,” “New Face In Hell,” “Prole Art Threat,” “Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul,” and “The Classical”? Start with the band’s early-’80s Rough Trade releases, specifically 1981’s Slates, 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour (technically released on Kamera Records during the group’s brief falling-out with Rough Trade), and 1983’s Perverted By Language, where The Fall’s clattering, angular riffs and Smith’s bristling sneer never sounded more cocky or invincible. If the surprisingly pop-tastic, skewed new-wave-isms of “C.R.E.E.P.” and “No Bulbs” or the straightforward rock stomp of “Cruiser’s Creek” hit your ear, head to the halcyon era when Mark was totally in lurve with his guitarist Brix—the first, and inarguably best of many Smith amours to join The Fall team—and their partnership on- and offstage produced a never-to-be-equaled string of solid albums like 1984’s The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall, 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace, and 1986’s Bend Sinister. From there, tread lightly through the group’s middling experiments with electronics and dance music in the ’90s and beyond (an era characterized by Smith phoning it in with single lyrics repeated ad nauseam, getting into onstage fights with his bandmates, and generally calcifying into pissy-old-man indifference), but stop off for diamonds in the rough like 1993’s The Infotainment Scan, 1997’s Levitate, 1999’s The Marshall Suite, and 2000’s The Unutterable. Then see why the group is still worth paying attention to on this side of the new millennium with The Real New Fall LP and Fall Heads Roll.
Where not to start: Fall fanatics can quickly compile a list of less-than-essential albums, even while still arguing for their merits. Typically, these spawn from the immediate post-Brix era in the early ’90s, when Smith went through various stages of grief that included writing 1991’s toothless, maudlin Shift-Work and eventually firing longtime guitarist Craig Scanlon, architect of so many of the band’s best songs and the first of many casualties in Smith’s increasing mistrust (and some would argue, jealousy) of his collaborators. But really, the overall worst way to approach The Fall is to pick just one album and use that to formulate an opinion; the group’s sound stretches across so many variations, many people are fans of specific eras, which given the band’s prolificacy over three decades, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (Though obviously, if you decide you just don’t like Mark E. Smith’s voice, you’re never going to like it—no matter what sort of frippery surrounds it.)
Also not a good idea in this day and age: Checking them out live. Smith’s legendarily difficult relationship with the stage is sort of a beloved inside joke among diehards who turn up specifically to see how everything will go to shit this time. (See Camden Joy’s Pan, an only slightly fictionalized account of The Fall’s infamous 1998 New York gig, for a satirical-yet-accurate play on this phenomenon.) Newcomers will probably just wonder why everyone’s so happy to be watching a wizened old troll chew his dentures, fiddle with his guitar player’s amp, and walk off in a huff after only a couple of songs. Save that experience for once you’ve come to embrace that sort of bitterness and ramshackle aloofness as endearing—which requires a couple dozen spins through The Fall’s back catalog, at least.