Three years after Smith’s burial, we now seem to be in a crucial hour for Fall-related retrospection. Across the next year, a grip of new analytical and biographical texts are set to publish, four record labels are releasing the band’s bootlegs, and a posthumous horror screenplay of Smith’s will be put to print. For the bookish, the bummed, and the British, the Fall represent a fading type of bedlam brought on by the presence of a true punk anti-hero. What could feel more foreign in the contemporary white music landscape — so soaked in virtue — than a hostile, heavy-drinking, working-class shaman?
This fact was likely at least part of the animus guiding the publication of a fresh essay collection by editors Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley (the latter known for his work with the British synth-poppers Saint Étienne), which assembles a bouquet of artists, novelists and critics rhapsodizing on and about the Fall. In practice, “Excavate! The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall” actually works a little like a museum exhibition, a bit like a eulogy and a lot like pornography for Fall fans. This is not in the pejorative: Museum exhibitions, eulogies and pornography are necessarily soothing formats, and in the void left by one of the most constellatory men in the history of music made with guitars, the book is a largely satisfying shrine to Smith’s legacy less so as a man than as a primary text.
As contributor Mark Sinker points out in the collection, Smith and the Fall pose “a veritable plague of rabbit burrows, with every momentary landing surface becoming another hole, and holes generating holes generating holes.” The book, in turn, takes the only plausible route in: it punctures its own portals into the band by way of sideways and obtuse angles; it explodes its frontman’s lingering spirit like a grenade thrown into a deep pit. True to the Fall, “Excavate!” hurtles downward into the psychogeography of Smith’s gospel, flinging hot and strange shrapnel in its wake.
With all respect to any rabid Fall fan, Smith’s voice really does demand a little exegesis. It is the color red. It bleats like a siren. He yells as a man in a permanent tug of war between a fresh rip of speed and a stomach full of lager. Just as Barthes described the castrato Farinelli, whose voice was “as incredible for its duration as for its emission,” so too is Smith’s nasal squall, understandable only in about three out of every ten lyrics he not so much sings as disgorges.
Reared in the canonically joyless Mancunian suburb of Salford, any Fall biography (and there are lots of them) will latch onto several footholds to help scale the tower of the thunderously crotchety Smith. He proudly worked in a meat factory, then on shipping docks, then had his consciousness scrambled after reading life-defining works by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James and Arthur Machen. Out of the snarled-up ring roads of a decaying industrial heartland, a mess of trade union politics, occult theology and pulp horror fiction, he formed an entropic system of signal and noise he would eventually call the Fall.
The chaos of the Fall was most clearly fomented in those that adored them — the Steve Albinis, the Sonic Youths, the John Peels (the legendary DJ called the Fall his favorite act), of the world. Smith, famously, was not prone to extending too much generosity toward many of his acolytes. (On Pavement: “They haven’t got an original idea in their heads.” On Thurston Moore: “He should have his rock license revoked.”)
The albums they loved, played and aped were psychedelic not in sound, but in function. As jittery as James Brown or Wire’s Colin Newman, Smith would teeter onstage but build a solid Hieronymous Boschian universe in his lyrics, aiming for large psychological and social strata in baroque tracts on the working man’s (in)dignities, the fear of turning into suburban meatsuits, the mystic, the weird.
All of this makes scrutiny on the Fall a seriously strenuous exercise. One tack is the visual: “Excavate!” is filled with gorgeous, well-preserved Fallinalia — beautifully wrought gig posters, Smith’s antagonistic correspondence with anyone from music magazines to venues, bits of surprisingly charming fan club ephemera, endearing chicken scratch from the frontman.
One can imagine Smith being totally bored with the whole affair, famously and loudly very against the idea of anything resembling consecration. “The Fall are about the present, and that’s it,” he dismissed in his 2009 autobiography, “Renegade.” Or, as he noted in an especially animal track from 1981 titled “Fit and Working Again”: “Analysis is academic / Some thoughts can get nauseous.”
“The temptation when writing about the Fall’s work,” writes the late theorist Mark Fisher, “is to too quickly render it tractable.” “Excavate!” operates through a familiar paradox that, though a band like the Fall is fundamentally unknowable, not built to be fully understood, there is deep pleasure in — if not exactly pinning down — communicating with at least some wriggly elements.
The contributors’ shifting focuses in the book periscope into the prevailing concerns of the worlds they occupy. There are the requisite Marxist readings, the less-requisite soccer-related readings; Elain Harwood, an eminent British writer on mid-20th century architecture, opens the collection with an appeal to the changing features of slowly gentrifying Manchester and its relationship to the class- and self-conscious Smith.
Fisher’s totemic essay, “Memorex for the Krakens,” written in 2006, has been unfurled and reprinted here in full glory, comparing Smith to James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Sinclair Lewis as a high modernist of the late 20th century. To Fisher, the Fall is a harbinger of the Weird — invaders from another reality system, receivers of stray psychic signals, a riot of anti-intellectual intellectualism. He calls them an impossible act. “Such things neither are, nor can be, nor have been,” he writes, quoting the 1st century B.C. military engineer Vitruvius.
Like any good Fall set, “Excavate!” is made by its asides and tangentials, whether it’s in the suggestion that Smith had a clairvoyant vision of 9/11 back in 1998, or in the quick and juicy three-sentence moment in Fisher’s work wherein he draws a line between the Fall and George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. Whereas Clinton’s speculative fictions Afro-futurized a White America and recast it in the shadow of a Black myth, Smith’s dreamlands were visions of proletariat posterity, of — as he put it — “the White crap that talks back.” As Norton, in her own essay called “Paperback Shamanism,” called it, the Fall was a “curriculum” for an “alternative canon of art and literature,” rendering “a web of reference points that creates a popular culture.”
The trick of good criticism is that it should, at its best points, somehow mime the work it’s talking about. No essay here is complete without a passage or 12 ripped from Joyce, John Keats, J.G. Ballard; it mulches mythos on mythos in distinctly Smith-like shapes. Owen Hatherley’s piece, “Let Me Tell You About Scientific Management,” summons theorist Frederick Winslow Taylor — the man who would guide the thinking behind Henry Ford’s assembly line — and, in turn, gets at a genuinely stirring thesis concerning Smith’s vexed and addictive relationship to work: “It warped a people, warps minds as much as bodies, and rather than being in conflict with the weird and fantastical, it produces the weirdness itself.”
Much has been written about Smith’s malevolence, but little of it is here. One can find this elsewhere, of course: Simon Lee would refer often to Smith’s “astronomical petulance” in his review of “The Big Midweek: Inside the Fall,” in which Steve Hanley, the Fall’s bassist from 1979 to 1998, exquisitely details Smith’s tyranny as a bandleader. Brix Smith Start’s “The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise,” her memoir of once being Mrs. Smith, charts — with surprising generosity — the extent to which Smith terrorized his bandmates and partners. (It includes an unforgettable scene in which manager and girlfriend Kay Carroll furiously exited the van on a freeway in the middle of a snowstorm.)
Not in the mood to soil any of the genuine occult magic of Smith’s messianic power, and certainly not to “allow the heart of the group’s astonishing creative output to become obscured,” Norton and Stanley forego much discussion about the forces that bedeviled Smith. The inclusion of a sober, careful rumination on this subject would provide a crucial addition to such a heavy tome of analysis. Would there be a Fall without Smith’s nihilistic, disciplinarian force? Smith is (as Fisher — again — passingly mentions) a perfect pharmakon — a poison and remedy, a sickness and cure. Though “Excavate!” is, as per its decree, not a completist text in any shape or form, it is tellingly — as it written on the first page of text — “for Mark E. Smith more than it is about him.”
This points toward the most obvious question the book poses. What are we talking about when we try to talk about Smith, and by proxy, the Fall? The angles by which we confront things are telling of where we come from; by that same token, adoration, veneration, even mourning comes from places that are typically deeply specific and often narrow. If Smith is our source material, the book is a system of secondary texts, gazing at the Fall through distinct lenses of various widths.
In its own proud way, “Excavate!” is about as Fallian as a book can get. The band is grafted and regrafted, deemed ineffable; explored, mined, blurted in bits, and looped. If the Fall were mythmakers, here is more mythmaking. Observe, it seems to ask, the idea of the Fall traveling, eloping with and loping into the minds of those willing to offer intercourse. There is neither a set entry nor exit. As the editor’s note reads, “The Fall were so many things, so many worlds; if you got it (and not everyone did), they represented everything.”
“Bend Sinister,” Vladimir Nabokov’s sinuous novel that shares both a title and verve with the Fall’s exceptionally twisty 1986 album, has a passage that gets at this a little closer to the bone. “Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words,” the narrator states midway through the book, “a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs.”
The fact that Nabokov was writing about Shakespeare here should feel at least a little darkly endearing. Throbbing brain, long, tentacular appendages — what “Excavate!” makes undeniable is that there is a life force moving from Smith to the Fall and ever-outward: past his death, past all the pages that entomb his art here, past all the efforts at contorting his spirit both backward and into the future. It is a magnetic, nagging, dragging force, downward into Smith’s seductive and bottomless spiral. How sinister — how perfectly Smithian — to consider that, when we talk about the idea of love, we describe the supernatural action with a verb as strange as “to fall.”