The Fall were famously the favorite band of the late, legendary British DJ John Peel, and he canonized them with a statement impressive for both its efficiency and accuracy: “They are always different; they are always the same.”
Mark E. Smith — the Fall’s visionary leader and lone constant member, who died at the age of 60 on Wednesday — was unmistakably himself at all times, cantankerous beyond his years until he was eventually age-appropriate cantankerous. With his combative speak-singing style, he made an art form out of something artless. And with his razor-sharp lyrics, enhanced by the signature suffix that he’d attach-ah to certain words-ah, he was a vocalist often imitated but never matched.
Emerging out of working-class Manchester during England’s punk rock boom, Smith’s musical blueprint was laid out in one of the Fall’s earliest tracks, 1978’s “Repetition.” Over clanging keyboards and piercing guitar notes that teetered on the edge of tunefulness, Smith sneered and pledged his allegiance to the three R’s: “Repetition, repetition, repetition.” Songs by the Fall almost always stayed on a determined, straight-line course, allowing for maybe one detour or sharp turn before re-centering and continuing that dogged march to the finish line. It was the Fall formula for 40 years, and it rarely failed.
So that covers the “always the same” description. How were they “always different”? Well, for starters, there were the bandmates who played with Smith — roughly 60 who stepped in and out over four decades, staying for as long as Smith could stand them, or vice versa. (Check out Dave Simpson’s 2009 book “The Fallen,” for which he tracked down nearly every single former member of the band for their stories.) Smith was not a benevolent leader.
Often he was much worse. The band’s disastrous 1998 U.S. tour ended with three members quitting and Smith getting arrested for assaulting his then-girlfriend, Julia Nagle, who was playing keyboards. There was never any question who was the most and only important member; one of Smith’s most famous quotes was, “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”
The tension and the turnover led to constant mini-reinventions by necessity, with shifting members and lineups creating different eras with different sounds. Claustrophobic, slashing post-punk gave way to a beefed-up, double drummer attack which gave way to a keyboard-heavy, almost (but not quite) pop-friendly sound — and that just takes you up to the late ’80s. Smith stayed active to the end and refused to take victory laps on his past accomplishments. He stayed away from basically all old material on tour in the 2000s, and his final records favored a chugging and surprisingly clean riff-rock sound that barely resembled his work from 35 years earlier.
The Fall never toiled in obscurity but they also never broke through to the mainstream in any meaningful way. Still, groups such as Sonic Youth, Pavement and LCD Soundsystem — all of whom, in their time, occupied the oxymoronic pinnacle of underground rock — varied between being heavily indebted to the Fall and shamelessly ripping off the Fall. (Smith, very much on brand, summarily dismissed almost every band that cited him as an influence.)
“The Fall are my Beatles,” LCD’s James Murphy once said. He wasn’t alone in that line of thinking. The Fall were about as classic an example of a cult-favorite group as there is, which means they had generally two types of fans — obsessives and hyper-obsessives.
There is no such thing as a casual Fall fan. If you’re a fan, you surely consider yourself an expert. Once you got seduced by Smith’s wonderful and frightening world, it was almost impossible not to fully immerse yourself. In fact, that immersion was a big part of the appeal. Loving the Fall was like a secret handshake for certain types — college radio DJs, people on a first-name basis with their local record store owner. As a fan, you were always scavenging for that hard-to-find LP — a rare foreign pressing, one of dozens of live albums. Throw in the box sets, the reissues and it was nearly impossible to be a completist, but it sure was fun (if expensive) to try. This is the kind of fan experience cranky old folks will say was ruined by streaming, and they might even have a point.
But even now, with the band’s entire output available with a click, where do you begin? There are 65 albums and 19 different compilations available on Spotify. The digital era has somehow made the Fall even more intimidating to get into. As tributes rolled in on social media Wednesday afternoon it was striking how almost every tweet or Facebook post linked off to a different song. Everybody has their own favorite for their own reason.
“They are always different; they are always the same.” That was most definitely the Fall, and isn’t that really the ultimate goal of every artist? To constantly evolve while never losing your firmly established identity. That’s what Mark E. Smith will be remembered for.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a place to start, go with the “Slates” EP from 1981. It’s their best one. Trust me, I’m an expert.