|fig a: Albert Camus's existentialist novel, The Fall. Q: on a scale of 1-10, how pretentious do you have to be to name your band after an novel by Camus? ('11' is an acceptable answer.)|
Music nerds generally fall somewhere along a spectrum defined by two extremes: those who obsess over song lyrics, and those who don't give a toss. Obviously, a lot depends on the artist in question. While Bob Dylan's mushy-mouthed mumblings are considered quite poetic, the lyrics of Andrew WK are not exactly filled with hidden meaning. ("Party Hard" does not refer to the difficulties of establishing a viable third party in the U.S. winner-take-all electoral system, in case you were wondering.)
For lyrics boffins, The Fall is a band with endless enigmatic appeal. Its founder, notoriously grumpy and temperamental Mark E. Smith, was born with a knack for casually deconstructing the Queen's English. Over the years, he's parleyed this talent into a singular post-punk oeuvre, taking inspiration from mighty Krautrockers Can and inspiring countless imitators in turn. (90's college radio darlings Pavement wrote at least two songs that were obvious Fall rip-offs, prompting a furious Smith to scribble "NOTEBOOKS OUT, PLAGIARISTS!" in subsequent liner notes.)
|fig b: the man himself, Mark E. Smith. Whenever Q magazine publishes his picture, the caption is always "Easy, ladies."|
In Smith's mouth, syllables turn to silly putty. The arbitrary nature of language becomes readily apparent. The Fall summed up their strategy early on with a song called "Repetition":
We dig repetition
We dig repetition
We dig repetition in the music
And we're never going to lose it.
All you daughters and sons
who are sick of fancy music
We dig repetition
Repetition in the drums
and we're never going to lose it.
This is the three R's
The three R's:
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Everyone at some point has experienced the phenomenon wherein a word that's said over and over starts to sound strange. Through repetition, the gap between signifier and signified is widened and brought to the fore. It's like poetry in reverse.
The 1980 single "Totally Wired" is a good example of The Fall's ability to get heads simultaneously bopping and scratching. Listen to how easily Smith interposes "wired" and "weird"... so nonchalant that it seems almost accidental, yet it's surely on purpose.
you don't have to be wired... to be weird
you don't have to be weird... to be weird
"Totally Wired" also embodies another characteristic of The Fall's early work: a matter-of-fact and humorous commitment to drug use, in particular speed. "I drunk a jar of coffee... and I took some of these... and I'm TOTALLY WIRED!" The song "Pat - Trip Dispenser" makes a lot more sense when you realize that Pat was a drug dealer.
Given the repetitive nature of modern electronic dance music, it seemed inevitable that The Fall would take to dabbling in loops and beats. Sure enough, 1987 saw the release of "Hit The North," a tune whose propulsive looped horns and shimmering synth tones bear the unmistakable imprint of 80's electro-pop. Poppy, catchy, and even danceable, "Hit the North" is far better than an old post-punk codger's stab at dance music has any right to be. (What does "Hit the North!" mean, exactly? Some kind of English class thing? Lyrics boffins can ponder at leisure.)
These two tracks and many others are available on the compilation, 50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong, which is probably all The Fall most people will ever need. The album's cover and title are a funny takeoff on the old Elvis album. They subtracted three zeroes. 50,000 sounds about right, sadly enough.
fig c: NOTEBOOKS OUT, PLAGIARISTS! Oh wait.
The Fall - Totally Wired
Rough Trade (UK), 1980
The Fall - Hit The North
Beggars Banquet, 1987