The Big Midweek: Life inside The Fall

❉ Andrew J. Duncan casts kelly’s eye over Steve Hanley & Olivia Piekarski’s memoir of life inside The Fall.

The Fall these days are a cult monolith. They could plausibly survive nuclear winter but might instead self-destruct tomorrow. Although quality control has been an issue for at least a generation now and the art itself has settled into template, once or twice on each treadmill release, there’s nothing like them, and every fourth or fifth album somehow coalesces despite itself into a dose of essential anti-gravity for the mind.

After nearly forty years at the foundry, this is remarkable but also discomfiting, and with a major catch: the obtuse and corvid Mark E Smith, without whom there is no The Fall, but simultaneously the vorticist focaliser which prevents them ever actually crossing over into the mainstream for even the briefest moment. The faithful remain attendant, but the limen is set and the highlands are back there, when it was harder won.

Much has been and will continue to be scribbled about them, and like the above spiel, it’ll likely be predicated by the skewing avatar of MES; a poet for sure, maybe actually visionary for a time there, but a brat, a bully and a bawbag with it. Illuminating & refreshing, then – startling & hilarious, instructive too – to view this unlikely but enduring construct from another angle, that of remarkable bassist Steve Hanley, the implacable centre of The Fall’s powerhouse between 1979 and 1998, a span when they were often an uncanny & thrilling proposition, at their zenith stalking unique territory, the feverish Smith-ian purview strikingly facilitated by his band with music which seemed slapdash to the diffident but sidereal & endless to the converted.

Avoiding any tone which might remind the reader of Smith’s absurd blast, & mindful that the minutiae of their career is remarkably well-served online for the fervid, Hanley (with co-author & partner Olivia Piekarski) takes instead a novelistic, almost performance approach to his memoir; deceptively anecdotal, but with darting insight & targets hit palpably when necessary, never sparing himself from such barbs.

Although nearly two decades are covered, the narrative is notably frontloaded. The years from 1979 to 1983, as author and friends grow from being simply fans of The Fall to becoming the creative pivot on some ineffable music, are given almost the whole first half of the book, and with good reason; their work rate & artistic growth were vertiginous here. Related in halcyon richness, the anecdotage here is relaxed and comic. Hanley genuflects by reflex, not naturally given to flash, but nevertheless impresses upon you the graft, invention and heart that went into this version of the group.

For now, Smith’s recurrent appearances from stage left to berate and pester the group like a wasp in autumn are largely farcical, and Hanley ensures to balance such jaspering with significant moments of camaraderie. The instant bloom of the gargantuan, pivotal Fall song of Hip Priest during a 1981 Peel session reads as an extended haiku on simple, joyful craft, & a similar account of the arrival from elsewhere of the spectral Iceland (both songs from the 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour, The Fall’s first-phase apex) leaves no doubt that, when in true formation and at a shared quest, they were an almost telepathic unit.

Strange to recall that The Fall were in real danger of proper success for a good while in the wizzy-wacky later-eighties, Smith and then-wife Brix becoming a bizarre alt Burton/Taylor for that most showy of decades, and the band conjuring confident, powerful earworms seemingly for laffs. The reminiscence here contains some of the more affecting passages of the book, where Hanley agonises over the juggling act of being a husband and father whilst attempting to realise the ambitions of the musician who’s put in the time and just might be in sight of payoff, if only, if only. Smash Hits, Chart Show, stadium gigs, and still the dice won’t quite tumble the right way; The Curse Of The Fall, a private joke that soon palled.

No TOTP for Fall grüppe, although they come tantalisingly close, only to get the wooden spoon of The Roxy instead. The ache of hope, the promise, the nearly, the “big midweek”. Hard labour. And for what reward?

Things weren’t nearly so rosy in the hungover, rationalised nineties, when Smith’s habitual description and treatment of his band as “Jesuits” takes on a queasy overtone, and events are telescoped alarmingly into the latter hundred or so pages of the book, as if too uncomfortable to recall in more than snippets. The final section is actually painful to read, culminating in a hideous freeze-frame. Even in hope and clover, The Fall were built on a mighty fault-line, and the ultimate fracture is brutal. The reader may care to recall the last act of The Long Good Friday as apt comparison.

So, again the question; for what reward? Hanley addresses it gnomically in a brief foreword about not being able to let go, but he does himself a characteristic disservice. A teenage Mott fanatic, I should imagine he’s familiar with Ian Hunter’s Diary Of A Rock Star; I’d hope he would appreciate that The Big Midweek is more than its equal for wit, demystification and quiet pride in the job done.
Hanley was always naturally more Stoic than Jesuit, & Smith himself, in moments of clarity, more than once credited his basslines the actual spine of The Fall. The four-year gestation of this work speaks volumes about how difficult the reminiscence was at times, but the reward is a hugely entertaining reclamation which could only send devotee and newbie alike scurrying off to the back catalogue. And The Fall outlived TOTP anyway, ultimately beat the mainstream. For once, the “big midweek” equals the last laugh. Saluté Shanley! A must-read.

  The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall by Steve Hanley & Olivia Piekarski was recently released in paperback by Route Publishing.

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