❉ Mark E Smith was literally incapable, even at his most perverse, of releasing a record which didn’t contain something of worth, writes Stuart Douglas.
In 2001, the Fall were on the crest of a bit of a wave. The previous year has seen the release of The Unutterable, the second of two critically lauded albums (alongside The Marshall Suite from 1999) with what finally seemed to be a settled and successful band lineup. Fall uberfan Dave Simpson called The Unutterable ‘a career peak’ in The Guardian, and it looked for a time as though we were in the middle of a sustained Fall Golden Age, of a sort not seen for a decade or more. In guitarist Neville Wilding (who even gets a lead vocal credit on The Untterable) and keyboard player Julia Nagle, main man Mark E Smith appeared to have unearthed collaborators who shared his own eccentric but brilliant musical vision.
So obviously, at that point, he sacked the entire band and got a new one.
Not like the old one / We are new Fall (from the opening track, Jim’s ‘The Fall’)
For those unaware of Smith’s reputation, this wasn’t actually all that unusual. As far back as 1984’s The Wonderful and Frightening World Of… he had considered renaming the band The New Fall, on the basis that the lineup had changed so often since their first release. This prompted one internet user to humorously (but pretty accurately) point out that, by the time of Are you Are Missing Winner, they would therefore need to be called The New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New New Fall!
Sometimes, this approach worked wonders. Though unpopular with fans at the time, the sacking of Marc Riley in late 1982 and recruitment of Smith’s guitarist wife, Brix, the following year, had launched the most commercially successful period in the band’s history, while the occasional membership of Martin Bramah had coincided with some of their most creatively fertile releases.
Whatever else might be said of the switch from the Wilding/Nagal lineup to that of twin guitarists Ben Pritchard and Ed Blaney, bassist Jim Watts and drummer Spencer Birtwistle, the results were not as popular with the music press as more recent releases had been. The production qualities are less than outstanding, for one thing (the album was, apparently, recorded very much on the cheap), but production values have rarely been the reason anyone buys a Fall album, and besides, who are we to argue with Smith himself, who said at the time that he thought The Unutterable ‘too polished’ and wanted something more ‘raw’ for its followup.
More damagingly, though, critics almost universally panned the album as fragmentary, scrappy and ‘appallingly throwaway’, and even band member Pritchard later described the recording experience as miserable.
With that in mind, it’s tempting for any later reviewer to use some creative sleight of hand and declare the album as a misunderstood work of genius, a lost gem from a huge back catalogue, and one in immediate need of re-investigation and critical re-appraisal.
But really, in all honesty, I just can’t. But I can say that it’s a damned sight better than some people have claimed.
Because it’s not a terrible album by any means, nor one with no redeeming qualities – far from it. Smith was literally incapable, even at his most perverse, of releasing a record which didn’t contain something of worth, and there are several decent moments on here, and even one or two which aspire to the level of something more.
The opener Jim’s ‘The Fall’ makes for a promising start, with Smith drawling suitably obscure but intriguing lyrics over driving guitar, thumping drums and looping bass and Crop-Dust (which the liner notes helpfully point out is based on an uncredited lift from that most-Fall like of sixties rock bands, The Troggs) has a fantastically heavy bass/guitar combo, as good as anything by The Fall this century, and Smith is in top drawling voice.
Fair enough, My Ex-Classmates’ Kids is ramshackle and under-produced, with drums and muddy guitars which sound like they’re being recorded on an 80s ghetto blaster with the treble turned all the way up, but again, to complain about something like that would be to complain about all kinds of earlier garage-influenced Fall releases, some of them undoubted classics, and the tune is a great one (so great, in fact, that Smith had already used it for another song earlier in the year).
Kick the Can continues this murky garage feel for its first couple of minutes, then switches to what might almost be a completely different (and infinitely better) tune – one with clearer vocals, and a very komische influenced musical mix, hence the title, possibly (it’s rightly been pointed out that the drum is reminiscent of the very distinctive beat on Oh Yeah from German electronic pioneers, Can’s Tago Mago album, but the whole second half of the track had a definite Krautrock feel to it).
The pair of covers too, of Leadbelly’s Bourgeois Town (sweetly, the track remains credited to Robert Johnson in the track listing, as per the original release, even while the excellent new extended essay on the album corrects this to the proper writer) and R Dean Taylor’s Gotta See Jane are both very listenable, in their own, different ways, even if the third ‘cover’, a sort of, maybe-if-you-squint version of Iggy Pop’s African Man (as Ibis Afro Man) is both virtually unrecognisable and, frankly, a gigantic mess.
Which just leaves a handful of tracks from the tail end of the original release, none of which are either especially essential or actually disastrous. The Acute, Hollow Mind and Reprise: Jane – Prof Mick – Ey Bastardo neither leave the listener desperate for more nor with a nasty taste in the mouth, and it’s this fairly non-descript finale which, perhaps, was responsible for some of the more negative reviews.
Cherry Red wisely get round this lack-lustre ending by keeping the six extra tracks which first appeared on the Castle release from 2006. Of these, Rude (All the Time), a duet between Smith and Blaney (the track was originally one recorded by Blaney’s earlier band, Trigger Happy) and Wake up in the City (the same tune as My Ex-Classmates’ Kids with new lyrics) are best, but everything save the final track, Where’s the Fuckin’ Taxi? Cunt (basically five minutes of the band drunkenly chatting) is worth a listen.
As is typical from the ever generous Cherry Red, the boxset contains an extra three discs, in this case, three different Fall gigs of the period. If you love the Fall, you’ll love these (though with the proviso that a range of gigs with slightly more varied set lists would have been nice) – and if you don’t love The Fall, why would you be buying this in the first place?
We are the new Fall, and you better have a look, cop.
PS – One final note. To make sense of the album title, imagine the second ‘are’ pronounced in a thick Mancunian accent, and think of the National Lottery!
❉ The Fall: ‘Are You Are Missing Winner’ 4CD Digipak (Cherry Red Records CDEXRED834) released 25 June 2021, RRP £19.99.
❉ Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas