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Sunday, 27 April 2008

Written in granite: The Shadow Over His Mouth

Everybody loves The Fall, apparently. Oh and everybody has always loved them. It seems odd that the Bingo Master's Break-Out! EP failed to make number one given that so many thousands of people (and everyone now working in the media) bought it when it came out. I honestly did – might not have been the day of release but it was very soon after, and I did get Live At The Witch Trials the day that came out, I remember walking 3 miles into town to collect the copy I'd ordered and then splashing out on a bus home. Everyone I knew hated it, absolutely loathed it – and these were people who liked punk, even people getting into the burgeoning independent label scene. They all preferred PragVec. I couldn't understand this: I mean, the PragVec EP seemed OK, it had quite a nice sleeve considering it was an independent release - remember, at that point most independent singles looked like those by the Desperate Bicycles, listing recording, mastering, pressing, etc. costs. At first sight Bingo Master looked a bit like one of those, black and white, spindly line drawings, typed credits on the back... Except that it clearly had class and coherence. The music was... well, it was The Fall, except that we didn't know what that meant back then. The two songs on the first side were fast enough for punks, but way too clever – I have a vivid recollection of asking the DJ at our local punk club to play The Fall. He obliged and it cleared the dance-floor, quite literally, I had the weird experience of quite literally dancing all on my own, for certainly the one and only occasion in my life. The title track was clearly a narrative of some kind but, er, could we have a plot summary please? However it was Repetition on the other side that hooked me. Around this time – I was 13 and a half years old – I'd recently ditched my prog LPs (I didn't have a lot, I was only 13) and had bought just punk for a few months, but then gradually I started exploring, became obsessed with The Velvet Underground when I found a cheap import copy of 1969 – Live... This wasn't far from The Fall. Very soon afterwards I began to discover sixties stuff, Nuggets, then Love, then MX-80 Sound's epochal Hard Attack from 1977 (why isn't that ever mentioned in lists?) and a whole world began to open up to me. I was also forming my first proper, out-of-school bands, getting in with people a bit older than I was, but still at school, in short it was a time of the utmost drama. A band member would leave, the world came crashing down.

I bought The Fall's second single, It's The New Thing/Various Times. And at some point around this time I wrote to the address given on the back of one of these two 7" slabs of vinyl. I might possibly have done this once or twice before, to artists I admired, but without ever really expecting a reply other than perhaps a pre-printed invitation to join a fan club. Well, after all, these people made records, so they were rock stars. As far as I knew The Fall had made not one but TWO singles, so they were presumably living lives only a small remove from those of, say, the Rolling Stones. Or at least The Clash. I've no idea what I wrote in my letter but I must presumably have mentioned some of the latest cataclysms to have hit my turbulent life, basic, humdrum events so earth-shaking and Shakespearean in their reach. Then, within a couple of weeks, I received a brown envelope in the post, addressed in a scrawl which is now familiar to us all but which at the time I failed to recognise. I opened it and out tumbled some photocopies of Fall blurb, with the handwritten words, in that same scrawl, "history is bunk" – I'd learned at school only shortly before that this was a quote attributed to Henry Ford. Then I found the letter. It wasn't just "thank you for your interest in The Fall, please buy our album, a fan club membership application with introductory rates is enclosed". It was a proper letter, at least 3 or 4 sides of handwritten A4. And when I read it I was flabbergasted to discover that not only was it from Mark E. Smith himself, not only had he clearly read my letter – again, himself – but he'd clearly given some thought to the weighty matters exercising my mind and discussed them, offering a few bits of advice. And actually it was damned good advice too. He pointed out that members did tend to leave bands, but that this wasn't necessarily such a bad thing (clearly advice he took himself famously on some 50 or more occasions, although at that point former Fall members were still in single figures), that your parents tended to fuss over you because they were insecure both about themselves and about your future. This last one came as a huge revelation, I was 13 and the concept that my parents might not be infallible hadn't yet dawned at all. Anyway, I'm not going to go into much detail because that was a private letter and is thus between the 21-year-old Mark and the 13-year-old me. All I'll say – and MES may not thank me for this - is that there was no bile in it, it was full of compassion but no patronising. It probably had rather a big effect on me. In fact it definitely did.

I've remained a Fall admirer for these last 30 years. I bought pretty much every release up until the late eighties, when I left the UK. I don't own all 95 albums or whatever it is, but I certainly do own all but a few of the 26 (with another out tomorrow) studio albums and a fair number of the compilations and live sets. If I had to pick a favourite I'd go for Hex Enduction Hour (and I also loved the preceding Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul/Fantastic Life single), although Live At The Witch Trials also has a very special place in my affections. I saw The Fall a number of times during the 80s. In the late seventies I developed a bit of an obsession with the work of H.P. Lovecraft, so I was thrilled when it emerged that this was an interest of Mark's too. For a while I wondered whether I'd got into Lovecraft through The Fall, but I'm now sure this wasn't the case, I just happened across a collection called The Shadow Out Of Time in my local library and it had a totally black dust jacket and that great title, The Fall connection didn't really become clear until a year or two later, in the period from Dragnet through to Grotesque.

This brings us to Renegade: The Lives And Tales Of Mark E. Smith, which I read last week. The first thing to be said is that this is the funniest book I've read in a very, very long time. It is also far less... well... mad than you might expect. It's been ghosted and clearly edited together to form at least some semblance of a coherent narrative, but we also get plenty of the thoughts of Chairman Mark on subjects of all kinds. Well, see for yourself, a couple of extracts were printed in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago and can be found here (part one) and here (part two). But there is far more to Renegade than the whole "Mad Mark" persona, as he is at pains to point out. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the book is so short, at under 250 pages , but then again, now that Mark has started writing books we can probably expect new one a year for the next 30 years with numerous recordings of live readings and anthologies. His bibliography will reach a hundred before we know it, although the discography will presumably be pushing towards four figures by then. Thanks Mark.

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