Excavate! The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall
Edited by Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley; Illustrated, 360 pp. Faber & Faber, 2021 Reviewed by Bob Nickas
One sunny afternoon not long ago, I was walking through the park with my pal Nick, a fellow Fall fan of good standing. The Fall, the venerable British group that outlasted all those who came to prominence amid late ’70s punk/post-punk, and on either side of the Atlantic, operating continuously across four decades, with a devoted cult following, attracting younger recruits both in the audience and in its own ranks. Despite shambolic beginnings, a highly refined contrariness, and an uncanny talent for shape-shifting without seeming to disturb a single molecule, they would become what’s known as an institution. Nick’s a Brit who’s lived in New York long enough by now, and in any case never possessed a shred of the Anglo-superiority that gullible Americans in this former colony are daily taken in by—the vocal grift that turns anyone who can manage what passes for an upper-crusty English accent, even the son of a stableboy, into a gent, as the saying goes, to the manor born. But don't get me started. Ambling alongside us was his 7-year-old son, who, out of the blue, looked over and asked with the serious curiosity of those within their first decade, “Why are you a Fall fan?” I was speechless, momentarily at least, had to put my mind to a satisfactory reply, though I can't say that either of us were satisfied. Never once in the past 40-plus years, my entire adult life nearly, had I inquired the same of myself. And why? Quite possibly because to be immersed in Fall-world is to be entangled in a web, not unlike the one spun for the sleeve of their second, yet compelling record, Dragnet (1979).
It is to be pulled in, not merely by Fall-sound and its undertow, but into a larger, spookier constellation of influences and hauntings across time, from the 1870s to the 1970s (the mid-Victorian era to the post-industrial decline which gave rise to punk), that formed their lyricist and, for a good long while, their resident visionary, one Mark E Smith. He would memorably describe The Fall as “head music with energy.” Has anyone ever come closer? Amid a hyper, hazy, hallucinatory soundtrack—”Rowche Rumble,” “Totally Wired,” their amphetamine-fueled cover of “Mr. Pharmacist”—they created an effect that was at times, as I'd often insist, drugs without having to take them. Not the sort of thing to be shared with a 7 year old, and even then it’s only one part of a puzzle with many wayward pieces. “Head music with energy.” It’s how the visual art that fully engages us may be defined, and how the people we are magnetically drawn to, for better or worse, may be thought of as well.
Smith's untimely departure in Jan. 2018, age 60—any photographs of him without a drink and a cigarette in hand would surely have been taken when he was but a mere child—signaled the ending of an era, or rather the endings of eras, plural, since he passed through many in his forty years leading The Fall. His songs in retrospect can be seen as having charted an often mocking course for post-punk, the indie years that followed, indie, as he might have had it, so-called, although no one really knows—or much cares?—what they meant, and the last twenty leading up to his passing. This was a period without decades, a sailing rudderless you might say, with no reliable frame around a bigger picture, one allowing for the focus in which smaller details magnify texture and vividness of time past, and to align with the coordinates of the present. (Those blips on the radar screen grow fainter daily.) Had Smith prevailed, we may have been offered commentary on dear Lady Brexit and not so veiled allusions to Boris Johnson—a Benny Hill figure walks beside us, lumbers more accurately. But we're left with more than What if? Smith's passing opens a door to those understandably wary in his lifetime, who feared the wrath, the withering dismissal, to come forward now with essays, books, appreciations (he was not appreciated? not likely), where they might have demurred. Some may have previously held their tongue, since Smith certainly wouldn't. Woe betide. In his lifetime he directed the narrative, always managing the last word—the last until the next. The fact is that he will not recede any time soon. Already posthumously published, from almost out of nowhere it seems, The Otherwise: The Screenplay for a Horror Film That Never Was, co-written by Smith and Graham Duff (the fright begins even before it’s even cracked open, with the rather unfortunate cover illustration). The book is accompanied by a bonus paperback, The Future’s Here to Stay: The Singles of The Fall, as if added incentive was needed for those who wouldn't have been easily persuaded? A far more consequential publication is rumored to be in the works, a collection of Smith's complete lyrics—with upwards of 400 songs, a volume of some heft to be sure.
The Bibliophile's Backdrop
The stellar editors of and contributors to the recently published Excavate! The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall, reside in neither a once cowering nor presently fearless realm. They simply, as Smith often chastised the group, got on with it, and astoundingly so. They have cruised and mapped Smith's neighbourhood of infinity, much of its length and breadth, to produce a book that Smith certainly would have endorsed, which would not be the case for any on The Fall excepting those he’d penned himself. The idea that “Distance equals control” does not apply to Mark E Smith, even from the great beyond? The truly perverse selling point of Dave Simpson's attempt at tracking down each and every past member, some sixty in all, The Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain's Most Insane Group (2008), was the lead blurb on its cover, from Smith himself: “I just f***ing burned it.” Excavate!, in stark contrast, would have had a place of honor on his no-doubt-dusty shelf. There you might encounter a copy of Paintwork: A Portrait of The Fall, by Brian Edge, published in 1989, and for a long while the only book on the group, well-leafed by Fall fans despite its hideous new wave-y cover design. Somewhere along the line—an intro to a song? scrawled on the back of a record sleeve? (“Where it is I can't remember”)—Smith declared “A spotty exterior hides a spotty interior.” This is another way of saying you can judge a book by its cover, or a person for that matter. Typically phrased with his own particular humor/logic, Smith acknowledges that what some believe concealed is obvious to anyone else at half a glance.
This new book joins a veritable cavalcade of those issued prior. No less than three books would appear in 2003, including Hip Priest: The Story of Mark E. Smith and The Fall, by Simon Ford; A User’s Guide to the Fall, by Dave Thompson; and The Fall, by Smith and Mick Middles, considered to be the only authorized biography. Five years later, Smith issued Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith, 2008, his autobiography, and coincidentally, for his timing could be scarily on point, this was a year which also saw his despised, The Fallen, already updated and reissued as the author’s obsessive sleuthing continued. (If the ever-illusive misfit, the most colorful character of all, drummer Karl Burns turns up, a third volume will be announced with the ringing of church bells far and wide). Fans in 2010 may have found in their Christmas stockings Mark E Smith and The Fall: Art, Music and Politics, edited by Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan, although yours truly was not among them. In a span of a few short years, between 2014 and 2016, memoirs from three former members of the group appeared. One after another came The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall, by bassist Steve Hanley, who Smith himself identified as defining The Fall's sound, co-written with Olivia Piekarski; You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide, from drummer Simon Wolstencroft; and The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise, by Brix Smith Start, guitarist, catalyst, and one-time wife, who almost single-handedly transformed the group, taking them from cult periphery to pop’s main stage and the singles charts. The Big Midweek, immensely informative and enjoyable, should be first on anyone’s list. The other half of the Fall’s killer rhythm section, his brother, drummer Paul Hanley—recruited to the group when he was only 15!—gave us Have a Bleedin Guess: The Story of Hex Enduction Hour in 2019, which is equally indispensable. Rounding out (until now at least) the library whose shelf expanded: Messing Up the Paintwork: The Wit and Wisdom of Mark E. Smith, 2018, intro'd by Stuart Maconie. (Nowhere in my book-filled lodgings—volumes even piled high in the kitchen, and they are not cookbooks—do I possess any titled The Wit and Wisdom of … Until one is compiled for Vladimir Putin, I won't have them in the house.) In addition, Smith himself issued two collections of selected lyrics, the first in 1985 (the orange book), the second in 2008 (blue), both out-of-print and pricey if you can find them. For a copy of The Fall Lyrics, the least painful extraction is in the vicinity of $300 at AbeBooks, even higher on Amazon. And may Mr. Bezos be forever lost in space.
To all the above I was a willing accomplice, guilty as charged, or in the popular parlance of today's un-conflicted editors, writers and reviewers, in full disclosure: the artist Nik Planck and I contrived a book-length conversation around The Fall's Hex Enduction Hour in 2014, which was made out to look like one from the 33 1/3 series, our way of shaming Bloomsbury for never dedicating a volume to anything ever released by The Fall. Beyond shocking, really. Although the book mimicked their standard design, the all-important 33 1/3 logo was consciously omitted. Even so, our publisher would be served with a 16-page cease-and-desist letter from a team of their intrepid lawyers; this we promptly incorporated, in full, in a small-run ‘zine to further humiliate—under the imprint, Gloomsbury. And this past year, by way of At Last Books, Nik teamed up with me yet again, providing the illustrations for Slang King: MES On Stage With The Fall 1977-2013. The intro title, “Having Fun With M.E.S. On Stage,” was meant as a sly reference to Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, Smith a longtime fan of the King. (When asked why he never included lyrics with Fall records, Smith insisted that ‘Elvis never did—and he mumbled!’) Slang King, having gone into its second printing almost overnight, confirms Smith’s acknowledgement of Fall fans as truly “the salt of the earth.” Although the most diehard among them may have every book mentioned here, Excavate! is the one they've been waiting for—without knowing they were. As for no less than five paragraphs leading to its actual review, keep in mind that Smith would sometimes say upon his delayed arrival on stage, “Sorry for the long intro tape.”
One of the most loyal of Fall supporters, the sorely missed DJ John Peel, when asked which were the best of the group’s records to get, for someone just starting out, he barely blinked before advising you had to have them all. Similar counsel may not find a literary parallel, the teetering pile of books a decidedly mixed lot. Excavate!, however, rightly deserves its place at the very top, and this despite, as the editors allow in their opening note: “This is not a book about a rock group. This is not even a book about Mark E Smith.” This admission is only believable as made on page 9 (here ix), as the hundreds that follow are filled to the brim with the whole physical/cerebral milieu that formed Smith's sensibility, the very foundation to be found beneath his feet, in his head, the streets he traveled and time-traveled, his imaginings in and around Manchester, Salford, Prestwich. With its range of subjects, the reader may be put in mind of a newspaper, from the front page to the sports at back (Kicker! Conspiracy), sections devoted to politics and social issues, an arts section paying particular attention to literary figures, local news accounting for folk tales and the occult, even addressing the graphics and typography with which The Fall’s reports were delivered. (The design, by Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey, consistently excellent throughout.) Smith was not averse to collaging bits from news stories and ads into his songs, snippets caught off the TV, related to the habit Samuel Beckett pursued as a young writer in the 1930s, which he called “phrase-hunting.” With the format of a paper in mind, we might imagine pages of this book found crumpled in the corners of a Working Men’s Club, the W.M.C. non-Brit fans would initially have become aware from The Fall’s Grotesque (After the Gramme), released in 1980, and highly recommended.
Although not in any way a sports enthusiast myself, some of the best pieces in the book are easily those about football, most amusingly an interview with Smith, “Call Yourself A Football Fan?” dating to 2000, and all too brief.
Bob Stanley's “Call Yourselves Bloody Professionals? The Fall and Amateurism,” is one of the standouts here. Another is found at the juncture of two related essays, Mark Sinker's elaborately titled “Cardinal R. Totale's Scrapbook: Torn Fragments of James, Machen and Lovecraft, Unpulped Among a Jumbled Trove of Songs by The Fall, Early and Also Late,” and Mark Fisher's “Memorex for the Kraken: The Fall's Pulp Modernism.” Fisher's three-part essay is a 2006 response to one of Sinker’s from twenty years prior, who, having another go, doesn't quite sink MF with his revision for this collection, which Sinker admits is “me in 2019 disagreeing with both of us.” Between them we are introduced to the pantheon of Smith's admired authors, from M.R. James and Arthur Machen to H.P. Lovecraft and Wyndham Lewis, with Edgar Allan Poe, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Colin Wilson—Ritual in the Dark—making appearances here and elsewhere. This book, duly noted, like most everything on The Fall and Smith to date, has been authored by Brits, while the group’s literate and devoted following extended from Cologne to New York to LA. In this collection, the essay “America Therein” was written by Dan Fox, who, although long based in New York, was raised in the village of Wheatley, Oxfordshire. Fox at least accounts for, among Smith’s literary twilight zone, Rod Serling. (A new Fall tome should, in my estimation, be an entirely American affair. Stay tuned… ) One of the book’s highlights comes early on with Elain Harwood's “Jerusalem to Prestwich,” which takes us through the spatial/temporal locations that were key to Smith’s formation, by way of William Blake.
Excavate! does just that, excavates The Fall, digs into what lies beneath, what’s unseen but to palpable atmosphere, Smith’s undertow, not forgetting what ably propelled his song-stories, the group and their insistent, at times sinister bent. There lurks somewhere in this book a description of Steve Hanley's bass that, although only a single line, deserves a special literary award—an Edgar?—for pure ghoulish accuracy. Something like: the sound of a river being dredged for a body. Here, in addition to all the studio albums pictured front and back, the best artwork dating from between ‘79 and ‘85, there's all sorts of fantastic ephemera: early gig posters and fliers; letters and missives written by Smith; press releases and ads for albums and singles all beautifully (non) designed by his own hand (his mocking voice coming through loud and clear—“Ask Your Local Record Dealer To Take That Stupid Expression Off His Face”); typed and hand-written lyrics.
There are vintage ads from his local papers—“After the match enjoy some Fish and Chips at KERSHAWS, 263 Bury Old Road, Heaton Park”—and reprints of Smith's one-off tabloid, Sinister Times, and the program from I Am Curious Orange, The Fall's collaboration with Michael Clark on his 1988 ballet, choreography to which they performed live. What’s been unearthed by the editors, including a number of left-field surprises not mentioned (who invented spoiler alerts, spoilsports?), makes for a visually compelling dive in and around nearly twenty essays and interview-based pieces.
The anti-esthetic Smith developed in the late ’70s/early ’80s, which would prove influential into the ’90s, may not spur a turn away from the ghastly “good taste” that sadly afflicts our own time. Of course if it does, Smith no doubt will return to say, “Notebooks out plagiarists!” Who knows what books will appear in the years ahead, but they will not have an easy time in topping the achievement that is Excavate!, unlike anything on Smith that has come before.
Fast forward to 2028. Having already given a copy of this book to the former 7 year old who wanted to know why I'm a Fall fan, with their 1985 masterwork, This Nation’s Saving Grace rumbling and shifting in the background, I'm creakily wheeled into the room to ask how he became a fan. Slowly, intently and in great detail, he begins to tell me everything.
— Bob Nickas
A writer and curator based in New York, Bob Nickas has published widely over the past thirty-plus years. His books include three collections of essays and interviews, the most recent, Komplaint Dept. (2018), from Karma Books. His first Fall show was in 1979 at the Palladium in NYC, where they opened for the Buzzcocks.