Anyone looking to take a fresh approach to Mark E Smith’s inimitable expressive vehicle will be intimidated. Not only because of the insane breadth of the gigantic work that The Fall left for eternity (more than forty albums!), but also because of the impossibility of putting them into any defined category that delimits coordinates in which one can orient oneself.
The Fall are an exciting leap into the void. An anomaly. Emerging from the catacombs of post-punk in the decadent Manchester of the late seventies and thanks to the work and grace of a tough, restless pimp and former longshoreman, the band tirelessly mutated in formation and genre until they played almost any style: from post- dirty punk to shabby rockabilly; from acid indie pop to electronica; from manic post-kraut to proto dark metal. They created, in their way, the mold of the fiercest and most sincere independence. The Fall are…The Fall. Or as Mark explained: “Me and my grandmother playing the bongos would be The Fall”.
Above the (splendid) music, The Fall are an attitude towards the world. They are danger, uncertainty, chaos. Beauty in the grotesque. Unlimited courage in the expressive. Excess and sobriety. Discipline in repetition. Avant-garde very close to the ground. Dirty and futuristic realism. Madness and lucidity. A window closed to hundreds of references to a dislocated but irresistible world. “We could have been another Rough Trade group,” said the indomitable Mancunian on another occasion, whose ability to observe his country and ruthless satire, in addition to his impossible personality, made him a local treasure that transcended the caricature that was made of it, and to which Smith contributed.
His northern attitude of not admitting an ounce of bullshit, so rare these days, did not diminish his ability to write songs with a unique and, in his own way, poetic point of view. His death at the age of sixty in January 2018 made headlines on primetime news.
Four years after its end, The Fall remain elusive. But in “Dig in!” journalist and musician Bob Stanley and cultural critic Tessa Norton tackle the oceanic oeuvre of Smith and company, its visceral mystery, through insightful essays written by themselves and other journalists, fan artists, and technicians like Grant Showbiz, all of whom are fans. It is about contextualizing The Fall culturally, geographically, musically and sociologically. Inevitably they go around the bush talking about local amateur football (in one of the two included interviews Smith talks about his love of City and his contempt for United), the architectural brutalism of Prestwich, Lovecraft and many other more or less interesting things. Ultimately, it is about unraveling the mystery. Or at least try.
More than in the essays, which have a marked academic tone -snobbish, Smith would have said wrinkling his nose with a pint in his hand- it is in the detailed reproduction of flyers, covers -which explored all imaginable aesthetics-, manuscripts, drawings, posters, concert tickets, fonts, fanzines and other paraphernalia accumulated in forty years of feverish activity where the curious can find their own clues and references about the creative explosion of Smith and his acolytes. Stakhanovism applied to a band without limits, which in the eighties collaborated with a choreographer, dislocating everyone…
The interview with Smith from 1999, just after he was arrested and his band left him in the middle of a tour, also has a crumb. “The visionary is necessarily an outsider”, quotes the author of the interview, Tony Herrington, in relation to the unique character of our man.
Actually, putting together such a brainy volume about a crazy genius outsider who didn’t even leave his lyrics written (except on one occasion), and who made sure his musicians never put the “professionalism” on autopilot, is a mission doomed to relative failure: we can imagine what the caustic grump would have thought, from his usual seat in the pub, of this illustrious project aimed at the urbanite finolis. Which does not detract from a luxurious medium-format book edited with as much taste as reverential affection for the “British treasure”, but only truly recommended for those already initiated. In that sense, “Renegade”the hilarious and chaotic autobiography of the character who drove The Fall with an iron will (and hand) (and who, to my knowledge, has not been translated either), remains essential.
Dig up! The Wonderful & Frightening World of The Fall, book review (2022)