The Backdrop Shifted and Changed (a Fall story)

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In 1981 I first hear The Fall—“Rebellious Jukebox” is another post-punk song in an ocean of such stuff on a sampler album, and “Totally Wired” is a fixture on certain college radio shows. The singer and main Fall guy appears to be someone named Mark E. Smith. Upon moving to NYC and having the album Perverted by Language tossed my way by a friend, all of a sudden…“Hotel Blöedel”! With villainous violin sounds by Mr. Smith and sung (delightfully off-key) by his wife at the time, Brix Smith. Later comes a cassette tape of selections from the new Fall album The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (that title says it all) including “Elves” (think these guys ever heard “I Wanna Be Your Dog”?) and the lilting, too-tuneful (for The Fall) “Disney’s Dream Debased.” Missing from the tape but making its appearance later on, “2 By 4,” built on Stephen Hanley’s muscular, melodic bass lines and Karl Burns’ jackhammer drums. After that it’s FALL speed ahead!

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Living in the Bronx, everyone around me is a Fall fan. The band Fly Ashtray—still in existence today—is forging a sound directly influenced by The Fall’s minimal-yet-complex style, and we all spout Smith-isms from Fall lyrics every chance we get. Just released and in our hands is the EP Call for Escape Route, featuring an eight-minute long, positively danceable ode to low-rent apartment living, “No Bulbs.” The most astounding song I’ve ever heard. Next, a bright, poppy thing called “C.R.E.E.P.” and its sort-of psychedelic (in a Fall way) B side, “Pat Trip Dispenser.”

“Moveable backdrop / The backdrop shifted and changed”

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Soon a series of singles compilations and live tapes make the rounds, showcasing an earlier version of The Fall with Marc Riley on guitar, the best tracks being “The Classical” and “Backdrop” on Fall in a Hole. Both excellent examples of Smith’s rambling to the point of mania, over a tense-but-grooving post-punk landscape, his trademark penchant for ending every other word with an extra “ah” syllable not unlike a Southern preacher driving his fire-and-brimstone sermon home. Other ear-catching stuff include “The Man Whose Head Expanded” and the centerpiece from 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour (and what’s occasionally come to refer to Mr. Smith himself), “Hip Priest.”

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In April ’85, The Fall come to town, performing at the now-no-more Peppermint Lounge, during the final year of the club’s existence. The show’s mesmerizing high point is a driving, hammering thing with bedazzling, crazed chords from guitarist Craig Scanlon, carefully controlled feedback from the guitar of Brix, and typically indecipherable words from Mark E. The song is “Wings,” and it turns out I have it on one of the compilation tapes but never gave it a good listen. That all changes the following day as I put on Fall song after Fall song, culminating in a “Wings”-athon, playing the song ten times in a row. And note, this is 1985, so I have to rewind the cassette to the beginning of the track each time—no mere clicking on an icon. Wrapping myself around Smith’s enigmatic lyrics, I take in the strange, Philip K. Dick-esque tale of how changing the past can cause something in the present to cease to exist.

TheFall-ThisNation'sSavingGrace ( it wouldn’t be fall without…The Fall! The big event come autumn ’85 is the release of This Nation’s Saving Grace, their eighth album. Featuring the dance-party-fun, almost B-52s-ish “Cruisers Creek” (on the American release; the rest of the world gets “Barmy”—even more dance-party-fun and seeming to take its main hook from the horn break in the Monkees’ “Valleri”), Smith’s proclamation of his new digs, “My New House,” the intricate, intriguing “Paint Work,” and the homage to German progressive group Can and their Japanese lead vocalist, “I Am Damo Suzuki.”

“The backdrop shifted and changed / So did not even know what song it was”

The band gets poppier still with tracks like “Hot Aftershave Bop” and “Hey! Luciani,” then in March ’86 it’s another Fall show at a most unlikely venue: the Lone Star Café. Normally the home of country/western music in NYC, the place is showcasing Mark E. Smith & Co. for some reason. This time we’re there not only to see the band but also to interview them for my fanzine. So in between sets, suddenly I’m INTERVIEWING MARK E. SMITH. He actually comes across as somewhat approachable, up until he deems the session over by saying quietly but firmly, “I’m going to ask you to leave now.” And then it’s time for the next album, Bend Sinister, as The Fall falls back to a darker sound, albeit with snappy synths on stuff like “Shoulder Pads,”courtesy of keyboardist Simon Rogers.

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Now a bit of a break from The Fall…until The Frenz Experiment in 1988, showcasing a rendition of the Kinks’ “Victoria.” Another NYC performance at the Ritz (later Webster Hall, now, sadly, nothing), the next Fall release, I Am Kurious Oranj (in bright oranj album cover and producing the synthpoppy “Cab It Up!”), then in 1993—just to hear what the band is sounding like—I pick up The Infotainment Scan. It turns out be heavy on the electro-dance side, but one song stands out, a ridiculously light and tuneful cover called “I’m Going to Spain.” At this point I pretty much leave Smith and The Fall to their own devices. But they keep releasing albums, nearly one every year, with a constantly changing roster of musicians.

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“The backdrop shifted and changed / Until did not even know”

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Sometime in 2013 I catch a glimpse of the present-day Mark E. Smith in a magazine, and it’s not a pretty sight. Years of alcohol, tobacco, and who knows what else seem to have taken their toll. But the man soldiers on, branding himself and anyone he records/performs with as The Fall (“If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall,” he once uttered). 2017 sees the release of New Facts Emerge, a work that has Smith ranting, grunting, and yelling like never before. Several live dates suddenly appear—and sell out—at Brooklyn hotspot Baby’s All Right. And just as suddenly the shows are cancelled, presumably due to 60-year-old Smith’s declining health.

On January 24, 2018, I read the news of Mark E. Smith’s passing. The Hip Priest is dead. But with thirty-something Fall albums, plus countless compilations and live recordings, the genius cantankerousness of Mark E. Smith carries on…against an ever-changing, ever-shifting, ever-recognizable musical (sometimes not-so-musical) backdrop. As legendary BBC radio host John Peel described The Fall, “They are always different; they are always the same.”

“The backdrop shifted and changed / And this was The Fall / Goodnight”

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 “Backdrop” lyrics © Minder Music Ltd. / Songwriter: Mark E. Smith

Images courtesy,,,,,,,,


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