Graded on a Curve:
The Fall,
50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong–39 Golden Greats

The death of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith at age 60 has left me inconsolable; as a proud member of rock music’s most exclusive cult I find it hard to wrap my mind around the horrible fact that I have no more new Fall LPs to look forward to. Because the most telling thing I can say about rock’s most cantankerous, cranky, and iconoclastic artist is this: despite his age, Smith adamantly refused to rest on his laurels. He continued to produce difficult, angular, instantly recognizable, and ultimately brilliant music up until the very end.

By no means did the inimitable Mr. Smith end his days as a novelty act, reprising his greatest hits. Not that he had any greatest hits. Legendary DJ John Peel may have thought The Fall was the greatest thing since the watercress sandwich, but they never (in part because they remained a distinctly English phenomena) gained anything remotely resembling a mass following. Indeed, the title of 2004’s best-of compilation 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong–borrowed, of course, from Elvis Presley’s LP 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong–is a self-mocking reference to this fact.

The first thing to be said about 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong–which includes both album tracks and singles from 1978 to 2003–is that there’s no way it could do the work intended. Trying to sum up The Fall in 39 songs is like trying to sum up Winston Churchill by saying he enjoyed cigars. The Fall catalogue is a sprawling beast because Mark E. Smith was a prolix artist who wasn’t happy unless he was glutting the market with studio albums, singles, EPs, live LPs, and compilations of all sorts, some of highly uneven quality but many dead brilliant. By my admittedly sloppy count The Fall released 10 records in 2005 alone. I certainly haven’t listened to everything The Fall committed to record, and I almost certainly never will. I’ll leave that to the sorts of obsessives who would otherwise be dedicating themselves full-time to trainspotting.

And now a brief word on the man. By all accounts Mark E. Smith was a dreadful person to work for. He was addicted to drink and speed, dictatorial, and occasionally violent, and he would only let his underlings listen–and I’m talking about listening without talking–to the music he wanted them to listen to while in route by tour bus from one gig to another. In short, he was a combination of Charles Mingus, Ronnie Van Zant, Buddy Rich, and Genghis Khan, with a little Captain Beefheart–who liked to brag that he was a master of brainwashing techniques–thrown in for flavoring. But hey, it’s like they say: Nice guys finish last. Which is not to say I don’t prefer nice guys. But despots have their appeal too. So what if Mark E. was a megalomaniacal prick? Like the aforementioned gentlemen–with the exceptions of Buddy Rich and Genghis Khan–he produced a ton of music that I consider indispensable.

And he wasn’t all bad. The man had a wonderful sense of humor, could be quite the charmer when he wanted to be, and had a way of peppering his songs with hilarious and unforgettable catch phrases that will amuse me for as long as I live (e.g., “hey there fuck face!”, “You say what about the meek/I say they’ve got a bloody cheek!”, “I said eat this grenade!”, “Pink Floyd are short,” etc. etc.) And don’t even get me started on his coinage of the word “infra-skunk-structure.” Ronnie Van Zant never thought up a word as completely insane as “infra-skunk-structure.” And so far as I know Genghis Khan never did either. Which is not say he was a person you wanted to have to deal with. My friend Bernie Wandel, former manager of Washington D.C. club The Black Cat, remembered him with the words, “He always got what he wanted, had to be coddled to get on stage, treated his band like dirt, and stole all the booze from them. But whatever.” Whatever indeed.

But if you think I’m hear to slag the late Mr. Smith, you’re wrong. He was a genius, and the proof can be heard on all 39 of the “golden greats” on 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong. It’s a must own for beginners, spanning as it does the improbably long and fecund career of Smith and The Fall from the early days of “Repetition” (which is dauntingly and hypnotically repetitious indeed) and “Totally Wired” (The Fall’s answer to the Velvet Underground’s speed anthem “White Light/White Heat”) to such mid-career highlights as “The Classical,” “Kicker Conspiracy,” and “Cruiser’s Creek” to such later standouts as “Free Range” (which comes complete with the inspirational line, “Insect posse will be crushed!”), “Behind the Counter” (which boasts one of my favorite bass lines of all time), the rousing “Touch Sensitive” (hilarious), and the ultra-menacing “Crop-Dust” (one of the most foreboding songs you ever will hear). Like any good Fall fan, I can think of dozens of songs that SHOULD be on this compilation (where are “Theme From Sparta F.C.,” “Bill Is Dead,” or any of the fabulous songs on 1988’s I Am Kurious Oranj?), but as any good Fall fan will tell you, the only really decent Fall compilation would contain hundreds of songs, every last one of them a rocking horse winner. And it should be born in mind that this comp doesn’t include any of the great music The Fall recorded after 2003 (see, for example, “Blindness,” “Fall Sound,” “What About Us?”, “Reformation,” etc., etc.).

In closing, allow me a few rambling words. Mark E. Smith was a mad bastard and the best squealer in the history of rock ’n’ roll. He didn’t sing so much as talk, rant, and append extra syllables to the ends of his words (e.g., “free range-uh”). He spent 40 relentlessly avant-garde years in the music biz without ever writing a pretty song or a song that could be called a ballad. He went through band members–I count some 66, give or take a few–the way other people go through toilet paper, and he never worried much about the fact. He always did exactly what he wanted, which came down to drink, smoke, take speed, write his trademark gnomic lyrics along with the occasional short story and one very scabrous and hilarious autobiography, and take long walks through his native Manchester, carry bag filled with books, pints of lager, lyrics, and cigarettes forever in hand. One very perverse way of declaring an artist a genius is by noting the fact that said artist had no imitators because said artist simply could not be imitated. By these standards, Smith was a genius indeed.

And he had a certain, er, demonic charm, our Mark. I will leave you with an anecdote recollected in tranquility by a man quoted in the extensive British press coverage of Smith’s death. To wit: “One day I was talking to him in the bar of a grand London hotel. We were sat far too near a massive open fire, a five-foot cliff of coal that glowed white-hot. A new, young, female journalist walked nervously over to us, shyly introducing herself to the great man. With much flourish, and tremendous showing off, he popped yet another cigarette into his mouth and leaned into the furnace to light it. As he emerged, puffing and self-satisfied, he began to cuttingly tease the newcomer, to put her on the back foot. She just laughed. Both of Mark E Smith’s eyebrows were smouldering.” Which is to say he may have been the devil, but even the devil has his appeal. Mark E. Smith will be missed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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