As The Fall release a singles box set, Getintothis‘ Banjo prepares for this feast by listening to every studio album by The Fall, yes every one, and then ranking them from best to worst.
The Fall have become a British institution. By dint of their sheer longevity and industry, they have become well respected, feted and probably the country’s longest lasting punk/post punk band. None of which would have been particularly apparent when they first came to our attention as awkward Mancs back in the heady days of 1977.
They have also been prolific, with a staggering 31 studio albums to their name, along with more than double that number of live and compilation albums. Often, Fall fans were able to expect at least two albums a year alongside almost constant touring. This is something that the band have associated with having a Northern work ethic – they were raised to work for a living, even if they had managed to avoid the factories of Manchester.
Mark E Smith is both leader of the band and its only constant member – the band are justly famed for their many lineup changes. Smith is an odd sort and has forged multiple reputations as either a psychic visionary, a cryptic curmudgeon or a plain old narky bastard. His habit of delivering lyrics and interviews that straddle the line between being wise and plainly nonsensical have caused one journalist to ask “What if we’ve got it wrong? What if he’s just some drunken old tramp and we’ve just been reading too much into it?”
Cherry Red Records have just announced the release of a box set comprising of their singles output, from 1978 – 2016, spread over seven CDs. This comprises the band’s A sides on the first three discs and their B sides on the remaining four. Few bands can have this kind of box set released because, quite simply, few have amassed such a vast body of work. The fact that The Fall are still releasing records in 2017 raises the prospect of this box set having to be revised in the future to an eighth disc, or a ninth, or who knows how many!
Now personally, I love The Fall and I (almost) always have. My own conversion to their cause came about after hearing John Peel play their debut EP, Bingo Master’s Breakout, although it was to be a frustrating 18 months before I finally got to see them live for the first time. And so it occurred to me that what I ought to do was to listen to the albums. All of them. In chronological order. And to further make a rod for my own back, I would then rank them in order of my preference, from best to last.
And then, because I’m a caring, sharing kind of a guy, I would report back from the frontline and pass on my shell shocked ramblings to you all. I’m not expecting thanks, but if you should pass me in the street, a grim nod will do as acknowledgment of what I have endured on your behalf.
And so with no further ado, let us plunge headfirst into Fall world. And may god have mercy on our souls.
1. Live At The Witch Trials.
The first and, to these ears, still the best Fall album. In fact I would go so far as to say it is truly one of the greatest debut albums ever made. At once in line with and at odds with the times. In many ways, The Fall peaked too soon, as they struggled to reach these heights again for some years.
A crisp, clear production and truly excellent drumming from Karl Burns help this album to shine. Martin Bramah’s discordant guitar is a work of genius and one that created a template for much of what was to follow in the wider post punk world. The songs here are lean and free of the improvisation/semi written songs that was to become a characteristic of their work more or less from this point on.
One consequence of this is that the songs sound like they have been worked on and rehearsed, characteristics that were not always apparent on some of their albums. Catchy and classic, The Fall definitely got off to the strongest of starts.
2. Perverted by Language
Perverted by Language is simply an epic album and contains some of my absolute favourite Fall songs, such as the hysterical Eat Y’self Fitter, the epic Garden and the unutterably brilliant Smile. Listening back, this is a flawless record and catches a band seemingly incapable of anything but brilliance. Stretched over three discs, the expanded version takes some digestion, and there is a fair amount of repetition involved in the tracklist but, as all Fall fans know, repetition has long been a motto for the band.
3. Hex Enduction Hour
Now this album is very much one I was looking forward to. This is an album that takes me back to happy times, going the Liverpool Warehouse, seeing The Fall and listening to this record on repeat. Hex is a simply remarkable album, where all The Fall’s often disparate parts gel to stunning effect.
Hip Priest is perhaps the high watermark in The Fall‘s second (or third) peak. In fact don’t just take my word for it, play this album as loud as your neighbours can bare. Apparently, when the band realised that the album ran for 60 minutes, they added the word ‘Hour’ to the title they already had and decided to split the record into two 30 minute sides.
The fact that this meant they had to split the song Winter in two, fading out at the end of side one and fading in again at the beginning of side two was not judged to be a problem. This approach is just one of the reasons why I used to have to go and see The Fall at least once a year, just to put things into perspective.
4. Bend Sinister
Another personal favourite and one where Steve Hanley’s near-goth basslines make themselves most felt. Bend Sinister also saw the mighty Simon Wolstencroft join the band on drums and marked yet another highpoint in the band’s sound, particularly live.
The tracklist reads like a best of collection, containing as many classic Fall songs as it does. Smith’s curmudgeonly side came to the fore again when he insisted that some of the songs were mastered not from the expensive and pristine tape reels in the studio, but from the battered cassette tape that he kept in his pockets. Bend Sinister was to be the last album the band made with producer John Leckie as a result of his clashes with Smith. Brix Smith’s influence on The Fall’s sound was strong here, bringing more and more of a welcome sweet note to their still abrasive noise.
5. This Nation’s Saving Grace
By now The Fall were well drilled and capable of creating a mighty racket at will. Album 10 finds the band on fine form and Brix settled into her role as guitarist. Her contributions again make them more accessible without losing any of their angularity or their edge. Not an easy task. Spoilt Victorian Child is again classic Fall and My New House sees Smith in quite literal form telling us about, erm, his new house. This particular album saw The Fall described by The Guardian as “thrillingly subverting the notion of what pop music is”. Quite.
6. The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall
A certain Brix Smith debuted on this record, steering The Fall in perhaps a more pop direction. Although it must be pointed out that in Fall world, the term ‘pop’ still involves a large amount of discordant noise and almost avant-garde diversions. A good production makes this perhaps a good entry point for Fall fans who were put off by their more obtuse moments.
Steve Hanley has often been credited with being responsible for a good amount of The Fall’s signature sound, and that is noticeable here. The expanded version of this clocks in at a worrying and impressive 4 CDs, adding a CD of alternate mixes, one of BBC sessions and another with a live recording. This is a ‘take us as you find us’ live document but is also the first album so far I don’t particularly feel the need to play again. However, a peak in the Fall‘s output was just around the corner.
Originally a mini album, the CD release was expanded by adding a Peel session and other tracks, making it…what? A maxi mini album? When Slates was first released on 10” vinyl it was disqualified from both the singles and albums charts, not quite satisfying the rules for either, meaning The Fall missed out on a potential chart placing but gained some extra points for their outsider status.
Listening back, this sounds like the most typically ‘post-punk’ sounding of The Fall’s albums so far. Middlemass is a stone cold classic and the title track is one that instantly transports me back to a youth of listening to John Peel in my bedroom and finding new sounds on an almost daily basis. A 100% Fall classic to this day. Some of the guitar work brings to mind Rowland S Howard, so it looks like The Fall and The Birthday Party had formed some kind of mutual admiration society. At other times, the intertwining guitars bring Television to mind, but obviously a shouty Northern version
8. The Frenz Experiment
By now I am starting to dream about Mark E Smith, his voice permeating my subconscious and wedging itself deep into my mind. While The Fall ‘s ninth proper album didn’t see them go overground, it did see them break cover for a while.
The Brix sound was now well established into the fabric of The Fall and they were, to these ears, all the better for it. Their cover of The Kinks’ Victoria saw them crack the top 40 for the second and last time. Elsewhere, the album saw Mark E Smith in reflective mood. Opening track Frenz saw him worry that “my friends ain’t enough for one hand” while on the next track Carry Bag Man he talked about his habit of using carrier bags for pretty much everything (It was not uncommon to see smith walk on stage with two or more carrier bags for his lyrics and cans of beer, even at bigger, more prestigious gigs than usual).
This was something new, we have so far not been made aware of this Mark E Smith, where he shone the spotlight of his intellect so strongly on himself. Frenz is not without teeth though, most notably Bremen Nacht, which could be so fierce when played live that is was an astonishing spectacle.
Extricate saw The Fall in a strange place. Brix had gone, taking a lot of the band’s populist appeal with her, and when the album was released in 1990, the dance explosion that followed Acid House had swept the nation and invented Madchester. The Fall’s answer to this was Telephone Thing, a slab of off kilter funk that again saw the band gather rave reviews.
Listening back now, it sounds like The Fall being influenced by the baggy guitar sound of the time, which is something that was never going to end well. Elsewhere however, The Fall still had their own niche carved out. Bill is Dead is another highpoint for them, as Smith manages to sing a love song and make it sound like he can’t quite believe it himself.
He sing/speaks “But just lately seeing you, I rise a.m. off pink sheets. I am renewed, I am aglow” before even getting raunchy with us by telling us “Your legs are so cool, came twice, you thrice”. The song saw The Fall top John Peel’s Festive 50 for the first time. It seemed Mark E Smith had got over the loss of Brix in more ways than one.
10. The Infotainment Scan
Amazingly, The Infotainment Scan saw The Fall keep the same lineup from their previous album. Even more amazingly, it also entered the charts at Number 9. The album became regarded as one of the more accessible Fall albums, possibly largely due to the inclusion of the band’s cover of Sister Sledge’s disco classic Lost in Music.
Glam Racket bounces along impressively on some Glitter Band style drums and Paranoia Man in Cheap Shit Room is again classic Fall. There is a moment of lyrical genius on The League of Bald Headed Men, as Smith uses the word ‘suppurates’, pauses and then tells us to “look it up!” There are some things the only Mark E Smith can do.
Now on their 15th studio album, The Fall have amassed a canon of recorded material that must surely be unsurpassed in terms of overall quality, breadth of music and the number of musicians who have played on them. Impressive stuff by anybody’s standards. Sadly, this was not to last.
11. I am Kurious, Oranj
Yet another peak for The Fall, album 13 saw them working with modern ballet enthusiast Michael Clarke and was intended as the soundtrack to his Edinburgh Festival piece I Am Curious, Orange. It features many nods to earlier Fall work, such as opener New Big Prinz, which reworks Hip Priest to great effect. Another excellent production, this time from Ian Broudie, sees them sound crisp and tight, Wolstencroft’s drumming again coming across particularly well.
Record Label Beggar’s Banquet threw their weight behind the band, with such promotional devices as the ‘world’s first double 3” CD single’ for Prinz. Sadly this was all to no avail ,as the song peaked at number 59. Brix was furious that her husband wrote the song Bad News Girl about her and it seemed like the writing was on the wall for indie noise – pop’s first couple as she left both her husband and the band before their next album.
The Fall who made this album are a different band to the one who debuted with its mighty predecessor. By Dragnet, Martin Bramah and Karl Burns had left the band, meaning the album has a completely different sound. Personally I wasn’t a fan of this at the time, paling as it did in comparison to Witch Trials. Listening to it now, away from the expectations of following its The Fall‘s best album, it is perhaps the proper entry into Fallworld – this is how they were and where they would now progress from. In My Area especially is a work of genius. One can see how they would build from here, and the years of madness that would lay ahead.
13. Room to Live
In Steve Hanley’s excellent autobiography, The Big Midweek, he describes this as a collection of half-finished songs. It is easy to see what he means, but I’ve always really liked this. Perhaps as a way of clearing the band’s collective head after the intensity of Hex Enduction Hour, this shows the band in less intense, claustrophobic form. Another expanded mini album, by now Peel session are regularly forming part of my listening, often providing the best versions of songs.
14. Grotesque (After the Gramme)
I wasn’t looking forward to this as I didn’t like it at all when it came out, but it is hard to deny that it has some brilliant Fall songs on. By album three I think we have to accept that Witch Trials was a one off and the band that made it were over quickly. Lots of ‘found sound’ things going on and The Fall seem to have a disregard for their songs that borders on deconstruction. Does that make this a cross between a Duchamp exhibition and a Masterchef cheesecake? With the benefit of hindsight I am glad I came back to this album, I like it a lot more now than my young self did.
15. Code Selfish
New member Dave Bush brought drum machines, a slight techno edge and technology into The Fall for Code Selfish. At first hearing, it was a little strange hearing The Fall go modern, but hearing Smith ramble over the likes of Free Range made it still sound like The Fall we all (?) know and love. It must be said though that it must be considered to be a little cavalier to have a drummer like Simon Wolstencroft in your band and then have a tinny drum machine replace him on some tracks. Overall though, an album that would please Fall fans but was unlikely to win them any new fans.
16. The Unutterable
Amazingly, given the tumultuous time the band had recording their previous album The Marshall Suite, The Unutterable was recorded with the same lineup. After having been together for the best part of a year, the band were able to make a more coherent record. Smith’s scathing take on the world around him survived all the band’s trials and troubles and, against my expectations, The Unutterable is a great Fall album.
17. Shift Work
Reduced to a four piece for the first time, due to Smith sacking both Martin Brammah and Marcia Schofield after the Extricate tour, Shift Work sees a slimmed down Fall still making a big noise. By now, the lineup changes were simply a part of The Fall’s evolving sound and possibly their continued survival. Shift Work contains a good share of Fall classics, such as Idiot Joy Showland, Edinburgh Man and Pittsville Direkt.
The album is not without it’s low points however; A Lot of Wind sees a lyrical low for Smith, as he watches daytime TV and repeatedly concludes that they talk a lot of wind. An example of this insight can be found in the lyrics “Then they have Carl Lewis on, he’s got a ponytail and he’s a vegan, he talks a lot of wind”. Oh very dear.
18. Fall Heads Roll
The Fall’s 24th studio album does not get off to a good start, opener Ride Away sounds like it was written moments before being recorded, featuring basic bass, drums, guitar and toytown keyboards and a badly sung vocal. This is a trend that continues throughout the album, rudimentary musicianship, basic song structures and repetitive songs abound.
But as the album progresses, a strange thing happens; it all starts to make sense. The repetitive nature of the songs starts to get to you, worm their way under your skin and suddenly you find that you’re playing the album again. And again. And then you realise that Fall Heads Roll is a great album, and one that offers a lesson in how Fall music works
19. The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)
The unusual album title came about because a mix of the album called Country on the Click was leaked online, prompting Mark E Smith to rework the album before releasing it with its amended title. Yet again, Smith’s ability to turn on The Fall’s trademark sound, seemingly at will, is here and The Fall seem to be on another, unexpected, roll. Opener Green Eyed Loco-Man is something of a stormer, bringing to mind their Perverted by Language years. Theme from Sparta FC is another classic. Write The Fall off at your peril seems to be the message here.
20. Cerebral Caustic
Just to prove that you can never predict what will happen in Fall world, Cerebral Caustic saw the return on Brix to The Fall’s ever-changing lineup. The reasons for this can only be guessed at, but maybe Mark E Smith missed her easy ability with a hook and the commercial success she brought to The Fall.
If that was the case, she returned in more snarling form than previously, although it is good to hear her guitar lines bringing catchy melody to the band once more. The album gets off to an energetic start with The Joke leaning towards 60s Nuggets style punk. A promising start. Rainmaster is almost vintage Fall, but the quality control is not kept up and the album starts to flag, especially on the double CD version.
21. New Facts Emerge
And so we come up to date with The Fall’s latest offering. Have they progressed beyond the garage rock of their last few albums? Well thankfully yes. Opening track Segue indicates something a little different, consisting as it does of Smith burbling nonsense into a microphone before Fol De Rol starts things off proper with a classic Fall riff and Smith on positively snarling form.
The Fall, it seems, are not a band who should be easily written off and their new album is their best for many years, although that may be damning it with faint praise. They seem energised and even play around with studio experimentation again, such as backward MES vocals (as if they aren’t frightening enough forward!). It marks the end of my listening journey, and it’s an end that lifts my hardened soul and brings a smile to my face. The Fall have still got it, and for that I am very thankful.
22. The Marshall Suite
Recorded after a disastrous tour which saw almost the entire band quit following on stage fights and dressing room recriminations, this should have been a disaster of an album. Instead, The Marshall Suite goes some way to addressing the faults of the previous few Fall albums.
Still largely improvised in the studio and recorded with a lineup that was still changing (a bassist and a drummer were both replaced during the sessions), It is a testament to Mark E Smith’s force of personality that this is as listenable as it is. Of course, Smith’s personality was proving to be both The Fall’s strongest asset and its biggest liability. Not a great album by any means, but a long way from the disaster that it could have been.
23. Are You Missing Winner
So, after a period of relative calm, Mark E Smith sacked the entire band (again!) before recording their 22nd studio album. By now the saga has a touch of soap opera about it and one in which there are worries for Smith’s mental health. Recorded on a shoestring budget, the recording of Are You Missing Winner sounds like a miserable experience.
Money was in such short supply that there was nothing left in the kitty to master the tapes before release. That said, The Fall sound relatively lively and in your face. There have certainly been Fall albums with worse sound quality than this. The songs are a bit meat-and-potatoes though, with little in the way of imagination or innovation. Perhaps the sound of a band treading water out of necessity, else they drown.
24. Your Future Our Clutter
The Fall really have no right to sound as lean and hungry as they do on Your Future Our Clutter. A rarity in recent years an album that features the same lineup as its predecessor, The Fall sound tight and on form here. Again, they open with a killer song, this time in O.F.Y.C. Showcase.
A driving drum beat leads us into a track featuring all The Fall trademarks and shows us that they are always capable of producing worthwhile music, despite the passing of time and their move to perhaps the fringe of the music scene. It cannot be easy being a member of The Fall, Smith’s psychological war on his band mates must be hell to live through, but it certainly seems to work when they are producing music like this.
25. Middle Class Revolt
After the top ten chart success of The Infotainment Scan, Middle Class Revolt only managed to limp to number 48 on release. It seems the public pretty much got it right, as it is a dip in The Fall’s output. It is difficult to say why as, with Karl Burns back in the band, the return to a two drummer lineup powers the songs along and a good production, but the nothing stands out on this album. Maybe it is a consequence of the work ethic and their seeming refusal to take time out as most bands do. Disappointing.
Recorded during what was probably the unhappiest time to be a member of The Fall, Levitate is a hotch-potch of half-baked ideas and styles. Long standing Fall members Karl Burns and Craig Scanlon were fired, Brix had already left for the second time and Simon Wolstencroft left during recording. Scanlon’s absence particularly shows in this record.
Smith’s attitude to his band mates being replaceable parts in his vision had been proved wrong and it was sadly not for the last time. The album’s original producers left after just one week, taking the master tapes with them. The tracks here sound like they were cobbled together from what was left of the wreckage. Not pretty, this was also a sad time to be a Fall fan.
27. Reformation Post TLC
Apparently the TLC part of this title means ‘thieves, liars and cunts” and is a reference to the latest batch of band member to quit during an American tour. Nice. Smith was pleased that the American musicians he picked up had little knowledge of the British music scene and were, therefore, uninfluenced by the likes of Oasis and the Stone Roses.
The downside of this is that they also seem relatively uninfluenced by The Fall. Although competent and solid, the band seem lacking in edge. Insult Song seems to be the pinnacle of this, as they indulge in a light funk backing that, when MES is subtracted, could be any band in any city in any part of the world succeeding in being unremarkable.
28. The Light User Syndrome
The downward slope started on previous albums Cerebral Caustic continues, and Light User Syndrome marked the point where The Fall and I parted company for a while. Two albums of below par, unremarkable material was too much. The times had moved on and so I abandoned my Fall buying habits. If anything, in think I hung on a little too long.
29. Imperial Wax Solvent
Another album, another lineup. At this stage, did anyone really know or care who was in the band? Had it truly come to pass that The Fall was Mark E Smith and whoever he had managed to press gang into his backing band? Yes, of course it had. Did it matter?
Well maybe a little, but by the time Smith had poured his trademark anti-singing scorn over the top of it, it sounded like The Fall no matter what. Imperial Wax Solvent isn’t an awful album, but by the same token it isn’t a remarkable. Not an album I have played very often, and revisiting it now hasn’t persuaded me to change that in the future.
30. Ersatz GB
The Fall’s 28th studio album achieves the distinction of having the same lineup as its two predecessors, a feat unheard of before in Fall history. And while the band are now tight and well drilled, the music they make is a little, well, unremarkable. They have fallen into a sort of garage rock that one imagines is fairly easy for a band to cobble together on their early demos. Again, it isn’t a terrible album as such, just one that struggles to hold its head up compared to what has gone before. Not bland, but samey and a little dull. Oh well.
A fourth album with the same lineup? This is indicative of either a band that Mark E Smith is truly happy with or an MES who has lost his teeth and become lazy.
The fact that the opener No Respects is an instrumental perhaps offers us a clue as to which is the most likely scenario. Picking up from where Ersatz GB left off, we have another workmanlike Fall album that sees Smith’s ramblings backed by a coherent and accomplished band, but one that fails to spark or irritate or surprise.
As a result we have another addition to The Fall’s oeuvre that seems to float past without leaving much of an impression. Lots of Fall song elements are still present, but the impression is more of a band inspired by The Fall than the genuine article itself. Have The Fall become their own tribute act?
32. Sub-Lingual Tablet
By now I am afraid to say that I am in sever danger of being bored with The Fall. I have listened to their albums in chronological order and the unavoidable conclusion is that it would be extremely difficult to identify which of the last 4 albums the songs on this record belong. Hence why the last few albums have been ranked according to when they were released, they are starting to sound like one very long but also very average album. Maybe the fault is mine and The Fall are not a band to be listened to in this way, but by now I’m desperate for a Hex Enduction Hour or a Frenz Experiment, where the band sound distinct and the songs stand out, not this grey morass into which the band seem to have fallen. The Fall have done that most unFall-like of things, they have stayed the same.
When I first started out on this doomed journey, I was massively impressed with what I was hearing and would play some albums again straight away, but now I feel like not listening to The Fall again for a very long time. I won’t stick to that of course, one blast of This Nation’s Saving Grace or Perverted by Language and I will be right back where I was before, but for now – enough.
So what have I learned on my travels through Fall-land? Well, it is without doubt that The Fall have carved out a unique place for themselves in music history, there really is no other band like them in terms of the music they have made, the people who have passed through the band and the musical output they have left behind them. They are unique, and despite listening to them constantly for too long in order to write this article, I still love them dearly.
There is a story about an author’s typewriter (Mark Twain? Possibly, but by now I’m too busy listening to Fall albums to care), which goes roughly along these lines. Over years of heavy use, the author gradually replaced every single part of his typewriter. This led him to question whether it was actually the same typewriter he originally had, or if it was now a completely different machine.
Apart from Mark E Smith, a similar line of questioning can be applied to The Fall. And yet, he has enough character, vision and drive to make The Fall always sound like The Fall. So I think we can safely say all these records were made by a single band, despite the ridiculous and bewildering amount of people that have passed through the band. But, in an age of voice recognition software, touch screen typing and word processing, The Fall are still, defiantly, a typewriter.