When I moved to Philadelphia in 1995 there was a record store off South Street with an old speaker out front, and the first time I heard “The NWRA” (The North Will Rise Again) it was there, bleating out, getting louder step by step as I rounded the turn. Buying Fall albums then was like buying a new book, the James Bond books I devoured when I was 13: they sucked me in with familiar hooks, each one different than the last, all basically the same. Mark E. Smith was a real artist I thought, my favorite singer, until the first time I saw him live.
It was also in Philadelphia, in 1998. The Fall didn’t really come to the States, you had to go to them. And I doubt they played shows in Asia. There was an element to Smith that seemed a bit arrogant about traveling, kind of like “if you want to see us you need to come here.”
It was early days for me on the internet and I didn’t know what to do so I looked up information about The Fall. I met a guy named Jon Cook who lived in Liverpool and for years we exchanged mix tapes and handwritten letters; he’d send me bootlegs you couldn’t really find in the States. And as their tour crept closer to Philadelphia I learned Smith had received an injunction or criminal charge from the state of Maryland for allegations of abusing his keyboardist, Marcia S— and it was unclear if the tour would go on, or be canceled.
That night I drove down with my friend Pete Snyder and sure enough, the show was a shamble. Smith was a known drunk, that was part of the act—he played power games with the other musicians onstage, often disrupting songs or threatening to sack band members on the spot, which he often did.
I was disappointed but not surprised. There was no song structure to most of the tunes, more a keyboard droll with chaos and uncertainty from everyone on stage and in the audience. Pete said it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, he’d never seen anything like that. And that may be true, but in the words of Smith, a good mind does not a good fuck make.
Instead, the surprising thing about The Fall was their depth and staying power, that they could continue to be so good for so long, and change and evolve so many times throughout. Perhaps it was sacking the band members that allowed for that, imposing Smith’s fear and intimidation to demand their best (but not altogether fun-sounding to me).
Punk music, post-punk, “indie” or alternative, really any style of music outside the mainstream gives voice and hope to those who feel like outsiders, who reject the norm, and identify through that distinction…who stubbornly insist that’s where they belong, on the outside.
Smith helped me bolster my identity as a would-be writer trying to find myself as writers do (and why does it have to be so hard?—perhaps it’s the discord we need).
Playlist of my favorite 10 on Spotify here.
If you can’t remember your password, I’ll mail you a tape.