John Cage once asked the following questions "Will we ever get to where the ugly sounds are considered beautiful?" "If we drop beauty what have we got, have we got truth? Have we got a way to make money?" I would answer a resounding yes to the first question, don't know if there's such a thing to the second and a tenuous probably not, depends on how much you mean, to the last. And I would offer the music of The Fall as support for my answers. The Fall have definitely gone a long way towards my own acceptance and enjoyment of the ugly sounds as beautiful. I always flash on them when I think about Cage's questions. Mark E. Smith isn't rich but he's been able to continue putting out records for over 20 years. The only truth he seems concerned with is of a personal variety, one that exposes the lie of utopia that some would use as a pretext to increase control and eliminate individual dissent.
There are rarely any elements of obvious beauty in The Fall's songs, melodically or lyrically. Tales of spirit possession, psychic powers, death by roller coaster, wire tapping, media manipulation, character assassinations, and personal rants against entire schools of thought populate their records. Images float in and out from the alternate worlds inspired by writers such as Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Burroughs and William Blake. Lyrically there is always the assumption that things are not as they seem on the surface and that something dark and threatening lies underneath it all. An almost Gnostic insight of a flaw in the fabric of the external world, the fault for which lies with whoever created it.
Their music is chaotic yet repetitive, verging on atonality at any moment. Jerky rhythms, harsh keyboard patches and angular scratchy guitars abound. Primitive cassette recordings are cut in at random, suddenly shifting the sonic landscape in a way that seems neither natural, predictable nor correct. Their music is jarring, abrasive and can consequently be both incredibly exciting and terribly annoying, depends on your mood, your own nervous system.
I remember disliking or at the very least not appreciating The Fall the first time I heard them. I just couldn't get to it. That guy with the strange voice droning on and on over a repetitive minimal backing. Get the fuck out of here. But I learned. The more I listened the more I learned and the more I learned the more I liked it. My initial take on the lyrics was "this is neat because they're abstract enough to where I can take something new and different away from it every time". But as I continued to listen and read the lyrics I realized, no, there are specific themes and events being related in these songs. But it takes time to decipher the meaning because the information is conveyed in a skewed, unusual and surprisingly original manner, despite the obvious influences of the aforementioned literary figures.
So these days I find I can't do without The Fall. Sure I go through stretches where I don't feel like hearing them. But I also go through periods where I listen to them in large batches, and almost nothing else. Mark E. Smith is one of my ultimate individualist heroes, similar to Jonathan Richman in that both are staunch believers in being themselves 100 percent regardless of the consequences, but Mark's negative and sardonic take on life makes him more like the anti-Jonathan. The yin to Jonathan's yang if you will. Ironically, by all reports, Mark is easier to approach and strike up a conversation with than Jonathan.
M. E. S. is always playing the devil's advocate, even when it makes him look an ass, remember his support of the Falkland Islands War? But even within his most lame brain assertions and reactionary stances there lies a desire to shake things up and not tow the line or join the party which I find both admirable and endearing. He's the loveable old grouch, hell I wouldn't be surprised if he had a heart of gold underneath that rough exterior. The BBC should give Mark E. Smith his own T.V. show, a talk/variety show. Mark could drink and insults his guests or maybe a situation comedy structured around the curmudgeonly but loveable old drunk.
I guess I admire him too because even though he talks a lot of shit he backs most of it up. How many other bands that have been around for over 20 years are still putting out relatively interesting records. His allegiance to the working class and a staunch work ethic is admirably demonstrated by the regular as clockwork release of Fall records over the years. He genuinely seems like he's not happy unless he's working, actually he doesn't sound too happy then either, but you get the point. He walks the walk.
The rush of hearing songs like 'The Classical' (the best Fall song ever?) 'Totally Wired' 'Leave the Capitol' and 'English Scheme' is difficult to put in words, for they conjure up such strong but diffuse feelings. If you have ever felt a seething rage, the kind that makes you feel so alive you feel as if you might break through your own flesh, a form of indignation that borders on psychosis, set to careen completely out of control any moment, then you're halfway there. It's a visceral rush, a strong feeling, even when you're not exactly sure what it is he's on about. My friend Chris once offered this insight into how MES constructs many of his lyrical rants "he takes a concept, something abstract and then proceeds to rant against it in an extremely personal manner". Witness 'The Classical''s assault on European classicism as one of the clearest examples of this method. "Kill it, kill it!"
From a general health stand point there certainly is much to recommend the avoidance of an over indulgence in this type of extreme negativity. One needs only to look at Smith's face these days as it continues to collapse in on itself, to witness the ravages that this outlook can wreak, though all that speed and alcohol I'm sure hasn't helped. And yet we stand to lose a lot more if we try to simply ignore and repress these feelings. Mark E. Smith had the good sense to take his disgust, anger, paranoia and resentment and externalize them into an original and fascinating form. He took the ugliness he felt both in and around him and gave it an expression that was so strange, striking and exciting that one could almost call it, well, beautiful. And I for one find the world a much more interesting place for his efforts, not more comfortable but more interesting. After all comfort's over rated, isn't it?
© William Crain 2002