The time of year I remember most distinctly from my childhood was those strange weeks when the nights drew in. Halloween, Bonfire Night…the cheap masks at the shop at the end of the twitchel (because that’s what they were called in North Nottinghamshire), the divine aroma of potatoes being charred on the backyard fire which, these days, would have the council ‘round in a flash. Those cold, dark evenings carried their own gothic magic as a child. One could quite easily imagine Spring-Heeled Jack bounding from the council estate roofs and the bizarrely-gnarled trees in the woods actually being science fiction organisms. Renowned as one of the most haunted villages in England, there was always a spectral threat on the lips of our parents, and all of this has indelibly left a quasi-Victorian gothic impression on my recollections of the early eighties.
This impression is what always returns when I hear The Fall. The oblique, rumbling production on Dragnet, the keyboard trail on Frightened, the choppy vaudeville of City Hobgoblins. And those words…like tapping into long-forgotten truths which revealed themselves in layers the more one could discern them. Listening to any Fall record was worth a dozen trips to the library and provided a far more comprehensive (albeit labyrinthine) education than one could hope to gain in those Thatcherite penal colonies we were forced to attend during the week: instant psychic Cinerama of a world made up of grotesque (ha!) goat-breeders, phantom stalkers, Disneyland beheadings and strange conjugations of literary figures. Mark E. Smith saw himself as a writer above all else, and it is indeed within those wordscapes that one is ensnared once those primitive, repetitive rhythms and snarling Northern barks have either enchanted or repelled you.
This was the Britain one would experience if one watched Coronation Street on LSD – the Barlows’ crepuscular killing sprees, Kevin Webster copulating with Jack Duckworth’s pigeons in the outhouse to produce a malformed beak/moustache hybrid, all in those lurid cathode reds and blues of early colour television, yet with shadows darker than a Castiglione monoprint. And we respond to those grotesqueries knowing full well that we – the working class with our fathers risking life and limb daily at the colliery – are the grotesque products of a perverted society. Smith took the narrative experimentation of The Velvet Underground and twisted it to his own vision, throwing in all manner of literary, cultural and political allusion along with it – the mystical autodidact Roman Totale his early prosopopoeial alter-ego emerging from the song lyrics to commandeer the sleeve notes. So within, so without.
As amusing as it may be to recall Smith’s innumerable bon mots, jibes and drunken slurs collected over the decades, it is nonetheless to miss the point – Samuel Beckett was no less the caustic wit when in his frequent cups and Jackson Pollock could just as easily clear a dinner party as Smith could a pub. Yes, I frequently return to YouTube for my regular fix of Mark’s brusque humour in interviews yet, for the proper stuff, I delve feet-first into Grotesque and Hex Enduction Hour. These albums weren’t joking. They meant every rancorous syllable. While Morrissey was regaling us with upturned bicycles and Oscar Wilde throwbacks, Smith gave us the world red in tooth and claw, only redder and toothier. And while the former produced countless soundalikes throughout the eighties, nineties and to this day, nobody has ever managed to sound like The Fall. Quite right, too.