by Michael Canning
A few days ago the Australian writer Robert Brokenmouth asked me to put something together on the influence of the Fall on New Zealand music for a piece he is writing so I did, and the results are below this essay.
Ordinarily I’m an early riser – and on the morning of the 24th of January I was outside walking. Around 6:50am the skies opened and started to rain. Just before 7:00am its tempo changed drastically and all of a sudden there was an absolute cloudburst. For about 10 minutes there was monsoon-like conditions with the rain lashing down, a wind from nowhere had blown up, and it was darn cold. My coat was drenched and my trousers were soaked. I’d not been in rain like that for a long while.
I found later that day that Mark E. Smith had died. I knew he had been unwell in recent time and had been a little shocked to see him in a wheelchair at a gig in 2017 but like most people didn’t know how sick he was from cancer. It was a strange experience hearing that he was dead. With Bowie’s departure in early 2016 I felt saddened, and also in May 2017 by the tragic suicide of Chris Cornell. Yet, with Smith I kind of felt blank at first. Its an odd thing when artists die that you’ve known about most of your life, and dug their work to differing degrees. That is the end. No more new work from them. They’ve said/painted/created their bit and now they’re gone.
Yet about maybe two or three days later I started feeling Fall songs come into my head. Songs I hadn’t listened to for a long time. Sometimes lines or words from them, then at other times complete songs. And then I began to realise what an impact the Fall’s work had had on me, and on other people I’ve known over the decades. The Fall’s work surely was at times, a force of nature.
I only saw them once to be fair – and at the time from memory didn’t think much of them. It was at the Leeds Irish Centre in early December 1997. Smith was only 40 then but he looked tired, and somewhat haggard. I didn’t enjoy his stage presence nor the band’s performance, and couldn’t really connect with the material they played on that night and so went home feeling quite underwhelmed.
I can remember hearing ‘Totally Wired’ on late night radio in 1981 as a pre-teen in far-off New Zealand and wondering from what planet that music had come from. It was rough, taut, scratchy and brilliant. That was my Fall baptism. I found their third studio album Grotesque (After The Gramme) for $7.00 in a bargain bin at the Farmers Department store in Hobson Street in central Auckland sometime in 1983. I took it home back to the suburbs wondering what it was all about with the strange cover art and what ‘Gramme’ meant.
I have a memory it wasn’t a favourite record for my family to endure. “Pay yer rates! Pay yer water rates! Pay yer rates so high!” yelled Smith. At that time the UK had public water utilities. Now they are privatized and I guess a heck of a lot more expensive than what they were when the Fall conceived of and wrote that song. I didn’t understand the album on first listen or really get into any of it until the last track ‘The North Will Rise Again’ played. And then this slightly bent groove slipped into my ears – with its attendant decoration and striking imagery – and then again the genius that the Fall possessed at times grabbed my full attention. Then about two years later I heard Ege Bamyasi by Can and certain connections began to form in my understanding of music about the magic within repetition and the usage of space, and tonal colour.
Smith’s passing is a sad event. The Fall created some work that helped define modern music from the late 1970’s onwards. Someone on a youtube thread under a Fall tune in recent time wrote how the Fall represented the most pretentious component of late 70’s and 80’s post-punk music. I thought about that and wondered – “ok mate, I get you don’t like the Fall but how do their supposed pretensions measure up against the fakery and pretensions exuded by the likes of Kiss, Led Zeppelin, and later on by chart darlings a la Kajagoogoo, Duran Duran, or Dexys Midnight Runners?”.
RIP Mark E. Smith.
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INFLUENCE ON NEW ZEALAND MUSIC
To be fair I can only talk about what I know. I haven’t been embedded in NZ’s music scene for two decades so I don’t know what younger kiwi musicians takes on them would be. As an aside – just after Mark E. Smith’s death – an 18 year old English guitarist recently told me he thought the Fall were like a precursor to Britpop. Maybe his contemporaries in NZ have similar thoughts. I couldn’t say.
I believe The Fall were pretty essential listening to many people in NZ from the late 70’s to maybe the mid/late 80’s. Their influence got there via import copies of their earliest records, the music press of the time – particularly imported English papers, radio play on the University radio stations, and word of mouth.
They were highly regarded in some quarters of the post-punk scenes across NZ in the very early 80’s. I would say early 80’s band’s like Shoes This High and This Sporting Life were keen on them amidst many others across the country. There was a band called Eat This Grenade in Wellington – their name possibly taken from the lyrics to ‘Fiery Jack’.
I remember seeing several Auckland bands in the mid to the late 80’s and you could certainly discern a Fall influence here and there. In 1987 I was playing in a band called the Negative Creeps and there was definitely a Fall influence going on in there. The more minimal the music the better as we were still learning how to play our instruments. From memory our singer, the late Giovanni Intra, enjoyed the kind of word play, thematics, and delivery that Mark E Smith did.
The Fall’s music was always cool to play along with as a teenage learner on guitar – especially if you had rejected the notion of being able to play the expected covers of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Smoke On The Water’ et al. It really was like that in New Zealand in 1984/85. The Fall was absolutely outsider music. Curiously enough though the Fall got a top 30 ‘hit’ in 1981 in New Zealand with ‘Totally Wired’ reaching #25. Maybe back then that was 600 copies sold or similar? The same thing also happened with Joy Division and the Dead Kennedys. NZ only had a population of 3 million back then. The Fall could have been more influential than Joy Division or Killing Joke were at that time. And the latter two bands combined influence was there in a big way for a long time.
The Hex Enduction Hour album was probably the height of their profile in New Zealand, which came out before their July/August 1982 tour of Oz and NZ. In a phone interview Mark E. Smith did in Australia for Rip It Up in August ’82 before reaching New Zealand he remarked about the Australian music scene, “every band I’ve seen here, all you can f****n’ hear is the bloody bass guitar.”
None of my friends or I could go see them on that tour. We were only 13/14 but there was a buzz about the upcoming Fall show. Their Auckland concert of 21st August was recorded by Chris Knox on his TEAC 4-track reel-to-reel machine. The subsequent Fall In A Hole album helped make Flying Nun as an international label but almost bankrupted them after a reputed misunderstanding of release approval from Smith. Did their profile get any bigger in NZ after that tour? Its difficult to say. Possibly not, their audience size was probably a bit limited but they held a special place in many people’s hearts as innovators.
For me – I first heard them play on the late night Barry Jenkins radio show as a pre-teen circa 1980/81. Jenkins show was a popular late night programme for many young people of that era – it was bastion of alternative and experimental music – away from the hideous blandness of kiwi radio at that time. I found something curious and compelling in what the Fall were doing – alongside the strange yet beautiful new sounds of bands like the Young Marble Giants and the Lemon Kittens. It was a world away from what you heard on daytime pop radio or the dreadful talkback shows in the weekends.
I recall a Fall video of ‘Container Drivers’ was once aired on Radio With Pictures around maybe 1983. RWP was a TVNZ programme on Sunday nights that featured music videos, and I understand, actually the conceptual blueprint for MTV. Barry Jenkins was a guest on it and they played that clip of the Fall and it was great, this spikey raw energized clang. And he said “this is from a group who couldn’t care less about visual presentation, one or two lights in a room and that’s it.” He heartily approved, as I think did many others who saw that clip.
Maybe the Fall became a bit more part of the furniture as other new artists emerged in the years post Hex Enduction Hour. Fall records came out regularly over the 80’s and by the early 90’s they sounded quite slick production-wise. Personally I lost a bit of interest after Shift-Work, and Code Selfish, which I found a bit generic and dull but the things they were doing in more recent years perked my ears up i.e. that film of their Glastonbury 2015 show.
I would say the Fall probably ranked up there alongside Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart for several artists on the kiwi scene in the 80’s and 90’s. Solid Gold Hell come to mind as a mid 90’s band who probably dug the rhythmic heart of the Fall. The Fall’s influence, to my understanding was particularly in regard to firstly their attitude – out with the stultifying old/in with the new and present, the minimal DIY production of their earlier releases – which was an aesthetic strength, Smith’s opaque lyrics and delivery style, their rhythms, the scratchy inimitable guitar sounds and repetitive bass, the titles of the songs themselves, and the cover art.
Its difficult to sum up their influence as a whole in NZ, and of course this is subjective, but for a period some decades ago – to their audience who liked what they did – the Fall were Kings of the Castle, making something magical and inspired, a concoction with abstract and not so abstract critical jabs, and something probably almost guaranteed to quickly wind up those with ears not open to challenge or dissonance. And in a colonial society still widely encased with Victorian social values of conformity and obedience that was a very valuable and useful thing to be in touch with.