The Fall: where to start in their back catalogue

Our Listener’s Digest series continues, guiding you through the key moments in the 31-studio album discography of Mark E Smith’s post-punk band

The album to start with

Hex Enduction Hour (1982)

‘There’s always some cunt who wants to ask me about a masterpiece I made in 1982,” frothed Mark E Smith to Q in 2015. Yet back in 82, the frontman of the fecund Salford post-punk outfit titled the band’s fourth studio album to be an induction into their world; to place listeners under their spell. While previous albums had ranged from amphetamine-charged rockabilly to deconstructed avant-punk, Smith knew the band had stumbled into new terrain here – deeming it a year zero moment.

The beginning of the band’s double-drummer period was one such key evolution, with Karl Burns and Paul Hanley crashing into and around one another with deftness and discordance. Smith claims he instructed the band to play out of time, to distort thinking around conventional musical structures, and the result is an album that exists in a constant state of push-pull dynamism.

With recording taking place between a disused cinema in Hertfordshire and a studio normally used for folk music in Reykjavík, Iceland, there’s a deliberate lo-fidelity quality, an antithetical statement to the increasingly slick production techniques of the day. The album ricochets between moments of crisp hyper-tautness to frenzied, unravelling laxity. Tonally, it’s raw and serrated, with Steve Hanley’s corkscrewing bass lines as twisting and piercing as Smith’s venomous and intractable vocals. It’s the sound of a band consumed by momentum and driven by an obdurate vision – but nonplussed by imperfections that arise along the way. Tracks such as Hip Priest and And This Day are considered, but move in such gloriously erratic bursts that they could be based on the musical pattern you’d get from hurling a piano down a flight of stairs.

Lyrically, it’s as surreal as it is sniping and satirical, with Smith exhausted by the “shit of the times” such as “bland bastards like Elvis Costello and Spandau Ballet”, claiming he’d “rather listen to the Polish builders clanking away next door than any of that crap”. Almost 40 years on, it retains that all-or-nothing spirit, losing none of its unrelenting charge while occasionally sounding just like builders clanking away next door. Smith’s supposedly ironic use of a racial epithet on The Classical has dated far worse, and stands out more than ever as a regrettable blip on an otherwise unspoiled album.

The three albums to check out next

Perverted by Language (1983)

The story goes that when John Peel heard album opener Eat Y’Self Fitter for the first time, he fainted and had to be resuscitated. The urgent, incessant, yet strangely buoyant bassline that runs through it is certainly one that rattles around the head to dizzying degrees. Garden, meanwhile, finds Smith spouting obliquely as the band build, creep and crash around him during a nine-minute album opus of jagged, slow-burn post-punk. It’s a record filled with such snap-and-release moments – surging eruptions springing from highly coiled restraint – such as the expulsions of Smile, with Smith yelping like a feral creature.

This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

One of the Fall’s more melodic offerings, a position commonly attributed to the contributions of Smith’s then-wife Brix Smith Start. The slimming down to one drummer again leaves more focus for the spiralling dual guitars of Craig Scanlon and Smith Start, which weave between infectious melody and the band’s more typically gritty and sinewy tone. Trackssuch as LA are the kind of thing you might hear on an Elastica record 10 years later, such is the gleaming melody and shimmering guitar work. However, Smith still finds room for more typically esoteric territory via the rattling and shrieking homage to one of his favourite bands, Can, via I Am Damo Suzuki.

The Unutterable (2000)

“I was in the realm of the essence of Tong,” intones Smith on Dr Buck’s Letter – with such a wry delivery it suggests he’s only just got over laughing his way through his previous lines (reading out a list of DJ Pete Tong’s life essentials). However, while Smith’s humorously vituperative lyrics were not something new, the musical backdrop to the song – all crackling electronics and crunchy beats – captured a new direction. Serum even dips into throbbing industrial territory, while on the lyrics to Octo Realm/Ketamine Sun – a strangely poignant track that nods to Lou Reed’s Kill Your Sons – Smith even seems to reference the band’s new experimentations. “I’m smartass at the computer / you kids are making queerer sounds.” Then again, he also says: “You’re a walking tower of Adidas crap at a cobblers four times a month,” so who knows?

One for the heads

Von Südenfed – Tromatic Reflexxions (2007)

A collaboration between Smith and the German electronic duo Mouse on Mars. It’s a fun, loose record stuffed with twisting and vibrating electronics that shifts tonally from pop-heavy melodies to erratic heavy clangs, as Smith’s voice wriggles around from gargled snarl to smoothed-out croon. Ironically – given James Murphy’s unashamed mimicry of the Fall – there’s more than a whiff of LCD Soundsystem to this one-off album.

Further reading

Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith, by Mark E Smith with Austin Collings
Straight from the man himself, via the helping hand of Austin Collings, this is as full of laughs as it bile and bitterness. Smith’s recollections of life in the Fall are often at odds with other members’, but it doesn’t detract from this being a riot of a read.

The Fallen, by Dave Simpson
Famed for having 60+members over the years, Dave Simpson decided to go on a life-consuming odyssey to track them all down and hear their stories.

The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall, by Steve Hanley and Olivia Piekarski
As the band’s longest-serving member, Steve Hanley is the only person who can offer almost 20 years of insight into the chaos that is life in the Fall.

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.

What’s your favourite Fall album? Let us know in the comments below.


Daniel Dylan Wray

The GuardianTramp

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