the guardian Fri 05 September 2008
The Fall are the cult bands' cult band, and indeed, as Dave Simpson demonstrates, are quite close to being an honest-to-God cult, but for one important difference. In real cults, they do everything to keep you in, but in the Fall, leader Mark E Smith does everything to kick the musicians out, using a showbiz equivalent of permanent revolution.
The Fall are known for three things: they're not really a group, but rather the ego of Mark E Smith and whoever can put up with him for a few years, a few months, a few weeks or even a few hours; they have produced a multitude of albums; and they have an absurdly high turnover of personnel - band members have been assaulted, fired repeatedly or even abandoned on some foreign shore by Smith out of pique or simply for a laugh.
Smith is a unicum. He is kin to those oddballs on talent shows who can't sing, can't dance, can't play an instrument, look terrible and who are only included to be ridiculed by the judges. However, because the doors of the music business were blown wide open by the Sex Pistols in 1976, he and the other unaccomplished musicians of the Fall's original line-up got a chance. And that was all he needed.
On the back of extraordinary willpower and belligerence, he has created (with some help from the passing musicians) some of the best and quirkiest British music of the past three decades. Most of those he hires are, to put it politely, not virtuoso musicians, and part of the Fall's fascination is how the newcomers are "moulded" by Smith to get the best out of them. Many serve gloriously in the Fall, but when they leave, they go back to being undistinguished.
It is hard to write about music; Elvis Costello's famous quip that it's like "dancing about architecture" holds a lot of truth. Nevertheless, something about the energy and soap-opera antics of the Fall attracts writers. Smith's own recently published autobiography Renegade has covered a lot of this ground (although in a magnificently jaundiced manner). The Fallen started off as a newspaper article in the Guardian, and it shows. Undoubtedly, Simpson has bent over backwards to track down former members of the Fall (indeed the hunt itself becomes as much a part of the story as the quarry). However, there are also general digressions on music. There are many episodes from Simpson's own life (Nick Hornby has a lot to answer for in creating the autobiography via fandom). There are pictures. There are lots of descriptions of going to hotels, bars and cafés; there are reviews of Fall albums; there is repetition (an in-joke for Fall fans?). What Simpson does well is to conjure up the appeal and power of the band, who have barely had a hit record, but have nevertheless lurked significantly in the music business for more than 30 years and have many high-placed devotees.
Simpson's first problem was deciding how to define a "Fallen". Live performance is chosen as the qualification, so "This rules out Adrian Niman, who played saxophone for 15 seconds on the Room to Live album in 1982, but includes Stuart Estell who 'joined' the Fall from the audience for an encore in Leicester in 1989."
The two central figures in the book are Smith (to whom Simpson attributes almost seer-like powers) and Karl Burns, one of the longest-serving drummers, a man so rock'n'roll that he allegedly went on a two-month tour of America with only one pair of underpants. Burns is the most disappeared of the Fallen, and the way Simpson liberally peppers the text with references to the mysterious Burns, you anticipate a payoff at the end.
In the final pages, in Rossendale, Simpson finds not Burns, but a sheep. I can't make up my mind whether I admire the bluff or not. I certainly admire Simpson's industry, but this is very much a book for Fall obsessives. It's a pity, because if the book had been half the length it would have had far greater power, and been a poignant reflection of how you, too, might find yourself in Dortmund, clutching a bass guitar, about to go on stage with the Fall.
· Tibor Fischer's Good to Be God is published by Alma