Somewhere in the world today, Mark E. Smith -- the sullen, piss-minded and logorheic founder and only constant of The Fall, the world's most prolific and stubbornly eternal punk band -- is commemorating his 50th birthday. I'm raising a warm Guinness to toast his productivity, his durability, and his bloggerlike ability to find something of interest to bark and mumble about just about anything. He's one of the few musicians around whose insolent voice seems indomitable, above and beyond silencing. Whenever he does decide to call it a career, or has it called for him, the ensuing silence will come as a shock comparable to the one that followed the Christmas Day death of James Brown. Say what you like about MES, once you've heard him, when he's in the room, you know it; when he's in the world, you know it.
Back in the Eighties, The Fall covered the Kinks' classic "Victoria" and brought a valuable truth into focus: as a lyricist and frontman, Mark E. Smith is the post-modern Ray Davies; no one else of his generation has come so close to embodying the eternal voice of working class England. There's not often the elegance, or poetry, or poignancy of Davies in Smith's work, much less his voice, or in The Fall's endlessly repetitive, droning music, but its sheer volume and pertinence captures the drama -- alternately exciting and depressing -- of intelligence treading water in a tumult of information devolving to infotainment in its deluge.
The Fall are perhaps the ultimate cult band in that they demand nothing less than total immersion from the listener. Glenn Kenney once borrowed my quote "You can't see one Jess Franco film until you've seen them all" to apply it to them, and it's just as true of their obsessive backlog. In The Fall's nearly thirty year recording career, they've released something very close to 50 albums, not counting countless compilations and repackagings, representing something very close to 30 different lineups. Such overproductivity, as with Franco, encompasses some sloppiness but also glorious epiphanies, epiphanies that might come from an unexpectedly tight band performance, or one of Smith's tossed-off phrasings, or a deadening groove that unexpectedly opens a subterranean door of emotion.
The music is always dense, sometimes surprising the listener by aping another band's sound; for example, the seasoned Fall listener immediately cranks up their attention to the lyric of "Fall Sound" (on the new album REFORMATION! POST TLC) to suss out why the so-called "Fall Sound" has a New Order sound. "Scenario" bends lyrics from Captain Beefheart's "Veteran's Day Poppy" into a somewhat darker balloon sculpture that numbly reiterates the human cost of war. The album's opener, "Over! Over!", turns out to be a rewrite of the kaleidoscopic "Coming Down" by the incomparable (and incomparably short-lived) Sixties group, The United States of America. "I think it's over now/I think it's endingUH," sings Smith, with his trademark curling of his final consonants. "I think it's over now/I think it's beginningUHHHH...!" Smith sings these words with the inflection of Samuel Beckett writing "I can't go on, I will go on" -- sounding bored to brain death one moment and inspired the next -- and he's earned the right. He's still riding the wave.
The lyrics of any Fall song tend to be more inscrutable than not, reading more like Beat graffiti than Beat poetry, but that's the genius of Mark E. Smith: he's more reporter than composer. He writes to reflect the passing moment, not the eternity called into doubt by our ever blackening newspaper headlines. If you want eternity, his fecundity implies, there's always the wait for the next album. There are days when the coming of the next Fall album seems more likely than the coming of another tomorrow. And for that reason, above all, I salute Mark E. Smith. He's there for us, and his contribution, for all its rascally contrarianism, gives one hope.
And because this is a video blog, here's a link to The Fall on DVD.