A week into The Fall’s 2006 American tour, the band was traveling in a Winnebago to their next gig in Phoenix, Arizona. For reasons only known to Mark E. Smith, he approached the tour manager and poured a little beer on his head as he was driving the r.v.
This wasn’t the first time the manager had faced the drunken shenanigans of the band’s de-facto leader. He’d also endured a barrage of verbal attacks and even witnessed Mark drunkenly attack the band members, but having beer poured on him while driving down the interstate at 70 miles per hour was enough for him to quit as soon as they hit Phoenix.
And he was taking the Winnebago with him.
Now for the band members, outside of keyboardist Elaine who happened to be Mark’s wife, the sudden resignation of the tour manager posed a big problem: How were they going to get back to England? Add to this, the band was sure to face the wrath of Mark if they verbally defended the tour manager, just like they did when he blamed them when the backdrop for their stage didn’t arrive in time for the start of the tour.
So there in the desert, the band decided to leave him alone with the remaining tour dates to contend with and hitch a ride with the exiting tour manager.
For lesser men, such drama would probably result in tour a cancellation. But for Mark E. Smith, who’s seen more than 50 musicians pass through the credits of 25 Fall albums, it was nothing. Amazingly, a new backing band (containing members of Darker My Love and The Hill) was located through the efforts of their American record label and, even more amazingly, the band not only resumed the tour, but managed to record a new album in the process.
All in the span of a few days.
Reformation Post TLC starts with Smith cackling before he deadpans “I think it’s over now / I think it’s ending.” But before Fall fans worry that he may be considering retirement, he adds “I think it’s beginning.” A closer listen finds Mark prodding fellow Manchurians who announce “creative differences” as the reason for their demise only to reform “seven years” later for the benefit of nothing more than a large reunion paycheck. This irritates Smith, who (thanks in large part by bad business deals and a litany of notoriously uncommercial releases) lives a very meager existence himself.
What about the latest incarnation, this American-backed Fall complete with a bearded (!) bass player? Always different, always the same, regardless of who’s supporting him, Reformation Post TLC is a continuation of the path that The Real New Fall LP and Fall Heads Roll traveled. In other words: The Fall is making some of the most respectable records in the autumn of Smith’s years. And it sounds like he’s having fun too: there’s recorded evidence of Smith cracking himself up after improvising a line or two and, on occasion, there’s evidence of band members learning their parts immediately after the record button’s been hit. After 31 years of doing this, there’s something remarkably refreshing about having the balls to say “Wing it, fellas!” and watching it become something that’s still unmistakably The Fall.
The fact that Mark hasn’t noticed other bands slyly lifting a few bits here-and-there from their enormous output hasn’t been lost on him either. On “Fall Sounds,” he screams, “There’ll be times they mock Fall sound!” Given his penchant for alcohol induced violence, my suggestion is that any artist should cease from name-dropping The Fall without the explicit written consent of one Mark E. Smith.
The “bits” that Smith has been presiding over while fads have come and gone is, essentially, a repetitive mixture of a few guitar chords, some basic percussive elements, and (occasionally) a blip of keyboards/synthesizers. In Mark’s world, the creative apex of rock music began and ended with the garage rock of the 60’s, and he’s rarely deviated from this basic formula. But “Mr. Pharmacist” doesn’t make a career. What made his career was/is an uncanny ability to wonderfully document, in a very intelligent and working-class style, the hypocrisy of politics, social status, and rock & roll itself.
Reformation Post TLC is an album devoted to the hypocrisy that Mark E. Smith needed to make another album with the Fall Heads Roll line-up, a band that he’d worked with for nearly seven years, to make another exciting Fall record.
The album’s highlight documents the tale of how Mark fell into the band’s configuration. “The Insult Song” (which comes immediately after a tender reading of Merle Haggard‘s “White Line Fever”) creates a fictional account of the events thus far: Mark and his wife were captured by the band (“they were retards from the Los Angeles district…they had us trapped in the hills, playing their Los Angeles music over and over”) until he discovered it was merely a plot the band had instigated to get into Mark’s good graces. It must have worked: after making fun of their physical appearance, Smith declares “they were cool cats” before reminding them, after six minutes of incessant rhythm and Keith Levene-styled guitar, that “they were paying, by the minute, for the tape they were wasting.” The band obediently ends the song.
Reformation Post TLC won’t be the album that sends the novice headlong into the band’s massive catalog. Its one that, like some of the most revered Fall albums, contains some tracks that are intentionally difficult. “Das Boat” features nine minutes of synthesizer throbs, while a drumstick on a tabletop and glass jar keep tempo.
At the same time, it is an album that Fall fans will use to reaffirm why the band remains vital. While other bands from the same era find the need to reform and revisit the material that brought them notoriety, Smith’s primary mission is to keep his band and vision focused on the highway ahead. Even when he’s faced with a Winnebago full of ex-band members traveling in the opposite direction, leaving him to his own devices alone in the desert.
I think it’s beginning, too.