Dr Bucks’ Letter is late-ish era Fall at their best. Taken from The Unutterable, it’s an incessant, kerb-crawling jackbooted stomp of a track; claustrophobic, indulgent and relentless, the sound of The Fall doing half-speed dub techno. The disciplined beat and fuzzed-up riff underpin a crackle of electro static and a cackle of spoken word, random keyboard outbursts that sound like guard dogs in heat and a clanging Holger Czukay bassline that fights for ear space in-between a returning signature riff. It’s not quite a kitchen sink production, but it’s getting there.
The Fall – Dr Bucks’ Letter
The cherry on the top is Mark E Smith’s spoken word vocal, the lyric referencing an unfortunate fall-out with a friend – ‘of my own making, I walk a dark corridor of my heart, hoping one day a door will be ajar at least so we can recompense our hard-won friendship.’
He may have been viewed as a grizzly, alcohol-soaked hard-heart, but Smith could write flowing sentimentality like no other, even if, perhaps to keep his image somewhat intact, he delivers it in a voice that borders on menacing. There’s the complexity of MES right there.
As the track reaches it’s conclusion, Smith bizarrely – yet thrillingly – reads aloud an abridged version of a magazine interview with superstar DJ Pete Tong, cackling to himself/at Tong’s superficial lifestyle and the vacuousness of it all.
There aren’t many folk who’d have the nerve to lift text from such disparate places – a Virgin Rail customer magazine, as it goes, but there y’go – proof, if any were needed, that Mark E Smith wasn’t yer average writer.
Dr Bucks’ Letter is a Fall track that works for all sorts of reasons. The references in the magazine article to Palm Pilots and CDs and cassettes (no vinyl, Pete?) has the track firmly dated as 2000, a portent of a new millennium with another new Fall line-up in the making and at least a further 83 albums before the fall of The Fall with MES’s untimely death in 2018.
It’s worn far better than some of its lyrical influences, has Dr Bucks’ Letter. Indeed, it never sounds anything other than ‘now’, a decent snapshot of a band who’d perhaps lost their way a wee bit at the time.
Dead Beat Descendant by The Fall was the first track of theirs that really piqued my interest. Until then, I’d pegged Mark E Smith’s rattling racket as irritating and annoying, the atonal sound of Regal-stained fingers slowly scraping their way down a blackboard. When it popped up in the middle of an episode of Snub TV, Dead Beat Descendant had me hooked.
It wasn’t just the stinging garage band guitar riff, played on a Rickenbacker by a sulky, peroxide shock-wigged Brix that pulled me in, or the gnarly, relentless and repetitive Stray Cats meets Stooges bass, or the occasional daft parp of a one-fingered keyboard, or the metronomic tribal tub thumping that held the whole thing in place that got me – it was the group’s leader that grabbed me by the short ‘n curlies and demanded my attention. That, and the ballet dancer. I’d heard The Fall, but I’d never seen The Fall. And that was apparently important.
Smith is hunched over his microphone and ready to spring, the German army-issued leather greatcoat he’s wearing letting all present know who’s in charge. “Come back here!” he demands with barely under the surface menace. The omnipresent smouldering fag, more ash than cigarette, is lodged at a downwards 30 degree angle between his fingers as he delivers the vocal, a lip-curled sneer the equal of a Mancunian Gene Vincent. Between lines he delivers terrific little off-beat Supreme handclaps and chews on an invisible glob of gum whilst staring his musicians down, lest they consider veering from his well-chosen path. Maybe that’s where the “Come back here!” line comes from. The band, as slick as the gears in a Victorian workhouse, are in tune with their leader and dutifully do what’s demanded of them.
Well, stone me! It turns out there was no German army greatcoat after all. Or a shock-wigged Brix. Or long-burning Regal King-Sized ‘tween the digits. It’s funny how your 30 year-old version of events turns fiction into reality. And it’s funny how, as it turns out, it’s the music that endures rather than the vision. Those hand claps, though… And the told-you-so smug grin on Mark’s face at the end. They were real.
It’s a great clip mind you. The ballet dancer (the awkward piece of the Mark/Brix split jigsaw, if you believe what you read online) pirouettes obliviously around the studio in the middle of the racket, in practise for her stint on stage with The Fall as they prepare to provide the musical backdrop to Michael Clark’s I Am Curious, Orange ballet at the Edinburgh Festival.
A weird pairing, it’s certainly something that’d have been worth seeing, with Brix sitting cross-legged atop a giant hamburger while Mark prowls betwixt and between the ballet dancers, spitting venom about King Billy and barking out Cab It Up and Wrong Place, Right Time amongst others. I Am Kurious Oranj isn’t the top of the list of critics’ favourite Fall albums, but it’s right up there alongside Extricate on mine.
Did he really sack a sound engineer for ordering a salad? Did he really read out the football results live on the telly? Did he really leave a hapless member of the band in the middle of Sweden? Or, on the way to spending an unplanned night in the cells, have a full-on fisticuffs punch-up on stage in New York with one of his more loyal and long-standing Fall members?
Yes. Yes he did. He was Mark E Smith. One of our greatest cult figures. It was his business to be as caustic and obtuse as possible, the abrasive scraping fingers down the chalkboard of contemporary music. His was real working man music, approached in the same way you or I might approach our own 40 hours a week job. It wasn’t for everyone though. He couldn’t stand poseurs or pretence, cared not a jot about chart positions. He changed the players in his group as regularly as the England team manager freshening up his options in attack.
“There’s a two/three year cycle. Sooner or later you’re going to need a new centre forward.”
I never met Mark E Smith. I never even saw The Fall live. I know….I know…. Every time I’ve ever driven over the border from England back into Scotland, though, just as we’ve passed the blue ‘Welcome To Scotland’ sign, I’ve broken into a spontaneous 5 second burst of The Fall’s Hit The North. Der-Der-Der-Der-Der-Der-Duh-Der HIT THE NORTH!! No one else in the car has any idea of what’s happening, but it’s over as quickly as it started. In the words of the man himself, he is not appreciated, in my car at least.
The Fall played in my hometown a few years ago, supported by no less than John Cooper Clarke. Did I go? Did I heck. I think it was around the time our eldest was born, so I’ve a reasonable excuse, but it’s no excuse really. I’ve form for this sort of thing, as you might know if you’re a regular on here, but missing The Fall when they roll quite unexpectedly into your hometown, even with little in the way of fanfare or basic promotion? It’s just not the done thing to do. And I done went and did it.
Over the next few days, many better words by better and more qualified writers will be written about Mark E Smith and the uniqueness of The Fall. I’m not going to try. Here’s a true story instead.
No, I’ve never met him. No, I’ve never been in the same room as him. But I’ve spoken to him. Or, to be exact, he’s spoken to me. Around 1990 we had a rehearsal room in Kilmarnock’s Shabby Road, home to the Trashcan Sinatras – The Next Big Thing – and a ragbag collection of sundry acts who thought they were already the next big thing. I class my own band in this category, of course. The Trashcans were on Go! Discs, so all manner of folk would be around the place. Half Man Half Biscuit came and recorded some stuff and played football on the waste bit of ground/(cough) ‘garden’ at the side. The Stairs borrowed a guitar string from me. Chas Smash was ‘avin’ a fag and a cuppa tea in the kitchen one time. And John Leckie, fresh from sprinkling his magic atop the Stone Roses’ debut, was in for a few days to work on some songs with the Trashcans. They’d end up on their 3rd single, Circling The Circumference, which itself was enhanced by one of Leckie’s trademark Stone Roses’ whooshes midway through. You should seek it out if you’re unfamiliar with it.
At one point, Leckie left his notebook/Filofax unattended, and this is where the real fun began.
I took a Shabby Road business card from a table and quickly copied out some telephone numbers; Steve Mack (‘Petrols‘), Phil Saxe, Happy Mondays’ contact at the time, Steve Lillywhite, Lee Mavers and at the bottom, the Hip Priest himself, Mark Smith (‘Prestwich‘). It was funny, because we were sitting just up the road from Prestwick. We’d never heard of Prestwich until then. Anyway, fast forward a couple of hours….
….back in home territory, The Crown, and fuelled by Dutch courage, we fired a few pieces of loose change into the public phone at the end of the bar and picked a number. Lee Mavers was first. We dialled. It rang. “‘Allo?” a voice answered. Unmistakably Scouse. Shit! I passed the phone to Rab. Pause. Five of us stifling sniggers, daring not to breathe. There’s a muffled voice on the other side. “Aye,” says Rab. “Aye. Is Lee in?” Pause. Shit! Rab hangs up. Cue lots of nervous laughing and “I can’t believe we did that!” mutterings.
Buoyed by youthful bravado, I gulped the dregs of my pint and dialled Mark Smith. Three rings at most and then it was answered. On the other end of the phone was the unmistakable voice of Mark E Smith. Not Mark Smith of Prestwich, contact in someone’s phone book, but Mark E Smith, the pop star who was soundtracking my life presently with the Extricate album and the Telephone Thing single. “Yeah?” he drawled, totally Mark. Pause. “Yeah?” Louder this time. “Who’s this?” I panicked. I hung up. Of course. I Iike to think he looked at the silent receiver, irritated, before dropping it into the cradle and muttering how dare you assume I want to parlez-vous with you. He definitely didn’t though.
In hindsight, I wish I’d told him how fantastic these two tracks are, but then, he knew that already.
The Fall – Spoilt Victorian Child
The Fall – US 80’s – 90’s
If you’ve yet to acquaint yourself with his work, it’s never too late. But much like the musicians on those Fall records, it’s not for everyone.