Mark E Smith, lead singer of The Fall.
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Totally mired: The Big Midweek reveals the dark side of The Fall

Steve Hanley and Olivia Piekarski's new book lifts the lid on one of the most turbulent bands in pop.

The Big Midweek: Life Inside the Fall
Steve Hanley and Olivia Piekarski
Route, 400pp, £17.99

No other band – or “group”, as their outspoken boss, Mark E Smith, insists on calling them (“A band is what plays in Blackpool”, he once said dismissively) – could have more insider stories than the Fall. To date, 66 members have had a hand in their frequently exceptional but occasionally disastrous 39-year career.

Most were reduced to minor roles before they were sacked or left of their own accord to preserve their ebbing sanity but not Steve Hanley, the dutiful bass player and one-time embodiment of the much-admired “Fall sound”. Second only to Smith in terms of longevity, he served his time from 1979 to 1998.

The Big Midweek is the first of its kind. Previous books about the Fall and Mark E Smith (including, to an extent, Smith’s 2008 autobiography Renegade, which I co-authored) have been written by outsiders who have focused on his eccentric style of leadership, the sackings and heavy drinking. This is not the whole story.

While there are many fascinating anecdotes about the great enigma that is Mark E Smith – such as a funny passage about the difficulties of choosing his birthday present after failing to impress him over the years with a series of war-related gifts, including the board game Risk (he couldn’t decipher the instructions), a set of model soldiers for his collection (from “the losing side”, unfortunately) and a Dad’s Army video (“What the f***’s this you’ve got me?’) – Hanley has wisely opted to balance the narrative by detailing the rich supporting cast as well.

Brix Smith in Hamburg, 1984. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Here we have his old mate and ex-member Marc Riley; the bulldog-like Kay Carroll, who was both the group’s original dogma-driven manager and Smith’s girlfriend; the enigmatically aloof guitarist Craig Scanlon; Smith’s first wife and later guitarist and songwriter, Brix; and the drummer Karl Burns, an adult Bash Street Kid with a love of igniting (literal and figurative) fireworks.

With Olivia Piekarski’s assistance, Hanley has ditched common rock memoir histrionics in favour of a deadpan tone that recalls a bass-wielding Alan Bennett. Hanley mainly did his best to carry himself with a loyal dignity through it all: touring, recording, recovering from ale and amphetamine hangovers, riding the mood waves that regularly infected the whole group and being a father.

The sound he created throughout his 19-year stint, however, was the fierce flip-side of this image of a self-deprecating Manchester Everyman. Too humble to admit it in print, he had it all: power, aggression, melody, rhythm and originality. An often overlooked facet of the Fall’s extensive output is the consistent quality of the musicianship, despite all the comings and goings – like Pink Floyd or Genesis but with far more idiosyncratic results.

Similar to the way in which Bo Diddley’s guitar (one of Smith’s few mainstay influences) sounds like the automobile engines of the 1950s, each Fall album is a document of its era. Their last great release, Your Future Our Clutter in 2010, sounds like a barrage of grumbling roadworks, computer wheezes and intrusive digital supermarket bleeps.

And then there’s Smith’s voice: a gnarled racket spouting spiteful, clever, obscure, sarky lyrics. If, as Martin Amis recently said in this publication, “Art is about tension,” then Smith is a grand master. A proud anti-musician, his directorial style harks back to the age of maverick film-making, to the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. Not for him learning the rules then breaking them: his rules are self-taught, outlandish and unbreakable. But for it all to work, he needs strong and talented musicians such as Hanley – just as those directors needed their intuitive cast members – to interpret his impulsive commands into some feasible reality.

This special connection falls apart in the final 30 pages. More bridges have been burned and Hanley and Smith are by now two scattered men trying to put themselves together. Every other gig is a dark pantomime: a rehearsal for the end of the world. Onstage in New York in 1998, the journey reaches its grim conclusion. There is a violent row; Smith is later arrested. Hanley, along with the drummer and guitarist, feels that he has no choice but to leave. In his post-Fall life, he becomes a school caretaker. As for the mercurial frontman, he’ll just go on. And on. The Big Midweek is a vivid and sensitive testament to an enthralling (anti-)musical family and the glorious chaos they can rightly call their own.

Austin Collings’s latest book is “The Myth of Brilliant Summers” (Pariah Press)

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

Photo: Getty
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Essayism is ultimately about how literature can make a difference

Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is a beautiful and elegiac volume – having read it, I re-read it.

It is somewhat unseemly for a critic to confess that their immediate reaction to a book is one of unremitting envy. But Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is so careful and precise in its reading of a constellation of authors – Derrida and Barthes, Didion and Sontag, Browne and Burton, Woolf and Carlos Williams, Cioran and Perec – that my overall feeling was jealousy.

Dillon is a writer on art and culture and a tutor at the Royal College of Art, and the author of an award-winning memoir from 2005, In The Dark Room, about losing both his parents in his youth. A remarkable meditation on memory, it shares with his other work – an examination of hypochondria, Tormented Hope, and his writing on the cultural significance of ruins – a wide and nimble range of reference as well as a sense of personal grief and literary anomie.

 In Essayism, Dillon deals, with a kind of weary shrug, with the etymology of “essay”. But more than just sauntering through “attempt”, “try” and “test”, he digs much deeper: from essayer he goes to examen, the needle of a scale, an image of control. The essay is both a proposition and the judge of it. What truly comes across in this book is that the essay may well be a sally against the subject, but what is tried, in the final reckoning, are the authors themselves. And, of course, found wanting, in both senses of the word. The essay, in Dillon’s account, is both erotic and absent, lapidary and profuse, and is at its best when always concerned with its own realisation of its inherent sense of failure. Before this discussion of etymology, though, comes a bravura cadenza of topics, placed to make us realise the essay is never about what it claims to be at all.

The close readings of various essayists are counterpointed by chapters headed “On Consolation”. This is some of Dillon’s most autobiographical writing to date. In Essayism he both excoriates and exorcises, using the essay as a flail and a balm. In other
essayists he finds mirrors of his own joys and despairs, particularly in a wonderful piece about Cyril Connolly, which deserves commendation simply for not mentioning the pram in the hall.

Essaysism resists defining its subject. As the critic David Shields has said, you don’t have a drawer labelled “non-socks”; and “non-fiction” is a singularly slippery notion. Dillon’s “essays” range from aphorism to such glorious sprawls as Robert Burton’s 17th-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Some are journalistic, others are philosophic. To an extent, it is the very fluidity that Dillon admires; but above all he claims to admire style, and he is exceptionally good at defining the styles he likes. He reads more into the placing of a comma in a piece by Elizabeth Hardwick than most critics might find in the whole of her work.

This neatness, as it were, typifies the book. It is about noticing, and scrutinising, and reflecting. He has a keen ear for when a sentence has a word that is somehow out of key – “porcupine”, “broccoli” – yet possesses a strange beauty.

The book shifts into a higher gear when Dillon writes about his own depression. There is never a moment where he asks the reader to feel sorry for him. There is a steeliness in his descriptions of the nebulous haze that anti-depressants led him into; a stoic willingness to face one’s own sadness. Books, and the tiny curlicues of beauty he notes in them, were a kind of redemptive force for Dillon, far more so than Prozac. That at one point he found consolation in the pages of the NME is remarkable.

His account of depression is reflected in thinking about the essay. Is it something composed of fragments and shards? Is it a coolly organised progression? Is it about confession? Is it about concealment? The book’s excellence lies in the way these paradoxes are held suspended.

It seems churlish to mention omissions, but I do so because I would like to read what Brian Dillon would have to say about figures such as William Hazlitt, Richard Steele, Matthew Arnold or Iain Sinclair (perhaps our most essayistic novelist). And Dillon’s assertion about the absence of a literature of sickness is unjustifiable if one considers Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Céline. His canon is, as all are, arbitrary: they are the pieces of writing that mattered to him when they mattered most.

The book, ultimately, is about how literature can make a difference. It is a beautiful and elegiac volume. I can give no greater compliment than to say that having read it, I re-read it. 

Brian Dillon
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 228pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder