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

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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