The first song by The Fall I remember clearly hearing was ‘L.A.’ from the wonderful 1985 album, This Nation’s Saving Grace. I didn’t really know much about The Fall, I probably knew of them, but listening to a recording of tracks 50-41 of that years John Peel Festive 50, ‘L.A.’ really stuck in my head.
Even now, the bass line is thoroughly compelling, it doesn’t just propel the song along, it seems to hold the melodic core as well. It’s a hypnotic, brooding and utterly brilliant song and it dragged me into the world of The Fall, a world I would fall in love with for quite a number of years.
To an extent, it hasn’t relinquished me yet although I quite often find myself drifting through new albums, not really feeling a great thrill from them. Sometimes I feel a little like I’m cyber-stalking a long-gone friend or ex-lover, wondering what they are up to, wishing them well but knowing I should never contact them again, that the really good times are long gone. If they ever existed.
I’ve always found Mark E. Smith an intriguing, interesting character but I’ve never quite bought the old line of The Fall simply being him and yer granny on bongos line. For me there are definitive players in the story of The Fall, golden periods and fallow periods and much as I enjoyed seeing The Fall version 65.5 a few months back at Oran Mor in Glasgow, it didn’t have half the thrill of seeing The Fall more than a dozen times between my first gig at Manchester Ritzy in early 1987 and Fat Sams, Dundee shortly before the departure of Steve Hanley around about 1998.
In those years, I don’t recall seeing a bad gig. Some were better than others but they were never less than thrilling and, often they were sublime.
On record, there were a lot of fantastic moments, a band always changing and shifting, moving forward, at times incrementally, at others jumping ahead. And yet always sounding exactly like The Fall. And a big part of that for me was the musicians.
Sure, Mark E. Smith has one of the most distinctive voices in music and a unique lyrical world view but the sonic world created with the musicians was equally important. Decent as The Fall are these days, the music often sounds proficient rather than adventurous and that isn’t how it should be.
Apart from Mark E. Smith, the second longest serving member of The Fall has been the purveyor of that hypnotic, melodic bass guitar I first swooned to just over three decades ago.
Steve Hanley was a constant member of The Fall between 1978 and 1998 and contributed to around 100 songs and played on all of the bands finest records including Hex Induction Hour, This Nation’s Saving Grace, Bend Sinister and The Infotainment Scan.
If bands are made of different character types, Steve Hanley always struck me as the silent, reliable one but when he wrestled with his bass you knew his value as a musician. I missed certain people when they inevitably departed the ranks of The Fall, particularly Brix who contributed to the band both musically and visually and I found The Fall post Hanley, a less attractive prospect though there have been some fine records since.
Post Fall, Hanley put together the short-lived ARK with fellow exiles, Tommy Crooks and Karl Burns. On paper it sounds great but they disbanded after a solitary album and Hanley has described them as an ‘ill-fated band’.
Hanley then played for a time with former Inspiral Carpet singer, Tom Hingley’s band, The Lovers, and recorded two albums with them, the last one being in 2008. Then he seemed to disappear from view, another of what Dave Simpson called ‘The Fallen’ in his book of the same title which tracked down an array of ex-members, some of whom had only the most fleeting of times in the band.
Out of The Fall members from my favourite era, only Brix, now Brix Smith Start, seemed to have maintained much of a profile and Brix was also out of the music game as well though she was often to be seen on television, a part of the fashion world rather than the sometimes unglamorous world of British independent music.
Sometimes though, there really is a second act. In 2014 Steve Hanley’s autobiography, The Big Midweek. Life Inside The Fall was published. Co-written with Olivia Piekarski, it’s a fantastic read. It’s compulsory reading for Fall heads but also pretty much an essential read for any music lover.
It’s a generous book, honest and beautifully written. The word ‘inside’ is important, as the narrative takes the reader right into the world of The Fall.
Having read more books about The Fall (and contributed a chapter to one) than is healthy or sensible, this immediately became my favourite book about the band. While Mark E. Smith’s Renegade seemed to be partially an exercise in score setting, Hanley’s book is much more even handed.
Sure, at points life in The Fall sounds weird and gruelling, but at many points it was wonderful and creatively fulfilling. The reviews for The Big Midweek were hugely positive and in interviews Steve Hanley seemed content with his life.
However, during an interview with Stewart Lee to promote the book he suggested that his days lugging his bass amp up the fire escape of venue were now over and that was, in part, why he’d decided the time was right to put his side of the story down on paper.
Fate has a funny way of turning things on their heads and the writing of The Big Midweek led to a first contact with Brix in years. A one-off show became a second show and led to Brix and the Extricated.
The band play a combination of songs from The Fall that they wrote or co-wrote the music for along with new songs and the odd song from Brix’s project The Adult Net.
They are also writing together as a band and incorporating these songs into the set. This is no tribute band, these are songs that the musicians have a large degree of creative ownership in, songs that often have never been played live again after a single tour. As a band they sound exceptional, magical even.
In thirty odd years of being a fan of The Fall I don’t think I’ve ever exchanged words with anyone from the band but I interviewed Steve Hanley over the telephone ahead of their upcoming mini-tour and first visit to Dundee. As with his book, Steve Hanley was a pleasure to spend time with and was excited to be about to hit the road again with The Extricated.
How are things with you? Are you looking forward to getting out on the road again?
Yes. The band is great, really good, the guys in it are brilliant. The two guitarists are both great in their own right, bring loads of stuff to it and obviously our kid on drums. It’s a bit strange revisiting all these old Fall songs again after so long but we’re treating it as a means to an end if we can.
You also play new material as well.
Yeah, we’re hoping that it’s going to kickstart us getting an album out.
How did Brix and the Extricated come about? I read that you formed as a one-off originally to play at the launch of your book.
Well, when the book came out, it’s a tradition that you have a book launch and to turn the perception of The Fall on its head a bit, what I wanted to do was, instead of having one singer and loads of different musicians, was to have one band and loads of different singers. So I invited five people that I know, Tom (Hingley) did it, John Robb from The Membranes and a couple of other people and got five singers together,
We did a couple of Fall songs and a couple of song that are featured in the book. Brix came to that. Then a local promoter from the Ruby Lounge asked us if we’d do it again at Christmas.
So that was in July (2014) we had the book launch and Brix said ‘why didn’t you ask me to sing?’ and I said I wouldn’t have had the temerity Brix. I didn’t know that she was… I mean I hadn’t spoken to her in years so I didn’t know that she was thinking of getting back into music.
It was just a bit of a coincidence. She was thinking of starting to do music again and then we were there with the band pretty much already formed and looking for a singer so it just seemed to be the logical thing to do – to do The Fall songs that we think we kind of have got ownership of, that we’ve got song writing credits with. We’ve kinda got a bit of a rule that we stick to the ones that we’ve got a least one or two song writing credits on and obviously songs like ‘L.A.’ are Brix’s songs. There are plenty of Fall songs that we could do but don’t. They’re either too personal to Mark or too personal to somebody else.
That seems to me a pretty good process when deciding which songs to play.
I can see why people might have a problem with it [The Extricated] because the ethos of The Fall was to keep moving forward and not to look backward. Which has kind of helped our cause in a way because a lot of the songs we do, when we were in The Fall, we did them for one tour and then dropped them and moved on. So it’s not like there’s been a band going around playing these songs every night for thirty years, they haven’t. So the ones we do, we still think there’s a fair bit of life in them.
What inspired you to start writing The Big Midweek?
It’s something that I’d talked to people about. After I left the band Marc Riley suggested that I should write a book and Tom Hingley was writing his book and I always thought there was a book there.
I wanted to show the other side of it, how much the other musicians who didn’t really get recognised for it, how much they contributed to it, and dispel the myth that The Fall was just Mark Smith and any idiot that he could get to fucking stand behind him (laughs). Because it wasn’t really like that.
You know that book, The Fallen, that came out? The Dave Simpson book? Well all the people he talks about, they weren’t in the band. This might just be a sore point to me and it’s a decent book and he did what he wanted to do but I don’t think that a flute player who plays on two songs or a clarinet player who played two gigs was in the band either. So I just wanted to write about the people who actually were the ten main characters like Brix, Karl, Marc Riley, Simon, Paul me brother…
The thing is I like reading rock books. I’ve read loads of them before and I read loads to do the research. I’ve been reading them since I was sixteen so to write one was great.
And then, when I met Olivia she put a different slant on it. She wanted to write it like a novel, trying to put you there. I was talking to someone a while ago and Olivia asked him, ‘So did you feel that you were there with Steve during the book?’ and he goes, ‘Oh, I felt I was Steve.’
I was really surprised by the reception of it. It was a worry. It took us four years to write it and it’s a worry in that you obviously don’t want to upset your friends or your ex-workmates or their families and you don’t want to write too much but you don’t want it to be bland either. What do you put in, what do you leave out? It was a bit of a process.
During this process, were there any points where you thought I have to hold this back or I can’t publish this?
No. We had guidelines really. If a thing was relevant to the story and if it was already out in the public domain, well then it could go in. So we kept to that really. We were very careful about what we said.
When it was finished – and this is how we got back in touch with Brix – we sent out the finished draft to Paul, Brix, Marc riley, Colin the Roadie, and they all read it. Anything that they didn’t think was right they flagged up but, honestly, there wasn’t much at all, only a few very little things so that was great.
People were generally happy with how they were portrayed in it. I spoke to Craig after it. It was kind of like all art, it was a pain in the arse sometimes but worthwhile.
Once it was out there, how did you feel that the reception was to the book?
The books been really well received. We thought that hardcore Fall fans might not like it but they generally have and it seems to be reaching out to a wider audience all the time. Some of the reviews were sort of saying ‘I wasn’t really a fan of The Fall, I sort of knew a few of the songs but I really like the book’.
I mean it’s been out two years now and was four years in the writing but it’s still one of these things you’ve got to talk about years later. John Robb, he’s written a few books himself, and he said to me just before it came out, ‘It won’t be the book that does it for you. It’ll be whatever it leads to’ and it has led to getting the band together which is really good.
It is a nice twist of fate.
Yeah, really. Steve Trafford, the guitarist, he was in The Fall after me, played bass after I left, he sent me a really great email. ‘I really like the book. It did a lot for me and helped me come to terms with a few things that I was struggling with after being in The Fall’. And he’s in the band now. Honestly, the band is so good. And if we can use the platform of The Fall to get an album out that would be great.
How far on are you with the Extricated album?
We’re still writing really. We’ve not started recording yet. We’ve done a few demo’s but it’s a bit of a slow process with everyone being so busy with other stuff. Brix just had her book out and she’s been doing a lot of promotion for that and a lot of other stuff. Steve and Jason both teach. So the actual logistics of getting us all together has slowed things up a bit. But we’re getting there.
For me, The Big Midweek really captured being in a band. It seemed very balanced to me. There were bits that were, that sounded like it was quite a gruelling experience and there were other points where it sounded like such a great experience.
That’s it. That was The Fall. You’ve just summed it up. The last five years were pretty bad but I tried to get across that, out of the twenty years I was in it, fifteen of them were good. Which I’d kind of forgotten about until I started writing because the last five years were so bad it had kinda clouded my memories of the good times. But it was a band, it wasn’t down the mines or anything. Travelling the world and making music.
Hindsight being a great thing is there anything during your time in The Fall that you would have done differently.
Oh, lots. Probably lots. There was a few things I signed that I wouldn’t have signed but you know, at the time when you’re there and they’re put in front of you and it’s like, well, ‘if you don’t sign it you’re going to delay the album’ and when you’re there you don’t see it.
The Fall was one of those bands where you made an album a year and while we were releasing the last one we were already working on the next one. You didn’t really think people were going to be re-releasing these albums in thirty years time. You don’t really think like that so…
It’s easy to look back but different when you are involved immediately in the moment?
Yeah. In the moment you do what you do don’t you. But yeah, there’s probably a few things I could have changed. I probably could have asserted myself more in that band.
Out of the many albums that you’ve recorded which are you most proud of?
I always look at the albums like a kind of diary, I think all the best ones are like that. I can tell by listening to them the state of the band at the time and what’s going on and how good it was.
There’s a few Fall ones that stick out for me as being like a really good time. The Infotainment Scan is one of them and Hex Induction Hour is another one where, basically me, my brother on drums and two kind of friends from school were doing all the music so that’s good. So yeah, there’s a few.
I think they’ve all got their good moments. They’re not perfect which is… well if you’re going to record the perfect album where do you go from there? They’ve all got good bits and bad bits.
How did it feel when you started revisiting some of The Fall songs again?
I was pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t listened to The Fall for years.
Occasionally I’d hear them, not through choice, but they’d come on a TV advert or something, or on the radio. I was surprised when I had to do it for the book. We went through it album by album to reassess them and write about what was going on at the time and there was some great stuff, some really good songs. It’s a good body of work I think.
How do you approach song writing with The Extricated? Is it quite a collaborative process?
It’s pretty much the same. We tried everything with The Fall, every different way of writing. We tried just being in a room together and trying to come up with something, people bringing in a full song or people bringing in an idea.
I think what we’ve found with The Extricated is if somebody brings in a basic idea for a song and then everybody else works on it, adds their bits or takes bits away and we just work them out and then Brix will put the lyrics on and we found that works the best. It’s still early days but I do think that’s the best way.
Do you have any plans in the future to write another book?
I’ve talked about it with the publisher because there has been a lot of people saying they wanted to know what happens next because it does abruptly end when I leave. People have said they want to know what happened after. And we did write a lot about what happened after but it didn’t seem right to go in there.
There’s a lot about the breakup and the aftermath of the breakup, then getting a band together, then playing with Tom. So I don’t know. There’s definitely enough material there.
Olivia’s been working on a book which is a novel about Manchester music in the 90s and I’ve kind of been helping with that on the musical parts of it. We finished the first draft of that so we’ll see.
The next goal is to get an album out. You can be a band going around doing thirty year old songs but I think you need new material. Ideally I’d like to do half a set of Fall songs and half a set of new material.
How many new songs are currently in the set?
For the dates coming up, about four or five. It’s a bit frustrating that it’s not happened quicker but it’s just a practical thing. It’s not a lack of ideas. I think Steve Trafford could have an album ready tomorrow if you needed it. It is just the logistics of getting the band together with Brix in Manchester and we’re all in Manchester but we’ll get there.
It will be worth it when it comes together.
Oh yeah. And it is, the music biz being what it is these days, quite difficult getting an album out.
How would you say the music business has changed over the years that you’ve been involved in it?
It’s totally changed. I think it’s more difficult for bands these days. There’s a lot of opportunities to get your music out there. When we started [The Fall] there was probably about seven or eight bands in Manchester and they all managed to get records released and get record deals.
Now in Manchester you can go and see seven or eight bands every night of the week if you wanted. It’s tough I think. Tough to make a living from music these days. Bands are still doing it though.
The Manchester band Cabbage seem to be coming through, doing it right, in a traditional way, just gigging and gigging and managed to get a record deal. It’s still possible.
Coming back to our earlier discussion when you said you were a big fan of rock books. What is your all time favourite?
It’s got to be Diary Of A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star by Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople. I’m a fan of the fictional ones. Powder by Kevin Sampson. It’s such a great book and they ruined it with the film. Kill Your Friends by John Niven. Have you read that?
I love that book. It’s hilarious but brutal.
It is brutal. He’s such a good writer. I’m a massive fan, I’ve read all his books. I think they managed to make a good film of it as well. We had him as like a benchmark. Our benchmark was like how would John Niven say this.
I’ve bought Kill Your Friends three times and I’ve not got a copy here now. It’s one you keep giving to people. With that in mind The Big Midweek is kind of like that. It’s not a fictional band but it’s written that way.
Just with a slightly smaller body count.
Well yeah. Physically.
Dundee, Beat Generator Live! Sunday 30th October – more details here.
Edinburgh, Sneaky Pete’s. Monday 31st October
Leicester, The Musician. Thursday 3rd October
London, The Lexington. Friday 4th November
And here’s a live performance by Brix and the Extricated: