In the preface to this new Faber compendium of essays about The Fall, co-editors Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley declare that ‘this book is not about a rock band’. They say: ‘This is not even about Mark E Smith. The book is for Mark E Smith more than it is about him.”
But oooft, they’re being seriously disingenuous there. Ultimately, this is absolutely a book about Mark E Smith, and it’s all too easy to imagine him lobbing it in the bin with a dismissive cackle (‘Academics? Demmicks, more like.’) That’s not to say that he’d be right to do so (when did being right ever stop him?) but it does crystallise the central problem, namely that the book doesn’t really seem to know what it’s for or how to go about it.
Across a bumper 360 pages, Excavate!‘s array of essays (17 Ways of Looking at Mark E Smith, if you will) are blended together with entries from a complete Fall studio album discography plus all manner of photographs, gig posters, DIY communiques to fans, letters, postcards, script excerpts and lyrics hand-written by Smith. In and of itself, it’s a lovely, lavish volume, half-way between a coffee table scrapbook and an über high-end fanzine.
As for the essays, they’re a real mixed bag. That’s absolutely as you’d expect but, in all honesty, few of the pieces here prove to be as compelling and vivid as something Mark E Smith might have scrawled on the back of a beermat in 1982. Over the course of the entire book, that does become a problem.
It could almost be subtitled The Fall: What The Hell Was That All About?. The central notion, most clearly spelt out in co-editor Norton’s essay Paperback Shamanism, is that The Fall were the sum of an entire wide, messy web of influences and inputs, not unlike an alternative educational curriculum, each element of which can be isolated and considered. Hence fellow co-editor Bob Stanley discusses the value of amateurism, Paul Wilson looks at the world of the working men’s club, Owen Hatherley examines business management and Ian Penman celebrates the power of repetition, and so on. Some of these are intriguing to a degree, but others are clodhopping and far from convincing. Ultimately, do they really tell us anything useful, or even interesting, about the group’s work?
Other pieces, whatever their own merits, are connected to the topic of The Fall only by the very slenderest of tangents. At times, it’s reminiscent of nothing so much as Mark & Lard’s old Radio 1 feature Thought for the Day with Rabbi Lionel Blair in which Marc Riley (yes, that one, because everything’s connected) as the good Rabbi would relate some random recent experience he’d had and loftily proclaim that it was ‘very like life’. Only in this case, seemingly almost anything can be ‘very like The Fall’.
Arguably the strongest and most satisfying entries here are Elain Harwood’s opener, which details the history of Prestwich, and Manchester more generally, and Smith’s relationship with it. Mark Sinker details the influence of Smith’s recherché reading material with some success, too. There’s a pair of twinned essays by Michael Bracewell & Jon Wilde and Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey, on the subjects of MES and his hero Wyndham Lewis, which mirror each other directly and consciously throughout. Yes, that is a bit bleedin’ arch, but it does succeed in illuminating the parallels.
A piece by Sian Pattenden about the group’s poppier Brix Smith period is refreshing, if a little slight. It also highlights one of the key shortcomings here. For a book supposedly ‘not about Mark E Smith’, you’ll search long and hard to find any sustained material about anything or anybody else. Few band members, even undoubtedly significant ones, merit much of a mention beyond the album credits. MES dominates here, as he tended to, right down to the inclusion of a couple of archive interviews. Worse, there are times when even the contributors seem to be slipping into cod-MES speak (white crap that talks back is mentioned a surprising number of times), which is by no means a good look.
Yes, Smith gorged on all kinds of culture and spewed it out in his own idiosyncratic fashion, but there’s only a limited degree to which it’s helpful to try and unpick the process. Surely it was often the purely instinctual result of randomly speed-fired synapses? In his celebrated 2006/7 essay Memorex for the Krakens reproduced here, Mark Fisher at least hints at the pointlessness of the task in hand and the intangibility of so much of what Smith was on about. Then again, that doesn’t stop him from carrying on trying.
The intention of Excavate! to celebrate The Fall in all of its many-tendrilled aspects, what fed into them and what made them special, is unquestionably good. In practice, though, it’s a hazardous undertaking and too often this falls down. There’s a curious lack of variety and, perhaps most crucially, a lack of humour, always one of The Fall’s most overlooked qualities. Overall, it would need to be far more deft, nimble and witty to convey the full chaotic story.
You could just about argue that, when it’s at its most eccentric, baffling and challenging, Excavate! is channelling the true spirit of The Fall, but that would be a pretty generous assessment. The best books on music are illuminating, insightful and inspiring, sending the reader scurrying off to listen to the music in question with a fresh perspective and an injection of enthusiasm. In truth, it’s hard to imagine anyone reading this and not wishing that they were simply listening to The Fall instead. That old line ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’? In this instance, unfortunately, it’s particularly fitting.
Excavate!: The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall is available from Faber in hardback, ebook and audio