The discography of infamous post-punk outfit The Fall is a legendarily unwieldy thing. A cursory glance at the multiple versions of the group’s studio albums, live releases, singles and semi-official bootlegs released on a laundry list of different record labels is vertigo-inducing. Unless you have the hours and bank account to commit to parsing it all out, having some kind of road map or throughline is a necessity when approaching their work. This collection of the many, many singles that the Fall has produced since 1978 is likely the best chance you have.
The multi-disc release from the band’s current home of Cherry Red Records is as close to comprehensive as one would dare. And you have the choice of either a humble three-disc set with the a-sides or the seven-disc version, which includes most of the b-sides. I say most because the compiler of this set decided to home in on just the 7” version of these singles, leaving some live cuts, remixes and stray tracks in limbo. That’s going to piss off some super fans, but don’t let that rattle any of you newcomers. Instead, save your frustration for the fact that, rather than keeping the tracks from each single together in the deluxe version of this set, they are separated out. Likely a cost-cutting measure so as not to produce many more CDs than necessary but it takes something away to not hear the hit side and flip in succession.
In either version of this collection, The Fall’s history is rendered in a neatly streamlined fashion, blissfully free of the drama and multiple lineup changes that have marked the band’s 40+ years of existence. The only constant is, of course, vocalist/lyricist Mark E. Smith, the acerbic poet of Manchester. Since the release of their first single “Bingo-Master’s Break-Out!” in 1978, the revolving door for membership has kept spinning. And with most major additions/subtractions, the Fall sound shifts noticeably. So much so that anyone with fresh ears could likely spot the demarcation (de-Mark-ation?) points through this set.
The arrival of bassist Steve Hanley in 1979, first heard on the “Rowche Rumble” single, marked one key leap as his low end anchored the band for the better part of twenty years. He managed to balance his roles as a rhythm player and a melodic counterpart to the scythe cuts of guitarists Marc Riley, Craig Scanlon and Martin Bramah. They made another jump ahead with the addition of Mark E. Smith’s wife Brix into the fold. She had no compunction about trying to help turn The Fall into a pop group, as is clear from her first single appearance on 1984’s “Oh! Brother.” The track keeps to the core mode of repetition as one steady rhythm track rolls along but the musty wormwood of the sound is freshly polished by Brix’s gleaming guitar lines and backing vocals. Her initial tenure in the band also gave the Fall their highest U.K. chart placements and landed them in rotation on U.S. college radio.
And so it has gone since. Keyboardist Dave Bush, who came on board in the early ‘90s, infused the band with some dance music elements that felt at times great (their 1993 cover of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Why Are People So Grudgeful?” is a fun trifle) and at times a little awkward. The other lineups have seen an attempt to return M.E.S. to a more no-nonsense rock sound with similarly mixed results. Though Smith’s backing band has been steady of late, their output most certainly has not been. The whole timeline is right here in one relatively easy to swallow chunklet.
As with a lot of these boxed sets that come out in multiple iterations, you truly get what you pay when you decide which edition of this collection to pony up for. The three-disc version is a great foundational understanding of what The Fall and Mark E. Smith is all about, but the hefty seven-disc issue offers up the blueprints for the whole operation. Whether your interest is just in seeing why groups like Pavement and Elastica marked this band as a major influence or if it’s in jumping into the Olympic-sized pool of material by The Fall, you know which lane to choose.