The Fall PhotoFORMED: 1977, Manchester, England

Out of all the late-'70s punk and post-punk bands, none were longer-lived or were more prolific than The Fall. Throughout their career, the band underwent a myriad of lineup changes, but at the center of it all was vocalist Mark E. Smith. With his snarling, nearly incomprehensible vocals and consuming bitter cynicism, Smith became a cult legend in indie and alternative rock. Over the course of their career, The Fall went through a number of shifts in musical style, yet the foundation of their sound was a near-cacophonic, amelodic jagged jumble of guitars, sing-speak vocals and keyboards. During the late '70s and early '80s, the band was at their most abrasive and atonal.

In 1984, Smith's American wife Brix joined the band as a guitarist, bringing a stronger sense of pop melody to the group. By the mid-'80s, the band's British following was large enough to result in two U.K. Top 40 hits, but in essence, the group has always been a cult band -- their music was always too abrasive and dense for the mainstream. Only hardcore fans can differentiate between the Fall's many albums, yet The Fall, like many cult bands, inspired a new generation of underground bands, ranging from waves of soundalike indie-rockers in the U.K. to acts in America and New Zealand, which is only one indication of the size and dedication of their small, devoted fan base.

Prior to forming The Fall in 1977, Mark E. Smith worked on the docks in Manchester, where he had auditioned and failed with a number of local heavy metal groups. Smith wasn't inspired by metal in the first place -- his tastes ran more toward the experimental rock & roll of the Velvet Underground, as well as the avant-garde art-rock of Can. Eventually, he found several similarly inclined musicians -- guitarist Martin Bramah, bassist Tony Friel, keyboardist Una Baines, and drummer Karl Burns -- and formed The Fall, taking the group's name from the Albert Camus novel. The band cut an EP, Bingo Master's Breakout, which was funded by the Buzzcocks' label New Hormones, but it sat unreleased for nearly a year, simply because the band couldn't find anyone who wanted to sign the band.

The Fall were outsiders, not fitting in with either the slick new wave and the amateurish, simple chord-bashing of punk rock. Consequently, they had a difficult time landing a record contract . After a while, the group had gained some fans, including Danny Baker, the head of the Adrenaline fanzine, who persuaded Miles Copeland to release the EP on his Step Forward independent label.

During 1978, Smith replaced bassist Friel with Marc Riley (bass, guitar, keyboards) and keyboardist Baines with Yvonne Pawlett because they wanted to make The Fall more accessible. The new lineup recorded the band's first full-length album, Live at the Witch Trials, which was released in 1979. The Fall continued to tour, playing bars and cabaret clubs and, in the process, began to slowly build a fan base. Radio 1 DJ John Peel had become a fervent fan of the band, letting them record a number of sessions for his show, which provided the group with a great deal of exposure.

Before recording the Fall's second album, Smith changed the band's lineup, firing Pawlett, Bramah, and Burns, while hiring guitarist Craig Scanlon, bassist Steve Hanley and drummer Mike Leigh; Riley moved to lead guitar from bass during this lineup shift. Scanlon and Hanley would become integral members of The Fall, staying with the band for the duration of their career. The new lineup recorded and rleased Dragnet late in 1979. The following year, The Fall parted with Step Forward and signed with Rough Trade, where they released the live album Totale's Turns (It's Now or Never), the studio Grotesque (After the Gramme) and several acclaimed singles, including "Totally Wired" and "How I Wrote Elastic Man," in the course of 1980.

Paul Hanley joined the group as a second drummer before the Grotesque album. Though several Fall recordings appeared in 1981, they were all archival releases with the exception of the Slates EP. After the release of Slates, drummer Karl Burns rejoined the group. In early 1982, the band released the full-length Hex Enduction Hour, which received some of the group's strongest reviews to date. Since the group was having trouble with Rough Trade, the album was released on Kamera Records, as was its follow-up Room to Live, which also appeared in 1982. Following its release, Riley left the band.

The major turning point in the Fall's career arrived in 1983, when Mark E. Smith met Brix Smith (born Laura Elise Smith) in Chicago while The Fall were on tour. The pair married within a few months and Brix, who originally played bass, joined the group as their second guitarist, replacing Riley; her first record with the group was 1983's Perverted by Language. Brix brought a more melodic pop sense to the band, as demonstrated by 1984's The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, their first album for Beggars Banquet. Following the Call for Escape Route EP, The Fall struck up an alliance with ballet choreographer Michael Clark, who eventually collaborated on a ballet called I Am Kurious Oranj with Mark E. Smith. The Fall wrote the music and libretto for the ballet and performed the work several times during late 1984 and early 1985; an album of the music eventually appeared in 1988.

By 1985, the Smiths were collaborating with each other, resulting in more structured, melodic songs like the singles "No Bulbs" and "Cruiser's Creek." Midway through 1985, Steve Hanley had to take a leave of absence and classically-trained Simon Rogers joined as the temporary bassist. Once Hanley returned, Rogers moved over to keyboards. The new lineup with Rogers recorded This Nation's Saving Grace, which was released in the fall of 1985 to terrific reviews. Rogers stayed for one more album, 1986's Bend Sinister, yet he remained involved with The Fall for several years. Bend Sinister was recorded with Burns' replacement Simon Wolstencroft and following its release, Rogers was replaced by keyboardist Marcia Schofield, who had previously played in Khmer Rouge.

In 1986, The Fall unexpectedly began to have charting singles, as their cover of the Other Half's "Mr. Pharmacist" became a minor hit in the fall. Over the next few years, the group appeared in the lower reaches of the charts consistently, breaking into the Top 40 with 1987's "Hit the North" and 1988's cover of the Kinks' "Victoria," which signalled how much more accessible the band had become with the addition of Brix's arrangements. After the 1988 release of the Simon Rogers-produced The Frenz Experiment, Brix divorced Smith and she left The Fall in 1989; original guitarist Martin Bramah replaced her. The musical result of the seperation was a shift back to the darker, more chaotic sound of their early albums, as shown on the first post-Brix album, 1990's Extricate. Though Extricate was well-received, Smith decided to alter the lineup that recorded the album. He fired both Schofield and Bramah while The Fall was touring Australia. Featuring new keyboardist Dave Bush, Shift-Work was released in 1991, followed by Code: Selfish the next year.

In 1993, The Fall signed with Matador Records, which provided them with their first American record label in several years. Their first release for the label, The Infotainment Scam, was recorded with the returning Karl Burns, who provided drums. Neither The Infotainment Scam nor its 1994 follow-up Middle-Class Revolt sold many records in the U.S., despite good reviews, and The Fall were again left without an American label as of 1995. Not that it mattered -- they retained their devoted following in Britain, where both albums performed respectively. Brix re-joined The Fall during the supporting tour for Middle-Class Revolt and appeared on 1995's Cerebral Caustic. By the summer of 1996, Brix had departed the band again, and Mark E. Smith was developing a new line-up of the Fall. Levitate followed in 1997, and a steady stream of compilations and live recordings -- plus one new studio release, 1999's The Marshall Suite -- rounded out the decade. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide