Rating: 5 stars
From Albert Camus’s The Fall to the autobiography of a man who spent 18 years as a member of the band named after that book.
The book begins in 1973. Even though for most of that year I was only two years old, Steve Hanley describes the Manchester I remember from my childhood. The weird pet shops on Tib Street. The fact that the Northern Quarter wasn’t. It was just Tib Street and Band on the Wall. The rest was run down and called Smithfield. You only went to Tib Street for Army & Navy surplus, bootleg recordings, second hand tapes, and lizards. Even into the 80s.
Hanley spins a good tale. There’s no embellishment. His writing voice is as frank and deadpan as the way most of us speak round here. It helps with accepting the more bizarre elements of his story as truth.
I feel jealous reading about those early punk and new wave days, that I was too young to experience it, that my sister was old enough but squandered her opportunity dancing to disco played by Gary Davies at Placemates7 instead of going to gigs.
There are some well turned descriptions of first encounters with Mark E Smith and with The Fall’s music.
The first song, which may well be called ‘Stepping Out’ since that’s what the singer keeps repeating with increasing severity, has a harsh edge to it. I’m not too sure about his gaudy acrylic golfing tank top… isn’t he taking anti-fashion a step too far? But his gaunt, intense anger rips through every lyric.
I look over to the end of the bar where the lead singer’s holding animated court with a couple of rowdy pensioners in brown overcoats. From what I can remember of seeing them live, Mark Smith looks exactly the same off stage as he does on it. He’s one of those scrawny men of average height who seem a lot larger than they actually are.
Mark Smith’s voice rolls on top of the music like barbed wire, fencing you into a place you never thought could exist.
I don’t know nearly enough about The Fall. I came to them late. My Manchester musical journey started with my sister bringing a Magazine album home from her Saturday job at Javelin Records and telling me Howard Devoto was god. I found my own Manchester bands in New Order, The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, in that chronological order. Then I went Badly Drawn Boy and Doves. The Fall only hit my radar around a decade ago, in terms of actually listening to them. A lovely man with the nickname Moist was appalled that I didn’t know anything by them and made me a mix CD.
You don’t have to know anything about them, though, to appreciate this book. It’s about a time and a place, it’s about realising that you can do the thing that burns inside you, and it’s about recognising that you’ll do it despite and because of the mad bastard who has given you the opportunity. The detail is incidental to the broader canvas.
The book was an eye-opener for me, though, on certain Fall details. I had certain preconceptions about the songwriting process, so was fascinated to learn what actually happens when a Fall song comes to genesis. My favourite Fall song is Hip Priest and the story of its birth has only made me love it more. It also made me wish I’d paid more attention to John Peel’s show at the time. 1982, though. I was obsessed with Temptation and my mainstream pop sensibility was down the road marked Duran Duran.
The big thing I enjoyed about the book is how it let me experience being in a band at a remove. The Fall is a very unique band. Mark E Smith is a very particular individual. I’m glad I wasn’t in a band with him. I’m full of admiration for Hanley for surviving as long as he did. And for retaining his sense of self.
The last few pages deal with the end of Hanley’s time in the band. What struck me was the similarity to being in a dysfunctional romantic relationship. The not wanting to throw away all the time you’ve invested in making it work coupled to the anxiety from not knowing when things are next going to get unbearable. There’s an episode where Hanley has taken on the role of tour manager, because no actual tour managers can cope with Smith and his volatility any more. Brix Smith leaves the band again and Mark E Smith decides he wants to play guitar. There is no spare guitar, though, and nobody will lend one to this destructive force. Hanley heads to Argos.
By the time I get to Argos it has already shut. I know that if I don’t find him a guitar from somewhere it’ll be another excuse for a row. It’s a constant case of second-guessing. My Sainsbury’s runs have been taking longer to accommodate as I trawl for unoffending brands of whisky. I find the right whisky, and the sound man is wearing an inappropriate T-shirt. At the hotel check-in, at the sound check, in the dressing room, on the bus, on the stage, it’s hanging over me: when’s it gonna kick off next?
With some people, no matter how hard you try, you are never going to get it right. There is always going to be a reason for them to abuse you. Eventually, if you’re sane, you leave. Eventually, Hanley left.
I was sorry when the book ended, but also relieved, because Hanley, whom I had grown to like a lot over the 396 pages of the story, had escaped and survived. He found a new way to exist and that’s a good thing.