“I consider myself merely a mid-level fan of the Fall. I do own and love seventeen of their albums — it’s just that I’m still missing fourteen other studio albums, not to mention all the live albums. So I’m a dabbler.” – Joe Casey of Protomartyr
The Fall are one of the most influential post-punk groups of of all time, with a sound that has encompassed everything from rockabilly and garage rock, to goth, krautrock, dub and dance music, all while managing to only sound like themselves. As the late, great John Peel once put it, The Fall were “always different, always the same.”
Though the band ended when frontman Mark E. Smith died in 2018, The Fall have continued to cast a long shadow. You can hear them in Sonic Youth, Pavement, Girls Against Boys, LCD Soundsystem, McLusky, Art Brut, and many more bands at the forefront of indie rock since the ’80s and ’90s, and their influence feels especially strong among a crop of newer bands who are currently topping year-end lists and packing large venues as part of what you might call another post-punk revival.
While the post-punk revival bands of the early 2000s were frequently channeling Joy Division’s vocals and Gang of Four‘s angular guitars, more recent groups like IDLES, Protomartyr, Parquet Courts, Fontaines DC, Shame, Sleaford Mods and more like them, owe sonic debt to The Fall, from the shouted vocals, fuzzy basslines and rabble-rousing rhythms, to the working class attitude and lit-infused barstool poetry. (Not that Joy Division and Gang of Four aren’t still influential too.)
“People compare Shame to The Fall and I think our song ‘The Lick’ is the most obvious example, lyrically, of their stream-of-conscious style. It also has that repetition with the bassline.” – Charlie Steen of Shame
As Joe Casey implies in quote on the top of this post, The Fall’s discography can be intimidating but with this in mind, we’ve put together a list of 15 essential Fall songs that cover nearly 30 years of the group that represents most of the different sides of the band. It works both as an entryway to their wonderful and frightening world, but also as a clear through-line to the current crop of hip priests, kamerads and devotees, and includes a song chosen by Fontaines D.C., and one Joe Talbot of IDLES has said is one of his favorites.
Note: We didn’t include any of The Fall’s many famous covers of other people’s music here (like “Victoria,” “Mr Pharmacist” or “There’s a Ghost in My House”), as we did a whole separate list of for that.
A 15 SONG THE FALL PRIMER
Spotify playlist at the end of the post
It all starts here with this b-side from The Fall’s three-song debut EP, Bingo-Master’s Break-Out, that became the band’s maxim, all set to a nagging beat: “Who are sick of fancy music? / We dig repetition…this is the Three R’s: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition!”
Another of The Fall’s early signature songs, IDLES frontman Joe Talbot called “Totally Wired” Mark E. Smith’s “opus as a song.” Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys‘ other band The Last Shadow Puppets covered it on an EP and in their lives shows. It’s powered by a two-note bass hook, a pounding beat, an instantly catchy shout-along chorus, and Mark E. Smith’s love of stimulants: “I drank a jar of coffee…and then I took some of these!” MES also remind us that “You don’t have to be weird to be wired.”
“Lie Dream of a Casino Soul”
The Northern Soul scene was huge in England in the early-’70s, with kids dressed to the nines, flooding clubs to dance to obscure Motown singles. Mark E Smith was a fan, and The Fall’s 1987 cover of R. Dean Taylor’s Northern Soul classic “There’s a Ghost in My House” was their biggest UK hit. But MES was less a fan of those who went to clubs — like the famed Wigan Casino — and pretended like it was still 1963. (Or the bands who did, for that matter, like Dexy’s Midnight Runners.) “Meanwhile in the sticks / Proles rich, dance in cardboard pants.”
A song that juxtaposes football hooliganism with the music scene at the time because of a similarity that Mark E Smith saw going on: that violence became the only interesting thing about either to the press. The references to both may go over a lot of people’s heads but the band, banging out the kind of droning post-punk rockabilly The Fall always did so well, is killer, with MES shouting “FANS!!! Remember, you are abroad! Remember the police are rough! Remember the unemployed! Remember my expense account!”
While Mark E Smith said over the years that the lyrics were a bit of a joke (and are either about how people saw him, or are a takedown of cooler-than-thou journalists), “Hip Priest” is more known for its methodical, decidedly sinister vibe. It was that unrelenting dark tone that had filmmaker Jonathan Demme use the song in the tense climax of Silence of the Lambs.
Brix Smith, who both married Mark E Smith and joined the band in 1983, brought new ideas like choruses and pop hooks to The Fall. Almost overnight, Brix reshaped the band into something much more commercial, without really changing the band’s M.O. One of the first singles she co-wrote is one of the poppiest things the band ever released, with “La La” backing vocals and an earworm keyboard riff. It’s makes for a nice contrast to MES’ lyrics about a “horrid trendy wretch” that might’ve been about former Fall bassist Marc Riley (who would later form The Creepers).
“I Am Damo Suzuki”
A noted krautrock fan, Mark E Smith paid tribute to Can yowler Damo Suzuki on this track from what many consider to be The Fall’s finest hour, 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace. Smith drops in references to Can albums and singles throughout — “What have you got in that paper bag? / Is it a dose of Vitamin C?” — while the rhythm-heaving music is very clearly modeled on Can’s Tago Mago classic “Oh Yeah.”
“Hit The North”
The Fall’s first experiment with a sampler yielded their biggest UK hit that wasn’t a cover, as well as an enduring anthem for Manchester and all points North. Stephen Hanley notes in his memoir The Big Midweek, “Hit the North” was “initially inspired by Mark’s dislike of Norwich… On the way back from playing there, Mark said, ‘I don’t like it round here! It’s too flat. I can’t wait till we hit the North.’ And a couple of days later he had the words to a new political anthem.” One of The Fall’s all-time bangers, with one of MES’ most iconic screeches.
“New Big Prinz”
In 1988, The Fall collaborated with choreographer/dancer Michael Clark on a ballet (!) called I Am Kurious Oranj that was kinda done in honor of the 300th anniversary of William of Orange’s ascension to the English throne. (As you’d expect, the stage had a giant cheeseburger on it.) For it, and the accompanying album, they reworked their song “Hip Priest” into a shuffle beat glam rock stomper and “New Big Prinz” became a new instant Fall classic (which has also been covered by the Pixies).
“Bill is Dead”
A rare sincere, genuinely pretty (and admittedly Smiths-y) song from The Fall which came at a point in their crossroads, as 1990’s Extricate! was their first album after Mark and Brix’s divorce. Some posit that the song is about Brix, while others say Mark wrote it as a reflection on pre-rave Manchester. Such are the very open to interpretation lyrics of MES, but it’s clear that with its chorus of “these are the greatest times of my life,” this one meant something special to him.
“Idiot Joy Showland”
Mark E. Smith took great pleasure in mocking scenes and fads, and this song from 1991’s Shift-Work takes aim at the the “Madchester” scene that overtook his hometown in the late-’80s and early-’90s with hoards of baggy-dressed ravers and bands aping Happy Mondays and Stone Roses. He pulled no punches: “Idiot groups with no shape or form / Out of their heads on a quid of blow / The shapeless kecks flapping up a storm / Look at what they are: a pack of worms.”
“They had an attitude of, “We don’t care. We’re the Fall; fuck you.” – Stephen Malkmus
The Fall took an early songs they never recorded (“Hey! Fascist”) and reworked it to be about the grunge/slacker college scene for 1994’s Middle Class Revolt (which came out in the US on Matador which made them, at the time, labelmates with Fall fans Pavement). It’s still a punk song, minus the crunchy power chords but with extra bile: “When walking down the street, it’s always you I seem to meet / Long hair down and sneakers on your feet / As you listen to Pearl Jam in your room / I pick up a knife and I sing this song.”
While it only hit #90 on the UK charts in 1999, “Touch Sensitive” — and its infectious “Uh hey hey hey hey!” chorus — became something of a hit a couple years late thanks to being used in a Vauxhall car commercial. The riff nicks a little from The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man” but The Fall, as always, make it their own.
“Dr. Buck’s Letter”
After a dodgy mid-’90s, The Fall rallied in the early ’00s with some of their best records in ages, including 2000’s excellent The Unutterable. The album is loaded with classics but none better than this one where MES reads an “essentials checklist” from celebrity DJ Pete Tong that was published in an in-flight magazine, over a killer, dubby groove. Mark E. Smith cracks up reading it at one point, which is one of the song’s highlights.
“Blindness,” from The Fall’s last great album (2005’s Fall Heads Roll) features a fearsome bassline and shuffling beat that was apparently inspired by UK rapper Roots Manuva. This one was picked by Fontaines D.C. drummer Tom Coll, who says, “I still remember the time I heard our manager DJing it in the Workman’s in Dublin and I had to go up and ask him what it was. It’s just the best Fall tune there is.”
You can listen to our full playlist on Spotify as well:
Read tributes to Mark E. Smith from Thom Yorke, Pavement, Kim Gordon, Jarvis Cocker, Billy Bragg, Tim Burgess, Garbage, Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli & more, and read my own special Indie Basement tribute edition, published shortly after his death.