Album : 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong – The Fall
Review : Pitchfork, 8 July 2004
Author : Alex Linhardt
The Fall have seen so many compilations and reissues of their work during the course of their 26-year career that they named their latest full-length The Real Fall LP for clarification. Given the reputation of these numerous shoddy anthologies, however, and the fact that, with the exception of the excellent 2002 Rough Trade release, Totally Wired, there has never been any truly “definitive” Fall retrospective, the best a potential convert could hope for was to pick whichever disc bore the prettiest packaging.
While other Fall comps pride themselves on monochromatic slabs of cover design more appropriate for Rothko retrospectives than tumultuous punk albums, 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong instantly has one thing going for it: Its artwork is absolutely hilarious, keenly referencing Elvis Presley‘s billion-selling 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. With its image of countless self-replicating Elvises hailing down in dashing suits, that original cover was a perfect embodiment of pop music’s narcissism and weirdness– incidentally also the two subjects of nearly every song Mark E. Smith ever laid to tape.
As the first legitimate career-spanning compilation, 50,000 Fall Fans begins at the band’s inception in 1977. Smith was a mere 20 years old, weaned on garage rock, kraut-rock, and a one-year stint as a dock worker. Like all young adults, he named his band after a Camus novel, quickly releasing a series of singles before 1979’s full-length debut, Live at the Witch Trials. Represented by “Repetition”, the pre-Witch Trials band consists of simple angular guitars, teen-pop rhythms, and drunken charm without any of the complexity or chaos that would later become integral to their work.
Around 1980’s Grotesque, The Fall began to seriously investigate other genres, channeling spiraling rodeos (“How I Wrote Elastic Man”), steely noise-pop (“Totally Wired”), and rhythmic shrapnel (“New Face in Hell”). 50,000 Fall Fans spends its leisurely time in this nascent stage, but the brunt of the album is understandably spent exploring The Fall’s near-perfect run of albums in the mid-80s, from 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour to 1986’s Bend Sinister. A staggering 13 tracks from this era find their place on this two-disc set, forging a truly brilliant sequence. Ranging from the blustering, seismic noise of “The Classical” to the schizophrenic death-rattle of “The Man Whose Head Expanded”, the album provides a convincing case that The Fall were the most uncompromisingly progressive and reliable band of the 1980s, whether they assumed the guise of punk heavyweights or sweet electro-divas (with the assistance of Smith’s wife, Brix).
With this sort of lead-in, even the most questionable song of the band’s notorious early-90s phase seems challenging and substantive. Considering that this anthology’s second disc includes the band’s stab at Europop/ska-rap (“Why Are People Grudgeful?”), this is truly a feat. As a general rule, this disc pulls one song from every album released from 1990 to the present, distilling each allegedly mediocre release to one stunning single. If anything, however, these selections compel listeners to return to the band’s 90s output with their tranquilized synths (“Masquerade”) and brash genre-blenders (the Cocteau Twins-vs.-AC/DC dynamics of “The Chiselers”).
Of course, with a career that’s spanned four decades, 50,000 Fall Fans inevitably winds up omitting some of the most crucial songs in their canon, including “Oh! Brother!”, “Slang King”, “Bombast”, and “Oleano”. Still, the songs represented are consistently fascinating and invigorating, many standing as among the finest of the last quarter-century, chaotically navigating punk through ever more adventurous territory, from Countrypolitan to house music.
As a result of this willed diversity and comprehensiveness, 50,000 Fall Fans has finally stepped up to assume its rightful position as the most successful and essential Fall compilation in existence– a convenient summary for fearful neophytes reluctant to dip their toe into the black hole of the band’s discography, as well as die-hard fans seeking a distillation of choice cuts from the group’s more wayward 90s efforts. Smith is never less than inspiring on any of these 39 tracks, flaunting his confrontational sneer and leering sarcasm over some of the most erratic, riled riffs in punk. In his oft-ignored later period, Smith sounds even more unhinged, furious and battered, cloaking criticisms of governmental policies in lunatic poetics that the most pretentious high-school fanzine dadaists would cower before. Smith quite literally sounds as if his mouth has been pierced full of gaping holes leaking bile and cancer.
Incidentally, this is also the fundamental difference between Smith and Elvis. Elvis was pure sexual dynamite, basking in his own libidinal juices; in sharp contrast, Smith is the ugliest, grimiest beast of Lucifer to ever drag his expanding head from a pub’s water closet. Elvis may have drooled sex, but it was artificial, manipulative, cheap. The Fall, like all truly great sex, climaxes in rage, regret and release– the three criteria for all utterly essential rock music. 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong chronicles more than two decades of those climaxes, perhaps to one day be held in similar regard to the album its artwork parodies.
JC adds : I wasn’t sure whether to look out for any reviews of compilation albums, but I couldn’t resist this genuinely warm, appreciative and occasionally LOL piece from Alex Lindhart. There are still folk out there who sneer and claim that real journalists can only be found through print media, in the same way that those of us who write about music via blogs aren’t nearly as qualified as those who have contracts with publishing moguls. This review on its own should puncture those self-righteous bubbles.
Besides, 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong is the starting point to where I would direct anyone who remains unsure about the unbridled genuis of Mark E Smith and the quality of the music he made during his lifetime.
The fact it got a positive mention in this review means I’ve included The Classical as one of the four tracks today…..it is one of the greatest bits of music that The Fall ever recorded, but I’ve always been uneasy about the lyric ‘Where are the obligatory n*****s? Hey there, fuck face!’ I don’t think MES was being racist, but he certainly was being confrontational and combative, ensuring that the tune wouldn’t get aired on radio. I hope nobody is offended…..