Fans of The Fall are, as a rule, hardy beasts. Complaint may come naturally to them, but then so does loyalty. John Peel’s famous encomium, “They are always different, they are always the same,” is the perpetual excuse for their favourite band, which disregards a certain erosion of Mark E Smith’s charms.
What once seemed like iconoclasm can now come across, not least in his autobiography, as reactionary: as if Smith has curdled into a Jeremy Clarkson figure for men who prefer a slightly different cut of leather jacket.
In this role as picturesquely gnarled National Treasure, Mark E Smith tends to be portrayed as a genius who can compel any old rabble towards brilliance. But actually, for all his dictatorial impulses, Smith often works best as part of a focused, talented, properly-produced team. It’s no accident that Smith’s finest music in the past decade or so has come away from The Fall, on the 2007 Von Südenfed album, when he shared creative responsibilties with the German electronic producers Mouse On Mars.
Latterday Fall lineups and periodic critical rehabilitations (last year’s over-praised “Your Future Our Clutter” being a case in point) are decent enough. But when the band’s never-ending, if capricious, reissue programme recycles an old classic, it inevitably throws most of Smith’s 21st Century endeavours into a pretty unflattering light.
So it is with the ‘Omnibus Edition’ of “This Nation’s Saving Grace”, an album often cited by Fall part-timers – with some justification, it has to be said – as their very best. Here, in all their menacing and utilitarian finery, is arguably the band’s strongest configuration – the 20th Fall lineup, the sleevenotes reveal. At the back, Craig Scanlon (rhythm guitar), Steve Hanley (bass) and a soon-to-depart Karl Burns (drums) operate with a kind of clockwork belligerence.
Listen to Hanley – mesmerisingly staunch, covertly funky – grafting away on the Blackwing Version of “Bombast” that surfaces amongst the rough mixes and out-takes on CD2, and the thought occurs that perhaps he, not Peter Hook, was the pre-eminent Manchester bassist of the period.
Upfront, meanwhile, it’s easy to characterise Brix Smith as bringing a certain pop nous to The Fall, and while there are glimpses of that (“Vixen”, the b-side of “Cruiser’s Creek”, especially), closer negotiations with the mainstream remain a year or two away. On “This Nation’s Saving Grace”, it’s her psychedelic exuberance that stands out, cutting a swathe through the glowering throb of “L.A.” as she incants, “This is my happening, and it freaks me out!”
Just off to the side, there’s Simon Rogers, on keyboards and guitar. Rogers is something of an anomaly among the legions of ex-Fall members, a Royal College Of Music graduate who previously figured in panpipe-toting novelty hitsters Incantation (“Cacharpaya (Andes Pumpsa Daesi)”, Number 12 in December 1982) and would subsequently produce The Lightning Seeds and Boy George, and write incidental music for Dalziel And Pascoe.
According to new interviews in the sleevenotes, Rogers was at odds with his speeding bandmates because “the fact that I wanted to eat three times a day was seen as weird.” He did, though, bring a new depth to the band: promoting the looming sequencers on “L.A.”; and facilitating the tape collage of “Paintwork”, superior to most of Smith’s similar lo-fi experiments over the next 25 years.
Producer John Leckie suggests that Smith was “suspicious” of Rogers’ musicality, and that “Mark… would always have the last word.” Nevertheless, there’s a clarity and force to “This Nation’s Saving Grace” which illustrates the usefulness of studio professionals as a counter to Smith’s idiosyncracies. None of it sounds much like a compromised record, or one remotely anxious to please. Instead, the likes of “I Am Damo Suzuki” are imbued with the sonic richness, as well as the maverick spirit, of Can, while “Gut Of The Quantifier” has the momentum of a runaway juggernaut, miraculously holding a straight course (a Peel version of the same song, included on CD3, doesn’t quite have the same greased heft as Leckie’s album mix).
In the midst of it all, of course, there’s Mark E Smith. As ever, he affects to be oblivious of everything going on around him, but it’s doubtful his gravity and wit have ever enjoyed such a dramatic setting. At the start of the Omnibus’ fourth version of “L.A.” (a Peel session take), Smith begins by redeploying the lyrics from his own “Bombast”. “All those that mind entitle themselves shall feel the wrath of my bombast,” he warns, convincingly. “And Lloyd Cole, whose brain and face is made out of… cowpat. We all know that.” Enhanced by the boldness of Brix Smith’s tunes, by Rogers and Leckie’s clean lines, by the thrust of his doughtiest troops, the bile is positively phantasmagoric.