A Touch Sensitive

The Fall

A Touch Sensitive

Filmed in 2002 at King George’s Hall in Blackburn, this film documents the Fall in concert, with Mark E. Smith and company playing classics, then-recent material and a handful of covers.

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A Caustic Visionary

Michael Azerrad

5 Min Read

One of my favorite Fall recordings isn’t a song. It isn’t even a poem, really, though the band’s leader and vocalist Mark E. Smith makes it into one. He seems to be alone in a hotel room, probably on tour somewhere, reading whatever is near at hand into a tape recorder.

He’s found the instruction manual for a personal computer. “Tom! Joe! Tom! Joe!” Smith inexplicably intones in his trademark slurred Mancunian drawl, and proceeds to garble the text: “With its high-quality 14-inch VGA swivel-tilt color monitor this powerful database spreadsheets and communications...” Then he apparently starts reading the emergency instructions on the back of the hotel room door. The Smithian hallmarks are all there: the whipsaw juxtapositions, the cut-up text, the fascination with technology and language...and that unmistakable voice.

This one-minute long gem will only be found by the most diligent of fans: tacked onto the end of a song on the B-side of a little-known 28-year-old EP (“Why Are People Grudgeful?”). It’s obscure, it’s sui generis and it’s genius. Just like the Fall itself. Smith could sum up the brilliance of the Fall all by himself in a hotel room, without the band, or even music. It’s why he appealed to willful Anglophilic introverts obsessed with language and rock music. Like me.

Cover art for The Fall’s “Why Are People Grudgeful?” album. | Permanent | Source: Amazon | 1993

I picked up on the Fall when a friend played me a new single, “Totally Wired,” and added conspiratorially, “It’s about doing speed!” Then I heard a guy spewing abstruse poetry over an addictively mantric, shambling racket: “Ahm todully why-udd!” And that was it, I was a Fall fan.

Smith famously said, “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.” For better or worse, he proves this on “A Touch Sensitive,” filmed in 2002 at King George’s Hall in Blackburn, down the road apiece from the Salford suburbs where Smith grew up. This incarnation of the band is merely competent — there’s none of the exquisitely spiky dissonance and ramshackle flair that, in the ‘70s and ‘80s lineups, created that most thrilling and emblematic of rock kicks, the overwhelming sensation that, at any moment, things might go right off the rails.

While Smith himself is no onstage dynamo — if you turned off the sound and there weren’t any shots of the band, you might think he was delivering a lecture, and he spends a fair amount of time crouched by the drum set sorting through messy piles of lyric sheets — he’s so obliviously immersed in his own weird sensibility, so completely self-actualized, that it’s absolutely magnetic.

A couple of times, someone else walks onstage — maybe a tour manager or roadie — and briefly takes over on vocals. It’s then that you realize, as if there had been any doubt before, the quantum difference between Mark E. Smith and just some guy hollering. The Fall plays an uncharacteristically crowd-pleasing set: mostly singles from all over the band’s career, likely for the benefit of the cameras, such as “Hey! Luciani” and minor U.K. hits “Hit the North” and the band’s rendition of the Kinks’ “Victoria.”

Several covers address Smith’s preoccupations, from class conflict (Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues”) to booze and drugs (the 1959 George Jones hit “White Lightning” and the Other Half’s 1966 garage-psych nugget “Mr. Pharmacist”). Late in the show, the group finally builds up a formidable head of steam for Smith’s take on the hallowed English hymn “Jerusalem,” its reference to “dark satanic mills” befitting this preeminent bard of the post-industrial wasteland.

He’s rightfully a peer of artists like Robert Smith and Ian Curtis, the difference being that he didn’t become a pop star or attain the instant sainthood one gets from dying young and beautiful.

For various reasons — his irascibility, his lack of quality control, his stage presence, etc. — Mark E. Smith never got his due. He’s rightfully a peer of artists like Robert Smith and Ian Curtis, the difference being that he didn’t become a pop star or attain the instant sainthood one gets from dying young and beautiful. People like me love brilliant underdogs like that and it was a sad day when Smith died in 2018, a victim of his own excesses: speed, cigarettes and drinking, all of which are already etched here on his then-46-year-old face.

Early and perennial Fall booster John Peel once proclaimed, “the Fall remains the band by which all others must be judged.” The band boasted a combustible combination of the ineffable and the idiosyncratic, and the fearlessness (or is that monomania?) to follow instincts wherever they lead. That resonated with the disparate group of Fall cognoscenti who praised Smith after his death: Thom Yorke, Cat Power, Garbage, the Pixies and many others. Then there are more directly influenced bands such as Big Black, the Sugarcubes, Pavement, At the Drive-In and LCD Soundsystem.

Today, you can hear the Fall’s literate clangor in hip bands like Parquet Courts, Protomartyr and the oracular Sleaford Mods. Smith was only 22 years old when he sang, on “Psykick Dance Hall,” “When I am dead and gone/My vibrations will live on/In vibes on vinyl through the years/People will dance to my waves.” He was right. For willful Anglophilic introverts obsessed with language and rock music, that’s incredibly vindicating.

“A Touch Sensitive” Setlist

  1. To Nkroachment: Yarbles

  2. Two Librans

  3. Cyber Insekt

  4. And Therein

  5. Mere Psued Mag. Ed.

  6. Behind the Counter

  7. Telephone Thing

  8. Touch Sensitive

  9. Hey! Luciani

  10. Free Range

  11. The Classical

  12. There’s a Ghost in My House

  13. The Chiselers

  14. Big New Prinz

  15. Jerusalem

  16. Mr. Pharmacist (The Other Half cover)

  17. Bourgeois Blues (Lead Belly cover)

  18. I Wake Up in the City—>My Ex-Classmates’ Kids

  19. Victoria (Kinks cover)

  20. White Lightning (George Jones cover)

  21. Hit the North

Michael Azerrad is the author of “Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991” and “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana.” A former contributing editor for Rolling Stone, he has also written for The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Billboard, MTV News, The New York Times and many other publications. The founding editor of eMusic, he edited Bob Mould’s autobiography “See a Little Light: A Trail of Rage and Melody.” He’s currently a freelance book editor and has nearly completed “The Annotated Come as You Are,” an extensively illuminated version of his Nirvana biography.

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