The detective story that unfolds in Dave Simpson’s The Fallen is worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle. I can easily imagined the rock journalist’s search for 43 ex-Fall members repenned as one featuring cocaine addicted Sherlock Holmes: call it The Case of The Fall Heads Roll. Simpson - unable to locate former drummer Karl Burns who may or may not be dead … who may or may not be married and running a B&B … who may or may not be a motorcycle riding hermit living in the Rosendale hillside - turns to Holmes and Doctor Watson for their aid.
But wait. If you are American, “Who are The Fall?” you’re probably asking.
“The one thing Britain has that America can never have” as ex-Fall bassist Eric McGann (aka Rick Goldstraw aka Eric Echo aka Eric the Ferret: I told you, this is the stuff of detective stories) says, hitting the mark.
Pun intended because The Fall are a British rock band run like a sports club by vocalist/psychologist/coach/genius/cock Mark E. Smith for over 30 years. He did not found The Fall but has been running it ever since axing original bassist and founder Tony Friel in December 1977, the second Fall head to roll.
The honor of being the first head to roll goes to original drummer Steve aka Dave, who apparently threw himself under a locomotive. He’s apparently also the only ex-Fall member to have since died … except maybe Karl Burns who may or may not be dead, which is astounding to me because so many of the Fall heads that rolled were so drug addled that you’d think a few of them overdosed after being unceremoniously sacked, but – no – they usually picked themselves up (or found an airline ticket home (Smith is notorious for firing musicians miles away from home in another country like Greece or the USA) and went on with their lives remembering their time in The Fall as a dream state or akin to a stint in the military. To most it was the high point of their lives or something that shaped them tremendously. Many remained musicians but others became mothers (the son of Yvonne Pawlett (who played keys in The Fall’s first album Live At The Witch Trials (which is not a live recording) is shocked to discover his mum played in the legendary Fall (in Britain The Fall are an institution: their songs used for advertisements and theme songs for television shows) or medical professionals or – in seems like cruel irony to me – civil servants. Almost all would drop everything to play again with The Fall.
Still, there’s this case of the missing drummer. I saw Karl Burns at least twice – opening for The Buzzcocks in December 1979 and The Clash in June 1981 – but he was with The Fall and that’s long before he went missing, so I can’t help Dave Simpson out. He was an incredible drummer. Who knew he was a little off his rocker and liked to travel with a huge suitcase containing only one pair of underpants?
It’s these facts that make The Fallen such an interesting read. You gain insights to Mark E. Smith and learn a bit about the people behind names you saw fleetingly on liner notes of Fall albums and CDs (which usually contained little info other than who played what and song credits (that were often intentionally incorrect it turns out).
The Fallen is also very funny. For example, drummer Dave Milner recalls this “… one instance when The Fall were due to fly home but Smith made such a fuss about not being able to take a keyboard on the plane that airport staff refused to let him board the flight. The keyboard then made the journey – in the seat that had been reserved for Smith.” That’s funny! And there’s dozens of moments like that throughout Simpson’s journey into The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall.
This is the best rock book written since Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions in 1988. To paraphrase a famous comment made by deceased DJ John Peel about The Fall: "The Fallen is the book by against which all other rock books are henceforth judged!" I’d give it 11 Hellbombs if I could. I recommend it to all readers. Dave Simpson sacrificed his sanity (at times) and his marriage locating those 43 ex-Fall members. The least you can do is read his book.