The year is 1986 and synths seem to be taking over the entire world like a proto-Daft Punk version of Terminator. One brave anti-hero sits in the corner of some Salford spit and sawdust pub. Although on the surface he appears to be simply getting quietly bladdered by himself until he achieves peak misanthropissed status, he is actually about to rise up, grab the music industry by the lapels and rattled it about like a Skoda going over a cattle-grid, tearing down the icons of all the filthy Bolshevist and backstabbing bastards that he perceives to be in his way. He is Mark E Smith, part genius, part maniac who helmed The Fall like a warlord as they continued to march inward from the far reaches of culture.
For seven years he had slashed through the norm like some demented daemon of the demimonde, whipping up a cyclonic barrage of hellfire. As he staggered along, he swept up a legion of devoted fans (all fifty thousand of them) in this maelstrom. He stands out from the cesspit of snarling punks as the one rock star who truly didn’t care what anybody thought. However, he did care about his own music and with Bend Sinister in 1986, he would seize his largest mainstream territory to date, breaking into the top 50 of the charts like an unwelcome but unassailable funeral buffer thief.
There would be no point eulogising his wild ways if there was no substance to prop them up. What separated him from the average wayward wayfarer traversing the cobbled streets of Salford was a style of poetry akin to Charles Baudelaire after twelve pints of super-strength lager, with the kaleidoscopic colourings of a particularly caustic John Cooper Clarke, and the biggest fuck-you attitude that the world has seen since John the Baptist. Bend Sinister saw this one-man army approaching his human wrecking ball peak. Naturally, it wasn’t an album that catapulted the irascible fringe hero to stardom, but 36 in the UK charts was the mid-latitude heights of purgatory and that’s as lofty as a bastard like Smith was ever set reach.
Bend Sinister proved that The Fall were too original to be permitted entry to the commercial stratosphere and too big for the leaden boots of the doldrums of ‘cult’. However, while other bands in this creatively fertile no-mans-land have faded or fled at the point of the seven-year-itch, The Fall began to set up permanent holdings. An approach much like the daring novelist Vladimir Nabokov, whose 1947 effort Smith pilfered for the title of the album. In Nabokov’s novel, he explains: “This choice of a title was an attempt to suggest an outline broken by refraction, a distortion in the mirror of being, a wrong turn taken by life.”
For the album, Mark E Smith seems to take this idea and run with it. In the dystopian novel, Nabokov does his best to withdraw from the forefront and Smith follows suit, creating a space for the instrumentation to flow. With the leavening agent of Brix Smith also firmly ensuring that the hellscape isn’t solely ruled by Satan, the sound is a touch less hectic, and a pinch more pulled together than usual. This more controlled approach allows for a sound befitting of the concept. The coherence of the artistic design behind the album makes it one of The Fall’s most hook-laden and easy efforts to get into; it’s more of a firm but fair challenge on usual post-punk standards than a stud-scraping slide tackle down the Achilles.
As ever with The Fall, however, penning an individual record review is not all that easy without taking into account the whole tapestry of Smith’s unspooling muse. For all of Brix Smith’s mediating and the more withdrawn approach, he was still sharing his toys with beady eyes and a pledge to recall them in a heartbeat. The perfect paradigm of this comes from the fact that he found himself recording part of the album at the prestigious Abbey Road Studios with the lauded producer John Leckie. This was pioneering territory where the future of music unfurls, and all Smith had to say was “We’re not fucking U2, record it live!”
With this iconoclastic creative styling, The Fall crafted a warning about the technological synth dystopia rising around them and the Bend Sinister shield was the scintillating sonic response vitally ramming its way towards the mainstream, but never so forcefully that it couldn’t retreat back to the bar. It’s a masterpiece that only one person could be capable of, and that much is true, I know it for a fact, because it happened.