Mark E Smith, the singer and poet who led The Fall for over 40 years, has died. In this excerpt from his 2016 book In Love With These Times, Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd recalls the band’s tour of New Zealand and the controversy surrounding the live album Fall In A Hole that was recorded on the tour.
We all loved The Fall. They were one of the original English punk bands inspired by the Sex Pistols’ visit to Manchester and quickly grew into something much more interesting, a band on an altogether different trajectory.
They were a markedly regional band. Proud to remain ale-swilling northern outsiders rather than join the homogenous lager-sipping London mainstream. Do-it-yourself provincials playing non-brand instruments and making unfamiliar sounds, including big, angry, angular bass riffs that crunched on top of each other like some damaged, badly constructed, repetitive live loop. I liked them a lot, more for individual songs and singles than the dense, rambling albums that veered a little close to the edge of some parallel universe of uneasy listening. ‘Totally Wired’: yep, I could relate to that, including the occasional sleepless night.
The label was busy. I was still working my day job as a record shop manager and running an increasingly successful independent record business on the side, overseeing national distribution for lots of great releases, all of them well received by the music press, student radio and retail, and some even making the charts. But I wasn’t sure where my own destiny lay. I had been to Dunedin and more recently to Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, and knew how terribly small New Zealand really was. Three million people, or just a little more than the population of Greater Manchester at the time — and significantly further away from London, the centre of the musical universe. Was there a future running a successful record company in New Zealand?
I needed a sense of the wider music world and The Fall was my entree. Not through the main entrance but rather through a dimly lit side door down a dark alley. I didn’t seek out that side door; I stumbled through it accidentally, then made the odd wrong turn once inside. The music business was badly signposted in those days, especially if you were from the other side of the world.
But the post-punk idea was enabling. I was doing my thing with Flying Nun. Chris Knox was involved as an artist, a producer and a kind of anti-mentor to younger artists, as well as being our sales contact for shops in Auckland. Doug Hood had a day job with Live Sound, but also had the energy, practical intelligence and nous to embark on a career in live music promotion. He was going to bring the sorts of overseas acts he and his friends liked to New Zealand and he called the business Looney Tours. The Birthday Party were the first act he toured, followed by The Fall in 1982.
The Fall wanted to come to New Zealand. They had scraped onto the local chart at some stage, not realising this meant little more than that a few fans had purchased their latest release over the same couple of days. A similar chart position in a more populous country like the United Kingdom would have been the result of multiple factors at work, a solid sales base generating attention, in turn generating more sales. Nevertheless, there was a perception that The Fall were big in New Zealand. And perhaps they were.
‘Happy Fall Guitarist’ was the headline on the front page of the Christchurch Press when they arrived in August 1982. And he really did look happy to be there to play a show at Canterbury University — a show I missed because I fell asleep in my car in the car park, only to wake up alone, cold and deserted. It must have been that lack of sleep catching up with me.
I caught up with The Fall the next night when they played to a half-full Christchurch Town Hall. Perhaps they did have more fans than I thought, because I couldn’t remember selling that many of their records at the shop. I followed the band to Auckland and discovered them ensconced at Chris and Barbara’s house in Grey Lynn.
Chris had gone out to the airport to meet them. I think there must have been too much grovelling in the van on the way back because guitarist Karl Burns had punched Chris in the face (something many had felt like doing over the years but few had followed through with). Karl didn’t realise he was being slobbered over by a national-treasure-in-the-making and lashed out in the only way his hard northern hands knew how. Chris was laughing it off and the band were sulking around the house, sort of relaxing with beer and morose northern chat. There were two distinct camps: the band, and Mark E Smith and his girlfriend, Kay Carroll, who claimed to be a witch.
I had never met a real live witch before. Growing up in Christchurch we often came upon their burnt remains in the Square or by the village ducking pond, but live ones were hard to come by. This one came with the band. I knew that Mark E Smith was from Prestwich in greater Manchester, where for a time Kay Carroll worked in the local psychiatric hospital, the biggest in Europe. I knew they enjoyed the play on the ‘wich’ in Prestwich, and had released the Live at the Witch Trials album. The next album would be called The Hex Induction Hour. Carroll had the kind of personality you could imagine being an asset working in an old-fashioned mental institution, but her expectation of being seriously accepted as a witch struck me as remarkably crazed.
But these were interesting people playing highly original music, trying to make a career of it, and trying to get on with each other on the opposite side of the world from their industrial hometown. Mark E Smith was a little aloof but carried the burden of being the star attraction, which is how he liked it, I think. It was his show and he was running it, with the witch doing the unsavoury bits.
This was the classic Fall line-up: Karl Burns, Marc Riley, the Hanley brothers Steve and Paul, Craig Scanlon and, not to be left out of the onstage fun, Kay Carroll on backing vocals. After a few beers the band lightened up and we came to like them a lot and felt friendly enough to warn the witch off Ponsonby Road after dark. Of course, the real loose cannon in the room was Chris Knox. I turned to see Chris gleefully licking Mark E Smith’s impassive face and quietly slipped out the back door. Totally wired.
Auckland post-punk fans were very excited about The Fall playing at Mainstreet. This was the usual stopping place for medium-sized overseas bands. I remember a distinct lack of ventilation and sweat dripping off the ceiling on particularly hot and packed nights. In the madness surrounding The Fall in Auckland, Doug had presented as the voice of reasoned sanity and convinced Mark E Smith they could make a decent recording of the show on the Teac four-track. So the whole show was recorded and when the Ampex tape ran out, the two long encores were recorded on that much-maligned format, the cassette.
And it sounded really good. They played very well, including the ‘hits’ and some new material that would appear on studio albums in the near future. Noted by many observers was the absence of their most recognised and appreciated song, ‘Totally Wired’, on the extended setlist that night.
Somehow Chris then convinced Mark E Smith that Flying Nun should turn the whole thing into a record and release it. ‘Really?’ I said to Chris. ‘Yes, really, it’s all agreed.’ I worried that making a record with a high-profile overseas band was drifting away from our main business, and everything felt a little hazier than usual. But I was a positive, optimistic young man who knew we could sell a few of those records in New Zealand and make some money to pump into some of the other projects we had on the go. We were selling singles and twelve-inch EPs but not releasing many full-priced albums, and that’s where the margin was — and with it a future. So yes, we were doing this. ‘They agreed right, the witch and all?’ ‘Yeah, just do it is what they said.’
The sixty minutes of the main set sounded pretty good, but the quality of the cassette-recorded encores of unreleased material (which would turn up on Hex Induction Hour) was a little inferior. It was ninety minutes of music though and Chris, being the fan-nerd he was, decided all of it had to be released. The main part of the show would just about fit onto two sides of a 331⁄3-rpm twelve-inch album, and the thirty minutes of encore could be best crammed onto an additional 45-rpm twelve-inch EP.
Big commercial live albums up to this point were usually ropey affairs. Try listening to Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night or even Frampton Comes Alive and you’ll get the idea. Added audience atmosphere could sound very fake. These were huge-selling records of very average recordings, with the faults amplified because of their double length. Record companies loved them, though, because they were relatively cheap to make and they could sell them for a whole lot more. What could be exciting about a live record was the faithful recording of a performance, ‘faults’ and all — the capturing of a unique performance in a particular room at a particular time?
Chris wanted to faithfully document the Fall show and oversaw the recording with some help from Doug (who was probably doing the band’s live sound). He did an excellent job with the means available. You couldn’t really tell it was recorded in a sauna in hell (without the groovy lighting). The half-capacity audience of around 600 seemed to like it and cheered along when they were supposed to. I felt a little uneasy when I saw Chris’s artwork for the album cover. If we were going to sell a ‘double’ album, with double the pressing costs, for the same price as a single album, the cover would have to be simple — a single black-and-white sleeve. That wasn’t the problem, though.
The cover was very much Chris’s work, including the album title: Fall in a Hole. Few would have argued that Mainstreet didn’t qualify as a hole, but the thing that threw me was the newspaper clipping that dominated the front cover. It was the ‘Happy Fall Guitarist’ picture and headline from the Christchurch Press. Not a photo of undisputed main man Mark E Smith, but the member of the band he had most recently fallen out with, Marc Riley. Mark E had reportedly whacked each member of the band after a poor performance in Sydney, just before arriving in New Zealand, and Marc had had the nerve to punch him back. His days in the band were numbered.
The rest of the art featured ‘Fall’ in one of Chris’s hand-drawn fonts, consisting of arms and hands to form the letters. The ‘plug’ for the ‘hole’ was hand drawn and the back cover was a montage of Carol Tippet photos. The song titles and recording details were all in Chris’s artistically neat handwriting but it seemed to have a new catalogue number: not the ‘Live 1’ and ‘Live 2’ as printed on the record labels, but ‘Mark 1 + 2’. I guess the joke was irresistible. It all added to the general sense that this did not look or feel like a proper Fall release. Surely if the band were serious they would have provided some sort of art, even if we had to build a cover around it.
I played it and really enjoyed it, and never listened to it again until I wrote this. The Fall made dense records. Whereas the singles are delightful, thick slices of post-punk weirdness, the albums seem to come as uncut loaves. It’s simply all too much. I haven’t really listened to any of their subsequent albums since. But Chris was so much the obsessive that he wanted it all there, squeezed onto two groaning discs. He was so into the band he assumed everyone else would share his fascination. Many did.
There were enough obsessive Fall fans around the world to be very interested in this record. It took a long time to appear. Recorded in August 1982 and released in December 1983 is one heck of a slow turnaround. I really can’t remember why it took so long. Perhaps Chris took a while to put the artwork together. There were always delays at the pressing plant, but surely this was an absolute priority for us. Perhaps we were just too busy with the other twenty-three records by New Zealand artists we put out that year.
The test pressings finally came through in late 1983. We had never ordered test pressings before. The pressing plant had discouraged it, despite it potentially being a way to iron out our manufacturing problems. Our unconventional recordings could confuse a cutting engineer, resulting in never-ending subjective The Fall in a Hole record cover by Chris Knox debates followed by further expensive test pressings. Instead, I encouraged the bands to have someone attend cutting sessions and develop a relationship with the engineers. Chris Knox always travelled to Wellington for his cutting and often oversaw the cutting of other material while he was there.
A lot of pressings still came through with faults, especially those not overseen at the cutting stage by Chris or other band members. The record might be cut at the wrong speed, or there might be a track missing. The spindle hole might not actually be in the middle. The bass might be too loud or not loud enough. We listened with the band and tried to make a pragmatic decision about whether we could live with what we had. I would say that no one was happy much of the time, there were serious concerns roughly 40 percent of the time, and we asked for re-cuts or repressings on about 20 percent of our initial pressings.
So Chris had insisted on a test pressing for The Fall. He now knew the engineers and he knew the process and it was worth the effort — especially with the Fall in a Hole cutting, as there was a lot of music to fit onto four sides of vinyl and a trade-off in quality versus quantity. Chris understood the issues and resolved them to his satisfaction. The test pressings confirmed that everything had gone to plan. Just in time for Christmas.
The sell-in to shops was very good despite the initial buzz having abated and the band having released two excellent and one so-so studio albums in the interim. I was even happier when Sounds Unlimited rang to say they had some export interest. Sounds Unlimited was a very good record shop in Newmarket, Auckland. We liked the people there and they were unusual in that they actively exported finished records around the world. They sold New Zealand pressings into the Pacific Islands and hard-to-get New Zealand–only releases of international acts into Europe and the US.
Fall in a Hole was just such a New Zealand–only release. There was an international audience for this record. ‘Can we export this?’ I asked Chris. ‘It shouldn’t be a problem.’ And I really didn’t want it to be, because there is no sale like an export sale in December. We pressed more for the export orders. There was more and more interest from around the world and we were having trouble keeping up with stock. Financially it was looking good.
Sounds Unlimited was a well-run company and a prompt-paying customer. And there would be all these Fall fans around the world who would now know there was an interesting record label in New Zealand called Flying Nun. It irked a little that they would know it for a non–New Zealand artist’s release, but never mind. I was already fantasising about a summer holiday.
I was at the office fiddling with the Christmas decorations I’d bought with the anticipated income from the Fall export sales when the phone rang. I’ve never liked telephones. It was a music publisher ringing from Australia. I’d never had a phone call from Australia, let alone from a music publisher. What do they do again?
It was about this Fall in a Hole album … The words unauthorised, illegal, bootleg, lawsuit, conviction, fine and prison were all mentioned or imagined. Mark E Smith had already seen a copy in the UK and was not amused. Of course he wasn’t. It was a recording made by a bunch of crazy fans far, far away on the other side of the world sixteen months earlier. Yes, he vaguely remembered agreeing to let this tiny record label release it, but here it was all of a sudden selling as a rather expensive import and he hadn’t heard anything more about it and certainly hadn’t seen or heard a test pressing as would be normal practice. And what’s more, it didn’t look like a Fall album. And worst of all, it had ostracised ex-member Marc Riley on the cover.
Mark didn’t have to be furious with us. He had his music publisher to do it for him out of Australia. So my first contact with the overseas music business was an angry, demanding one. Desist from export, press no more copies, and give us all the income from all of the sales. I feebly restated the agreed understanding but soon caved in to their demands. It was bruising and sobering. Through ignorance we had done wrong. The international music business won, and rightly so. We paid up and it didn’t kill Flying Nun. But it did slow things down for a while, and it made me much more wary. I had never had to endure such a hardball conversation about money before. The threat of legal action was bad enough, but worse, I felt, was the fear of the loss of reputation. I wasn’t going to be called a bootlegger.
We had acted unthinkingly and poorly. We had not kept in touch. In an interview much later, Chris shed some light on how everything had broken down thirty years earlier. He’d had the test pressings but couldn’t afford to post them to The Fall — something that could so easily have been done by our office in Christchurch or with money forwarded to Chris. There had been poor communication and assumptions made that everything was fine. ‘She’ll be right, it’s all fine, nothing to worry about.’ A loud and clear alarm bell we were unable to hear.
© In Love With These Times – My Life with Flying Nun Records by Roger Shepherd, published by HarperCollins
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.