Bob Stanley & Tessa Norton talk Mark E Smith, Fall fandom and their new book ‘Excavate!’
One of the most influential punk/post-punk groups of all time, The Fall, inspire devotion from those who can get past their voluminous output, their distinctively discordant sound, and late frontman Mark E Smith's seemingly inscrutable lyrics, which are deep with arcane references to everything from football to truck drivers to a library full of authors. Once you're in, you're in.
The Fall have inspired a lot of books, many of which have been written by former members of the group (of which there are many) but most of them are biographical in form. Excavate!: The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall, however, is a totally different beast. Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley (of Saint Etienne) have put together a compendium of ephemera and essays that explore tangential but essential aspects to Mark E Smith and The Fall‘s world. There are essays on architecture, Smith's worth ethic, football, education, and how they all relate to Smith's worldview. It's also full of gig posters, early press releases, handwritten notes from M.E.S., a discography, and lots more. Excavate! is about The Fall, but it also feels like The Fall.
With Excavate! out this week via Faber US (order yours), I talked with Norton and Stanley via Zoom about the book, the concept behind it, what didn't make it in, and both of their relationships with The Fall's music. Bob also clued us in on what's next from Saint Etienne, and more. Read our conversation below.
There are a bunch of books on The Fall, but this one is very unique. What gave you the idea for this, and how long ago?
Bob Stanley: Well, years back, we talked about doing a blog -- like an album by album blog -- and very quickly realized that was not a good idea.
Tessa Norton: Yeah, not the right way to approach it.
Bob Stanley: Not long after he died, we were just saying, we've got a shelf of Fall books up there and some are better than others and some are very good, but none of them were really what either of us would want from a Fall book. But they didn't really talk to us about what we found special about The Fall.
Tessa Norton: We were saying that the reason our personal ideal Fall book maybe hadn't been written was because it would need to be about everything else, as much as it was about the music. It shouldn't just be a piece of rock journalism. As much as some of the books are very good, they can only ever illuminate one little aspect of what the group is about. And I think for us, it's a band that we both got into as teenagers, and then it stayed with you in the background throughout your life. It's the expansiveness of this mad worldview that takes in everything from ghost stories, to geography, to trade union politics, to krautrock, to rockabilly. It's that breadth that is really integral to being a Fall fan, I think.
Did you have more of a list of what you didn't want the book to be than what you did? Or did you just have a list of writers that you wanted to have contribute? How did you attack it?
Tessa: I think we started throwing around, how like an essay collection would feel if everyone writing an essay had their own field of expertise, maybe they were an eminent writer in some unrelated fields, and then if that person started writing an essay that gradually revealed itself to secretly be about The Fall and be like, "Hang on, I'm supposed to be reading an architecture article, why is all this all of a sudden about The Fall?" And then you did the same with a literature essay or something like that. And then what that could be like then if you put all of those together. That's an extreme conception of what the book could've been like. And from there, we started thinking about other writers that we knew of, or whose work we'd read, who were either fans or had an interesting. I think pretty much everyone is a fan to some degree, but had an interesting perspective on the group, but maybe had some other frames of reference in as well. The first essay in the book's quite a good example of that. It's written by Elain Harwood, she's one of the most eminent UK writers on mid 20th century architecture, and she just happens to be a really big Fall fan. Getting her to write an essay about her own field, but then also bringing in that fandom knowledge.
Bob: She's might be the biggest Fall fan I know. She's been going to see them since the late '70s. You wouldn't really get that from her essay necessarily, though, which is quite nice. Some of the ephemera in the book is hers as well.
I like that there's definitely the cultural criticism aspect to it, the big essays, but it also works as a coffee table book, you can flip through and look at all that. I really like looking at some of the press releases, from especially the early days, really interesting.
Bob: It's something we definitely wanted to include. I mean, a couple of those are mine from when I wrote to them when I was 15. I got a letter back from Paul Hanley and he was 16, which is quite weird really. But yeah, I just wrote and said, "I love your records," and I wasn't expecting a reply. But he sent back the Grotesque poster that's in the book, and a couple of press releases, and a letter obviously as well. The Totale's Turns press release and the Slates press release are mine. Obviously they're treasured items, but they're clearly written by Mark E Smith, with a bit of...
Tessa: [Fall manager] Kay Carroll as well.
Bob: I think the early ones were written by Kay Carroll. You can see it's not Mark's sense of humor on those. But yeah, they're terrific. He obviously didn't reveal his hand very often, and I think to have him explaining the music in any way at all is very interesting, even if it's in a very oblique way through press releases. His sense of humor is... We wanted an essay on that, and that one didn't come off. It was one of a few subjects we talked about being in it which didn't make it.
Tessa: You're sadly limited by how many pages they can jam shut in a hardback. And we could've definitely carried on commissioning fantasy essays.
Bob Stanley: We went to the top end of pagination, I think, really.
Tessa Norton: The designer Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey, we're so pleased to have worked with them on this. He's also a really big Fall fan, so it felt like there was a real understanding there in the way he was able to arrange stuff to navigate it. Really helped the visuals to not just be visuals, they're part of the editorial story as well.
Bob: Other subjects we didn't get to. The Second World War, he's obsessed with. Speed, drugs.
Tessa: Factories. Though we do have the essay on work ethic.
As an American, definitely some of the subjects that The Fall sang about, or Mark E Smith sang about, we're a little bit outside of my scope. Especially in the 80's and stuff before you had the internet and you just had no idea what... "Kicker Conspiracy," for instance, football was not a thing over here, at least as you know it. And definitely some of the things in this book fall under that still for me, but were interesting to read. And to think about so many aspects of what Mark E Smith brings in is definitely fascinating. But I was glad to see Dan Fox's article on The Fall in America. The whole rockabilly side of things, you really feel that here.
Bob: Dan, who is editor of Frieze, lives in New York, he was on our list of people we wanted to write about The Fall in America, because that seemed important. Because The Fall talks about America, especially in the early mid 80's, when it was very fashionable here to either ignore America completely or think it was way behind us musically or unpolitically. And Mark E Smith was like, "No, no, no, you've got it all wrong. It's a stupid, kind of a student angle to poke fun at America." And obviously he then married an American, so his attitude and the group's attitude towards America, and America's reaction to The Fall we definitely wanted an essay on, so that was something we did push writers in a certain direction.
As to rockabilly, that was something we did actually think about asking Andrew Weatherall to write, but then we decided not to do anything on any specific music, and obviously now I really wish we had, that would've been good. But we just thought if you start delving into their musical influences, then you'd be picking at something where you'd end up leaving things out. So in the end we just included that handwritten thing he did of his favorite albums, the handwritten letter and Aqualung by Jethro Tull's number one or two.
Tessa: I mean, obviously we were constrained by space, we wanted all the visuals to be... They're arbitrary in the sense that then they're not alphabetical, they're not the most valuable items. We wanted them to be instead, the things that people had treasured the most, that had been passed around from fan to fan. And there is quite a lot of that, people trading stuff or taping things to their bedroom walls, or whatever. And we wanted to keep that that roughness.
Bob Stanley: You can see the blue tack and the drawing pin holes on the posters, where they'd been on someone's wall.
Tessa Norton: That guided the visuals and then the essays as well. There's so many subjects that we could've covered, but what we felt that we didn't want or need to do was to unpack the music in a standard rock journalism way. Also we didn't want to speak for anyone. We felt very strongly that it wasn't a biography, it wasn't about the personalities, it wasn't about.. God knows there's so many ex-members that all deserve to tell their own story in their own time.
There's a book for that anyway, right? The Fallen.
Bob: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tessa: We did very much want it to be the fan's perspective and like a fan's gaze, I suppose.
Apart from just trying to whittle it down or fit it all in the book, what was the hardest part about putting this together?
Tessa: Is it really obvious, but we were working on it throughout 2020, so if we'd been able to travel, that would've helped.
Bob: The artwork, the artwork. Almost everyone who's got the original artwork is outside of Britain.
Tessa: Then all the artists that provided album covers for the group, there's almost a little informal network of them all now. Often they were people who were approached by Mark or by friendships and relationships that he'd cultivated. And I think if we'd been able to travel more, it would've been nice to give a bit more, or if we'd had enough page space as well.
Bob: We'd have traveled and we'd have taken photos of them. Because quite often these were things the size of your living room wall, massive paintings, which have been reduced to an album cover.
Tessa: So a bit more space for that visual culture, I suppose would've been nice.
We had more stuff than we could use anyway. And luckily before lockdown happened, we'd gone to meet some of the biggest collectors, so we already had begun cataloging those, thank goodness. And all the essay commissions were out when COVID hit, so it was the editing and the design process that was all remote Zoom-based. If we could've all just sat around a table, it would've been a lot easier.
Bob Stanley: We're lucky in that a lot of the main collectors, several of the biggest collectors are still in the Northwest of England, so they were within a couple of hours of where we are now, which was pretty useful.
What was each of your first experience or memory of The Fall?
Tessa: I bought Perverted by Language, that was my first album. I think I was maybe 14 and I don't think I'd heard much of it before that, just bits and pieces on John Peel. I just felt like I needed to dive in somewhere. I didn't do that much research because it would've been the mid 90's, I was 14. I wasn't sure whether to go in with the early stuff or the Brix period so I was like, "Aha, the bridge album." This is my teenage logic at the time. It's actually quite a difficult one and quite a...
Bob Stanley: It's not an obvious starting point.
Tessa: Not an obvious first listen, but I think that really helps. And it stayed with me and I still love it.
Bob: Mine was, I'd just seen their name in the music papers. I would have been again, about 14, maybe 15. 14, I'd seen their name, and the song titles and the album titles were just so peculiar. I thought, again, I'll buy the cheapest one in the shop, which was Totale's Turns. And again, it's not an obvious place to start, it's like a very ramshackle live album.
Tessa Norton: It's cover.
Bob: It's got a great cover, yeah. We initially wanted the book cover to mimic that, but I think it came out better than that. But yeah I just couldn't get my head around it at all, and I just persevered with it. There's not that many people where you can persevere and get through this almost pain barrier and then you get it. And I suppose Bob Dylan might've been like that in the early 60's for people. Yeah, I can't think of many people where you feel something drawing you in, even though you're not really enjoying listening to it. And then it just takes you over, you become a huge fan. Yeah and then again, I went backwards and forwards from there with less room to go backwards, I suppose. But yeah, I bought everything new from that point, pretty much onwards.
Do you have a favorite period of The Fall, or a lineup? It's tough, I know.
Bob Stanley: Again, writing the book was... Because obviously we listened to The Fall a lot, and I think just now it's a complete body of work, which I'd rather it wasn't, but now it's a complete body of work and you can see this arc. I think things like Levitate or the albums that are more where things were becoming...
Bob: Unglued, that's a very good word, yeah. Where things were becoming unglued were very interesting. Because you knew what happened next, and you knew where it led from. There was things like The Light User Syndrome, one of my least favorite, but Levitate's one of my favorites now. Like most people, I think it's just that the lineup that was there when you first got into them is my favorite so it's like Marc Riley, Craig Scanlon and Hanleys, which is an obvious one.
Tessa: I like the phases where it's a boundary between two phases or something like that, so that you maybe get like the early nineties, like the Fontana Years, I think is really exciting.
Bob: They're great.
Tessa Norton: Post Brix. And then, Levitate just before all the wheels properly come off. Yeah, my favorite changes all the time, but I can't quite accept that it is a complete body of work. It doesn't feel like it ever should've ended.
Bob: Now you can look at it and think that's a complete body of work, it doesn't actually look that. I think when they were just putting it a new album every 18 months, people were struggling to work out where to start or whatever, but now, yeah it doesn't seem that daunting at all.
Tessa Norton: It's this constantly regenerating, renewing, iterative process that changes all the time and that's... Yeah, so that kind of flux, I suppose, is the point.
He did seem like somebody like Keith Richards that you thought was just going to outlive everybody, you know? I saw him play on crutches one time.
Bob: When was that?
It was 2004, at a tiny little club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called Boogaloo. The legal capacity was probably 50 people and I don't know how they booked it there, but there was probably a hundred people in there. There was no stage. I was standing basically face to face with Mark E Smith, and he was recovering from a broken leg, and so he was walking around on crutches and had his knee up on something. I think every show I've seen has been weird apart from the very first... The first time I saw them was on The Infotainment Scan tour in Cleveland. That was the most together I've ever seen them. In every other show, something went horribly, horribly wrong, but they were all memorable for that.
Tessa: Talking to other fans it often seems like this is the case. Part of being a fan is there are critical faculties that are built into that. If you care about when it's good, you also have to recognize that sometimes it's not good. Adelle Stripe, who contributed one of the essays, was a fan as a teenager and then went to see them one time in the mid-'90s, and she's like, "It's just the worst thing I've ever seen in my life. I'm never going to go see this group again."
Bob Stanley: And that was the first time she saw them!
Tessa Norton: Yeah, first time she ever saw them and then didn't again for many years. Then the second time was like 12 years later or something and they were great. You really never knew what you were going to get. I don't think we found anyone that uncritically liked everything they did. People have their own favorite eras and their own getting on, getting off points. I wanted the book to feel a bit like that as well actually, for people to... People will have their own favorite essays or favorite bits and I think that's absolutely fine because I don't think any two people's favorite bit will be the same.
Bob Stanley: It's really nice that the spread of things that are being quoted is right across the board. No one's honed in on one particular essay and quoted that, which is great. I'm really pleased about that.
It's nice because, you can sort of pick it up and discover something and put it down. And pick it up two weeks later and something new hits you. For me, I really enjoyed that aspect to it a lot.
Tessa: We wanted it to feel like just a strange essay collection in its own right, as well as a book about The Fall or something that felt a little bit like what being a Fall fan feels like.
In some ways it seems like the most Fall book ever. I think Mark E Smith would approve, but he would also probably never say that.
Tessa Norton: I think he would probably think it was a bit too much about The Fall and it would've been better if it was more about M.R. James and more about the war or something like that, but that's great.
For the The Fall neophyte who might be reading this interview, and have gotten this far, do you have a place you would suggest to start, either in the book or with the band's discography?
Bob Stanley: Oh dear. I think the discography, I think the Fontana Years. I mean, I know they're not literally in the middle, but it feels like a middle period. And I suppose we can go backwards and forwards from there, that feels like a fulcrum or something and you can go in any direction from there.
Tessa: I would say watch the BBC adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come to You by M.R. James and then turn all the lights off and listen to "Spectre vs Rector," and then see how you feel.
That's a better answer than mine.
Well, I think that's just about it. Bob, I want to ask how's your book about the pre-rock-n-roll era, that's partially about the sheet music industry coming?
Bob: I've delivered it, so hopefully it's out next March, I think. Yeah, it's not just about sheet music, but about...
That's what I remember because you were asking me about The Brill Building when we talked last time.
Bob: I actually never really got to the bottom of that. Thanks for remembering that. Yeah, I couldn't find anybody who had any kind of record of working in the Brill Building before, yeah the fabled late-'50s, early-'60s period, it's really strange. Even though so many people obviously worked there and wrote hits there. In the end I had way more than I needed for the book so I'm quite happy with it. And the editors are going through it at the moment.
Does it have a title?
Bob: It's called Too Darn Hot: The Birth of Pop. So it starts in 1900 and goes up to the rock and roll era, with a bit of overhang at the end. So basically, Ragtime to rock and roll and all the different technological changes and new genres that came at that period.
Is there anything going on in the Saint Etienne world? Or in the world of... You haven't had an Ace Records compilation out in a while, so?
Bob: No, that's down to COVID and Brexit and pressing plant delays There's one out at the end of July called Choctaw Ridge that was just announced, which is post-"Ode to Billie Joe" country music. So new directions for country music at the end of the'60s. Yeah, there's a few lined up after that. But there's a Saint Etienne album out soon, in a few months.
Bob Stanley: Yeah, yeah, which I shouldn't say too much about.
Tessa: Said too much already. [Laughs]
Bob Stanley: I can say that. Yeah, I would say the release date, but it's well before the end of the year, hopefully, as long as we can get the records pressed in time.
Well yeah, that's the biggest problem these days, right?
Bob: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it's terrible. It takes about eight months now to get everything ready. Eight months in advance, it's nuts. Unless you just want to make CDs, in which case, over here anyway, that's still possible. Though I hear even that's becoming a problem in America. Somebody told me they had to use pressing plants in Mexico because so many have been taken to bits in the States, which just seems very premature.
Tessa: Feels like an open goal for someone. I don't know how much space and cash you need.
Bob: Or buy up an old one rather than build a new one. But yeah, the new Saint Etienne will be out quite soon.