DECEMBER 11, 2014
THERE’S A CERTAIN doggedness required to play the bass: a sonic obligation to carry the weight of others while keeping things together. It’s no surprise, then, that the recent biography from Steve Hanley, The Fall’s bass guitarist from 1979–1998, exudes a robust stability. Written in concert with Olivia Piekarski, Hanley’s book peeks behind the curtain of one of the most volatile bands of the last 50 years, yet manages to do so without descending into a diatribe against the spectacularly cantankerous front man, Mark Edward Smith. Consequently, The Big Midweek provides a captivating portrayal of an iconic band’s rise to fame from the perspective of a steadfast insider. Hanley’s ability to walk the reader through bedlam while sustaining objective distance is commendable, lending the text credibility in a genre that too often collapses into egocentrism, nostalgia, and retribution.
Formed in 1976 in the cheerless Manchester suburb of Prestwich, The Fall has advanced its angular grade of post-punk poetics over more than 30 studio albums, 24 Peel Sessions, and the hiring and firing of close to 50 band members during its 38-year run. Aside from the perpetual presence of Smith, Hanley proved to be one of the most dedicated and lasting members, demonstrating a degree of credulous persistence that raises questions about the perils of following charismatic leaders. This is one of the subjective concerns that the book seeks to address, starting with a prologue in which Hanley (today, a groundskeeper at a Manchester school) is verbally assailed by a pack of feral teenagers. Although this incident is fleeting, and Hanley shames the lead bully into remission, the scene foreshadows much of the text’s exploration of the way such abuse can be drawn out over an extended period if personal boundaries aren’t established and maintained.
The main account opens with a depiction of the late-’70s Manchester music scene — one in which a burgeoning punk DIY ethic sees the accelerated emergence of new bands and new clubs all over the city. Hanley formed The Sirens with friends Marc Riley and Craig Scanlon — a short-lived group that failed to gain any traction but primed all three friends for induction into The Fall following Smith’s disbanding of the initial lineup. This absorption of local musicians establishes The Fall’s manic approach to human resources, perhaps initially symptomatic of a close-knit and incestuous music scene, but later coming across as ill-conceived with new members scrapped together within days of tours and others brought in based on their proximity to Smith’s bedroom. While there are periods of relative stability — periods that Hanley designates as highly productive — such chaotic hiring and firing mirrors the capricious nature of the group, drawing attention to another of the book’s motifs: the band as democratic entity versus one of tyrannical oppression.
Wide acclaim arrives fast for The Fall thanks to support from the Buzzcocks who take the band to the United States, and much of the subsequent text involves the narrating of various tours, time spent in the studio, and negotiations with record companies. Hanley and his cowriter do a venerable job of detailing this period, managing to captivate the reader using dry wit, keen observations, and titillating gossip while avoiding unnecessary idolization of the band, opting instead for a candid style that provides a solid foundational history and keeps the narrative’s rhythm going for almost 400 pages. The result is a book that feels more like a comprehensive and well-rounded documentary than a salacious tell-all.
The authors display their persuasive strengths by recounting Smith’s astronomical petulance with diplomacy. The text’s depiction of the front man’s behavior is, at times, amusing (his penchant for unplugging player’s instruments mid-song), alarming (throwing a fit over the way guitarist Brix Smith sets her purse down), and just plain depressing (the verbal and physical abuse of the band and crew). Hanley maintains a composed tone by neither belaboring nor pathologizing Smith’s apparent psychopathy, at times even pushing the reader to see the man’s compassionate side (such as a scene in which Smith authors postcards from a young Salford girl’s lost teddy bear.). While the text certainly casts him as a difficult figure, it rarely loses sight of the singer’s unmistakable contribution to music and art. This penchant for leniency — a choice made during the revision process, apparently — is what keeps things above the belt and so appealing, situating the book as authoritative and balanced while clearing space to raise larger questions of idolatry and devotion.
Early in the narrative, Hanley cites his involvement with the Air Cadet Corps — the effect of which, arguably, contributes to both his martial dedication as well as his seeming willingness to take flak from Smith. It’s hard to read The Big Midweek without wanting to speculate upon deeper concerns that both permitted and rationalized the behavior of Smith as well as Hanley’s passive acquiescence. Instances such as the moment in which the author is slapped across the face for dancing to “Rock the Casbah” are countered by statements about the need to “develop coping mechanisms” out of dedication to some ill-conceived higher purpose. You can’t help but feel at times like shaking Hanley by the shoulders and telling him to “get a grip,” but there’s already enough of that kind of response being dished out by the front man. For Smith, this abuse seems reactionary — part of a larger trajectory of self-sabotage in which prodigious opportunities are toppled and bridges are decimated before they’re even traversed. Such diva-esque highlights include punching out a live engineer for the crime of eating a sandwich, smashing up a producer’s new, expensive compressor, and walking off stage within 20 minutes of a live performance — a behavior that would become increasingly the norm. In fact, Smith’s inability to make it onto the stage and stay there would be enough to make Axl Rose blush. Obviously there’s a rubberneck kind of appeal to many of these antics, and Hanley’s impartial tone allows the reader to assess them without editorial interjection; the result is as disheartening as it is entertaining.
As is the case with plenty of music biographies, The Big Midweek strips away the glamor illusion of life in a successful rock band. But what differs here is the increased emphasis placed on boss/employee relations that maps onto a psychologized master/slave dynamic. For example: at one point in the text, Smith is overheard trading managerial tips with Oasis’s Noel Gallagher about how to keep players in line, noting “That’s the way, cock … Never feed them till they get it right.” In addition, for much of the narrative, the band find themselves crammed into tiny hotels while Smith hops on planes and rents rooms separate from the rest — an arrangement that, given his erratic nature, most would probably find more pleasing. Yet this marked division between singer and players is neatly summarized by the description of Smith as someone who carries himself with “the satisfied air of a schoolmaster who’d just dealt out a highly original punishment to a perpetually-unruly class.” Early on, Hanley makes it clear that the origin of The Fall as an egalitarian democratic group was soon replaced with that of an autocratic vision instrumentalized by Smith and then-manager, band member, and girlfriend, Kay Carroll. While the hierarchy is evident, the illusion of democracy is kept afloat per Hanley’s discussion of songwriting responsibilities. It would seem that the various band members contribute and write the majority of the music, but through some elaborate contract finagling it’s Smith who takes most of the credit, revealing the kind of stratification that speaks more to corporate structuring than to that of art.
Given that the authors do an excellent job of keeping the text from devolving into a Mark E. Smith character assassination, it becomes apparent that this book is more about Hanley’s own life and that’s where the focus will be centered. However, considerable elisions undermine such a reading. For example, he springs his wedding day on us with no backstory at all; and the birth of his two children is casually mentioned in between gigs. On the one hand, this simulates the whirlwind effect of being a full-time touring musician and the impact it can have on one’s civilian life, but it also undermines the book’s angle, rendering the primary subject as somewhat vague. The result is that when details are expanded upon much later in the text, they feel a tad awkward and out of sync. Furthermore, there seem to be some discrepancies in recollection (Bad Brains appear to be conflated alongside X and Fear as an LA band, Poison Ivy Rorschach is described as an occasional singer in The Cramps, etc.), but these are minor quips that, to a degree, enunciate the discrepancy between Manchester’s isolated bubble and music scenes developing elsewhere. Hanley articulates this discrepancy when he pronounces The Fall’s first US tour as delivering “Post-punk in the heart of the West Coast punk explosion” — a sly jab that illustrates the forward-thinking aesthetic of the band’s sound, but also helps to cement the importance of the insulated Manchester.
I’d imagine that one of the problems that readers might have with The Big Midweek is the way Hanley mercilessly severs the text at the end, storming off the narrative stage as it were and simulating the sensation of abandonment. It’s alarming and a bit of a letdown, but it does reflect the trajectory of the book as, by this point, there’s increased emphasis placed on Smith’s abusive behavior that’s coupled with Hanley’s snowballing realizations that the band is no longer worth the misery. This abrupt ending is rhetorically advantageous in that during the penultimate gig of a 1998 US tour (the footage of which can be easily found online), Smith starts to dismantle drummer Karl Burns’s kit mid-song, prompting a brawl to break out between them. The two men crash into Hanley and keyboardist Julia Nagle, bringing the song to an unceremonious end. But it’s Hanley who can be seen trying to hold things together, continuing to play a steady bass line while separating his band mates as Smith spews venom at the crowd. Following this scene, both the tour and the text close with Smith’s arrest and the author’s proclamation that he’ll never play bass with The Fall again. Yet Hanley’s persistent attempt to keep order and carry the weight of that particular moment does not go amiss as it illuminates his efforts to hold things together, not just within the song, the set, and the band, but within the book itself. For much of the narrative, the reader is granted the opportunity to decide for themselves how they should feel about Smith’s shenanigans, but the closing pages serve as incriminating and verifiable evidence as to what Hanley’s been dealing with for close to two decades.
At the outset of The Big Midweek, following his run-in with the local bullies in the school yard, Hanley cites a horoscope that reads, “Do whatever it takes to come to terms with whatever isn’t any more and pour your boundless energies into the here and now.” Evidently, this text is as much a therapeutic exercise as it is an attempt to provide perspective on the rise of The Fall. And perhaps it’s the therapeutic qualities that set it apart as one of the more sincere and endearing band biographies available. Hanley’s book is enjoyable to read from start to finish, striving to maintain a solid rhythm throughout — the foremost quality of a great bass player.