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Fatwah / June 4, 2010

mes50

This article first appeared in Viceland.com

Somehow I missed this review in the NY Times of The Fall’s new album. The article is titled “Mr. Smith Shows His Staying Power,” and it came out a couple of weeks ago.

I wish I hadn’t read it. Not now, not then. And now that I have read it, I can’t focus, which is a problem for me because I’m overwhelmed with work and it’s 4 AM and I have deadlines.

How do I describe what’s wrong with this article, when literally everything is wrong with it? It shouldn’t matter, I know—it’s “just a harmless album review” I tell myself. One would expect the Times to get The Fall wrong, and that would be fine too. But I never thought they’d find a Gen-X culture critic who carried the Thomas Friedman gene. I hadn’t even heard of this guy Ben Ratliff before, and the few people who answered my desperate late-night emails had never heard of him either.

Now I’ll never forget him—Hell, they’ll find Ben Ratliff’s toxic residue in my fossilized remains millions of years from now, and they’ll probably go:

“Looks like another one—my god, it appears as though this Ben Ratliff wiped out every life form on earth!”

“Everything but the fungus kingdom, sir. Somehow, fungus thrived after The Ben Ratliff Event.”

By his own account, Ben Ratliff was a college radio DJ back in the 1980s. That should set off alarms to anyone who was alive in the 1980s—there was a certain type of college-radio DJ pedant who became dominant as the decade went on, the type who always bragged about how their favorite artists are great because “they don’t take themselves too seriously.” I never understood why that was supposed to matter so much, but it did—and everything went the way of They Might Be Giants, and that was the last of that scene I remember.

Welp, Ratliff’s brought it all back to me now. His review of the new Fall album starts out harmlessly enough describing The Fall’s sound with a lot of fancy high-diction footwork. My first thought was, “Poor Ratliff’s working up a serious sweat trying to make himself look smart—go easy on the elbow grease son, you’ll hurt yourself!” Which is understandable—the average Times subscriber probably equates high diction with genius, gotta please the customer, etc.

It wasn’t until I started paying more attention further down the article that I sensed an oddly vindictive tone underneath all the rhetoric of detachment, and I couldn’t figure out why. He wants readers to know that no one cares about The Fall except for some crusty dead-enders who subscribe to The Guardian, whereas in our country the band is “noticed, if at all, for still being around.”

The bitchy insults seemed strange and out of place in the review. And then Ratliff makes a hilarious confession: When he was a college radio DJ, he didn’t get The Fall at all, but he knew he was supposed to think they mattered so he bought one of their albums, Perverted By Language, hated it, and put it in the attic. Then, 25 years after he bought that Fall album, Ratliff finally cried out, “Oh, I get it! Wow, this is good!”

The Fall’s latest song “Bury! Pts 2 + 4″…Warning: The words sung by Mr. Smith are lyrics and not poetry. Anyone trying to find meaning in them can expect a letter from Mr. Ratliff’s attorney.

And now he’s not just a fan, he’s the world’s leading expert on The Fall.

First of all, it’s a problem if it takes 25 years to get a rock album—that’s a worrying sign, dude. But the funniest part is that it wasn’t even the music or Mark E Smith’s lyrical universe that drew him in. Nope, you won’t believe what it took 25 years for Ratliff to get, so I’ll let him tell you:

“But not long ago Perverted by Language, a record I’d bought when it came out in 1983 and forgotten about, drew me in: first with its title — think about it for a minute — then with its sounds.”

That’s right: It took him 25 years to grasp the meaning of the album’s title. (I love that parenthetical aside, it’s so serious: “think about it for a minute.” H’m…yeah…h’m…hey…hey wait a doggone cotton-pickin minute. “Perverted By Language”–why, that means something! Hold on while I get my chin scratcher warmed up, I have a feeling these Fall fellas are onto something big ‘n’ smart. “Perverted By Language” he says, h’m? This Mark Smith character is tellin’ us som’thin’ bout language, by gum…that, uh, language…perverts us. Makes us perverted, in a language-y sorta way. Yessirree, this whole “language” thing, it’s big stuff, that’s what they’re sayin’ in the universities at least. You can see how a feller’d be perverted by language, cuz language is power. But language is unstable, meaning-wise that is. You got your signifier, see? And you got your signified, see? And that’s how you got your unstable meaning–that whole thing. Oh sure, there’s all sorts of books on this, smart people have a lot of things to say about this whole language thing. You’ve got your Sassures here and your Derridas there–folks, I’m talkin’ the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle.)

For the record, Perverted By Language is probably the weakest album title in the Fall’s long history, precisely because it pandered to liberal arts geeks who made up The Fall’s cult core following. But whatever, they needed money. That makes sense–and it worked, although in some cases it took a while.

“Winston Churchill had a speech imp-p-p-pediment/And look what he did/He razed half of London/And the Dutch are weeping”

So 25 years later, Ben Ratliff’s finally figured out that he screwed up and missed the Velvet Underground of his time. If you understand the vanity of a college radio DJ, you’ll understand that Ratliff will never live that down, or forgive The Fall for making an ass out of him.

To show that he “gets it” in a way that no one has ever “got it” before him, Ratliff claims to have cracked the Big Mystery about The Fall’s success and talent. The mystery is this: How is it that Mark E. Smith’s The Fall, alone among all bands in rock history and certainly among his early-punk peers, is still putting out stunning songs today, after 28 albums and 30 years? Every other band, even the really great ones, have 5 good years at best, maybe 10 in a few cases—but 30 years? How does he put out an album per year on average with Prussian consistency, albums that even rank up with some of the better early material–when every other band’s output slows down radically? What’s the secret to MES’s creative fecundity?

Ratliff’s got the answer; he’s cracked the code. The secret to Mark E. Smith’s fecundity is that there’s no secret. Yup, turns out The Fall’s lyrics have no meaning at all. According to Ratliff, what makes Smith’s lyrics so interesting is that they’re never “about” anything. There’s nothing to figure out:

“Fall songs aren’t necessarily about anything specific. Proper names flash by, places, initials, numbers, sometimes having to do with the Manchester area, where Mr. Smith has spent nearly his entire life. Sometimes, as in ‘O.F.Y.C. Showcase,’ he seems to be improvising, or snatching phrases from different places. Elsewhere, as in another new song, ‘Mexico Wax Solvent,’ the lyrics sound like a concentrated block of text.”

Of course, there’s a conflict-of-interest here in his interpretation, because if it’s true that Smith’s lyrics have “no meaning” as he argues, then that makes everyone else the dumbshit, and it makes him the real genius for getting it—and provides the perfect excuse for that ol’ 25-years-to-get-an-album-cover problem. So not only are MES’s lyrics just meaningless random fragments thrown together with absolutely nothing of substance, but—and here’s the real zinger to all the highbrow liberal arts Fall fans—he declares the lyrics may look like poetry, but they aren’t.

Here’s how Ratliff makes his argument:

“His words look from a distance like poetry, but aren’t really. They’re meant only for their performed context, and to be pronounced in his voice.”

Ratliff’s definition of poetry essentially comes down to this: “Poetry is verse which was not meant to be performed; that which is meant to be performed, is not poetry.” You writing that down, kids? Somehow I missed that definition in Aristotle’s Poetics, but hey, things have changed, paradigm shifts, etc. Someone should tell every other culture where poetry is meant to be performed that if it’s performed, it’s not poetry. Maybe the WTO should get it on it. They could start their crackdown in Russia, where poetry is still a popular form of expression, and is often designed to be performed as much or more than read (in the 60s and 70s poetry readings drew stadium crowds). They’re going to have to do something about that. Boy will they be disappointed when they learn that all these years, they’ve just been reading lyrics, not poetry. And it will really matter to them the way it matters to Ratliff—the category comes first, after all!

Categories and rules: like the rule that Mark E. Smith’s lyrics are “meant only to be performed”? That has to be the single silliest statement by a critic that I’ve ever read. What happens to Mark E. Smith’s lyrics when they’re not performed? Do they evaporate? Do the meaning-molecules break apart once exposed to the printed “context”? The categories seem more than just petty pedantics—maybe there should be a disclaimer at the bottom of every communication containing a Fall lyric.

This fixation on these big categories and classifications, as if it’s The Consensus itself speaking through Ratliff here, is where you can really see the Thomas Friedman genes starting to show: that combination dumb’n’dull thinking expressed with so much confidence, it’s demoralizing to see it in print and makes you want to give up. Even the worst brain-leeches like my old friend Chuck Klosterman can’t compete with this guy.

But Ratliffe is just setting everything up for the coup de grace—even the admissions of The Fall’s greatness for 30 straight years, is just part of the build-up to the Big Zinger he’s hiding behind his back—and suddenly, all that fecundity is thrown right back at The Fall: “Sorry to say, but in American terms, this is a Grateful Dead situation.”

Oo, that’s gotta hoit!

mark e smith drunk2

Well, yeah, maybe. Depends. If you don’t like the Fall, it might be a good excuse you can tell yourself—the ol’ “Grateful Dead of [GENRE]” insult that was also big back in the 80s. The analogy doesn’t hold, of course—the Dead couldn’t cut a decent studio album if their lives depended on it, so they finally gave up and became a non-stop touring band with little new material after the first decade or so, whereas the Fall is all about work ethic in the studio, putting out fresh material like clockwork. The Dead is about “organic” drugs; whereas Mark E Smith is “one of the 2 percent of the population meant for speed,” as he puts it.

But that’s just nitpicking—who cares if the analogy doesn’t hold. Did Thomas Friedman care? Did the Germans care when they bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! The clumsier and dumber the analogy, the more effective it is, so long as it’s accompanied by pure self-confidence. So “the world is flat”. Globalization puts a “golden arches straightjacket” on you. The Fall has a “Grateful Dead Situation”. And it took Ben Ratliff 25 years to understand an album title.

In conclusion, Ben Ratliff is an idiot.

PS: It’s just a shame that the editors can’t move a fool like him to a beat he’s more capable of handling–like Iran’s alleged nuclear warhead program, for example. The Times must be itching to get a new Judy Miller or Michael Gordon pumping that threat up, and I gotta hunch this Ben Ratliff is the guy for the job. There are plenty of disasters just waiting to be misreported—this guy’s got a future, folks. So get him out, please, just get Ben Ratliff the fuck out of our little culture ghetto.

This article first appeared in Viceland.com

Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal, and the co-author of The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia (Grove).

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26 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. mattfoster  |  June 4th, 2010 at 11:08 am

    There are three types of reviews that come out whenever a new Fall album appears…

    1) “This is easily the best album from The Fall since ______________. A true return-to-form after the misstep that was last year’s ______________.”

    2) “This is easily the worst album from The Fall since ______________, which is a shame since last year’s ______________ was so strong.”

    3) I’m going to try to encapsulate 30+ years art, music, and history into this, the first Fall record I’ve ever heard. I will try to sound like an expert whilst doing this, because if I tell people this is my first Fall record, I will be deemed terribly unhip by the followers of this band because truth be told, in my world, music begins and ends with REM.

    This review is typical of number three, which I thought was a dying breed. Guess not, since former college DJ’s and zine-writers are now, inexplicably, moving up in the world.

    If a year goes by with a new album from The Fall it means Mark E. Smith is dead (although this won’t stop records from coming out until the next century) or the world as we know it ceases to exist.

    Listen to this : http://www.touchandgorecords.com/media/2751.mp3

    Skull Kontrol, a band that bowed at the alter of The Fall with their song New Rock Critic… “What this town needs is a new rock critic and not the hack we got…”

    I’d vote for Ames but it would be a waste of his words. Until someone better comes along, rock criticism is officially banned. Over and out.

  • 2. Damo Suzuki  |  June 4th, 2010 at 11:37 am

    this guy should be shot for not getting the fall all these years. what a cunt.

  • 3. weldon rumproast  |  June 4th, 2010 at 11:46 am

    I dunno, I was always more a David Yow guy myself. Maybe because I was born in 1980.

  • 4. Zhu Bajie  |  June 4th, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Aren’t most DJs idiots? At best?

  • 5. senorpogo  |  June 4th, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    “I’m overwhelmed with work”

    Cry me a river.

    I wish my work included hookers and opium and Dolan and Portis and raging against that which is wrong.

    Great conclusion though.

  • 6. Jason Schwartz  |  June 5th, 2010 at 5:57 am

    Ames you are killing me! Tearing it up man, nice work on the floating castles too.
    Thanks

  • 7. Skinner's Horse  |  June 5th, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Can someone recommend two or three definitive albums by The Fall?

  • 8. Dr. Luny  |  June 5th, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Well to be fair I had no idea who The Fall were before I read this article, and I’m glad I did, because they’re just my cup of tea. Then, again, I’m not a music critic or even someone who takes music particularly seriously. A group as kick-ass-best-thing-to-come-out-of-punk as The Fall ought to be known and appreciated by music critics, especially if they’re writing for the Times.

  • 9. bugsbycarlin  |  June 5th, 2010 at 10:40 am

    I continue to read Exiled because you continue to be the first to get certain media stories right, but I also continue to be irritated to no end, and never ever ever recommend you to people, because you continue to build these mad self indulgent worlds of hate for no damned good reason. Why in the world do you take this other critic’s review so seriously? It’s unhealthy.

    If option A is to write a scathing multi thousand word review of another critic’s review of *an album*, and option B is They Might Be Giants, I will take option B. Make a little birdhouse in my soul.

  • 10. Daavid  |  June 6th, 2010 at 12:34 am

    Oh, so that’s why the dude from LCD Soundsystem sings like that. Was wondering where he got the idea from.

  • 11. Tam  |  June 6th, 2010 at 1:07 am

    Repeat the following phrase ‘Even a stopped clock is right twice a day’ to yourself three times and get over it…

  • 12. gyges  |  June 6th, 2010 at 6:04 am

    Who’d’ve thought it: Ames one of the 50,000.

    Mind, I didn’t see him in Wakefield the other day.

  • 13. Ilona  |  June 6th, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Art for artists, music for musicians, critique for critics… Perfect.

    What does it mean? Hmm… Inbreeding? Hmm… Going in circles? Who cares. Instead, let’s have a real good gulp of White Lightning and ponder the meaning of life of Bingo-Master and his/hers Breakout. Hmm… Two swans? Colored balls? WTF! God damn those perverted words them pervert! Need some more of that sweet White Lightning.

    But what does it mean?

  • 14. Jake  |  June 6th, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Finally an article for us old school eXile fans that worship speed, The Fall, and Dolan. Something for us punks and losers who couldn’t care less about the economy and the new political-science-analysis-by-way-of-MSNBC BEIGEIST exiledonline era.

  • 15. Geoduck  |  June 6th, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    I like They Might Be Giants. If that puts me with the Ben Ratliffs of the world, so be it.

  • 16. IanGustav  |  June 7th, 2010 at 1:22 am

    Nice rant but…Perverted by Language was made for liberal art geeks? Huh?

  • 17. Myf  |  June 7th, 2010 at 3:48 am

    Aaaaahh Help Me! The Exile has trapped me in a Towering World Of Hate! call my papa!!

  • 18. tony  |  June 7th, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Live at the Witch Trials…I listened to it for the first time in about 15 years the other day expecting to be bored and slightly shocked that I’d loved it so much…it was like hearing it for the first time again…absolute magic…the lyrics and music. I HEART BIT TORRENTS…am now searching for Grotesque.

  • 19. M.E.S. Procured  |  June 7th, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    Yeah, the new album is pretty good. I like it.

    Hey wait… THE FALL? Is the band name based off of some sort of book? I don’t think it’s fair to expect reviewers to know The Fall’s back-catalog, that’s a Sisyphean task.

  • 20. skinny welsh git  |  June 8th, 2010 at 4:59 am

    Anyone who doesn’t realise that Live at the Witch Trials is the single greatest achievement in human history is, frankly, a cunt and a bounder.

  • 21. Christian Hargrove  |  June 9th, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    I have Perverted by Language at #7 in my list of Fall favorites (Garden, Tempo House). Only an idiot could not see poetry in MES’ lyrics…

    Entrances uncovered
    Street signs you never saw
    All entrances delivered
    Courtesy winter

  • 22. TotallyWired  |  June 9th, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Nice. Have not listened to The Fall for many years. Used to thrash a live recording of “Totally Wired”. Amazing – just as good as ever. Legend. Thanks for the post, regardless of the assclown that prompted it.

  • 23. Kevin  |  June 11th, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    “Frightened” off Live at the Witch Trials is the single greatest achievement in the history of music. I wouldn’t expect the New York Times to recognize it, though.

  • 24. Kevin  |  June 11th, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    And Mark E Smith keeps getting more and more handsome, judging by the picture above.

  • 25. CapnMarvel  |  June 15th, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Getting a job as a record reviewer and not having at least a minor familiarity with the Fall is a capital offense. The guy’s not 19 years old writing for his college rag. He’s obviously of advanced age, writing for the NY bloody Times! It’s not like this is some flash-in-the-pan Herpes-core Ska-Disco-Polka-Punk group. This is a Herpes-core Ska-Disco-Polka-Punk group with something like 60 albums under its belt, probably 75% of which are absolute greatness and 5% are some of the best albums of the past 30+ years.

    Now, to sit down and actually describe and rate each Fall release against one another is the real trick. You try to come up with the 5,000th way of describing ‘wiry, relentless, completely inventive abstract punk’.

  • 26. Bill Rush  |  July 1st, 2010 at 3:34 am

    Every Fall album is great. Mark E Smith is Captain Beefheart’s only true successor as far as I’m concerned. In two hundred years from now kids in school will be studying them like we study Shakespeare.


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