Photo by Greg Neate
When I was at the sweaty, hormonal juncture that comes from being fifteen years old, music seemed like the easiest path up the treacherous, probably unscalable crag leading to teenage cool. Every week I’d slam down my pile of change in every local newsagent for my NME, Q, and Kerrang. Every week I’d take a biro and score through the latest ‘introducing’ feature on the latest indie band predestined for their one album spurt of glory. I’d load up the wheezing Dell desktop in my Aunt’s room and dutifully listen to each and every instantly forgotten three star LP.
It was an epoch for sincerity; for thinking that the picture profiles of each individual member of The Strokes on the inside album cover for Is This It were the single coolest images in the world. I grew my hair into a grotesque infinity angled mop of ginger curls and started to wear crimson shirts and £8 girl’s skinnies from Primark. “I look like Albert Hammond Jnr", I told myself. I was ginger. I told myself that all the girls would fancy a ginger Albert Hammond Jnr. If they did, they didn’t tell me.
The author, in his heydey.
Like any nerdish teenager who grapples with ideas too big for his intelligence and gets his cultural reference points from interviews with Alex Kapranos, I eventually came across The Fall. I knew little bits already. That Mark E Smith was a proletarian genius, an untameable monster, a spook story for jaded, broken musicians to terrify their offspring with. He’d sacked band members for eating a salad and slated U2. That all sounded wonderful. But the point of entry was so wide: there were too many albums, the books were too numerous, and the mystique just too impenetrable. For years, my precious little milk teeth couldn’t sink into it. I stuck with Art Brut.
One day – around 2007, and for reasons I can’t remember – I mustered up the courage, started up the creaking desktop, and unwrapped my tangled headphones. I was going to embrace The Fall. I decided to try out Perverted by Language, because, have you seen the cover for Perverted By Language? It’s a gorgeous gurning mess of frantic paranoid colour. Two pastel smudged grotesques lurch about in the foreground. One of them’s clad in an ugly suit and waving a charred newspaper, while the other bathes stupefied on the floor, with its mouth either pissing blood or clamping down on a thin wheaty looking straw. As soon as I saw it, all I thought was a big fat immediate Yes – this is where I’ll start.
The computer whirred, the music started, and the remorselessly ugly doubled-up drums that underpin “Eat Yr’self Fitter” began to clatter through my shit headphones and reverberate around my skull – like a big fat immediate No. Nah, this wasn’t for me. Where was the chorus? Where was the instantly relatable angst? I got to the “What’s a Computer? What’s a Computerrrrr?” refrain and I switched off and probably went back to Hard-Fi. They wouldn’t confuse or intimidate me and I could relate to living for the weekend far more than whatever Mark E Smith was on about.
So that was that for six or so years. As teenagerdom melted imperceptibly into early adulthood, all the stuff that you think is meant to happen happened. First jobs, first shags, exams, getting plastered in suburban stations and swing-parks, more exams, more twat haircuts and then, finally, the prospect of the big emancipation: uni. By that point I’d stopped listening to music as a means to either accumulate social capital or learn how to dress, and my tastes had became broader, more chaotic, more natural. Friendships – actual sincere friendships – mushroomed up around the shared love of particular bands, albums and songs. But there was still one stubborn, lingering prejudice that I couldn’t shake. I still couldn’t stand The Fall, and now I was surrounded by people who could.
It’s rare to be able to precisely pinpoint moments of proper change in your life. I’m not talking about the sunrise to sunset widescreen bits of massive significance like births, griefs, and loves – they are simple enough to remember. I’m thinking about the smaller transitions that mark the grain of your tastes and personality. The sparks that ignite the birthing pangs of obsessive compulsive infatuations with artists, bands and books that become part of your fabric, for better or for worse.
It seemed somehow preordained that I’d one day like The Fall, and my inevitable eventual obsession was birthed by one of those moments. It was the summer of 2014 and the last of the lingering formal university duties had been dispatched. My family had come up to Dundee to cry proudly at my lukewarm 2:1 in English Literature; the keys to my draughty town centre flat had been returned and cataclysmic library fines had been settled. I had vague plans of moving to Glasgow to do “something new”, which sounded as unconvincing then as it does now. My worldly possessions were cluttering up my mates flat in a sketchy part of town and I was free in the way that only a shit scared recent humanities graduate can ever be free.
I was saved from the freedom of indefinite unemployment by being invited to tag along as the merch monkey by some mates whose band were doing a European tour. For a week, we careered around various capital cities in a sweltering Ford Transit; fragrant with unwashed, musty socks and underlying inter-band tensions. The third stop was at a festival in the south of France. The Fall were headlining. After a day flogging t-shirts in the sweltering July heat, I ambled down to the main stage in faintly bored, indifferent expectation.
That 45 minute set was and remains the one of greatest spectacles I’ve ever seen. Furiously illogical angular noise; ugly brutish energy. When I was fifteen, the two drummer line-up had sent me scrambling for the skip button. But here, at twenty-one years old, something inside me was shifting – and offsetting it all was Mark E Smith. I couldn’t catch a fucking word he was slobbering, but it seemed to be making perfect sense, kinda like when you just get what R2D2 is banging on about. He was fiddling amps and shrugging over snare drums, while his band just stood there and took it. This was fucking wild. What had I been doing these past 6 years? What had I been listening to when I hadn’t been listening to this? How wrong is it possible for one man to be? Everything else I liked paled in comparison.
I ended up back in Glasgow, living in my mates cupboard. It was mid-July and the whole city was choking and burning in the midst of the only recorded heatwave in Scottish history. I trekked down to Shettleston job centre every Wednesday to battle for my JSA and add some mass to my bulging pile of job rejections. My hairs curled up into a grotesque multi-angular mop again but not through choice this time – I just couldn’t afford a haircut.
Still, life was good. I’d already listened to all 31 Fall albums and fallen into an even deeper infatuation than my teen Strokes days. I started to pick up on some of the allusions in the lyrics and I walked around aimlessly at night listening to the rawly vampiric “A Figure Walks” on repeat like I was the first man on earth to have done that. My hood went up more often. I felt like one of the anointed and the chosen. I became the guy who put on “Who Makes The Nazis” at a house party and then acted contemptuously when my confused peers politely demanded we change the song. My transformation was complete, but about five years late.
A couple of years have melted by since then and a few more of the things are meant to happen in your early twenties happened. More uni, more unthinkingly accumulated debt, a long-term relationship, sporadic pangs of maturity in tastes and traits, until, finally, the prospect of a new massive emancipation: the backward migration back home to London. The hyperactive bundle of raw nerves and barely processed emotions of adolescence started to cool and harden into a recognisable, disconcertingly static me. My teeth took on a yellower hue, pounded by 3 quid GV boxes. My dress sense declined from studiously ragged to plain ragged and the lunch time pints became a feature, not the exception. It’s ridiculous to say I became like Mark E Smith, but it’s not so absurd to say I started to morph into Fiery Jack – a character from a song by The Fall who had a slacked face and burning kidneys.
Soon, the band started to mean less and less to me. The jump from 21 to 23 isn’t seismic – it shouldn’t be seismic – but enough stuff happens at that age to concrete over the cross-current of stress and counter stresses that initially made me so vulnerable to the heavy duty influence of a haughty and seething post-punk band. The older I grew, the more I realised I didn’t have to enjoy shit like Cerebral Caustic just because my idol put his name to it and because my mates hadn’t listened to it.
I guess there are two types of bands that influence you at crucial points of your life: those that mould your personality and habits and you aspire to be more like, and those that reflect and exacerbate the truth of your existing traits. The Strokes were firmly in the first camp. They made me grow my hair into an ill-considered afro and wear tight jeans. They were the idealised reflection of everything I wasn’t and could only dream of being: cool, well dressed, impossibly talented, American. But The Fall, they were the most obvious expression of the second. They unleashed my smugness, entitlement and overinflation of my abilities and intelligence. But some of the good stuff was brought out, too: flashes of dark humour, occasional lilac shoots of intelligence and the sheer bloody minded ability to stick things out.
It’s funny how music can wield such power over the adolescent brain. Time has elapsed since then, just like it elapsed between sitting at that rattling Dell desktop and throwing a celebratory square board hat into the air of a Dundee hall. In my mid-to-late twenties, I don’t think I'll ever stumble arse-over-head in the same way for another incarnation of The Strokes, or a craggy genius flecked spectre like Mark E Smith. But because I discovered them at a certain point, at an age where I was starting to understand the throes of life, they will always mean something to me. So every time I hear Karl Burns mashing up his tom at the start of “Eat Y’self Fitter”, I get those nostalgic and nauseating flavours of acute dislike and obsessional love stuck deep down the back of my throat.
I guess, sometimes, I just want to return to being the acne flecked teenager at the ancient desktop with Q magazine on my lap, waiting for their music to hit me with the same full force again.
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