Independent music and ideology go hand in hand, the clue being in the word independent. But independence isn’t necessarily the label bands sign to, but their mindset, how they present their work. What makes one band stand out from another? The Fall never had that problem. In whatever incarnation they arrived, it was always fully-formed, with new ideas and music to soundtrack their dogma. The problem with being a Fall fan, one of the only problems, is that you can never really land on a particular favourite album. Sometimes, I think This Nation’s Saving Grace is the best record The Fall ever made, other times I’ll find myself being tugged toward Perverted By Language. But now, right now, as I write, my favourite Fall record is I Am Kurious Oranj. It was my favourite this time last week too. Before that, I had Hex Enduction Hour on my permanent playlist.
Released in 1988, I Am Kurious Oranj was probably the least likely thing: a soundtrack to a ballet crafted and created by a working class band, but why not? Why shouldn’t The Fall be allowed to write for a ballet? The ballet in question was something of an outlier too, being a Michael Clark Company performance. Seeing the organised arts as something essentially middle-class and creatively stifling, Michael Clark, ballet’s first punk, struck out on his own, forming the eponymous company. His performances (some of which can be seen on YouTube) were consistently pushing the bounderies of dance and performance. Better still, he soundtracked some of his performance with Fall songs. From that perspestive, it makes perfect sense that the two would collaborate. Luckily, Michael had the perfect project in mind, the story of how William Of Orange secured the English throne. With an arts grant, he put together I Am Curious Orange and staged it in Edinburgh.
I found the album on CD back when I was looking for something exciting and new, during my final days at college. Luckily, I’d learned that sometimes the best way to find something new is to look back at older bands, the ones you don’t know too well. And so I started on The Fall, buying The Frenz Experiment from Fopp in Glasgow. From there, I leapt around the discography, landing on different albums, some I struggled with, others I embraced immediately. I Am Kurious Oranj has a lot going for it. The iconic line-up of Mark E. Smith and then wife Brix Smith form the core of Kurious Oranj. Together, they invented something slightly askew from the other albums in their respective discography. From the opening words, a whispered Rockin’ Records, Rockin’ Records, The Guy’s Rock Records, to the bombastic and beautifully arranged Overture, written by Brix. Whenever you read about Brix and her massive contribution to The Fall’s imperial era (where everything fell into place creatively and commercially), it’s how she made the band more appealing to the charts, how they suddenly looked like popstars. Little is said of her impact on the songs, which is seismic. Overture, credited completely to Brix, is how every ballet should start. It’s an alternative rock (indie pop) magnum opus, sounding full, rich, beautiful, but somehow spiky in places.
I never got to see the actual ballet, but my goodness the brief clips on YouTube and the photographs make it look amazing. Brix, wheeled out on a giant hamburger bun, playing guitar while the band (tighter than ever) get stuck into the music. Some of the songs on the track list are rejigged versions of previous songs, Big New Prinz sharing DNA with Hip Priest and Last Nacht being another version of Breman Nacht from The Frenz Experiment (an album I think feels slightly underrated). Another favourite song of mine on Kurious Oranj is the title track, which is marvellously discordant, synthy stabs sounding nearly as mad as Mark E. Smith’s verbal barrage. A cover of William Blake’s Jeruselem openly presents The Fall as every bit as literate (but less showy) as The Smiths, who had cornered the market in enlightening their listeners as to their bookish influences.
Mostly, I love this album because it’s the sound of a band completely in control of their creativity, knowing exactly what they’re doing, where each guitar lick goes, where the lyrics settle, and how the songs should be arranged. I Am Kurious Oranj might never be the first album that any fan of The Fall chooses first, but it has a unique power in its own right, one that should be experienced, appraised, and – hopefully – enjoyed.