You don't have to like The Fall but you certainly have to respect them. They've been plowing their very singular furrow since punk music's 'Year Zero' (1976) and have released at least one album of original material in nearly every subsequent year. Their progression as a band can be summarised by John Peel's oft-quoted quip about them - "The Fall - always different, always the same".
It should be said at this point that when you say "they" or "them" in regards to The Fall, you're actually talking about Mark E Smith. Since the bands inception, there have been (count 'em) 58 line-up changes, with Smith as the only constant member. So it's not overstating things to say that Mark E. Smith is The Fall and The Fall is Mark E. Smith - plus whoever he happens to be getting along with at the time. Interestingly, this currently includes his wife Eleni on keyboards... although at least one of his ex-wives used to be in the band too. Not surprisingly, Smith has a reputation as being 'difficult'.
As for the music, to say it divides opinion is something of an understatement, and it's suitably hard to describe. On the whole, I'd call it an experimental post-punk guitar-driven melange of sounds, with Smith's unique vocal style (part drunken drawl, part impassioned sermon) being the truly defining characteristic of their sound, as he delivers lyrics which mix "elements of social realism, surrealism, and absurdism, dwelling on subjects as far removed as unemployment and football violence to time travel and ghosts, all with the same wit, astute humour and precarious balance between brutalism and intellect."
Not that we could really hear what he was saying at the gig though. I'm not sure if this was mainly due to the slightly muddy sound, or more down to Smith not really caring whether we could make out his words or not. A bloke we met warned us that, to the untrained eye and ear, a Fall gig can resemble being ranted at for over an hour by a drunken uncle - and I reckon that description wasn't far off the mark. Occasionally some abstract couplet would break through the fuzz ("Baghdad! State cog! Analyst!") but we were generally none the wiser.
Despite this, I decided that Smith - as he skulks around the front of the stage gurning at people, then goes back and concentratedly twiddles with his bandmate's amps (sometimes without them knowing), then pops offstage completely for a few minutes each time (undoubtedly for a quick ciggie - rock'n'roll eh?) - has real stage presence, even charisma... although it's quite hard to work out how or why. Maybe it's just a classic case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts? Or maybe I just get a thrill out of watching genuine nutters? Could be...
Whatever it was, by the encore I was having a reasonable time - and even started singing along to the chorus of the excellent 'Senior Twilight Stock Replacer'. As for the three blokes I went with, one of them agreed with me and thought it was both an interesting and amusing experience, one of them hated it to bits, and the other bloke, the one who's most familiar with The Fall, thought the whole thing was genius. I guess that's them in a nutshell.
We attended the second of four nights that the band played at the Islington Academy, and the wider reaction on the forums, from the really devoted fans, seems to be that the first night was terrible, but the other three got progressively better, and that The Fall have still got 'it'... whatever 'it' may be. Not everyone agrees though, as shown by this Guardian article which appeared mid-week - and which basically called on Smith to retire the band. As ever, there's no pleasing everyone.
The situation is neatly summed up by someone on the forum responding to a commenter who said that they didn't enjoy the gig very much. "Enjoy? You're not supposed to enjoy The Fall!".