The Luciani Code: The Fall’s Anti-Vatican Masterpiece

Before the likes of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, ham-and-eggers depended on working-class blokes like legendary Fall frontman Mark E. Smith for their daily dose of paranoid Christian pseudo-history. In 1986 Smith, presumably while in the throes of a whiskey and speed-addled frenzy, took inspiration from David Yallop’s controversial book In God’s Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I and put the finishing touches on a mercurial play about the ill-fated pope’s life and death. The ensuing piece, Hey! Luciani: The Life and Codex of John Paul I, ran at London’s Riverside Studios for two weeks and featured various members of The Fall press-ganged into the roles of Vatican officials, Israeli commandos, and whatever other wacky ideas Smith had rolling around in that singular brain of his. Yallop and Smith argued that Pope John Paul I (née Albino Luciani) was murdered by the Curia, the Roman Catholic Church’s chief governing body, over corruption within the Vatican Bank and his radical stance on contraception. Sadly, Hey! Luciani: The Life and Codex of John Paul I wasn’t met with the same runaway success as Yallop’s hit book. Go figure. According to contemporary reviews, Smith’s play was somewhat incoherent and difficult to follow, which probably endeared it that much more to The Fall’s growing number of fans, who by 1986 were propelling the group to modest chart success in their native UK. Despite Smith’s mixed efforts in establishing himself as a bona fide post-punk Renaissance man, the play’s accompanying single “Hey! Luciani” left little doubt that The Fall remained at the top of their game, at least when it came to making music. Buoyed by Simon Rogers’ bouncing keyboards and Simon Wolstencroft’s steady drumbeat, the song represents a high-water mark of the midperiod Fall’s more pop-oriented sound. “Hey! Luciani” paints a sympathetic portrait of John Paul I’s brief papacy, mourning the “pope of three-three days,” as Smith refers to him in his distinct northern accent. The Fall frontman pulls no punches in naming those responsible for John Paul I’s demise, declaring “they said you were of peasant stock, and one day the Curia murdered you.” Pretty open-and-shut case, I guess. Smith’s no detective, but it’s hard to resist his conspiratorial flights of fancy when the end results are so effortlessly catchy. In fact, it’s almost enough to make one imagine Smith getting right up there with Da Vinci Code symbologist Robert Langdon in digging through mountains of Vatican horseshit, with plenty of drunken pub crawls and quests for more amphetamines to keep our heroes properly sauced and motivated. “All right, cock, let’s see that bleeding code,” Smith would order, moments before uncovering centuries of corruption at the highest level and exposing Christianity’s best kept secrets, all while cranking out the latest Fall record. How’s that for a play? I’d buy that for a dollar!

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