The band's preacher-prophet pens words that singe. Their music spells dread. Ryan Gilbey listens again to the The Fall and finds them as brutal and driven as ever.

The Fall aren't like other bands. You don't get into them. They get into you. One morning you wake up and they're in your blood; suddenly they start making sense. It's almost irrelevant that the band has existed for 21 years this month. They are no more informed by their past then they are driven by their longevity. What counts is that unique moment when you click with what they are doing; that moment when you find almost by accident that you have immersed yourself in their music and their world- view, and nothing will ever seem quite the same again.

My own personal awakening came at the end of the 1980s, during my first year at college. I had a best friend, and she had an older brother, whose name was DJ. You know the older brothers of the best friends always are - aloof, intelligent, chilled-out; they can ask if you want a cup of tea and make it sound like a line that Kerouac would have rejected for being just too cool.

One day I happened to enquire about The Fall, who were one of those bands which I knew I should have been listening to. "They're my favourite band," DJ said casually. "I'll make you a tape if you like." I played side one straight through. Then I had to lie down. The Fall can do that to you. I didn't dare play side two for a few days - I was too busy listening to side one over and over again, terrified that the flip-side might not measure up to what I was hearing. And what was I hearing? I wasn't sure, but it did strange things to my stomach, it sent chills through my heart, and it made me laugh out loud, which is something that serious young students aren't accustomed to doing at modern music, unless it's The Stone Roses' second album.

I was particularly snared by the music's arrogance and defiance. Right from the off, on "Crap Rap 2" from the 1978 debut album Live at the Witch Trials, the singer Mark E Smith announces that The Fall are "Northern white crap who talk back ... We are frigid stars". It was almost a dare to the listener not to lift the needle from the record. They are one of those bands who are absolutely defined by where they come from - Manchester - and equipped to bring the city to life in music, more so even than The Smiths or The Buzzcocks. The grisly, scratchy folk-punk sound that the band had made their own was an appropriate partner for Mark E Smith's half-terrified, half-sneering observations on the city that spawned him.

The band's sound brings to mind ugly and exotic combinations. Imagine if a 1950s rockabilly group had time-travelled into the late 1970s, been forced to turn themselves into a punk band and then recorded a set of Captain Beefheart cover versions on to a dusty old eight-track. The Fall were how that might have sounded. Only weirder.

The first thing that struck you was that this guy, this demented preacher- prophet called Mark E Smith, just couldn't sing. The second thing that struck you was that he didn't care. "Your Heart Out" offers the necessary proof. "I don't sing, I just shout - all on one note." Smith croons, and you swear you can hear him chuckling to himself. Like anyone who is remotely serious about music, Smith is frequently accused of being morose or humourless, as though a fierce commitment to this supposedly frivolous and disposable art form automatically precludes comedy. But it's not only his use of scalding satire on songs like "Kicker Conspiracy" and "English Scheme" which proves that there's a coruscating sense of humour lurking behind that sneer. He's also capable of wilful surrealism and absurdity - check out "Second Dark Age", where Bjorn and Benny of Abba get name-checked for no apparent reason, or "Joker Hysterical Face", where Smith proclaims that "Ted Rogers' brains burn in hell", offering the 3-2-1 host an unexpected kind of immortality.

It's my suspicion that when Smith sits down to write a song, he dips the nib of his pen into the same potion that he gargles to get his voice to sound so raw: the words singe. A mixture of barbed social commentary, apparent stream of consciousness and images culled from dream, the lyrics can sometimes confound conventional interpretation, conjuring instead an intangible aura of dread or sadness (a personal favourite being the glimpse of "old divorces; children's faces" on the sordid sex-scandal drama "An Older Lover", a song that feels like a grubby old super-8 film flickering in your head). Whatever, he is as driven, as restlessly intelligent as the hero of his song "Fiery Jack", who does nothing but "think, think, think".

Smith's writing can be obtuse and esoteric, but when he wants to hit the bull's eye, his aim is impeccable. Nobody has made a more vitriolic comment on the workings of the music industry than Smith did when he wrote "C'n C-S Mithering" for the 1980 album Grotesque. The song is a sprawling, savage assault, as lyrically merciless as it is musically monotonous. I don't know who Smith was thinking of when he wrote: "All the English groups act like peasants with free milk/ On a route/ On a route to the loot/ Five wacky English proletariat idiots". But these lines are stinging and pertinent now. Didn't Nostradamus once write, "The music industry will be invaded by two brothers with one eyebrow between them, who will write only anthems"? Or maybe that was Mark E Smith.

Because The Fall deliver one or two albums a year, of a consistently high calibre (1990's Extricate and this year's Levitate being two modern works which easily rank alongside classic earlier albums like Grotesque and This Nation's Saving Grace), it can be tempting to view them as British music's equivalent of that comfy old armchair in the corner. Sometimes you're jolted out of this when you see Smith collide with the straight world - like when he appeared on This Is Your Life last year, offering some words of congratulation to John Peel, who is almost as famous for being the most rabid Fall fan in the universe as he is for being a Radio 1 DJ.

Mostly, you need only listen to the music to realise that The Fall are as brutal and innovative and driven as ever. I want them to keep going, and never stop. If Smith's perseverance is as unbending as he makes out, that may just happen. Like the greatest artists of any medium, he doesn't work for any other reason than because he has to - the songs spill out of him. In 1994 he said: "People just want to stop. And keep lookin' back ... Everyone wants to settle down and get comfy. I mean, OK, get a wife and kids, but don't just stop! You've gotta produce... Doin' nothing is just evil. It's my biggest problem. Both my wives have left me because of that. They say, `Why d'you stay up late? Why d'you go on tour? You could buy us a new kitchen, we could go on holiday ... I'm leavin' yer!' Well, fuck you, then. I don't want an easy life." If that's what keeps him going, then I just hope things stay tough for Mark E Smith.

The Fall play at The Forum, London (0171-344 0044), tonight.