Mark E Smith, Greater Manchester’s greatest contrarian, has died.
So far, the initial shock of Britain’s most antipathetic, fractious frontman’s passing has been met with colossal dread and a perverse sense of expectancy. The artist’s health began to worsen early in 2017, rendering Smith incapable of meeting his live commitments. But, like the final sneer to a rascally room of braying punters, you can almost hear his cussing gargle impishly squawk, “If I go, I’m taking The fucking Fall with me…”
Formed in Prestwich in 1976, The Fall produced an intimidating discharge of studio albums, EPs, live sessions and resource material. By last year, over 30 albums had been released as The Fall. Smith’s inherently prolific disposition for writing was almost as virile as his knack for binning existing band members. Over 40 years of activity, an astounding 66 musicians have been blithely hired, fired, rehired and inevitably fired again by Smith.
These oxymoronic behaviours exhibited by Smith is a testament to the artist’s polarising allure. He was unpleasantly charming. A disgruntled badger to the media. He would curl his face into a Grinchian smile and stab at your confidence with widened eyes. At times, he would drool out rants severe enough to make the political alt-right swoon. Other times, he would present himself as some sort of beleaguered Trotskyist martyr. He was neither here nor there; an all-seeing intellectual that knew how to manipulate minds. He was also a writer literally caught in a trap of music. The revolutionary sound of The Fall was secondary to Smith’s lyrical bombast. His unique snarl bemuses all that first hear it and his prose continues to be decrypted today.
It seems fruitless to curate such an abridged collection of The Fall’s work upon learning of Smith’s death. Together, these tracks are presented more as opposing soundbites than a comprehensive overview of the band’s footprint. Yet the one true constant between them is that of Mark E Smith, his voice and his genius.
RepetitionLive at the Witch Trials
It seems fitting to begin with on of The Fall’s earliest tracks, which also embodies the group’s earliest sonic influences. Despite being reportedly present at ‘the gig that changed the world’ in 1976 at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall where the Sex Pistols performed to crowd members that would shortly form the likes of Joy Division, Buzzcocks and The Smiths, Mark E Smith was more vocal for his appreciation of the repetitive grooves of The Velvet Underground and Can. The cyclical nature of Repetition remains one of the group’s youngest examples of their influences at work.
Kicker ConspiracyPerverted by Language
A calculated boot in the face of a corrupt football association, Kicker Conspiracy reveals the hideousness of ‘the beautiful game.’ Smith growls about corporate privilege and working class malaise while almost predicting the future over the fraudulent behaviours of Fifa. Like most Fall tracks, it’s bizarrely humorous in the most tragic of ways.
Hit the North Part 1The Frenz Experiment
The duality of meaning in the song’s refrain, either to punish the north or physically go there, aids to Smith’s indifference regarding Britain’s North/South divide. Landing at 57 in the charts, Hit the North proved that Smith could appeal to, and confuse, a larger consumer market than just the post-punk anoraks with his maniacally acute lyricism: ”From the back third eye psyche, the reflected mirror of delirium/ Eastender and Victoria’s lager, the induced call, mysterious.”
Industrial EstateLive at the Witch Trials
Punk was intrinsic to early Fall records. At the time, Industrial Estate was a brutally candid, obnoxious and cynical song that did what punk was invented to do: give a weapon to society’s margins and let them loose. It’s a far more blatant approach to songwriting than Smith’s later material. But what it lacks in ambiguity, it makes up for in sheer dirt.
How I Wrote “Elastic Man”Grotesque
“I’m a potential DJ, a creeping wreck/ A mental wretch/ Everybody asks me how I wrote ‘Plastic Man’”. In a song about peevish writers (Sounds magazine journalist, David McCullough specifically), Smith shreds away at the failed endeavours of critics. To be a ‘potential DJ’ was also a harsh referential putdown, alluding to the sprawl of saccharine BBC Radio 1 jockeys such as Tony Blackburn and Noel Edmunds who were infinitely popular at the time. Misquoting the song’s title from elastic to plastic also insinuated the ascribed skill music writers have at reporting erroneous facts. Simply put, the song is an unflinching middle finger wiggling in the face of a dismissive media industry.
Cruisers CreekThis Nation's Saving Grace
An uncommon and unorthodox addition due to the music finding a superior voice to that of Smith’s. “What really went on there? We only have this excerpt…” Smith begins before Brix Smith Start, an integral factor in The Fall’s flirtation with the British charts and Mark’s former wife, opens with a typically sharp post-punk guitar riff. Yet despite Smith’s more languid lyrical approach, lines such as “No more Red Wedge in the pub or ZTT stuff” and “See B&H cartons laughing in the wind,” offer divisive subject matters which were – and remain – rare to behold in the UK Top 100.
Cyber InsektThe Unutterable
A precursor to the indie dance explosion of the early noughties and parent sound to that which made James Murphy a future luminary. A dubby ramble of art pop, disco and Ballroom Blitz indebted percussion. The album of which Cyber Insekt found itself on, 2000’s The Unutterable, could be perceived as either a knee-jerk reaction to Smith’s impression of a dilapidated, materialist rave culture or a mischievous nod to the freeform hedonism of its preceding decade.
BlindnessFall Heads Roll
From the 2005 record, Fall Heads Roll – a snide reference to the entire band, sans Smith’s third wife Elena, quitting due to the frontman’s unruly behaviour on tour in the Arizona Desert – Blindness is a hopelessly cryptic tale. Nudges to Masonic worship and irregular jibes at the Labour Party’s David Blunkett with it’s repetitive hook, “blind man, have mercy on me,” make this track a stupefying, almost transcendental, moment of derisive respite.
Garden (Peel Session)The Fall – The Complete Peel Sessions 1978 - 2004
If Brix Smith defined The Fall’s obtuse accessibility with her driving yet restrained guitar work, it was bassist Steve Hanley’s chordal movements that complimented the group’s opposing emotive dynamics. Their instrumental relationship is captured perfectly for this particular Peel session. Smith’s drawl is crisp and biting over Garden’s 10-minute running time. This recording stands as audial evidence that despite Smith’s tyrannical reign over his musicians, there were these rare moments of total unanimity between all existing players.
Totally WiredA Part of America Therein
A straightforward and self-explanatory song; one that Smith would later argue was undervalued, overlooked and commercially sidelined. Regardless of its structural simplicity, allegorical rhetoric remains a constant with paradoxical lines such as “If I was a communist, a rich man would bail me,” and “You don’t have to be strange to be strange.” It’s typical MES prose that forces you to lose yourself in contemplation as he subconsciously points and laughs at your inanity.
It’s a CurseThe Infotainment Scan
In a rather caustic return to the matter of journalistic integrity, Smith eschews what he calls the “Look-back-bores” of the past with their “long egg breath” and “frog-like chins”. It’s a Curse is also the lyrical antithesis of commercial trends that dominated the alternative sheets throughout the early 90s. Britpop was Smith’s scratching pole. He willed for its assassination. Thankfully, his acerbic message resonated and his dreams of boyband deaths materialised a few years later.
Lost in MusicThe Twenty-Seven Points
The Fall performed many snide renditions of songs over the years, but their cover of Sister Sledge’s disco tune, 1979’s Lost in Music, set the standard for artistic renovation. A once euphoric dance anthem deconstructed for the rave generation. Equally as clubby as it is curtly antagonistic, Smith’s squeals and slurs are like the cries of a dazed human mindlessly crunching on a mouthful of pingers. As demonic and perplexing a disco cover can get.
Tempo HousePerverted by Language
Synonymous with krautrock, The Fall’s Tempo House is one of the group’s finest homages to their German counterparts. Direct yet angular drum phrases, bass-heavy melodies and off-kilter guitar arrangements, it’s a slow and uncompromising listen. Smith’s words mimic his band’s abstractions with an impenetrably dense lyrical lampooning of Winston Churchill, the B.E.F., Richard Burton and ‘mandrake anthrax’. And yet, somehow, Tempo House remains a noxiously addictive addition to The Fall’s live sets.
Mr PharmacistBend Sinister
Another cover, although you would not have assumed it to be. Originally recorded by blues act The Other Half in 1966, Smith’s rendition saw moderate success upon its release as it edged its way into the Top 75. By far one of the least imaginative tracks in The Fall’s oeuvre, as was the album from which it stemmed, Bend Sinister. But it’s existence warrants inclusion nonetheless due to its idolisation by Smith’s fans.
Big New PrinzI Am Kurious Oranj
-I Am Kurious Oranj, The Fall’s eleventh album, came at a time of substantial change for the band and Smith. His marriage to Brix Smith Start was coming to an end while their dalliances with the mainstream press was arguably at its peak. Loosely based on a soundtrack for the ballet I Am Curious, Orange with its ties to William of Orange’s ascension to the British throne, the album’s opener Big New Prinz (or Big New Priest) was based on a track released six years earlier, Hip Priest. A rare occurrence for Smith to revert back to older material for inspiration, but Big New Prinz’s refrain “he is not appreciated,” is a dark and demeaning submission from an artist who has made a career out of being intentionally misunderstood.
“Hey badges tinkle, T-shirt mingle. Hey you horror face. I’m a printhead, I go to pieces.” In yet another acerbic shot at a the misinformed department of arts criticism, Smith literally pirates quotes from live reviews of The Fall: “The band little more than a crashing beat. Instruments collide and we all get drunk.” This takedown, he jokes, left The Fall “in pieces”.
Smith also disassembles the notion of the music critic’s empathy with musicians, showing open disdain for overzealous “egghead” writers. It’s the tactic of a bully; one that Smith would abuse for years to come when fielding uninventive questions put forward by enamoured journalists.
Dr Buck’s LetterThe Unutterable
The Unutterable is a contentious record between fans. Some shun its progressive direction while others applaud the group’s restored focus and motivation. Regardless, Dr Buck’s Letter is a subtly industrial beacon of dingy electronics. The minimal use of sub bass carries the track as Smith converges talk of benefit fraud with the loss of a close friend. It begins angrily melancholic yet ends with Smith listing Pete Tong’s essential travel items, including sunglasses, mobile phone and Amex card before announcing “I was in the realm of the essence of Tong.” A real interpolation of emotion and sound here.
SmilePerverted by Language
Having opted to perform Smile on The Tube as their national television debut, Smith’s jeering contempt is in full effect as he grunts “tight faded male arse,” “meat animals,” “lick spittle southerner,” before calling upon the offended to smile emphatically. Hilariously disparaging words from the man who claimed cultural superiority above us all.
WingsPerverted by Language
Stephen Hanley’s mammoth bass coupled with Craig Scnalon’s metronomic riffing lays the foundation to Wings; a song about an unnamed character who travels back in time with the aid of “flabby wings” before these wings “rot and curl,” leaving behind the deranged reflections of a homeless man. While quick to snub any inference of Smith as some kind of graduate from any school of poetry, the artist’s callous protagonists were entrenched in both stark realism and even starker symbolism. Wings is but one example of this opposing interplay at work.
Living Too LateBend Sinister
If permitted to reflect on an artist that publicly derided self-reflection, Mark E Smith was a victim of his own knowing. He knew of the gentrified pockets of the music industry that fuelled his disregard. He knew of the pains of “ex-workers” and natural intellectuals such as himself, many of whom were misrepresented or maltreated by their own self-fulfilling prophecies. It wouldn’t have mattered which era Smith existed in, he would always have been living too late. With “crow’s feet ingrained” on his face, it could be assumed that Smith plays a semi-autobiographical role here. Young and weary, he establishes his defining axiom for surviving the banality of day-to-day living; “Sometimes life is like a new bar. Plastic seats, beer below par. Food with no taste, music grates…”
Misanthropy will never sound this comical again.