In an increasingly bland world, Mark E Smith remained a stubborn, true original
Mark E Smith is the kind of hero who, if you ‘got’, you were inspired by. Always different, always the same, over the course of four decades, The Fall carved out a legacy in the vision of their singular frontman. A true original, yesterday British music lost one of its greatest and most pervasive performers.
This July, I was asked to write about The Fall’s set at the 100 Club for Fred Perry. Mark performed the first song with the band, a couple more slouched behind an amplifier and the last three-quarters of the set bedraggled from the dressing room. With any other band, this might have felt like a wet blanket of a performance, but from Mark E Smith and The Fall, this attitude, that of an unstoppable force making music in spite of tribulations, the show was simply astonishing. Smith’s attitude shone through the chaos of the live show, and the band standing regimented whilst the frontman barked lyrics from a distant chamber is testament to the legacy and ethos that drove one of this nation’s finest ever groups.
The very fact that The Fall were performing such shows, some of which saw Smith entering the stage in a wheelchair, down a ramp, right up until a few months ago says all you need to know about the man. Despite doctor’s orders, in spite of a manner of forces presenting The Fall with trepidation, the band carried on until such a thing was absolutely no longer possible. Add this to the many times throughout The Fall’s career when musicians walked out on Smith mid-show, to the constant criticism and trivialisation of the man’s methodology, it’s hard to argue – in a world where the phrase is well and truly over-used – that Mark E Smith is anything other than a true one-off.
The Fall were the first, and of course, only band Mark E Smith ever devoted his time to. Forming in 1976, it was evident from the scrappy, wonky, wilting guitar of Repetition, the B-side on their debut EP Bingo Master’s Breakout, that The Fall were a band incomparable to the crop of post-punk groups springing up around the country at the time. While their debut album Live at the Witch Trials, despite its merits, did admittedly fall into the category of fairly unexciting post-punk, it was on Dragnet, released the same year, that the band started to truly sound like themselves. Sound like The Fall.
While Mark E Smith is undoubtedly a man in his own right away from his art, it’s impossible to distance him from the music of The Fall. After all, this was the group he started when he was 18. However, over 100 hundred line-up changes later, this was the band he was still giving his life to, months before he died aged 60. And though now is almost certainly time to celebrate Smith’s indomitable character; the extraordinary interviews he gave; the contempt for the middle classes, the journalists and wrong’uns of the world; it feels even more fitting to devote this period of mourning to the art of Mark E Smith and The Fall. After all, there are probably no characters as memorable as Smith, certainly there’s no lyricists that come close.
The creative high point of The Fall’s music is often considered to start with 1979’s Dragnet and carry on through to some point in the mid- to late-80s. Two personal highlights come at the start of the decade, as the band birthed two of, arguably, the greatest post-punk albums. First came 1980’s Grotesque, where Smith laid down a dysphoric, disorientating view of Thatcher’s Britain through the lens of HP Lovecraft’s weird fiction. This was married with a rampant, skewed, distinctly English reinterpretation of rock ‘n’ roll characterised by two drummers and Smith’s depraved barked vocals.
By contrast, 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour saw Smith’s lyricism at its most oblique, whilst the band dealt out their most challenging and insurmountably strange music. Tracks like Iceland, and its earthen, mythical chimes, and self mythologising Hip Priest (of Silence of the Lambs standoff scene fame) capture The Fall truly sounding like no one before or since.
These two albums are probably thought of as the definitive pair of Fall records, but it’s also impossible to look past the band’s many classic albums. 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace laid down a bombastic brand of rock music where macho pretenses were traded for outsider insights, whilst 1988’s I Am Kurious Oranj saw the band collaborate with avant-garde ballet maestro Michael Clark in one of the most unlikely of meetings of artistic minds including eternal glam-stomper New Big Prinz in the process).
But what made the band great, what made Smith a great artist, as opposed to an artist that merely had a purple patch, was what happened after the 1980s. Following the so-called golden age (which admittedly yielded the majority of my favourite Fall albums), Smith tirelessly made one record per year, always consistently gigging. After his whole group walked out on him in 1998, he returned as strong as ever with 1999’s Marshall Suite before releasing perhaps the boldest records of the time. 2000’s The Unutterable captures a digital brutalist aesthetic wholly evocative of the millennial-paranoid time to which it was burned.
Throughout the whole of the 2000s and 2010s, Smith released albums at a rate of almost one a year (2010’s Your Future, Our Clutter a particular highlight), remaining the staunch immovable character he always was. Even when Smith was making music you didn’t like as much as your favourite Fall album, there was always a certainty that he was doing so because that’s exactly what he wanted to do. On top of that, the band’s live shows right until the end contained almost exclusively material from whatever the latest album; not what the fans wanted, not what the critics wanted, but what Mark wanted.
In Mark E Smith, we’ve lost a true master of his craft. A man that put his name to more great albums than most bands have great songs. A hero to me, and an inspiration to anybody wanting to ever put pen to paper, and those words to music. A hip priest. A home hobgoblin. The new big prinz. The prole art threat. And now, a new face in hell.
Put your mourning gear on, Bill Is Dead and Weather Report 2 on the turntable, and drink the long draught.
See you mate. Yeah, see you mate. See you mate. Yeah, see you mate.