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Mark E. Smith: In memory of a man with a sharp tongue and raw talent

Mark E. Smith helmed the British post-punk band, The Fall, which was as incomprehensible as it was amazingly impactful

Mark E. Smith performing in Amsterdam, 1987. Photo: Getty Images
Mark E. Smith performing in Amsterdam, 1987. Photo: Getty Images

If you want to listen to the British post-punk band The Fall, it can be frustratingly perplexing. Which album do you select? In its 32-year career, The Fall released 31 studio LPs; five live-cum-studio albums; 32 live albums; 23 compilation albums; and 13 EPs. And we haven’t counted the two spoken word albums by the band’s lead singer and main driving force, Mark E. Smith. The word prolific doesn’t even begin to describe the Manchester-based band whose run began in 1976 and ended this year when Smith died at 60, in January. Smith basically was The Fall. He was the only constant member of the band he formed (and named after Albert Camus’ novel of the same name) in 1976. Since then, the band had become a revolving door for musicians—an estimated 70 of whom joined, left or were summarily sacked by Smith.

Even after you’ve picked an album from the prodigious discography of The Fall, things can still remain frustratingly perplexing. If you’re a first-timer, The Fall will likely sound unlike any other band you have heard: raw, ugly and repetitive. The guitar riffs and keyboard lines can range from pop to rock to dance but if you’re looking for flourishes, solo virtuosity, or even unpredictability, banish the thought because there won’t be any. Instead, heavy thrashes of the drums and constantly repetitive music provide a sort of bed over which the main things, the lyrics, are laid: Smith’s stream-of-consciousness words, part sung, part spoken, often slurred, and sometimes drowned by the music. Even if you get used to his Mancunian accent and idiosyncrasies such as the generous suffixing of an “Ah" (or two or three) at the end of a sentence, The Fall’s lyrics can leave you scratching your head.

Smith wrote in prose; and he wrote a lot; and his words can seem surreal and absurd, yet highly literate. In Hey! Luciani (1986), which is about the life of Alberto Luciani, aka Pope John Paul I, who held office for 33 days and died of a heart attack, Smith, who interpreted it as a murder, sings: “I said hey, Luciani/ The future’s here today/ I said hey, Luciani/ Pope of three three days/ They made out you were an ultra nut/ And had no time for your Christianity/ You paid with your life for their treachery/ The future’s here today/ The future’s here to stay". In How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’ (1980), about a writer resenting being assessed by his earlier work rather than his new ones: “His last work was ‘Space Mystery’ in the Daily Mail/ An article in Leather Thighs/ The only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes/ So I’m resigned to bed/ I keep bottles and comics stuffed by its head/ F*** it, let the beard grow/ I’m too tired/ I’ll do it tomorrow."

The Fall were not an easy band to like. Sometimes, their music could be so grating as to cause discomfort. The words, delivered by Smith in what was a tone-deaf monotone, could seem ambiguous and even annoying; and his demeanour and attitude, shaped by hard and heavy drinking and the liberal use of amphetamines, would often come across as abrasively hostile—towards his bandmates, his audience, the media, the establishment, everything. Yet it was this incomprehension of those who heard their music or saw them perform, and the singular intent of doing his own thing, that made Smith’s band amazingly alluring for many. The legendary BBC radio host John Peel was one of them. So impressed was Peel by The Fall that he called them his favourite band and invited them for two dozen live Peel sessions in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios in London.

Meanwhile, The Fall’s influence grew, among other musicians, but also a cult of fans. What set them apart was their refusal to compromise. Smith believed in sticking to the format and structure of his band’s sound: The music remained minimal and raw; the lyrics a string of non sequiturs that were open to interpretation; and the attitude unlike any other band’s. The Fall was just not interested in being “successful" in the conventional sense.

When Elton John said on TV once that he liked The Fall because it was rock ‘n’ roll, Smith commented: “I think then we must be doing something wrong, actually." When America’s prominent post-punk band Sonic Youth reverently covered The Fall’s songs, Smith suggested that the band’s “rock licence" should be revoked. And when Stephen Malkmus of another US band, Pavement, said The Fall was one of the band’s biggest inspirations, Smith called them “copyists". He had as much disdain for compatriots on the music scene. He wrote a song called C.R.E.E.P., allegedly about fellow Mancunian Morrissey, of The Smiths. A snippet from its lyrics: “His oppression abounds/ his type is doing the rounds/ He is a scum-egg; a horrid trendy wretch."

The Fall did flirt with mainstream success—a few of their songs made it to the charts, particularly in the mid-to-late 1980s when his then wife, Brix Smith, an American guitarist, joined the band and stayed till they divorced in 1989 (Smith would remarry twice after that). Despite the constant change in the band’s line-up (Smith sacked members if they innovated; but also once sacked someone for dancing to Deep Purple; and another for eating salad), it spawned dedicated fans, some of whom run the exhaustive Annotated Fall website, which crowdsources interpretations of Smith’s lyrics. It’s an impressive endeavour and a must-have aid when you’re trying to answer two crucial questions: 1.) Which album of The Fall should I listen to? And, 2.) Wait, what does this song really mean?


The lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Hey! Luciani’ by The Fall from ‘Yarbles’

2. ‘Big New Prinz’ by The Fall from ‘I Am Kurious Oranj’

3. ‘How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man"’ by The Fall from ‘Grotesque’

4. ‘Mr Pharmacist’ by The Fall from ‘Bend Sinister’

5. ‘Hip Priest’ by The Fall from ‘Hex Enduction Hour’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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