When Mark E Smith died at the age of 60 my first thought was to marvel that he had lived that long.
Smith died on 24th Jan, my father in law Ralph passed away 24 hours later, it all felt rather personal.
Smith entered my life first, about 40 years ago to be more precise. I’m sure that the Fall will be categorised as a punk band by much of the media but theirs is a perfect example of the influence of punk. The Fall’s only real alliance with punk was the disregard for the niceties of music. Smith operated a slash and burn approach to his work, he laid down a track an moved on, so if the drums sounded like tin cans or the guitar was out of tune so be it, there was no turning back.
Late to the party, only releasing their first album in 1979, the original Fall looked like a mismatch bunch of deranged ex hippies. Half the band had long hair and nearly all of them were prone to wearing jumpers (its cold up North).
And so began the most original idiosyncratic and bloody minded band of all time.
Smith would be an outsider whatever path he had chosen. A complex individual cursed with a fierce intelligence as well as Captain Beefheart he was influenced by literature notably horror fiction but also an interest in the occult, the young Smith used to finance the band by doing Tarot readings in the early days.
But as far as Britain was concerned Smith was a Northerner and in a world dominated by London media that made him very different indeed. His lifelong muse was Prestwich Manchester. Smith saw little value in travel for travel’s sake. He was deeply suspicious of the workings of the music industry and his distrust and disgust was apparent in his lyrics.
As far as the rest of us living south of the Severn/Trent line Manchester meant just one thing. ‘Coronation Street ‘ was the first, the best and the most enduring British soap, my parents and their families were addicted viewers, like finding out about Australia by watching ‘Neighbours’ this was a flawed approach to geography but The Street was gritty, the North was gritty and the Fall were gritty. In Coronation Street everybody smoked, everybody drank (in the Rover’s Return), a further thing I realised in later life is that when Manchester men get older they tend to resemble Bill Tarmey much loved barman at the Rover’s Return.
Manchester in the 70’s probably had more in common with Victorian Manchester as the modern city. Despite being such a individual city musically Manchester had never really happened, it’s main contribution to the 60’s being The Hollies and Freddie and the dreamers. All this was about to change big time paving the way for the horror Oasis in 20 years time (a band that had more in common with Freddie and the Dreamers than The Fall).
When the Fall set out there was no gig circuit to support them, hence they played the sort of places touring bands usually avoided, notably the working class social club scene. These experiences were captured on the Totale’s Turns LP ‘the difference between you and us is we have brains’ declares Smith at the start of one of the songs. It’s the British version of the Stooges Metallic KO.
For me though, the Fall is a band of the eighties, its easy to remember that blighted decade as one continuous multicolour yuppie party but there was a darker side and The Fall were a major part of that. For most of this time Steve Hanley was the bass player and Craig Scanlon the guitarist. The Fall were everywhere during this period, they were John Peel’s favourite band which counted for a lot in 1983. Virtually everyone I knew said they liked the band, it was a bit like with Captain Beefheart if you like they you liked them and if you didnt it was unhip to admit it. A lot of that was to do with Smith, you could say he couldn’t sing or he ended every line with ‘ah’ or his lyrics were unintelligible or the band was a bit out of tune but that was saying snow is white, the band were exactly what they intended to be.
Smith’s attitudes to musicians are well documented, pretty much a non musician himself he had to rely on others but they were a necessary evil and no more. The original Fall was actually a proper band, setting a blueprint for future bands by incorporating (keyboard player Una Baines) one of Smith’s girlfriends. Over time replacements became increasingly replaceable, it was like being in a troupe under James Brown or Fela Kuti whatever you played you were only one gig away from a sacking.’Stop showing off and get it together’ Smith yells at his band on ‘No Xmas for John Quays’ off Totales Turns. The band are quite clearly not showing off but in Smith’s world all musicians are secretly planning a concept album. His assertion that ‘if its me and yer granny on bongos its the Fall’ was pretty much true. Weirdly most of his ex colleagues a pretty sanguine about their time in the band in a ‘thanks for the opportunity’ sort of way.
Some of this is due to the way that he ran his bands. Smith was a grafter, managing to put out a record a year for most of his career, it was his band, he took responsibility for the creative side and had little sympathy for those who simply had to turn up and play a couple of chords. Smith’s vision would never be diluted by the bass player trying to get a song on the album.
Round about the time of ‘Perverted by Language’ I lost interest a bit. With his glamorous American band mate girlfriend Brix the music seemed to be getting ready for the 90’s. My mate Neil recently recently published his own playlist on Spotify, being 10 years younger Neil’s list concentrated on a more recent time of better production values, Smith even ‘sings’ on a couple of tracks, for a casual listener like me it was every bit as good as the ‘old’ Fall but I missed it at the time.
After years of listening I still haven’t got much of a clue as to what Smith is on about in his lyrics but that is not really the point, as far as I am concerned there’s enough to fire the imagination in the song titles alone ,New Face in Hell’, ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’,’Kicker Conspiracy’ ‘Spector vs Rector’, Prole Art Threat’. These are lines that have seared themselves into my imagination I cant catch a train from King’s Cross without reflecting on the lyrics to ‘Leave the Capitol’ (‘exit this Roman shell’)
Unfortunately along with the values of no bullshit and hard work Smith had more destructive values, he had smoked heavily all his life because that’s what northern people do apparently. On his death he had lung damage. His main illicit drug of choice had been amphetamines, not surprising when you regard his prodigious output. It was the alcohol that was the real killer though. Smith liked to spend his time in pubs smoking (until the ban) and drinking. He probably had a problem with alcohol since the early 80’s. The old adage ‘the man takes a drink then the drink takes the man’ was to prove sadly true, recent clips show him drinking in a pub slurring his words and struggling with his recollections. There was also the case that most of his strident views had probably been formed by the time he was 18, he had become one of those old men out of time who are only half a paragraph away from saying something that sounds a bit racist. Performances continued as normal thanks to some enthusiastic young musicians (including girlfriend on keyboards) he had recruited. He tended to wander about fiddling with controls on amps (probably the ultimate insult to any self respecting guitarist). When he appeared at Glastonbury with what appeared to be a large urine stain down his trousers things had just got a bit too real.
Like most individualists you had to take Smith on his own terms, he said what he believed and and you either accepted that or not. People like that attract their fair share of sycophants because they are strong personality’s. Reading his biography us was stuck by his similarity to John Lydon (and curiously Ginger Baker), Smith was a lot funnier though.
Maybe it’s the nature of my Facebook feed but most of his obituaries are from 40-50 year old male intellectuals, despite such a long and active career the mainstream media seemed a lot more interested in the death of the singer from the Cranberries , I haven’t heard a mention of Smith on anything more mainstream than 6Music. I get the impression that when Paul Weller or one of the Gallagher brothers pass on there will be an awful lot of old men crying into their beer. For better or worse people really loved that music, its the sort of music that people sing at Karaoke or play at their weddings.
Like Sun Ra or Can or Beefheart, Smiths music will be admired rather than loved, at least for as long as John Peel is dead. The Fall is still music for what we used to call ‘heads’ in the 70’s the sort of people who take delight in music that is ‘challenging’.
I suspect that Smith himself would not have given a shit about his legacy. These days that’s the most refreshing thing of all. Smith would never revisit a classic line up or tour a classic album like so many of his peers have been tempted to do, there would be no 40th anniversary tours or re- imaginings of Hex Induction Hour with strings.
Remember him this way
Lets just hope there will never be a Fall tribute band