Mark E. Smith Was a Complicated Bastard
The Fall frontman was ornery and confrontational, but we loved him for it.
Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Mark E. Smith is dead, and that blank fact staring back from a glowing screen only makes his loss that much more haunting and absurd – which is exactly the way he might have liked it. Smith was that crotchety guy from down the street who drank too much, snarled at you if you glanced at him sideways, laughed with you when you least expected it, and tucked bits of wisdom into his mush-mouthed rambling as if they were cigarettes behind his ears.
He formed a band called The Fall in Manchester, England, in 1976. They lasted for 42 years and became legendary. Legends are often pure shit – the word “legend” has been overused as a superlative so much in the past few decades, we’ve forgotten that it’s also a synonym for “lie” – but Smith was the realest of deals. Also, the unrealest.
The Fall’s first single was released in 1978. Titled “It’s a New Thing,” it came on the heels of their debut EP from that year, Bingo-Master’s Break Out!, and taken collectively, these five songs were indeed a new thing. Punk was starting to feel its first pangs of disillusionment, with the Sex Pistols’ implosion in January of that year. But post-punk had yet to fully rise and assert itself. The Fall were definitely post-punk, as it soon came to be known, but they were so much less, and so much more. “It’s the New Thing,” for instance, started with a dinky keyboard and graduated to dinky guitars, all crashing into Smith’s dunk-uncle rants about “the broken backs of the real bands” and “pop heroes of the mind.” As opening salvos go, The Fall’s 1978 output was outlandishly odd. Was it punk? If so, it was the weirdest punk anyone had ever made or heard.
The open secret at the time, of course, was that punk wasn’t unconventional at all. It was rock ’n’ roll. Hell, if anything, it was more rock ’n’ roll than what was considered rock in the late 70s. The Fall bypassed rock entirely. Drawing from Krautrock, garage rock, and murky reservoirs of noise and bile, Smith and company droned, slashed, spazzed, and danced their way through startling record after startling record. The lo-fi aggression of 1982’s masterful Hex Induction Hour gradually gave way to the relatively polished alt-pop of 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace. If anything, The Fall’s music became more challenging as they became more accessible. Smith’s ragged nasality and fractured mumble made sense when pitted against abrasive music. But when The Fall’s sound became catchier and cleaner, it only served to contrast and accentuate Smith’s unnerving idiosyncrasy.
Smith was an inveterate contrarian. In interviews – oh, how he loved to give interviews, long, discursive ones about everything from politics to books to sometimes even music – he’d say complimentary things about pop bands to piss off the avant-garde. Then he’d turn right around and play avant-garde music to piss off the pop fans. Eventually, avant-garde and pop blurred inside The Fall. The band’s 1987 single “Hit the North” was a hit for them, at least as they defined “hit.” With a chorus perfect to chant along to in a football stadium, it parodied exactly those kinds of songs, from Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” But it did so with an undercurrent of love for the power of populism, a remnant of Smith’s kid-from-the-hood pedigree.
Smith was street, but he read like an egghead. “People do get the impression that The Fall will just, like, attack, verbally or physically, anybody from the establishment,” he said to the NME in 1981, neatly deflecting the fact that his ornery persona, scathing lyrics, and confrontational music gave people plenty of reason to hold that impression. In reality, he was more likely to have his nose stuck in a book than in someone’s face.
He often professed his admiration for writers like William Blake and William S. Burroughs, even working their themes and imagery into his songs from time to time. It’s hard to listen to, say, The Fall’s skeletal, sinister “Hip Priest” without catching echoes of Burroughs’ short story “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him.” And in The Fall’s “Before the Moon Falls,” Smith took Blake’s famous line, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s,” and rephrased it as his own: “I must create a new regime / Or live by another man’s.”
In The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, the iconic science-fiction author outlined his delirious, scattershot philosophy of writing, human consciousness, and the universe. At one point in the book, he writes, “I do seem attracted to trash, as if the clue – the clue – lies there. I’m always ferreting out elliptical points, odd angles. What I write doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There is fun and religion and psychotic horror strewn about like a bunch of hats. Also, there is a social or sociological drift – rather than toward the hard sciences, the overall impression is childish but interesting.”
While Smith wasn’t much of a sci-fi fan overall – “Looks like science-fiction films or revival gothic pigswill,” he sneered on “It’s the New Thing” – he was an avowed fan of Dick’s work. And Smith’s attraction to trash, angularity, nonsense, fun, religion, horror, sociology, and childishness was eerily similar.
Listening to The Fall’s music, though, it seems more likely that Smith simply paralleled his favourite writers – and musicians, such as Can, the Monks, and Captain Beefheart – rather than trying to sound like them. He had far too much fierce, working-class pride to do anything other than be himself, utterly and uniquely. “I don’t consider myself as a musician,” he told Sounds in 1982. “I’m deeply ashamed that my passport says ‘songwriter/musician.’ There's some vague affectation about it. I could say ‘dock clerk’ ’cause I'm trained as that.”
Smith dabbled in the occult. Rip It Up and Start Again’s Simon Reynolds called his style “a kind of Northern English magic realism that mixed industrial grime with the unearthly and the uncanny.” With the Fall, he tapped into a form of unrealism that dislocated punk rock from its topical tendencies. “The Fall defies logic. Our past defies logic. A threat: The Fall is a threat,” Smith exclaimed to the NME in 1980. Yet at its heart, The Fall’s music was always topical. Who could have guessed at first glance that the group’s 1982 song “Marquis Cha Cha,” with its slinky yet frantic playfulness and out-of-joint clatter, was about the Falklands War? Or that “Eat Y’Self Fitter” – a defining track of the band’s 1983 classic Perverted by Language, another Fall title that could have served as their motto – was ultimately about isolation and alienation in the digital age? The digital age, after all, was still in its infancy in 1983. Yet there was Smith, delivering wry observations that foresaw the way we live in 2018: “Became a recluse / And bought a computer / Set it up in the home / Elusive big one / On the screen / Saw the Holy Ghost, I swear / On the screen.”
There will be no more new Fall albums, which for the past few decades have appeared like clockwork, on average once per year. You could set the world’s countdown to Armageddon by them. Up to his death, Smith continued making good albums. The last one, released in 2017, was New Facts Emerge. On its title track, his voice lapses into an almost indecipherable blur of eroded tissue and gargled neglect. That only makes it more staggeringly powerful. What’s he singing about? It’s impossible to make out a single word. Spewing piss and vinegar, he can’t be bothered to form syllables, to allow his message any longer to be perverted by language.
Jason Heller is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.