Almanac Music: Vale Mark E Smith. One of God’s True Prototypes

There are individuals over time that can only be described for better or for worse as ‘unique’. One of these people when it comes to music was undoubtedly Mark E Smith.

 

Born in Salford and raised in nearby Prestwich in Greater Manchester, Smith was the eldest in his family, an apparent descendent of Alfred Henry Hook as well as a well-read individual that stuck out in the grim 1970s English North. He worked on the docks but studied English and Literature at night at college in a time before the working class were completely excluded access from such things financially. This was also all before he formed one of the most interesting, divisive, sarcastic, vitriolic and above all else long lasting bands to come out of the Manchester region, The Fall.

 

Smith formed The Fall after attending the Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Trade Hall in 1976 that has since been dubbed as ‘The gig that changed everything’. From that gig (organised by the Buzzcocks) came Joy Division, Morrissey and, hell, even Mick Hucknall was in attendance being inspired enough to go form a band even if it was the comfortable jeans/deck shoe sounds of Simply Red. 1000s if not 10,000s have said they were there at this patient zero event when in reality only 50 or so had been in attendance.

 

Even from the start The Fall didn’t paint within the numbers and were more of an art project by Smith than a band. While The Buzzcocks and others went down the initial straight punk path forged by The Ramones, Stooges etc The Fall poked when they should have prodded with their sound inspired by krautrock acts like Can who were big on hypnotic repetition and jams. One of their first singles was indeed called ‘Repetition’ with repeated notes firing like a stuttering civil war era machine gun with Smith barking lyrics and non sensiqual random thoughts in his broad nasal manc accent as it was somehow all held together.

 

It was somehow held together because of Smith who was arguably the most anti-hero Svengali band leader to ever exist in alternative music. A male diva in Ben Sherman and Adidas sneakers. No less than 66 members came and went through The Fall with Smith the only constant member carrying his bat like Alistair Cook for 41 years, 31 albums and countless singles, EPs, gigs and live albums.

 

He was the Franco of the band, a real musical generalissimo. One member of the band was sacked on his wedding day, another time Smith sacked the entire band on a famous tour of Australasia. When asked about the high turnover of members in the band Smith once sneered ‘if it’s your granny on the bongos and me it’s still The Fall’. He also believed some band members wanted success too much and had to accept they ‘wouldn’t be on Top of the Pops every week. That’s not The Fall’. The band changed sounds for better or worse through all these changes depending on your point of view.

 

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Smith and Brix. Her autobiography ‘The Rise, The Fall, The Rise’ is a wonderful book.
Image: Lisa Haun/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

 

Two of Smith’s wives featured in the band when married. The first was effervescent American Brix Smith who would go on to become a fashionista and third wife Eleni Polou also played in the band’s final years. His second wife Saffron Prior was originally the leader of The Fall fan club. Speaking of the fans, they were also memorable and manically obsessive. You either got the band or you didn’t. You either tried to get all the albums on all formats or detested them. Either point of view was fine.

 

His most famous fan was undoubtedly the legendary John Peel. Peel had The Fall play live on his BBC program some 24 times far outstripping anyone else’s appearances on the show. Praise from ceaser indeed. When Peel died unexpectedly in 2004 Smith made a notorious appearance on the BBC program Newsnight feigning indifference about the massive loss of Peel. Smith later said he didn’t mean to be so callous on the program in one of the only times he has publically expressed regret.

 

I was lucky enough to see the band once some 12 years ago in the UK and Smith was mesmerising and a complete and utter miser. His complicated nature was suffocating. Anyone in the band who hit a bum note he punished by turning down their amp for the next song or two and with eyes like a chameleon making sure there was a controlled music chaos going on around him as he leant on the mike with a lit ciggie wedged between his fingers firing off random thoughts as songs.

 

There was no talk with the audience, no banter between band members, no greatest hits set. The members of the band seemed to play so well just to spite him like it was the rest of the band was Malcolm Blight and Smith was Ron Barrasi circa 1976. His memoirs were almost published in the same manner. Reading the book was like being cornered in a pub by a loud, obnoxious but utterly entertaining mad bastard.

 

Smith also loved Manchester City and English Football. Something almost as memorable as his music was his guest appearance on BBC television reading out the football results in much the same way he would perform. The delivery was smashed from its original form and put back together again in his own artistic way like a footballing mosaic giving clubs new names and reading the results literally even if postponed. It may have also been because he wasn’t sober in any way, shape of form.

 

His memoirs also started with a rant about the hopelessness of the England football team.

 

 

In latter years Smith began to show the wear and tear of a life well lived looking twenty years older than he was with clothes hanging off his rakish frame. The gigs got more sporadic, the cancellations more common. He booked tours against the advice of doctors, loved ones and band members rarely being able to keep up the commitments. He willed the band forward being unrepentant as always even though the years of alcoholism, smoking and other vices began to effect him. While Johnny Lydon went on to sell butter on TV, Nick Cave turned in to a crooner for the Double J crowd and Shane McGowan got new teeth, Smith never relented.

 

The Fall’s last tour of Australia was in 2015 which included a couple of shows at the Melbourne Festival. Friends of mine travelled from Perth for the event knowing that it would be the last visit. There seemed to be a finality to it all. For the past couple of years Smith was confined to a wheelchair on stage but kept battling on like it was 40 years ago.

 

Now he is gone, a life well lived and never a concession given. The influence of the band will always go on. Sleaford Mods are a prime example of an act today carrying the white hot torch Smith and The Fall lit back in the 70s. The best ofs, sycophantic tributes from the Bonos of this world and other inevitable tributes written by hypocritical and contradictory middle class types like me will come with his death. It’s something Smith would have detested.

 

One of music’s great old fashioned grumps and someone who was truly authentic with what he did good or bad. True art. Farewell.

 

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Whilst I’m not a Fall completist by any means, there’s enough of MES’ work in my collection to say that he *is* a-pre-shee-yated by me.

    What a legacy. Good on ya Dennis.

  2. Well played, Dennis. An excellent summation of ‘a life well lived’.
    I am a fan of many types of music, but could never get into The Fall. And, as you say, Mark E Smith would not have cared about that just one iota.
    That said, I have nothing but admiration for him, for doing it his way.

  3. Thanks. I’ve seen a lot of that said in the past week about never really being a fan but respecting the guy for doing it his way. The first 10 years of the band were the best, especially when he was married to Brix. This includes the work he did with the ballet of all things.

  4. I was so sad to hear that Mark E Smith had died. I’ve been listening to his old music the past week and a lot of it stands up to the test of time.

    I loved the Fall and saw them two nights in a row back in 1990. Fantastic stuff.

    (His memoir didn’t just start with a rant. It was a rant from cover to cover, but a great insight nonetheless.)

  5. Gill was this at the Mt Erica Hotel in Prahran? I know they definitely did a gig or two there in the 80s.

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