Mark E. Smith of The Fall: dead at 60 – a reflection on pop culture’s most uncompromising icon

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Mark E Smith

Mark E Smith

Mark E. Smith, founder, frontman and driving force of The Fall has died, Getintothis’ Rick Leach reflects on his great legacy.

The unique and prolific Mark E. Smith, founding member and the perpetual centre at one of the most influential British bands of the past 40 years has died.

A statement from Pam Vander, his manager read ” It is with deep regret that we announce the passing of Mark E. Smith. He passed this morning at home. A more detailed statement will follow in the next few days. In the meantime, Pam & Mark’s family request privacy at this sad time.  Pam Vander  The Fall – manager ”

Since forming The Fall in 1976, Mark E. Smith consistently produced a body of work, through albums such as 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour, 1998’s Levitate and to 2017’s New Facts Emerge which startled with their originality and vitality.

Born in Salford in 1957 and brought up in Prestwich from an early age, Smith formed The Fall with Tony Friel, Una Baines and Martin Bramah in 1976 after seeing the famous Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester.

Resigning his job as a shipping clerk at Salford docks in order to concentrate on The Fall full time, Smith treated the band as something that had to be worked at and as a job in itself.

Having no truck with artistic conceits, he single-handedly drove the band on to release over thirty studio albums in almost as many years and constantly played live year after year, irrespective of any obstacles; his refusal to cancel a North American tour despite breaking his hip in 2004 and performing from a wheelchair was symptomatic of his stubborn adherence to the work ethic.

Alongside this Mark E. Smith consistently dealt with the thorny issue of “Northerness”, seeing it as a badge of pride yet managing to avoid falling into any cloth-capped and dewy-eyed romanticism. “We are Northern White Crap that talks back…” ran the intro for Fall gigs from an early stage and that defiance mixed with the inevitably of failure for the North was a thread that ran through all of Smith’s writing.

A sense of grim, dark and ironic humour was similarly embedded within Smith’s lyrics and is something that was frequently overlooked. There’d always be at least one barbed and deeply funny comment within every Fall song which demonstrated an unnerving ability to meld wit within the constraints of a musical form unused to satire.

Early champions for The Fall and by extension, Smith, included Danny Baker (one of the very first print journalists to recognise there was something different and unique about Smith) and John Peel (who famously only met Smith on two occasions). In what continued to be a surreal part of Mark E Smith’s life, celebrity fans included Mick Robertson (of 1970’s kids TV show, Magpie), cricketer and commentator David Lloyd as well as Jeremy Vine and Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

Bingo Masters Breakout, the first record released by The Fall in August 1978, was quite unlike the standard rama-lama punk fare of the time, being a brooding tale of a bingo caller who ‘ends his life with wine and pills…there’s a grave on a hill only partly filled… with a sign that reads “Bingo Masters Breakout”’ This ability to construct an unsettling narrative through lyrics was something that made Smith stand apart and above his contemporaries for nearly the next four decades.

The influences of writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and Phillip K. Dick were significant in Smith’s lyrics from the very start of The Fall and his love of Captain Beefheart, Can, 1960’s punk and rockabilly were ever-present musical touchstones.

The only other ever-present element to The Fall was Mark E. Smith himself. His attitude to other members of The Fall can be summed up in his well-known quote; ‘If it’s me and your granny on bongos, then it’s The Fall.’ Playing to the gallery somewhat, Smith compared to obtaining members of The Fall in the same way that his father, a plumber by trade, hired workmen by waiting for them to be released from Strangeways prison every Friday and literally picking them off the street

Although Smith would profess to have no time for musicians, having gone through at least 66 of them, ‘the lads’, during The Fall’s history, it is telling that many of them were musically very proficient and innovative, especially Martin Bramah, Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley during the early days of the band. He had a knack of dispensing with musicians at seemingly the wrong time yet replacing them with ones who consistently refreshed the band and sparked him into new ways of working.

The Fall – the Manchester icons’ entire back catalogue rated and ranked

Mark E. Smith was married three times.

His first marriage was to Brix Smith in 1983-the story of their life together is recounted in detail in her autobiography, The Rise, The Fall, The Rise-and they divorced in 1989. Brix Smith was a very strong influence upon Smith and in turn, The Fall. Her ear for a pop tune and thirst for commercial success as a guitarist in the band saw Mark E Smith smarten up his act, wear designer clothes and even appear in Smash Hits while still continuing to write challenging and thought-provoking lyrics-the Bend Sinister and This Nation’s Saving Grace albums being prime examples of his output at that time.

His second marriage to Saffron Prior, who ran The Fall’s fan club, was a short-lived experience before he married his third wife, Elena Poulou in 2001. She joined The Fall in 2002 before resigning in 2016.

Throughout his creative life, Mark E. Smith was ever the contrarian and unafraid to speak against the prevailing wisdom of the time; be it famine in Ethiopia during the 1980’s, the Falklands War, the Madchester ‘scene’ and immigration during the Brexit campaign, to name but a few examples.

While some of these views were clearly meant and sincerely held, undoubtedly some of them were uttered out of sheer mischief and a willingness to feed the press. Although Smith fell out with journalists and writers as much as he did with record companies, members of The Fall and other musicians, and he spoke about all writers in less than flattering terms, he was always ready to fill column inches with a controversial quote or two.

Musically, The Fall entered a bit of a fallow period following the rapid losses of Brix Smith, Craig Scanlon and in particular Steve Hanley from the band-the latter actually leaving The Fall during an on-stage fight with Smith in 1998.

While it appeared at times that the combination of such a rapid turnover of Fall personnel with Smith’s well-documented love of alcohol would inevitably derail the whole Fall project, Smith ploughed on regardless and seemingly unstoppable.

The albums Fall Heads Roll and Your Future Our Clutter, in 2005 and 2010 respectively, were both critically acclaimed as a ‘return to form’ for Smith but in reality, Smith’s high work rate and the sheer volume of material he released meant that inevitably there would be dips and peaks in form-although it would always be difficult to get fans of The Fall to agree what those troughs and peaks were.

The final and full album by The Fall was 2017’s New Facts Emerge and showed Mark E. Smith full of the fire and passion that marked Bingo Masters Breakout, 39 years earlier.

Smith was clearly a difficult person for many to get along with. Personal and professional relationships almost always broke down in acrimony. It happened so frequently that is hard to avoid the conclusion that the reasons largely stemmed from Smith himself.

However, it is quite remarkable that many of his estranged musical colleagues spoke warmly of working with him in creating something that was utterly unique and exciting, even when they’d passed a point of no return with him on a personal level.

There are many who have tried to take on Mark E Smith’s mantle over the past 40 years and failed. There will probably be more to come. They will not succeed either because despite of all his failings, Mark E. Smith was one of a kind, one that saw the world in a way that many other cannot and one that is, sadly, irreplaceable.

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