Following the death of Mark E. Smith, Getintothis’ Banjo looks at a lifetime spent in his musical company.
While it is no surprise that Mark E. Smith has passed away, it is still a very sad and upsetting day for many people.
Smith was, perhaps despite his wishes, a cultural icon and a post punk stalwart. His rancour and deliberate awkwardness perhaps disqualifies him from national treasure status, but it is hard to imagine that he would ever want such a cosy, reverent or establishment title.
His ill health had perhaps prepared us for this fateful day, and recent pictures of the unwell looking front man performing in a wheelchair provided our first waves of grief and primed us for the inevitable end to a life less ordinary.
Mark E. Smith and The Fall have had a long and varied career, and the outpouring of grief is testament to the number of lives he and his band have impacted upon. But, in among the obituaries and retrospectives, I feel the need has come for some personal perspective. His reach was never as wide as David Bowie’s, but those of us who fell into his orbit will no doubt be feeling similar seismic waves of grief at his passing.
I grew up with Mark E Smith. He was a constant presence in my life and in my mind since the heady days of 1978, we were, in effect, young together, growing up together and now, for the first time, I am aware of his absence.
The Fall first entered my life when, as a young man on the verge of great change, John Peel played Bingo Masters Breakout. It is fitting that they should come to my attention in this way, as Peel and The Fall were to remain closely bound together. Famously, John Peel had a box of records he kept under his bed in case of fire, so he could quickly grab his most treasured possessions before evacuating the house. What is perhaps less well known is that The Fall had a separate box all of their own, as if not only did Peel want to save a large number of their records, but also that he did not want them rubbing shoulders with the rest of his collection.
At a time when new bands emerged on a seemingly daily basis, The Fall stood out straight away. At once in line with and separate from the times, The Fall seemed to have missed punk and gone straight to post-punk. This much was apparent from their early records.
I bought Bingo Masters Breakout from Probe and so began a long lasting relationship with a very special band. A strange tale of a bingo caller who lost his mind due to the mundanity of his job, The Fall’s first record is still a classic over 40 years later.
Their next single, It’s the New Thing further showed their skewed approach to songs. Then their first John Peel session provided a chance to hear more of their songs, capturing the group at their first peak. The group would go on to record 24 sessions for his show, making them the undisputed kings of the Peel session. In the days of before the internet, gigs recorded on mobile phones or even overground success for indie bands, Peel sessions were often the only way to hear music of this kind.
Then came their debut album. From the opening discordant chord of Frightened, Live at the Witch Trials showed itself to be an instant classic and is still my favourite fall album to this day, despite having some mighty competition. ‘Someone’s always on my tracks’ sang Smith, setting the scene for a lifetime of feeling that The Fall were copied and imitated whatever they did.
At one Liverpool gig, Smith announced: “This is a new song, so all Liverpool groups, get your notebooks out”. His disdain of other groups around served as inspiration for many of his lyrical barbs, once recalling “All English groups act like peasants with free milk”.
As ever, what the real meaning was behind his cryptic observations was never fully clear, but he got his contempt across well.
Throughout all of this, I had never managed to see The Fall live. Despite going to Eric’s on a weekly basis, The Fall eluded me. It became a bit of a thing with me, that I could see so many other bands, but not The Fall. As a massive fan it was a frustrating time.
My first Fall gig came at the first Futurama Festival, a gathering of the post punk clans, held in Leeds in 1979. My main memory of finally coming face to face with Mark E. Smith is one of being amazed that he was in colour and in 3D, all my other sightings of him having been in the pages of the NME. The Fall were everything I’d hoped they would be, awkward, confrontational and bloody amazing.
The second time I saw them was at Preston Poly. I had just ‘left home’ for a few days after a fierce family argument and headed to my brother’s place to sulk and lick my wounds. As luck would have it, The Fall were playing the night I arrived. Having hitched to Preston, I arrived at the venue ridiculously early and managed to just wander in to the hall where the band were setting up and was then somehow able to find a quiet corner and sit down, undetected. I imagine the band thought I was with the student union and the student union thought I was with the band.
Anyway, I watched a ruddy faced young man in a scruffy jacket and jeans combo, messy bowlcut-gone-to-seed hair walking around and remember quite clearly thinking that The Fall had started to have fans dressing like them, a sure sign of cult success. It was only when they started to soundcheck that I noticed this person on stage with them. It turned out that this was Craig Scanlon, on his first tour as a member of The Fall.
Whether he regretted this or not I don’t know, but at one point Smith turned his back on the audience and shouted at the band “For god’s sake can you fucking get it together instead of showing off?” All of this can be heard on The Fall’s first live album, Totale’s Turns, It’s Now or Never.
I was to come across The Fall further at Liverpool Warehouse, where they played with a two drummer line up and turned their songs into epics. Winter, from the wonderful Hex Induction Hour, was transformed into a song that passed the 12 minute mark with ease and the band played a set lasting almost two hours. Photographs from this gig show Smith in a white shirt, black pants and a bored expression, looking to all the world like the shipping clerk he once briefly was.
Still one of my favourite ever gigs was The Fall at Liverpool’s Mountford Hall. Songs such as Bremen Nacht and Haf Found Borman took on a new life and savage, hard-hitting versions roared from the stage. Brix was becoming more and more prominent in The Fall’s sound and this era provided another high water mark for them. But more impressive was Simon Wolstencroft’s drumming, which hit you squarely in the chest. The drum sound was huge!
I recorded the show, but due to the band’s late arrival on stage I had to set off for for the last train before they had finished. My tape finishes with the band fading out and me shouting foul oaths at Merseyrail for not running a night service.
A few years later, The Fall, New Order and The Smiths played a benefit gig at Liverpool’s Royal Court under the banner From Manchester with Love. As New Order’s equipment was not to be disturbed once set up, they chose to play first and The Fall took a respectable second billing. Smith wandered onto the stage at this sold out gig with a can of lager in one hand and a plastic carrier bag in the other, containing lyrics that he referred to throughout the show. Glitz or glamour was not a priority at fall gigs, the band preferred to let the music speak for itself.
It was for reasons like this that I felt the need to see The Fall at least once a year, just to put things into perspective. Seeing them make such wonderful music with no showbiz affectations made some of their peer group seem like risible panto. This perhaps was their greatest influence, throwing other band’s glam excesses into sharp relief and inspiring the next generation of bands like Wedding Present to avoid rock cliché, dressing up and unnecessary frills. Mark E. Smith’s vision was a contagious one and the whole C86 movement owed him a great deal.
I met Mark E Smith only once, for the briefest of moments. I was a Bugged Out night in Manchester and saw him wandering through the crowd. Well remembering the adage ‘never meet your heroes’ and bearing in mind his generally narky demeanour, I was in two minds whether to speak to him or not. I decided I may never get another chance and so shook his hand, told him I had been a fan for many years and left him to his evening.
Thankfully, he smiled, returned my handshake and was generally pleasant. I’m glad I did it now of course, I never did get another chance.
Gradually, my visits to Fall gigs tapered off and I stopped buying their albums regularly when the quality control dipped. The band members behind him in The Fall were always more important to their sound than he gave them credit for. But by this time, a whole new generation of Fall fans had started turning up to see them and buying their records.
The day after a Fall gig, a young friend of mine excitedly rushed to see me telling me how good the band were and how amazing their records are… ‘I know,’ I told him sagely, ‘I know’.