“To please is a curse…” A Tribute to Mark E Smith & The Fall
It has been a few weeks now since Mark E Smith’s death and to most seasoned Fall fans it can’t have come as much of a surprise. His lifestyle and work ethic indicated a short but highly productive life. During the last 35-odd years I’ve spent much of my waking life proselytising to all and sundry about the brilliance of Mark E Smith and The Fall to a largely unresponsive, apathetic audience and with limited success. This was highlighted when, in the hours after the announcement of his death, my social media feeds went crazy with messages from people whom I’d had no contact with for years. Many said they thought of me when they heard the news. Some said they remember the Fall mixtape tape/CD I had made them that they still hadn’t played. Or the long and tedious chats I had with them about The Fall, generally down the pub, but still remained unconvinced and perplexed as to why I liked them.
I suppose it is not surprising that Mark Smith was frequently misunderstood or dismissed as unfathomable. What many people failed to notice was that there was, hidden behind the abrasive northern English vernacular, an intelligence and literary self-education that informed his lyrical style and vocal delivery. A common misconception of non-believers was that his lyrical content was one of unremitting misery and misanthropic fervour. Often overlooked is his comedic observations and humorous comment on a ludicrous world. He was first and foremost a writer not a musician, although he understood the music industry better than most musicians.
I first encountered The Fall at a mate’s house back in 1980 with the singles Totally Wired, Fiery Jack and How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’. My first impression was of a strangely primitive sounding band with a lo-fi aesthetic. They had a barking, caustic but captivating vocalist who articulated about Psykick Dancehalls, 2nd Dark Age, Spectre Vs Rector and had an album entitled Live at the Witch Trials. The combination of musical style, vocal delivery and lyrical content invoked, more than any other music I had heard before, a visceral association with and representation of the place I had grown up, Lancashire. Indeed many of the songs referenced towns I visited regularly, such as Haslingdon and Bury and the lyrics contained local colloquialisms like ‘mithering’; words and stories with a north of England frame of reference.
It was not until around 1982 and the release of Hex Enduction Hour that I rediscovered The Fall. I’d just left art college in Coventry and had been side-tracked by the bourgeoning Two-Tone music scene there. Oh, what I’d missed! I quickly caught up. The Fall were always so different to other bands I’d encountered. For a start there was so much material, so many lyrics to interpret and I just couldn’t get enough of it. I liked the uncontrived, the unpredictability and the unforeseen direction the group took. The Fall never appeared like they were going to ‘sell-out’, veer towards bland commerciality or over-production unlike all the other ‘indie’ bands that I had eventually grown bored.
This difference was never more evident than when they played live. I must have seen them play more than sixty times. The Fall’s live performances were in conflict to any other live act I’d seen before or since. They didn’t play their back catalogue just songs from the last couple of albums and there were always plenty of new ones in the set that I’d never heard before. Occasionally they’d play an old song but it was like a radical reworking of the original, a self-styled remix and sometimes added an obscure cover version. It became difficult to see other live acts without the disappointment of comparison. This was the attitude of a group that was constantly looking and moving forward uninhibited by nostalgia or past reputation. Live performances could alternate from being all-consumingly powerful discharges of brilliance to a chaotic incoherence of noise. Indeed, seeing The Fall on two consecutive nights at the same venue could return totally different experiences. But, in some ways, the ‘bad’ ones were just as satisfying as the ‘great’ ones because of the volatility, edginess and unexpected excitement of not knowing what you were going to get. Mark made sure the group members were always kept on their toes with moments of onstage unpredictability, such as constantly messing with the amplifier levels that irritated the musicians. On one occasion he sacked the drummer moments before playing Reading festival. It was often this chaos that elicited the best performances from the rest of the band (and occasionally not) but it meant that you were unlikely to ever see a mediocre one. Consequently, seeing the Fall live was always the antithesis of the tightly controlled set list and the choreographed performances of conventional live bands. That is why we are unlikely to witness a group like The Fall again.
There was always plenty of Fall music to buy too. I greeted every new release with excitement and anticipation; roughly an album every 18 months and numerous singles, live albums and compilations in-between to feed my obsession. Releases act like memory repositories that unleash historical flashbacks every time they are played. Past girlfriends either loathed or tolerated them but none of them ever liked them. I can still recall each breakup through the albums, I Am Kurious, Oranj, Code: Selfish, The Light User Syndrome, The Marshall Suite (yes, I had a lot of failed relationships in the late-80s and 90s). These albums helped me through.
The song titles were enigmatic and intriguing too. They were both bewildering but highly evocative and avoided the clichéd subject of ‘love’. My favourite albums and songs change constantly on a weekly or daily basis; such are the options and variety. One of my favourite albums (at the moment) is 2000s The Unutterable, which epitomises the diversity of the Fall sound. There are the brutal rock tracks, the repetitive riff tracks, the experimental tracks and the techno orientated tracks. It’s essentially a Mark E Smith solo album under The Fall moniker, made during a time of recruitment and the formation of next iteration of the group. The Fall’s body of releases have a intense, ferocious, immediate energy. Smith has said that he motivated members of the group to play better by deliberately giving them the wrong studio recording address so that when they eventually arrived they were in such a state of anger that they would play with more vigour.
It is often said that you should never meet your heroes, but I was privileged to have met Mark Smith on several occasions. Each one was very different. The first was when I worked on the Beggars Banquet VHS8489 video compilation. “I’d like the videos to be like them Open University programmes where nothing happens” he advised. A few years later we met at an Amersham recording studio during the recording of Code: Selfish to discuss a documentary about The Fall. Inevitably we went to a local pub. He was very affable and it was clear that if you appreciated and understood the philosophy behind The Fall you’d get along fine, and we did. The strangest encounter I had with him was very brief. It took place at a book signing for his autobiography at the South Bank Centre in London. Smith thought he recognised my friend. “I know you… You’re from Brighton”, he says. “No, your mistaken’’ my friend says, “I’ve never been to Brighton in my life”. Dismissively Smith says “Yes you are… you’re that bloke from Brighton… What’s your name, pal?”. “Gus” my mate says. Smith proceeds to sign the book “Gus, you’re a cunt. Mark E Smith”. All I got was the generic “I am the great Mark E Smith”. Gus got his personalised! I felt envious and unfairly treated. Why can’t he call me a cunt too? My final meeting was at Clapham Grand in 2013 when a friend, who worked for the PRS, got a backstage pass and invited me along. It was a basic affair. I was handed a plastic cup with some cheap whiskey and a can of lager from the rider. Smith looked weary from a lifetime of backstage shenanigans. Suddenly an overbearing chap from a record company turns up and starts taking photos of him on his phone and Smith, clearly irritated, says “Right, everybody out. I need to talk to the group”. He appeared genuinely protective of his wife and his youthful musicians.
There have been several times over the last 20 years when the stability of Mark and the group appeared on the point of disintegration. I often thought, “That’s it. It’s the end of The Fall. He’ll never come back from this one”. Like the time at New York’s Brownies in 1998, when there was an onstage brawl and he sacked three members of the group. Mark was later arrested and spent a couple of nights in a NYC jail. Then there was the time when, midway through a US tour, three members of the group legged-it back to the UK. Incredibly, two days later, he managed to recruit a ’new’ band to complete the tour… Sadly, this time it really is the end.
Smith controlled the group’s members and its output with a tight dictator-like grip. It’s an autocracy of leadership I wouldn’t condone or tolerate in my life. But without Smith’s discipline and determination to maintain the core principles he had defined, The Fall group would not have been able to maintain such a singular, uncompromising output. He was tireless in this pursuit and gave a lifetime commitment to The Fall project. He never stopped recording or performing and kept the focus and distinctiveness of the group intact until the very end. It’s true what John Peel said, “The Fall are the band against whom all others must be judged”. I have certainly lived my life arguing this point, much to the exasperation of friends, acquaintances, girlfriends and work colleagues. We are unlikely to ever see the unique, unswerving individualism of Mark E Smith and his Fall group in contemporary music again. Most bands pale into insignificance by comparison. I’m so glad I experienced this 38-year obsession.