Mark E Smith’s death at the age of 60 didn’t exactly come as a surprise. As leader of The Fall since the band formed in 1976, he was known for a lifestyle of chemical excess and reports of his recent ill-health were widespread. None of that diminishes the sadness of his death one bit, of course. He was a true giant of modern music and an utter one-off.
News reports of Smith’s death have mentioned The Fall‘s small handful of chart hits, but those kind of measures of mainstream success are missing the point. The titanic influence of punk and post-punk on popular culture is beyond question, and most of the scene’s prime movers have long since reunited for nostalgia tours. The Fall didn’t sound quite like your average punk-era band, and technically they never actually spilt up. For more than 40 years they continued to record new material and play live. Mark E Smith was the only constant member, but for all the talents of his fellow band members – and there in excess of 60 of them down the decades – The Fall was always all about Smith’s unique world view.
There will be those, of course, to whom the news doesn’t mean all that much. In some respects The Fall were rather like those Magic Eye pictures that were all the rage in the early 90s. Some people would look at them and see a 3D dolphin, whereas others would just see a jumble of colourful dots. For those who got it, The Fall’s output was unparalleled. Serious fans might find it difficult, or else just unnecessary, to listen to anything else.
The overall quality was consistent, too, while also being remarkably varied. As uber-Fall fan John Peel had it, “they are always different, they are always the same”. There are discreet Fall phases – the early years, the Brix years, the programming-driven years and so on – and they all have their charms and their staunch admirers, but it’s the whole body of songs that’s so impressive. The 1980s Container Drivers is brilliant, but then so is 1984’s C.R.E.E.P., 1988’s Big New Prinz, 1992’s Free Range, 1999’s Touch Sensitive, 2003’s Theme from Sparta FC, 2005’s Blindness…Smith’s creative gifts never deserted him. And if you had him down as a pure spiky noise merchant, try 1984’s Disney’s Dream Debased, 1990’s Bill is Dead or 1991’s Edinburgh Man. His work could be outright beguiling and charming, too.
At heart he was a music fan, and The Fall made many great cover versions, embracing everyone from The Monks and The Kinks to Gene Vincent and Sister Sledge (you’ll never listen to the original of Lost in Music in the same way again).
Of course, Smith could also be legendarily awkward. He teetered on a very fine line between raw, instinctive, unpredictable Northern artist and gifted wind-up merchant. There are many, many anecdotes of his strange, difficult behaviour – chaotic bust-ups, deliberate provocations, on-stage curmudgeonliness. But then there are just as many of his warmth and easy-going nature. I met Smith in his Prestwich local in 2004 (it’s long story, involving an abortive plan to make a film of his life) and was warned upfront by a mutual acquaintance that “it all depends which version of Mark turns up”. In fact, it went swimmingly and Smith was great company, though when his round came up he didn’t seem to relish buying a pint of cider.
There were other personal sightings for me over the years: Smith turning up at the International 2 to watch flamboyant 90s power-pop outfit Jellyfish, most likely just for laughs; Smith having a loud, fiery conversation about the mixing of his latest album with a representative from his record company on Cornerhouse’s foyer payphone. Most people who lived around Manchester will have their own odd little memories of spotting him, and they’re that bit more treasurable now.
Thankfully it will never be too late to start listening to The Fall, and while it’s a big, formidable body of work, it’s well worth jumping in and sampling a few of the aforementioned songs or any of the many compilations. The singles collection 458489: A-Sides makes a decent first step, or else there’s the more recent and comprehensive 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats.
There are many fine books about the band, too, from Dave Simpson’s The Fallen in which the author, a devoted fan, seeks to track down and speak to every ex-member, to The Big Midweek, a vivid and involving memoir by one of those very ex-members, bass player Steve Hanley. There’s also Renegade, Smith’s autobiography as written in collaboration with journalist Austin Collins. It’s a fascinating, hugely entertaining read, although predictably the ever-tricksy Smith disowned it as soon as it was published.
It might seem improper to be talking about Smith’s body of work so soon after his death, but the fact is this: his life was his work and vice versa. If a career in music had passed him by, he might have simply stayed on as a shipping clerk at Salford docks. In that case, he would never have affected and influenced so many lives around the world, from fans to musicians, and his passing wouldn’t have caused this phenomenal outpouring of respect and admiration (it turns out he was appreciated after all). Many of those who’ve had good cause to curse him down the years have been teary-eyed since the news broke. Yes, a different lifestyle might have prolonged his life, but what a life to have had. He was an iconoclastic character, and not necessarily an easy-going one, but he leaves behind an enormous amount of affection as well as a vast. endlessly fascinating catalogue of songs, with 31 full studio albums alone.
Of his band’s ever-changing line-up, Smith once said: “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” That’s him being characteristically uncharitable about the many great musicians he played with over the years, but nevertheless, let’s hope that wherever he is now, Mark E Smith’s granny has her bongos at the ready.
Mark E Smith, 1957-2018