Paul Nolan pays tribute to the late Fall frontman Mark E. Smith, whose groundbreaking approach to songwriting and performance made him one of the most influential artists of his generation.
with the recent passing of Mark E. Smith, music has lost one of its most brilliant and gifted mavericks. Having been in ill-health during the last years of his life, The Fall’s singer passed away on January 24, aged just 60.
Following a working-class Lancashire upbringing, Smith formed The Fall in Greater Manchester in 1976. His main inspiration for gettáing the band together was the Sex Pistols’ ’76 performance at Manchester Free Trade Hall, a gig that has taken on a significance akin to Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai (among the other attendees were future members of Joy Division, The Smiths and Buzzcocks, as well as, er, Mick Hucknall).
From the very beginning, The Fall were conspicuously talented and original. Their debut EP, 1978’s Bingo Master’s Breakout – with its memorable cover of a demonic S&M figure – heralded the arrival of a singular outfit. Central to their appeal was Smith, whose soon-to-be-trademark vocal delivery (complete with accentuated “ah!” at the end of each line) was heard to full effect on the Bingo Master track ‘Repetition’, a bonkers art-rock excursion that mesmerised with its twists and turns.
In time, Smith’s skewed lyrical style would make him one of rock’s greatest ever wordsmiths, and his superbly innovative approach was already in evidence: “President Carter loves repetition/Chairman Mao, he dug repetition”.
A voracious reader with a love of authors like Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Chandler and HP Lovecraft, Smith – a long-time friend of fellow northern bard John Cooper Clarke – created songs that were crammed with memorable phrases and vivid imagery.
Throughout his career, humour was paramount in his lyrical approach. In one ’80s interview, Smith partially explained his modus operandi by noting that misheard lyrics were often better than the published words. “I used to knock around with this Irish bloke who loved ‘All The Young Dudes’,” he recalled. “One time he was talking about the song, and he said to me that he loved the line where the singer goes, ‘I’m going out tonight to shag some cows to death’.”
Famously, Smith’s interviews were seized on almost as eagerly as the music. A world class misanthropist, he regularly embarked on screeds about contemporary culture, aiming barbs at pet hates – amongst which journalists and other musicians ranked highly – that produced moments of laugh-out-loud humour.
Indeed, a brilliant 2001 Hot Press interview with Eamon Sweeney resulted in one of the funniest exchanges in the history of the magazine, after the journalist quizzed him about a recent controversy involving the English politician Peter Mandelson.
“He was on here the other day and there was a big religious protest outside,” answered Smith. “It was dead funny… All the Jesus freaks were outside and there was all these backpackers around. They were holding hands and all that. It freaked me out a bit.”
“Why was there a religious protest against Peter Mandelson?” asked Sweeney.
“Oh Mandelson!” responded Smith. “I thought you said Marilyn Manson!”
Throughout the ’80s, The Fall produced several classic albums, with 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour perhaps their crowning achievement. Combining Smith’s lyrical gymnastics with the band’s typically ingenious mix of post-punk, electronica, krautrock and avant-garde experimentation, its stand-out moment was the extraordinary ‘Hip Priest’.
Conceived as “northern dub”, though located on a drizzly motorway rather than a sunny beach, the track placed Smith’s characteristically withering commentary – this time on self-appointed cultural tastemakers – against a truly terrifying musical backdrop. In an inspired move, director Jonathan Demme would later use it to soundtrack the climax of The Silence Of The Lambs.
Amidst the kind of turnover in personnel more usually found in a multinational corporation – at last count, The Fall diaspora numbers almost 70 – the band would go on to release a number of other groundbreaking albums during the decade, including 1984’s The Wonderful And Frightening World Of…, with guest vocals from Gavin Friday (see panel); 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace ; and 1988’s I Am Kurious Orange.
Though they remained a cult concern, those who did fall for The Fall were positively evangelical. Famously, they were John Peel’s favourite band, although Smith retained a respectful distance from the BBC DJ (following Peel’s death in 2004, the singer made a notorious appearance on Newsnight, which he later attributed to a rare instance of stage fright). Cult comic Stewart Lee, meanwhile, was similarly smitten.
Smith’s quest for fresh musical terrain took him down some wonderfully strange paths. An early ’90s collaboration with electronica duo and Ninja Tune founders Coldcut yielded the superb single ‘Telephone Thing’, an anti-wiretapping effort that offered further evidence of Smith’s lyrical genius (“Does the Home Secretary have the barest, faintest inkling of what’s going down?”)
Subsequently, a 2003 hook-up with the German avant-electro team Mouse On Mars – released under the name Von Sudenfed – proved similarly excellent. Nonetheless, there were some dark moments. With a stormy personal life (he married Fall member Brix Smith, whom he met on tour in LA in the early ’80s, on three separate occasions), Smith regularly struggled with alcoholism. During a particularly low ebb, he was arrested for assaulting his bandmate and then girlfriend Julia Nagle following a 1998 gig in New York.
By the 21st century, though, Smith’s influence was detectable everywhere: Bobby Gillespie appropriated the singer’s vocal technique for the Death In Vegas collaboration ‘Soul Auctioneer’; Pavement (“mere Fall copyists” in Smith’s estimation) owed the band an obvious debt; and James Murphy would also utilise Smith’s singing style on several LCD Soundsystem tracks.
In 2010, meanwhile, Smith would accept Damon Albarn’s invitation to appear on the Gorillaz track ‘Glitter Freeze’. Elsewhere, art-rock superstars Radiohead, Franz Ferdinand and Pixies were also fans, whilst one couldn’t even begin to catalogue The Fall’s influence on countless underground and alternative acts.
They were genuine pioneers, and with Smith’s passing, we have lost a rare and magnificent talent. RIP.