On Wednesday evening we learned of the sad and grimly inevitable passing of Mark E. Smith. Four decades of well-documented booze and drugs, followed by a heartbreaking period of illness (through which he promoted the band’s last album ‘New Facts Emerge’ with the energy and the work ethic of a 21 year old) put paid to one of Britain’s best and most vital bands.
It’s impossible to talk about The Fall ‘s impact on guitar music without resorting to platitude; their immeasurable influence is unquantifiable. Hindsight will, correctly, show them to be as inseparable to the idea of British guitar music as any other group of the last 60-odd years.
I can distinctly remember the first time I heard a Fall song – it was ‘Mountain Energei’ from The Real New Fall LP. It felt at once familiar and completely alien. Who was this man muttering about income lids over this perfect music? I wanted to know more. Like many others I know, I picked up a compilation and fell down a wormhole into the band’s unique landscape.
It’s remarkable to think that when they started out in the late 1970s they were more indebted to the work of H.P. Lovecraft than the hollow political gesturing of many of their peers – and it’s indicative of the war against complacency that runs through their canon. Their relentless output put their peers to shame. Smith also had a healthy disregard for retrospectives; reflected in the sensibility that the band would only play songs from current or recent releases on tour – a refreshing counterblast to the increasingly prevalent culture of heritage rock bands and the pedestalisation of classic releases. On seeing the Sex Pistols in an early incarnation: “I thought, my lot are not as bad as that. We’re better. We just need a drummer.”
As much as the music of The Fall was informed by surrealism, Da Da and science fiction, the group’s identity remained anchored in the Northern and working-class. “I wrote about what was around me. But some people are daft they don’t understand that writing about Prestwich is just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno.”
Be in the faces like unmade beds in ‘Fiery Jack’, Smith’s surrealism and embrace of the uncanny were- like all of the very best art- a mere conduit for incredibly articulate expressions of the everyday. Mark was a misnomer of his time, and the thought of someone of his ilk coming to prominence in 2018 is absolutely unthinkable. A self-made working class artist with an insatiable hunger for literature in his formative years Indeed the only consistency of the band’s sprawling back catalogue is just how much disdain it holds for resorting to cliché, how much it rails against those who can’t think for themselves. And the words, the words are *everywhere* peculiar, frightening, tender, curmudgeon, acerbic poetry brought into the world by someone with a genuinely unique, singular and artistic vision.
I can’t think of another artist in of the 20th century who has been so committed to fulfilling a singular artistic vision – at the expense of absolutely everything else. “I’ve seen too many groups go down in the name of democracy” he quips in ‘Renegade’.
Smith was often painted as a grump and a curmudgeon, but this isn’t consistent for me with what I get out of the music, and the experiences I had seeing the band live. Thinking about it, every time I saw the Fall – he never struck me as anything but a funny, defiant optimist. Whether he was giving it his absolute all despite being constrained to a wheelchair, slapping a disgruntled bouncer’s arse with a microphone at a gig in Newcastle, or, most memorably at the Beacons Festival in 2014, where the band were forced off stage due to inclement weather conditions, while MES flailed at numerous stewards, security and work experience kids to ensure he remained on stage. Twenty minutes later, the band were back on stage, Mark sarcastically wailing “I was so worried for my safety!” before launching into a ferocious version of ‘Mr. Pharmacist’. “He stops for weather when he gets struck by lightning!’ a nearby voice exclaimed. I struggle to think of a more fitting epitaph.
Photo of Mark E. Smith at Glastonbury 2015: Simon Godley