Culture

why he mattered

Culture

The Fall’s Mark E. Smith: 1957-2018

Smith was a singularly influential and irascible figure who left his imprint all over underground rock music, and didn’t care if you loved him for it.

“If I ever end up like U2 / slit my throat with a garden vegetable.” The Fall released over 30 albums. Perhaps you’ve heard some of them, or heard people talking about them. Like all cult bands with a gigantic oeuvre, getting into them could never be so simple as saying “Siri, play the Fall.” Some of these albums are good, some of them are not good, and some of them are perfect — the expected result of a band that shifted forms and sounds for over 40 years. The band’s founder and essential dictator Mark E. Smith, who died yesterday at age 60, ran a tight ship, firing members with an alacrity that could almost be comical if it didn’t often seem so unwarranted and tyrannical. Keep the band terrified, and they’d reach heights they never could in a band not dominated by Caligula in a sweater.

Complacency meant extinction. As other early post-punk ranters ran themselves aground and slithered into irrelevance, the Fall continued to evolve. Punk was merely an entry point. They would also dabble in rockabilly, reggae, garage, techno shit — really anything and everything that Smith happened to find appealing when in proximity to the recording booth. It helped that Smith wasn’t a lyricist, but a proper writer. His lyrics weren’t trying to rhyme as much as smash a pint glass over your head. There were better singers, but none so absolutely self-assured in their competence. The tired knock on Smith as a vocalist was his lack of range, or his inability to, you know, sing. But his voice was a weapon. It bludgeoned you; it was a powder keg perpetually a moment away from detonation. Never had a squeal evoked such pathos, nor a mumble been so genuinely menacing.

Mark E. Smith was born in Salford, a few miles west of Manchester, on March 5th, 1957. He was by no means a popular child, and was forced to come up with novel ways to entertain himself. One of these methods was a game he dubbed “Japanese Prison Camp” which he played with his sisters when his parents were away. This game amounted to making them sit under a table covered with cloth, telling them they were in prison, at which point he would go off and do his own thing, until just before his parents returned home. He played the guard, of course, and if his sisters escaped his prison camp he would strip them of their lemonade privileges, whatever that meant. (This, and many other mordant details were included in his autobiography.) As the frontman of a band that shuffled through more than 60 members, he’d spend most of his life stripping people of their figurative lemonade privileges.

Like most good Northern working-class boys, Smith signed up for a stint of honest labor, becoming a shipping clerk on the docks. He could very well have done that for the next 40 years, but on June 4th, 1976, the Sex Pistols played a semi-apocryphal show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. Future members of the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, and also that dumb idiot Morrissey were in the audience, proselytized in real time by this new-fangled punk rock thing. Mark E. Smith was there too; he thought he could front a better band than the Sex Pistols, and so he did.

The Fall thrived in the early-to-mid 80s, in no small part due to Smith’s then-wife, Brix, who infused the skeletal bluster with genuine pop elements. After that, they would rise and fall, become inconsequential and then roar back for another renaissance. The band was never a project or a hobby; it was his job. “Selling out” wasn’t a sin against the Gods of Punk rock but a proper way to keep the lights on. The song “Hip Priest” would even find its way into Silence of the Lambs. Years later, the Fall were, for some bizarre reason, set to contribute a song to the horny vampire film Twilight, but when the producers heard what was undoubtedly just Smith gurgling along to a spooky riff, they balked. Too scary! Smith said of this missed opportunity, “Their horror is some (young) guy...wandering through a forest with his eyes glazed.”

A lot of the content being written about him in the wake of his death will no doubt deal with what we could charitably call bad behavior. The insane amounts of alcohol and speed he consumed, more or less continuously since the 70s. His reputation as a crabby ne’er do-well is well earned. He despised artifice, loathed posers and did not hesitate to say so. His iconoclastic killjoy tendencies are legendary. If there was a sacred cow in his line of sight, Mark E. Smith delighted in butchering it and then making sacred cow tartare. He was like the Eye of Sauron with a cut-rate haircut and a rumpled sweater. At various points, he unleashed his wrath upon Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer, Pavement, Sonic Youth, everyone from London, everyone from Manchester, Morrissey, the Labour Party, and pretty much anyone who had ever been a member of his band.

Mark E. Smith and the Fall influenced a deep bench of indie rock that was to emerge out of the morass of the punk scene. Sonic Youth recorded an EP featuring three covers of the Fall, as well as a Kinks song the Fall had themselves famously covered. Smith’s take on that? Thurston Moore should have “his rock license revoked.” Pavement’s early years are particularly indebted to the Fall, something they’ve never denied. Stephen Malkmus, himself something of a cult hero, once referred to Smith as his Wallace Stevens. Smith’s response was characteristically tactful and humble, saying Pavement were “just the Fall in 1985, isn't it? They haven't got an original idea in their heads." (In fairness to Smith, Pavement’s cover of “The Classical” is not good.)

James Murphy, the man that is LCD Soundsystem, made the fatal error of divulging his admiration for the Fall, saying “The Fall are my Beatles.” The Fall would later release a song called “Irish” which name-checks James Murphy, and not in a friendly way. All of these bitter rejoinders and ripostes seemed only to strengthen Smith’s mystique. All these bands, objectively more successful than the Fall, paid homage and were without fail rebuffed. Bands that obviously share DNA with the Fall such as the Country Teasers, Idles, and the Sleaford Mods have wisely kept their debt to “Mad Mark” close to the proverbial chest. His grumpy influence always outstripped record sales. You could beat him by a metric as crass as total units moved, but you could never beat him. Here was a man who wouldn’t allow you any of his sunlight, and would publicly shame you if you tried.

And to some, Mark E. Smith begins and ends with that combative disposition, with his vicious mean streak, the chaos he left in his wake, the feral audacity and primal confidence he hurled at an insecure populace that second-guessed itself as a matter of course. It’s a shame though, to see him occasionally essentialized to the cranky old Mancunian who threw a bottle at Mumford and Sons (“a load of retarded Irish folk singers”) because their soundcheck was annoying him. It makes for an amusing caricature, but stops well short of doing him justice. It ignores his talent and the sheer human will which kept the Fall existing for 40 years. It erases his darkest timeline Oscar Wilde wit, the impish laughter that is etched into even the grimmest of his songs, his warped integrity, his lust for authenticity in a post-modern garbage world and his deep-rooted regard for the working class (especially when they’d never heard his music). For completists, he also liked Scottish people, cats, Coronation Street, and Can.

Smith refused to exalt the past, which was all middle-class revisionism. There’s a video in which he shames Syrian refugees for not staying to fight Assad and ISIS. He was not what you’d call a woke individual. And as someone who has to, by necessity, negotiate the no-man’s-land of Mark E. Smith’s darkness and my admiration for him, it’s hard, even embarrassing, to pinpoint exactly what’s so fascinating about this cantankerous Northerner who bellows about “flabby wings” and “Roman shells” and the “large type minstrel ranch.” But it’s a mistake to be rational when talking about Mark E. Smith, because he wasn’t part of the rational world. He was an outlaw.

There never was a need for a cynical reunion to get some quick cash because Smith never stopped. The Fall never stopped. Even at the end, in his last months of life, he was still growling into a microphone, but now in a wheelchair, unwilling to surrender his life’s work just yet. And it’s somewhat of a grim comfort to know that Smith will never read this, because he would have hated it, as he would all the other obituaries that will honor him and his singular legacy. Daft cunts, he’d call us. Proper rubbish, he’d say of our 1000-word hagiographies. Mark E. Smith and the Fall aren’t just another post-punk band with just another irascible frontman. They are a cult, a religion, a wormhole to another dimension that has been forever closed. The world is less interesting today, and less fierce.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the location of Salford.

Alex Siquig is a writer based in Baltimore who has written for The New Yorker, Vice, GQ, and more.
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