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Mark E Smith
Mark E. SmithPhotography Deirdre O’Callaghan, taken from the December 1998 issue of Dazed & Confused

The idiosyncratic genius of Mark E Smith

The late Fall frontman never failed to surprise us, whether through his sprawling work or abrasive wit

Where do you even begin with The Fall? What was a difficult question yesterday is almost impossible to answer after the death of Mark E Smith last night. The Manchester post-punk band’s career spanned 40 years, 31 studio albums, 32 live albums, countless Peel sessions and gigs of every variety. The tone and quality veered from avant-garde ballet with Michael Clark to late night screaming sessions in the exhausted basement flats of Manchester satellite towns, and all the way back again. Always different, always the same.

It can’t be said that anyone ever lived his life but him. Now, and over the coming few days, there will be a reel of the famous quotes, replete with his otherworldly spite (bands that The Fall share festival bills with are uniformly “arse lickers”, to reach for a tame example) and oddity (“I don’t like Northern people”). Of how he spent his teenage years bunking off school to mooch about art galleries, devour Wyndham Lewis, and scream at passers by from the top decks of buses.

We’ll hear it repeated that he hectored Mumford & Sons for being “cunts”, ex-Fall alumnus Marc Riley for being “wet”, sent pot shots at Kate Bush, and treated his wives, bandmates, and business associates as expendable. That was the primary function of anyone that was lured into the Kestrel fogged pull of his orbit: to be useful to The Fall, i.e. to be useful to the singular creative mission of Mark E Smith. “None of them”, as he smirks in an interview recorded for a 2004 BBC Four documentary, “realised their purpose in life until they found out it was to be in the band.”

No one ever made the mistake of accusing him to be a pleasant man. An aggressive, hectoring streak to bandmates including (and by no means limited to) a propensity to line-up band members for a torrent of post-gig verbal abuse. Decades of perpetual, self-destructive drinking and reliance on industrial quantities of speed. A cocktail of cherished personal resentments and paranoias. He could often be repellent, and express repellent views. He could also be warm and oddly generous, as people often can be. How this relates to the vast multi-decade spanning output is another insoluble question.  

Yet one thing at least seemed clear from the first track of their first album (“Frightened”, 1979’s Live At The Witch Trials). The Fall wasn’t just another part of the Northern post-punk explosion. When its looping, tightly arced drums and funeral dirge pace leads up to that first haunted, paranoid sneer that knows “someone’s always on my tracks”, you’re aware of being in the company of something special, though you’ve little idea why.

“Charting The Fall’s many albums and reinventions would take thousands of words. A messy, multi-headed hydra, as occasionally appalling as the man himself could be”

It’s a question that untold books, interviews, and documentaries have sought to unpack, with varying degrees of failure. Mark Fisher often wrote perceptive things, as do John Doran and Stewart Lee, among others. Yet there is also so much that speaks to embarrassment and tonal deafness. There’s a real problem with writing about artists who twist language in the way Mark E Smith did. Firstly, it encourages the world’s worst wannabe stream-of-consciousness pub poets in imitation. Secondly, it spawns a kind of criticism that either wants to unpick the dense network of allusion to the high, low, and squalid in immensely detailed and point-missing essays (see “How I Wrote Elastic Man”) or treat him as a nasty village idiot, a Prestwich John Clare who couldn’t possibly know how he’s achieving his effects. Thirdly, it can lead to credulous interview questions that seek to get right to the heart of things and explain away his art. During a tempestuous group interview with Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan in the early 90s, Smith cuts across a babbling, sentimental MacGowan expounding on the creative process. “Don’t give too much away Shane, don’t tell them. Hold a bit back.”

When writing his music, it was advice Smith didn’t take himself. It took a few albums to fully work into the groove of all that spectacular, embittered weirdness of The Fall. There was Dragnet, still one of the foulest albums ever recorded, with its visions of terror and ice (“A Figure Walks”), and murder and terrified madness (“Flat of Angles”), competing with production that makes the whole sordid mess sound like it was recorded on a tape cassette glued under a coffin lid. A repellant, utterly brilliant anti-statement of intent.

While it was Dragnet that prompted John Walters, John Peel’s broadcasting partner and talent spotter, to send a letter declaring The Fall “the worst band he’d ever heard, even worse than Siouxsie & the Banshees” and ending with the question “would you like come and play a session at Maida Vale?”, it was Hex Enduction Hour that saw the outlines of talent harden into something unique.

Set down under the total absence of sunlight in an Icelandic winter, it’s the closest thing to a horror story in sound that it’s possible to imagine. From the diseased obscenities of “The Classical”, through to the “backwards kids party” in “Winter #1” and the self-mockery mingled with wounded self-regard of “Hip Priest” (one of the only real recognisable Fall ‘hits’ alongside “Totally Wired” and valium ode “Rowche Rumble”), you’re in the presence of a piece of high-end ugliness that you can’t quite tear your ears away from. Still now, I’ve no idea if it hits my ear like honey or broken glass. I’m sure I’m not alone.

Charting The Fall’s many albums and reinventions would take thousands of words. A messy, multi-headed hydra, as occasionally appalling as the man himself could be. From bursts of easy accessibility and softening (1990’s “Bill is Dead”) to the opposite extreme of deliberately a-tonal nastiness (the entirety of 1995’s “Cerebral Caustic”) , it’s not always an enjoyable body of work. There are plenty of album long interludes that only the most furious obsessive can tolerate for more than a passing curiosity. That’s part of loving a band so sprawling, with its tentacles spreading over everything from the rockabilly tinge of Grotesque (“the sound of the lower class English summer,” as Smith himself put it) to the unexpected lurch into psycho pop in The Weird and Frightening World of The Fall. That’s the experience of being a Fall fan: having your expectations dashed, never getting what you thought you wanted, but often finding what you’re served is what you needed. Always different, always the same.