"I think it's over now, I think it's ending."
Mark E Smith, Glasgow, 2017.
Mark E Smith is dead. The Fall is dead.
You cannot separate the two. Like the man himself, it seems a marvel that it lasted as long as it did. Amphetamine and alcohol made Smith wiry and wired, and whilst his body was able to withstand the abuse, his band pummelled the senses with an astonishing catalogue of work that blurred the lines between garage rock, krautrock and bubblegum pop.
There will never be another lyricist like Smith. Despite his continual paranoia about plagiarists and notebooks, Smith’s scattergun approach was inimitable. Lovecraft, Machen and Wyndham Lewis were heroes mentioned in interviews but there is nothing in literature quite like a great MES lyric. Part social commentary, part science fiction, all delivered in bile-powered stream-of-consciousness salvos.
And the voice. Smith was not a singer. His Salford whine was the band’s greatest weapon, adding an abrasive texture to the group’s formidable musical assault.
I discovered the Fall for myself on Friday September 15, 1989. I was due to start at university on the Monday and had just finished my final shift at my summer job, packing organic produce for supermarkets. It was a shit job for a shit wage but it paid for my beers and my weekly splurge on records. There was a second hand record shop on the way to the bus stop and, if I had time, a lucrative 10 minutes could be spent buying the records that cash-strapped students had given up in the term before.
The cassette album of I, Kurious Oranj, stood out on the shelf that day in its orange glow. Like a chemical accident. I had read a considerable amount about the Fall in the music press, had seen endless namechecks and live reviews. I was at the age where I was always looking for the next thing to play to my mates and having had some success amongst my peers with Pixies and Happy Mondays already that summer, maybe The Fall might be the next thing to impress them with.
The song titles offered small clues as to the unique approach of Mark E Smith. “Big New Prinz”, “Guide Me Soft” “CD Win Fall 2088 AD”. Mangled language, gnarled syntax. I was yet to discover this was a concept album/ballet soundtrack commemorating the 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution.
£3 and the tape was mine. I missed the bus and walked home eight miles in Ceredigion drizzle.
I still remember the excitement of those first 30 seconds or so of the Fall on my Walkman. A series of uncertain handclaps, a man barking “Rocking Records, the guy’s rock records…” and then the greatest rhythm section Manchester ever produced, Hanley and Wolstencroft, kick it in. I was hooked.
The Fall went on to soundtrack my twenties. Each year a new album usually preceded by a disappointing single, an astonishing Peel session and an NME interview which acted as an alternative State of the Nation address. This annual ritual was something far more exciting to me than Christmas or my birthday. From hearing the screeching violin introduction to Sing Harpy in my campus pit to the sheer exuberance of Touch Sensitive in my damp bedsit, the 90s were my Peak Enjoyment of Mark E Smith years.
Eventually I begun to explore their labyrinthine back catalogue, a treasure trove of riches. Though punk had given Smith the impetus to do something, it is clear The Fall were never punk in the way the Pistols were. The Fall were indignant, different, diffident and difficult without ever resorting to shock tactics. Repetition was their schtick and somehow they stayed ahead of the pack, not so much pointing the way forward (for who can truly ape genius) as showing their peers just how far ahead they were.
And then there were the live shows. The risk factor of buying a ticket to The Fall. Because, on his day, when MES cantankerousness and contrarianism over spilled into hostility and unpleasantness, the Fall could implode before your very eyes. But it seemed worth it somehow, like walking away from your football team’s latest defeat, knowing you’d be back, a sucker for punishment. At their best (and I’ve seen them hit these heights several times), Mark E Smith was a conduit between the audience’s expectations and the band’s sheer power, a general on the field of battle, barking instructions like a Lancashire James Brown. I’ve seen friends that were previously resistant to even the idea of The Fall converted at those special performances.
You get older, you settle down. Married, 2 kids. The usual. At first The Fall seemed a relief from all that conformity you’d allowed your life to settle into. And then, as the number of ex Fall members grew in turn with the number of ex record labels The Fall had been signed to, their power began to diminish. Smith seemed no longer capable of greatness. On stage too, resorting to fiddling with band members equipment, spoiling for a fight rather than putting on a show. The sight of a decrepit Smith, King Leer in a wheelchair, was the stuff of tragedy. The records began to suffer as MES, seemingly intent on alienating even the hardcore devotees who now made up 90% of his audience, embarked on a path of almost anti-music.
And now he’s dead. Sixty. No age at all. If Bowie was the mainstream rock chameleon, able to change his colours and adapt to an ever changing pop landscape, Smith was a shape-shifter – mythological, restless, sinister – the fiend with a violin, the paranoia man, the casino soul. His waltz now ended, I find myself surprisingly devastated at his final demise. And then, just as I was with that other thin white duke, I marvel at the fullness of those years spent amongst us and stand amazed at their life’s work.
I doubt Mark’s a new face in hell now, but wherever he is, I'll raise a glass to him tonight. Thanks for all the memories, Mark. Rest in peace.