Mark E Smith

Music critic and fan of the Fall, Richard Pearmain profiles Mark E Smith. 

The Madness of King Mark

Like everyone who says they remember where they were when they heard about President Kennedy’s assassination, I always remember the first time I ever heard the Fall. It was on the radio, approximately 3.02pm, as a student on vacation, and not just a vacation for me either – Steve Wright, then the mainstay DJ of primetime Radio 1, was off on his jollies, and who was sitting in for him? John Peel. “Hello, everybody out there in radio land,” or words to that effect, “this is the Fall.” And there it was, Lost In Music, the Sister Sledge disco classic remade/remodelled in the most unlikely way. And there was that unmistakable voice, over the driving funk guitar (funk! The Fall!), Mark E Smith grumbling about “the brick refurbishment of pubs”. Not sure what Nile Rodgers would make of that….

Admittedly, I wasn’t immediately launched headlong into the Wonderful and Frightening World of they Fall, they were more of a slow burner. Of course, I knew who the Fall were, but they seemed a murkier proposition than the Smiths or New Order. However, I don’t know how, but they got me in the end. I think it’s fair to say that there is no such thing as a casual Fall fan – you’re either in, or you’re not.

So, what is it about the Fall? Their history has been well documented – a 35 year odyssey of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, through nearly 30 studio albums (on almost as many record labels), critical adulation, mainstream rejection, countless line-up changes and sheer bloody mindedness. And there is always that voice, those words. The one constant and central to it all is, Mark E Smith. His is the voice and the words, the uncompromising iron will that keeps the Fall marching on. “If It’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s the Fall”, Smith is quoted as saying, and you can’t really argue with that.

Smith’s lyricism is peerless, unique, dense, piercing, hectoring and often surprisingly witty. You could write a thesis about it (people probably have). He’s developed a style that’s completely his own, born from time spent in libraries when growing up, echoing influences including William Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr and Anthony Burgess. Indeed, the Fall’s own name comes from the novel by Albert Camus.

The Fall may have emerged during that heady year of 1977, but they were never punk, musically nor lyrically. Smith’s lyrics never embraced nihilism, anarchy nor espoused any political posturing. Those early Fall songs took their inspiration from their immediate surroundings, a distortion of the everyday (yet still wonderful and frightening) world of Manchester and its environs. Yet, unlike the lyrics of his Manchester contemporaries (Ian Curtis’ dark, Ballardian take on post industrial decay or, later on, Morrissey’s Wildean kitchen sink vignettes), Smith’s were full of container drivers, bingo masters, industrial estates, male slags and Wigan Casino – Phoenix Nights, as envisioned by David Lynch.

As the Fall progressed into the 1980s and beyond, Smith’s lyrical preoccupations developed, taking in such things as current affairs (1982’s Marquis Cha-Cha was ostensibly about the Falklands conflict, whilst 2005’s What About Us? tackled not only immigration, via the device of East German rabbits, but also Harold Shipman), the less glitzy side of football (1983’s Kicker Conspiracy and, 20 years later, Theme From Sparta FC), the “Madchester” music scene (Idiot Joy Showland), getting older (My Ex-Classmates’ Kids and 50 Year Old Man) and former band members (too many to mention). There was the collaboration with the Michael Clark Company which produced I Am Curious Orange, a ballet based on the accession of William and Mary in 1688, and which features Smith going lyrical toe to toe with none other than William Blake – a jaw dropping interpretation of Jerusalem sees MES interrupt those well trodden verses with “it was the fault of the government, I was very disappointed.” A popping of the jingoistic balloon that you’re not likely to hear at the Last Night of the Proms.

Smith’s lyrics, however random they may be, are always a central attraction of the Fall. Even on the band’s weaker albums, there are usually some nuggets to be found, though last year’s less than universally acclaimed Ersatz GB saw MES quite probably taking the piss with Nate Will Not Return, where he tries to use every conceivable word in the English language that rhymes with the titular protagonist’s name.

Smith’s lyrical conjuring also probably explains why so many comedians are into the Fall. It’s well known that Stewart Lee is an über-fan, but I’ve also spotted Frank Skinner and Peter Serafinowicz at Fall gigs in the past.

Lest we forget, but we should also mention Mark E Smith’s extra-curricular activities (and no, I’m not talking about singing with the Inspiral Carpets, reading the classified results or appearing as Jesus in Johnny Vegas’ surreal sitcom Ideal). There was a play he wrote in the mid-80s about Pope John Paul I (which spawned the Fall single Hey! Luciani) and two spoken word albums, the first of which, Post Nearly Man, appeared after the infamous onstage brawl in New York in 1998 that, for many, seemed to signify the end of the Fall. Then there is the great Fall album that actually wasn’t – Tromatic Reflexxions, an electro behemoth brought out in 2007 by MES and German duo Mouse on Mars, under the guise of Von Südenfed. In true Fall tradition, it also features Smith barracking either a studio engineer or a member of the band for some indiscretion.

Mark E Smith remains a spiky character, both onstage (where, depending if he does actually make it onstage and in what condition, he will routinely prowl around and fiddle with the band’s amps) and in interviews, and Fall gigs remain unpredictable affairs (the final night of the Hammersmith Palais in 2007 remains the most volatile atmosphere I think I’ve experienced). Tales about Smith are legion, but it’s not for me, as a Mere Pseud Mag. Ed., to go over them here. For the record, though, one story was recounted to me by an acquaintance whose band supported the Fall in Poole a couple of years ago – conversation with MES had moved on to cult 60’s TV show The Prisoner, and Smith said that he wanted to be Number One. Make of that what you will.

For further enlightenment, I would heartily recommend reading Dave Simpson’s excellent The Fallen and Smith’s own, and never less than entertaining, Renegade.

And so Mark E Smith, and the Fall, soldier on. Smith has never been one to look back, but whilst the Fall continually evolve, the ethos has never changed. John Peel said the Fall were “always different, …always the same.” Mark E Smith exclaimed on So What About It? from 1991’s Shift Work, “Fall advance!”

Richard Pearmain

The Illustration at the top of this piece is by Lilly Allen

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