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“Check The Guy’s Track Record” – A Tribute to Mark E Smith

The indie music world has been reacting with great sadness to the death of Mark E Smith, the iconic and indefatigable lead singer of The Fall, earlier this week. Fans of the group, some of whom went on to form great and influential bands or other artistic endeavours of their own, have been expressing their sadness at the loss of their hero. However, they’ve also been sharing details of various fond memories of Smith, and even of encounters with him in real life. On the day of any given gig, anywhere in the country, the irascible star could usually be found in a nearby drinking establishment and could be approached. His reaction might be cantankerous or convivial, but that was part of the fun.

In the case of such a wildly unique character as Smith, it is not just sadness that the person, flesh and blood, has gone, but also a wider grief that the institution of The Fall itself has died with him. As its sole constant member from 1977, The Fall was, for four decades that covered 32 studio albums and 66 different band members, almost exclusively Smith’s vision – a conduit for his unquenchable and ferocious creativity. The only other person who can really claim The Fall as ‘theirs’ is keyboardist Una Baines, who founded the group with Smith. She is one of the vanishingly small number of people other than him who have contributed lyrics to The Fall, and her cynical but politically charged outlook continued to shape his and the band’s output long after she departed in March 1978.

Other than Baines, and (possibly) a tiny number of particularly close creative foils down the years such as Steve Hanley or Karl Burns, there’s no other band in history that is so utterly bound up with a solitary individual. Despite the unbelievable churn in membership and size, thanks to Smith’s freewheeling hire-and-fire policy, The Fall never split up, never went on hiatus to mess around with solo projects. Furthermore, they never succumbed to nostalgia, never fell for the temptation to sink into a comfortable routine of re-playing the established fan favourites or tour an old album in full for a 20th anniversary, as is so often the case in the 2010s. Despite a rich and storied catalogue, Smith never allowed The Fall to become a ‘heritage act’, and that’s to his eternal credit.

The longest-ever gap between any two Fall albums is 26 months (between the band’s final two LPs, 2015’s Sub-Lingual Tablet and 2017’s New Facts Emerge) and in all that time, only one calendar year (2004) saw no new Fall material whatsoever. Coupled with the fact that they also toured relentlessly behind each album, always keeping the setlists stocked with fresh, new songs in the name of challenging his audience and warding off complacency, this regularity of output is a testament to Smith’s breathtaking prolificacy and unerring dedication to what he saw as his vocation.

However, it also illustrates how totally central he was to the notion of The Fall as a group – for a very long time, it had been Smith and whoever he happened to be playing with. As Smith himself once said, “if it’s me and yer Granny on the bongos, it’s The Fall”. But with no Smith, logically, there can be no Fall.  For the first time in 39 years, therefore, the band’s fans are coming to terms with the sad fact that there is no new Fall album around the corner to look forward to, and that a discography that has been constantly, busily evolving for four decades is now complete.

READ MORE: The Fall // ‘New Facts Emerge’

The Fall never found mainstream success, but still maintained a sizeable cult fanbase. It speaks volumes that the group had 27 singles that reached the UK Top 100, but only three of those got into the Top 40 – and two of them were cover versions (of R. Dean Taylor’s ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’ and The Kinks’ ‘Victoria’). At an average Fall concert over the last decade, the audience generally consisted of students who had recently discovered the group and 50-something-year-olds who had been followers from the very beginning.

While that meant that the kind of person who would buy a new Fall album would be somebody who had bought the one before, it led to consistency and loyalty. By always standing slightly aloof from the rock mainstream, with its concomitant trends and fleeting fashions, The Fall were able to survive all the changes that swept their contemporaries away. They were their own sovereign nation state, with Mark E Smith only accountable to himself.

Not that they never changed their sound, however: their discography provides an intriguing kind of ‘shadow history’ of what was going on in the contemporary music world. As the Eighties progressed, their brand of post-punk and art-rock stayed faithful to Smith’s vision even as indie was growing increasingly commercial. In 1992, with the recruitment of programmer Dave Bush, The Fall embraced the dance music trends that had led their native city to be ‘Madchester’. In 2003, they reflected the garage-rock revival by returning to their punkabilly roots.

This meant that The Fall occasionally protruded into the popular consciousness without people realising. 2003’s pile-driving ‘Theme From Sparta F.C.’ was used by the BBC to soundtrack their ‘Final Score’ football results programme for years (memorably leading to Smith himself once being invited into the studio to read the scores!). The yelping, native pride of 1987’s single ‘Hit The North’ is now a fixture of the pre-match playlist at Smith’s beloved Manchester City FC. 1999 single ‘Touch Sensitive’, a hulking neo-garage-rock crusher, soundtracked a Vauxhall Corsa ad. And, most memorably of all, 1982’s nervy ‘Hip Priest’ was used in the spine-tingling basement scene denouement of Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning The Silence Of The Lambs.

There was, however, plenty of critical acclaim and respect from the music world to offset the lack of real commercial success, which always kept them in view. A brilliant run of exceptional albums in the mid-1980s, coupled with gradually improving chart positions and a growing press profile, meant that The Fall were at one point on the cusp of a mainstream breakthrough. In 1987, they were invited to support U2 on a stadium tour for The Joshua Tree round Britain. However, the final push to glory never came, and their popularity and profile waxed and waned ever since.

Despite the fights with bandmates, insulting the press, substance abuse and questionable jungle experiments in the Nineties, The Fall has remained a well-spring of inspiration for generations of subsequent great bands – from Sonic Youth in the ‘80s, Pavement in the ‘90s and LCD Soundsystem in the ‘00s to the likes of Shame, Fat White Family and Cabbage today. So many artists, as well as fans, have taken to social media to mark his passing, from fellow Mancunian Peter Hook to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (whose band Smith once ordered his musicians NOT to play like).

One artist clearly enamoured by The Fall was Damon Albarn, who invited Smith to contribute guest vocals to a track titled ‘Glitter Freeze’ on Gorillaz’ third album Plastic Beach. This led to a truly bizarre situation when Gorillaz headlined Glastonbury in 2010, stepping in for U2 at the last minute, that saw Mark E Smith take to the stage to perform the song, to the bafflement of the onlooking crowd and the delight of Fall fans watching at home. For four-and-a-half minutes, it was like the rules of the pop world had been turned upside-down, a glimpse into a universe where talented cult followings led to top festival billing, as Smith attacked his part with his usual gnarled charisma.

There was, however, a dark side to life in The Fall. There’s no point in sugar-coating it: Mark E Smith could be an extremely difficult, unpleasant and bad-tempered person to be around, at least in a professional capacity. Steve Hanley, Smith’s longest-serving lieutenant in The Fall as bass player of 19 years until 1998, details as much in his superb memoir ‘The Big Midweek’. For almost everyone who had been in the band, excepting the band’s final line-up that (unusually) had been stable for the best part of a decade, it stopped being fun. But, as his first wife and songwriting partner Brix told Mark Radcliffe’s show the day after his death was announced, this was often (but not always) his way of shaking things up in the group to keep them from going stale. Inspiration more often than not followed, but self-destruction and wild unpredictability were logical side-effects from that approach – something not helped by his seriously unhealthy alcohol intake over the years.

On a purely personal note, I remember my first proper encounter with The Fall as if it was yesterday. Although I was familiar with the name of The Fall as an avid NME reader and listener to John Peel’s weeknight Radio 1 show, the handful of session tracks I had heard hadn’t really made any impact. Perhaps I was too young, at 14, to really ‘get it’. It wasn’t until 2004 when my best friend let me borrow his copy of the recently released compilation 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong (39 Golden Greats), which he’d brought home with him from his first year at uni, that I first actually paid attention.

The effect was like being punched in the stomach several times in a row – there was absolutely nothing else worth focussing on except the music, for two-and-a-half spellbinding hours. Jagged, pulsating post-punk interlocked with menacing electronics in a creative run that put every other band I had known to shame, and all capped off with this ranting, belligerent frontman flinging these home-spun pearls of acerbic wisdom and profound absurdities down the microphone.

From that point on, I set about exploring The Fall’s insanely expansive back catalogue by any means necessary – buying, borrowing and downloading anything I could get my hands on. It took me seven years, but I completed the full set of studio albums in 2011, having tracked down rare CD copies of the long-since-deleted Levitate and The Marshall Suite. I was a happy bunny that day!

Now that The Fall is no more, it feels genuinely strange that there will never be another album. A fixture of national life that can be depended on to come round at least every two years will not happen again. It is no wonder that the indie world is in mourning – his presence and work-rate has been a constant north star for anybody who has sought to do things independently.

For those of you who are absolute beginners when it comes to The Fall and Mark E Smith, and wondering what the hell I’ve been talking about, I’ve prepared a short (and obviously hopelessly inadequate) highlights reel on Spotify. This provides merely the most fleeting of surface-level looks at their labyrinthine career. Seriously, if you owned all the compilations and live albums off all the obscure record labels, you could probably build your own house.

You can also read our Beginner’s Guide to all 32 of The Fall’s studio albums via the link below, if you’re wondering where on earth to start exploring the catalogue. They are ranked in order of accessibility to a newcomer.

READ MORE: ‘Guinness On Your Cornflakes’ – A Beginner’s Guide to The Fall

While you do so, charge your glasses and raise a toast to the memory and legacy of Mark E Smith, a truly unique figure in British music. There has never been anybody like him before, and there will never be anybody like him again.

RIP MES

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