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Remembering The Fall's Mark E. Smith, rock’s most uncompromising voice

Photo: Ian Dickson/Getty Images

Mark E. Smith—the mad Mancunian genius behind The Fall, one of the most prolific, mercurial, confounding, and enduring bands of the post-punk age—has died, according to a statement from his manager, Pamela Vander. “It is with deep regret that we announce the passing of Mark E. Smith,” Vander wrote. “He passed this morning at home. A more detailed statement will follow in the next few days.” Smith, who had spent previous tours in wheelchairs, had been in particularly poor health the past few months, canceling a planned weeklong residency in Brooklyn over the summer and bowing out of U.K. gigs that he’d scheduled against the advice of his own bandmates and management team—stubborn and determined to keep the group going to the very last. Smith was 60 years old, and there will never be another like him.

It’s impossible to pretend to some sort of detached, editorial remove here, so if you’re looking for a straight obit full of dry facts, I recommend Wikipedia—or better yet, Mick Middles’ excellent biography, written with the grudging cooperation of Smith himself. If you’re looking for a more accurate, yet factually dubious portrait, there is also Smith’s own autobiography, Renegade, a memoir that is, fittingly, more of an extended, rambling rant about everyone who’s ever aggrieved him, broken up by potshots at half the rock ’n’ roll pantheon. There is also Dave Simpson’s The Fallen, a quixotic bid to interview every member, however brief their tenure, of a group that changed lineups as often as guitar strings, under the often-despotic rule of a man who once sneered, “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” Or as original No. 1 Fall fan John Peel more diplomatically put it, “Always different, always the same.”


As I’ve written about before, The Fall is my favorite band of all time, and this is a declaration that demands an unusual amount of loyalty. Like following a sports team—maybe like the Manchester City football club that Smith would often provide color commentary on—The Fall had constantly changing rosters of free agents, and it definitely had its championship and its off-seasons. But the one constant was Smith, whose sharp, declamatory speak-sing style cut through whatever was surrounding it, whether it was the spiky, motorik punk of the band’s original incarnation; the brilliantly smeared, slightly gothic new wave of its vaunted “Brix years”; the experiments with (as Smith put it) “techno shit” in the ’90s and early ’00s; or the burly, repetitive rockabilly riffs that Smith repeatedly favored and always fell back on.

Smith—braying and sneering about the urban grotesques and pub-dwelling “Slates, Slags, Etc.” crowding his streets, delivered in a hyper-literary style crammed with H.P. Lovecraft references, weird fragments of crackpot history, and inscrutable inside jokes peppered with regional slang—was a singer and songwriter like absolutely no other. It’s impossible to explain his appeal to anyone (let alone someone like me, a suburban Texas kid), other than to say that you either get it or you don’t. It’s why Fall fans are notoriously tribal; merely “getting it,” a nigh-biological response to Smith’s voice in your ear, grants automatic passage to its cult, where you can waste your days scrutinizing tossed-off references to British politicians and forgotten ’50s pop idols on the Fallnet mailing list, arguing with other opinionated, smartass record geeks like yourself.


This defiant, exclusionary bookishness was built right into The Fall from the very beginning. (It’s named after a Camus novel, after all.) Inspired, like so many contemporaries, by seeing that legendary Sex Pistols gig in 1976, Smith formed the group with Martin Bramah (later of the excellent Blue Orchids) and Tony Friel (of the pretty-okay The Passage) while he was a college dropout working the Salford docks, where the autodidactic, voracious reader adopted an aggressive intellectualism, presumably as a bulwark against his working-class surroundings. The Fall rose quickly through the Manchester ranks; it landed two tracks on 1978’s seminal Short Circuit: Live At The Electric Circus compilation alongside other burgeoning stars like Joy Division and The Buzzcocks, and released its debut full-length, Live At The Witch Trials, just a year later. With a few exceptions, it’s put out an album—and sometimes more—every year since, right through 2017’s New Facts Emerge. “Repetition” was its manifesto, and Smith adhered to it through the very end.

Most Fall fans don’t have something as pedestrian as favorite albums or songs, but rather favorite eras and lineups. Smith was a notorious taskmaster—a very nice way of saying he treated his bandmates like disposable shit—and this led to a panoply of ever-shifting sounds, governed and directed by Smith but influenced by individuals and, eventually, generations. Even Smith would admit that bassist Steve Hanley was the closest thing The Fall had to a crucial sideman, with his catchy, looping bass lines grounding even the wildest of Smith’s flights for two decades, and he had equally kind words (later) for Hanley’s guitarist counterpart Craig Scanlon. But others who passed through the group left a considerable mark: the heavy, dual-drums phase of Karl Burns and Steve’s younger brother, Paul Hanley, that drove the walloping sounds of the band’s ’80s period; the synthesizers of Dave Bush and Julia Nagle that briefly turned The Fall into a wry dance-rock band in the ’90s. And of course, most crucial of all was Brix Smith, the glamorous American girl (and aspiring pop star) who married Mark, then wrote or co-wrote some of his greatest songs across a string of incredible albums.


I’m especially partial to that Brix era, as you can probably tell. The run from 1983’s Perverted By Language through 1984’s The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall, 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace, 1986’s Bend Sinister, and 1988’s The Frenz Experiment and I Am Kurious Oranj yielded some of the most scabrous, idiosyncratically catchy pop ever committed to record, and a lion’s share of my favorite songs, by anyone: Perverted’s click-clacking piss-take “Eat Y’Self Fitter.” Frightening World’s storming “Lay Of The Land” and smeary “Disney’s Dream Debased” (inspired by the Smiths witnessing a tourist get decapitated at Disneyland), and especially the “Oh! Brother” single from that same period. (“Oh! Brother” is the first track on the “hits” compilation 45849 A-Sides, which I purchased on a whim on cassette in college. I popped it into my shitty car stereo. Before it was even over, I’d circled the block, parked again, and went right back inside to buy every other Fall cassette they had.) This Nation’s “Bombast” and “What You Need.” Bend Sinister’s “Living Too Late” and “Dktr. Faustus.” I could go on, and have.

These songs didn’t remind me of anything else I’d ever heard (not even Pavement, an oft-accused rip-off act whom I can at least thank for pointing me toward the band in the first place). Rather, and rather uniquely, The Fall completely rewired my brain to appreciate it, often to the exclusion of anything else. Smith—more so even than many punk “provocateurs”—forced you to come to his music completely on his terms, unflappably convinced of its genius and unconcerned whether it was even appreciated. And when it wasn’t, more often than not, he took it as a badge of honor and put it right there in his lyrics: “We are The Fall / Northern white crap that talks back,” he exulted in “Crap Rap.” He repeatedly referred to the sacrosanct, obscure “Three Rules Of Audience” (“Rule One: No-one gets on stage. Rule Two: No spitting. Rule Three: No requests,” according to The Fall gigography), and slagged off the critics, record execs, and—most of all—plagiarists whom he felt cheapened music by turning it into an industry. There is a sense in all of Smith’s songs, whether honest or not, that he is making music solely for himself and, by extension, for the exceedingly small “smart set” of listeners who appreciate that above all else. It is why he inspires such fanatical devotion—even when, c’mon, you don’t do songs like “Hit The North” or that cover of The Kinks’ “Victoria” if you’re not a little interested in pop stardom.


That was true even when devotion invited open abuse. In his later years, especially, Smith and The Fall developed a reputation for live gigs that were marked by his suddenly refusing to sing, wandering off stage and not returning, or more often, fiddling with amp knobs and moving pieces of the drum kit around, seemingly just for his own amusement. In one legendarily disastrous performance in New York in 1998, later immortalized in the Camden Joy novel Pan, Smith got into an onstage fight with his bandmates that led to the immediate departure of the long-tenured Hanley and Burns. (You can watch the full video of that show here, uploaded by yours truly.)

I’ve personally seen The Fall a half-dozen times since they were allowed back into the U.S. after that night. The first time, again in New York, Smith spent a good 30 seconds berating a fan as “an utter fucking cretin” just for shouting, “Yay, Mark!” The second time, Smith emerged with a piss stain visible on his pants and mumbled through approximately one-and-a-half songs before shrugging and walking off; we were then informed that he thought the room was too small, so he wouldn’t be returning. We laughed and cheered. As a Fall fan during those last two decades, you came expecting, possibly even hoping for this to happen. The story of a Fall show that went off without a hitch, where they actually finished the set without Mark screaming at anyone, was the disappointing outlier. You left feeling a little cheated.


I realize that, if you’re not a member of that aforementioned cult already, all of this probably sounds kind of terrible. Smith certainly didn’t make it easy to love him as a person, either. That 1998 show was followed by charges of domestic abuse against Nagle, his then-girlfriend, which put him into rehab and anger management classes (good fucking luck). He was uniformly prickly with the press and even his fans; I had near-misses with meeting him twice, and am grateful we never actually did. That sea of lost soldiers—enough to turn the band’s Discogs page into a mini Vietnam Memorial—contains innumerable loyal musicians whose crucial, band-defining talents he derided and discarded, only expressing regrets about it years after the fact. (And if you were really unlucky, like poor Marc Riley, you got a whole diss song about you.) By all accounts, Smith was a total bastard to be around.

But this refusal to compromise—even for the people who loved him, for his collaborators and the fans who dutifully bought every new album even as his voice became an indecipherable, guttural harangue—is exactly why he was great. He tried on dozens of musical guises, from skiffle to reggae to dance-pop to country to a sort of stilted yet earnest, karaoke croon, but he never felt like he was faking it. Or making any effort at all, really, to create a sound that would be palatable to anyone outside of his weird, wonderful, frightening world. That he managed to do so for as many decades as he did—across several tectonic shifts in styles and tastes that he dabbled in, all while still somehow remaining smartly above the fray and bending them to his idiosyncratic will—is remarkable, and an inspiration to anyone who appreciates truly singular artistry, no matter how varied its forms. And while he leaves behind a towering discography of work, I will always be sad that it’s over; I expected Smith to outlive me, still snarling about shifty robots over beeps and boops a century from now, backed by a clone of Steve Hanley who just couldn’t stay away. But then, with Mark E. Smith, it was never about what you want.


Anyway, here are some more songs that have made my life inexpressibly better. Maybe they’ll do the same for you—you either get it, or you don’t.

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About the author

Sean O'Neal

Sean O'Neal has been writing for The A.V. Club since 2006.