According to the Book of Job, Chapter 1, Verse 21, “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.” That maxim has been demonstrated this month. January 15th saw a star-studded concert held at Dublin’s National Concert Hall to celebrate the fact that Irish singer, songwriter and musician Shane MacGowan had celebrated his 60th birthday despite a lifetime of heavy-duty boozing and wild living that would cut most people down before they got anywhere near 60. And yet, just nine days later, another musical star famous for his boozing and wild living was cut down – with a spooky symmetry, aged 60 years old too. I’m talking about the Salford-born, Prestwich-bred Mark E. Smith, for four decades the driving force behind the great post-punk / alternative rock group the Fall.
(If you’re to believe MacGowan’s 2001 memoir A Drink with Shane MacGowan, he and Smith did not see eye to eye. Though supposedly Smith once remarked, during a discussion about ecstasy: “It was horrible, it makes you fall in love with everyone. I couldn’t keep me hands off Shane MacGowan.”)
To be honest, Smith’s death on January 24th shouldn’t have been surprising. His hazardous lifestyle had lately taken its toll on his appearance, to the point where he looked like a wizened cross between William S. Burroughs and Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter. And it wasn’t unusual for newspaper interviews with him to take place during punishing drinking sessions in various Manchester pubs. But no matter what state he was in, Smith kept recording and performing so that today, according to Wikipedia, there are 31 Fall studio albums, 40 compilation albums, 32 live albums and five ‘part studio, part live albums’, and this remorseless, cussed work-ethic gave the impression that the curmudgeonly old devil was going to last forever.
When he wasn’t making music, he was famously busy hiring and firing bandmembers. In 2011 the journalist Robert Chalmers put the number of musicians who’d collaborated with Smith in the Fall at 66. Saying he was a hard taskmaster is possibly as much of an understatement as saying Vlad the Impaler was a bit harsh on his prisoners. Among the multitude who’d been expelled from the band over the years was bassist, guitarist and keyboard player (and future DJ) Marc Riley, who got his marching orders in part because Smith had seen him dancing to Deep Purple in an Australian nightclub. (“Get in the hotel and stay there till I tell you. You don’t need to be dancing to Smoke on the Water.”) Then again, even Riley was lucky compared to a sound engineer who, legend has it, was fired by Smith for ordering a salad. (“The salad was the last straw.”) Inevitably, this tribe of ex-Fall bandmembers became the subject of a book, Dave Simpson’s The Fallen in 2008. By the time The Fallen appeared in paperback the following year, it’d acquired an additional front-cover blurb saying, “Now with added ex-members!”
© Step-Forward Records
But Smith’s reputation for brutal band-management shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the music, much of which was great – see such songs as Industrial Estate (1978), The Container Drivers (1980), Hip Priest (1982), Who Makes the Nazis? (1982), Eat Y’Self Fitter (1983), Spoilt Victorian Child (1985), Cruiser’s Creek (1985), Lucifer over Lancashire (1985), Carry Bag Man (1988), Hit the North (1988), Edinburgh Man (1991) and Hey Luciani (1993). Admittedly, my favourite Fall stuff comes from the first half of their 40-year career, but I find all their music fascinating – even at its most clunking, abrasive and repetitious, even when it verges on the unlistenable, it exerts a hypnotic effect thanks to Smith’s snarling stream-of-consciousness lyrics, which sound like James Joyce on crystal meth. Only in a Fall song would you hear such demented poetry as “Got 18 months for espionage / Too much brandy for breakfast” or “The Siberian mushroom Santa / Was in fact Rasputin’s brother” or “He had a parka on and a black cardboard bishop’s hat / With a green fuzz skull and crossbones / He’d just got back from the backward kids’ party.”
Incidentally, if you’re intrigued by Smith’s wordplay, you should check out an Internet site called the Fall Quote Generator, which throws random Fall lyrics at you when you click on a button. It recommends that you “use it like the I Ching, remembering to ask a question first.” (When I asked it how Donald Trump got elected, I received the answer: “Out drift dog pet dogs street bullshit / Dog shit baby bit ass-lick dog mirror.” So that explains it.)
It seemed appropriate that the Fall became the favourite band of Britain’s greatest-ever DJ John Peel, who got them to record no fewer than 24 sessions for his radio show. Indeed, the words, “And now, in session, the mighty Fall” – intoned in Peel’s lugubrious Liverpudlian burr – were the closest thing he had to a catchphrase.
I first saw the Fall perform in 1985 in Aberdeen, where they were supported by the Membranes. (Wow, whatever happened to the Membranes? Well, actually…) The band were impressively focused and intense – helped, I suspect, by the presence of Smith’s then-wife and guitarist Brix Smith, the woman credited with inspiring a certain tunefulness in the Fall, helping them crack the Top Forty a couple of times and generally sprucing Smith up a bit during the mid-to-late 1980s.
From thefall.org / © Michael Pollard
I saw them again in 1999 in Edinburgh, with their support band none other than former Britpop-darlings Elastica. They seemed rather ragged this time, though Fall fans I chatted to in the crowd were simply delighted that the band had managed to deliver a coherent set. This was a year after a notorious gig in upstate New York when a mid-performance row between Smith and the other bandmembers turned nasty, resulting in violence both onstage and off it and Smith getting arrested.
I didn’t see the Fall again after that but, one evening in 2004 while I was working in Dublin, I was drinking in Cassidy’s Bar on Camden Street when an acquaintance remarked, “Look over there – it’s your man Mark E. Smith from that band the Fall.” And sure enough, there he was, enjoying a pint. I entertained the thought of going over and saying hello but – probably wisely – decided not to. By a sad coincidence, the very next morning, the Irish newspapers were reporting that the Fall’s great champion, John Peel, had died of a heart attack whilst on holiday in Peru.
Music aside, there were two reasons why I liked Mark E. Smith. One was his considerable sardonic wit. Interviews with him, no matter how shambolic the setting and dishevelled the interviewee, usually produced a couple of nuggets that had me laughing out loud. This was never more so than when Smith directed his guns – or tongue – at his contemporaries and rivals in the music world. Among those getting it in the neck from Smith over the years were Badly Drawn Boy (“fat git”), Kate Bush (“Who decided it was time to start liking her again?”), Echo and the Bunnymen (“old crocks”), Garbage (“like watching paint dry”), Bob Geldof (“a dickhead”), Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (“should have his rock licence revoked”), Mumford and Sons (“We were playing a festival in Dublin… There was this other group, like, warming up… and they were terrible. I said, ‘Shut them c*nts up!’ And they were still warming up, so I threw a bottle at them… I just thought they were a load of retarded Irish folk singers”), Pavement (“They haven’t got an original thought in their heads”), Ed Sheeran (like “a duff singer songwriter from the 70s you find in charity shops”) and Suede (“Never heard of them,” said Smith cruelly, just after finishing a tour where Suede were the support band).
© Kamera Records
I also liked Smith because he was a lover of books – after all, he named the Fall after the 1956 Albert Camus novel La Chute – and I often got the impression during interviews that he’d be happier discussing literature than music. He admired Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Philip K. Dick and especially the Welsh occult writer Arthur Machen. “M.R. James is good,” he once told the Independent newspaper, “but Machen’s f**king brilliant!”
Then there was his love for the legendary American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, which culminated in him doing a reading of Lovecraft’s short story The Colour out of Space for the BBC’s ‘interactive culture magazine’ Collective. This was an unsettling experience wherein Smith’s thick Mancunian accent and the Massachusetts accents of Lovecraft’s characters battled for supremacy. (The result was a mangled draw.) Also, the bits during the reading where Smith paused and stuck out and wiggled his tongue were as frightening as any of the eldritch horrors in the story.
Anyway, there you have it. 40 years, 31 albums, 66+ bandmembers, one Fall… and one incomparable Mark E. Smith.
© Sanctuary Records