There’s a lot been written about the death of Mark E. Smith, some of it by people who couldn’t pick him out of a gaggle of drunk old men in a boozer. But then that’s always the way with cult heroes. There’s cred by association. Even if you’ve never bought a Fall album in your life, you know there’s kudos in acting like you did. Peel’s endorsement of the guy saw to that years ago. Just like if everyone who claimed to be at the Sex Pistols’ Lesser Free Trade Hall gig had actually been there, they could have sold out Old Trafford three times over, if everyone who claimed to be a massive Fall fan in the past week had been buying their albums, Smith’d have had a string of platinum records lining his walls. Instead, news of new Fall albums tumbleweeded past most of the public.
I’m not about to join the ranks of these people. I’ve got my Fall favourites, but I’d never lay claim to serious fandom. I wouldn’t disrespect the true fans that way. When I first discovered them, I did think they were about to displace my indie first loves, The Wedding Present, as a wilder, weirder, more adventurous new infatuation. But it never materialised. We couldn’t quite click on a permanent basis (though I was soon cheating on the Weddoes with other bands). My admiration of Mark E. Smith remained qualified, dispassionate and distant.
Let’s not kid ourselves – the Fall produced some unlistenable rubbish. You didn’t expect much of a new Fall album, not since the 90s. Smith himself could really test the patience when you saw them live. There was amusement to be had in the way he wandered off stage to sing in the corridor or twiddled the knobs of his band’s amps… to start with. Eventually, there was a large element of “I paid £20 for this!?”
But boy, does he leave a hole in the music industry. The point of Mark E. Smith (as musician, not as human being) was beyond all this. He was the last, and in some ways the first, to truly not give a shit. For all the rebels, punks, people who only do things on their own terms, who went at it like MES did? Who was genuinely answerable only to themselves? He couldn’t play ball even when asked to pay tribute to his number one fan in this now well-known clip from Newsnight. Not out of disrespect to Peel or to cultivate an image. He simply had no interest in the norms of a TV interview. And why should he? The most excruciating live music interview ever conducted could be Stuart Maconie v Father John Misty. (Listen to it, you’ll think twice about how much you like FJM). Like that, an interview with MES was no walk in the park. He was a belligerent, cantankerous old git. But that wasn’t because, like Misty, he was protecting some fragile concept of “the artist” as all-powerful and unknowable, it’s simply who he was. He’d talk to you, he wouldn’t answer to you.
These past few days, listening to contemporary bands, to new albums by artists who are well-loved and critically-rated, it’s hard not to be struck by how careerist they all sound when compared to the Fall, how fearful of sounding different. And by different, really I mean unlikeable. There are plenty of clever bands who know how to make a noise, or to strike an unsettling mood, or put discordancy to good use, but it all sounds so calculated by comparison. They know they’re on relatively safe ground or they wouldn’t do it. Who really risks it with a “fuck it, this is how I’m doing it, and this is how it’s going to be”? Who channels the sub-conscious quite as directly as Smith?
The most straightforwardly enjoyable Fall moments – Hit The North, Touch Sensitive – were catchy beneath the ugliness. The most affecting – Bill Is Dead, Edinburgh Man – saw something approaching an unlikely tenderness emerge, and were all the more beautiful for it being unexpected. But the best Fall moments, their defining moments, just sort of fell into being, oddly formed and unedited. Hip Priest staggering down your eardrums like a drunk, or the protest march call-and-response “chorus” of Eat Y’Self Fitter. The back catalogue has hundreds of semi-sensible semi-sentences that capture something parallel to the truth, and hundreds of jarring grunts and clangs that penetrate the soul. It was art as much as music. It was something distilled and undiluted from Smith’s brain.
The other thing that died with Smith is a certain musical encapsulation of the north. It was excruciating when Damon Albarn wheeled Smith in to guest on Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach album. “Where’s north from here?” he had him asking at the start of Glitter Freeze, a comedy northern grandad fulfilling the London boy’s expectations of a professional northerner. Smith was better than that. The sound created on early Fall albums felt like it was precipitated from the machines and factories and grey of Lancashire in a way that maybe only Joy Division matched. It was ugly beautiful. Bands are still from the north, but they’re not of the north like the Fall. Music as a manifestation of the north’s industrial past is gone.
Yes, Mark E. Smith will be missed for all these reasons and more. I won’t be fanboying over obscurities like some, but I’ll be mourning. It’s not just the man himself we’ve lost, but a way of doing music.
As the man himself once sang in perhaps his greatest contribution to poetry, “you’re dying for a pee / so you go behind a tree”. Like I said – he did not give a shit.