Thursday 25 Jan 2018
Of all the fascinating musical offshoots that sprang from mid-70s punk rock, the Fall proved the strangest and most durable. The group was a vehicle for the singer and lyricist Mark E Smith, who has died aged 60 after an extended period of ill health, including respiratory problems.
He formed the Fall after seeing the Sex Pistols perform their famous concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, Manchester, in June 1976. This became dubbed “the gig that changed the world”, because, as well as Smith, it was witnessed by future members of Joy Division, the Smiths and Buzzcocks, who all left with a burning urge to create their own band.
Smith assembled the Fall in his home town of Prestwich later that year. Aside from the inspirational spark of the Sex Pistols, the band cited the German group Can and the Velvet Underground as chief influences, both of whom fully exploited the hypnotic power of repetition as a stylistic device. One of the Fall’s early songs was even called Repetition – “the three Rs are repetition, repetition, repetition,” lectured Smith. A fondness for rockabilly was also discernible in their early work, earning them the label Country & Northern from fans.
However, while Smith would remain the band’s constant central factor for more than 40 years, his musicians fell by the wayside, often not voluntarily. During the group’s career, Smith performed with a total of 66 band members. One of them was Marc Riley, now a DJ on BBC Radio 6, who was sacked by Smith on his wedding day in the early 80s.
Though Smith was notoriously difficult to work with, his acidic tone, deadpan black humour and unswervingly confrontational attitude (fuelled by his copious intake of alcohol) lay at the heart of his perverse appeal. In 1998, his violent mood-swings briefly landed him in jail in New York after he was charged with assaulting the keyboard player Julia Nagle. He was sent back to the UK for rehab.
Smith never viewed commercial success as his prime objective, but the Fall’s tally of 31 studio albums and 32 live albums represented a kind of triumph in itself. They topped the UK independent album chart with Grotesque (After the Gramme) in 1980 and again with Perverted By Language (1983), Reformation Post TLC (2007) and Your Future Our Clutter (2010), and occasionally flirted with wider chart success. The Frenz Experiment (1988) reached 19 on the mainstream album chart, Shift-Work (1991) went to 17, and in 1993 The Infotainment Scan climbed to No 9.
Though Smith’s tuneless, declamatory delivery and the group’s clattering, grinding rhythms generally made them the antidote to singles bands, the Fall nonetheless scored high on the indie chart with such singles as Totally Wired, How I Wrote “Elastic Man” and Kicker Conspiracy, and even had a genuine Top 30 hit in 1987 with a cover of R Dean Taylor’s 60s classic,There’s a Ghost in My House.
Smith’s work defied categorisation, combining as it did elements of satire, social commentary, grumbling misanthropy and an abiding enthusiasm for cunning wordplay. The range of his references seemed to know no bounds, and took in literature, philosophy, the occult and football. How I Wrote “Elastic Man” (1980) put listeners inside the mind of a struggling writer burdened by the albatross of his past success. In It’s a Curse (1993), Smith took an oblique but caustic swipe at music critics. Gross Chapel – British Grenadiers (1986) was an extraordinarily menacing piece partly constructed from the old British Grenadiers marching song. In Rowche Rumble (1979), he delivered a furious rant about tranquillisers made by the Swiss drug company Roche. Theme From Sparta FC (2003) was a punchy battle hymn for the obscure Greek football team of the title – Smith’s third wife, Elena Poulou, is Greek – complete with fake-bouzouki sounds. The slow, bluesy Hip Priest (1982) might have been autobiographical, while also sounding like a parody of Jim Morrison and the Doors.
Born in Broughton, Salford, to Irene (nee Brownhill) and Jack Smith, Mark moved to Prestwich with his family while he was young. His father was a plumber who had served in the Black Watch infantry regiment at the end of the second world war, and had an ancestor who fought at the battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu war.
He passed his 11-plus and went to Stand grammar school, but quit at 16 and took a job as a shipping clerk on Salford docks. At night, he took an A-level class in literature and numbered Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and HP Lovecraft among his favourite authors (the Fall was named after the Albert Camus novel La Chute). He took an interest in politics and, after a spell as a Labour supporter, veered further left and joined the Socialist Workers party. This never stopped him from expressing illiberal or conservative views.
The Fall’s first live show, with the original fellow band members Una Baines (Smith’s then partner), Tony Friel and Martin Bramah, and Steve Ormrod as the very short-lived first drummer, was in the basement of the North West Arts office on King Street, Manchester, on 23 May 1977, and their first recordings appeared on a Virgin Records compilation called Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus. Their first single, It’s the New Thing, was released by Step Forward Records in November 1978, and their debut album Live at the Witch Trials followed in April 1979.
Their career would be for ever associated with the DJ John Peel, a staunch supporter for whom the Fall recorded 24 radio sessions between 1978 and 2004, though Peel and Smith never became close. “Me and John had an agreement,” Smith said. “We never were friends or anything like that.”
In 1983, Smith married the American guitarist Brix Smith (born Laura Salenger, now Brix Smith Start), whose tenure with the Fall helped move them in a more polished and commercial direction. Before she left both her husband and the band in 1989, they had enjoyed both critical and commercial success with albums such as The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, This Nation’s Saving Grace, Bend Sinister, and especially, The Frenz Experiment, all on the Beggars Banquet label.
In 1986 Smith also found the time to write a play, Hey, Luciani, on Pope John Paul I, which ran for two weeks at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, starring Smith and the performance artist Leigh Bowery. He then went on to write the music for the Michael Clark ballet I Am Curious, Orange, recorded as the Fall album I Am Kurious Oranj (1988).
During the 90s, as the Fall enjoyed more success with albums including Shift-Work, Code: Selfish and Middle Class Revolt, Smith undertook a variety of guest roles. He featured on the D.O.S.E. single Plug Myself In (1996) and collaborated on projects with Elastica, the Clint Boon Experience, Edwyn Collins and Long Fin Killie. He made his first appearance on Top of the Pops when he performed with Inspiral Carpets on their 1994 hit I Want You.
His first solo album, The Post Nearly Man, was released in 1998, and his second, Pander! Panda! Panzer!, in 2002. He formed Von Sudenfed with the electronic duo Mouse on Mars, and they released the album Tromatic Reflexxions (2007). With Mark Blaney, he made the albums Smith and Blaney (2008) and The Train Part Three (2009), and he appeared on Gorillaz’ album Plastic Beach (2010).
In 2005, BBC4 aired the documentary The Fall: The Wonderful and Frightening World of Mark E Smith. Three years later, Smith published an autobiography,Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith, written in collaboration with Austin Collins.
Smith’s second marriage, to Saffron Prior, ended in 1995. He married Elena in 2001. She became the Fall’s keyboard player the following year, but left in 2016.The Fall had continued to make albums at a remarkable rate, The Unutterable (2000) being the first of 11 over the next 17 years, concluding with New Facts Emerge (2017).
• Mark Edward Smith, writer, singer and musician, born 5 March 1957; died 24 January 2018