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Maverick, magician, misanthrope: death claims The Fall's Mark E. Smith

Maverick, magician, misanthrope: death claims The Fall's Mark E. Smith
Copyright Courtesy Pamela Vander
Copyright Courtesy Pamela Vander
By Robert Hackwill
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Over 40 years making music with 32 studio albums and as many lives, influencing countless bands and turning over 66 band members in the process, the Mancunian's cultural legacy is immense.


Mark E. Smith and his group The Fall were never mainstream and you may not have heard of them, but the death at 60 of this singular Mancunian singer, songwriter and frontman leaves a huge hole in English contemporary music.

Smith was a grammar school child in 70s Britain who nonetheless left school early, probably for the money a job could offer, as the teenager was already seriously drinking and indulging in other mind-altering experiences. Then punk happened, and the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Hall in Manchester in June 1976. Smith was in the audience, along with future members of Joy Division, the Smiths, and the Buzzcocks. All left the concert with their ears ringing with the new sound, and determined to start groups of their own.

Smith was swiftly out of the blocks, forming The Fall in his home town of Prestwich later that year. But right from the start The Fall promised something different from the average punk noise merchants.

Firstly, the band was named after an Albert Camus novel, and Smith proudly proclaimed a self-taught intellectualism, citing authors, reading widely, and expressing curiosity in a vast range of subjects. He would berate his public with the exhortation to "know your history", hardly the stuff of popstars, and was dismissive of the shallow and ill-thought-out.

Not that The Fall were not noisy. Smith cited rockabilly, the Velvet Underground and German psychadelic pioneers Can as his major influences, and The Fall made music that was not for the fainthearted; dischordant, psychotic, deranged, it sought to rip up what had gone before, and yet remained rooted in primal rock'n roll.

Smith had an anti-singng style, and lyrics that were alternately hilarious, acerbic, political or sardonic, reflecting the wide range of issues that got Smith's juices flowing. Almost alone among the musical figures of the day he was critical and dismissive of the vast majority of music being made in Britain or America, and his capacity to coin a vicious putdown reamined until almost his dying breath. Age did not mellow him, and nor did relative fame or wealth.

This writer saw The Fall perhaps seven times in both Britain and France, (not one of Smith's favourite countries, but then which one was?), and each time they were different. A French drummer friend even followed the group round France on their first tour and got close to the band, and while he appreciated them all, recognised Smith lived like someone who had been "skinned alive".

Again, unusually among most artists Smith didn't play his back catalogue, or at least very little of it. Every tour featured the band's new work, and Smith loathed recovering old ground. He was full of contempt for artists who remained stuck in a comfortable groove.

Of those seven gigs one in particular stood out; the Bristol Students' Union in 1983,. Smith came on stage and asked the crowd to put their hands together for the university's cleaning staff. Greeted with silence, he then tore into the student body before embarking on an explosive set after which he stormed off, without an encore. Mark E. Smith was a complex, difficult personality, capable of the best and worst in equal measure.

Despite his draconian attitude to the rest of his band members, who he was liable to hire and fire without warning, everyone wanted to play with Mark E. Smith. He took great pride from being told that he was one of only two world musicians who could arrive in a place and pick up a band from the street. The other was Prince.

So what is the legacy of Mark E. Smith? He leaves behind hardly a single tune people can hum to, with no number one records and total sales probably dwarfed by a single Ed Sheeran album. Yet a glance at social media this Thursday shows the range and number of artists expressing sorrow and claiming inspiration. And, faced with a host of bland crowd-pleasing acts determined to get rich and not scare the horses, Smith swaggered a radical alternative few could emulate. A true original, we are unlikely to see his like any time soon.

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