My tribute to Mark E Smith

By Daniel Margrain

  • CAKE POLICE: WHY <b>MARK</b> <b>E</b>. <b>SMITH</b> IS COOLER THAN KURT COBAIN

Yesterday (January 24, 2018) the music world lost one of it’s most prolific, inimitable, distinctive and impenetrable characters. I first saw The Fall at Totnes Civic Hall in 1981. It was one of the greatest gigs I have ever seen – the best stay with you. Uncompromising to the last, the bands front man, Mark E Smith, was a much maligned and misunderstood artist and poet who maintained an aura that exuded menace combined with a characteristic dry and dark acerbic wit.

The Fall created a musical language that echoed the anti-conformism of the punks but was far more radical and authentic rooted in England’s northern suburban streets and smoke-filled pubs. The bands raw sound, and Smiths maniacal, unorthodox delivery and scowling on-stage presence, was indicative of the alienation felt by suburban youth of the period.

The Fall re-invented the anti-establishment language of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band for a post-industrial generation of music fans who had grown up with the likes of Roxy Music, Lou Reed and the Stooges. Unlike many of their respective contemporaries, both Beefheart and Smith were genuine outsiders.

Whereas the musical aesthetic of the former closely resembled the marginal aspects of Freak Culture, The Fall faithfully expressed the anxieties of the punks. Both had a desecrating vision of the world, and both were not averse to intellectualism. Smith’s adoption of the famous Albert Camus novel, for example, was a deliberate invocation to something more profound than just music intended for estranged kids.

Smith emphasized that the underlying philosophy of the groups music was far closer to the aesthetic of the garage bands of the 1960s than it was to the simplistic profanity of the ’70s punks. Mark E Smith’s art can essentially be construed as a cryptic game imbued with pathos and humour but at the same time, darkly sinister.

Audience and band members alike were rarely able to relax during a Fall performance. As with Zappa and Beefheart – his key mentors – Smith had a clear artistic vision that required a musical discipline and devotion to the craft necessary to pull off the level of sustained musical repetition often associated with The Fall.

A self-confessed non-musician, Smith would sometimes berate his band when he felt the vision slipping. He knew what he wanted musically, and artistically, and pushed the band hard because he felt he had a certain responsibility to the public. He almost certainly wasn’t the kind of pathological dictator many have claimed.

Luke Turner on Twitter put it well when he said, “Smith didn’t rule The Fall, he wasn’t the dictator of cliché. He saw it as an entity outside of himself, of which he was the curator, the caretaker, the hip priest.”

Smith’s ability to play tricks on the public and his band is what kept both on their toes. His playful characteristic cackle and biting wit often underpinned a more serious side. He seemed to have an incredible ability to be able to tap into the psyche of people and displayed an innate sense of when he felt they were going too far, reining them in with apparent consummate ease. He appeared to understand what passes for human nature more than most people. If he hadn’t succeeded as a “musician”, Smith could of been a professional street hustler.

Indeed, the sound of the early Fall has more in common with the rambling street lo-fi music of David Peel than it does with any of the music trends of the period. Smith’s often deadpan and ironic lyrics were delivered in a manner that merged Iggy Pop with William Burroughs. The result was often primitive and tribal, but also Swiftian in terms of its intellectual endeavor.

The real critical successes of this early period, were the albums ‘Live at the Witch Trials’ (1979), the humorous singles, ‘Totally Wired’ (1980), ‘Elastic Man’ (1981) and the EP ‘Slates’ (1981). It was slightly later when the band first grabbed my attention.

The groups third session for the John Peel show – recorded on September 16, 1980 (first broadcast on the 24 September 1980) – was when the band really began to leave their mark. With the classic line up of Smith on vocals, Marc Riley (guitar), Craig Scanlon (guitar), Steve Hanley (bass) and Paul Hanley (drums), the band excelled with rockabilly infused tracks like ‘New Puritan’ and ‘New Face in Hell’.

But it wasn’t until March 21, 1983 that Smith and the group would produce their tour de force session for Peel – a cacophonous tribal rock masterpiece. The seminal ‘Smile’ from the session, later to appear on ‘Perverted By Language’ (1983), was performed live on Channel 4s ‘Tube’ show and to this day remains one of the greatest  performances by any British group seen on TV.

Other outstanding works include ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ (1982) and ‘This Nations Saving Grace’ (1985). The latter contains the muscular ‘Gut of the Quantifier’, the voodoobilly infused ‘Cruisers Creek’ and ‘Spoilt Victorian Child’. Of the bands later works, ‘The Real New Fall LP’ (2003) and ‘Your Future, Our Clutter’ (2010) stand out. The latter contains three Fall classics – ‘OFYC Showcase’, ‘Cowboy George’ and ‘YFOC Slippy Floor’.

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