The Fall of Rome
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Why Mark E. Smith Will Be Remembered Forever
I thought I would leave it a little while…
PHOTO CREDIT: Rossen/MAI/Getty
before offering my thoughts and impressions regarding the death of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. This piece is not specifically about him: it is a look at uniqueness in music and how, as we move through the years; there are fewer standout artists and genuine personalities. I will sprinkle a couple of songs from The Fall into this piece but, with Smith’s death still raw and resonant; I wanted to reflect and offer some input. It is the stories – relating to Mark E. Smith – that is getting to me. We often think about a musician in purely musical terms. Today, with so few original spirits and characters; it is extra-sad Mark E. Smith is no longer here! I have been listening to radio tributes and remembrances. A lot of musicians, when they die, are membered and noted because of their music: you do not often single their personalities out. The Fall left behind a huge catalogue of music (more on that later) but it is, in my view, the ‘unique’ dynamics of Mark E. Smith that made the biggest impressions. The anecdotes have been shared and those riotous tales revealed. It seems, at every gig, there was something unexpected. Sometimes, he would walk off mid-song or not sing a certain song – letting his band play it without him – or he would leave the audience waiting whilst he (secretly) watched the gig from a balcony.
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In public, he would connect with people but always leave his mark. He was humble and real; he would joke and was cheeky; each interaction was memorable and real. Smith has that reputation for confrontation and awkwardness - but that seems to add to his appeal and mystique. If you had a musician always nice and cheery then that would be boring and unrealistic. People are not always pleasant and appealing: we all have bad sides and moments where we are unkind. Many might say Mark E. Smith took that a bit far – he was who he was and hope to shoulder a lot of stress and problems. Smith, especially in recent years, suffered badly with his health and, for someone determined to bring the best music to the people; maybe all that burden and strain meant he behaved that way. In reality; he was a pure and open northern soul. His spikiness and crueller moments were outweighed by the good times and wonderful music. The Fall was a fairly niche act who did not command the same popularity as artists like David Bowie, for instance. There was humour and complexity; ever-changed sounds and some of the most original songs you’ve ever heard. I suspect a wave of new affection will come – and maybe a biopic of Mark E. Smith down the line – and that provides the chance for new listeners to fall for a very special band who touched many hearts.
Mark E. Smith fired a lot of band members but, as he saw it, that was a way of keeping things new and moving. In describing him; one almost gets visions of a dictatorial ruler: a regime based on fear and intimidation. That is not the case at all. The abiding weight is of a man who, over four decades, managed to change the face of music and inspire countless other artists. I will put a playlist together at the bottom of this feature but you only need look at the reactions that poured in after his death to realise Mark E. Smith was a cherished and treasured man. His health was a burden and something that hindered a lot of live shots. In August; he was hospitalised for issues relating to the throat, mouth and respiratory system. I will end by looking at some of the tributes and testimonies that have been paid – but the final interview Smith conducted strikes my mind. Speaking with The Guardian last year; he was his usual candid and unabashed self:
Are you a Prince fan?
No. They’re weird aren’t they, Prince fans?
I guess I’m weird then. Do you like much new music?
The standard of music these days is fucking terrible. Being poorly you have to watch shit like Jools Holland. A lot of it sounds like when I was 15 and I’d go round to a long-haired guy’s flat to score a joint and they’d always put on some fucking lousy Elton John LP. That sounds like Ed Sheeran to me, a duff singer songwriter from the 70’s you find in charity shops…
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Is it important for you to remain angry?
Yeah. People still cross the road from me; I’ve still got that. I can clear a pub when I want to. It’s a talent.
Did you vote in the general election?
I didn’t make it out. There is a Labour woman from Salford I like though . I enjoyed Nick Clegg losing his seat and it also proved how clueless all these political journalists are. The barmaid knows more about politics then they do, they’re all fucking bluffers.
That selection of answers highlights the honesty and openness of Smith. He did not care for boundaries and normalisation. He was someone who spoke his mind and lived in the real world. Some of his words might have come across salty and acidic: it was always designed to project an unblemished and pure artist who was not resigned to aimless and inane sound-bites. In another Guardian interview - Brix Smith Start talked about her late (former) husband – I have sourced a small snippet:
“Somebody told me that you never know who you might meet, so you always carry a demo tape with you. He listened to three of my songs. My heart was pounding with nerves, and he turned to me and said: “You’re a fucking genius.” Marc Riley had just left, they needed another guitarist and he was probably cooking it up right then and there.
IN THIS PHOTO: Brix Smith Start/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
We fell madly in love, inseparable. So we planned our marriage for as soon as we could. We got married in the register office and we had a reception at the Eagle and Child pub, which was arranged by his dad. We had sausage rolls, pickled onions, crisps and beer. And then we went back to our flat in Prestwich, and we played music all night with our friends. It was inevitable. It was meant to be.
Any time any band did something that sounded like the Fall, it would infuriate him. He was the fiercest Mancunian that I have ever come to know, and there are a lot of them. Morrissey was a massive Fall fan before the Smiths, and used to write him fawning fan letters, which we have in our house, signed. But the Smiths signed to Rough Trade, and Rough Trade obviously put everything they had into the Smiths, which we can see now was worthwhile. And Mark felt kicked to the curb. I remember we were all playing a gig in Manchester, and the smoke alarm went off in the hotel. I was quite panicked. I saw Morrissey, and asked if he’d seen Mark, and he said: “Yeah, he’s upstairs burning.” I never spoke to him again after that”.
Everyone from BBC Radio 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne and The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess has paid tribute to the great Smith. Lavern, on her morning show, labelled Mark E. Smith one of her greatest heroes – “So sharp, clever and untouchably cool”. A fellow BBC Radio 6 Music D.J., Marc Riley, is a former member of The Fall. He played the guitar with them from 1979 and 1983 and, like Laverne; Riley paired his heart out – with a slightly different set of experiences. He learnt a lot from Smith: ideas about life and the music; a new way of life he was unfamiliar with.
IN THIS PHOTO: Marc Riley/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
So many people have been out in force; determined to have their say about the icon. There are so few genuine articles in modern music: there is nobody like Mark E. Smith. We need to preserve his wit, words and wisdom for years to come. There was that grumpy and rude side – all part of a man who did not want to hide who he was. One cannot write off that side of things: the music and majestic elements of Smith outweigh all the negative factors. I shall leave the music to the end but, right now, you only need look at the durability and longevity to realise what an impact The Fall had. From 1979’s Live at Witch Trials to last year’s New Facts Emerge – thirty-two studio albums emerged in that time. 2017’s effort was lauded by critics and seen as a return to form – The Fall’s 2010s output is not seen as their strongest. Whether you fancy Extricate over Dragnet; The Marshall Suite over The Infotainment Scan – there is something in there for everyone! You can see (from the playlist below) the fantastic tracks that exploded from every album. Maybe I was a bit hasty when it came to filtering all the genius of The Fall to the man himself. The music is stunning - and unlike anything the world will ever see. Even though Smith was the catalyst behind that: the rotation of band members, and the chemistry they brought together, led to those terrific records.
Now that Mark E. Smith is gone...I wonder what the music world will do. It is like an empire collapsing: the emperor has fallen and the subjects are searching around for answers. Music will enter a darker phase where vacuum and emptiness will occupy. We will never see anyone like Smith again. Music is an industry that has more fabricated and fake artists than real people. Personality seems second-nature to the music itself. We do not really connect with musicians – new ones, at least – or get an idea of who they are and what they are about. I suspect the industry is too busy and bustling to take the time. I suspect the answer is more obvious: there is nobody that interesting and compelling. Music needs those sharp wits – and sharper tongues – to elevate it beyond the drab and boring. Smith’s unique personality translated into his music: a veritable concoction of northern poetry and working-class observation; strange sentences and odd sentiments. It was always varied and unexpected; tantalising and intriguing. It is a tragedy Smith is gone: his music will echo through the ages and his words scripted into the history books as an example to all of music. In a confused and tormenting time, where truth is subjective and facts are blurred; we have just lost a human who…
IN THIS PHOTO: Mark E. Smith and Brix Smith Start
ALWAYS told it like it was!