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"Nobody Messes With The Fall": Remembering Mark E Smith
Niall O'Keeffe , January 24th, 2018 22:20

Niall O'Keeffe looks back at the four decade history of the world's greatest band, The Fall and its guardian, Mark E Smith

"I never stop and reflect on what I've just done, and I don't think more than three months ahead," Mark E Smith told Melody Maker in 1993. "I make LPs, I listen to them once to check they're alright, and that's it. I can look at all that shit when I'm like 60 or something."

Smith did make it to 60, in March 2017, but there was no shift in attitude. Instead, The Fall powered on, releasing a 32nd studio album with a title resonant for the post-truth era: New Facts Emerge.

Grinding in its intensity and adorned with Smith's latter-day growls and gurgles, 'New Facts Emerge' was a monument to his perseverance. This was evident again later in 2017 when, visibly unwell, he performed with The Fall despite confinement to a wheelchair. Ill-health only got the better of his unwavering determination in late November, preventing shows in Bristol and London from going ahead. After the Bristol gig's stagetime cancellation, a statement emerged.

"A Message to All, to All. From Mark E Smith/The Fall group. As I, like Pr Rupert leave Bristol with my tail between my legs, I wish to give my great apologies to everybody. This idiotic idea to do both shows was purely my idea... Hope to replace shows within 4-6 weeks. In the interim we have eight new songs ready to go and will try and let you hear a few before Christmas. From head patient to you, the patients. I love you all but cannot embrace you all, Mark E Smith."

Smith's untameable spirit and work ethic led him to devote two-thirds of his life to The Fall. The group's first gig was in 1977. Smith had been born in Salford 20 years previously and raised in the North Mancunian suburb of Prestwich by his postal-clerk mother and plumber father(" a real hard case", in his son's admiring phrase).

Smith's three sisters got an early glimpse of his future management style when he involved them in 'Japanese prison camp', a game of his own devising. "I'd be the Japanese guard," his autobiography Renegade needlessly explained.

After grammar school, Smith worked as a shipping clerk on Salford docks, before beginning a creative journey that, a decade later, would bring him back to that locale for a performance at the Lowry with ballet dancer Michael Clark.

Contradictory impulses drove Smith from the start. With the horror-fiction writers HP Lovecraft and Philip K Dick as his touchstones, he sought out the strangeness in the ordinary. His musical influences, Can and Lou Reed among them, seemed to imbue him with both an urge to experiment and an impatience for pretension of any kind. "Don't start improvising for God's sake!" he would yell during a 1981 recording.

A further paradox arose from Smith's many press interviews, works of art in themselves, in which he gave the impression that he could knock out LPs and tour the world without ever straying too far from his local.

Early on, The Fall were political. Speaking to Dave Simpson, who tracked down myriad ex-members for his book The Fallen, the group's co-founder Una Baines recalled how she and Smith would explore women's groups and Marxism. However, she notes that Smith adopted a mindset "neither left nor right" and "very sceptical of anything that's banner-waving or sheep-like, like a club".

Baines left The Fall in 1978, and the group would be guided onward by Smith's contrarian spirit. "I've figured out why I don't dress weird," he told NME in 1984. "I don't dress weird 'cause people won't talk to you when you dress weird. I have this strong suspicion that only people who are very, very straight dress weird."

The constant line-up changes that defined The Fall as early as the 1970s are rationalised succinctly by ex-bassist Steve Hanley, who with 19 years is the group's longest-serving member apart from Smith. "The Fall works best when it's Mark and four or five normal people who he can bounce ideas off," Hanley told Simpson. "The trouble is that after a while in The Fall, you're no longer normal."

Footage filmed by Granada in 1978 shows all The Fall's key elements in place: Smith's trademark-ah intonation-ah, his sleepy-eyed acerbity, the fear-fired intensity of his musicians, and the reflexive repetition. One of the songs they play, 'Industrial Estate', would decades later provide an apt soundtrack to the closing credits of 2015 movie High-Rise, Ben Wheatley's adaptation of the JG Ballard novel.

'Industrial Estate', with its cheap keyboards and punk energy, was an example of "combining primitive music with intelligent lyrics", Smith's early vision for The Fall as recounted in Renegade. By 1979, the group had at its core a group of friends that Smith called the Jesuits, including Hanley as well as guitarists Craig Scanlon and Marc Riley, the future BBC disc jockey. In 1980, signature song 'Totally Wired' was released as a single through Rough Trade Records.

The subsequent album, Grotesque (After The Gramme) climaxed with a song that showcased Smith's burgeoning literary talent. 'The North Will Rise Again' was a torrent of ideas, with Smith adopting an alter ego to conjure images of an imagined insurrection ("The streets of Soho did reverberate with drunken Highland men").

Rough Trade's left-wing piety aggravated Smith. "They'd go, 'Er, the tea boy doesn't like the fact that you've slagged off Wah! Heat on this number,'" Smith later recalled in Volume. "The girl who cooks the fuckin' rice in the canteen doesn't like the fact that you've used the word 'slags'. They had a whole meeting over the fact that we mentioned guns in one song… And I'd go, 'What the fuck has it got to do with you? Just fuckin' sell the record you fuckin' hippy.'"

He jumped ship to start-up label Kamera, which in 1982 released The Fall's first-phase masterpiece Hex Enduction Hour. Smith later said he couldn't listen to the album "because it's too good". Its central text, 'Hip Priest', would be used to soundtrack the basement scene in Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning The Silence Of The Lambs.

Establishing a pattern, the triumph of Hex preceded a slump. Riley was sacked after conflict during a turbulent Australian tour, inspiring the folk legend that he'd enraged Smith by daring to dance at a disco. After the Room To Live LP, The Fall were in need of reinvigoration, and it was to be delivered by Laura 'Brix' Salenger.

Smith had split with Kay Carroll, his girlfriend and the group's manager. With her vehemence and no-sell-out attitude, Carroll had arguably created the persona that Smith would adopt for the rest of his career. ("In the music industry people get what they want by being unreasonable," Hanley told Simpson. "The clever bands have someone to be unreasonable for them. To his credit, Mark's never done that; if something nasty needs to be said, he'll say it.")

Shortly after Carroll left, Smith met Brix at a Chicago gig in April 1983, and within months she had moved to Manchester, married him and joined The Fall. Suddenly, Smith was wearing Mascara and designer leather coats. But he disputed the conventional wisdom that future TV celebrity Brix brought fashion to the Fall. In 2011, he told The Independent: "When I first met her, she thought Armani was an Italian dessert, and Chanel was the French word for that stretch of water between Dover and Calais. OK?"

Musically, Brix's songwriting partnership with Smith was transformative for The Fall. The tendency toward dirge-like repetition was tempered with melody, yielding the glorious run of singles captured on Beggars Banquet compilation 458489. But her influence stretched beyond The Fall's poppiest music to include some of its most haunting, not least 'LA', the centrepiece of 1985 near-perfect This Nation's Saving Grace.

Amid the successes of the late 80s, Smith's confidence surged. In addition to soundtracking Michael Clark's ballet, he wrote a play about papal conspiracy, Hey Luciani, and a song of the same name that stands as one of The Fall's best. He also started a record label, Cog Sinister, seemingly as a vehicle to make his hairdresser a pop star. That didn't work, but Cog Sinister did release a Fall compilation with the unimprovable title Palace Of Swords Reversed.

When rave culture swept Britain at the end of the decade, Smith was sceptical, telling NME: "There's nothing new in acid house for me, pal. I've been using that process for years. Bloody years." But at the dawn of the 90s, newly signed to a major label, The Fall did in its own way tap the zeitgeist and explore dance music's possibilities.

By now, Smith's marriage to Brix had ended, and founder member Martin Bramah was back in the group. He played on 1990's Extricated, which featured an inspired collaboration with those giants of British house, Coldcut, on the paranoid and pulsating 'Telephone Thing'.

History repeated as an Australian tour proved terminal for the Fall memberships of Bramah and keyboardist Marcia Schofield. Smith's recruitment of keyboardist-programmer Dave Bush would extend the group's electronic experiments. After the processed perfection of 1992's 'Free Range', which warned of war in the Balkans, 1993 brought a Top 10 album. The Infotainment Scan, despite its oddball cover versions, was the sound of a forward-facing Fall, as Smith made explicit with the anti-nostalgia rants 'Glam Racket' and 'A Past Gone Mad'.

Yet the '90s would be a time of chaos for the group, beset by tax bills and legal strife. Hanley recalls a mid-decade band meeting at which Smith proposed that they open a tapas restaurant. Smith fired Bush by letter, before Brix made a surprise return. But she found recording 1996 album The Light User Syndrome a sour experience - the artwork of which would come to haunt Smith. "I look fucking terrible," he wrote in Renegade. "I wasn't eating my greens, and my mouth was wearing whisky perfume."

Murky and malevolent, The Light User Syndrome presages a sound The Fall would mine effectively in the second half of its history, and is probably unfairly maligned. But its release preceded a tour of arts centres that was rendered disastrous by a combination of early curfews, Smith's reluctance to take the stage before 10pm, and ever heavier drinking. The group's fee was withheld after a particularly shambolic showing at a council-run venue in Worthing.

April 1998 brought the ultimate Fall meltdown, however. The line-up was reduced to two members, Smith and keyboardist Julia Nagle, after an onstage fight led to the resignations of everyone else, including Hanley. Further commotion back at the hotel led to Smith's arrest.

This could have been the point at which Smith faded into obscurity. But his survival instincts were awoken. He convened a new line-up featuring guitarist Neville Wilding (who "could really be a nutcase", by Smith's account). Strangely, they performed a couple of gigs at St Bernadette's Catholic Social Club in Whitefield.

There followed a good album (The Marshall Suite), then an excellent one (The Unutterable), then a disaster (Are You Are Missing Winner), then a recovery (The Real New Fall LP), then a career-high (Fall Heads Roll). Thus did The Fall roll ever onward, members coming and going, and hovering always on the fringes of the mainstream.

In the 1990s, the reverence of the Britpop generation helped Smith win an NME Godlike Genius award; he also guests on an Elastica album. In the new millennium, football embraced The Fall, as 'Theme From Sparta F.C. #2' was selected to soundtrack BBC's Final Score and Smith appeared on TV to read the results. He'd previously pitched up on Newsnight, after John Peel's death, for a confused exchange with a nervous Gavin Esler. Peel had been a huge supporter of The Fall, and radio sessions for his programme provided an ideal medium for music that is more chaotically creative than carefully considered. Twenty-four such sessions were later gathered in an excellent boxset.

The Fall again made it into people's living rooms when 'Touch Sensitive' appeared on a Vauxhall advert. Invited on to Later With Jools Holland (or in this case without), the group waved maniacally at the camera instead of jamming with the other bands. A different incarnation played the last-ever gig at Hammersmith Palais, with Smith cutting the last song short in protest at the number of bouncers onstage. "Thank you for allowing us into your security area. We're off back to civilisation."

Smith's adventures beyond The Fall continued when he collaborated with German electronic duo Mouse On Mars to record as Von Sudenfed. Their brilliant Tromatic Reflexxions album emerged in 2007.

Promoting this album, Smith offered his verdict on LCD Soundsystem, a decade before that blatantly Fall-influenced bands topped the Billboard. "I went into my local shop a few weeks ago, where I go for groceries," he told The Wire. "There's an Irish bloke in there, very nice, and he was playing this [the LCD song 'Losing My Edge']. I said: 'This sounds exactly like me. Are you trying to take the piss?'"

But patronage by people he'd inspired brought Smith to otherwise unreachable places. In 1994, a guest appearance on an Inspiral Carpets single yielded a Top of the Pops appearance, and in 2010 he featured in a Glastonbury headline slot, thanks to Gorillaz, who invited him to perform their collaboration 'Glitter Freeze'.

The huge festival crowd and TV audience were treated to a pure blast of Mark E Smith. The music has already started when he emerged, leather-jacketed, and barked into a microphone that appeared not to be working. He prowled to centre stage to find one that does, and gripping it with both hands, wearing a single black leather glove, he yelled: "There is no explanation for this environment!" Later, he consulted a sheaf of papers as he snarled his way through the song. It was a glimpse of an upside-down world where Smith enjoyed privileges commensurate with his talent.

Smith was back at Glastonbury in 2015 to front The Fall for a BBC-filmed set in the daylight, postscripting his sarcastic opening monologue thus: "Thanks for turning the volume down, cunt on the desk." The performance concluded with ''Autochip 2014-2016', a definitive late-period Fall song: hypnotic, Can-esque, sparse of vocals, and bristling with menace.

Like 'Blindness' or 'Reformation' before it, 'Autochip' cast Smith as much The Fall's conductor as its singer. At the Highbury Garage in April 2016, The Fall played a 19-minute version, available on YouTube. As the music's intensity wound ever tighter, Smith wore a look of beatific contentment.

The Fall's line-up at this point had been largely stable for a decade, with a core of drummer Keiron Melling, bassist Dave Spurr and guitarist Pete Greenway, though Smith's wife of 15 years Elena Poulou would depart the line-up later in the year.

One of the many mysteries of Smith is how, as both a non-musician and anti-musician, he moulded this line-up and its predecessors to attain such musical consistency, not of genre but of mood and atmosphere. Tense and insistent, the Fall sound was such a defined entity that Smith name a song after it.

Simpson's book The Fallen offers a few snapshots of how Smith practised his alchemy. Simon Rogers remembers a drummer being told to hit his tom-toms "like a fuckin' snake". Karen Leatham was told: "Do not play like Bon Jovi or Radiohead." A later line-up featuring Jim Watts was made to listen to a Dylan album with Smith's instruction: "This is what not to do."

Smith's enemy, clearly, was complacency. He hired and fired, jumped from one record label to the next, packed setlists with new material as a routine. But amid all the conflict and paranoia, Smith retained a fierce loyalty to the idea of The Fall, an entity he always spoke of as something separate from myself.

"Anyone can mess with me and I'll sort of forgive them," he'd told Q in 1994. "But nobody messes with The Fall."