Mark E Smith: bingo masters, witch trials and totally wired, his genius remembered
Mancunian anti-hero fine-tuned the world, distorting and damaging its aesthetic veneer
Part-Anthony Burgess, part-punk-Andy Capp, Mark E Smith was a fierce art intelligence and a hero of polar opposition. A weird anti-London diplomat for post-industrial northern England, he was a direct link to the ration-book-nourished, two-up-two-down redbrick life of the Salford into which he was born in 1957.
A bloody-minded, literate individual whose life took him from early days working as a clerk on Manchester’s docks to 40-plus years of touring the world with his panzer tank group The Fall, his limited but distinctive regional voice served as a can-opener of concepts.
Three-times married and seemingly never without a partner, he always looked alone - like a leader or an outcast, like a preacher or an enemy. On stage, clad in a sometimes leather sports jacket, he spewed phrases into two microphones simultaneously: “I laughed at the great god Pan.”
Travel back and forth along The Fall’s 41-year time line from 1977 to 2018 and stop anywhere: you find numerous evolving iterations of the group, all playing angularly, attentively, rhythmically, bombastically, repetitively.
Dedicated to the task of greater musical good, they furnish the landscape for Smith’s lyrics. Like a working man’s club gurner or a bingo master about to call “Two fat ladies…88”, he fires words into the microphone mesh.
Again and again, he walks over to the backline speakers and adjusts the volume and bass/treble controls. This could be Joseph Beuys, a type of conceptual performance involving the idea of dials. But it is not: Smith is fine-tuning the world, distorting and damaging its aesthetic veneer. “For God’s sake, don’t start improvising,” he snarls at his group.
In beer-and cigarette-bolstered interviews, Smith made no bones about his group: he was the boss, a tyrant they must accommodate. He fired them at will and once likened himself to a football manager who shakes up his team by getting a new centre-forward every so often. He admired his grandfather, who would stand outside prison and pick out potential employees as they exited after serving their time.
How did he write songs? “I whistle the tunes down the telephone and get the lads to work out the music.” Smith’s lyrics are spikey prose, partial short stories, fragmentary paragraphs whose meaning is often unencumbered by narrative constraint. They are impressions sculpted around a theme, poetry in the form of public service announcements, ideas served via slogans, via song titles themselves (Disney’s Dream Debased, Gross Chapel - British Grenadiers).
The Fall: classic playlist
He crafted compound-noun headline tabloidese titles (Petty Thief Lout, Joker Hysterical Face, Mere Pseud Magazine Ed, Oswald Defence Lawyer) but also worked with the semblance of narrative (Container Drivers; Jawbone and the Air Rifle: “The rabbit hunter said goodbye to his infertile spouse”; Leave the Capital; Sparta FC).
The songs were self-defined containers of ideas that emanated from Smith’s complex head. Totally Wired. English Scheme. The North Will Rise Again. The work was laced with black humour (The Birmingham School of Business School; Middle Class Revolt; and How I Wrote Elastic Man - a tale perhaps about a writer pursued by fans asking him about his work but getting the title wrong and calling it “Plastic Man”).
Smith and his songs were a type of internalised syntax for me since I first acquired Live at the Witch Trials in Liffey Street’s Golden Discs for 99p. Subsequent co-axial cable plugged into the RTÉ Relays TV socket and inserted into the back of a Fidelity 3-in-1 music centre gave me hiss-laden VHF access to John Peel from 1979 onwards: The Fall and their 24 BBC sessions I captured on air on cassettes.
Grotesque (After the Gramme -1980) and the 10-inch record Slates (1981) with its Alan Sillitoe/Stan Barstow/John Osborne-suggesting Fit and Working Again and the magical Leave the Capital mesmerised me. At college, I submitted a video thesis about music called “Hey Hey We’re Encoded” and an accompanying essay “Pop and Popularity: the Death of Pop” which referenced chunks of Mark E Smith. High first-class honours, nothing less.
I saw The Fall five or six times over the years, once in Manchester 11 years ago on the occasion of their 30th anniversary. I was in Trinity’s Edmund Burke Theatre in 1997 or 1998 when he gave a nervous spoken word performance. Scraps of paper flew out of his plastic bag, the microphone lead was a snake that tried to trip him up. He arrived about an hour late and did less than 20 minutes. It was outstanding. In 1984, I had met him after a gig in the TV Club on Harcourt Street. Brix Smith told me: “He is always writing. The house has drawers full of writing - plays, books, everything.”
For a period around 2002, a glove compartment contained an even then museum-piece cassette of my favourite Fall songs. I played it in a tin-box Toyota Starlet as I drove around Dublin. I remarked to someone at the time that I was back in the city, working on a project, had a job and listened to The Fall on an almost daily basis. Yeah, things were working out.
‘Leave the Capitol’ (from ‘Slates’) - Mark E Smith and The Fall:
The tables covered in beer/Showbizwhines, minute detail/It’s a hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square/It’s vaudeville pub back room dusty pictures of/White-frocked girls and music teachers/The beds too clean/The waters poison for the system/Then you know in your brain/LEAVE THE CAPITOL!/EXIT THIS ROMAN SHELL!
Then you know you must leave the capitol
Straight home/One room, one room/Then you know in your brain/LEAVE THE CAPITOL…
It will not drag me down/I will leave this ten times town/I will leave this fucking dump/One room, one room/Hotel maids smile in unison/Then you know in your brain/You know in your brain/LEAVE THE CAPITOL/EXIT THIS ROMAN SHELL…
I laughed at the great god Pan/I didnae, I didnae/I laughed at the great god Pan/I didnae, I didnae, I didnae, I didnae… Pan resides in Welsh green masquerades/On Welsh cat caravans/But the monty/Hides in curtains/Grey blackish cream/All the paintings you recall/All the side-stepped cars/All the brutish laughs/From the flat and the wild dog downstairs.
Mark E Smith. RIP