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Mark E Smith - Obituary

Mark E Smith – Born March 5 1957; died January 24 2018

Mark E Smith, who has died aged 60 following a protracted period of illness that included respiratory problems, was one of the greatest British artists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. As vocalist and driving force of The Fall, the band he led with an iron if sometimes eccentric fist for more than forty years, Smith cut an imperious and uncompromising dash as he prowled the stage like Nero as played by Gene Vincent or Merle Haggard.

Smith’s early resemblance to a grown-up version of Billy Casper, the back-street schoolboy urchin from Ken loach’s film, Kes, transformed with age so he looked more like a surrealist country and western singer. Dressed usually in smart but casual black and sometimes sporting a solitary leather glove, Smith would by turns declaim, bark and – latterly - gurgle into the microphone over a simple but relentless garage-band chug played by an increasingly terrified-looking band. Inbetween letting loose a stream of barbed non-sequiturs in a trademark nasal whine that could only loosely be called singing, Smith would frequently fiddle with the sound levels, leaning on keyboards to make a tuneless din, or move microphone stands out of reach of those using them.

While such manipulations became part of a routine regarded by many as the random actions of an increasingly unhinged drunk, in truth his control of the stage through such provocations were on a par with those of avant-garde Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor. Either that or a performance artist sired on the northern English cabaret club circuit. Smith would often leave the stage a few songs in, either doing his bit unseen from the wings or else disappear completely while the band plodded on. Whether this was due to increasing ill health or wilful social engineering of what constituted a gig was never clear, but it made for a thrilling event, with the audience often wound up by shows that sometimes lasted barely half an hour.

At what has turned out to be the Fall’s final gig at Queen Margaret Union in Glasgow last November, Smith’s arrival onstage in a wheelchair being pushed down the disabled ramp looked both comic and triumphal, with Smith greeting the crowd like a Shakespearian king come to reclaim his throne.  

Mark Edward Smith was born in Broughton, Salford, the oldest of four children to Irene and Jack Smith, a plumber who had served in the Black Watch regiment. With three sisters around him all the time, Smith would go on to surround himself with strong women forever after, with assorted wives and girlfriends playing in or managing the Fall at various points. Moving to Prestwich at an early age, Smith passed his 11-plus and went to Stand grammar school.

If he had taken a typical academic route, Smith could have gone to university, but already possessed by an individualist streak, left school at 16 instead to work as a clerk in a shipping office, moving into a flat with his girlfriend, Una Baines. By that time, Smith was already a voracious reader, whose auto-didactic tendencies led him to HP Lovecraft, Philip K Dick, Aldous Huxley and Arthur Machen. This mix of existential gothic was tailor-made for punk, and The Fall were named after Albert Camus’ novel after they discovered their original name, The Outsiders, taken from another Camus novel, had already been used.

Attracted to literary outlaws such as William Burroughs, Smith and Baines’ flat became the focal point for a gang of kindred spirits who would form the Fall’s first line-up, with Baines playing keyboards. Fuelled by cheap amphetamines and inspired by the Velvet Underground Can and the Stooges, they would write and read poetry, with the music added as a backdrop. Gradually morphing into a proper band, the Fall’s first gig was in a basement run by Manchester Musicians Collective. In spirit, Smith remained a poet in all but name, a Dadaist spoken-word star with a musical earthquake rumbling behind him.

The Fall released their first album, Live at the Witch Trials, on Miles Copeland’s Step Forward label in 1979. Replete with skewed guitars and wonky keyboards, its rough and ready arrival was a counterpoint to the stylistic gloss of Smith and co’s contemporaries. Early tours to Scotland saw the Fall share bills with Edinburgh bands Fire Engines and Thursdays, the follow-up to Live at the Witch Trial, Dragnet (1979), offered further off-kilter dispatches of pop cultural detritus cut up into songs that – with a brand new band in tow – sounded suspiciously like trucker music. 
Over the next four decades Smith’s numerous incarnations of the Fall released some 32 original albums, augmented by a stream of live recordings and compilations, as well as numerous radio sessions for the band’s great champion, John Peel. More than 66 band members passed through the band’s ranks, though apart from the departure of Smith’s keyboardist third wife (a second Saffron Burrows, had run the Fall fan club) Elena Poulou, in 2016, had remained solid for more than a decade.

In 1988, Smith and The Fall were unlikely participants in the Edinburgh International Festival, when they appeared onstage at the King’s Theatre providing a liv soundtrack to Michael Clark’s ballet, I Am Curious Orange. Clark had used the Fall’s music to soundtrack his work since his early piece, Hail the New Puritan, was named after one of the band’s key songs. Clark recognised the primal rhythms in their work, with I Am Curious Orange becoming an audacious mash-up of bare bums, giant hamburgers and outlandish costumes sported by performance artist Leigh Bowery as the Fall played on.

Clark had appeared in Smith’s play, Hey! Luciani!, at Riverside Studios in London two years earlier. Smith’s baffling cut-up of words and music was based around the mysterious death of Pope John Paul 1, and, with the band taking on speaking roles, confounded critics and fans alike.

Following I Am Curious Orange, Smith split up with his wife, Brix, who had added glamour and a commercial gloss to the Fall when she joined as guitarist following future BBC6Music DJ Marc Riley’s acrimonious departure. Smith moved to Edinburgh, where he nursed his seemingly unquenchable drink habits in Black Bo’s, the Meadow Bar and Millionaires nightclub. Much of his experience of living in the city was channelled into Edinburgh Man, an oddly moving and atypical song, in which Smith sang without irony of ‘walking your bridges home.’ This didn’t stop him causing assorted mayhem during future visits, as he did when he almost caused a lighting rig to topple during a show on Calton Hill. Smith drafted various Scottish musicians into the Fall fold, though the tenures of violinist Kenny Brady and, later, guitarist Tommy Crooks, were brief.

As drink and age got the better of him, Smith grew cantankerous and at times incomprehensible. This sometimes went too far, as it did in the late 1990s, when an onstage altercation in New York effectively ended a long-standing line-up of the band. After a further hotel-room fracas with keyboardist Julia Nagle, Smith got himself a night in the cells and instructions to take anger management classes.

In interviews Smith could be both ferocious and hilarious, often in the same sentence as his mind moved on before his mouth could catch up. He would rail about the vainglorious peccadilloes of musicians like a self-made mill owner disparaging the workers, or else dismiss latter-day groups who idolised him with withering glee. As he hired and fired a stream of band members, he had the air of a general trying to drill his troops with cruel psychological game-playing before leading them into battle suitably fired up.

Despite looking increasingly frail onstage, Smith’s work ethic never let up, with four albums released by Cherry Red Records since 2011. The most recent, New Facts Emerge, appeared in 2017. It was a typically fantastical mix of social commentary, satire and opaque Smith-speak. It gave listeners what has turned out to be a final glimpse into the mind of an artist whose erratic genius has left behind a huge body of work that will go on to define the fractured age that spawned it.

The Herald, January 26th 2018



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