There was a strange mix of emotion on hearing the news of Mark E. Smith’s death this week. It’s gutting that the world is robbed of one of its true originals, yet there is a weird kind of pride to be taken in the fact that so many Caught by the River contributors have served in the Fall army with legions of fans at gigs over the years. This is a long eulogy to one of the all time greats – after all, a forty year, fifty album career deserves a fair amount of rambling. A handful of our regulars – Ben McCormick, Adelle Stripe, Robin Turner, Ben Myers and Ian Preece – offer their thoughts on the Hip Priest, old Fiery Jack himself. Raise a glass.
It’s probably hyperbole to stretch the old ‘You always remember where you were when you heard about 9/11 or Diana or Lennon’ or whatever and apply it to The Fall. Nevertheless, I’m going to do it. I’m pretty sure everyone remembers where they were on hearing Mark E. Smith for the first time. Or certainly what they thought anyway. I know I do. I was sitting in my bedroom in a small town just north of Manchester listening to John Peel’s Festive 50 in December 1984. Number 4 in the chart was ‘Cruiser’s Creek’ by The Fall and from the moment I heard the opening line – that sounded like it was being barked through a megaphone that was running out of battery – I knew I’d stumbled on something different. Something really annoying. Something you could play to people and they’d be horrified. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced I actually liked it. But something about the barrage of drums and relentless guitar riff and rumbling bass line… and that mithering nasal voice that seemed to delight in its own sense of apathy… well, it had me hooked.
Almost no one I knew would listen to more than about four bars. Several people at school said they’d heard them and didn’t like them, but I didn’t believe them for a minute. I remember being gob-smacked and delighted when a year or so later, a girl in my class claimed to like them and taped me a copy of their album Bend Sinister as if to prove it. I still have that tape. For the following few years, I kept my eye on their output without becoming obsessive, but would always drop the name into any conversation about what music I liked – always the second or third band I’d mention.
As a teenager growing up near and hanging around in Manchester, you’d see The Fall posters all over the place advertising gigs in places like Hulme or Moss Side where you were scared to go. But when I did eventually see them live – bizarrely enough at the Festival of the Tenth Summer at what was then the G-Mex Centre – that fear gave way to mild awe. They were astonishing – and that day had a pretty good line-up. It made me seek out smaller gigs, one at The International and one at The Riverside in Newcastle where I was a student. I delighted in boring people rigid about The Fall. To many of the people I met at university, I was just the kind of ‘northern white trash that spoke back’ Smith had described The Fall as in some interview or other. And I revelled in that. The Fall spoke back about the unfashionable, grotty part of Manchester I could relate to; not the Madchester that permeated popular culture. Then it kind of stopped. I’d bought the most recent LPs and had delved a little into the back catalogue, but it felt like I’d hit a wall for a time.
And then it happened. Quite out of the blue, I met several other people who were into The Fall and who would quote their favourite lyrics while getting drunk and smoking pot. It seemed like every situation you could be in, there was a Fall line or song title that was apposite and it would get trotted out by one of their number. And so I fell in with them. We all ended up in London and, from that point on, I think I went to see almost every Fall gig in the capital over a period of about 10 years. It was like going to see your football team. Sometimes they’d be incredible, sometimes barely passable, sometimes downright dreadful. Always different, always the same as the saying goes. It didn’t matter. There would usually be something to laugh about that made the entrance fee worth it. I don’ t remember individual gigs that much; only if a rare oldie got an airing among the standard run-through of the last two albums or if, as at Koko, he came on stage in a wheelchair and performed like, as one wag put it, the rock ‘n’ roll Ironside.
Little by little, the gig-goers left the capital and I’d find myself scrabbling around trying to convince other people to accompany me to live shows, with varying degrees of success. I went to at least three Fall gigs on my own, maybe more, but it wasn’t a problem. I already felt like I was a part of some clandestine masochistic society. A league of bald-headed men, if you will, dutifully attending gigs in homage to the infamous work ethic Mark E. Smith espoused. Sadly, the last time I felt able to stump up the cash for a ticket was at The Garage a couple of years ago when it was only a fiver to get in. I kept meaning to catch subsequent gigs but never got round to it, wrongly assuming there’d always be another time.
And now I’m in the position of knowing exactly where I was when I heard Mark E. Smith had died. Aged only 60, but probably lasting a good few years longer than many of us expected him to. He leaves behind an incredible and undeniably comprehensive body of work that I’ll be delving into over the coming weeks and months. We’ve lost a true one-off, the likes of which I doubt we’ll witness again. Certainly not in my lifetime. All that’s left is for me to subject my kids to it in the hope they’ll learn that originality and an uncompromising belief in yourself beats precocious talent and good looks any day of the week.
Mark E. Smith was the ultimate autodidact. Equally happy reading the football scores as he was writing a score for Michael Clark, he never lost his ability to straddle high and low brow. Lyrically he was one of our finest writers – one who bastardised manifestos, history books, conspiracies, sci-fi and horror to create songs which were completely original, loaded with belched-back wit and always surprising. He was an anti-hero to us in the north, a true outsider. When London punks wore safety pins, make-up and trendy trousers, Smith had a bowl-cut, wore tank tops, flares and worked as a shipping clerk. He didn’t give a fuck how he looked or what anyone thought. He saw through the bullshit and was always on the nail when it came to music, art and literature. The Fall have been a permanent fixture in my life since I first heard The Infotainment Scan in 1993 and over the years have played some of the best and worst gigs I have ever seen. At The Trades Club a few years ago they were a whirlwind; chaotic, grotesque, and absolutely electrifying. They closed the set with ‘White Lightning’, and all the bald Fall fans jumped up and down like a sea of baked beans. I don’t know what they will do now Mark is dead. They only have gout to look forward to.
I set out to write some words about Mark E. Smith on the evening of his death and was immediately struck with the thought that it was an entirely pointless endeavour. Not only is there no way of doing the great man justice, it’s also pretty obvious that he’d have hated the gesture. He didn’t suffer fools, and this feels like a very foolish pursuit. But this internet isn’t going to fill itself you know, so…
A year or so back, I wrote something short for the Quietus about my favourite Fall song, where I made an observation that most people’s entry point into the group’s Wonderful and Frightening World is the one they hark back to forever – preserved in amber, stamped in wax, it’s the snapshot of how they want to remember the group. The chap from the Quietus quietly pointed out that pretty much everyone had made the same observation, and edited it out of my text. As he’s not editing this, I’m going to reassert the point.
I came to the band via a Beggars Banquet sampler cassette (One Pound Ninety-Nine – A Music Sampler Of The State Of Things) that I bought in 1985. Track 2, Side 2 – after a pretty randy track by the Cult – was ‘Spoilt Victorian Child’ by The Fall. I can remember being baffled by it – a track so powerful yet so knotted, like a bad tree that’s grown in the garden. The rhythm section sounded like a bunch of pissed up bailiffs who’d come round to kick a steel front door in. And Smith’s voice was unlike anything I’d ever heard – a click-clacking hellfire sermon from the original manic street preacher. This was a tripping Lewis Carroll being force-fed homemade amphetamines; the angry crank phone call to Morrissey’s lonely hearts ad.
This Nation’s Saving Grace – the long player ‘Spoilt Victorian Child’ was taken from – remains my favourite Fall record. It’s immediately transportational – one listen and I’m back there, in secondary school, listening to a band that no one else likes and not giving a fuck. They were a secret society I’d been inducted into, an entry point to worlds of arcane fiction, obscure German rock’n’roll bands (who the fuck was Damo Suzuki?), the Kinks, Northern Soul, experimental ballet and military precision heaviness. For years, they were my band. They were my entry point into the world of John Peel, not the other way around. I’d trek off to Cardiff to see them on my own, happy to get lost on my own in a cyclone of poetry and noise, to stand alongside other blokes, all of them lost in music. The Fall – basically Mark E. Smith and whoever was in his group at that point – were properly unique. They always had been and they would remain so until the end.
Sometime around I Am Kurious Oranj – the band’s 1988 album/musical/ballet – the NME ran an Ins and Outs piece where Smith gave a thumbs up to obscure Welsh horror author Arthur Machen. At this point my Mum was running the country’s only Machen Society – a ‘selective’ gathering of fans that included Julian Lloyd Weber, Barry Humphries, Iain Sinclair and Rowan Williams. I suggested she get in touch with Smith, with a caveat of “Christ only knows what you’ll get back”. Anyway, he joined and became an active member for a while – I’m still baffled as to what the meeting of minds was like at the AGM dinner: my Mum, the singer of The Fall, the godfather of British psychogeography, Sir Les Patterson, the future Archbishop of Canterbury and a famous cello player with a supremely mad bloody face. The one time I met Smith was after a show at Brixton Academy a few years after he’d joined the Machen Society. I went to shake hands, knowing I was just another bloke telling him how he’d changed his life – big fucking deal. When I introduced myself as my mother’s son, his demeanour changed entirely. His shoulders relaxed, he smiled, he was warm, friendly and intensely curious about Mum’s work. I managed a few of my own words, driven by adrenaline, before I made excuses and sloped off. The situation at that point was, to use the oft-repeated immortal words of my friend Jeff Barrett, “too weird”.
A year or two later, I was in an also-ran band signed to Saint Etienne’s Icerink label. Bob and Pete were obsessive Fall fans – back then, their sense of humour was pretty much entirely made up of a series of riffs on Mark E. Smith bon mots. It’s an oft-overlooked and key element of Saint Etienne’s worldview and one of the reasons I bonded with them as friends. Anyway, taking their advice as a non-musician who wanted to make pop music, I turned up to the studio with a bunch of scratchy old records I loved, ready to sample them and steal all the best bits. One of the tracks would build around a frantic drum loop from ‘Lie Dream of a Casino Soul’. After I’d stupidly mentioned the sample in a Melody Maker interview (that and a huge lift from ‘Columbian Necktie’ by Big Black), we had to go, cap in hand, looking for clearance. This was a point where sampling was regarded as an extra payday by musicians; it was highly likely that the record would have to be shelved. Incredibly, Smith cleared the sample with his blessings (as did Albini). The record was released shortly afterwards to tepid applause, thanks to the generosity of two of rock’s most publically furious men.
If there’s a fixed start point to people’s love affair with The Fall, it figures there’s also an end point too. Mine came at Reading Festival in 1999 and was less “falling out of love” and more “it’s really not going to get any better”. The Chemical Brothers were headlining and my best mate Deek – their co-manager – was backstage with them when a pissed up bloke bolted into their dressing room, asking if anyone knew a drummer. He was in The Fall and they’d left their drummer in a motorway service station on the way to the festival after a scrap on the bus. Deek had been in bands in the early ’90s but hadn’t picked up sticks in half a decade or so; we’d bonded as student flatmates over videos of righteous Smith interviews on Snub TV. Tom and Ed Chemical quickly volunteered their manager’s services. Rehearsal backstage consisted of the guitarist punching Smith awake and half a song’s worth of Deek drumming with sticks onto a table-top. I bumped into Deek backstage and refused to believe what he was telling me – there was no way this was happening. The Fall were on after Elastica (a band whose entire career had been spent trying to fit Fall songs into tight, fashionable trousers) – surely even if this berserk story about sacking the drummer was was true, that band’s drummer would be drooling at the prospect of doing a Fall gig? A few hours and about 15 pints later, a crew of us gathered in the Melody Maker tent to watch, slack jawed, as Deek walked on stage and took the drum stool. The guitarist had promised to guide Deek through the set – instead, he stood, foot on monitor, face set on the crowd the entire time. The gig was total chaos – Deek was last to start and last to finish every track. We were at once witnessing the very best and very worst Fall gig. When Caught by the River regular Ted Kessler reviewed the gig for the next week’s NME, he told the sorry tale of the gig and said, “The Fall! They’re here! Onstage! And ohmigod, someone in the crowd actually knows their drummer! He works for the Chemical Brothers’ management and was, apparently, recruited backstage moments ago. He hasn’t drummed for five years. He seems more au fait with The Fall’s ouevre than The Fall do”.
I never saw them again, and chose to remember them through drunken nights with mates spitting the lyrics in the backrooms of pubs, through Smith’s regular and brilliant interviews, through Dave Simpson’s phenomenal book The Fallen (which Smith hated). And through the records released during my obsessive years, each of which still sounds incredible and singular. No one will ever fill his boots, he was a mercurial one-off; the greatest living Englishman, now a new face in hell. Just check the guy’s track record.
Bingo master. Slogan cackler. Long draft sinker. Volume fiddler. Prestwich sorcerer. Bullshit spinner. Meat packer. Lapsed docker. Coffin nail puffer. Language mangler. Mind meddler. Bile spitter. Black jacket dictator. Fry-up creator. People arranger. Witch trial commentator. Prole art threatener. Arndale lurker. Brighton hater. Liberty taker. Lock-in instigator. Carrier bag waster. Industrial estater. He is appreciated.
Back in my publishing days, I was one of three or four editors bidding for Mark E. Smith’s autobiography. The publisher lodges their bid, and if you’re lucky – i.e., offering enough moolah – you get to take part in the beauty parade. I’d got ‘C.R.E.E.P’ on 12-inch green vinyl; I’d seen The Fall at the Hanging Gardens in Cardiff and Rock City in Nottingham in the eighties. Fall Heads Roll had just come out – using new technology a friendly colleague quickly burnt me a copy at work. The train journey up to Manchester was pretty terrifying. What the fuck do you say to Mark E. Smith? – ‘You know, I think I prefer ‘I’m Going to Spain’ to anything off Live at the Witch Trials?’ Or, ‘The Etihad Stadium – it’s not Maine Road, is it?’
I travelled up with my mate Anthony, the then paperback marketing director of Orion books, for moral support and some professionalism. I can remember feeling sick as we approached the Malmaison hotel, where we were scheduled to meet the entourage. Then suddenly there was a kerfuffle behind the tinted glass of the hotel door, and out he burst, MES himself. ‘He can’t be fucking leaving already,’ I thought. Panicking, I stopped in him his tracks, and explained who we were. ‘All right, lads,’ he smiled. ‘I’m just going for a walk around the block. Get a breather; some fags. I’ll see you in the bar.’ I can remember he was wearing a black suit and, on just one hand, a black leather driving glove. Maybe he’s had an accident, burnt it or something, we thought. (I realised later it was a Northern Soul thing.) His agent – one of the nice ones – made us stand behind by a pillar while he saw off the previous publisher. We settled down in low-slung chairs. A bit early for a pint of Guinness, but I needed it. Then he was back. He got a pint, rearranged the seats around the table, took a sip and announced, ‘You know what? I fuckin’ hate it here. Let’s go over the road. I know them in there.’ Drinks abandoned we trooped over the square to another boozer. MES, having checked with us three times already that the journey on Virgin Trains was to our liking and convenience, insisted we must be hungry. ‘These lads have come a long way – in fact, everyone – we’ll all have egg and chips,’ he instructed the barman. And some more Guinness. I could see David, the agent, thinking, ‘That’s a bit more I need to get the advance up.’
I did eventually get to sit next to him – and ended up discussing the crapness of Gary Megson (then Forest manager; former Man City player). MES had a mate who knew him. I like to think we nearly got him by mentioning that the publisher we worked for owned not only selected Philip K. Dick titles but practically the entire Jim Thompson backlist. ‘Put the fuckin’ contract there on the table, lads,’ he said. ‘Put the fucker there, and I’ll sign.’ Every time I tried to tentatively bring up how, ahem, he might be thinking of shaping and structuring his narrative for the autobiography, he’d wave that away with, ‘Don’t talk to me about that! Talk to fuckin’ Hunter, over there.’ (‘Hunter’ was his ghostwriter – a young fella called Austin who wrote for the Guardian at the time.) He’d then get up, go and sit on his own on the other side of the bar. Light another fag, adopt a face that said ‘Nothing to do with me, this carry-on,’ and study the ceiling. Five minutes later he’d be back, and we’d talk about Man City again. And the comfort, or not, of Virgin Trains. We talked about the great unsung science fiction writer Bob Shaw too. Then more Guinness. Then it turned out the third bidding publisher – seen in a kind of decreasing financial offer to increasing alcohol intake ratio – wasn’t coming, after all. Another Guinness. I think the conversation moved on to how working class or not various punk bands were. MES lost interest and went up to talk to the barman. Then it was mid-afternoon and he said he was off to bingo, or another pub or something, then home. We didn’t get the book. I don’t know how true it was, but I heard later that on his ‘walk round the block’ he waited to ambush the first publisher – Tony Lacey of Penguin – on his way back to the station, and shook hands with him over ‘the deal’ there and then.
I really liked MES. He was nice to us – a gent – even more so, I guess, if he knew it was all a waste of time by that point. It’s a shame it all sort of soured with his old(est) band mates. Steve Hanley’s book is great – life in The Fall refracted through the lens of a school caretaker. MES would disagree, of course – you don’t know what went on – but it felt a fitting tribute, and Brix Smith was nice about him in her book too. I played the Von Südenfed CD this morning. ‘Flooded’ still makes me laugh, MES pointing out: ‘I booked this club. I’m the DJ tonight . . .’