“He refused to play the game”: Shame singer Charlie Steen on the enduring influence of Mark E. Smith

"Nobody else is going to do what he did again"

London punks Shame, one of the most exciting acts of 2018, wear their influences loud and proud – and no band has, arguably, been more important to the five-piece than The Fall. Here, vocalist Charlie Steen pays tribute to Fall frontman and sole consistent member Mark E. Smith, who has sadly died at the age of 60.

Mark E. Smith

Mark E. Smith

“You’ll always remember where you were when Mark E. Smith died. I was on the toilet in New Cross. It was weird, because I was listening to ‘Blindness’ [from The Fall’s 2005 album ‘Heads Roll’] at the time. The influence that The Fall has had over music is too much to count, really. I was 17 when I first heard ‘The N.W.R.A.’ on the ‘Grotesque’ album; I used to listen to it on the bus to and from sixth form every day.

That was another weird coincidence, because we were reading Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf at the time, and The Fall’s lyrics were using stream-of-consciousness in such a unique way. This was when we were hanging out at The Queen’s Head [the pub in Brixton where Shame formed] and, although I’d tried to listen to them before, I could never get in it. But everyone went on about it so much that eventually I was like, ‘Woah – okay’, and it sort of clicked. For people of our generation, if you look back at a band like The Fall, who have such an intimidating discography, it’s almost like: ‘Where do you begin?’

People compare Shame to The Fall and I think our song ‘The Lick’ is the most obvious example, lyrically, of their stream-of-conscious style. It also has that repetition with the bassline. What intrigued me so much about ‘The N.W.R.A’ is that it’s seven minutes of the same guitar riff, and it shouldn’t work – but it does. I also think the humorous element of The Fall was influential for us, if you listen to a track like ‘Donk’. We didn’t apply too much thought to it. We just went it and did it, whereas the rest of [debut album ‘Songs of Praise’] was very intricately thought out. I think that was the most fun I’ve ever had in a studio.

Two years ago, we supported The Fall at The Garage [in north London]. We haven’t had many moments of realisation or disbelief, but that was very much one of them because that was a period where I was listening to the Fall excessively. It was a pretty shit Fall gig, to be honest, but that didn’t matter to us. I think that everyone admired – whether it was a good thing or a bad thing – that that Mark E. Smith acted in the same way offstage that he did onstage. He was as drunk as you thought he was going to be, and he sung half of it from his dressing room.

He’s someone who refused to play the game. In that sense, the whole aesthetic of The Fall is what’s so important. There isn’t much fiction to it; there’s reality. When we supported then, I said to my girlfriend, ‘I love this band – you’ve got to come and see them.’ We watched the gig and she was like, ‘If this is what being musician is like, I can do that.’ That, for me, defined everything that was so great about The Fall.

What did I learn from Mark E. Smith? That nobody else is going to do that again. We speak a lot about how we don’t believe originality exists and everything is quite derivative – and that that’s perfectly acceptable and we’ll move on – but with a band like The Fall, the attitude can’t really be replaced because it was just down to one personality. And that’s why there’s only one Mark E. Smith.”