Mark E Smith, the singer, leader and sole constant member of The Fall, has died. While his cause of death has not yet been announced, last year he was forced to cancel tour dates due to what the band’s manager Pamela Vander referred to at the time as “bizarre and rare medical issues.” The phrase ‘bizarre and rare’ could equally serve as an epitaph for his life and singular body of work.
Smith was born in Broughton, Salford in 1957 before his family moved to nearby Prestwich while he was still young. He attended Stand Grammar School, which he left at 16. He got a job in a meat factory, and later worked on the Manchester docks as a shipping clerk. He experimented with drugs at a relatively young age, once claiming to have taken LSD even before he drank alcohol or started smoking.
Although he’d left full time education, he decided to take an evening class in A-Level literature. Throughout his life he would be influenced as much by cult and occult literature, the beat poets and philosophy, as by his fellow musicians. Among his favourites were the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, horror writers Arthur Machen and HP Lovecraft, and William Burroughs, whose cut-up, fragmented narratives influenced lyrics such as these, from 1982’s ‘The Classical’: “You won’t find anything more ridiculous than this new profile razor unit, made with the highest British attention to the wrong detail, become obsolete units surrounded by hail”.
In 1976, he formed The Fall after seeing the Sex Pistols play at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. Smith took the band’s name from the Albert Camus novel. Perhaps more than the Pistols themselves, The Fall took their musical cues from The Velvet Underground and German krautrock bands like Can. They released their debut EP, ‘Bingo-Master’s Break Out!’ in 1978, followed the next year by their seminal debut album ‘Live At The Witch Trials’.
Quickly, Smith began to craft a complex literary voice for himself which became as unmistakable as his own abrasive vocals. Musically, they would create hypnotic recurring patterns, best summed up by one of Smith’s lyrics: “The three Rs are repetition, repetition, repetition.” An early and consistent fan and champion of the band was Radio 1’s John Peel, who claimed The Fall were his favourite band because: “They’re always different, but always the same.”
The band’s most commercially successful period was during the ’80s, in the period when Smith was married to The Fall’s American guitarist Brix Smith. Albums including 1984’s ‘The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall’, 1985’s ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’, 1986’s ‘Bend Sinister’ and 1988’s ‘The Frenz Experiment’ remain among the band’s best loved work.
In 1986 Smith also wrote and performed in a play, ‘Hey, Luciani’, which centred on the life of Pope John Paul I and ran for two weeks at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios.
Band members of The Fall came and went quickly, although this did not appear to trouble Smith unduly. He once famously proclaimed: “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” On occasion, his truculence and aggression went too far. In 1998, he was arrested and briefly imprisoned in New York after assaulting the keyboard player Julia Nagle. He was later sent back to Britain to attend rehab.
In the 2000s, Smith collaborated with artists including Gorillaz, appearing on 2010’s ‘Plastic Beach’. The Fall have had a significant and wide-reaching influence on modern music, with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy citing Smith as a major influence and The Last Shadow Puppets regularly covering The Fall’s ‘Totally Wired’.
Perhaps the band’s most surreal influence was on Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s TV show This Morning with Richard Not Judy. Lee is a noted Fall fan, and in a nod to the 1988 album ‘I Am Kurious Oranj’ the show featured a character who was literally a curious orange.
In 2012, on the occasion of NME’s 60th Birthday, Smith wrote this magazine an cryptic note which read: “2: N.E.M. Happy 60th B’day. You always were lovers of the Beatles in the 80’s and never admitted it.”
His death was confirmed on 24 January 2018, in a statement which read: “It is with deep regret that we announce the passing of Mark E. Smith. He passed this morning at home. A more detailed statement will follow in the next few days. In the meantime, Pam & Mark’s family request privacy at this sad time.”
Mark E Smith leaves behind 31 studio records, most recently 2017’s ‘New Facts Emerge’, as well as 32 live recordings and various compilations. As the title of one of those compilations put it: ‘50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong’.