“That’s why I’m proud of The Fall, there’s never gonna be a fuckin’ Fall tribute group
because nobody can do it” Mark E Smith 1957-2018
‘How am I doing?’ Thanks for asking. I suppose that I’m going through the stages of grief. I’ve reluctantly let go of denial but can’t quite reach acceptance. I already miss the next newFall track that I will now never hear. I miss the wonder, the thrill and the laughs. The Fall were/are the most fun you can have live or on record.
I’m a fifty-two year old man and so I have gone through ‘real’ grief more than once. I do realise that I can’t genuinely mourn a person that I never even met; it’s a purely selfish mourning, mourning for the death of The Fall, the death of future possibilities, the death of art.
One denied possibility being that Mark E Smith might read that paragraph and rip into me for that ‘death of art’ comment, likely saying that I’ve been knocking around with the middle class too long and he’d be right.
Mark E. Smith didn’t take praise very well. He was always scornful of the many groups who revered The Fall’s output. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem copped it in The Fall track ‘Irish’, no doubt for comments like “the Fall are my Beatles” (me too, Jim, in fact The Fall are still greater than The Beatles in breadth, depth and rollicking tunes but you can’t tell some people, they just have to learn by experience or remain forever ignorant).
Mark’s chest does once appear to puff-out with pride in one documentary where he recalls that Bo Diddley told him that he’d seen The Fall on a music show and said that they were ‘the only rock and roll band on there’. But if you want to see how his usual ingratitude could be very funny watch Mark accepting his NME Godlike Genius Award on Youtube – ‘I think the achievement should go to the people who can read the NME from cover-to-cover.’
It’s probably a very good idea for an artist to refuse to believe their own publicity, good or bad. His rage against “the look-back bores” like me who want to talk about past glories burned bright to the end; as he said, Thomas Carlyle’s command “produce, produce” drove
his vision. The Fall was a job that needed to be done and he treated it with the pride of a working class tradesman; he’d be no more likely to talk about ‘the difficult second album’ than his plumber father would have talked about ‘the difficult second bathroom’. Also, if he had listened to his own myth he would likely have been tempted to give us more of what he thought we liked before. Thankfully he didn’t and so you’d go to a Fall gig and be disappointed if you didn’t hear at least one brand new work-in-progress track. It was always jamais vu and not déjà vu with The Fall, live and on record.
Neither of us will ever see The Fall live again but it’s worth remembering that he was a supreme showman, without ever having to resort to being showy. His apparent ‘anti-performance’ attitude typically contrarily made him a performer that you couldn’t take your eyes off. The thousand-yard- stare, the sparing words following the traditional greeting ‘good evening we are The Fall from the long, long times…’ intro where he set the tone (see the Glastonbury 2015 intro on Youtube for a typical bit of ‘Marking’ of territory from the off). I’ve never seen an
artist look like they cared less what you thought of what they were doing whilst caring so much (as his obsessive control of every aspect of The Fall and its legacy betrayed).
His periodic wandering about the stage ‘live mixing’ by twiddling with amps, using two mics, grabbing mics randomly, putting them up against speakers to create something new and in-the-moment kept the tension going and was sometimes as entertaining as his stage asides, though maybe less so sometimes for his young troupe when on occasions their instruments were turned off altogether by accident or design.
From what Fall musicians tell us in their books and interviews, this was how he got things done. Whenever anything was in danger of becoming comfortable or predictable, he’d throw some kind of spanner into the works to see what came out the other end of the machine.
And the voice! Pretty much any idiot can hold a tune in a conventional way and many do, some to great financial reward. Mark’s instrument though was different within the same gig or the same record, let alone across the span of 42 years: scat, growl, imperious declamation, whimsy, phlegmy, croon, distortion, frightening, playful, theatrical, iron fist and velvet glove but always unignorable. Like everything about The Fall, it made you come down for or against and he himself said he liked it when people didn’t like The Fall, at least they’d taken it on and made a choice.
He always described himself as a writer rather than a musician and his respect for words came out in the way he could cut them into brilliant brain-worm gems that shined out even against the dazzling variety of Fall sound. That said, though there were the literary allusions, the poetry of songs such as ‘Winter’ and the sharp commentary on society over four decades, it’s often the actual
laugh-out-loud moments when you were blind-sided by a phrase that most often comes back to you – ‘stop messing around pal! I’m Wolverine!’ or ‘the Dutch are weeping in four languages at least’ or ‘Australians in Europe think – why did Great Grandad leave?’ (you’ll, find your favourites, if you haven’t already).
So, not a musician but he managed to lead over 60 musicians through over a hundred studio and live recordings and countless gigs using his “punter’s ear” to direct, produce and star in the infinite variety that was ‘Fall sound’. And it WAS its own sound. Some people might say that The Fall was post-punk, or like this-or-that kind of music and it’s so varied that you can find elements from funk, rock, country, electronica.rockabilly, dance and — and — and — but The Fall ultimately only sounds like The Fall and you can’t bottle it or replicate it. As he said himself in an interview for Noisey in the British Masters series “that’s why I’m proud of The Fall, there’s never gonna be a fuckin’ Fall
tribute group because nobody can do it.”
You can’t ignore his bloody difficult side but I’m not going to re-hash the stories and rumours here. There are stories about his generous side too. Simon Wolstencroft, eleven years his drummer told me that Mark had set the band members up with medical insurance and a pension scheme – a pension scheme in The Fall, who indeed would have thought it? Simon also spoke of Mark, the proud working class autodidact,
as so often being the funniest, best and most intelligent and informative company.
Although I can feel sympathy for the band members, including Simon, who sometimes caught the backdraft of the creative anger that his art seemed to feed off, the glorious achievement of The Fall is bigger than all the stories, good or bad. Also, keeping the movement that was The Fall going from behind the barricades would have been intense and often seemed to take that out on himself as well.
When you read about his nerves all day before a gig, you realise that his front was part defence mechanism. Despite the many talented musicians, the weight of The Fall fell on his slight frame throughout. Either way, I read that Einstein was very unfair to his first wife and Prokofiev truly appalling to his wife but does their behaviour good and bad diminish their genius? Mark E Smith may have been no Mandela but could Mandela have ever have given us Spoilt Victorian Child?
So, no more ‘following the Fall’ for me, or my lad, Jack. It was often said that being a Fall fan was like following a lower league club, with the relatively small but devoted fan base and the changes in line-up. There’s something in that, except that The Fall had the resources of Accrington Stanley but more often than not played like Barcelona.
There’s so much more to say, we haven’t even properly got on to the invention and wit. Fall track titles were more entertaining than a lot of groups actual songs – ‘The League of Bald- Headed Men’ anybody? So, I could go on and I will continue to do so until my last breath to anybody who will let me. You often read about ‘the cult of The Fall’ because of the intense devotion of a relative few followers but it should be
‘the church of The Fall’ and a broad church at that, with all the variety within. Although I’m guessing his advice would be to stop mithering and move on to the next possibility, like he did.
To think I actually only joined the ‘church’ twelve years ago on the recommendation of Michael Pollard who co-designed the cover of the Fall classic and critic’s favourite ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace.’ That short, life-altering, conversation has given me so much, including a deep regret that I missed the first thirty years of The Fall (OUCH!). But the music’s still there for us both and I’d recommend that you go to the peerless
http://thefall.org/ to drink it in to the bottom of the glass and then go back for regular refills.
Missing about 75% of Mark E Smith’s life’s work has meant that I go to more gigs on-spec than ever now. What else might I be missing out on? A part of me will now be looking for ‘the new Fall’ but as they say ‘good luck with that’.
For all things Fall – http://thefall.org/discography/a-z.html
For my radio series on The Fall’s music go to https://www.mixcloud.com/ChurchOfTheFall/
The series was first broadcast on http://www.fabradiointernational.com/fab-radio-schedule/friday/the-church-of-the-fall-with-stephen-g-titley