The people who died, 2018: Mark E. Smith, irascible frontman of the Fall

March 5, 1957-Jan. 24, 2018

Dec 26, 2018 at 1:00 am

"If it's me and your granny on bongos, then it's a Fall gig."

A young Mark E. Smith started the Fall in the Manchester suburb of Prestwich after that legendary 1976 Sex Pistols show in Manchester that inspired the majority of attendees to start bands the next day. It was the only time in his life that Smith would (unwittingly) succumb to rock cliché. He spent the next 40 years trying his best to dismantle rock & roll and the music industry from the inside.

Though he looked like an ill-tempered postal clerk or substitute teacher, Smith was punk and disorderly to the very core. With the Fall, he built a sound antithetical to the idea of musical proficiency, favoring instead spontaneity and creative tension. He laced it with biting, clever, often poetic lyrics, and ended up with something every bit as inspirational as Gang of Four or Wire. The Fall was a band that (to its horror, perhaps) influenced generations of punk, new wave, and alternative rock bands, and Smith became a de facto role model to those for whom the underground was more than just a temporary lifestyle choice. What other post-punk band had enough cultural cachet to score a major label record deal (again), during the grunge revolution of the 1990s?

The unforgettable songs and anthems piled up like discarded ex-band members (a cohort over 60 strong, all told) — "Totally Wired," "Mr. Pharmacist," "The Classical," "Hip Priest," "Glam Racket," "Ghost in My House," "Big New Prinz." Did you ever hear the Fall's cover of disco standard "Lost in Music"? If the albums aren't enough to slake your thirst, the Fall recorded 20-plus live sessions with equally legendary British DJ John Peel over the BBC's public radio airwaves between 1978 and 2004.

Despite this fearsome productivity, Smith kept the Fall proudly "unprofessional." If during a concert Smith would drink himself into oblivion, unplug an amp (or five), mess up keyboard settings, change up the setlist, or recruit a new drummer 15 minutes before showtime, what of it? As Smith himself barked, it's just "creative management, cock!" Smith was the Fall's only constant member during the band's 40-plus years of intense creative drive (they were contemporaries of Joy Division, just to put things in perspective): one or more albums a year, restless, constantly changing music, grueling touring schedules that have the logistical sense of darts thrown at a map of the world, and a bandleader who apparently hasn't eaten solid food in decades (subsisting on a liquid diet, as they say), dedicated to spontaneity, conflict, and uncertainty in day-to-day business affairs.

Smith anecdotes are almost as legion as Fall anthems, suffused with a sui generis, cranky mystique. There's the apocryphal story of him catching some of his bandmates dancing to "Rock the Casbah" at an afterparty in the '80s and summarily delivering slaps to every offender, or when he almost singlehandedly bottled Mumford & Sons off the stage in the early '00s; the time he fired a sound engineer for eating a salad, and fired a drummer on the unlucky percussionist's wedding day; or when he agreed to play on British chat show Later... With Jools Holland with the contractual condition that the titular host not play "boogie-woogie piano anywhere near the Fall."

His neverending embrace of chaos and tension had an ugly side to it; he could be vile and abusive to those closest to him. And yet, most remained loyal, believing in their flawed leader's vision, like the long-suffering Hanley brothers and, of course, Smith's most famous creative foil, guitarist and ex-wife Brix Smith. Brix was the most iconic member of the Fall, after Smith, a glammed-up American punk who contributed unforgettable serrated riffs to pivotal albums like The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall and The Frenz Experiment. Photos and video from her tenure in the Fall are essential and electrifying to view, like transmissions from a strange, alternate future. Their breakup was equally as seismic, though she rejoined the band for a brief time in the 1990s.

Smith died at 60 after a long battle with cancer, but was still doing shows in a wheelchair the year before he passed, and never ceased writing and releasing music regularly. There will likely never be a pop star quite like him again.

From "The people who died, 2018."

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