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Remembering Mark E Smith: The complicated politics of The Fall’s genius leader

A portrait of Manchester musician Mark E Smith of The Fall, Salford, Manchester, 18th March 2011. (Photo by Kevin Cummins/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

A year after the death of The Fall’s leader – and following his own Mastermind tribute – fan MIC WRIGHT ponders the politics of a proven contrarian.

On January 24, 2018, Mark E Smith died in Prestwich, just miles from Broughton, the suburb of Salford, where he’d been born 60 years earlier. Eight months later, I sat down in Mastermind’s famous black chair to answer questions on my specialist subject: Smith and the group he led for 42 years – The Fall.

My tribute to him was 13 points, one pass, and one extremely obvious question answered incorrectly. One YouTube commenter called my performance ‘a dismal failure’. Could answering questions on a group that released 30 studio albums and had at least 60 members pass through its ranks have been anything else?

Those called on to write obituaries for Smith a year ago tended to scrabble around for a narrow set of adjectives. The Daily Telegraph called him ‘incorrigibly truculent’. The Guardian chose ‘irascible’. The New York Times opted for ‘uncompromising’.

It would have perhaps been a little too soon to grab more direct terms like ‘dictatorial’ or ‘despotic’. When I told people I was going on Mastermind with The Fall as my specialist subject, those who knew about Smith’s reputation wondered what it was I liked about it so much. It wasn’t the person, but the work he made. I didn’t want to be friends with Mark E Smith or even see him as a hero.

Take Brexit. While I voted Remain and write for this newspaper, Smith viewed the whole thing as somewhat welcome chaos. Asked for his opinion on the political upheaval by the Louder Than War website in a July 2017 interview, he said: ‘I thought it was great… still do.’ But then, he’d always been a fairly reactionary and difficult figure to pin down politically.

Despite being a member of the Labour Party for a period, in the 1980s, he backed the Falklands War and told Smash Hits that, if he were prime minister, he’d ‘halve the price of cigarettes, double the tax on health food, then declare war on France’. His list of dislikes, drawn up in 1987 at the NME’s request, included ‘France (permanent)’, as well as Berlin, ‘all Dutch groups’ and ‘England’s idea of Mexican food’ among many others.

At a glance, you could write Smith off as the Nigel Farage of British music – a pub-dwelling eurosceptic with a mile-wide xenophobic streak despite having a German wife – but that would be painfully simplistic. Throughout his career, Smith was powered by a demonic mischievousness that fed into a lyrical style that wilfully mixed influences and references with little concern for how much the passing listener would understand.

Like so many people, I encountered The Fall via John Peel’s late night broadcasts on Radio One. At first, they made no sense to me at all, but over time they came to make all of the sense. Smith’s hip priest intonation over a characteristic combination of clattering guitars and drums was mesmerising but it did very little to welcome you in. You had to earn it.

Smith firmly set out his intentions on The Fall’s first album, 1979’s Live At The Witch Trials, declaring in the opening couplet of Crap Rap 2/Like To Blow: ‘We are The Fall/northern white crap that talks back…’

A year later, he explained in an interview with the NME: ‘The ‘white crap that talks back’ thing was due to people in London being told that people in the north are thick, or warm, friendly people.’

Smith was a working class autodidact, formed not by art school or the prodding by some Svengali (as both The Clash and The Sex Pistols had been), but by working as a shipping clerk at Salford docks and studying for his English A-level at night school, after teenage years spent stewing in the novels of Arthur Machen, Philip K Dick, HP Lovecraft and Colin Wilson.

At the apex of The Fall’s – and therefore Mark E Smith’s – list of influences – above rockabilly, garage bands and some of the more obscure corners of British psychedelia – were the German rock group Can. Smith explained how he first encountered Can in a 2017 conversation with the group’s keyboard player Irmin Schmidt: ‘I ordered it by post. It was called mail order. The first record I bought was Tago Mago. When I was 15, I was a hardcore Velvet Underground fan. And other friends of mine who were also listening to The Velvet Underground told me that I should listen to Can. So I filled out a postcard, and two weeks later I got back a Can record – from London… Can saved my life.’

The Fall’s most explicit tribute to Can is 1985’s I Am Damo Suzuki, from the album This Nation’s Saving Grace. Named after Can’s frontman, the song is heavily influenced by the sound of the German group’s track Oh Yeah and Suzuki’s own deliberately mangled use of the English language.

In May 2018, the connection between The Fall and Suzuki came full circle when the Can frontman performed with Imperial Wax, a group made up of the final Smith-less Fall line-up. While they accept that they can’t be The Fall without Smith, its in keeping with his spirit that they’re continuing to make new art. Throughout his career Smith maintained a consistent dislike for the nostalgia of ‘look back bores’. He would have certainly despised this article.

One of the most frequently repeated quotes about The Fall is John Peel’s assertion that ‘they are always different; they are always the same’. It’s because it’s a near perfect encapsulation of what kept The Fall fascinating. Yes, they were always anchored by Smith’s particular and peculiar lyrical and vocal style, but with shifting line-ups throughout the 1980s and 1990s, The Fall had more phases than any stable unit could ever produce.

Between 1983 and 1989, the first period during which Smith’s then wife Brix was a member of the group, The Fall began to trouble the charts with an injection of more pop sensibilities into their sound. In 1990, Smith collaborated with electronic duo Coldcut on Telephone Thing, a prescient screed about eavesdropping and surveillance, signposting the inclusion of more dance-inflected elements into The Fall’s sound.

Smith’s link with German music was refreshed in 2004 when he collaborated with another electronic duo, Mouse On Mars, before forming a new band with them, Von Südenfed, to release the album Tromatic Reflexxions. The album’s harsh grooves provided a welcome opportunity to hear Smith’s lines in a new setting, but he later claimed he had been fired from the group after illness led to a series of live performances being cancelled. The situation was further confused by reports that conversations were underway to produce a second Von Südenfed album.

While Mark E Smith was internationalist in his influences and his love life alike, he was firmly rooted in a working class British outlook. He lived in Prestwich for most of his life and died there. He was most powerfully-inspired by Can and toured the world, but was stubbornly xenophobic and contrary. It’s as difficult to unpick his relationship with Europe as it is to sum up Britain’s relationship with the continent in general – we want to take from those European traditions but also to be seen as separate and extraordinary.

Although Smith isn’t around to give us his opinion on the current Brexit mess, a quote from him in an on-stage conversation at the Green Man festival in 2015 gives a good indication of what he might have said: ‘So, my wife is German, right? A lot of Europeans think the British are great. I personally don’t. One of the examples I say is crisps. Because there’s a pressure group, isn’t there? So, some idiot in a crisp company had the idea of asking what flavours they want. You go to a supermarket and you can’t get plain crisps, can you? It’s like democracy gone mad, isn’t it? It must be only 8% of crisp eaters who take the time… they control your life, the pressure groups. Because the marketing managers can’t be bothered to do some proper work and make some plain crisps.’

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