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Mark E Smith: An Obituary

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Kate Morgan

"Life should be full of strangeness."

The brawl that broke out at The Fall frontman Mark E. Smith's wake is in many ways a more fitting epitaph to his chaotic life than any obituary. With bottles thrown across the Woodthorpe Hotel, one of Smith's favourite watering holes, several of the band's many, many ex-members were quick to assert that the man himself would have accepted nothing less. In the last year of his life, Smith casually announced in a Guardian interview with Sheffield-based writer Daniel Dylan Wray, "I can clear a pub when I want to."

Yet MES was no phony Mancunian gobshite. While Oasis' rise to fame is inseparable from the cartoon swagger of lads' lads Liam and Noel to the point of self-parody, Smith's eccentricities seemed born of a more genuine character. Meeting him, one never felt the spectator to any sort of rock star act. Seeing him lurch through Prestwich on his way to the pub, one would have had to admit that lyrics like, "I've no time to sit comfortable down / But I still need armchairs round my home / To put carrier bags on," ('Carry Bag Man') probably came from a very personal place.

MES was no phony Mancunian gobshite

Interviews could be unpredictable, with Smith often putting more energy into sinking pints of bitter than giving intelligible answers. Working with him creatively was often just as challenging. Difficult indeed, but above all an uncompromising and committed visionary.

Born in working-class Salford in 1957, Mark Edward Smith formed post-punk band The Fall in 1976 in Prestwich, north Manchester. Musical influences included Can and The Velvet Underground, as well as left-wing political thought and literary figures, including William Burroughs, Thomas Hardy and H.P. Lovecraft, resulting in sometimes bizarre magical realism in lyrical content that is as distinct and northern as the kitchen-sink dramatics of Jarvis Cocker or Morrissey's scholarly self-pity. The unyielding Smith enforced an infamous hire 'em & fire 'em policy on The Fall, resulting in over 60 ex-members, yet while tales of excess and outright madness are in abundance, very few associates speak negatively of their time under Smith's dictatorship.

Mark E. Smith died at home on 24 January 2018 at the age of 60, the result of a long illness exacerbated by a lifetime of alcohol and drug excesses. Dedicated to the end, Smith continued to write, record and tour without complaint, wheelchair-bound and despite complications from various medications.

As sole executor of The Fall's vision, Smith remained the only constant member. Commercial successes seemed largely coincidental and the band always retained an instantly recognisable sound outside of musical fads and fashion trends, perhaps best summarised by illustrious Fall fiend John Peel with the oft-cited oxymoron, "They are always different, they are always the same."

Flirtations with scratchy post-punk (1980's 'Fiery Jack'), complex, satirical avant-garde (1982's Hex Enduction Hour), industrial noise, pop melodies (1988's The Frenz Experiment) and dance music (1992's Code: Selfish) mean The Fall have always avoided simple categorisation. Yet signature pulsating basslines and cyclical yet chaotic song structures, adorned with Smith's perfectly tuneless bark, have remained constant fixtures throughout an incredible 31 studio album releases.

If one can find love in the band's perfectly apt mantra, "Repetition in the music and we're never gonna lose it," there is a wonderful and frightening world of varied music to be discovered.

Jordan Lee Smith

Next article in issue 120

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