Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… March 5, 1957: Mark E. Smith, Poet, Provocateur, Genius Is Born

'The great thing about rock and roll is, any idiot can play it. The bad thing about rock and roll is, any idiot can play it.'

mark e smith
Source: WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Mark E. Smith was the frontman and only consistent member of The Fall for 42 years.

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Mark E. Smith was once asked by Smash Hits magazine what policies he would adopt if he became Prime Minister. “I’d halve the price of cigarettes, double the tax on health food,” he answered. “Then I’d declare war on France.”

He may have been joking; equally he may have not. It was frequently difficult to tell – and the fact that he was talking to Smash Hits at all was a pretty fine Mark E. Smith joke in itself.

Born on March 5, 1957 in Salford, Smith was perhaps the most singular figure in British music history. A mass of apparent contradictions, he was also fiercely invested in the truth of his own convictions. The same man who opined: “I agree with Colonel Gaddafi. Too much laptops, too much Nescafé,” also insisted his favorite things in life were “Scottish people, cats, Coronation Street, and [experimental Krautrock band] Can.”

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Ex-wife and former bandmate Brix Smith said of Smith that he carried “a chip on both shoulders. I remember him talking about fu**ing southern ba**ards a lot and not wanting to come to London. He hated London intensely. He’s quite contrarian as a person and as a writer, which is what gives him his edge.”

But then in another interview the proud Salfordian also insisted: “I don’t like Northern people, I don’t like Mancunians. There’s something about Manchester musicians that’s particularly fu**ing irritating. They have this sort of God-given right, which Londoners used to have I suppose. They think they’re superior, but they’re not. Manchester’s only got Freddie and the Dreamers.”

But Smith was so much more than a rent-a-quote misanthrope: sure, he was a boiling mass of energy and anger – but he was also a supremely gifted writer, and as the leader, only consistent member, and driving force of The Fall, the most important and influential figure to emerge from the bright mess of post-punk.

John Peel once said that “The Fall are the group against which all others must measure themselves” – when he was then asked which Fall albums he would recommend to newcomers, he replied, “all of them.”

Smith himself was more direct about his position in the band: “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.”

mark e smith the fall
Source: Stephanie Methven / WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

'If it's me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.'

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Over the course of 42 years and 31 studio albums, Smith hired and fired no fewer than 60 Fall members, including wives and girlfriends, sometimes mid-gig, and according to popular legend, in one instance by abandoning them by the side of a road during a snowstorm. As one commentator had it, he was “Caligula in a sweater”.

Some of those albums are near-unlistenable to casual ears, some instantly and sparklingly brilliant. But all are underpinned by the sheer force of Smith’s will and defined by the brilliance of his writing – a fluid, dense, and dizzying mash-up of cultural references and skewed wit: Ezra Pound and Albert Camus are there, but so are European football hooligans, bingo, Jabberwocky, Pete Tong and Lee Scratch Perry… all delivered in a sardonic, spitting, Salfordian sneer.

Mark E. Smith may not have been the most conventionally-talented singer, but he didn’t have to be: his voice was a weapon, his words ammunition. When the Fall covered Sister Sledge’s “Lost in Music” (because why wouldn’t a seminal post-punk outfit dig a bit of Nile Rodgers?) he not only changed the lyric from “I quit my nine-to-five” to “I quit my ten-to-five” but also inserted his own additions, including “The brick house refurbishment of pubs in the hideaway” and “The palace of excess leads to the palace of access”. Disco, pub culture, shortened working hours and a twisted take on William Blake: there’s The Fall, right there.

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Smith famously formed The Fall after seeing the Sex Pistols’ now legendary gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in June 1976 (a show whose audience of a few dozen also included members of Joy Division, Mick Hucknall and Steven Morrissey). Their first gig came 11 months later, their first EP, Bingo Master’s Breakout, was released the following year – by which time two of the original members had already left.

After the 1979 release of debut LP Live at the Witch Trials (not a live album, despite its name), described in a Sounds review at the time as “inner questioning hand in hand with rock and roll at its fiercest, its finest, its most honest”, The Fall developed a strong cult following. And cult was the operative word: The Fall didn’t have fans, it had acolytes. It still does. Nobody – or at least nobody sincere – “quite likes” The Fall.

The New Yorker once opined, “If you’re alive, chances are that Smith has a grudge against you”... but added “Along with Kraftwerk and James Brown, the Fall seems like one of those ‘other Beatles’—without it, an entire gene pool of ideas would not exist.”

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Mark E. Smith in the mid-80s, during the period of their greatest commercial success.

Their heyday, if it can be called that, came in the mid-80s to early 90s, during a period that largely coincided with Brix Smith’s time in the band (they married in 1983 and she left in 1989, following their divorce). Three albums from that time, The Frenz Experiment (1988), Shift Work (1991) and The Infotainment Scan (1993) all reached the Top 20 in the U.K. album chart.

Success, of course, did not change Smith. Band members were still hired and fired ruthlessly (and sometimes apparently on a whim), and his consumption of alcohol and amphetamines remained dangerously undimmed. So did his acid tongue: Smith had little time for the new crop of bands who were citing him as an influence… or even for the old bands with whom The Fall would often be lumped.

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Bob Geldof was “a brilliant chancer,” he wrote in his 2009 book Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith. “He’s built a whole career on Live Aid and do-gooding; a whole career that wasn’t there before. I mean, who listens to The Boomtown Rats and who buys his albums?”

Clash icon Joe Strummer was ”bluster over substance. The sad thing about it all is he distanced himself from his middle-class background and education, appropriated this tough heart-on-the-sleeve messenger stance so convincingly, but lacked the wit to take it anywhere fresh. He was preaching to the converted, and I don’t just mean his fans, but himself as well. He daren’t offend anybody, because they’d just charge him with being a phoney, and he daren’t look at it in a sceptical way, because then he’d be employing his privileged education. That was the crux of his problem.”

When James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem declared “The Fall are my Beatles,” in an early band bio, Smith wrote the song “Irish” in response, which contained the withering lyric: “They’re making my bad dreams over… James Murphy is their chief.”

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The Fall in 2017 - Smith kept gigging until months before his death.

After Smith’s death in 2018, aged 60, Matt Osman of Suede tweeted how Suede had supported the Fall early in their career (“to a man we were massive fans and VERY excited to be asked”)… and were thrilled to hear Smith interviewed on the radio by DJ Richard Skinner as they were on their way home after the show.

“We listened in intently,” he wrote. “Especially when Skinner asked, ‘Do you like any of the new bands who are calling you an influence?’

“Mark said, ‘Like who?’

“Skinner asked, ‘Well, like Suede.’

“There was a perfectly timed beat.

“Never heard of them.”

The Fall – and Mark E. Smith – never stopped. Even during his final months he continued to perform, drawling and sneering into the microphone from a wheelchair, physically frail but as sharp and uncompromising as ever.

“The great thing about rock and roll is, any idiot can play it,” he once said. “The bad thing about rock and roll is, any idiot can play it.”


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