Mark E. Smith (1957 – 2018)

Veteran inkslinger Jon Wilde pays tribute to the inimitable, irreplaceable M.E.S.

When Mark E. Smith’s death was announced on the evening of 24 January 2018, it came as little surprise to many. For at least twelve months, rumours had been circulating that M.E.S. was in perilously poor health.

YouTube footage of one of The Fall’s final gigs in October 2017 made for grim viewing – Smith in a wheelchair, arm in a sling, face bloated almost beyond recognition. All the same, The Fall sounded as mesmerising as they ever did. Randomly chaotic yet stupendously well drilled. Angular. Feverishly intense. Claustrophobic. Hypnotic. Unsettling, even threatening. Occasionally transcendent. With Smith at the helm, unsmiling, barking out his chopped-up narratives, as Frank Skinner memorably put it, ‘like a man shouting from a prison window.’

As the obituaries rolled in, penned long in advance, awaiting their bleakly inevitable moment, the opinions spewed out below the lines of newspaper columns. There was no obvious consensus. Devotees vehemently argued that The Fall were fully deserving of their place in the musical pantheon, true greats, immortals. Dissenters opined that The Fall were a terrible bloody din and barely qualified as music at all. One Guardian reader remarked that, ‘The Fall weren’t so much a band, more a well-intentioned 1970s Manchester Council unemployment initiative that snowballed out of control’. Another described them as sounding like ‘a runaway metalwork class’, although it’s unclear if that was meant as a compliment or an insult.

What most people could agree on was that The Fall, love them or loathe them, were utterly unique.

 

‘We are private detectives onward back from a musical pilgrimage
We work under the name of the Fall.
Who would suspect this?
It is too obvious.’ (Before The Moon Falls, 1979)

 

M.E.S. formed the group (he insisted they should never be called a ‘band’: Smith was a stickler for rules of his own making) in Manchester in 1977. At the time, he was working on Manchester Docks as a customs clerk. This was a time when the metropolitan impetus of punk rock was being challenged by the provinces, when the indignant revolt of the Sex Pistols and The Clash was giving way to the studied neurosis of Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire. But The Fall had no place – nor wanted one – in either camp. Some called them ‘post-punk’, but never to Smith’s face. He was not a man who took kindly to being pinned down.

From their inception, Smith’s Fall were bloody-minded-outsiders, ‘Northern white crap that talks back’, perpetually at right angles to all other music, to all other possibilities.

And that’s pretty much how they remained, right up to their final and 32nd studio album, 2017’s New Facts Emerge.

 

‘O’er grassy dale, and lowland scene
Come see, come hear, the English Scheme
The lower-class, want brass, bad chests, scrounge fags
The clever ones tend to emigrate’ (English Scheme, 1980)

 

In the immediate wake of The Fall leader’s death, there was no obvious consensus about Smith himself either. Below the column lines, he was variously described as ‘a confrontational genius’, ‘a nutter with a drink problem’, ‘a poet in a forest of bricks’, ‘a disagreeable oddball with bad teeth’, ‘the epitome of the prole art threat’, ‘a bit of a twat’, and so on.

Lenny Kaye once said about Iggy Pop, ‘Nobody did it better, nobody did it worse. Nobody did it, period.’ The same could be said about M.E.S. To paraphrase John Peel’s famous quote about The (‘Mighty’) Fall, he was ‘always the same, always different.’ Either way, same or different, Smith was always distinctly himself. For better and for worse.

From the very beginning, The Fall was Smith’s medium for expressing his unique worldview.

Everything outside of The Fall was meat for his stew. And he took great delight in stirring it .

‘We’ve got repetition in our music and we’re never gonna lose it,’ he announced in 1978. Right to the end, The Fall’s own peculiar brand of repetition provided an open structure through which Smith roamed like a suspicious caretaker, flashing his torch from one empty dark room to another. He saw things differently. His sense of reality was not like yours or mine. His cryptic lyrics were a stark reflection of that skew-whiff reality, making their own kind of sense, inviting you into Mark E. Smith’s world, which was rarely comfortable and never offered the kind of boil-in-the-bag consolations peddled by most other ‘rock’ lyricists. His direct antecedents were difficult, dogged men like William S. Burroughs and Captain Beefheart, artists who relentlessly pursued their own vision and felt no obligation to the demands of the marketplace.

You might argue that The Fall, with Brix in the fold, deliberately took a commercial turn in the mid-80s, scoring top 40 hits with covers of There’s A Ghost In My House and Victoria. Even then, Smith’s haranguing, pitch-imperfect voice ensured that their record releases maintained a healthy, disdainful distance from the rest of the charts. Around this time, they were often accused by Fall purists of selling out. The truth is that, in the first place, The Fall never sold in to anything. They were always a law unto themselves.

One of my favourite stories about The Fall involve them being courted, briefly, by Motown Records. It was 1982 and Motown’s UK wing had hired a new A&R man to shake up their rather stale roster. As it happened, the new guy was a big Fall fan. Just the band to shake things up a little, he reasoned. So he convened a boardroom meeting of Motown bigwigs who were eager to hear what all the fuss was about. The A&R guy stuck Hex Enduction Hour on the deck and sat back, confident of a positive outcome. The Classical boomed out of the speakers, with Smith yawping, ‘Where are the obligatory niggers? Hey there, fuckface!’

The Motown memo apparently read, ‘We have listened to The Fall. In our opinion, they have zero commercial potential.’

And so it came to pass that Mark E. Smith narrowly failed to become a label stablemate of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye.

 

‘Tight faded male arse
Decadence and Anarchy
He said, he smiled
Something to dance to
A certain style’ (Smile, 1983)

 

I first met M.E.S. in 1982. By this time, they had been my favourite group for five years, ever since the release of their wonderfully slapdash debut single, It’s The New Thing. My love for them bordered on obsession.

During the early 80s (unemployed, responsibility-free, and poor as a church mouse), I would hitch-hike around the UK, blagging my way into randomly selected gigs in godforsaken towns, mostly in the frozen north. I tended to naturally gravitate towards The Fall who, at the time, were arguably at their dizzying peak as a live act. I would turn up to Fall gigs in places like Hull and Carlisle, wait for the band to arrive for their soundcheck, and nervously approach Mark to blag my way in on the guest-list. Though he’d already earned the reputation as an abrasive character, in those situations he was always approachable, always accommodating; a gent, in fact.

By the following year I’d started writing professionally, for NME and various post-punk fanzines. It was in 1983, around the release of the Perverted By Language album, that I interviewed him for the first time. I turned up at his house in Prestwich, Greater Manchester. He immediately handed me a can of lager and established the ground rules: ‘Listen up, cock. Don’t go poking around my house. I had Julian Cope here last week. He was sticking his head in my wardrobe, asking me questions about my record collection. I won’t put up with any of that. It’s important to keep a few secrets.’

That was the first of eight interviews I did with M.E.S. down the years. He had a good memory for faces and, without fail, would greet me with the words, ‘You alright, Jon? Are you courting?’

His reputation as an awkward interviewee went before him and I was always acutely aware that he was a man who could turn on a sixpence.

I quickly worked out how to get the best out of him without riling him up. Avoid questions about his personal life. Never ask him about the single or album he happened to be ‘promoting’. Best avoid the subject of The Fall altogether, especially mention of former members. Frame the interview more as a conversation than an interrogation. Keep it random. Match him pint for pint. Never, ever miss the cue if the next round was yours. When Smith’s glass was two-thirds empty, that was the time to get another in.

In 1988, around the release of the Bend Sinister album, I returned to Smith’s house in Prestwich, which he was now sharing with Brix who had become his wife. It was a rare opportunity to sneak a peak into their domestic life. While I fired questions at M.E.S., Brix busied herself in the kitchen, knocking up a mushroom soup from scratch. Quite pointedly, Mark launched into a rant about how home-made soup was never as tasty as the tinned variety (‘The thing about tinned soup is that it keeps the flavour in.’) Brix said nothing but glared in his direction in such a way that suggested the evening would end with Mark kipping on the sofa.

He was always in his element when given free reign to launch into a lengthy rant. The most humdrum subjects (soup, fish fingers, gardening shows on TV, refuse collection, cats) would set his imagination alight. But, equally, he could talk eloquently and knowledgeably about politics and history.

He would tell one journalist, ‘It’s natural to gripe at things like British Telecom. One time I was using the phone a lot and I dialled a number, and I could hear people munching sandwiches and talking about my last phone call. I actually rang the operator and said, “Look, I’m trying to dial a fucking number here and I can’t get through because your people are talking about my phone calls. Have you got a bloody license to do this?” And she slammed the phone down on me!’

Another time he opined, ‘’Nuking Russia might not be a bad idea as far as the bleedin’ world is concerned. They’ve plunged a lot of people into miserable lives. You’ve only got to be in East Germany to see it. It’s a horrible way to live. It’s like Middlesborough.’

He would rattle off opinions like someone going beserk with a submachine gun in a shopping mall. I often got the impression that he felt little responsibility for what came out of his mouth. Sometimes I wondered if he suffered from some weird form of Tourette’s.

He was wildly unpredictable. He was never dull.

 

My new house
I do love the mad things about it
According to the postman
It’s like the bleeding Bank of England
Creosote tar fence surrounds it
Those razor blades eject when I press eject.’ (My New House, 1985)

 

We got along famously until, suddenly, we didn’t. In 1992, I wrote a scathing review in Melody Maker of a compilation album released by Smith’s label, Cog Sinister, which concluded with the words, ‘Where’s Smith? I’ll kick his arse.’ He was not amused, called me up at three in the morning and left a message on my answer-phone, threatening to come round my house with his mates and knee-cap me. I wasn’t sure how seriously to take the threat. My then wife took it very seriously indeed and stayed up all night, clutching a hammer, just in case.

Apart from that, I always found M.E.S. to be as nice as ninepence. My favourite meeting with him took place a few months after the knee-capping threat. Frieze, the high-end modern art magazine, despatched myself and author Michael Bracewell to Manchester to talk to M.E.S. about his love of art. This was a subject he’d often alluded to in interviews, but had never properly been drawn out on.

The knee-capping threat was never mentioned that day. Indeed, Smith was charm incarnate. Greeting Bracewell and myself at Manchester’s Piccadilly station, he suggested that we repair to the nearest tavern where he got the first round in and, for the next three hours, waxed hilarious about The Fall, art and The Fall as art.

That afternoon, he explained that the idea of The Fall had always been to simply write intelligent lyrics over a raw, basic beat. ‘That’s never changed really. One thing we always get is, “this is their most commercial album for ages”. In fact, the LPs have become less and less commercial over the years and I’m quite proud of that. The problem with that is people get this idea that we’re determined not to do well. Which isn’t the case at all. So we get Top 30 singles and they won’t even consider us for Top of the Pops. lt’s the last thing they want. I think there’s a fear of The Fall in that respect. People pre-judge. If they actually heard us, they’d find us entertaining and stimulating. lntelligence is actively discouraged these days though, isn’t it?’

One thing he was anxious to clear up was the idea that he set out to alienate his audience. He was immensely proud and fiercely protective of Fall fans.

‘Our audiences have always been a bit weird. Well, not weird actually. I think they’re the salt of the earth. I get letters from kids in Wales. Their lives have been transformed by The Fall. I suppose, if you’re on the dole in Wales, there’s nowt else to do unless you’re out burgling. These guys in Wakefield, miners and all that, they’ve all grown up with wives and kids, and they’ve been with us since 1978. They don’t buy records anymore but they’re still into The Fall. It means a lot to me. They read interviews I’ve done and write me postcards saying, “Reel ’em in, cock – the lads in the Wakefield Pit”.’

True to form though, he made it abundantly clear that neither he nor The Fall would be neatly pinned down, not by anyone.

‘I hear people say that we’re a student group. They must be fucking joking. I don’t mean to sound prejudiced but, if you go to university, you’re a bit daft anyway. I’ve nothing against students, mind. We play student places quite a lot. You walk into the disco and there’s all these kids on the dancefloor jigging around to Lynyrd Skynyrd records. When Slates came out in ‘81, we lost our student audience overnight. I was fucking glad about that.

‘I feel a bit sorry for kids these days, if you want to know the truth. They’re obsessed with animals and all that. That’s quite nice I suppose. I’ve got two cats myself. But they’re putting the frighteners on kids these days. Giving them anxieties they don’t need.  I saw something yesterday. It was horrible. These kids in tears about elephants. I blame the fucking teachers.’

Eventually, after six or seven rounds and a fair bit of coaxing, he talked about art, after a fashion.

‘’Some of The Fall’s stuff is art and some of it isn’t. We get it and we lose it. I like that, as it happens. I think a lot of my writing is art but I’m a bit shy about saying that in case it’s taken the wrong way. I’ve seen too many rock bands go out and pretend they’re art. You get classed with them. I’ve always been careful to keep away from all that. I’d like to be considered as an artist. But I don’t want to get into David Byrne territory. I’m not knocking the guy, but he was never any good to begin with.

‘I like good art though, always have done. If I had the money, I’d invest in it. But I’ve never made any money. It doesn’t bother me. I can live on a fucking quid a week, me.’

Interview completed, he offered to walk us back to the station. En route he collided with a lamppost and seemed to be under the impression that the lamppost was a local youth. ‘See what I mean?’ he said as we parted ways. ‘Young people don’t know how to walk these days. They spend all their student grants on trendy vitamins and they’re all going fucking blind. The bleedin’ government needs to take a look at the situation.’

 

‘I was walking down the street when I tripped up on a discarded banana skin/and on the way down I caught the side of my head on a protruding brick, chip/it was the government’s fault /I was very let down with the Budget /I was expecting a one million quid handout/I was very disappointed /it was the government’s fault.’ (Dog Is Life/Jerusalem, 1998)

 

As the 90s played out, there were signs that his lifestyle was starting to take a heavy toll. M.E.S. wasn’t just a heavy drinker. He smoked like a laboratory beagle and had maintained a steady amphetamine habit since his teenage years. His attitude towards healthy eating is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that he once sacked his sound engineer for ordering a salad in a greasy spoon.

At times, he looked for all the world like a man who had become trapped in his own persona – not an unusual occurrence in the music world.

In interviews, he came across as increasingly truculent and misanthropic. In one memorable encounter with Loaded’s John Perry in 1997, he began the interview by attempting, without the slightest provocation, to stub out a cigarette in the writer’s eye. Refusing to answer any questions, he instead concentrated his energies by punching his way through a wall, then instigating a scuffle with the hotel’s bar staff. When the Northern Irish band Ash entered the bar, he started a fight with them: ‘Without me, you’d be fucking nothing, you useless cunts. You owe me a fucking living, all of you.’

The following year, things took an even darker turn when Smith was arrested in New York for allegedly choking, punching and kicking The Fall’s keyboard player, Julie Nagle, in a hotel foyer. At the time, Nagle was Smith’s girlfriend.

Bass guitarist Steve Hanley, one of 66 musicians who would pass through The Fall’s revolving door, and an essential component of their sound from 1979 to 1998, would later write an unflinching memoir (The Big Midweek) in which he documented his time in the group. The endless tales of Smith’s psychological (and occasional physical) abuse of band members made for a harrowing read. As one reviewer put it, the book read like the testimony of a prison-camp survivor.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, it was around the time of Smith’s New York arrest that I began following The Fall less avidly. From time to time I belatedly caught up with their recent albums and, occasionally, was reminded just how great they could be. My obsession had become more casual.

My last interview with M.E.S. came in 2005, for UNCUT Magazine. He was 48 and looked like a man twenty years his senior. The first thing he did when we met was profusely apologise for the knee-capping threat from thirteen years earlier. ‘It was out of order,’ he said. ‘I’d had a bit to drink, y’know. But I shouldn’t have done it. You’re a good lad, Jon.’

When I heard that he’d died, I sat down and wept. The Fall had soundtracked a large chunk of my life. In some ways, they were the only group that really, really mattered to me. If I had to name my 100 favourite songs of all time, at least twenty of them would be Fall songs*. If I had to nominate my ten best gigs of all time, at least half of them would be Fall gigs.

I’d spent many hours in the company of M.E.S. and his mind was, without doubt, one of the brilliantly original that I ever encountered.

A couple of days after his death was announced, someone asked me if Mark E. Smith was a hero to me. It’s not an easy question to answer. In the final reckoning, there were too many stories about his bullying, control-freak behaviour for the word ‘hero’ to sit easily.

But, more than anyone else, he was someone who taught me that it was OK to think differently, to think for myself, and damn the consequences. Life was made a lot stranger when he was around. It will seem a whole longer stranger now he’s gone. Twat or genius, he is irreplaceable.

‘Let me tell ya about the weird lights
And the snazzy jazzy tune
Real person on mock stage
In the fishbowl city
They were regarded as snazzy
I cried for the band
I cried outside
I cried for the man’ (Snazzy, 2015)

 

* The Twenty Greatest Fall Songs

  • The Classical
  • Smile (Peel Session Version)
  • No Bulbs
  • It’s The New Thing
  • L.A. (Peel Session Version)
  • Dice Man
  • New Face In Hell
  • Garden
  • Fiery Jack
  • Oswald Defence Lawyer
  • Bill Is Dead
  • Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul
  • Edinburgh Man
  • Free Range
  • Touch Sensitive
  • Living Too Late
  • Laptop Dog
  • Hit The North
  • Impression Of J. Temperance
  • Pay Your Rates

Born in Milford Haven and kidnapped by gypsies in infancy, Jon was set for a career as a professional footballer until a painful toe injury put paid to that. At 18, he became a professional journalist, going on to specialise in interviews with legendary hellraisers like George Best, Oliver Reed, Dennis Hopper, Richard Harris, Keith Richards and Iggy Pop. He was once beaten up in a Dublin bar by Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins. The proudest moment of his career was when TV playwright Dennis Potter declared that he was, ‘a dead ringer for Brian Clough when he was knocking in goals for Middlesbrough.’

Jon now divides his time between journalism and his work as a mindfulness/meditation teacher. 

He lives in a tent. 

10 Comments

  1. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the boy Wilde is a national f*ckin’ treasure, no doubt about it. I will strip to the waist and fight anyone who says different. Fabulous bit of inkslinging once again from the ex Milford United winger and ladies’ pin up from west Wales: insightful, poignant and peppered with one liners that will take up permanent residence in your frontal lobe for the rest of yer days. The line about the suspicious caretaker is worth the price of admission alone. Oh and honest too, not the borderline hagiographies we’ve seen so far. Mark E would av approved and that IS saying something. Professor Wilde has mixed it with the great and the good, a fact which permeates this piece and all his writing. Had the balls and the brass neck to actually face Mr. Smith, which makes being duffed up by Alex Higgins and his goons seem like a Women’s Institute cheese n wine evening by comparison. A spiffing article for a spiffing website. A real treat.

    Tim Barrett

    PS. Mind you, when it comes to his Fall top 20, Wilde is talking out his arse. How he didn’t include ‘That Man’ in his top 20 Fall tracks is beyond me. Or ‘No Xmas for John Quays’. Like me, he had his ear permanently glued to the late night speaker of his mum’s radiogram when Peelie first played that back in the dark but exciting days of ’79. Yeah, he knows f**K all…

  2. Tim Barrett? Former lead singer with Pembrokeshire anti-music legends Personality Defects?! That man is the original poet ruffian, and no mistake. The boy Barrett makes a fair point about That Man. No Fall Top 20 is worth its salt without that wee beauty. Reducing The Fall to 20 numbers is always going to be a fool’s errand though. As soon as you pick 20, another 20 immediately spring to mind. It can drive a man mad. And a man could lose himself in London. Lose himself…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vPb1LOU09g

  3. JW great writer, bad career choices? MES genius and twat. More MES, less JW, would have given us more of the JW glimpsed in MM, flattened by Low-dead. “Trapped in his own persona” since. Lyrics, quotes, “top” 20 here just more re-hash. Free JW!

    • Alex, the above piece is not an obituary. It’s a personal perspective. I would have thought that was obvious. Thank you for paying such close attention to my career. Very touching. Frankly, I couldn’t give a toss what you think of my ‘career choices’, pal. I’ve had a great time, travelling the world, talking with interesting people. Free as a bird. How have your career choices panned out? Please feel free to share. X Jon

      • My turn to state the obvious. I am not your pal. I was fan of your writing. Saw something in you, as a reader. You clearly gave a toss. About the writing. Suspect you still do. Here’s to the future!

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