Remembering Mark E. Smith

  Ace Records’ Liz Buckley on her close encounters of the MES kind.

Having thereby established myself as “a new person who gave him cash”, we continued to have occasional, pre-arranged catch ups on the landline at his sister Caroline’s house (the only place he could regularly be found, including his own house). One such call I remember him missing, with Caroline explaining “he’s gone to Tesco… He might not be back til Monday”.

As with Andy Warhol’s oft-quoted side-swipe on the state of modern culture that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, it had become fairly well-established comment on the state of Mark E. Smith that everyone would become a member of The Fall for however long they could stand it. Well over sixty (that’s 60) people have been that soldier over the course of the band’s 42 year career and despite the fact most recruits lasted less than a year, most of us who had yet to be conscripted were still up for their turn in the bunker. Despite most probably needing a gun.

The day it was announced only constant Fall-member Mark E. Smith had passed away saw social media awash with pretty much everyone I have ever known sharing a story of when they had either been in, worked with, saw or met The Fall. Without exception, all the stories were blessed with the dark humour, conflicted fondness and down-right exhaustion that MES’ reputation afforded, and the prevalence of anecdotes felt a very fitting tribute in itself – to love music means you never had more than six degrees of separation from MES, such was his influence, his proliferation and his ubiquity. And his inability to stay on any particular record label.

For my own part, in my early twenties, my first ever desk job had been dealing with some of Mark’s publishing royalties (in amongst other artists of course). We became friendly very quickly by virtue of my discovering he’d not been paid properly on some tracks in the US and so arranging a reasonably-sized, unexpected dollar cheque for him. Which he asked to be paid via a pawnbroker friend to avoid the money being swallowed up by his overdraft. Having thereby established myself as “a new person who gave him cash”, we continued to have occasional, pre-arranged catch ups on the landline at his sister Caroline’s house (the only place he could regularly be found, including his own house). One such call I remember him missing, with Caroline explaining “he’s gone to Tesco… He might not be back til Monday”. The owner of the publishing company had an insanely cute but also just insane Jack Russell who would sit sweetly on my lap whilst I worked, only to break the idyll of office pet life to try and murder anyone that rang the doorbell, instantly attempting to leap through both my ribcage and sheet glass. He would bounce from floor to (their) neck-height, tongue-lolling, flattening his face against the spit-smeared glass until someone said, “okay, shush”. Mark E Smith was the only person I’ve ever seen visit that office unannounced, walk in and laughingly pat this loose cannon on the head without fear of nearly losing an arm, all whilst laughingly him a complete bastard. And I’m fairly sure the only reason he was left in tact was that unpredictable but never-not-funny dog recognised him as a pup from the same litter.

Years later, working at Ace Records, we were putting together as part of a bigger series, a volume of original versions of songs The Fall had covered, the idea being to explore the band’s influences. Although not a (legal or otherwise) necessity of the project, it felt very important to me that Mark approved of the project and I tried once more to contact him at his sister’s house, not knowing if either of them would remember me; or indeed if this attempt to seek permission would actually be stupidly putting the kybosh on the whole idea. Mark remembered I’d looked after him many years before and wrote back to say that he trusted me to do so again – we were to proceed with his blessing. We could even put the fact that he liked the idea emblazoned on a bloody sticker if we liked. To have Mark E Smith’s blessing in anything at all, let alone on a sticker, felt insanely unlikely – nothing was a given with that man and for him to approve of you, you couldn’t help but feel you were in the sunshine… Obviously for him not to approve of you would feel the complete opposite, which is why the sleevenote writer probably wisely shied away from requesting a full interview. We stuck with feeling lucky.

In putting together the “Before The Fall” (geddit) compilation, as planned we did indeed learn something of Mark’s influences, influences that are not covered by existing interviews about his learned library – his love of Camus that lent the band their name for instance – or his well-thumbed record collection that lured Adam & Joe round for that difficult cuppa. We knew that MES was a Sister Sledge fan, a Nancy Sinatra fan, a Kinks fan. But we learned that Mark E. Smith was almost certainly a huge Kenny Everett fan, as many of the tracks the Fall had covered, despite seeming so disparate and unconnected, had been featured on one solitary green vinyl release on K-tel as put together by Kenny.

Mark was many things. Certainly ferociously funny, undoubtedly ferociously difficult; equally loved and hated for equally good reasons. In many ways he was unknowable, always changing, forever on the move. One thing that did always feel certain with Mark was that you would see him again, no matter how long it took inbetween. So nothing felt sadder than an email from Ticketweb last week offering a refund on The Fall’s Koko show in November that never happened, and now never will.

Brix Smith recently addressed her conflicting feelings for him in an incredibly eloquent and conciliatory obituary for her once-partner in everything, by saying that whatever he was, “he shook up the snow globe every day of his life”. A beautiful description. And sometimes when it settled, you were really surprised to see Kenny Everett.


 “Before The Fall” is available on Ace Records, with exclusive cover sleeve design by Savage Pencil

❉ Liz Buckley is a manager and compiler at Ace Records. Liz has also written about rock and pop for various publications and websites including We Are Cult, and in 2016 was one of ThatLot’s 30 Amazing Women You Should Follow On Twitter. Read our Cult & A with Liz here!

Liked this post? Take a second to support We Are Cult on Patreon!

1 Comment

Leave a Reply