Mark E. Smith
|Mark E. Smith|
Smith performing in May 2008
|Birth name||Mark Edward Smith|
5 March 1957|
Broughton, Lancashire, England
24 January 2018 (aged 60)|
Prestwich, Greater Manchester, England
Mark Edward Smith (5 March 1957 – 24 January 2018) was an English singer and songwriter. He was best known as the lead singer, lyricist and only constant member of the post-punk group The Fall, which he led from 1976 until his death.[A] Smith formed The Fall after attending a Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in June 1976. During their 42-year existence, the Fall's line-up included some 60 musicians who with Smith released 32 studio albums and many singles and EPs. His best-known recordings include "Totally Wired" and "Hit the North".
Smith had a difficult and complex personality and was a long-term heavy drinker. He was known for his biting and targeted wit, evident in interviews, for which he was much in demand by music journalists throughout his career. He was deeply suspicious of the trappings of fame and largely avoided socialising with music scene associates. The dark and sardonic aspect of his personality often seeped into his lyrics, and he especially sought to deride music industry people.[B] Smith's approach to music was unconventional; he did not have a high regard for musicianship, and said that "rock & roll isn’t even music really. It's a mistreating of instruments to get feelings over"; a tendency that contributed to the Fall's high turnover of musicians.
The Fall are regarded as one of the most important and influential post-punk bands. Although Smith was notoriously difficult to work with, he was revered by fans and critics during his lifetime, and was described as a "strange kind of antimatter national treasure".
Life and career
Smith was born to the working-class parents Irene (née Brownhill) and Jack Smith, in Broughton, Salford 7, the eldest of four siblings. He had three sisters: Suzanne (who later painted the front sleeve for the 1980 Fall album Grotesque (After the Gramme)), Caroline, and Barbara. His grandfather, James Brownhill, had been involved at the Dunkirk evacuation and fought in France during the Second World War. Jack was too young to have fought in the war, but joined the army as soon as he was old enough. The family moved to nearby Prestwich when he was six months old, occupying the house they inherited after his grandfather's death. Smith's father died suddenly in 1989 of a heart attack.
He has said that he didn't become interested in music until he was about 14, when he discovered Captain Beefheart. He attended Sedgley Park Primary School, and later Stand Grammar School for Boys before quitting aged 16. That year, he left home and moved in with his girlfriend and future Fall keyboardist, Una Baines, later of the Blue Orchids. He subsequently took an evening class in A-level Literature. His first job was in a meat factory, before he became a shipping clerk on Salford docks.
Smith formed The Fall, named after the novel by Albert Camus, with friends Martin Bramah, Una Baines and Tony Friel, having dropped out of college at the age of 19. Originally they were named The Outsiders, after another Camus work. He gave up his job as a shipping clerk at Salford docks shortly afterward to devote his full energies to the band.
The early Fall line-up came of age during the 1970s punk rock movement, although their music underwent numerous stylistic changes, often concurrently with changes in the group's lineup. The band's 40-year career can be broken into five broad periods, based on the band's membership. These include their early late 1970s line-up, the classic Fall period of Hanley and dual drummers, the Brix years of 1984-89, their early 1990s revival, and everything after the on-stage fight in New York, after which Hanley quit and Smith was arrested (see below).
Smith married American guitarist and Fall member Brix Smith on 19 July 1983, after they met in Los Angeles during the band's American tour earlier that year. They divorced in 1989, and he remarried twice after this. His second wife was Saffron Prior, who had worked for The Fall's fan club; their marriage ended in 1995. He married Eleni Poulou, also called Elenor or Elena, in 2001. Poulou joined the band in September 2002 and left in July 2016. Smith and Poulou divorced in 2016, and Smith's partner at the time of his death was his manager Pamela Vander.
Referring to the Fall's 60-odd former members, Smith claimed that he had "only" fired around half the number of people he is said to have dismissed, and that some left of their own free will. He would fire musicians for seemingly trivial reasons; he once dismissed a sound engineer for eating a salad, later explaining that "the salad was the last straw". Founding member Marc Riley was fired for dancing to a Clash song during their Australian tour, although the two had had many arguments beforehand. Smith said that he often changed musicians so that they would not become lazy or complacent.
When the influential British DJ and Fall supporter John Peel died in 2004, Smith made a notorious appearance on the BBC's Newsnight show in which he seemed stunned and incoherent, and which he afterwards put down to a rare incidence of stage fright.
While the Fall never achieved widespread success beyond minor hit singles in the mid and late 1980s, they maintained a loyal cult following throughout their career. Steve Hanley is regarded by some as one of the most talented bassists of his generation, equal to Peter Hook, Andy Rourke or Gary Mounfield.
Solo work and collaboration
Alongside his work with The Fall, Smith released two spoken-word solo albums, The Post-Nearly Man (1998) and Pander! Panda! Panzer! (2002). Both feature readings of Fall lyrics set to collages of electronic sound effects and samples of Fall songs, as well as contributions from members of The Fall. Smith appeared as a guest vocalist for Edwyn Collins, Elastica, Gorillaz, Long Fin Killie, Mouse on Mars, Coldcut and Ghostigital. His contribution to Inspiral Carpets' 1994 song "I Want You" won UK top 20 recognition, topped John Peel's influential Festive Fifty and resulted in Smith's first appearance on the UK TV show Top of the Pops. He worked with Mouse on Mars on the project Von Südenfed, whose first album, Tromatic Reflexxions, was released in May 2007. Smith provided guest vocals on the song "Glitter Freeze" from the 2010 Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, and joined the group Shuttleworth to record the World Cup song "England's Heartbeat".
In 1986, he wrote the play Hey, Luciani based around the short reign of Pope John Paul I. Smith made a cameo appearance in the Michael Winterbottom film 24 Hour Party People (2002), while his younger self was portrayed by Sam Riley in a section that did not make the final cut of the film, but is featured as a deleted scene on the DVD. Smith made an appearance in the BBC Three sitcom Ideal in May 2007, playing a foulmouthed, chain-smoking Jesus. A fuzzy, muted version of Fall song "Hip Priest" (1982) appeared in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs.
Lyrical and vocal style
Smith's sang with a heavy Mancunian accent, and his lyrics were often cryptic. His abstruse song titles, often derived from cutting out words and phrases from books and newspapers, reflect the same tendency, with a notable example being "To Nkroachment: Yarbles" (1985). His vocal style was similarly unusual, and his delivery is well known and often parodied for his tendency to end each phrase with the word "ah". He often speak-sang or sing-slurred his lyrics, especially from the mid-1990s. His singing voice, particularly when playing live, has been described as "rambling", and he often interjected improvised rants between verses. He tended to write lyrics as free form prose into one of his many notebooks, and only later set them to pieces of music composed by Fall musicians. He was a prolific writer who often wrote in dense continuous prose, which he would later edit down into lyrics.
A number of his vocal tracks were recorded spontaneously at his home, when he sang into a dictaphone or cassette recorder, most notably sections of "Paintwork" from the Fall's 1985 album "This Nation's Saving Grace", which also includes the voice of Alan Cooper discussing main sequence stars, from a documentary Smith happened to be watching at the time. He later adapted the resulting sound effect in the studio; examples include the use of a megaphone for the intro to "Bad News Girl" (1988).
His ability as a prose writer is evident in songs that abandon the verse/chorus format in favour of a long continuous narrative. Examples include "Spectre Vs Rector" (1979), "The North Will Rise Again" (1980), "Winter Part I" (1982), and "Wings" (1983). Fall songs written in this style are often not concerned with character or story development, more establishing a sense of place and atmosphere. By the late 1980s, Smith had largely given up this format. Some early songs concern one of his assumed alter-egos, though always from a third person point of view. Examples include Roman Totale XVII, "the bastard offspring of Charles I and the Great God Pan", who appears in "The N.W.R.A" (1980), the live album Totale's Turns and the sleeve credits for Dragnet, as well as the characters in "Fiery Jack" (1980), "Hip Priest" (1982), "The Man Whose Head Expanded" (1983), and "Riddler" (1986). Rare first person narratives include "Frenz" and "Carry Bag Man", both from 1988's The Frenz Experiment, as well as "Bill Is Dead" (1990), which he said was his favourite Fall song, and "Edinburgh Man" (1991). He did not respond to requests to explain the meaning or sources behind his lyrics. When asked by a journalist as to how much of his self could be found in the song's characters, he replied "dunno, you're the one sitting there in your round glasses and leather jacket. You tell me what you think its an extension of...for every bloke pulling a pint, there's about ten thousand journalists writing an article about it."
Fragments of his lyrics often appeared as handwritten scribbles on early Fall album and single covers, coupled with collages he had put together. In a 1983 interview with Sounds, Smith said that he liked artwork to reflect the album content and explained how his graphic choices reflected his attitude to music. He mentioned how he was drawn to cheap and misspelled posters, amateur layouts of local papers and printed cash and carry signs with "inverted commas where you don't need them". His technique was often imitated, for example on Pavement's early releases, which heavily resemble the artwork for Hex Enduction Hour (1982), and whom Smith described as "mere Fall copyists".
His lyrics were described by critic Simon Reynolds as "a kind of Northern English magic realism that mixed industrial grime with the unearthly and uncanny, voiced through a unique, one-note delivery somewhere between amphetamine-spiked rant and alcohol-addled yarn." He described his approach as wanting to combine "primitive music with intelligent lyrics". Thematically, his frequently densely layered words often centre around descriptions of urban grotesques, gloomy landscapes, "crackpot history", and are infused with regional slang. In interviews, Smith cited Colin Wilson, Arthur Machen, Wyndham Lewis, Thomas Hardy, Philip K. Dick as influences, as well as Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Raymond Chandler, and H. P. Lovecraft.
Smith had a very complex character, was often reactionary, didn't suffer fools and was defiantly Northern English; according to Brix, he "had a chip on both shoulders. I remember him talking about fucking southern bastards 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." Throughout his career, he clashed with musicians, record producers, sound engineers, record label heads and fellow Manchester scene alumni such as Tony Wilson, Peter Hook, Shaun Ryder and Morrissey, whom he disparagingly referred to as "Steven". Smith had a working class and anti-intellectual outlook, but a strong interest in literature. As writer Andrew Harrison observed, although he wished that a majority of his audience were miners and postmen, a great many were students or Guardian readers.
According to biographer Simon Ford, Smith often treated musicians as would "[a] bad tempered despot". He was highly charismatic and cultivated a wiry and misanthropic personality during interviews and live performances. As an interviewee, his dry and caustic wit was very quotable, especially when he was critiquing other contemporary bands and "music personalities", a favoured pastime. He became a mainstay of the English music press throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and his sharp tongue often turned on the journalists themselves; many reported being nervous before meeting him, and published "war stories" afterwards.
During his later career performances he would often walk off stage or interfere with the musician's instruments. During a 1998 gig at Brownies in New York, at a low point in his life when he was drinking heavily and band morale was at its lowest, he became involved in an onstage fight with the other musicians, which led to three Fall members, including long-term bassist Steve Hanley and original drummer Karl Burns, quitting the band, and ended with Smith's arrest for assaulting his girlfriend and Fall keyboardist Julia Nagle. Smith was ordered to undergo treatment for alcohol abuse and anger management. After a period of good behaviour, the charges were dropped.
Released as a single through Rough Trade in 1980
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Smith said that his favourite things in life were "Scottish people, cats, Coronation Street, and Can". He was a passionate football fan and lifelong Manchester City F.C. follower. He admired mavericks such as George Best, whom he met and drank with, and observed how if Best could have drawn a crowd of 40,000 people a week he should have been able to "do what he liked".
Originally a Labour supporter, Smith became disillusioned during the Tony Blair era and joined the Socialist Workers Party. In the 1997 election, He voted for the Conservative Party in opposition to Blair. Asked during a mid-1980s interview with Smash Hits as to what policies he would adopt if he became Prime Minister, he said "I'd half the price of cigarettes, double the tax on health food, then I'd declare war on France." He claimed that his outsider political viewpoint was best described in the title of his 1980 single "Prole Art Threat".
Mark E Smith died on 24 January 2018 after a long illness with lung and kidney cancer, aged 60 years. His health had been particularly bad during 2017, which led to wheelchair-bound performances. A heavy smoker, Smith had long suffered from throat and respiratory problems. His work ethic and output, however, never declined and throughout his illness he continued to release a new album close to once a year.
Smith was both resigned and ambivalent about his legacy, especially in the terms of the fad-orientated music industry of which he was often harshly critical in his lyrics. He noted, somewhat bitterly, how "every artist wants credibility. A couple of years ago, I read a poll on the hundred best artists of all time. The Fall was in there between Mozart and Puccini. I was very proud of that. Of course, the next day I can pick up a paper and be the guy with no teeth who beats everybody up." Despite this, he was widely influential and critically acclaimed throughout his career, in part because he did not seek to capitalise on, or associate with, then current trends, which after they had ended might have dated the band. He was particularly dismissive of the Madchester scene, and the "techno shit" of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Similarly, he refused to look backwards; when recording he was adamant that the Fall not repeat themselves stylistically, and when playing live he refused to play old songs. The approach is further seen in his strategy of frequently replacing band members. Long-term fan John Peel said that "The Fall are the group against which all others must measure themselves", and when asked which Fall albums he would recommend to newcomers, he replied "all of them". In January 2005, Smith was the subject of The Fall: The Wonderful and Frightening World of Mark E. Smith, a BBC Four television documentary.
A number of alternative rock artists have mentioned Smith in their songs. The English band Elastica released the track "How He Wrote Elastica Man" in 2000, a reference to the 1980 Fall Song "How I Wrote 'Elastic Man'", while in 2014 the Fat White Family released an EP titled "I Am Mark E Smith". Sonic Youth covered three Fall songs, as well as the Kinks' "Victoria", which they released in 1990 as the 4 Tunna Brix EP.
Solo work and collaborations
- Steve Hanley is second to Smith in longevity in The Fall, having served from 1979 to 1998. He is one of the few Fall musicians to whom Smith always gave credit. In a late 1980s interview, Smith said that "the most original aspect of The Fall is Steve...I've never heard a bass player like him. He is The Fall sound" See Melody Maker interview, 18 June 1983
- See for example Fall tracks "Music Scene" (1979), "Leave the Capitol" (1980), "Elves" (1984), and "Hey! Student" (1994)
- Edge (1989), 8.
- Youngs, Ian. "Mark E Smith: British rock's cult hero". BBC, 24 January 2018. Retrieved 24 January 2018
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- Maume, Chris. "The Fall's Mark E Smith has become a strange, antimatter national treasure". The Independent, 5 March 2016. Retrieved 17 March 2017
- "Musician, poet and satirist, Mark E Smith was driving force of The Fall". Irish Times. 25 January 2018.
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- Ford (2003), 1.
- Ford (2003), 2.
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- Ford (2003), 3.
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- Reynolds (2006), 174.
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- Harrison, Ian (2016). "The 40 Years War" (PDF). Mojo. 274: 66.
- Pareles, Jon (25 January 2018). "Mark E. Smith, Uncompromising Leader of The Fall, Dies at 60". The New York Times. p. B14.
- Chalmers, Robert. "Life lessons: Mark E Smith on bullying, the occult and why Stalin had the right idea". The Independent, 13 November 2011. Retrieved 27 January 2018
- Smith, Mark E. "Mark E Smith vs The Sound Engineer". Unknown. Retrieved 4 February 2018
- Mark E Smith on John Peel, BBC, 2004. Retrieved 8 January 2007
- "Dave Simpson – The Fallen". Thefallenbook.co.uk. Archived from the original on 19 February 2012. Page promoting book
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- Thompson (2000), 425–427.
- Inspirals Biography Archived 4 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
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- "Mark E Smith Is Jesus", Uncut, 5 January 2007. Retrieved 24 January 2018.
- Beck, Jay. Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008. 78. ISBN 978-0-252-07532-2
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- Edge (1989), 55.
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- Ford (2003), xi.
- Robertson, Sandy."Hex Enduction". Sounds, 8 May 1982. Retrieved 4 October 2015
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- Herrington, Tony. "Mancunian Candidate". The Wire, September 1996.
- Reynolds (1996).
- Hogan, Marc. "10 Songs That Defined the Fall and Mark E. Smith". Pitchfork, 25 January 2018. Retrieved 27 January 2018
- Marvin, Joe. "Mark E. Smith interview". Fanzine Interview. Archived from the original on 14 July 2006. Retrieved 10 December 2006.
- Smith, Mark E (2008). Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 978-0-670-91674-0
- Lee, Stewart (2004). "Mark E Smith, Man At His Best". Esquire Magazine. Retrieved 28 July 2007.
- Stubbs, David. "The Indelible Prinz". Melody Maker, 12 November 1988. Retrieved 12 November 1988
- Storytime With Mark E Smith BBC. Retrieved 21 December 2007
- Ford (2003), xii.
- O'Hagan, Sean. "Brix Smith Start: ‘Mark E Smith? He’s complicated’". The Observer, 1 May 2016. Retrieved 27 January 2018
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- Harrison, Andrew. "Mark E Smith: A sudden end to forty years of prole art threat". New Statesman, 25 January 2018. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
- Beaumont, Mark. "“I survived a Mark E. Smith interview”: one NME writer’s unique experience with the post-punk provocateur". NME, 25 January 2018. Retrieved 27 January 2018
- "Mark E. Smith, Post-Punk Singer for The Fall Dead at 60". RollingStone.com. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
- Edge (1989), 65.
- Chalmers, Robert (13 November 2011). "Life lessons: Mark E Smith on bullying, the occult and why Stalin had the right idea". The Independent. Retrieved 21 November 2011.
- "Mark E Smith", Sunday Times, 25 January 2018; retrieved 28 January 2018.
- "Statement". thefall.xyz. 12 February 2018. Retrieved 2018-02-12.
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- Edge, Brian (1989). Paintwork: A Portrait of the Fall. Omnibus. ISBN 978-0-7119-1740-8.
- Ford, Simon (2003). Hip Priest: The Story of Mark E. Smith and the Fall. Quartet. ISBN 978-0-7043-8167-4.
- Hanley, Steve (2014). The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall". London: Route. ISBN 978-1901927580.
- Reynolds, Simon (1996). The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock 'n' Roll. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674802735.
- Reynolds, Simon (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. London, UK: Penguin Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1-101-20105-3.
- Smith, Mark E. (2014). Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith. Penguin Books Limited. ISBN 978-0-241-97243-4.
- Thompson, Dave (2000). Alternative Rock. Miller Freeman Books. ISBN 978-0-87930-607-6..
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