Mark E Smith (1957-2018): 'A true uncompromising musical maverick'

Mark E Smith (1957-2018): 'A true uncompromising musical maverick'

As Sir Elton John announced his farewell tour, a very different kind of music legend managed to steal the headlines. Mark E Smith’s death was announced by his manager Pam Van Damned. The seemingly indestructible leader of The Fall for four decades, Smith died at home on Wednesday morning (January 24) aged 60.

Smith had been ill for some time and The Fall had recently cancelled shows. In October, he performed a gig in Wakefield in a wheelchair.

While Smith shared none of the pomp or commercial success of artists like Sir Elton, his post-punk outfit were arguably as influential as any band of recent decades. From Pavement to LCD Soundsystem and wayward indie-rock hopes Shame, The Fall’s otherworldly yet exhilarating sound can be heard widely among artists whose careers may not have existed without Smith.

“So sad to hear we’ve that we’ve lost Mark E Smith,” wrote The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess on Twitter. “A true uncompromising musical maverick. A genius, a curmudgeon and someone whose company it was an honour to share. So long M.E.S.”

It was one of many tributes from fellow artists, along with fans and music journalists - plenty of whom will have a Mark E Smith story in their collection.

While it’s true that Smith didn’t have much that was positive to say about other bands or even prominent supporters — his half-hearted tribute to John Peel on Newsnight was baffling — he was widely respected as an innovator and industrious musician. In his hilarious and eminently quotable autobiography Renegade, Smith’s scorn and surreal insights add up to a revealing portrait of a musical iconoclast.

The unclubbable Fall frontman was rare, perhaps even unique, in refusing to play the game - although he was happy to take money from movie studios and brands (the makers of a Twilight film apparently deemed a song submitted as “too scary”). Hip Priest, a Fall favourite from 1982 that apparently alludes to Smith’s Tarot card readings, featured in a showdown with a serial killer in The Silence Of The Lambs. A more prominent sync was Touch Sensitive in a Vauxhall Corsa advert.

Although Smith’s unique lyrics and the band’s post-punk energy made an impact with early albums such as Dragnet from 1979, The Fall were always more influential than they were successful. When they did crack the Top 40, it was with off-kilter cover versions of There’s A Ghost In My House and The Kinks’ Victoria.

The Fall released 31 studio albums with last year’s New Facts Emerge issued by Cherry Red. The band had partnerships with many key indie labels, including early releases on Rough Trade, a lengthy spell with Beggars Banquet and a record with Domino (2010’s Your Future Our Clutter). Step Forward, their first label, was run by Miles Copeland, brother of Stuart Copeland of The Police.

“I’ve never really got on with record companies,” said Smith in Renegade, though “millionaire’s son” Copeland was an exception.

“You had the freedom there,” he said. “We were treated very well.”

A mercurial, magnetic presence, his role in The Fall was more foreman than frontman: he barked orders, stepped in when things weren’t to his liking and kept the show on the road. His wives became members of the band, then left, but Smith and The Fall always continued.

Smith sacked numerous band members over the years, including Marc Riley who went on to become a BBC 6 Music presenter. So it was especially poignant that Riley ended up announcing his former band mate’s death live on air.

“I met Mark E Smith when I was 16, I went to see The Fall... I went away and I made a Fall T-shirt, and it often strikes me that if I hadn’t made that T-shirt, I probably wouldn’t be sat here now doing this because I went to the next Fall gig wearing the T-shirt, Mark saw it and asked me to become a roadie,” he said.

“He really did teach me so much - he taught me a load about life and a load about music. The Fall were my favourite band when I joined and they were still my favourite band when I got kicked out.”

After the 8.30pm news on 6 Music, Riley played his choice of Fall songs - It’s The New Thing, Oh! Brother, Edinburgh Man, US 80s-90s - from a vast catalogue that encompasses several labels.

Born in 1957, Smith grew up in Salford and formed The Fall in 1976 after attending The Sex Pistols’ gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. He had been working at the local docks and his approach to the band was to treat it as much like a job as an escape. They famously took their name from the translated title of the Camus novel.

Smith married Brix Smith in 1983 and she joined the group, pushing them towards a more commercial sound in the late ’80s with their first Top 20 album The Frenz Experiment. They divorced in 1989.

In 2001, he married Elena Poulou, who played keyboards in The Fall. She left the band in 2016.

Smith dismissed a long line of musicians over the years but the recent line-up - guitarist Pete Greenway, drummer Kieron Melling and bassist Dave Spurr - had been stable for a decade.

Of course, one member of The Fall was irreplaceable. The death of Mark E Smith also brings to the end more than four decades of one of the most influential and enduring British bands.

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