R.I.P. Mark E. Smith

Following the death at the age of 60 of Mark E. Smith of Manchester postpunk band The Fall, Japanese music magazine ele-king asked me to write an article (an obituary, I suppose), about him. I can't claim a deep or extensive knowledge of his enormous back catalogue of music, but nevertheless I count myself as a fan, not least because he was one of the most extraordinary poets in the English language of the modern era. For Japanese-speakers, the ele-king article is here. I'll post the original English text below the fold.

Growing up in England in the 1990s, I was only ever vaguely aware of The Fall as anything so simple as a band. The Fall and Mark E Smith existed like shadows, moving inscrutibly behind pop culture, occasionally penetrating its screen and allowing something disconcerting and otherworldly to slip through.


Smith’s voice was familiar as the vaguely American-tinged Manchester accent ranting down a telephone line on The Inspiral Carpets’ “I Want You” and Elastica’s “How He Wrote Elastica Man”.


The comedians Stewart Lee and Richard Herring used The Fall’s “Kurious Oranj” as the theme song and basis for a bizarre recurring character called The Curious Orange (a giant orange with a human face who asked rhetorical questions that he wasn’t interested in learning the answers to, and who had a inexplicable taste for human flesh).


On the radio, Ex-Fall member Marc Riley had his own DJ slot on the schedules. Meanwhile John Peel was famously one of their biggest fans and could always be relied on to play them as the BBC bounced his show around their radio schedules in muddled embarrassment.


These confusing fragments of The Fall that slipped through the cracks seemed funny and absurd, but they also always had something a little dark, dangerous, magical about them, something hexen (the raw, Germanic “hex” was always a more appropriate word for Mark E Smith’s particular brand of sorcery than the more graceful, French-derived “magic”). It was enticing, but actually stepping beyond them and entering into the world of The Fall was a more difficult step to take. It was a world the band themselves had, with admirable self-awareness, already labeled “wonderful and frightening”, but more than that, ’90s England didn’t have an easy place to put them.


Media discourse around of pop and rock culture in ’90s Britain was characterised by a simplistic, two-dimensional split between “working class, northern and real” as exemplified by bands like Oasis, and “middle class, southern and pretentious”, for which Blur were made the convenient stereotype.


Mark E Smith wasn’t made for such simple times, and the media struggled to classify him, make him palatable, to neutralise his witchcraft. It reduced him to adjectives describing a celebrity persona: “fractious”, “irascible”, “curmudgeonly”. It’s with words like these, worn to clichés over time, that Mark E Smith was turned into a caricature of a grumpy old man, a rambling, incoherent old coot, yet nonetheless lovable for his eccentricities – co-opted as that most grotesque and sanitised of cultural constructs, a “national treasure”. These words drew a magic circle around him and made him safe for the English, protected them from what was truly dangerous about him.


English culture has always had trouble dealing with the idea of working class intellect. Working class people are supposed to be simple, down-to-earth, unpretentious (that is to say unimaginative), suspicious of reading or anything else that smells of cultural elitism. They are celebrated for this, but also patronised – it is one of the ways the ruling classes keep them in their place. Art, poetry and intellectual ambition, meanwhile, are for middle class liberals – people like me, who the working classes are encouraged (often accurately) to think of as effete, dissembling and disconnected from reality.

Mark E Smith threatened this model of understanding English culture. The idea of working class music in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was most comfortably defined by the kitchen sink realism of Paul Weller and The Jam. Smith, on the other hand, was a poet, whose lyrics tripped through cryptic, occult flights of imagination and referenced Nabakov, Lovecraft, existentialist novelist Colin Wilson, and in the band’s name Albert Camus.


His songwriting also tore a ragged hole through the art-school intellectualism of the postpunk era, making the radical sentiments of even undeniably great contemporaries like Gang of Four, The Pop Group and fellow Camus fans The Cure seem prissy and inhibited by comparison.


As a lyricist, Smith combined intelligence, mysticism, humour both bawdy and harshly observational, and an instinctive, utterly distinctive understanding of the aesthetics of language. He was a Prole Art Threat that challenged both established prejudices about the working class and the bourgeois grip on the arts.

Beyond the words, the music Smith made with The Fall was every bit as important. If The Damned and The Sex Pistols showed that basically any talentless bum off the street could play rock’n’roll, The Fall showed that those same talentless bums could make entire universes. Repetitive, shambolic and insistent, there were simple punk- and garage-rock chords and riffs underlying much of their output, but there were also the sparse, otherworldly, industrial spectres of Neu! and Can. It all sounded as instinctive and immediate as any punk rock, but it also had that mythical element, that sense of dislocated reality, that only the most truly inspired musical visionaries ever have.


For me, all the elements that made The Fall such an essential band and Mark E Smith such an extraordinary frontman come togetherin  “Iceland” off the album “Hex Enduction Hour”. Two endlessly looping piano notes hammer away in the foreground, reducing the growing cacophony of drums, scratchy guitars and the piano’s wandering right hand to background texture. Meanwhile Smith urges us to “witness the last of the god-men”, “roll up for the underpants show”, “make a grab for the book of prayers” and “cast the runes against the self-soul” – a seemingly nonsensical clutch of nonetheless evocative images, hexes cast scattershot across the pop cultural landscape of 1980s Britain to bleed out their arcane magic over the subsequent decades.

Over the course of their 30+ albums, Mark E Smith and The Fall left enough of a mark on their own for any further validation of their influence to be unnecessary. Nevertheless, it’s heartening to see their hexes still at work.


It’s an interesting and sad coincidence that Smith’s death coincided so closely with the death of Japanese rapper ECD, a similarly difficult-to-classify artist from a similar background, who was admired for his unique lyrical sensibility, and whose influence filtered subtly through into the punk, underground, hip hop scenes and beyond.


While listening back over some of the best Japanese indie and underground albums of last year with a view to writing some retrospective reviews of 2017, echoes of The Fall kept bleeding through there too. You can hear them in the oddball garage rock and meandering vocal rants of Bossston Cruizing Mania’s “Idea”, in the repetitive rhythmical minimalism of Triplefire’s “Fire”, in the dry, disaffected postpunk of Sekaitekina Band’s “New” and WBSBFK’s “Open Your Eyes”.


With last year’s “New Facts Emerge” seemingly The Fall’s final album, it will be up to bands like these and more to keep casting those hexes over future generations.

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