Mark E Smith: proletarian individualist

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Mark E Smith. Pic: goro_memo/Flickr

Mark Brown appreciates the contribution of The Fall’s irascible lead singer, who died in January.

Mark E Smith, enigmatic, unruly founder, frontman and driving force of the influential rock group The Fall died, aged 60, in late January. He was an often inspired, regularly drunk, sometimes awkward and, more often than not, brilliant musical artist.

A working class auto-didact from Manchester, Smith (who worked for a time as a shipping clerk on the Salford docks) became an unlikely rock legend after The Fall emerged as a viable concern in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The ever-changing group he created (in its 41 years The Fall went through 66 musicians, including Smith’s American wife, guitarist and singer Brix Smith) was one of the most exceptional forces in modern popular music.

Much has been made of the fact that Smith attended the Sex Pistols concert at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976. Also in attendance at the so-called “gig that changed the world” were founder members of Joy Division and The Smiths.

Unlike some others, however, Smith wasn’t happy to go along with the media narrative that the Pistols show was responsible for the explosion in Manchester bands that followed. Rather, he said, he watched the Pistols and concluded that his garage group was better.

So, The Fall (named after a novel by Albert Camus) launched itself on an unsuspecting public. The sound that emerged on albums such as Live at the Witch Trials (1979) and their breakthrough record Hex Enduction Hour (1982) was unlike anything on the post-punk/indie scene.

Intense, raw, often driven by a heavy bass line, The Fall’s music was defiantly anti-commercial. The group’s sound reflected Smith’s diverse influences, from the likes of American rock ‘n’ roll stars Bo Diddley, Captain Beefheart and Iggy Pop, to experimental German group Can.

The Fall’s songs were always as distinctive vocally and lyrically as they were musically. Smith’s vocal style was a Mancunian, working class growl. His deliberately fragmentary lyrics were an imaginative, literate, obscure, often humorously absurdist evocation of early-20th century avant-garde literature and American beat poetry.

Across the group’s 32 studio albums, Smith created a strange, urban world of cynical container drivers, self-regarding hip priests and East German athletes with suspicious illnesses.

The most significant quality of rock music is, arguably, its ability to exhilarate. Few bands were more successful in this regard than The Fall. The energy of tracks such as “Wings” (1983), “Big New Prinz” (1988), “Free Range” (1992) and “What About Us?” (2005) testify to that.

This energy translated into often powerful live performances, not least in I Am Kurious Oranj, the rock ballet the group created with rebel dancer and choreographer Michael Clark in 1988.

Such was Smith’s work ethic that The Fall continued playing live until November 2017, when the very ill Smith performed in Glasgow in a wheelchair.

Smith was a complex and contradictory figure, particularly in his politics. The Fall’s early support for Rock Against Racism and Smith’s statement, to The Independent newspaper in 2011, that he had been a supporter of the Socialist Workers Party in the 1980s, would seem to place him on the left. However, his support for the Tory government over the Falklands War reflected a more conservative strand in his politics, as do many statements in his excoriating and hilarious book Renegade.

In their famous “Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art”, French writer André Breton and Mexican painter Diego Rivera championed the artist’s struggle for the “ideal of self”. Smith epitomised this rigorous commitment to a singular vision.

Rebellious and disruptive, Mark E Smith was a unique, proletarian individualist. Rock music has lost one of its most creative and compelling figures.