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Sunday 18 March 2018

'He treated me with indifference, while I found him scary' - Neil McCormick on Mark E Smith

Neil McCormick met Mark E Smith of The Fall once, 37 years ago - but the indifference and the insults still rankle

WORDSMITH: Mark E Smith was a hugely imaginative lyricist
WORDSMITH: Mark E Smith was a hugely imaginative lyricist

Neil McCormick

Mark Edward Smith is dead. How do you mourn a man who could be copiously and provocatively unpleasant? A self-destructive alcoholic with an instinct for disorder?

The iconoclastic leader of The Fall was not an easy man to like but he was admirable nonetheless, a real artist, with a rare and fierce instinct for pursuing his own sense of truth. He made music unlike anyone else on the planet, concocting a sound seething with savagery and intellect.

I only had one run-in with the man myself. It was in Dublin in the very early 1980s. The Fall were playing a show, and hired my band's van and equipment. We drove them around, excited at the opportunity to hang out with a bunch of older British new wave musicians who had been in the NME.

They treated us with a mixture of indifference and contempt, barely acknowledging our existence except to occasionally insult us. Smith was the sharp centre of activity. "I like to push people 'til I get the truth out of them," is something he later said. He struck me as a man who looked for weaknesses in others and then mercilessly prodded their fault lines with malevolent intelligence.

I thought he was a scarily unpleasant bully. What I really remember is being so gobsmacked by his rudeness that I couldn't even be bothered to stay and see the show. My brother did, though, and reported that it was cacophonic but exciting. I did see later versions of The Fall play a couple of times.

They weren't very good on any objective level, barely in tune, barely in time, just making a racket while their malign frontman prowled the stage, intoning twisted poetry in a world of his own. So I can't pretend to be a fan of The Fall. But I know a lot of people who were, people whose judgment I respect, who found something in Mark E Smith's music that they could not find anywhere else.

Naming your band after an existential study of evil and the spirit of revolt by Albert Camus gives some indication of his proclivities. If The Fall could be said to have a sound, it was a squall of electric noise and nasty riffs shot through with Smith's sinister belligerence and surreal northern humour, a voice snarling and drawling with mesmeric swagger.

Occasionally traces of melody and pop structure were detectable amid the discordancy. The Fall made more than 30 albums under Smith's leadership, dense and claustrophobic works, the borders of their sound shifting but never compromising.

Some art broadcasts on a wide wavelength, lit up like a billboard that you can't but fail to see. Some art, though, acts more like a laser, an intense but focused light, fired into the darkness. But if it hits you, if it picks you out of the void, it can light you up with a personal intensity that broader, more obviously crowd-pleasing art will never achieve. If you got The Fall, if Mark E Smith's voice wormed its way inside your head and your heart, you were a fan for life.

That is the kind of obsessive one-on-one relationship described by music journalist Dave Simpson in his extraordinary book The Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain's Most Insane Group. It is what made that most eclectic and discerning of DJs, John Peel, a lifelong advocate. To some, The Fall may have sounded like noise and verbiage. To a few, it sounded like the truth.

Smith's lyrics were audacious, dazzling, baffling, inventive, dark and funny and wholly original. How many writers can you say that of? He was clearly hugely intelligent and charismatic, and maybe that big brain was a lot to handle, even for himself, one of those sparks too bright for the world.

Were drugs and alcohol ways of dulling or sharpening the senses? He was evidently not an easy man to be around, at least judging by the sheer number of musicians who passed through his ranks. Formed by the 21-year-old Smith in Manchester in 1976, The Fall were a pioneering punk band who very quickly outgrew the genre, striking out for territory entirely their own.

There were 66 members of The Fall over the band's 40-year existence, many of whom lasted less than a year. He is reputed to have sacked a sound man for ordering a salad. Smith would fire musicians in the middle of a tour, he would sack musicians in the middle of a show, he would provoke fights, and hire new members unfamiliar with their instruments.

Smith referred to it as a "squad rotation system" and once said, "If it's me and your granny on bongos, it's a Fall gig". He was searching for something, a chaotic sound only he could hear.

"If you're going to play out of tune, play out of tune properly," was another Smith saw. And here is a thing about The Fall. They are the kind of band whose records you listen to 10 years after they were made and think 'oh, I get it now'.

Their uncompromising sound inspired the post-punk noise rock of Pixies and Sonic Youth, the cerebral indie of Pavement and Arctic Monkeys, the rough grunge of Meat Puppets and Hole. Britpop group Elastica paid tribute to Smith on How He Wrote Elastica Man, with Smith himself as guest vocalist. Contemporary punk rap curmudgeons Sleaford Mods owe a huge debt to The Fall.

Smith died, aged 60, after a long illness. It is said he disliked the characterisation of him as a drunken northern curmudgeon. It should also be said that there were many who loved him, cherishing his uniqueness, seeing through his provocative nastiness.

And there were many more who loved his music, hearing something in it that resounded in their heads.

He once said his vision was "to make music that didn't exist because everything else was so unsatisfactory". You would have to say he achieved his ambition.

© Telegraph


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