'It is cruel and blind
And does not compensate
The brutal fracture.'
I used to get anxious about running into Mark E Smith.
Generally, the phrase ‘never meet your heroes’ is taken to mean: you probably have a rosy yet simplified image of your heroes which difficult, nuanced reality will be unable to match. That couldn’t really be said of Smith, who passed away last week at the age of 60. Smith, in his 42-year capacity as frontman/ringleader of The Fall, was known for many things: profuse drinking, difficult music and turbulent relationships with almost everyone he came across, not least his fellow band members (66 in total), many of whom were abruptly fired and few of whom have anything good to say about their time in the group. Whether someone like this has been a ‘hero’ to me is difficult to say.
It was when I first moved to Manchester that I started to get anxious about running into Smith. This was due to a convergence of facts: I now lived in Manchester, Mark E Smith lived in Manchester, I played guitar, Smith was known for recruiting musicians into The Fall from chance meetings. I knew that if I did find myself in the same room as him I would feel compelled to speak with him, and possibly to fish for that magical opportunity. Although the precedents are foreboding - with the experience uniformly reported as unpleasant, often traumatic - who truly would turn down the chance to join The Fall?
For those on the outside, understanding the appeal of this group (never ‘band’) is impossible: they make jarring, inconsistent music marked by off-keys singing and gibberish lyrics, fronted by someone whose life’s work seemed to be to alienate or at the very least annoy. But attempting to understand is how people end up getting into The Fall, finding themselves first listening out of curiosity, then growing interested in re-hearing one or two musical ideas, then finding a fragment of lyrics has taken root in their thoughts. Next thing they know, they're up front at Manchester Academy, with a wish-list of rarely performed tracks they're sweatily hoping to hear.
I remember someone once described Nico’s weird druggy albums as ‘not so much music you get into, more a hole you fall into.’ The same is true of The Fall. Indeed, their appeal has something virus-like to it, striking down at random regardless of the individual: any Fall gig had more than its share of blokey serious musos, but also kids in tracksuits and middle-aged accountancy dads who’ve rushed from their offices, all there to worship at the altar of this northern weirdness.
It’s seeing them live that the anti-appeal of The Fall is at its starkest. Their gigs could famously often be chaotic events, but they were reliably tense. Almost any recording will corroborate this but this performance of ‘Latch Key Kid’ is fairly representative.
You never see anything like a smile pass between band members, let alone eye-contact. Instead they simply try to play the song, keeping their heads down while Smith prowls the stage like a revenant, shouldering them out of the way. interfering with speaker settings, jamming his hand into the keyboard, before shuffling off-camera. There’s something menacing to the proceedings, but it makes for compelling viewing.
This is a microcosm for what Smith and his group stood for. He was a laureate of tension, duty-bound to jam a spanner into the works whenever an opportunity presented itself, whether it was a performance, a recording, an interview, his line-up or his personal life.
His passing away has left me sad but the manner of his passing has also left me feeling slightly guilty. In the wake of his death, lots of people have been sharing Mark E Smith interviews and anecdotes in which he is, in common parlance, a ‘legend’. Which is to be expected: he had a knack for being bitchy and blunt when drunk in a way which struck a chord, and seems to be remembered as much for his batty pronouncements as he is for his music. But all the interviews take place in pubs, in most of the anecdotes he’s drunk - sadness and the threat of cruelty are always in the air. But alcoholism, or at least drunkenness, seemed such an important part of the creativity that produced the music I and many others have found important, in a way which music isn’t usually important, that simply wishing it away is difficult. It’s instinctive to argue that there was some self-mythologising going on, some meeting of expectations, playing the role which pays the bills. But beneath that suspicion is a nagging sense that being a Fall fan probably meant you were in some way complicit in something destructive, that you were doing your bit for the crutch for someone’s publicly played-out illness. It is problematic.
And yet I fell down the hole. Brix Smith, his first wife and the musician widely credited with transforming The Fall from a provincial weirdo band into something grander (the role of women in The Fall deserves an essay of its own), recently described their music as something fans projected onto as much as they drew from. And that’s true, at least for me. The Fall’s music feels as though it has an importance beyond lots of other bands’ music because of a signature objection – musically, lyrically, existentially – to clarity, answers, neatness, resolution. There have many artists who have been as committed to their artistic vision as Smith but few so unswervingly and so satisfyingly so. So many loose ends tease at the imagination.
And so I would fret about meeting Mark E Smith, half wanting it, half dreading it. It’s embarrassing, but I’ve even had dreams about meeting him – they have always been anxiety dreams, in which I’m almost craven, keening for respect, for recognition, awaiting a vicious rebuke. Such dreams are a hangover, shadows of an awkward boyhood, a teenage fantasy gone to seed, but one of the more disquieting aspects of Smith’s death has been reading the interviews which have resurfaced. Invariably, they take place in Manchester pubs I’m more than familiar with – The Crown and Kettle, The Castle Hotel, Gulliver’s. In one recent piece I even read the following: ‘Mark chose an All Bar One-style after-works drinks place in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester. "I like to watch the freaks. They’re fucking weird. Who the fuck are they?" he later told me, while staring into a pub filled with the most normal people imaginable.’
There’s only really one All Bar One-style place in Piccadilly Gardens: Missoula, which has recently been turned into a Slug and Lettuce, and which is a couple of hundred feet from the office building where I work. I’ve often gone there after work for a drink, one of the freaks, fleetingly aware of the occassional outlines of old men, pissed, lonely, looking on from peripheral tables.
Now that he’s gone, it turns out that magical, dreaded opportunity was there in the corner all along.
Here is my (very much personal) ranking of The Fall’s studio albums
1 - Fall Heads Roll
2 - Bend Sinister
3 - The Unutterable
4 - I Am Kurious Oranj
5 - This Nation's Saving Grace
6 - New Facts Emerge
7 - The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)
8 - Hex Enduction Hour
9 - Re-Mit
10 - Your Future Our Clutter
11 - Cerebral Caustic
12 - Imperial Wax Solvent
13 - The Frenz Experiment
14 - Grotesque (After the Gramme)
15 - Light User Syndrome
16 - Live at the Witch Trials
17 - Extricate
18 - The Wonderful and Frightening World Of...
19 - Levitate
20 - Dragnet
21 - Middle Class Revolt
22 - Perverted by Language
23 - Ersatz GB
24 - Shift-Work
25 - Room to Live
26 - The Infotainment Scan
27 - Code: Selfish
28 - The Marshall Suite
29 - Sub-Lingual Tablet
30 - Reformation Post TLC
31 - Are You Are Missing Winner
(I’ve seen the most recent record, New Facts Emerge, referred to as the 32nd studio album, presumably by people including Slates, which was technically an EP)
Happy New Year!
But enough of the pleasantries. I’m going to be in London on 16 January for an event.
The Shadow Booth will be launched by the good people at Unsung Live at The Star of Kings where there will be a reading from myself, Gary Budden and others.
The event is free and all the additional info you could possibly desire can be found here.
Copies of The Shadow Booth will be available to buy on the night, but if your Christmas passed without you receiving a book as a gift, why not give yourself a late present right now?