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Mark E. Smith: an unloveable bastard who was much loved

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Among the many very readable tributes to the recently deceased singer of The Fall Mark E. Smith, few seemed to mention what a total bastard Smith often was.

Maybe it’s something about not wanting to speak ill of the dead but personally, I think it was this quality that stopped me from truly loving him as an artist and a man. It has taken me about a week to process his death and come to this conclusion. Cos for the most part I thought he was a godlike outsider poet-genius.

When NME invited Smith, Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan of The Pogues to a piss-up in New Cross in 1989, it seemed like an inspired piece of journalism: stick the three renegades of late-90s pop in a room and watch the fireworks.

And Smith produces the fireworks. But what is most noticeable is that neither Cave nor MacGowan seems to like Smith very much. They respect his art but he just ends up pissing them off.

It’s also notable how much their paths have diverged since then. They were three of the most revered figures of pre-Britpop indiedom. Cave has gone on to become rock god royalty, while MacGowan has slipped into happy obscurity – a future he hinted at in the interview. Smith, of course, just went on being Mark E. Smith. Right up until last week.

Which was part of the glory of The Fall: always the same, always different. Not really pushing things forward but kinda.

Of course, 50 years of speed and booze and the rest took their toll. And by the end his often incoherent and unfashionable views became even less loveable.

In this bizarre Channel Four interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy in 2016 Smith ponders the plight of two million young, male Syrian refugees and asks why they are not fighting the oppressive regime they are fleeing from like his Grandfather fought the Nazis. It’s like the UN Declaration of Human Rights never happened.

 

Unlike Cave and MacGowan though, Guru-Murthy last week claimed he really liked him. And reading most of those tributes last week, most who met him seemed to agree.

More often than not though, being out of step with the times meant being ahead of the times.

And if the caustic bile of his autobiography Renegade makes it almost impossible to finish, on record it was also his greatest strength.

Former wife and Fall guitarist Brix E. Smith talks about his “manipulation of energy” and this was perhaps his true gift.

“It’s been well documented that he would do things like come on stage after we’d sound-checked for an hour, got all of our sounds perfect, and then twist up the knobs on everybody’s amplifiers, and pull out the microphone from the bass drum stand and mess everything up. It drove us bonkers. But he was creating chaos and creating energy and you’d have to work that much harder to get everything back,” Brix told The Guardian.

This was in full evidence, the one time I saw The Fall play live. It was the last night at The Hammersmith Palais in 2007. If it hadn’t been the last night I might not have gone. It was almost 20 years since I had heard my first Fall song and bought a succession of their albums.

But the opportunity to experience The Fall at a venue that had given me and millions of others such pleasure was too good to pass up. Luckily, The Fall were in the middle of a late-period purple patch just between the albums Fall Heads Roll and Reformation Post TLC.

This clip of the track Blindness captures all the energy, power, chaos and repetition, repetition, repetition of The Fall at their best. Few Youtube clips inspire the shivers like this one.

 

Here’s a couple of less celebrated and possibly less representative tunes from The Fall’s 40-year, 31-album career.

 

 

And one that probably is:

 

And a bunch of fabulous singles bunched handily together on the ace and superbly titled 50,000 Fall Fans Can't be Wrong compilation:

 

And finally, Smith’s 2007 collaboration with electronic duo Mouse on Mars under the name Von Sudenfed is truly brilliant and hardly got a mention last week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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