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How Black Sabbath convinced Mark E. Smith to become a musician


When Mark E. Smith died back in 2018, he went under something of a re-appraisal. For his most strident fans, he was always a genius. But, for the wider public, Smith’s temperamental personality, scathing wit and abusive relationship with alcohol made him appear like the causality of a punk ethos long since faded from relevance.

But, in death, The Fall frontman was given new life. The poetry of his lyrics became a key focus, as did his unrelenting vision and unique performance style. Like all the best bands, The Fall’s music is entirely distinct from its influences. It’s almost as if it sprouted between the paving slabs of the industrial north, and Smith simply bent down and plucked it.

It’s music that requires urgency and does not bear the passive listener. Rather, it makes your stomach churn, warping you with its intoxicating, unfamiliar allure. It’s at once dystopian and euphoric, repulsive and yet strangely charming. So, who would have thought that one of Smith’s biggest influences was the classic heavy metal band Black Sabbath? One can’t help but feel it’s something of a contradiction for a man who became known for the stark minimalism of his music to have admired such a maximalist group of musicians.

It is this contradictory, black-hole quality that pervaded all of Smith’s work. Like his art, Smith has a sort of anti-matter. He was a national hero, but also a pantomime villain – celebrated and derided in equal measure. What cannot be denied, though, is the enduring legacy of his music. The Fall, now more than ever, are regarded as one of the most influential post-punk bands of the 1980s, ’90s, and ’00s. With albums like Perverted By Language and Hex Enduction Hour, Smith opened up the linguistic possibilities of punk, using the cut-up technique favoured by surrealists (and David Bowie) to create cryptic lyrics which evoked the grotesque and gloomy urban landscape.

But for a long time, Smith wasn’t even interested in music. In an interview before his death, Smith was asked about his extensive record collection. In it, he describes how Black Sabbath opened his eyes to the possibilities of music: “When I was a teenager I wasn’t really into music at all. I didn’t have a record player for a start, and my dad would only have Radio Two on. I got into music really weirdly, at 14, straight into it, as opposed to other people who were, like, into The Beatles and all that other shit. I just wasn’t interested, I was more interested in soccer.”

It’s easy to imagine Smith turning up his nose at the bands his contemporaries were listening to in the ’60s and ’70s. Perhaps that’s why, even in his later life, he had an extremely precise taste. Smith went on to describe the moment he really began to engage with music: “Then at 14, all at once, I went through it all, really quick: Pink Floyd? Crap! T.Rex? Rubbish! Paul McCartney? Urrgh! Black Sabbath, ‘Paranoid’? Great! Know what mean? That was the first single I bought! Everybody else was into Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Greenslade, Pink Floyd, sixth-form crap, and I just didn’t get into it. I was a late starter, but I got into it really quickly when I did.”

Smith’s affection for Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne stayed with him right up until his death. In the interview, he describes the Ozzy Osbourne parody he was working on at the time: “Got some great lyrics for it, but I’ve got to get the voice right. The riff’s dead slow, duh-duh-duhduh, like ‘Iron Man’ or something. I still like Ozzy – the most hilarious video I’ve ever seen is for ‘I’m So Tired’: he runs out on stage with all this make-up, then there’s this guy shooting a replica of Abraham Lincoln in the box, and Ozzy’s singing and this dummy of Abraham Lincoln falls behind him – how it must have gone down in America I can’t imagine! Nuts! But he’s a good singer, Ozzy. I don’t buy his LPs but…”

In retrospect, there are some parallels between Black Sabbath and The Fall. Both bands thrived on controversy and were equally feared by their contemporaries. Despite the obvious differences in their musical output, they both seemed to be constantly on the cusp of implosion. And it was this imminent threat of self-destruction that added to their allure. After all, nothing is more mesmerising than seeing something, which should have fallen apart long ago, standing tall.