“Iconoclast – i-con-o-clast \ ʌɪˈkɒnəklast \ (n) – See Mark E Smith.” – Oxford English Dictionary.
If Mark E Smith gave any less of a shit, then he’d be in dire need of a colonic. He grabbed the music industry by the lapels and rattled it about like a Skoda going over a cattle-grid, tearing down the icons of all the filthy Bolshevist and backstabbing bastards that Mark perceived to be in his way. He slashed through the norm like some demented daemon of the demimonde, whipping a cyclonic barrage of hellfire, and he swept up a legion of devoted fans (all fifty thousand of them) in this maelstrom as he staggered along. He stands out from the cesspit of snarling punks as the one rock star who truly didn’t care what anybody thought.
That being said, there would be absolutely no point in eulogising his wild ways if there was no substance to prop them up. What separated him from the average wayward wayfarer traversing the cobbled streets of Salford was a style of poetry akin to Baudelaire after twelve pints of super-strength lager, with the kaleidoscopic colourings of a particularly caustic Cooper Clarke, and the biggest fuck-you attitude that the world has seen since John the Baptist.
In his career, the irascible cult hero catapulted his band, The Fall, to… well certainly not to stardom, but to the mid-latitude heights of purgatory, too original to be permitted entry to the commercial stratosphere and too big for the leaden boots of the doldrums of ‘cult’. From The Fall’s formation in 1976 up until Mark E Smith’s death on the 24th of January 2018, the band produced 31 studio albums and a further 51 live records, with more still being released, all whilst Smith burned through over 60 band members and discarded like tab-ends in a constant shifting line-up of which he was the tyrannical king.
Over the course of The Fall’s back catalogue, they achieved more returns to form than a tricky South American winger who dies off a little bit during the winter months. Through the highs and lows, they were always nothing but interesting, and since he departed this plane to God knows where, there has been a gaping hunched-Mark E Smith shaped hole.
There is not much left to say about M.E.S.y that he hasn’t already told you himself, so without any further “fucking about” let’s go on with the lines that help sketch a rough portrait of the prototype punk himself.
10 of Mark E Smith’s best lines:
Self Referential – ‘Before the Moon Falls’
“Up here in the North there’s no wage packet jobs for us, thank Christ.”
The Fall’s first two records were both released in 1979 and sound as though they capture an evolution decades apart. ‘Before the Moon Falls’ is a mantra track for the band that seemingly sets out Smith’s philosophy from here on in.
This line perfectly punctuates the man as an outsider, but not just in the glorious Bowie style of old, more so a statement that we are outside of pretty much everything. It is not a declaration that he has escaped the 9-5 for stardom but rather that he has singled himself out as a council estate Rockstar, collecting a wage packet of an entirely different sort.
Jarring – ‘Gramme Friday’
“Can I Come back to you on this? Hitler lost his nerve on it.”
There is an obtuse front to Mark E Smith’s confrontation. He is not the sort to subtly coax a jarring line into a song; he’s too much of a firm believer in the adage’ land the first blow’.
With no time to be flippant, he chucks in references to Hitler aplenty in a crude concoction of all that unsettles. ‘Gramme Friday’ is a track that resides in the realm of people who live in “Kitchens and Halls”, but it’s a million miles from a lament of it being grim up North.
Postmodernist – ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’
“The Observer magazine just about sums him up / E.g. self-satisfied, smug.”
The funny thing about Mark E Smith lamenting fame is that he was never really was that famous and otherwise couldn’t give much of a f… This tongue-in-cheek lambasting of press-intrusion hits like a sharp-edged double entendre aimed at those who are truly smug.
There are not many songs that directly reference things like “The Observer magazine” so bluntly or pop in a lazy phrase like ‘E.g.’ for fun. Behind every The Fall song is a glimpse at its inception and this one stirs up the notion of Mark getting furious in his sitting room over nothing much.
Irreverent – ‘Oswald Defence Lawyer’
“He’s liberal and insane, he caught the good news horse / His opposite is vain, the cardboard fake in the witness stand.”
This is a song about Lee Harvey Oswald, and that should come as little surprise. Over the course of The Falls discography, there’s nothing much left untouched.
This mock trial of the infamous assassin is based on a TV show that Mark E Smith saw, which (thanks to a quote curated by the incomparable Fall lyrics compendium, The Annotated Fall), he described on Piccadilly Radio, as a “telly [show] where they actually tried Lee Harvey Oswald for four hours on the TV and found him guilty at the end…[the lawyer] was hopeless.” Mark quips as though a better equipped fictional defendant may have been able to get him off.
Nonsensical – ‘New Puritan’
“Over imported trees / All the film ghosts will rise up / With the sexually abused and the new youth / In Britain the scream of electric pumps in a renovated pub.”
Indeed, those are the lyrics of the non-Peel version of ‘New Puritan’, and I can assure you there’s not a typo in sight. The reason they don’t make a lick of sense is presumably because they’re not meant to.
With a quote that makes this list pretty much redundant, Mark once said, “There are too many things nowadays where people think to analyse is the be-all and end-all of everything and if you can’t analyse it something’s wrong. People are always analysing things. You don’t find out things just by knowing everything.” The converse argument is that analysing words as mental as this verse has its own inherent degree of interest, or at least hopefully so.
Autobiographical – ‘Dr Bucks Letter’
“To cheer myself up / Put the radio on, get the magazine out / And read about the essence of Tong.”
Interweaving a narrative of benefit fraud and a friendship fall out is Mark E Smith’s natural home. Beyond the usual wicked humour, sharp concision and wavering sense of syntax and understanding is an almost autobiographical sense of honesty that traps you, claustrophobically, in Smith’s insular world.
This cheeky reference to DJ Pete Tong is not some witty throwaway remark either, as unexpectedly he lashes into ‘Tong’s essential items’ in a cascade of caustic rage that quickly distracts him from the almost sorrowful start to the song.
Poetic Phrasing – ‘Garden’
“Roads. Had forgot what other’s still try to grasp.”
Mark E Smith was a master of obfuscation. His complex lyrics are a realm that sucks you in, in a futile search for meaning in a melee of smashing blows. If ‘Garden’ is about anything coherent, then it’s a coherence that escapes my cognition.
However, the beauty of his lyrical madness is the constant littering of breadcrumbs as he leads you up the garden path. Although the song might not make sense, “had forgot what other’s still try to grasp,” is a turn of phrase that shines through the murk as a gleaming piece of poetry.
Blunt – ‘Totally Wired’
“You don’t have to be an American to be strange.”
For all of his complexities, Mark E Smith could be gloriously straightforward. ‘Totally Wired’ is one song whereby you don’t have to have been up for two nights in a bedsit for the meaning to suddenly click in a eureka moment that’s forgotten by sunrise.
This rather more coherent format allows Smith to simply chuck in a couple of interesting lines. This particular verse is a bit of a homage to the strange American author Hunter S. Thompson who wrote a similar twisted verse culminating in one of his more famous quotes – “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – in his The Great Shark Hunt collection.
Cultural Conerstone – ‘Mountain Energy’
“Dolly Parton and Lord Byron / They said patriotism is the last refuge / but now it’s me.”
To say describe Mark E Smith as a very literary man doesn’t quite ring true. He was a literary man, but he was also a great many other things that diluted his literary viewpoint down to some pint-sized cocktail of cultural cornerstones.
Is there any other songwriter in the world who could couple Dolly Parton, Lord Byron, the notion of nationalism and a punk rock punchline in a single three-line verse? Almost certainly not.
Sincerity – ‘Bill Is Dead’
“These are the finest of my life / This is the greatest time of my life.”
Through all the barrage of disdain, there is the occasion punctuation of sincerity and glee. When Smith happily staggers onto a sunny turn of phrase, it is simple, straightforward and soaring.
Perhaps the most easy-going and sanguine line in his entire career reminds us that the thread that runs through his whole caustic back catalogue is an escapist realm of exultation. Mark E Smith loathed the mechanical oppression’s of this world, and as he rallied against them in a constant stream of confused action, he lifted us from them too.
Be in no mistake that behind it all was a seething love for the craft and a blissful celebration of art.