Mark E. Smith (5th march 1957 – 24th January 2018) was an English singer-songwriter and the lead and sole constant member of the post-punk group The Fall. Working with close to 60 musicians during his time as part of The Fall, Smith released 32 studio albums including their debut album Live at the Witch Trials (1979), and early albums such as Dragnet (1979), Grotesque (After the Gramme) (1980) to their later albums such as Fall Heads Roll (2005) and Sub-Lingual Tablet (2015) and numerous singles and EPs.
Smith’s approach to music was what could be called unconventional. He did not hold musicianship in high regard and once stated that “rock and roll isn’t even music really. It’s mistreating of instruments to get feelings over.” The early lineup for The Fall included members of the punk rock movement. However, the group’s music underwent a series of style and form changes, some of which could also be accounted to their ever-changing lineup. Under the guidance of Smith, the band refused to stand still and be pigeonholed.
These changes came both professionally and personally when Smith married American guitarist and a Fall member Brix Smith, who joined the group for guitar and vocals for the album Perverted by Language (1983) and co-wrote some of the best Fall tracks. She was credited for introducing a more mainstream pop-oriented element to its sound.
Alongside his works with The Fall, Smith also released to spoken-word solo albums – The Post-Nearly Man (1998) and Pander! Panda! Panzer (2002). Both the albums featured readings of some of The Fall lyrics set to electronic sound collages and samples of some of The Fall songs. Smith sang with a heavy Mancunian accent, and his delivery of songs was known for his tendency to end phrases with an ‘ah’ sound. He often spoke-sang or sing-slurred his lyrics, consciously choosing to not enunciate them, especially in the mid-1990s.
Composition of the lyrics for his songs resembled more free-form prose than poetry. He wrote them into one of his many notebooks and later set them to the music composed by Fall musicians. His songs often discarded the verse form for long continuous narratives.
Songs such as ‘Spectre Vs Rector’ (1979), ‘The North Will Rise Again’ (1980), ‘Winter (Hostel-Maxi)’ and ‘Winter 2’ (1982) and ‘Wings’ (1983) were written in this form. His obscure and unusual song titles were often derived from cutting out words or phrases from books and newspapers. Many of his songs like, ‘Fiery Jack’ (1980), ‘Hip Priest’ (1982) ‘Riddler’ (1986), concerned his assumed alter-egos, although from a third-person perspective. Rare first-person narratives included songs like, ‘Frenz’ and ‘Carry Bag Man’ (1988), ‘Edinburgh Man’ (1991), and so on. In a 1983 interview, he revealed his style of music as a combination of “primitive music with intelligent lyrics”.
Though a musician of high merit, Smith was quite difficult to work with and seemed to relish in that fact. He clashed with musicians, record producers, sound engineers, record label heads, and fellow Manchester scene alumni throughout his career. He would fire musicians for trivial reasons; he once dismissed a sound engineer for eating a salad and fired Marc Riley for dancing to a Clash song. Smith said that he would often change musicians so that they would not become lazy, although some members of the group left of their own accord trying to adhere to such ludicrous techniques. He would often criticise other contemporary bands and “music personalities”.
He didn’t just keep it to words either; the singer was infamous for getting into brawls with his fellow musicians on stage, walking off the stage and even getting involved in scuffles under the spotlight. He was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend and Fall keyboardist Julia Nagle, after which, he was ordered to undergo treatment for alcohol abuse and anger management. After a period of good behaviour, the charges against him were dropped. Brix Smith said that he “carried a chip on both shoulders. I remember him talking about f–king southern bastards a lot and not wanting to come to London. He hated London intensely. He’s quite a contrarian, as a person and as a writer, which is what gives him his edge.”
Smith had a working-class and anti-intellectual outlook, but he has a strong interest in literature, often citing Colin Wilson, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Machen as well as Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound and H. P. Lovecraft as influences. It was the kind of underlying authenticity which allowed Smith to operate with such a visceral edge. Simply put, he could act up because he knew he could back it up if required.
He was also quite verbal with his political opinions stating that if he were ever to become Prime Minister, he would “halve the price of cigarettes, double the price of health food, then I’d declare war on France”. Like many older musicians, Smith also expressed his support for Brexit and Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. He claimed that his outsider political viewpoint was best described in his 1980 single ‘Prole Art Threat’.
Smith died on 24th January 2018, at 60 years of age, after a long illness with lung and kidney cancer. His health had been particularly bad in 2017, but he continued to perform, even on a wheelchair. Even with his waning health, his work ethic never dwindled; with him continuing to release new albums close to once a year and showcasing that though the life of Smith was extinguished his punk spirit could never be stopped.
It was this essence that permeated everything Smith did. IN life, as in death, Smith refused to bend to the will of others. Whether it was in music, politics or in his day to day life, Mark E. Smith was a man who was determined only by his own evaluation. He was the definition of a punk spirit.