Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Alamy)

Music

The many firings of Mark E. Smith

@TomTaylorFO

“If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s the fall.” – Mark E. Smith

Over the 40-year existence of The Fall, Mark E. Smith hired and fired a whopping 66 musicians—roughly a third of these members failed to make it beyond their first year probation. The autodidact of post-punk was hardly after scrupulous musicianship either having once declared, “If you’re going to play it out of tune, then play it out of tune properly.” No, the erratic frontman had a bent towards something rather more mystical than simply hitting the notes, and a slew of spurned songsmiths fell victim to the certifiable conductor’s flippant Fall ways. With no P45 or pension plan to speak of, these beleaguered musicians were simply turned and burned with a frank “off you fuck”. 

When it comes to the recruitment drive that Smith eternally embarked upon, the legendary Brix Smith represents both a paradigm and an oddity. She was odd in the respect that not only would she enjoy/endure a six-year marriage with Smith shortly after joining the band, but she also had such a huge impact on the dictatorship of the group, like a musical Mikhail Gorbachev, that MES’s assertion that if it was him and “yer granny” it would still be The Fall was rubbished into next week by her spiky pop sensibilities. 

“We saw in the Chicago Reader that The Fall were coming to play,” Brix once recalled. “I was waiting in line to get beer and as I got my beer and I turned around – BAM! – I smacked into the singer who had a bottle of beer in each hand and a line of white powder coming down his nose, which should’ve been a red flag but hey rock ‘n’ roll.” When Smith later invited Brix to an after-party, she played him a CD of her band in the taxi. “Who wrote these songs,” Smith mused midway through the ride. “I did,” Brix meekly answered. “You’re a fucking genius,” Smith bluntly replied, using the G word for the first and last time in his scathing life review of anything and everything.

When Shane MacGowan joined Nick Cave live on stage for ‘What a Wonderful World’

Read More

Thereafter, Smith did not abide by the Tony Soprano dictator’s employer by-line of ‘not shitting where you eat’ and the frontman mixed business with pleasure. Brix and Smith set up a life in Manchester and The Fall blossomed from the gutter like a bouquet of weeds within the mainstream. Albeit Brix claims she found her soulmate, she also declares, “There were red flags the whole way. With Mark, it’s about control. He controlled the band and me. It was a dictatorship.” Thus, after six years, the couple parted ways and the post-Brix years for the band ensued. Their sound would change, but, as ever, they moved on… and very quickly at that. 

The dismissal of Marc Riley, however, was rather more typical. While Riley’s account differs, Smith asserts that he fired the BBC DJ on his wedding day because he caught him dancing to Deep Purple while they were on tour in Australia in 1982. Smith reportedly told Riley, “Get in the hotel, and stay there till I tell you. You don’t need to be dancing to ‘Smoke on the Water’.” Thereafter, battle commenced, as it often did with MES so much so that John Cooper Clarke claims to be the only person in showbiz who he didn’t try to fight simply because the punk poet knew him when he was a boy. 

A lot of the issues for Smith came from the fact that he managed the band pretty much permanently intoxicated. As he once half-joked: “If anybody says to me I’ve got a problem with the drink, I tell them I do have a problem—like where to get it from after 11 o’clock. I’ve stopped drinking anyway. I stopped half an hour ago.” This meant that not only were members hired and fired en masse, but many simply quit. One such mass exodus occurred in Arizona when a drunken Smith inexplicably poured beer over the bus driver’s head while he was hurtling down the freeway, almost causing a massive crash. Fearing for their lives, the bandmembers left The Fall and sough safer pastures settling into office jobs and the simple pleasures of desk assessments with shit-eating grins on their faces, freed from the clutches of their former unruly master. 

Yes, indeed, Mark E. Smith hired and fired with the brutality of a medieval Watford chairman. There are stories of cymbal flinging dismissals, people being axed after their first practice sessions and many more—the end is simply listless (and it would make a great documentary to unite all 66). However, as most of these members would tell you, they knew what they were in for, and that, in short, was the chance to work with an iron-fisted frontman who knew what he wanted and even if that remains a mystery, perhaps even to the late iconoclast himself, the results of the unknown motive are a force the behold.