Mark E. Smith: A Blood- and Booze-Soaked Poet for a Generation

The Manchester rock star never hid his hard-living, working-class roots even as he became one of the most celebrated artists in Britain.

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LONDON—For more than 40 years, Mark E. Smith and his band, The Fall, played sped-up, amphetamine-fueled krautrock that inspired, energized, and hypnotized anyone who fell under its spell.

Smith, who died Wednesday aged 60, was part of a generation of working class British artists who weren’t afraid to be contrary and independent, a singer and songwriter whose mastery of repetition and conjuring of atmosphere could seem almost eerie.

Most obviously and particularly on a mesmerizing run of albums at the beginning of the 1980s—Grotesque (1980), Slates (1981), Hex Enduction Hour (1982), Perverted by Language (1983)—The Fall produced lasting works of what the late theorist Mark Fisher called “pulp modernism,” its singer and songwriter blending the abstract and avant-garde with the direct and confrontational. He was a true artist, and by consciously self-sabotaging, he maintained a standard that was hard for anyone else to come close to.

Smith, as he did throughout his career, sang in a distinct, recognisably working class Manchester accent. This was fused with his love of the Velvet Underground and krautrock—the German band Can was a particular influence—and a linguistic inventiveness and uncanny sense of abstraction. “Smith’s strategy involved aggressively retaining accent while using—in the domain of a supposedly popular entertainment form—highly arcane literary practices,” Fisher wrote.

Smith had a way with language that stands comparison with any modern British songwriters or poets. On “Middle Mass,” he moves seamlessly from ghostly evocation to social observation: “The evil is not in extremes / It’s in the aftermath / The middle mass / After the fact / Vulturous in the aftermath / Summer close season / A quiet dope and cider man / But during the season / Hard drug and cider mates. ”

Born in Salford, near Manchester, in 1957, Smith grew up in Prestwich, also near Manchester. His father was a plumber and a Manchester United soccer fan. Smith supported Manchester City, saying you had to support the team your father didn’t support, even though he converted his old man from the red of United to the sky blue of City.

He left school aged 16, worked in a meat factory and as a shipping clerk on the Manchester docks, and formed The Fall—named after the Albert Camus novel—after seeing the Sex Pistols play their now-legendary gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976. If Helen was the face that launched a thousand ships, this was the gig that launched a thousand bands, with members of Joy Division, Magazine, The Smiths and even Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall all in attendance.

Smith would go on to inspire generations of British musicians himself. Jamie Reynolds, once of Klaxons and now of YOTA, told me that when he ran into Smith at a hotel in Poland, he could barely bring himself to talk to him, such was Smith’s influence on him. “He was my absolute number 1,” Reynolds told The Daily Beast.

Referred to by the British lads’ magazine Loaded as the “original grumpy old bastard of rock,” Smith was notorious for drinking, fighting, and general cantankerousness. He employed a drug-gang hit man to run The Fall’s fan site. He hated the town Brighton (“shit pubs, shit atmosphere”). He loved calling people “cunts.” He killed “a couple” of squirrels that were eating his fence. He told a female journalist—who was an amateur kickboxer—to hit him a few times in order to get the interview started.

Mostly, he liked entertaining himself, and causing a stir. Asked by the pop magazine Smash Hits what he’d do if he was prime minister, his response was: “I’d halve the price of cigarettes, double the price of health food, then I’d declare war on France.” When he told the Independent that he thought “Stalin had the right idea,” he made clear it was a joke: “Listen, you know I’m not really like that. Members of my family are social workers. They work hard. And now, after 13 years, they’re being sent for an interview to re-apply for their job,” he said.

These were attributes often portrayed as comical, but there was, of course, a dark side, with Smith’s violent mood swings leading to a brief stay in jail in New York, for assaulting the keyboard player Julia Nagle.

This side to Smith was strongly suggested at by the fact that The Fall had 66 members over four decades, with a third of them lasting less than a year. One of them, now a BBC radio DJ, was sacked on his wedding day. Members would come from anywhere and everywhere. On its way to play at the 1999 Reading festival, the band had left its drummer at a motorway service station after a fight, and Nick Dewey just happened to be at the festival because he was managing the Chemical Brothers.

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The Chemical Brothers suggested that their manager join The Fall, even though he hadn’t played drums for 10 years, so The Fall guitarist Neville Wilding took Dewey to meet Smith on the band’s tour bus. Smith, Dewey told the Guardian, was “passed out with his shirt off. The guitarist had to punch him in the face to wake him up. Then they began fighting over whether or not they should teach me the songs. Mark said no!” Covered in blood on stage, Smith offered Dewey the occasional prompt, and the Chemical Brothers manager pulled through.

For all that he could be difficult, Mark E. Smith was widely loved and respected.

“Every Manchester musician I know has a connection with The Fall in one way or another, whether it be through the music or personally,” Jeff Wootton, the Manchester-born guitarist in Gorillaz, told The Daily Beast. “But when I started touring it was clear to see how much The Fall was an influence to musicians and music fans worldwide. Mark and me used to get flights together from Manchester to shows and he was the sweetest, most beautiful man. Artistically he changed music: his lyrics, stage persona and the many records he made. He was always very kind and I admired him deeply.”

He leaves us at a dispiriting time for working class British culture and for guitar music in general. The social democratic consensus that prevailed in the U.K. in the decades following World War II provided the conditions necessary for careers like Smith’s, not to mention David Bowie, The Beatles, The Smiths, and any other major British musician or band you care to mention.

It’s appropriate, then, that when confronted by Mumford & Sons, a privately educated modern English musical success story, Mark E. Smith was less than impressed. “There was this other group warming up, and they were terrible,” he said of Mumford. “I said, ‘Shut them cunts up!’ And they were still warming up. So, I threw a bottle at them.”   

In the words of Jeff Wootton: “God bless you, Mark.”