Legendary English singer, songwriter and group leader Mark E. Smith of The Fall died this morning, some four decades after embarking on one of the most remarkable careers in modern music history. The Fall’s studio canon is sprawling and epic in its depth, breadth, variety and quality, while the group’s live performances have given generations of rock scribblers fodder and thrilled countless punters with the chaotic, organic greatness the group concocted on their best nights. (Though even their worst nights were delicious chaotic marvels on some plane).
I have long been a big fan of The Fall (very professional), citing them as my favorite band for many years, and I wrote in glowing terms about their last studio album, New Facts Emerge, just this past August. It was their 31st or 32nd album, depending on how one feels about their 1981 release, Slates. (Whether that’s an EP or an LP is a deeply divisive topic among certain sectors of The Fall’s fandom). (Though it is an EP, for the record). The group had announced a (very rare) set of American dates last fall to support their new disc, and played a few English gigs after the album’s release, but cancellations (including all of the U.S. shows) were rife. Smith’s onstage appearance during his final concerts (wheelchair bound, arm in a sling, face terribly swollen) was cause for alarm for some — while others saluted the great man for honoring his commitments, doing his job, and being with the audiences who loved him, doubters be damned. I tend to side with the latter camp.
The Fall have been routinely and tediously cited by the music press for their high rates of personnel turnover over the years, but Smith had worked with a stable bass-guitar-drum lineup for over a decade before his death, and my admiration and respect for those three (Keiron Melling, Dave Spurr, and Peter Greenway) is most high, especially for helping their boss rock hard as his own body was failing him. They had their own unique Fall Sound, and some of their records rate as favorites among the long lines of vinyl, plastic, and digital bits that have entertained and awed me for decades. Bravo, gentlemen. You made a glorious racket and were a very fine Fall group.
Regarding their chief, I have long considered Mark E. Smith to be the same sort of musical genius as George Clinton, or Captain Beefheart, or Brian Eno, or David Thomas. They are all organizers and shepherds with very clear visions of what they want from their songs, along with the persuasive skills to extract stellar performances from musicians who might never before nor ever after ascend to such heights. None of those aforementioned visionaries are ace guitarists, or skilled keyboardists, or deeply technical arrangers, or even particularly good singers, but the players they surround themselves with — their teams — are managed in such deft ways as to spark and deliver brilliance, time and time again, in original and often highly unusual styles.
Mark E. Smith was also that greatest of literary devices: a character. Quotable, irascible, intelligent, badly behaved except when he wasn’t, wearing his opinions on his sleeve, sharing his tastes with anyone who’d talk to him, largely unfiltered, mostly impolitic, deeply irreverent, consistently cantankerous, and entertaining to the Nth degree, always. I just liked watching and listening to him talk, even if I couldn’t understand what was coming out of his mouth much of the time. There’s none like him that I know, and none likely to ever fill such a unique creative niche, for so long, so well, again. Well done, Mark. Well done, indeed.
On a personal front, I’ve spent well over a decade as an active member of the Fall Online Forum, one of the most bizarrely delightful digital communities I’ve ever had the pleasure to haunt, and the depth of commitment and passion that cabal devotes to the group that binds them is extraordinary. (I most recently wrote about the “FOF” in my 2017 Year in Review, here). As it turns out, I had put myself on a sabbatical from the Forum just a short time ago — which is interesting (to me), because I did the same thing in the prior online community where I spent most of my (online) time prior to the FOF, just before its own inspiring light died. I don’t know if my radar is sensitive to that sort of impending change or what, but it’s a bit deja vu and disconcerting feeling for me right now, in any event. I do wish my friends at the FOF well. This is a world-jolter there, and here.
At bottom line, it’s the end of an era for The Fall: who are always different, and now never the same again . . .