Obituary: Mark E Smith, singer, songwriter, frontman with The Fall and post-punk enigma

Mark E. Smith (Picture: Lindsey Parnaby)
Mark E. Smith (Picture: Lindsey Parnaby)
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Mark Edward Smith, singer, songwriter and driving force with post-punk band the Fall. Born: Broughton, Salford, 5 March 1957. Died: 24th January 2018, aged 60

Mark E Smith defied description, although he made his name and his living as the singer and songwriter with the Manchester post-punk group The Fall. In fact, he was the Fall; by 1979, three years after the band were formed following Smith’s witnessing of the Sex Pistols’ famous gig at Manchester Free Trade Hall, the other original members were all gone, and 66 separate musicians have passed through the band in their 42-year existence. As Smith famously said: “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”

He was more than just a musician, however, and he held sway over the affections of males of his own generation in particular, who perhaps saw something of themselves in one shard or another of Smith’s elusive personality. He was an English enigma of a unique sort, and the qualities he presented to the public changed as he got older and his relationship with – in his youth – amphetamine, and later alcohol developed.

Depending on who you asked and when, Smith was one of Britain’s greatest rock frontmen; a poet of singular ability who fused William Blake and Captain Beefheart in one outrageous talent; an art-rock provocateur who needled the mainstream as the flip-side of all that is blandly conformist in British culture; the bandmate from hell, who treated many of his musical collaborators – among them his own personal partners – appallingly; and a drunken contrarian who liked to provoke and goad outrageously. He was proof that artists don’t have to be likeable all the time to make great art.

His connection with Edinburgh was the stuff of Fall fan legend, particularly those members of the city’s once-vibrant post-punk scene of the 1980s. Having collaborated with the Scottish choreographer Michael Clark on his 1988 ballet I Am Curious, Orange with, which marked the 300th anniversary of William of Orange’s accession to the English throne and was played at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre in August (it also inspired the Fall’s 1989 12th album I Am Kurious Oranj), Smith moved to the city for a year around 1990 to get over the break-up of his first marriage and to escape the then-booming Manchester music scene, fearful of becoming a local celebrity because of it.

He took a flat in Leith and wrote, enjoying the anonymity of the city. Among one of the songs created during this period was Edinburgh Man, one of the most poignant and reflective tracks the Fall ever recorded, and a love letter to his temporarily adopted city. “It’s springtime, but I still miss your streets at dawn/and in the morning, walking your bridges home,” he sang. “As I sit and stare at all of England’s souls/I tell you something, I wish I was in Edinburgh.”

“I really wanted to say it,” he told Select magazine at the time. “And I mean it, what I said. I was living up there in Edinburgh for a year and I was on me tod… I spent 18 months on the words to that song, trying to get it right.” He later took Granada Television on a tour of the city, where he eulogised about the hills (“it’s like the poor man’s San Francisco”), the Black Watch monument (it reminded him of his father, who was in the regiment) and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (“Leith’s a bit more the real Edinburgh… they’ve left (Edinburgh) alone, they didn’t go mad in the ‘60s and knock it down”).

In the early days of the Fall, Smith was bright, vividly intelligent and fiercely amusing, although with a streak of contrarianism which would only grow with age. Between 1983 and 1989 he was married to the American musician Brix Smith, and she was a member of the Fall between their sixth album Perverted by Language and I Am Kurious Oranj. This period also coincided with the Fall’s greatest commercial success, with low-level top forty entries for the almost poppy There’s a Ghost in My House and the group’s cover of the Kinks’ Victoria.

Much of their more accessible work also dates from this time, including the jagged Mr Pharmacist and the scuzzily anthemic Hit the North, although no matter their membership, the Fall always seemed to be capable of creating compelling and urgent rock songs. White Lightning (1990), Touch Sensitive (1999) and their cover of the Move’s I Can Hear the Grass Grow (2005) were just three more examples from a lengthy and punishingly hard-working career. The group released 31 albums, along with a variety of partly or fully live recordings, EPs and compilations.

Although Smith’s fiery muse never deserted him, his sense of contrarianism and a reported temper only seemed to increase as he got older. Tales of band walkouts or mass firings were often accompanied, during the 1990s at least, by reports of fistfights or bottles of ketchup being hurled at doors. Brix Smith, whose final days in the band, she says, were spent on a tour during which her then-husband brought his new girlfriend and refused to speak to her, recalled in the Guardian: “I wasn’t under the control of Mark E Smith any more, and with Mark it’s all about control… It was a dictatorship, basically.”

Mark Edward Smith was born in 1957 in Salford, the son of Jack and Irene and elder brother to three sisters. He grew up in Prestwich and left school and home at 16, taking jobs in a meat factory and as a shipping clerk, while studying A-level literature at evening classes and getting the Fall – named after the Camus book – together. He was married to Saffron Prior between 1991 and 1995, and Eleni Poulou from 2001. She joined the Fall as keyboard player the following year, and a period of stability ensued, although they split and she left the group in 2016.

A figure who inspired fearful awe in musicians, broadcasters and journalists of a certain age, Smith collaborated with Edwyn Collins, Gorillaz, the Inspiral Carpets (their joint single I Want You was a hit in 1994) and Mouse On Mars as Von Sudenfed; fronted John Peel’s favourite band; was invited to read the classified football results on the BBC in 2005; and was interviewed by fan Krishnan Guru-Murthy for the Channel 4 News, revealing that he quit the Labour Party in 1983 to join the Socialist Workers Party because he was in favour of the Falklands War. His final gig with the Fall, frail, wheelchair-bound, but determined, was at Glasgow’s Queen Margaret Union on 4 November 2017.