Thursday, 25 January 2018

Drama, disaster and triumph: A few words about Mark E Smith 1957 - 2018

I was lucky enough to see The Fall a few times but my abiding memory is probably their set at Skipton’s Beacons Festival in 2014. The weather had been, to put it mildly, absolutely horrendous. Less dancing in the rain and more hoping your tent could withstand the gale force winds sweeping, unrelentingly, across the North Yorkshire countryside (my £10 tent, unsurprisingly, didn’t).

It was Sunday evening and the terrible weather had hit some kind of peak just in time for The Falls set. The band were on fire from the start but the weather had other ideas, water started to leak through the marque’s roof and on to the stage. Now, even a cursory knowledge of science will tell you that water and electricity are uncomfortable bedfellows at best.

A member of the Beacons team appeared and tried, in vain, to get the band off stage. Every time Mark shrugged off the increasingly concerned staff member the crowd cheered. The Fall weren’t going anywhere. I felt pretty bad for the woman trying to convince Smith, quite rightly really, that he should stop the set. Eventually, and to the relief of the entire health and safety team, the band left the stage.

When they returned an hour later, Smith seemed invigorated as they threw themselves into a sublime rendition of ‘Mr Pharmacist’. A mere glimpse into the drama, disaster and unlikely triumph that helped define what it meant to be The Fall. Storm-like conditions could only ever hope to temporarily halt the band. Like their leader and only constant member, Mark  E Smith, The Fall often seemed unstoppable.

It’s with this in mind that last night’s news seemed like such a shock. Yes, there had been various reports of Smith’s ailing health. And yes, his passing had already been falsely reported only last year. But this was Mark E Smith we were talking about. A man who, like Shane Macgowan, could weather any storm. Was a world with no prospect of a new Fall album even possible?

For the fans, he leaves us with an impossibly huge and endlessly impressive amount of music. Releasing Live at the Witch Trials way back in 1979, The Fall would go on to produce an absolutely staggering 32 studio albums. That’s without mentioning the live albums and various compilations. A band in a constant state of evolution, thanks to Smith’s unsentimental approach to hiring-and-firing band members, The Fall would outlive many of their contemporaries.

Despite a brief mid-nineties dalliance with advertising, The Fall never became a household name. Yet their influence on any number of artists is undeniable. Some of my favourite things simply wouldn’t have existed in quite the same way without the influence of The Fall. Pavements Slanted and Enchanted LP, the witty lyricism of Jeffrey Lewis and Stewart Lee’s deliberate use of repetition spring to mind. And it wouldn’t seem right not to mention the bands inexorable ties to the late, great, John Peel. It sounds silly but I think I assumed The Fall would always be there. Sometimes drifting into the background but always, always appreciated.
The Fall refused to rest on their laurels and simply ‘play the hits’, more of an ongoing experiment than your typical band. Everyone has a favourite song or album but ultimately you knew that their next release had the potential to be your new number one Fall record. Many who worked with Mark have said he could be a little awkward, a little uncompromising at times yet The Fall was, by their ever-changing nature, an extremely positive and forward thinking proposition. And, after all is said and done, who was The Fall? The hip priest himself, Mark E Smith.

Across the country there’s an odd silence filling up the local record shops, a nod of respect and an acknowledgment that we’ve lost a true original. Thanks for the tunes Mark. RIP.

Here's a snap I took when they played The Brudenell Social Club in 2014

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