On The Contrary
January 26, 2018 - Robert Cochrane
Mark E Smith 5th March 1957-24th January 2018
A mercurial maverick, Mark E Smith's was a survivor of the early punk movement whose creative output spanned four uninterrupted decades, thirty two studio albums and sixty six former band members. A true contrarian who orchestrated chaos, he rightly deserves the description of unique. Sometimes majestic, often a shambles, his performances could never be guaranteed or predicted. He hired and fired musicians like a malevolent monarch, and in the process created some of the most inspired and challenging music of any era. He defied definition, was as cantankerous as hell, but unlike Shane McGowan, alcohol didn't cease his output. When John Peel died the BBC invited Smith into the studio to speak of his former stalwart, the only coherent utterance was that he and Peel had never been friends, and the interview quickly had the plug pulled on it as Smith's ingestion of whatever he could lay his hands on had mutated him into a leering, bug-eyed goblin. Tortured and torturous he was a constantly uneasy presence.
Born in Salford in 1957 to working class parents, his father was a plumber, Smith's brightness saw him progress to grammar school. He constructed The Fall with his girlfriend Una Baines on keyboards, after seeing The Sex Pistols play the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, an inspiring event that fostered the formation of The Smiths, Joy Division and The Buzzcocks. Smith's world view expressed via his songs was dark and unforgiving, an unholy mixture of Hogarth and Blake. The band's name was lifted from Camus, whilst their influences were The Velvet Underground. Can and Captain Beefheart. Repetition was the key to The Fall's sound, hypnotic and almost mantra-like, they packed a ferocious punch live with Smith growling and snarling into the microphone, clutching the stand like a crutch. Along the way there were inspired if somewhat unlikely collaborations such as his sojourn with the dancer Michael Clark, and the involvement of his first wife Brix Smith saw the band progress, albeit briefly into the unusual status of a chart act.
Smith's drunkenness rendered him barred from many of the city centre pubs of Manchester. I recall seeing him alone in a corner of The Castle on Oldham Street surrounded by empty glasses. It was best not to interrupt his solitariness, although he on occasions be charmingly funny. On that occasion didn't seem worth the risk. I witnessed a truly embarrassing affair at The Castlefield Arena. The Fall were headlining, The Buzzcocks, I Am Kloot and Goldblade had all done their duties, but when the band hit the stage, Smith did not. They had to manfully jam for thirty minutes till Smith finally deigned to arrive, pissed and decanted from a taxi, clambering on stage to bark and hiss his way through what remained of the set. It was once observed that if t was Mark E Smith and your Grannie on spoons, then it was still The Fall. His cavalier attitude to those who passed through the ranks was a times cruel, abusive and possibly character forming, but became the stuff of myth and legend.
Towards the end as excess took its ultimate toll he performed in a wheelchair, or from the dressing room. A projected series of dates in America were pulled. There was an eloquent grace to his seemingly fearless determination. His final album New Facts Emerge was bright, fresh and dynamic. It can safely be said we will not witness another of his ilk. He was like a Beckett character, wise and angry, never going gently into any kind of night. His anarchic nature cost himself, and those in his circle, dearly, but he has left behind a blistering and brilliant output.
Restless and seldom resting, a rare dark light has ceased to shine. - Robert Cochrane