Bill’s Indie Basement (1/26): The all-Fall Mark E. Smith Tribute Edition
Given his hard-living lifestyle full of drink, cigarettes and pills, it's both amazing that Mark E Smith lasted as long as he did, and that he didn't outlive us all. His death on Wednesday wasn't exactly unexpected, he'd been very ill for a while, but hearing the news, it was still a gut punch. I'm a huge Fall fan. There's no other artist I own more records of, and no other act that I've driven further to see -- including skipping the first day of fall semester 1993 to see them play in Cleveland. All their records have some merit (even the CD of Are You Missing Winner makes a good shaving mirror) even if none of them have made a year-end list since 2004's The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click).
There have been no shortages of tributes and lists and thinkpieces this week (I really liked Sean O'Neal's piece on AV Club). The Fall's catalog is massive and daunting, and there's probably not one thing -- written or recorded -- that will convince someone of their greatness. (The Fall were really great.) As his ex-wife and bandmate Brix said, Mark defied convention and definition. There was probably no relationship MES had that couldn't be described as "tumultuous," and The Fall are not made for easy digestion, though their influence cannot be overstated. That said, here are 11 things that might collectively tip the scales just a bit.
I did say in the first edition of this column, "Where to start 40 years into their prolific existence? 'Let me make you a mix' might be my real answer." So I threw together an un-definitive, mostly chronological playlist of 60 songs which you can check out at the bottom of this post.
For the uninitiated the best place to start with The Fall may not be a singles collection or someone's Ultimate Fall Playlist, but this 2005 BBC Documentary which, in just an hour, does a great job of condensing The Fall's history to up to that point. It hits on all the major highs and lows and infamous incidents, interviewing most of the key band members and famous fans (including John Peel not long before he died in 2004), and plenty of MES at his highly quotable (if occasionally unintelligible) best. Plus lots of great performance footage too. Essential viewing.
If you don't have an hour, Jeffrey Lewis' "documentary" on The Fall -- aka one of his patented history lesson ramblin' folk songs with comic book visuals -- will do kinda the same thing in just two minutes. "He didn't get along with the punk scene at all / In fact Mark didn't really get along with most members of The Fall" is just one of the many great couplets. (The last couplet of the song, which I won't spoil, is both true and a great bit of trolling.) There are a few different versions of this out there on the web, all live, but this one with just a drumbeat is my favorite:
If you want it straight from the horse's mouth there's this 2008 memoir. It's pure, unfiltered Mark E. Smith, and is less like reading a book and more like randomly running into him in a pub and having him talk at you for eight hours. Funny, meandering, at times brutal, and a real page-turner. Mostly for Fall fans, but his personality and wit transcend often.
If you need more: Stephen Hanley, who was The Fall's bassist and anchor for 18 years, wrote the funny and insightful The Big Midweek in 2014 and it's probably the best book about The Fall; MES's ex-wife, Brix, who co-wrote much of the band's mid-'80s classics, wrote her own memoir, The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise; and The Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain's Most Insane Group interviews every ex-member of the band as of the 2008 publish date to tell their side of the story.
It all starts here with this b-side to The Fall's three-song debut EP, Bingo-Master's Break-Out that became the band's maxim, all set to a nagging beat: "Who are sick of fancy music? / We dig repetition...this is the Three R's / Repetition, Repetition, Repetition"
The years in which Brix was Mark’s wife and playing guitar in the band were, for me, The Fall’s creative peak. (Though 1981's Slates is perfect.) Brix brought endless riffs and actual choruses to the band, making it palatable while still sounding like The Fall. Add to this the twin-drummer attack, plus irreplaceable bassist Steve Hanley and guitarist Craig Scanlon, it’s the dream lineup of The Fall. When teamed with producer John Leckie (who’d go on to make The Stone Roses’ debut and Radiohead’s The Bends), everything really clicked with two stone cold classics in a row: 1984’s The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (my personal fave) and 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace (a lot of Fall fans’ favorite).
Around the same time they were cranking out great singles too, like “Cruiser’s Creek,” “C.R.E.E.P.,” “Oh Brother!” and their amazing cover of The Other Half’s “Mr. Pharmacist.” The two albums after that with Brix, The Frenz Experiment and I Am Curious Orange, didn’t quite match those highs but the latter gave us one of the best-ever Fall singles, the stomping “Big New Prinz.” When Brix and Mark broke up at the end of the ’80s, The Fall rolled on, making three albums for major label Phonogram (all of which I love) but it was never quite the same without her. She rejoined the band, to most people’s surprise, in the mid-’90s but the spark wasn’t exactly there.
The Fall made loads of videos and most of them are not very good, but this special quasi-performance video for "Bill is Dead," one of their rare romantic ballads (many speculate it's about Brix who he'd just broken up with), is pretty special. Made for short-lived UK arts program Snub TV, the camera follows Mark E. Smith from the bathroom to the soundstage, tracking him as he circles the rest of the band, taking long drags on a cigarette between lyrics. Vulnerable is rarely a word you use with MES, but he is here.
Mark E Smith's lyrics are famously inscrutable, thick with literary and political references, inside-jokes and non sequiturs. That's if you can make it through his Mancunian accent which many people find completely impenetrable. Here to help is The Annotated Fall which attempts to dissect his lyrics, with more footnotes than a David Foster Wallace novel. Endlessly helpful and fascinating to any Fall fan.
While Mark E. Smith famously said even "if it's me and yer granny on bongos, it's the Fall" -- in reference to the revolving door lineup of The Fall over the years -- there were a few things Mark E Smith contributed vocals to that weren't The Fall. Starting in the '90s, his raspy yelp became a go-to for collaborations, especially on dance records. One of the first was for Coldcut, who had produced a few songs for Extricate. (They were also responsible for the "7 Minutes of Madness" remix of Eric B & Rakim's "Paid in Full.") The cut-n-paste DJ duo had him provide vocals for "I'm in Deep" which was on their debut album, What's That Noise:
Maybe my favorite collaboration is "70s Night" which appeared on onetime Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins' 1997 album, I'm Not Following You. Like a lot of Mark E Smith's lyrics, I'm not exactly sure what he's on about, but it all sounds great over Edwyn's funky, glam-disco track. Shine on!
Maybe the most successful MES collaborations is "Plug Myself In," which was with D.O.S.E. whose sound was very mid '90s, somewhere between Big Beat, Trip Hop and "electronica" like Bomb the Bass. Everything sounds over the top:
The song most people have probably heard with Mark E. Smith, even if they didn't know who he was, is Gorillaz' "Glitter Freeze" from Plastic Beach. It almost sounds like Damon Albarm is trying to write a Fall backing track, in a Gorillaz kind of way.
Mark E Smith's only collaboration to become its own thing was Von Südenfed, which paired him with German experimental electronic duo Mouse on Mars. Originally born out of a remix of MoM's "Wipe That Sound," it blossomed into it's own weird, wonderful thing and is probably the last genuinely great thing Mark E Smith did, with MES pretty much stealing his bit back from James Murphy.
In the late '00s, Ian Svenonius (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up) hosted his own interview for Vice TV called Soft Focus where he interviewed punk/indie rock icons like Sonic Youth, J. Mascis, Dead Moon, Stephen Malkmus, Ted Leo, folks like that. Svenonius is an an outsized personality but met his match interviewing Mark E Smith in 2007, making for an interesting, funny and occasionally tense conversation.
One of The Fall's most infamous shows, the one that featured the mid-set on-stage bust-up between Mark E Smith and drummer Karl Burns, and then later the rest of the band. The night would end with MES in NYC Central Booking, and bassist Steve Hanley quitting the band for good after 18 years. You can watch the whole show from stage left, as Mark fiddles with the setting on his bandmates instruments and generally needles them to the boiling point. It's a real mess but then there's also "Hip Priest" and a few other classics before things go pear-shaped.