Never meet your heroes. I met Mark E Smith three times, and on each one of those three times he was a total shit. One time he called me a cunt because I asked about his short-lived electro outfit Von Sudenfed. Of the other two times, characterised by swearing and a general air of simmering violence, the most memorable moment was when he tried to punch me because I wouldn’t pass my spliff on command. So from my limited personal experience, I can say Mark E Smith was a fucking nightmare to be around. This doesn’t seem like a unique perspective – by all accounts, Smith went through life as a poisonous, abusive arsehole; drunk and vindictive, violent, temperamental and almost entirely self-centred. But still, like millions of others, I carried on buying the remarkable records he made. And now he’s dead, and I, like millions of others, am going to mourn the passing of Britain’s greatest bastard.
I’m pretty sure that today will see thousands of think pieces pointing out how much we need this kind of wildcard refusenik in an age of social media stars obsessively packaging themselves as a brand designed for maximum wide spread appeal – regardless of the fact that Smith is in many ways the archetype for that most popular of modern brands; the foul mouthed troll. However, unlike the vast lump of the trolls lurking in the anonymity of the online world, Smith’s most important trait wasn’t his acerbic personality; it was his skill as a poet. He never stopped working, treating his art as a job, forcing words into a conduit for humour, passion, contempt and rage, finding musicians who could match their barbs with music spiked with awkward about turns and surprising shots of rhythm.
So, naturally, the best way to remember such a wildly prolific songwriter is by his music. I can’t even pretend to have listened to all of The Fall’s seven hundred albums, so I can’t even pretend I’m pulling together a ‘best of the Fall’ list of songs – the idea in itself is ludicrous, with ‘best of’ lists inevitably ending up as either a highly subjective collection masquerading as a definitive history, or a bland aggregate of other people’s opinions. So, instead, this is an entirely personal selection of Fall tracks that I like. Some are well known, some less so. It seems as good way as any to celebrate the life of the trickiest of heroes.
US 80s – 90s
1986 LP Bend Sinister contained one of the few Fall records to become a straight up indie disco hit in the shape of Mr Pharmacist. Buried deeper in the album is US 80s -90s, a tempo shifting killer that does away with any normal structure, instead flicking between garage band thrash and slow disco thud, while Smith, arch as ever, spits out paranoid sketches of America, memorably (and possibly even accurately) referring to himself at one point as a ‘big shot rapper’
Behind the Counter
The rise of the Madchester baggy scene saw The Fall have a brief, rare moment of seeming to be in step with the bands around them. With both Ian Brown and Shaun Ryder’s discordant speak singing both clearly indebted to Smith’s prototype, it was only right that The Fall should drop a breakbeat dance track of their own. Behind the Counter is probably one of their most accessible moment – proof that a chanting drunk and raw guitars could be made into a pop hit as easily as any manufactured boy band.
Birmingham School of Business School
Dripping with contempt for yuppie culture, BSOBS revels in the meaninglessness of corporate existence, Smith barking out his loathing for ‘exciting developments’ and ‘very firm handshake’ over an uptempo grinder.
How I Wrote “Elastic Man”
The young Mark E Smith at his most straightforward and his most bewildering, Elastic Man’s themes of writers block and the problems of success is a prophetic work - or at the very least it deals with what Smith feared might happen if he became feted for his art. As he told a journalist around 1980; “it's about a guy who wrote a book called 'Elastic Man' and everybody gets on his back about it, he's a celebrity and it fucks up his art.”
British People in Hot Weather
An alternative national anthem, British People in Hot Weather (later renamed Mad.Men.Eng,Dog, presumably in reference to Noel Coward’s Mad Dog’s and English Men) is a snapshot of sunny Britain, a place of blistered skin, hammered clowns and broiling life. Smith, ever the contrarian, is almost chirpy as he surveys his kingdom of burnt flesh and daytime drinking…
These aren’t necessarily the best songs, or even the most important – there’s no Hey Student or A Curious Oranj or Hit the North or Prole Art Threat in there for starters. But there songs I’ve listened to over and over again, so as real a tribute as we could give. Mark E Smith, RIP.