Tom Waits once said that "once you've heard (Captain) Beefheart, it's hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood."
That was the impact which The Fall had on my curious young mind, ever altering my perception of music, undermining all received wisdom. Last night (Janaury 24th) the tragic news was made public that Mark E Smith, The Fall's very own hip priest, had passed away.
I vividly remember my first encounter with The Fall. Mark E Smith and his mid 2000's ensemble hammering out the 'Fall Heads Roll' track 'Pacifying Joint' on television, a performance which admittedly beguiled my younger self. Yet persistence is vital to The Fall, something which took a little time to fully appreciate. What would initially appear to be an unholy, unworthy racket, would eventually bury its way into my subconscious, planting seeds yet to grow and eventually bloom.
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Forming in 1976, The Fall emerged in Manchester during the aftermath of punk, but were no way limited to this ultimately fleeting movement. They were no post-punk group, no garage group; as glib and simple as it sounds… they were simply The Fall. Any attempts to use the group to echo your own views back to you were left ultimately futile, as throughout their over 40 year lifespan, they operated purely via the intricacies of a singular psyche, that of Mark E Smith.
Upon Smith's early work he would vividly capture a an England both drab and lysergic, uncanny specters animating the cobbled Victorian streets of Manchester. Albums such as 1980's 'Grotesque' saw Smith write compact novellas, an act which radically broadened the horizons of the rock song. This dense, supernatural approach to writing would be short lived however, with Smith later saying; "I used to be psychic, but I drank my way out of it."
Though this broken narrative songwriting would ultimately be abandoned, Smith's scope, brilliance, and bombast would thankfully not. From working with the dancer Michael Clark on the ballet 'I Am Curious, Orange', to embracing miasmic electronics on the hulking 'Dr Bucks Letter', The Fall's history would be one of restless shape-shifting, continually resisting the status of heritage act – a nostalgia ridden stance Smith would undermine as early as 1982; with the 'Just Step S'ways' line; "who wants to live in a Hovis advert, anyway?"
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Watching their show at the 100 Club last July, a startling epiphany came to mind. Smith spent the vast majority of the set rasping into a wireless mic from the dressing room, while the group did their utmost to play on regardless. For any other group, this would be a disastrous situation, a resounding defeat. Yet despite Smith's obvious bad health on the night, defiance seemed a wholly more apt word. Here he was, belligerently ignoring doctors advice, simply wanting to get on with a days work, to do what he'd been doing since the late 70s.
It's difficult not to be shaken by the news of his passing, as some things you really do take for granted; after all, in the back of your mind I think you believe there's always going to be a new Fall LP round the corner? Yet as always, celebration not despair is most necessary, we should be celebrating the life and work of one of England's greatest ever poets, a man whose influence stretches far beyond the remits of simply music.
If Smith is to be believed on 1979's 'Spectre Vs. Rector', where he barks "oh this is a drudge nation / A nation of no imagination", then his career helped cure us of said drudgery, and we should be forever grateful for it. Rest in peace Mark, 'he is not appreciated.'
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Words: Eden Tizard
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