The Mighty Mark E. Smith: a reflection...
Photo of Mark E Smith: Irish Times
It has been brought to my attention that, in my last article on The Fall, I got a lyric wrong; it's not “this is the three hours”, but “this is the three 'r's.
As Jimi once said, “s’cuse me while I kiss this guy”.
Mis-hearing lyrics is one of the joys of music. Having too much information too easily available can destroy the mystique. It took ages to work out Pete Shelley's line “who do you think you're trying to arouse/ Get your hand out of my trousers” by playing the disc over and over (uh, back in the 70s), and that was kind of the point.
Mick Middles, in his not-very-good book “The Fall”, says:
“I asked Mark, do people take The Fall too seriously?”
“Depends what you mean by seriously. I have always wanted my work to be taken seriously, because it deserves to be ... but no, I can't stand it when people go too far. Like all those fucking web sites about The Fall. I've shut a load of them down, to be honest. People chatting away, discussing the meaning of lyrics. There's some fucking professor in America who teaches about the meaning of Fall songs. I mean, can you believe that? ... the whole point is to understand and move on, not hold seminars or open fucking web pages …”
On the other hand, once you try to understand something, and get frustrated that you can't, you make an effort to nail the elusive aspect down...
One Fall fan on the Mighty Fall Facebook page recently commented that they're only now beginning to realise what we've lost, and he's dead right. It's really only beginning to sink in, weeks afterwards, that Mark E. Smith ran the only band to never really sell out from a generation that promised the world and, like most generations, crumbled into suburban gluetopias. And while yes, though The Fall can be said to have swum with sharks, and certainly pitched songs toward the charts, they never (quite) attached themselves to the predator's chins.
Possibly one reason being that Mark E. Smith was always inspired by what was around him - and that included suburban normality - his own concept of normality appears to have been clinically abnormal. (That said, have you ever seen those comparison photographs of Walter Sickert and Francis Bacon in their studios? Gentlemen, whenever you are accused of being messy by your partner, pull these photographs out ... genius is not always normal)
Mark E. Smith remained amused and angry at all our hypocrisies, which he saw in his immediate surroundings, and (like all great artists) was able to draw on to generate a broader reflection of the society he saw. In truth, while Smith really 'only' writes of his local area, and of events and people he encountered as a musician, his songs are created in such a way that their meaning is far greater than the confines of a (Manchester) burb.
But first, a confession: a friend of mine is a deep fan. We hung together until the mid-‘80s, and The Fall were a big part of that. We drifted apart somewhat, but brought ourselves back together and, a few years ago, I found myself grabbing the current Fall discs, and loving them. I'd also been slowly getting the older LPs on CD, especially the deluxe treatments which provide a raw perspective, with the excellent sleeve notes by Daryl Easlea.
Despite the world's indifference, these last LPs are very worthy of your time and cash - apart from anything else, Mark was very concerned with the state of his country, with the erosion of individual thought, intelligence and the growing acceptance of greed as a value unto itself. Not that you'd ever see him draped in a St George flag - Mark would have mocked that pitilessly. In some senses, the LP titles say a lot in themselves; “Ersatz GB”, “Sub Lingual Tablet”, “Your Future, Our Clutter”… hell, if he wasn't so damned opaque he'd remind me of Theodore Dalrymple.
So there remains a huge swag of LPs - the original studio LPs, compilations and live (fuck, 32 of them) - I don't have and do want. Of course, this is Australia, and The Fall never really sold in huge quantities here, so we have to peer hopefully online. Smith's death has sent the price of The Fall releases on Amazon into “silly” territory - it's surprising how many are now unavailable.
I've been reading and re-reading a few books on the band/ man (there's at least eight, I think) and I can now report back that there are quite a few rather confused individuals out there.
In the wake of my own confusion, I sought perspective.
I contacted Michael Canning - he lives in Leeds, but he was born and raised quite near Australia (he's a Nuh Zuhluhnduh) but today, in the real world he's a musician (Mass Spectrometer) and scientist in Leeds.
The Fall and their influence on NZ music
Sunday 18th February 2018
I'm listening to 'Grotesque' as I type this. On the morning of Smith's death I got off the bus on the outskirts of Leeds the heavens opened. I started walking down this track and as I went down this hill the rain became much stronger and, very quickly, it was monsoon conditions. Really heavy rain, the kind you don't often see. I was absolutely soaked, trousers soaked, jacket soaked. The path had become a stream. It was quite extraordinary, and exhilarating at the same time. It was like something/ someone saying 'get wet and live pal'!
It wasn't until later that day or the next day I learnt M.E.S. was dead. He totally did things his own way, eh. What an artistic legacy he leaves behind.
To be fair I can only talk about what I know. I haven’t been embedded in NZ’s music scene for two decades so I don’t know what younger kiwi musicians takes on them would be. As an aside – just after Mark E. Smith’s death – an 18 year old English guitarist recently told me he thought the Fall were like a precursor to Britpop. Maybe his contemporaries in NZ have similar thoughts. I couldn’t say.
I believe The Fall were pretty essential listening to many people in NZ from the late 70’s to maybe the mid/late 80’s. Their influence got there via import copies of their earliest records, the music press of the time – particularly imported English papers, radio play on the University radio stations, and word of mouth.
They were highly regarded in some quarters of the post-punk scenes across NZ in the very early 80’s. I would say early 80’s band’s like Shoes This High and This Sporting Life were keen on them amidst many others. There was a band called Eat This Grenade in Wellington – their name probably copped from the lyrics to ‘Fiery Jack’. I remember seeing several Auckland bands in the mid 80’s and you could certainly discern a Fall influence here and there. Their music was driving and on some levels easy to play so cool to play along with if you were just starting out and learning to play guitar – especially if you had rejected the notion of being able to reproduce expected cover renditions of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Smoke On The Water’ et al. It really was like that in 1984/85!
Curiously enough the Fall got a top 30 ‘hit’ in 1981 in New Zealand with ‘Totally Wired’ reaching #25. Maybe back then that was 600 copies sold or similar? The same thing also happened with Joy Division and the Dead Kennedys. NZ only had a population of 3 million back then. The Fall could have been more influential than Joy Division or Killing Joke were at that time. And the latter's combined influence was there in a big way for a long time.
The “Hex Enduction Hour” album was probably the height of their profile in New Zealand, which came out before their July/August 1982 tour of Oz and NZ. In a phone interview Mark E. Smith did in Australia for “Rip It Up” in August ’82 before reaching New Zealand he remarked about the Australian music scene, “every band I’ve seen here, all you can f****n’ hear is the bloody bass guitar.”
The Fall’s Auckland show of 21st August was recorded by Chris Knox on his TEAC 4-track reel-to-reel machine. The subsequent “Fall In A Hole” album helped make Flying Nun as an international label but almost bankrupted them after a reputed misunderstanding of release approval from Smith. Did their profile get any bigger in NZ after that tour? It's difficult to say. Possibly not, their audience size was probably a bit limited but they held a special place in many people’s hearts as innovators.
For me – I first heard them play on the late night Barry Jenkins radio show as a pre-teen circa 1980/81. Jenkins show was a popular late night show for many young people of that era – it was bastion of alternative and experimental music – away from the hideous blandness of kiwi radio at that time. I found something curious and compelling in what the Fall were doing - alongside the strange yet beautiful new sounds of bands like the Young Marble Giants and the Lemon Kittens. It was a world away from what you heard on daytime pop radio or the dreadful talkback shows in the weekends.
I recall a Fall video was once aired on “Radio With Pictures” around maybe 1983, which was a programme on Sunday nights that featured music videos, and I understand, actually the conceptual blueprint for MTV. Barry Jenkins was a guest on it and they played some clip of the Fall circa 1980 and it was great, this spiky raw energised clang. And he said “this is from a group who couldn’t care less about visual presentation, one light in a room and that’s it.” He heartily approved, as I think did many others who saw that clip.
1982 NZ tour poster. Courtesy of Michael Canning.
Maybe the Fall became a bit more part of the furniture as other new artists emerged in the years post Induction Hour. Fall records came out regularly over the 80’s and by the early 90’s they sounded quite slick production-wise. Personally I lost a bit of interest after 'Shift-Work', and 'Code Selfish' [the first two of their three LPs on Fontana - ed], which I found a bit generic but the things they were doing in more recent years perked my ears up i.e. that film of the Glastonbury 2015 is musically pretty sweet in parts.
I would say the Fall probably ranked up there alongside Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart for several artists on the kiwi scene in the 80’s and 90’s. Their influence, to my understanding was particularly in regard to: their attitude – out with the stultifying old/in with the new and present, the minimal DIY production of their earlier releases – which was an aesthetic strength, Smith’s opaque lyrics and delivery style, their rhythms, the scratchy inimitable guitar sounds and repetitive bass, the titles of the songs themselves, and the cover art.
Its difficult to sum up their influence as a whole in NZ, and of course this is subjective, but for a period some decades ago – to their audience who dug what they did – the Fall were Kings of the Castle, and something probably almost guaranteed to quickly wind up those with ears not open to challenge or dissonance.
Michael Canning has his own website which is worth checking out.
Feeling that we should also really hear from someone who runs a website which Mark might or might not have disapproved, I wrote to Christopher of “The Annotated Fall” website, remarking to him that Mark would hate what he's doing - publicly. Privately I think Mark would be impressed despite himself and rather proud (I think Middles missed the duality of Mark's feelings about the American professor, by the by).
Robert, that's exactly what I thought - I was often worried MES would catch wind of me and bash me, and I wasn't sure I could take being trashed by someone of whom I am such a fan.
But I concluded the same thing as you - largely based on things he'd said before, I realised he probably be really pleased and proud about the site. Actually, my final guess was he'd love that the site exists, but if he actually read it and found some details he considered wrong I'd be in for a shit-kicking ('Where do these idiots get this stuff?! type thing)... I'm presumably safe now!
I'm an American -- part of the reason I started the site, I had no idea what he was talking about much of the time and wanted to sort out when nobody else did either, and when I was just missing common English terms/references.
I have a friend whose taste in music I respect, and he's really into the Fall. In around 2010 I asked him to turn me onto some of their better songs, so he made me a 5-CD compilation. I had it for a year or two before I got into it. I didn't get it at first, and one day I thought, I'm going to listen to this thing until I at least have an idea what's going on with this stuff, so I have something intelligible to say about it either way. So I played it in the car every day, and it was about a week of that before I was obsessed with it, and trying to get my hands on all the albums. I don't think "obsessed" is much of an exaggeration, although people abuse the word - I don't think I listened to anything else (voluntarily, at least) for about a year.
I started the site about two months after I started seriously listening. I really felt a need for it and I wanted someone else to do it, or at least to have it be a collectively-run type of thing, but no one was volunteering so I just looked up how to get a free web site and started work on it. Like Tom Sawyer, once people saw me actually doing this thing they pitched in. By that time I felt a little proprietorial about it, I have to admit; I'd put too much of myself into it, so I continue as sole editor, but a lot of other people contribute research, and a few people contribute a lot of research.
There's a lot of my writing on there, and it's marked as such when it's not. Some of it is a little over-written - I wasn't always entirely sober when writing. Sometimes I go back and try to pare things down a little. Some of the entries are a mess. It's not like a perfectly-constructed ship in a bottle type of thing. And when I started the site I had just, maybe a month before, defended a dissertation in philosophy, so some of the early stuff is infected with a somewhat academic writing style, which I've since tried to purge, but there are hundreds of entries so I'm not even sure of what all is in there.
My job? I teach philosophy at a community college on the East Coast of the US, and I don't mind anyone knowing that ...
I have heard the early Kraftwerk stuff, sure. A little more rock then. You could throw in Ash Ra Tempel for something even closer but I don't think any of those bands are quite the same thing only better with regard to the Dead (which you may not be saying but seems to maybe be your point). Between 1972 and 1974 the Dead played collaborative ensemble improvisation, which those other groups (especially Can) did, but with a different aesthetic--rather than an emphasis on trance-y repetition, which is of course not all there is to it in the case of Can, the best pieces have them collectively exploring in a more mobile and up in the air way. And I love their songs.
As I said, I'm a Deadhead. But Can is one of my favourite bands. The early Kraftwerk I am sort of familiar with, that is all. I should probably dig it up and listen to it. Anyway, of course it goes without saying that reasonable, humane people don't hate each other because of musical taste, except perhaps in the case of the last two you mention. I also despise all the so-called "Jam bands" like Phish. But you are not going to talk me out of 35 years of Dead fandom!
I only got into the Fall relatively recently, in around 2012.. As an American, I never got to see them, as they did not visit America in that time. At the end of your review, you say something like "To really understand the Fall, you have to see them live," and I actually think you're probably right, so it's a shame I never got the chance. Anyway, many of the lyrics seemed impenetrable to me, and one of the first things I noticed is that some of them did not have to be -- there were allusions, idioms and references that would probably be relatively clear to an English person that I couldn't understand at all. So my goal in starting the site was to distinguish the mysteries that are a product of my own limited perspective from those that are genuinely mysterious. The primary purpose of the site, then, is to track down references and clarify those lyrics that can be clarified with a little research, in order to see more clearly what mysteries are left (which are plentiful). I do, however, indulge myself with a little interpretation and speculation here and there throughout the notes.
I also want to add that I could never have done the web site without the enormous amount of help I've gotten from other Fall fans. The site is the work of many hands, and in particular I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my colleague Dan, who has done as much or maybe even more work for the site as I have, and Martin of the Reformation! website who has contributed a lot as well. Many of the project's most successful results can be attributed to them and to others; for instance, any research I've done has largely been Google searches and reading the published books about the Fall, but Dan has put in many hours of real research on the project.
I'm not sure precisely what you mean when you ask why MES "hid" so many lyrics. This could refer to three things, and I will assume you mean all three of them: (1.) he did not publish all of them, (2.) he did not enunciate all of them clearly, and (3.) those he published are often incorrect. MES has said that not knowing the lyrics to Velvet Underground songs added to their sort of mysterious allure, and I think he did not value lyric sheets very much.
I think he thought misheard lyrics are a fortunate occurrence rather than something to be avoided. I believe that to a certain extent he thought they represent a widening of the semantic possibilities of a song. I think that for him the thought processes behind a Fall lyric--whatever he had in mind while writing the lyric, whatever the lyric meant to him at the time, even whatever he may have taken himself to be "referring" to--these are what he saw as a starting point, but not the telos or end state of the process. In other words whatever prompted the lyric wasn't a message he was trying to encode in the song, but the starting point or occasion for an exploration of language, opening up possibilities for expression and interpretation. So I think he was quite happy for lyrics to be misheard or transcribed incorrectly.
This brings us to number (3.) above, and to your third question--the two lyrics books that were published with MES's imprimatur are often very inaccurate. They include some material in Smith's own hand, but if you look closely at the lyrics and study them in conjunction with the recordings, many of them are quite obviously transcriptions that someone--not MES--made from the recordings. It's remarkable that he would proceed this way, "officially" publishing someone else's flawed transcriptions of the lyrics in such a form that they would have a claim to be the canonical versions, and I think it's very revealing with regard to the way he saw his lyrics and their place in the Fall's work. So the lyrics books maintain or even create as many mysteries as they dispel.
In some ways, then, the “Annotated Fall” site is working against MES's intentions--I try to achieve as accurate as possible a record of what he actually sang, in many cases providing what I see as corrections of the lyrics books when appropriate. I don't try to explain what the songs "mean" or eliminate their mysteriousness, but I do want to try to eliminate any contingent or unnecessary mysteries that are an artefact of mishearing or not recognising common references. I don't really see any harm in this, and anyway in many cases we are far from the point where we can all agree what MES actually sang on many of the recordings. In many ways it's a mess, but we try to tidy it up as much as is reasonably possible.
Brix has tweeted a link to my site accompanied by some complimentary remarks, otherwise I don't recall any other reactions from former or current members of the Fall. And MES never acknowledged my site as far as I know, but I assume he knew about it, as he was seemingly kept abreast of Fall-related doings on the internet. If that's the case, I'd like to think his silence on the matter connotes a kind of approval--he was never reticent about his disapproval of things! But of course I can't really know either way, so I won't be putting "MES APPROVED!" on the home page or anything like that!"
As with many, many Fall fans around the world, I'm currently filling a few critical gaps in my collection, hoping that labels like Action Records (which handle the band's back catalogue) and Cherry Red (which have been handling the more recent records) begin to reissue those items out of sight for so long. I can't think of any other band I've done this for - except Suicide (odd, now I think of it ... Alan Vega was not known for his precise pronunciation).
One last reflection: on listening to The Fall's 25th studio LP, “Reformation Post TLC”, I recalled the Pitchfork website's Joe Tangari's comment:
I said the Fall isn't really a band in the usual sense? Well, on this record they don't sound like one, either. With only a few exceptions, the album is a mess, and not a very memorable one at that ... He sounds tired and unfocused on most of the record, and when he cedes the vocals to Poulou on 'The Wright Stuff', she basically imitates him, rambling over the backing track. More damaging than Smith's unusually incoherent performance, though, is the production. The only thing that's uniform about it is that it's lousy. The sound on the album is all over the place, and ranges from muffled to unevenly mixed-- the mastering level on certain tracks even sounds different from the level on others.
What I thought was, apart from “this guy's simply wrong, and not listening”, is that if this is a bad LP from The Fall, then there's a big majority of bands out there whose best doesn't come close. The mix is deliberate (duh, it's one of those MES things, you either deal with it or don't listen), Poulou's vocal recalls the Velvet Underground's “The Gift” (not the way MES sings), and the songs... put it this way. If you'd never heard a Fall LP before, you'd be intrigued and captivated.
Mark E Smith by Jeremy Gluck.
But don't believe just me. Jeremy Gluck, former singer/ songwriter with The Barracudas (among others) and now photographer and artist.
I read that the first time John peel heard ‘Repetition’ he claimed he fainted. It's hilarious, I mean this is real genius. I now must really hear The Fall ...
What I love about the Fall is I listened to their first release, and their last, and they're the same. Seriously, I find it AMAZING.
The connect between there and now. Fucked if I know. Or think. Especially think. What is there is to say?
Not knowing much of The Fall, I was still always taken with Smith, very much the embodiment of the sort of artist I always wanted to become and be. A super artist. Simultaneously beyond the norm and pissing on it. The best thing for me about Mark E. is that, as a lover of all manner of audio collage, cutup and manipulation, he never needed any intervention to sound like his voice had been mangled by a mutoid sampler. Just by living, Mark E. Smith was an exemplar of vocal delivery as art. As much as Dylan. Now, Dylan you can hear loud and clear, but they do share idiosyncratic phrasing and ululating that nobody else could nail adequately, even chained up in Guantanamo with nothing else to do for a twenty stretch except listen to and try to copy their vocal delivery. ‘And then they waterboarded me-uhhhh!’
The Fall are a band that defies formats. Almost everything they did sounds like it was recorded through a huge pop screen crafted from damp dung, with Smith’s belligerent Northern soul-less grunt perforating the pop. I wasn’t born with a great voice, and I can’t really sing too good; spoken word is my forte, when I can unleash my monotone in all its glory. Smith, well, Smith was born with a voice, again, defying norms. When he’s talking he’s singing; when he’s singing he’s talking. Lout Minus Zero/No Limit. Not meaning to dwell on dung, but Smith sounds forever like a behemoth of a dung beetle rolling his vocal up a hill.
Insofar as the links between my own journey through formats is concerned, I pretty much forgot to include it. The Barracudas were a great band in their prime, especially live. A world away from The Fall and their ilk (if they have any ilk, which is doubtful). A rock and roll band. But, you see, a great band is always a rock and roll band. The Fall were a great rock and roll band. Get it? It’s about the spirit, not the flesh. Dragging through vinyl to cassette, from there to C.D., and now living digital, it’s all become a blur. The sound is what matters. Cassettes, with their implacable tinnitus hum, remain my heroes. And I was supposed to talk about streaming. In a nutshell: We’re all going broke because of it. And, you know what, it doesn’t matter."
(excerpt from “Eskimo Fry”)
And there you have it. A big part of the modern world is over, and The Fall deserve to be remembered, purchased, and commemorated (but please God, not like the Limerick statue of Terry Wogan which looks like Nick Cave, or perhaps Ronaldo's dad, or the dreadful statue of Don Bradman in Adelaide).
Can you picture it ..? A statue of MES, outside one of his favourite pubs, tab in one hand, carrier bag of cans and lyrics in the other...?
There's something relentless and very British about that image.