Mark E. Smith and The Fall

A one man anecdote making machine, Mark E. Smith is the contrary genius behind first-wave post-punk’s most enduring band…

Usually when referring to a band member, it is a standard convention to state the band in terms of ownership: Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, for example. It is more unusual, positively rare in fact, to give ownership to a band member, even prominent ones such as Mr. Moore up there.

This however, in some particular cases, is the only way. Especially when speaking of The Fall, who play Liverpool tomorrow in support of 30th studio album, Re-Mit. For The Fall essentially ARE their lead singer; the maverick, occasionally irascible Mark E. Smith. Thus there is no question, the convention here is Mark E. Smith’s The Fall.

Over those 30 albums and the 37 years of their existence, Smith has worked his way through 60 plus band members. It makes you wonder why wife Elena Poulou – in the group since 2002 – would ever sign on for what is only ever a short-lived ‘career’ path. Make no mistake about it, there is only one constant where The Fall are concerned; as he has so succinctly (and wonderfully) put it himself: “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, then it’s [the] Fall.”

“Smith famously sacked a guitarist on the guy’s wedding day”

Never mind if you’re his wife, Mark Riley, a jobbing musician or your granny, why would anybody want in on a band led by such a notorious tyrant? It’s no surprise to learn that a third have lasted barely a year before getting the push, or deciding quite rationally, that it’s time to walk. Singer, songwriter and paymaster, he decides who to hire and who to fire. Particularly fire; Smith famously sacked a guitarist on the guy’s wedding day.

Of course, MES prefers to see his role more as hirer of apprentices until they’re fit to be a Fall musician. In his eyes, beyond that, they no doubt get too big for their boots. And the truth of why this steady stream of people want in on the club (no matter how soon they inevitably become members of another, inextricably linked club, that ever-increasing Fall casualties list) is that, whatever you say, read or hear about Mark E. Smith, his band aren’t simply some long-surviving curio; they, as with the man himself, are bone-fide cult legends.

Conceived in the wake of a Sex Pistols gig in Manchester in the 70s (along with the likes of their soon to be peers, the Buzzcocks and Joy Division), they are the remaining act from the post-punk explosion of that era who continue to make music as interesting and – perhaps more pertinently – as credible as their early output. They have left many a band, including the two mentioned here, firmly in their dust. Or perhaps cigarette smoke is more relevant in Smith’s case.

“No one sounds quite like The Fall”

Key to the band’s longevity is that no one sounds quite like The Fall. Of course there have and always will be those inspired by, or just plain imitators of, The Fall, to whom Smith often pays short shrift: Blur, Elastica and US band Pavement to name a few. Speaking to The Wire in 1996, Smith said of the latter: “it’s just The Fall in 1985, isn’t it? They haven’t got an original idea in their heads.” A little harsh perhaps, and all the more interesting when you consider The Fall played at the 2010 Pavement-curated ATP.

To match the cantankerous exterior, more than most bands, there is a measure of rough to go with the smooth. Seeing them live is a different experience every time, and not always in a good way. The gig mentioned above saw Smith on form, playing encores but still leaving a predominantly young audience wanting more. Other times, Smith is less lucid and less keen to impress, leaving you with the distinct impression that the old adage ‘you pays your money, you takes your choice’ could have been written with him in mind.

But as with any calling, these are the challenges sent to test you when you are a fan of the band, and few fans are more committed. It remains to be seen which version of Smith and his band will turn up for tomorrow’s gig, but you’d always risk an off night for the chance of a good one.

Image taken from Brian Edge’s Paintwork: A Portrait of The Fall

The Fall play Friday 10th May 7pm @ East Village Arts Club £17.50

Posted on 09/05/2013 by thedoublenegative