Admit it: You thought Mark E. Smith would be the last to go. And in a way, he was the last to go – when the punk legend died on Wednesday, after 40 years leading the U.K. band the Fall, he took most of the world’s bile with him. “There are 12 people in the world – the rest are paste,” Smith snarled in his 1981 anthem “The Classical,” and nobody’s sure if Smith ever met the other 11. Somehow he was only 60, but he’d never seemed young. The “Hip Priest” had the most evil sneer in rock & roll, punctuating his rants with a sarcastic “aaaah” to give every word a serpentine hiss. He hired and fired dozens of bandmates, notoriously terrorizing anyone foolish enough to join his band, yet no matter who was in the Fall, you could always recognize them instantly – he stuck with his signature jagged guitar groove for life. Every time Mark E. Smith spat on the ground, another 10 bands rose up, and he hated every one of them.
Mark E. Smith was legendary as the most cantankerous bastard in town – and his town was Manchester. In his dozens of Fall records, he created his own wonderful and frightening (but especially frightening) world. He stayed mean right up to the end. “People still cross the road from me; I’ve still got that,” he said in his final interview. “I can clear a pub when I want to. It’s a talent.” If there’s a punk heaven, Mark E. Smith is already on his third drummer.
If his huge and sprawling catalog seems too daunting to explore, it’s easy – start with “The Classical,” a song that sums him up perfectly, from the 1981 masterwork Hex Enduction Hour, a monster groove with two drummers and crazy bass. “Hey there, fuckface-aaaah! Hey there, fuckface – aaaah!” Smith announces at the outset; it’s his way of welcoming you in. He harangues away with insults (“This is the home of the vain! There is no culture!”), complaints about how it all sounds too pretty (“too much romantic here”), bad jokes (“I just left the Hotel Amnesia … where it is, I can’t remember”), advice (“Kill it! Kill it!”) and cultural commentary: “You won’t find anything more ridiculous than this new profile razor unit, made with the highest British attention to the wrong detail.” At the end, the song explodes into the sarcastic chant, “I never felt better in my liiiiife” – he makes it terrifyingly true.
Smith was a working-class lad who left school at 16 to become a Salford dockworker who read voraciously by night. Then he heard the Sex Pistols, decided he could do better, and began one of punk’s longest, strangest careers, a hard-drinking left-wing literary autodidact and self-proclaimed “Prole Art Threat.” “The difference between you and us is that we have brains,” he told the crowd on an early live album. He set the tone for his whole career with early anthems like “Totally Wired” (“I drank a jar full of coffee and then I took some of these”) and “Repetition.” He was notoriously fond of lager, whiskey, speed – like Motörhead’s Lemmy, who he resembles in so many ways, he thrived at a chemical pace that would have turned anyone else to slush.
When a rock star dies, other musicians line up to share affectionate memories of their warmth and compassion. This will not happen to Mark E. Smith. He famously fired a soundman for ordering a salad. (In his defense, Smith said “the salad was the last straw”, dismissing his ex-bandmates as “dickheads who couldn’t hold their beer and needed to get home to Cheshire.”)
He scared away so many musicians, the journalist Dave Simpson wrote a 2008 book called The Fallen compiling their horror stories – one of them quit by escaping from the van on the freeway during a snowstorm. He liked to dismantle his bandmates’ equipment onstage, just to keep them from getting too slick. He fined his drummer five pounds every time he hit the tom-tom. On his disastrous 1998 visit to New York, the band disintegrated into an onstage fistfight that ended with Smith in jail for a couple of days.
But no matter how legendary his offstage personality, it was his music where Mark E. Smith truly became the stuff of nightmares. You can spend years exploring his catalog without coming close to figuring this guy out. The Fall hit their stride with the perfect 1980 EP Slates, in blurts like “Leave the Capitol” and “Fit and Working Again!!” At one point on Slates, he orders the band, “Don’t start improvising, for God’s sake.” (When Pavement made Slanted and Enchanted, their future label boss Gerard Cosloy praised them in in his zine Conflict as “a Slates tribute band” – the ultimate compliment.) “The only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes,” he announced in “How I Wrote Elastic Man.”
His music took a totally unexpected turn in the early Eighties when he arrived home with a young American bride on his arm. Brix Smith was a blonde California art girl who was glam, tuneful, flashy and a few dozen other things that Mark E. Smith wasn’t. They were perfect for each other, as her eccentric pop flair fit his caustic two-chord minimalism. They meshed beautifully in the 1983 Perverted by Language – especially in “Hotel Bloedel,” where her doomy crooning meets his slang-king snarl over droning violin for a profoundly creepy sound.
Thus the Fall began their “pop” phase – the punch line was that only a diehard Fall fan could confuse this music for pop, yet they somehow blundered onto the U.K. charts with a daft attack on the Kinks’ “Victoria.” They hit a roll with an almost B-52’s-like sound, with Brix as the Kate/Cindy yin to his Fred Schneider yang, in classics like This Nation’s Saving Grace and The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall. Before the marriage crashed (Brix became a famous London fashion designer) they left behind one of the era’s most perfect greatest-hits records, 458459 A Sides. In the 1985 “L.A.,” Smith rants about Hollywood (surprise, he hates it) while Brix chants a quote from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: “This is my happening, and it freaks me out!” But the unlikely peak is the 1988 freakout “Big New Prinz,” with Mark barking his dark gibberish: “Check the record, check the record, check the guy’s rock record! He is nuts!” Sinister, funny, scary, fascinating – everything this man was.
Smith kept churning out music right to the end. He made 30 albums, or 31 or 32 or something like that – part of the fun in being a Fall fan was knowing that even Smith wasn’t keeping score. Despite his rigorous ethic, they varied widely in quality, especially in the Nineties, after Brix left and things got dark. The Infotainment Scam was mind-blowingly bad in that “influenced by acid house in 1990” kind of way, while 1994’s Middle Class Revolt was a hearty blast with “You’re Not Up to Much.” He remained a legendary crank – check out his infamous 2007 interview on the U.K. chat show, Transmission, where the poor host tries a harmless question about why he’s so tough on his bandmates. “People seem to go a bit crackers when they’re around me,” he says with a straight face. “I’m a nice fellow, as you can see.”
When the jazzman Chet Baker died in 1988, art critic Dave Hickey paid tribute by pointing out that Baker “died with gigs left to play, thus deserving the freelancer’s ultimate epitaph: ‘If This Dude Wasn’t Dead, He Could Still Get Work.'” Mark E. Smith went that one better: He died with gigs still getting cancelled on him. The Fall had an oft-delayed, oft-rescheduled string of NYC shows booked for February at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right; they sold out instantly, even though literally nobody thought these shows would ever happen. Here’s to Mark E. Smith, a lesson for us all in how to remain magnificently yourself and unshakably tough. A man made with the highest British attention to the wrong detail. Rest in rancor, Mr. Smith.