The Fall's Mark E. Smith: 10 Essential Songs - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Lists

The Fall: 10 Essential Songs

Hear highlights from late, great post-punk malcontent Mark E. Smith’s sprawling four-decade discography

Johnny Rotten may have mobilized a generation of snarling malcontents, but for those who were a little too weird, brainy and normally dressed to pass as punk, Mark E. Smith was the Messiah. Formed in Manchester, England, in 1976 – “To form a group is the most ridiculous idea ever”, Smith once told NME – the Fall was Smith’s megaphone, a band whose uncompromising mission to be uncompromising led them into new territories of noise, rhythm, and language. They were lumped in with post-punk, but their unhinged, garage-rock–meets-Krautrock sprawl was its own strange beast.

Smith, who died Wednesday at the age of 60, was a poet-punk, a cranky prankster and a ringleader of an ever-shifting band roster. Dozens of musicians passed through the ranks of the Fall during their 42-year existence, including the vocalist’s one-time wife Brix Smith, leaving a staggering discography that challenged all conventional notions of rock & roll. At the same time, Smith always believed in “R and R as primal scream,” according to his lyrics to the Fall’s 1979 song “Live at the Witch Trials.” Defying pop while enjoying the occasional hit in England, the Fall became a cult of perversity and paradox. And with his sui generis voice – sadistic, sardonic and satirical – Smith could snarl his malcontent like few in the history of popular music. Here are 10 of the Fall’s essential songs.

Mark E Smith of The Fall at The ICA, London 1979.

“Repetition” (1978)

“Repetition in the music/And we’re never gonna lose it,” chanted Smith in “Repetition,” on of the first bona fide Fall classics. Punk rock may have trumpeted its rejection of technical talent, but the Fall’s lopsided, off-kilter mantra of wandering guitar and wheezing keyboard – which clocked in at a plodding five minutes, an interminable blasphemy for punk – made the Sex Pistols sound like Stravinsky. “We never deliberately played badly, despite what a lot of people think,” Smith told Smash Hits. Unrepentant amateurs in a field of not-so-secret opportunists, Smith and crew blundered and bulldozed their way into post-punk greatness.

Mark E Smith of The Fall at The ICA, London 1979.

“How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man'” (1980)

The Fall’s leader was always a wordsmith first and foremost. “Writing lyrics is what I got into rock music for,” Smith said to Q. By 1980, with the Fall having attained a unique status as an outsider band for everybody, he finally took his literary fixation and looped it back around on itself. “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man'” is about a writer imprisoned by his past success and resentful of being defined by his old work rather than respected for his new. Granted, it’s couched in surrealist pop-art, dark humor and an awkwardly stiff country beat that teeters between parody and tribute. The song’s narrator, frozen by fan expectation, confesses, “I’m living a fake/People say, ‘You are entitled to and great’/But I haven’t wrote for 90 days.” In addition to anthemizing writer’s block, Smith may well have been the first to express impostor syndrome in popular music.

Mark E Smith of The Fall at The ICA, London 1979.

“Totally Wired” (1980)

Whereas “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man'” took on writer’s block, “Totally Wired” is Smith’s paean to anxiety. Cataloging his symptoms (“a butterfly stomach”) and the likely cause of his ills (“I drank a jar of coffee/And I took some of these”), the song clangs like an agitated heartbeat. Guitars slash and bass lines jerk as Smith delivers line after line of jittery near-nonsense in a sarcastic, self-loathing sneer. Raw and ragged, “Totally Wired” also embodies the Fall’s lo-fi aesthetic of the early Eighties, a snub at the music industry’s increasingly slick production values and packaging. As Smith said to Q, “What I don’t like about a lot of records today is that they’re too clear. There’s really no fascination or mystery left.” Thankfully the Fall – even when they got a bit slicker themselves – never had that problem.

Mark E Smith of The Fall at The ICA, London 1979.

“Hip Priest” (1982)

“The Fall is an institution,” Smith once boasted to NME before checking his ego ever so slightly: “It’s my life, but I’m not the Fall.” If any one Fall song contradicts Smith’s uncharacteristically humble claim that he was just another guy in the band, it’s “Hip Priest.” Fueled by loping bass and a minimal, utilitarian beat – then topped with Smith’s poetic acrobatics – it’s practically a post-punk hip-hop track. It even sports some of the singer’s most potent shade-throwing and self-mythologizing: “All the young groups know/They can’t ever take advantage, ’cause I’m a Hip Priest.”

Mark E Smith of The Fall at The ICA, London 1979.

“Eat Y’Self Fitter” (1983)

Sixties avant-garage groups like the Monks and Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band exerted a large and obvious influence on the Fall. But in 1983, the band released Perverted by Language, their first album with Smith’s new wife Brix Smith as a member. It ushered in what became known among fans as the Brix Era, a stretch of relative commercial success and accessibility for the Fall throughout the Eighties. That said, one of the album’s standout tracks, “Eat Y’Self Fitter,” is far from a jingle. Meditating on modern alienation while riffs fall like meteorites around him, Smith “Became a recluse/And bought a computer/Set it up in the home.” It’s one of the Fall’s most prescient songs, foretelling the way the Internet has connected us while isolating us. Then again, Smith did once tell NME that “I live in the future in a lot of ways.”

Mark E Smith of The Fall at The ICA, London 1979.

“C.R.E.E.P.” (1984)

For all of Smith’s indictments of the mainstream music industry throughout his life, the Fall always crammed pop hooks into their songs. Those elements were finally shoved to the forefront with “C.R.E.E.P.” A scathing character sketch worthy of Ray Davies set to a nursery rhyme–slash–cheerleading melody – and including the indelible lines “And he wants world peace/And for that we all must pay” – the song’s earworm sensibility made it a good fit for the airwaves in England. “‘C.R.E.E.P.’ was a good song cos it got us played on the radio. It was all quite deliberate,” said Smith to NME. “The thing about the new sound, especially ‘C.R.E.E.P.,’ was that it kept us alive. Do or die.”

Mark E Smith of The Fall at The ICA, London 1979.

“Spoilt Victorian Child” (1985)

Smith’s knack for Ray Davies–like social commentary – which would peak in 1988 when the Fall released a faithful cover of the Kinks’ “Victoria” – was in full bloom on 1985’s “Spoilt Victorian Child.” With catchy guitar lines balanced against Smith’s acidic vocals, the bouncy tune flaunted a disdain for England’s past and enduring class consciousness while filtering it through a typically cryptic lens: “Let’s take it 10 years on/You’re looking back from then/Under rough, grey blankets.” Resolutely working-class in both upbringing and do-it-yourself pride, Smith exclaimed to NME that “We’re not Dire Straits. We’re a working group.” Not that anyone would have ever mistaken him for Mark Knopfler, but still.

Mark E Smith of The Fall at The ICA, London 1979.

“Hit the North” (1987)

In 1987, the Fall – more than a decade old – were being surpassed in Manchester. The band’s neighbors and contemporaries such as New Order and the Smiths had to make room for a rowdy batch of local youngsters like the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, whose funky Madchester sound was thrusting indie rock into new, uncharted areas of danceability. Smith rubbed his hands at the challenge, and “Hit the North” was his broadside. Infectious, spliced with electronics and tailored to the dance floor, the song took breaks from its singalong chorus to let Smith mumble warningly about “the reflected mirror of delirium.” It was yet another radical departure for the band, not that Smith was worried. “The Fall have always changed, and there’s people who can never bleedin’ ‘andle it,” he once remarked to NME. “It’s the story of The Fall.”

Mark E Smith of The Fall at The ICA, London 1979.

“15 Ways” (1994)

The Nineties weren’t kind to the Fall. After the departure of Brix Smith in 1989 – although she would return briefly from 1994 to 1996 – Smith led an increasingly tumultuous lineup through a series of albums that were sporadically brilliant and just as often mediocre. One such album is Middle Class Revolt, which yielded the standout single “15 Ways.” Seemingly riffing on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Smith dabbles in feminism, kind of, by advising the listener that “There are at least 15 ways to leave your man/Get a flat and magazine.” Then he gleefully celebrates the chaos that might ensue: “But you will soon recover/No longer undercover/Branch out into complete disorder.” “I Am Woman” it ain’t, but the song remains one of Smith’s most jarringly upbeat and hopeful. This is, after all, the man who made it clear to NME that “The Fall defies logic.”

Mark E Smith of The Fall at The ICA, London 1979.

“Bury!” (2010)

Post-punk was all the rage again at the start of the 21st century, and the Fall suddenly found themselves cited as forefathers and icons by a generation of indie musicians young enough to be their kids. Some of them even wound up in the Fall as Smith began recruiting fresher and fresher lineups – resulting in some stunning late-period high points. One of the most potent is “Bury!,” a buzzing, propulsive rant in which Smith paradoxically counters his own legendarily confounding lyrical bent: “This song means something/Every song means something.” As he once told Melody Maker, “I think a lot of stuff needs to be said in songs that isn’t being said. And that’s why I keep going.” And so he did, until the very end.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.