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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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“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.”

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“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.

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