Mark E. Smith, the post-punk visionary who fronted the Fall for four decades, died on Wednesday at the age of 60.
“It is with deep regret that we announce the passing of Mark E. Smith,” the band’s manager Pam Vander said in a statement. “He passed this morning at home. A more detailed statement will follow in the next few days. In the meantime, Pam & Mark’s family request privacy at this sad time.”
Part musical hypnotist, part ranting madman, Smith was a singular figure in post-punk. His Mancunian accent, dry witticisms and plays on words were one of the Fall’s most constant characteristics. Their songs were odysseys into his ever-verbose psyche, marked by repetitive rhythms and melodies. His influence resounded in the music of Pavement, Sonic Youth and the early 2000s New York dance-punk scene.
A fiercely independent thinker noted for his temperamental nature, Smith ushered the Fall through countless lineups and guises as the band’s sole original member. The group began with a slightly off-kilter take on the punk sound, in line with Britain’s musical revolution of 1977, but quickly became artier, focusing on forceful rhythms that owe equal debt to skiffle, Krautrock and Smith’s omnipresent oration.
The group never became a commercial success (their biggest hit was a cover of the Kinks’ “Victoria”) yet it nurtured a dedicated cult following with frequent touring and the release of 32 original albums prior to Smith’s death. The band’s most recent effort, 2017’s raucous New Facts Emerge, made it to Number 35 on the British charts, yet failed to make an impact in the U.S.
Mark Edward Smith was born in Manchester, England on March 5th, 1957. While in school, he started using his middle initial in his name because “there were about 10 Smiths in that year,” he told Mojo. He became a fan of garage rock, à la the Seeds and 13th Floor Elevators, and more experimental groups such as Can and Captain Beefheart as a teenager. He initially aspired to sing in a heavy-metal band but was turned away by local groups who said he couldn’t sing, according to AllMusic. He sustained himself by working as an office clerk and then later as a dockworker before the first lineup of the Fall came together.
The group, which took its name from a novel by Albert Camus, put out their first release, the Bingo-Master’s Break-Out! EP, in 1978. It contains their brief flirtation with relatively straightforward punk (“Psycho Mafia”) before blending the genre’s plodding riffs with jagged, jerking rhythms on the title song. The EP’s “Repetition” may well have been Smith’s mission statement, as much of his later music focused on minimalistic changes to any given song, much like the Krautrock musicians Smith adored. (He once recorded “I Am Damo Suzuki,” name-checking the Can singer.)
From there, the Fall’s sound became more abstract and definitively post-punk beginning with their first full-length, 1979’s Live From the Witch Trials, up through their fourth LP, 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour – a period that found Smith and his bandmates exploring all the permutations of noise-making and monologuing. (“I don’t sing, I just shout,” he proclaimed in 1979’s “Your Heart Out.”)
Once asked how he wrote his lyrics, Smith told Mojo he did it first thing in the morning, “sober as a judge.” “About half of it, I’ll do like that,” he said, “I can do it in the studio, as well, sometimes in an hour, sometimes half an hour while the engineer plays a track.”
The band continued to improve with 1983’s Perverted by Language, which saw the arrival of the American guitarist Brix Smith amid various lineup changes over the past few years. Mark E. Smith had met her earlier in the year at a Chicago gig, and they fell in love and married that July. She remained in the group through 1990, when the couple divorced; she’d later return for a stint in the mid-Nineties. “[Smith] was brilliant at creating the energy around the band and keeping everyone on their toes,” Brix Smith once said. “There was a method to his madness. That’s how the band functioned. We were not U2.”
Mark guided the group into dance-floor territory on subsequent albums, which also found them reaching critical mass commercially. The band’s greatest radio success came in 1988 with the release of their faithful “Victoria” cover, which Smith spruced up with staticky guitar and a propulsive, almost mechanical, drumbeat. It made it to Number 35 on the British chart and attracted some video play on MTV. Interestingly, though, the singles that came off their best-selling album in the U.K., 1993’s The Infotainment Scan – which featured a cover of Sister Sledge’s “Lost in Music” and “Glam Racket,” a riff on glam-rock that doubled as a dig at Britpop group Suede – didn’t make the Top 40.
But a lack of commercial success never dampened Smith’s indefatigable spirit. When he broke his hip in 2004, he insisted on keeping a tour of the U.S., where he would come onstage in crutches and sing in a chair.
Over the course of four decades, the Fall put out literally dozens of records – some of which critics have hailed as masterpieces, many of which deemed forgettable. They dabbled with garage rock (1997’s Levitate), dance (witness the New-Wavey “Hit the North” and “Free Range”), reggae (a bizarre cover of Lee Perry’s “Kimble”) and concept rock (I Am Kurious Oranj, about William of Orange with a dash of William Blake thrown in). On the dance front, Smith also guested on songs by D.O.S.E. and Coldcut. Much like the works of Frank Zappa, the Fall’s discography has subsequently become the subject of deep debate by musos around the world.
Outside of the confines of the Fall, Smith wrote a theatrical musical work about papal politics, Hey! Luciani, which was produced in London between 1985 and 1986. He later recorded the title song as a harpsichord-driven single with the Fall. He also wrote I am Kurious Oranj as a score to a ballet by choreographer Michael Clark. He guested on recordings by Gorillaz, Elastica and Edwyn Collins, among others and acted in several shorts and TV series, even playing a bit role in 24 Hour Party People.
Smith released two solo albums, the largely spoken-word outings The Post Nearly Man in 1998 and Pander! Panda! Panzer! in 2002. In 2010, he published an autobiography, Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith.
Famously irascible, Smith was once arrested in 1998 on charges of domestic assault while the Fall were on tour in the U.S. He allegedly had kicked, punched and choked his girlfriend at the time, Fall keyboardist Julia Nagle, a week after she reportedly blackened his eye with a telephone. He pleaded not guilty but was ultimately ordered to undergo anger management and counseling for alcohol abuse.
Smith was married two more times after Brix Smith: Once to Fall fan club employee Saffron Prior and later to keyboardist Elena Poulou, who was a member of the Fall through 2016.
When he reflected on his life and career in 2016, he had optimistic determination and said he didn’t need fame. “I get this, I should have a big mansion and loads of birds waiting for me,” he told Mojo. “Some people want people they don’t even know to come and give them free drinks and fawn over ’em. I’m a bit fucking touchy about that. Imagine it times a hundred. It does your fucking head in. No, I’m all right.”
The Fall – “Spoilt Victorian Child”
The Fall – “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man'”
The Fall – “Totally Wired”
The Fall – “Repetition”