In Memoriam: Mark E. Smith of The Fall



Though initially influenced by Krautrock, the Stooges, and '60s garage, Manchester’s The Fall almost immediately set itself apart by forging an identity mostly apart from punk. Founder and frontman Mark E. Smith, who died Wednesday, was the band’s visionary and only constant member. Smith was also something of a tyrant, notorious for feuding with and assaulting band members (sometimes even onstage!) and drunkenly sabotaging his own gigs, but the work he left behind remains beyond reproach.

To honor that work, we thought we’d offer a quick tour through the band’s discography. It would require a book-length primer to even attempt to sum up the greatness of this most singular of bands, so consider these tracks mere initiations into the “wonderful and frightening world of The Fall”:

“Crap Rap 2 / Like To Blow”

The Fall began in late 1976, defiantly defining itself as “northern white crap that talks back,” reciting (not so much singing) caustic lyrics over an abrasive din of repetition and rockabilly. This song, from the band’s 1979 debut “Live at The Witch Trials,” paves the way for several masterpieces to follow: 1979’s “Dragnet,” 1980’s live “Totale’s Turns,” and that same year’s “Grotesque (After the Gramme).” These three albums, along with their debut, perfectly encapsulate the early Fall’s mix of iconoclasm, imagination, and impishness, and should be in every record collection.

“Middle Mass”

1981’s “Slates” EP is the point at which the band’s Manchester motorik becomes something of a trademark. The result is either trance-inducing or monotonous, depending on your perspective; when Smith sings “the boy is like a tape loop,” you get the sense he may be talking about himself. Anchored, like so many Fall songs, by an unforgettable bass riff, “Middle Mass” is also a showcase for Smith’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery, one of the more recognizable and imitated this side of James Brown (or Hetfield).

“The Classical”

1983's “Hex Enduction Hour”-- often cited by fans as the band’s best LP --orbits around two inarguable Fall classics: the creeping, uneasy “Hip Priest,” and this, “The Classical,” a sort of Fall 101. The irascible Smith has always excelled at the art of the obscure put-down: “you’re a gym teacher / you’re a Cancer / and, I expect / a little shit,” “all the English groups / act like peasants with free milk" - but he could also ingeniously make a memorable hook of a lyric like “hey there, fuckface!” as he does here.

“Eat Y’self Fitter”

Mark E. Smith famously said, when asked about his band’s notorious revolving door policy with regard to musicians: “if it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” That may be true, but over the years, many musicians --among them Craig Scanlon, Steve Hanley, and Smith’s former wife, the American Brix Smith -- contributed significantly to the band’s sound. 1983’s “Perverted by Language” would be the first of a handful of albums featuring Brix, who managed the magnificent trick of contributing a melodicism to Smith’s music without softening it. “Eat Y’self Fitter” is one of the band’s most enduring earworms, and if you don’t think so, next time you’re in the company of a Fall fan, ask, in your best Mark E Smith voice, “What’s a computer?!” and await the reply.

“My New House”

As early as 1980’s “The Container Drivers,” there’s been an audible rockabilly influence on the music of The Fall, but this tune, from 1985’s perfect “This Nations’ Saving Grace,” is where that influence reaches apotheosis, with Smith, like some mad Mancunian Beat poet, blending the mundane (“the spare room is fine,” “it’s got window sills,” “it’ll be great when it’s decorated”) with the inscrutable (“interior’s a prison unconscious”) over a hopped-up Sun Records strum. I’ve converted a lot of people to Fall fanaticism with this song.

“Telephone Thing”

Or, another side of Mark E. Smith. Unlike the many self-righteous rockists (and punk-rockists) of his generation, Smith, for all of his legendary crankiness, was an early embracer of electronic music. 1990’s “Extricate,” in addition to featuring one of the most unexpectedly beautiful Fall songs in the form of the wistful “Bill is Dead, features this Coldcut-produced, dancefloor-ready single, proving that Smith may have been paying at least a little attention to the then-ubiquitous “Madchester” scene that included the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses.

“Mr. Pharmacist”

It was always strange to hear a band as unique as The Fall perform a cover song, though they did so throughout their career. There is, in the act of performing someone else’s song, an inescapable reverence, and reverence is not a thing one usually associates with Mark E. Smith. Whenever the subjects of [Can singer] Damo Suzuki, his beloved football club Sparta FC (for which he would later pen a kind of anthem), or garage rock were broached, however, Smith was known to become downright effusive. This cover of obscure '60s garage group The Other Half’s ode to their dealer, like the band’s cover of the Kinks’s “Victoria,” equals, and possibly bests, the original.

“50 Year Old Man”

Fall apologists (and they are legion) often swear that the band continued making great records long after all but the most diehard fans found it impossible to keep up with the group’s exhaustingly prolific output. 2003’s “The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)” (which features the aforementioned tribute to Smith’s favorite soccer team) may have been the last truly great Fall album, but this tune, from 2008’s “Imperial Wax Solvent,” finds Smith reckoning with his own humanity in a way that, only in retrospect, takes on special significance: complaining about the late arrivals of trains, being baffled by computers, and finding himself “too busy” to use his “three-foot rock hard-on.” Only ten years later, the brilliant Mark E. Smith would be dead, leaving behind a great silence that won’t be filled anytime soon.