Mark E Smith: the last of the non-conformists

There was no one quite like the Fall’s post-punk poet.

It was announced yesterday that, after a period of ill health last year, Mark E Smith has passed away aged 60. The only constant member of the Fall since he formed the band in 1976, MES (as his name was often abbreviated) was a true original, a glorious one-off who remained closer to the original post-punk brief than anyone else. His passing is another weary reminder of the fading out of a non-conformist era, a time when public life wasn’t dominated by well-connected head-boy types or pop figures whose idea of being edgy is to endorse Jeremy Corbyn in the Guardian.

Indeed, many of us loved MES precisely because he had an in-built bullshit detector alerting him to the pretensions of petit-bourgeois radicals and their strange ideas. The Fall’s 1994 track ‘Middle Class Revolt!’ was a prescient statement on the shifting direction of British culture and politics. His unaffected persona was that of a cranky old factory worker moaning about students and layabouts. It always made for entertaining copy in interviews, and in real life he was no different. Nevertheless, his proletarian belligerence couldn’t entirely hide his autodidacticism and his role as a genuine artist. For a start, the Fall’s name was taken from a 1956 Albert Camus novel, and MES’s reference points were resolutely literary – Marlowe, Nabokov, Ballard, Gogol and Ellison crop up in various ways throughout MES’s song titles and lyrics. The writer Simon Reynolds pointed out that the Fall’s biggest early influence was not punk rock, but a worn out library card. It clearly showed in MES’s dramatic and vivid wordplay manifest throughout his band’s 40-year existence.

As a precocious teenager, MES was first hooked on pivotal Krautrock band Can, with their motorik chug and expansive drum rolls becoming a mainstay of the Fall’s sound. And yet, at the same time, the Fall never really sounded like anyone else. They may have often given the impression of shambolic chaos, but beneath that there was a tightly honed drive and attack which drew on anything from 1950s rockabilly through to the fizz and squall of acid house. The Fall were always a disorientating collage, but one held in check by MES’s pile-driving energy. The result was hypnotic and compelling. Central to this magnetic quality was always MES’s barked, tumbling wordplay that had its own lexicon and codes. Such was the force of MES’s personality that lesser lights were often drafted in by Smith for guest vocal appearances to add grit, menace and humour [ . . . ] Source: Mark E Smith: the last of the non-conformists

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