Mark E Smith and The Fall lived on the outskirts of alternative rock and pop music for over forty years.
I saw them once in 1985. They played the Hammersmith Palais. I went with my brother Phil who was a big fan from the start. The place wasn’t packed but the core was positioned around the band, close. Many of them taping the show. I had this sense of the stage being low and we were really in on the vibe. Which was heavy, carrying a low-level threat of aggression. It felt like cheap grindy speed.
I didn't know the songs but they steered pretty close to The Fall formula. Heavy repetitive bass and drums. Jangly guitar, rough keyboards and this dead ahead vocal. Part drunk in the pub, part accosting wind up on the street ("give us a quid, lend us a fag, go buy me a pie") part like a beat poet wearing on your patience, Scholomance/Manchester, Druid, Vision interpreter, thug.
"I woke one day to ash in lightMy eyes grew dim my eyes grew brightDeath came and turned my bones to dustAnd scattered swirling in the wind"
To be an intellectual, to be well read and have wide ranging interests across time across culture and to be a working class Northerner took application. You didn’t want your friends, family and neighbors to think you were a smart arse. Mark E Smith took on a persona to be able to deal with it. And it came out when he performed. That essential contradiction in the middle of your self needs support. I worked with the actor Ed Stoppard -- Tom Stoppard’s son -- once. (I’m an artist but I work in movies to pay the rent.) He told me: "You need to find out what is going to get you there, you better hope it's a couple of glasses of wine or a joint and not half a bottle of whisky."
It’s a pragmatic attitude to performing. When I saw the Grateful Dead documentary, it made sense of the scene near the end where Garcia remeets an old girlfriend and for a time gets clean. But he separates from her and goes back to playing and doing smack. I had this sense of acceptance on his part that the one required the other.
Of course, it can go other ways. Coltrane cleans up and makes his best work. Brix, Smith’s wife for a period, says that he was happy during their brief marriage and for a time The Fall became a pop band and still made great music.
It's a hard road. Captain Beefheart and Patti Smith didn’t need to placate their working class side by adopting a drugged screen persona, self-creation is written into the Constitution. Fellow Mancunian Morrissey has made a study of his conflict.
"'Do you work hard?'It said, 'I am from Hebden Bridge.'Somebody said to me: 'I can't understand a word you said.'"
But the point I want to make is that certain bands sound like and feel like the drugs that get them there. And for me Mark E Smith and The Fall was the sound of speed.
"Blues" was a street name for amphetamine sulphate, back in the day. They were (supposedly) cut with minute amounts of strychnine and other substances and it was also responsible for lots of deaths in the late '60s and '70s.
It had kept the Northern Soul weekenders going in the mid '70s and went great with punk. Sulphate kept you in an eternal present. On top of the situation and the situation on top of you. By the '80s it came in powder form often delivered to parties in London by French Chris on a motorbike. But one of the many things that set The Fall apart from the rest is that at times the music sounded like the next day. Irritated, hard to take, your body aching. The restless self-pitying sound of the come down.
At the Hammersmith Palais the anxiety was kicking in. Come a crucial moment the band broke into a track called "Everywhere and Everywhere." That was the whole of the lyrics and it seemed to go on for ages. Smith stood to one side as one by one people came out of the audience to contribute to the mantra. It got boring, then interesting and then boring again until you didn’t want it to end. It was like Stocks St Syndrome.
Thanks for the music, Mark E Smith. We will never experience it again. -
Mr. Hughes was born in North Wales in 1960, son of an Anglican priest. He began making art on the computer in 1998 in NYC.