Mark E Smith – An appreciation

GIGsoup’s Ian Bourne gives us his personal musings of a musical icon who was sadly taken too early

I have a ticket on my DICE app to see The Fall at Koko. The original gig on 30th November 2017 was postponed, because Mark E Smith was in poor health, but London fans of The Fall, like me, were hoping for the best — maybe we would get to see him one last time before the band had to call it a day. I’ll never use the ticket, but with all my heart I wish I could.

The sad news of Mark E Smith’s death on 24th January, aged 60, broke when I was at ‘Content Provider’, the latest stand-up show by Stewart Lee. Like us, Lee — who is a huge fan of the group, having seen them 52 times and curated them at his ATP festival — saw the news at the interval. After the show, he played out with The Fall as a mark of respect. I thanked him. 

Mark E Smith was a life affirming, destructive force of creative energy. I was hooked from the first time I heard ‘It’s The New Thing’ on John Peel in 1978 and I bought all the early singles. These were the days of ‘Totally Wired’ and ‘How I Wrote “Elastic Man”’, which I heard for the first time when I went to see The Fall at the Marquee in Wardour Street when I was a schoolboy. At another London gig, he furiously ordered the band off stage and the audience started heading out, but then he brought The Fall back on to play more songs to us bewildered stragglers. At The Venue in Victoria, now closed down, we thought Mark E Smith had mixed too many pills with his alcohol and the gig came close to collapsing.

Somehow, into this world of near self-destruction, Brix arrived from America and turned The Fall into the pop-punk sensation I saw when I was a student. He seemed to find students amusing, an object of derision, but often made time to chat and have dinner with the student union entertainments officers. They never knew whether he liked them or not; he gave nothing away, but he played hundreds of gigs at universities.

His work is now analysed by university lecturers. Somewhere I still have the volume of ‘The Fall Lyrics’ that Mark E Smith and Brix published in book form in 1985 (he was a poet who used music to drive home his words; he was never a musician). He took The Fall to art venues, and we followed. First, to the Riverside Studios theatre in 1986 for his play, ‘Hey! Luciani’ with performance artist Leigh Bowery, and then to the rarified atmosphere of high art, to Sadler’s Wells theatre, where I experienced watching the band playing the most tightly controlled set of their lives to accompany the majestic ballet of Michael Clark, ‘I Am Curious, Orange’.

Over the last few years, his health varied and so did the gigs. At a few in 2012-13, Mark E Smith would have to retreat from the front of the stage to take a rest in an armchair behind the amps (he once did a set from the dressing room). Friends said it was a shame, as they thought The Fall were a shadow of the double drum kit, industrial, post-punk racket of their glory days. I was just happy to see them and hear the new material Mark E Smith always insisted on playing — he never did retrospective sets. 

Mark E Smith somehow managed to return to good health. We went to see him at The Garage in 2016 on one of the last tours with his wife Elena Poulou on keyboards, brilliant in the encore of ‘Theme For Sparta FC’; and I last saw him (by now without her) in his element at the Forum in Kentish Town almost exactly a year ago, leading The Fall in a charge of potent psykick dancehall music. 

From the early self-destructive days onwards, Mark E Smith would order his band around on stage. “Faster, faster!” he’d shout, hitting the drums himself if he thought the drummer was slacking. He did “live mixing” — turning the volume up and down on the bassist’s and guitarist’s amps as he saw fit. They couldn’t complain. If they did, he’d sack them. I’ve never seen anyone else so much in control, while at the same time causing such chaos on stage. I think he found it funny. Wry humour was at the heart of his work.

Mark E Smith’s slurred-sung lyrics were often droll and tongue in cheek. Some of the most fun I’ve had at a gig in recent years was singing along at the front of a small mosh to an unexpected revival of ‘Container Drivers’: “Uh-containers and their drivers.” Alive, Mark E Smith sang, “the Hip Priest, He is not appreciated”. In death, let’s hope he will be appreciated for his unique contribution to British music over 40 years — the Hip Priest and his ‘Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall’.