Somewhere in my attic, I think I still have a bunch of tapes recorded from the John Peel show in the early '80s. They're a mess, to be honest: places where a 1930s Palm Court orchestra 78 is abruptly cut short and a version of the Sleng Teng rhythm takes over; where The Pop Group’s She Is Beyond Good And Evil is subjected to an ad hoc dub remix, as the batteries on my cassette recorder start dying halfway through the track. But in a way, the resulting chaos makes sense: a grab-bag of radical sounds where voracious enthusiasm for music inadvertently creates a sort of unselfconscious avant-garde collage.
In this context, the first Fall song I ever heard sounds entirely comfortable and logical. It's How I Wrote “Elastic Man” (a session version, possibly), caught mid-ramalam. It has the air of a rockabilly band driven so hard, for so long, that they are on the cusp of collapsing in on themselves; a sense of musical history being stretched to breaking point; and a vocal of notable scorn, whose targets can be both specific and obtuse. The main focus of his contempt is a person for whom “The Observer magazine just about sums him up/E.g. self-satisfied, smug,” and though I'd probably never seen that Sunday supplement at the time, the line had a peculiar resonance. I had never heard anyone use “e.g.” in a song before, and that seemed critical, too.
When the death of Mark E Smith was announced last night, much of the initial tributes focused on his cantankerous personality: the uncompromisingly rancorous wit, the pantomime hostility, the covert kindnesses. A portrait of idiosyncrasies was drawn, with much affection, but it also felt that such an emphasis rather undersold his genius. To paint Smith as another great British eccentric could be seen as normalising his avant-garde spirit, for while his working class surrealism, and the single-minded belligerence with which he piloted myriad Fall lineups, were critical to his myth, they didn't quite encompass the sheer strangeness and originality of his music.
Analysis of what makes a Fall song work is a tricky business; a dangerous one, perhaps, for prolix young journalists in the unforgiving company of MES. But perhaps it's easiest to see them as a band who adopted the DIY precepts of punk in order to test the parameters of rock’n’roll. On so many classic Fall songs – Totally Wired, Cruiser’s Creek, Gut Of The Quantifier are three that spring immediately to mind, but hundreds more would work just as well – you can hear Smith’s deep knowledge of rock’n’roll being pushed by a parallel imperative to investigate every possibility that repetition affords him. Remarkably, these experiments always remained essentially primitivist at heart. Smith’s vision and manifestation of the esoteric might have been fuelled by adolescent Krautrock study, but his own music invariably privileged a tension, an urgency, largely absent from some of his more outré influences.
Perhaps the best analogue for Smith, in a small field, would be Captain Beefheart, another crypto-musician whose unique extrapolation of musical tradition could be inculcated into one lineup of musicians after another. 'They are always different, they are always the same,” famously noted Peel, capturing how effectively Smith could articulate the most personal of aesthetics.
I saw The Fall many times, and almost every show was better than the one he played at Camden Dingwalls, just across the canal from MOJO’s current office, in 1998. None, though, presented the relentlessness of his mission with such clarity. A classic lineup of the band had recently disintegrated on-stage in New York, with the result that Smith and then-keyboardist Julia Nagle appeared to have put together a new Fall in the space of a few hours. Michael Clark, the dancer who had collaborated with Smith on his ballet, I Am Curious, Orange, operated tentatively on bass. A drummer from, if memory serves, a Mancunian punk band called Polythene, looked terrified behind her kit (I have her setlist somewhere, with directions – “Slower!”, “Faster!” – annotating the song titles).
By most measures, it was a terrible gig. Songs were barely identifiable, and the rawness of the players served to point up the secret virtuosity of many Fall lineups. What dominated, though, was the determination with which Smith tackled his latest challenge – that The Fall must endure, in spite of everything. For someone so publically contemptuous of mythologizing his craft, Smith had an almost mystical calling; to promulgate an extreme, singular musical idea far, far beyond what most people would perceive as its natural end.
Transcendence is not a concept which, one suspects, a hippy-baiter like Mark E Smith would hold much truck with. Still, that’s how his musical legacy feels this morning. One of his most shockingly tender songs, Bill Is Dead, seems the best way to think of him today: “I am renewed/I am aglow.”
Picture credits: Getty Images