New Face In Hell: A Tribute to Mark E Smith - Articles - Soundblab

New Face In Hell: A Tribute to Mark E Smith

by Kevin Orton Rating: Release Date:
New Face In Hell: A Tribute to Mark E Smith
New Face In Hell: A Tribute to Mark E Smith

So just who was Mark E Smith? Prole Art Threat? Hip Priest? C.R.E.E.P. ? Speed freak? Cantankerous curmudgeon? Mean or convivial drunk? Generous friend? Mischievous Puck? Genius?

Based upon who you talk to, he was all these things. What is clear from any an interview you might stumble across, above all else, Mark E Smith viewed himself as a writer. And a hell of a writer he was. The Francis Bacon of the poison pen. There was quite simply, no one like Mark E Smith. While I’ve seen some compare him to Yeats, I don’t think he was comfortable with the label of “poet”. Who would be? I think it more fitting to say he was a gifted and insanely prolific writer who used Rock & Roll as his medium. As for what he wrote, it wasn’t easy to define, and I think he wanted it that way. But to say he was a writer is only half of it. Mark E Smith was also a consummate performer. And yes, I would use the word, “singer”. His work was ominous and playful. Intimidating and inviting. It was bitter, sarcastic and filled with a huge heart. It was just as socially and politically conscious as it was misanthropic and stubbornly Luddite. He came from the Right, he came from the Left. He came from the Center. And more often than not, right below the belt. Call him anything you like but it’s probably most apt to say, Mark E Smith was the Fall. Suffice it to say, there were plenty of ghosts in his house and he wasn’t shy about sharing.

As a performer he was a menacing, mesmerizing stage presence. One who eschewed the whims of fashion. In his youth, he looked like a chess nerd in his mangy sweater vests. As he grew older, he resembled your drunk uncle. As for the music backing his diatribes and grotesque tales, it was utterly hypnotic. For a guy who didn’t know D from E, he had a musician’s ear. Despite his lack of musical ability, he ran the Fall like a dictator. After watching them on a television program, Bo Diddley later told Smith, the Fall were the only thing on there that was, “Rock & Roll.” And he was right. In the end, that’s what the Fall are: A Rock & Roll band.

One could be all erudite and cite Can and Captain Beefheart as influences, but more than anything Garage Rock played the biggest part in Smith’s backing sound. Its not as if the Fall reinvented the wheel. What made them unique was their front man. That’s not to say the music was secondary. That front man could not exist without the band. And the band could not exist without their front man. They were joined at the hip. Yet, prolific as Smith was, the Fall went through an equal amount of prolific changes in line up. Over thirty, by some estimates. But perhaps Smith summed it up best with, “If its me and your granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.” As for his mission, “I like to push people until I get the truth out of them.” In terms of any musical method to his madness, “If you’re going to play it out of tune, then play it out of tune properly.”

Like any career, the Fall had their ups and downs. They burst onto the British Post Punk scene with the help of the Buzzcocks and most notably, influential DJ, John Peel. Peel became a die-hard fan and champion, aptly describing them with, “They are always the same; they are always different.” The original Fall line-up cannot be dismissed any more than their tough as nails manager, Kay Carroll. All are key players to the Fall’s enduring cult following. Nor can the city of Manchester be dismissed. If it weren’t for that city and it’s now fabled music scene, the Fall and so many other bands would never exist. The Fall, like Joy Division and The Smiths, were on the vanguard ushering in the “Alternative” music scene in the 80’s. Influencing a whole generation of bands including Pavement, about whom Smith famously quipped, “It’s just the Fall in 1985, isn’t it?” Fall fans also included such heavy hitters as Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan.

For all that led to the Fall’s rise, Smith could also be as much a detriment as asset. Not only the band’s most constructive, but self-destructive element. Mercurially, firing band members on a whim. Inviting them back as if nothing happened. Or simply dumping them on the road, out in the middle of nowhere. In the 90’s it all came to a head in a disastrous gig at Brownie’s in New York City where the band literally broke up in front of the audience. Smith, later arrested for assault. After that break up, Smith grew increasingly unmoored, unable to keep a stable Fall line up together. His appearance, debauched. Coming dangerously close to being an irrelevant, self-parody of himself. Fortunately, he soon managed to pull it together and went on to release a seemingly endless stream of consistent and focused work.

Like Guided By Voices, the Fall are almost too damn prolific for their own good. It’s hard to know where to even to begin. Well, 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong (39 Golden Hits) is a good place to start. Then head immediately to Fall classics: Live At The Witch Trials, Grotesque (After The Gramme), Hex Enduction Hour, The Wonderful And Frightening World of The Fall and This Nation’s Saving Grace. Or, if your pockets are deep you can just shell out for the 7-disc Singles Collection on Cherry Red.

While it’s impossible to cite a favorite track over such a long and profuse career, ‘Repetition’ is both a call to arms and a sneering jibe. ‘Rowche Rumble’ pouring venom on the pharmaceutical industry. ‘Totally Wired’, an ode to amphetamine abandon and an overworked population. ‘Hip Priest’ would go on to be prominently featured in the film, Silence of the Lambs. All Fall fans seem united in their praise for, ‘Cruiser’s Creek’. ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’ captures the Fall in their Brix phase. Where Smith’s then wife, Brix, led the band in a direction that was decidedly more fashion and commercial conscious. Their cover of the Kinks, ‘Victoria’, as irresistible as it was gauche.

For me, ‘Living Too Late’ captures the essence of Mark E Smith, a song that really is like no other in the Fall catalog. Smith at his most confessional and vulnerable. Perhaps the closest the band ever got to a ballad.  ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’ stands out as a brilliant and epic tale on the pratfalls of fame and the living hell of subsequent writer’s block. Smith’s attention to detail, astonishing. Finding the mysterious in the mundane. The absurdity in the profound. I could go on and on with the Fall tracks I love from ‘Telephone Thing’ to ‘Hey Luciani’ to ‘Crop Dust’ and latter-day classics like, ‘Blindness.’ If you’re unfamiliar, take it all a starting place to get acquainted.

Mark E Smith may be gone and gone too soon. But my god, what a legacy he left behind. Rich and copious doesn’t begin to cover it. He certainly shall not be forgotten or left behind. In fact, I predict he will be revered by many as not only one of the great artists of the 20th but 21st century. Not one for all markets. Not one that is easily defined. But a highly influential and original presence. Say what you will but Smith was not only a one of a kind lyricist but a one of a kind vocalist. Not to mention, an irreplaceable personality. There may be a ‘New Face In Hell’ but I’m willing to bet he’s giving those demons as much as he’s getting. Here’s to never resting in peace. Here’s to raging on. Here’s to Mark E. Smith.

Comments (3)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Excellent work, Kevin! The right, left, center, below the belt line is probably the best three sentence summation of MES's work I've ever read. I'd add the following to your playlist too:
Blindness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQPoVNrCZTk
Hit...

Excellent work, Kevin! The right, left, center, below the belt line is probably the best three sentence summation of MES's work I've ever read. I'd add the following to your playlist too:
Blindness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQPoVNrCZTk
Hit The North: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qUrwIwHYq

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This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Blindness is an incredible track!

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

This is an amazing write up.

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