When getting into a discussion with people I’ve met for the first time, the topic of music inevitably comes up, and I’ll often ask, “Who’s your favorite band of all time?” And I’ve found 95% of the time people can’t answer that question easily, claiming that they have too many favorites to narrow it down to just one. For me, however, it has never been a problem; since discovering the British group The Fall in high school, they have remained the clear winner of the affections of my discriminating ear. Last week I found myself in the predicament of having to deal with the death of the leader of that band, the sole consistent member, songwriter & singer in their 40-year existence, Mark E. Smith, who passed away at the age of 60 Wednesday, Jan 24.
Since 1978, The Fall have released 31 studio albums, dozens of EPs and singles, several compilations and innumerable live albums, making them surely one of the most prolific music groups in history (there is so much music from them, that I decided early on to try and play a Fall song every radio show I host). First coming out in the wake of Britain’s initial wave of punk, they have been around long enough to see the cycles of music styles re-emerge, from gloomy post-punk to punchy new wave and strident techno and back again, despite having incorporated elements of those sounds in their music in the first place. Smith has contributed to other artists’ work, including songs by Edwyn Collins, Mouse on Mars, and The Gorillaz; and The Fall’s own songs have been covered by the likes of Sonic Youth and Pavement.
The Fall have never been an easy band to love, but once you “get it,” little else seems to compare. That is due in great part to Smith’s uncompromising stance in the art of making music. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band might be a good American analogy; a group led by a virtual dictatorial bandleader who played no instrument himself! But like the good Captain (an artist who The Fall have covered), Smith knew what he wanted out of his mates and insisted upon it. One quote that has been making the rounds since his passing is, “If you’re going to play it out of tune, play it out of tune properly.” Music making was an occupation for him, not just fiddling around. His family background, work ethic, and dismissal of the more ornamental aspects of the music industry all speak to a working class attitude to his profession. There have been so many ex-members of The Fall that there is a book about them (Dave Simpson’s cleverly-titled The Fallen), but this constant turn-over is not only a potential comment on the abrasive side of Smith’s personality; it suggests a business-like approach to the group, where innovation and fresh blood are sometimes needed to keep the whole thing afloat.
Having had the pleasure of seeing them perform live a number of times (including once having the distinct honor of introducing them at a show), The Fall managed to put on some of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, but also absolutely one of the worst – an aborted debacle made all the more painful in that it was the one time I cajoled all my friends into tagging along. Nonetheless, that sense of uncertainty of what you were going to get, that frisson, is so much more rewarding to the soul of a thirsty music lover than the by-rote performances most bands give today. I certainly cherished it. The prevailing wisdom is to never meet your idols (with the added proviso to never daring to interview Mark E. Smith!), but I did dare, and taped an interview with him at KCRW back in 2006. He was gracious, engaged and thoughtful, and it was one of the great moments in my broadcasting career.
In the final analysis, Mark E. Smith was an artist; a difficult artist, but something more than just a musician. In fact, literary influences were probably more important to his development than musical ones (he claimed he didn’t have a record player in his family’s house until his late teens). Diverse writers such as Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, Wyndham Lewis, Rod Serling (there are multiple references to “Twilight Zone” episodes in his songs) and even Ursula K. Le Guin (who, ironically, passed earlier this week as well) were all part of his inspiration. That is one aspect of what makes The Fall’s music so rich and so worthy of repeat listenings – there is always some new element to discover in the songs, for those patient enough to work at it. I’m just thankful that my favorite band were so prolific, so that while I know I won’t get to hear any new music from Mr. Smith, there is still several lifetimes’ worth of rediscovery and deep diving into The Fall’s catalog left to do. Let’s start with a three hour tribute show (listen below).
ERIC J. LAWRENCE
(Header photo: Montecruz Foto)