Mark Edward Smith (5 March 1957 – 24 January 2018), sometimes referred to as MES, was an English singer and songwriter. He was best known as the lead singer, lyricist and only constant member of the post-punk group The Fall, which he led from 1976 until his death. Smith formed the Fall after attending a Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in June 1976. During their 42-year existence, the Fall’s line-up included some 60 musicians who, with Smith, released 32 studio albums and many singles and EPs. His best-known recordings include “Totally Wired” and “Hit the North”.
A long-term heavy drinker, Smith had a difficult and complex personality. He was celebrated for his biting and targeted wit, evident in his acerbic but highly quotable interviews, for which he was much in demand by music journalists throughout his career. He was deeply suspicious of the trappings of fame, and largely avoided socialising with Fall associates. The dark and sardonic aspect of Smith’s personality often seeped into his lyrics, and he especially sought to avoid music industry people, who were the frequent targets of his diatribes.
His vocal delivery included a characteristic of ending every line with “-ah” or “-uh”. Smith’s approach to music was unconventional; he did not have a high regard for musicianship, believing that “rock & roll isn’t even music really. It’s a mistreating of instruments to get feelings over”; a tendency that contributed to the Fall’s high turnover of musicians.
The Fall are regarded as one of the premier post-punk bands. Smith was notoriously difficult to work with but was revered by fans and critics during his lifetime, and was described as a “strange kind of antimatter national treasure”.
Smith formed The Fall, named after the novel by Albert Camus, with friends Martin Bramah, Una Baines and Tony Friel, having dropped out of college at the age of 19. Originally they were named The Outsiders, after another Camus work. He gave up his job as a shipping clerk at Salford docks shortly afterward to devote his full energies to the band.
The early Fall line-up came of age during the 1970s punk rock movement, although their music underwent numerous stylistic changes, often concurrently with changes in the group’s lineup. The band’s 40 year career can be broken into five broad periods, based on the band’s membership. These include their early late 1970s line-up, the classic Fall period of Hanley and dual drummers, the Brix years of 1984-89, their early 1990s revival, and everything after the on-stage fight in New York, after which Hanley quit and Smith was arrested.
Referring to the Fall’s 60-odd former members, Smith claimed that he had “only” fired around half the number of people he is said to have dismissed, and that some left of their own free will. He would fire musicians for seemingly trivial reasons; he once dismissed a sound engineer for eating a salad, later explaining that “the salad was the last straw”.
Founding member Marc Riley was fired for dancing to a Deep Purple song during their Australian tour, although the two had had many arguments beforehand. Smith said that he often changed musicians so that they would not become lazy or complacent.
While the Fall never achieved widespread success beyond minor hit singles in the mid and late 1980s, they maintained a loyal cult following throughout their career. The widespread misunderstanding that the Fall was just a bunch of guys lead by MES is disproved by the reliance he had on a number of band members. In particular Steve Hanley is regarded as one of the most talented bassists of his generation, equal to Peter Hook, Andy Rourke or Gary Mounfield.
Smith’s lyrics, delivered in a heavy Mancunian accent, are often cryptic, absurdist and inscrutable. His abstruse song titles, which he often derived from cutting out words and phrases from books and newspapers, reflect the same tendency, with a notable example being “To Nkroachment: Yarbles” (1985). His vocal style is similarly unusual, and his delivery is well known and often parodied for his tendency to end each phrase with the word “ah”. He often speak-sang or sing-slurred his lyrics, especially from the mid-1990s. His singing voice, particularly when playing live, has been described as “rambling”, and he often interjected improvised rants between verses. He tended to write lyrics as free form prose into one of his many notebooks, and only later set them to pieces of music composed by Fall musicians. He was a prolific writer who often wrote in dense continuous prose, which he would later edit down into lyrics.
Smith recorded a number of his vocal tracks spontaneously at his home by singing into a dictaphone or cassette recorder, most notably sections of “Paintwork” from the 1985 Fall album “This Nation’s Saving Grace”, which also includes the voice of Alan Cooper discussing main sequence stars, from a documentary Smith happened to be watching at the time. He later adapted the resulting sound effect in the studio; examples include the use of a megaphone for the intro to “Bad News Girl” (1988).
A man of contradictions, Smith had a very complex character. He was often reactionary, didn’t suffer fools, and was defiantly Northern England; according to Brix, he “had a chip on both shoulders. I remember him talking about fucking southern bastards a lot and not wanting to come to London. He hated London intensely. He’s quite contrarian as a person and as a writer, which is what gives him his edge.” Throughout his career, he clashed with musicians, record producers, sound engineers, record label heads and fellow Manchester scene illuminati such as Tony Wilson, Peter Hook, Shaun Ryder and Morrissey, whom he disparagingly referred to as “Steven”. Smith had a working class and anti-intellectual outlook, but a strong interest in literature. As writer Andrew Harrison observed, although he wished that a majority of his audience were miners and postmen, a great many were students or Guardian readers.
During performances he would often walk off stage, or interfere with the musician’s instruments. During one such incident, at a 1998 gig at Brownies in New York, during a low point in his life when he was drinking heavily and band morale was at its lowest, he became involved in an onstage fight with the other musicians, which led to three Fall members, including long-term bassist Steve Hanley and original drummer Karl Burns, quitting the band, and ended with Smith’s arrest for assaulting his girlfriend and Fall keyboardist Julia Nagle. Smith was ordered to undergo treatment for alcohol abuse and anger management. After a period of good behaviour, the charges were dropped.
Mark E Smith died on 24 January 2018, at his home in Prestwich after a long illness with lung and kidney cancer. He was 60 years old. The announcement was made by his partner and Fall manager Pam Vander.
He had struggled with alcoholism and periodic drug use throughout his adult life and had undergone treatment on several occasions. His condition led to falls and resultant bone fragmentation several times since the mid 2000s, and he performed several dates in a wheelchair and cast. His health had been particularly bad during 2017, and he had suffered setbacks due to an adverse reaction when he was changed to a different medication, which led to further wheelchair-bound performances. A heavy smoker, Smith had long suffered from throat and respiratory problems. His work ethic and output never declined, and he continued to release a new album close to once a year.
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