By Richard McKenna / January 30, 2018
Mistrust all eulogies containing the words ‘contrarian’, ‘curmudgeon’ and ‘national treasure’: these are inevitably the work of hacks.
For reasons which are not immediately apparent, it is difficult when speaking of the late Mark E. Smith to avoid a descent into cliché. Ironic, given that an aversion to cliché was among Smith’s defining characteristics; yet predictable, given the efforts a sizeable portion of his admirers and media interlocutors consistently made to reduce him to a caricature. And also reasonable, given Smith’s gift for appropriating the trite and turning it inside out to reveal the hitherto unsuspected and often grotesque organs of its interiors.
I shall now make an assertion of some presumption: nobody lacking intimate familiarity with the physical and psychological landscape of the North of England can ever be truly, intimately familiar with The Fall. Hang on, that’s not fair: perhaps those from the Midlands should be included? And possibly those who have spent impressionable periods of their lives in the North? Let us extend that catchment area to all those who have grown up in truly provincial—as in, not within easy access of London—Britain. London has its own psyche, and it can certainly afford its own bards. Others may love, loathe, fete, understand, even “get” The Fall, but that awful gut-familiarity will always be lacking. Behavior and outlook, after all, are a kind of language, and first languages are learned (and earned) in childhood. After childhood’s end, competency is about all anyone can reasonably hope for.
The North’s bricks, red as meat, its tar-paper-roofed sheds, once-grand high streets grown tawdry, blackening civic buildings crumbling under the pressures of faltering Socialism, burgeoning self-interest and lichen; its Roman roads, its moors—crowded with witches and freezing cold, slow-moving trains—its murderers, its flying saucers, chantries, ginnels, fields, the simultaneous cold and heat, the overlapping historical diasporas: these are the elements constituting the map needed for a true understanding of The Fall. Other areas, regions, towns, and cities possess their own stratifications too, certainly, but lack this particular stratification.
In the popular imagination, the North has long been commodified into discrete entertainment units: Corrie gobbiness, Morrisey’s brand of cozy kitchen sink resentment, ersatz Northern Soul Westworlds, chip shop cameradery, loved-up hoolie prancing, Joy Division’s Man-at-C&A-1940 posturing. But the North is where the modern world was, for better or worse, invented: a chance intersection of natural resources, capital, talent, geography, religion, history, and greed: Manchester, Britain’s true capital and hotbed of creation, and Liverpool, the great port with the world’s largest hotel. Mark E. Smith, though, came not from the birthplace of capitalism but from its asymmetrical co-joined twin, Salford, and thus had three miles of distance to provide him with clarity. His relationships with Salford, Manchester, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, The North, England, and, indeed, the UK itself, remained ambivalent: Smith generally seemed more partial to the US, which in any case he sometimes spoke of as though it were a continuation of Lancashire, mentioning the “fact” that more Lancastrians had died at the Alamo than “Americans.” Smith hated the reductive paradigm of The North and its hot-blooded simpletons, though, and worked hard to personify their actual mercurial genius.
Personally speaking, I can’t claim any lifelong love of MES. In reality, I can’t even claim much affection, because I disliked and feared him intensely when I first encountered him: Smith resembled far too closely the osseous chain-smokers arraigned outside the Ladbroke’s shop in Leyland to which I was occasionally taken by a relative to deposit my grandad’s weekly bets. Shifty, sarcastic, volatile, sometimes friendly, sometimes even generous, yet saturnine and unsuffering of fools. Friends generously tried to introduce me to The Fall, but, at 15, I was not yet capable of them. Many years later, though, when the penny finally did drop, it dropped with a clang which resonates yet inside my head—the clang of inscrutable machinery crashing down from an upper floor, the existence of which had previously been unsuspected.
I can say with total honesty that I am grateful to Smith: the song that unlocked The Fall mechanism for me was “An Older Lover Etc.,” from 1981’s Slates EP; at a point in my life where the aesthetic constructs I had erected for myself were in tatters, it shone a light on other components latent inside me, hinting at how they could be assembled into a new and productive paradigm. It was simultaneously very funny and genuinely unnerving. I realized that I had made a huge mistake: despite their fans, their fleeting ubiquity on the wall of every student living room, the NME cover photos, The Fall were not that epitome of dullness—the modern guitar band—that I in my foolishness had imagined: The Fall were the group that made other groups cease to be necessary. Smith had identified in the repetitive strut, clatter and heave of rock and roll a method for accelerating out of the normal: what to some extent Boards of Canada would later do with the memories of childhood, The Fall did full-on with the detritus of everyday experience and its intersection with history and the future.
One of the tools Smith used was the change of mood: like a cheap New English Library horror paperback consumed in sheaves of flicked-through pages to get to the mucky bits and the nasty parts. He had a talent for never allowing comfiness, never allowing smugness. I can’t call this a Mancunian mode of humor because my grandad, who was from Chorley, possessed a very similar one, albeit in an inverted version. It is certainly Northern, but perhaps “Lancastrian” is the proper definition of it, and perhaps it is indigenous to that region, with its Priest holes, immigrant communities, and witches: a humor of sarcasm hidden inside gentleness and gentleness hidden inside sarcasm.
In some ways, Smith resembles a character from Liverpool’s other modern horror great, Ramsey Campbell: a seedy journalist whose pursuit of some cursed scoop has caused him to become infected himself. MES often spoke of the psychic gifts he claimed to have drunk himself free of, and the echoes of worlds parallel to our own are there everywhere in The Fall, always ready to gnaw their way through the walls separating them from us—like a pack of maddened rats.
Liminal spaces, non-places, psychogeography: will modish argot thrown at MES and The Fall stick? Like fucking glue it will. But let’s call things by their proper names: for some—the “professionals”—liminal spaces and non-places are simply ones where economics mean they aren’t obliged to go, and psychogeography is what happens when they choose to. And then there is the plane of the genuinely curious—those who would be compelled to experience the world in such terms even if there was nothing in it for them. Such was the case with Mark E. Smith, and crucial to Smith’s vision was the fact of his being an autodidact. It’s no discovery to say that MES fed upon that which the educated marginalize—the discordant soup of popular modernity that finds one of its expressions in the randomness of the charity shop paperback. Mark E. Smith interpreted the world the way those of us without the financial or psychological means to shape it for ourselves must: a method for experiencing reality, a druidic compulsion to extract narrative from the contingent as opposed to imposing narrative upon reality from above. The cultured all resemble one another, all drink from the same qualitative pool, as deep as it is refined. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that—but Smith supped from an ocean whose vastness compensated for any alleged or eventual shallowness.
Smith was a symbol of strangeness—not of eccentricity, that fundamentally harmless Victorian predilection for dressing up, but real strangeness: the type whose unpredictability and power to alienate never allow the spectacle to settle into place. To watch Smith in interviews—making it impossible for the practitioners of the innocuous rituals of pop and rock to practice their trade—was a thing of beauty. The brilliant anecdotes, one-liners, and non sequiturs are so legion, in fact, that they threaten to colonize the character in our minds. And Smith wasn’t just funny—he was fucking hilarious: there are throwaway quips of his that contain more meat than the entire recorded oeuvre of many bands. In the smug haze of post-Blair British divaphilia, the music papers increasingly played up this side of MES, creating an un-nuanced troll for easy laughs. In the same way, the toothless gurner he often presented to press cameras began to crowd out the memory of the young man with the feverish, oddly leonine beauty that vaguely evoked Kim Milford’s performance as Billy Duncan, the youth possessed by the power of an alien weapon, in Charles Band’s 1978 Laserblast.
Even the obtuseness and the bloody-mindedness feel like behaviors deliberately adopted to avoid being compromised, a misdirecting dazzle camouflage whose unpredictable form made it impossible to judge distance or angle, rendering appropriation and commodification impossible. Smith seemed somehow—in his art, at least—devoid of a desire to be liked and yet also lacking its concomitant, the desire to be hated and to provoke. Though Smith did provoke, of course. He seemed to understand how arbitrary, instinctive dislikes provided valuable direction as to how to navigate the world. Aptly, Smith managed to evoke the line when mild drunkenness very briefly blurs into something like clairvoyance. His curse was that of being able to pick up the broadcasts of everything around him: the people, the buildings, the plague pits buried beneath the supermarket, the ley lines under the multi-storey car park: the referencing of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Conclusion in “Lay of the Land” is not there by coincidence.
And though The Fall evolved and changed constantly, it is—with typical precog acuity—-a track from their first LP (well, the whole LP, to be honest) that provides a perfect inchoate motif for Smith’s subsequent undertakings: Live at the Witch Trials’ “Rebellious Jukebox.” For me, it is this jukebox that provides the motif: the inanimate popular commodity that disobeys its owners by refusing to perform the role foisted upon it, and by using its gifts for its own ends. In the preface to the version recorded for one of The Fall’s sessions for the BBC, MES hisses what sounds like “wilted jukebox,” evoking the machine in question taking on flaccid, organic life.
Though most often utilized for his dissociative comedic value and genuine talent for humor the few times he did appear on television, Smith would have been better suited to a role on Sapphire & Steel. Closer in spirit to The Fall than any sad-sack “band” of clowns with guitars, Sapphire & Steel was a British television program ostensibly for children, which first aired in 1979, the same year that Live at the Witch Trials was released. In the show, two mysterious agents of obscure higher forces attempt to resolve “irregularities.” Though often manifesting through the most banal aspects of everyday life and history, these irregularities are described sketchily, allusively, as though their unearthly provenance makes them difficult to render in human terms. Time in Sapphire and Steel is treated as a dangerous and possibly hostile force with its own inscrutable agenda, capable of breaking through into the human world and wreaking immense damage.
Each Sapphire and Steel story was set in some unremarkable location—a farmhouse, a roadside cafe and garage, a station, a block of flats—and was protracted for a punishing number of episodes until, like one of Maigret’s investigations, every detail of its already-familiar setting became so intimately known to the viewer that it returned to being alien, like a word endlessly repeated. Sapphire and Steel was disturbing: not some comfortable “ooh it was a bit creepy”—genuinely disturbing, in a way that clearly went far beyond the intentions of its creators and which impressed itself radically upon the psyches of many of those exposed to it in childhood. Smith, a vocal opponent of nostalgia, pretension, and whimsy, would no doubt have hated the idea, but his ambiguous nature, his simultaneous avuncularity and coldness, would have sat perfectly in its world.
The cure was in no pill but in Zeitung, and Zeitung contains also that most definitive of cures: Mark E. Smith is now dead, destroyed by time; yet another shade infesting the crumbling labyrinths capitalism has left in its wake. It is he who is the inanimate popular commodity disobeying its owners by refusing to perform the role foisted upon it and using its gifts for its own ends. Smith’s shade now wanders the chantries and shopping precincts itself, his plaggie bag filled with ectoplasm. Unreadable, uncategorizable, shifty, an amorphous shoggoth lurking behind the bins in the alley between where Woolworth’s used to be and the café. Phone boxes contain unnamed threats. The bends in a stretch of provincial dual-carriageway parallel an ancient curse. Such is the fate of he who takes Pan as playmate. Or perhaps, his detective instinct posthumously vindicated, he has returned to the employ of the forces controlling this dimension, and now prowls time, seeking to resolve irregularities in unloved public spaces, anonymous pubs, repurposed Victorian buildings, their fittings rendered dreamlike by a century’s worth of coats of paint.
My brother commented that the loss of Smith made him feel vulnerable. At first, this statement seemed strangely mawkish. As the day wore on, however, it began to make an increasing amount of sense.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.