MARK E. SMITH- THE FALL
Fagan's Fortitudinous Farewell
by Brian F. Cousins
The Fall are one of the truly unique, uncompromising and innovative forces in modern music; music formed since the explosion of wealth and opportunity of the 1950's; music that reflected the range of choices available to so many in the West for a brief golden time.
And what choices Mark E. and the Fall made. This collision of word, sound, chaos, untamed intellect and anything else handy added new textures and variables to this strange music that was now available to anyone that cared to follow and participate in its development.
Like the bastard offspring from some ungodly coupling between Francis Bacon and Johnny Cash, Mark E. emerged from Salford by way of Prestwick sheading shards of raw genius into the cold black night of rhythm, tapped out with metronome precision by JC's unrelenting foot. Once the placenta was removed and the creature breathed its first, there was only one possible vocation for this child, born from such illustrious parents, chaos and the unrelenting quest for self -negation, but not before consigning a vast body of work in concentric circles on the black oil tablets of time.
Or to put it in more moderate terms, Mark. E. Smith and Fall are the perfect realization of Francis Bacon visceral carnality and Johnny Cash unrelenting quest for truth and solace through rhythm and repetition. Or so it seems to me at least.
However, they picked the wrong name. Named after the novel the Fall by Camus, they should have been called 'the Outsiders' or 'the Strangers' (depending on which translation of the other great Camus novel you are more familiar with). Mark's early work was so full of empathy and insight into the world of the broken and forgotten, those dealt a bad hand either by genetics or economics. For those that time was threatening to forget, Mark invented a world with psychic touches, a world of the 6th sense, of the insane, of the addicted, the world of futures and pasts. Aided and not yet addled by amphetamine and alcohol, Mark's world exploded with visions from all dimensions of his mind, creating a syntax that undermined all conventional thinking. The Fall were too punk to be punk, too free to be contained, too sharp to throw shapes, too independent to waste time being cool (which made them very cool, to be honest).
I grew up in sunless Dublin while the Fall created their music in an equally sunless Manchester and provided an antidote to the arrival of Don Johnson and Miami Vice and his version of the leisure suit. In fact, the Fall provided an antidote to all the excesses of the '80's, by mining a vocabulary build on difference. They toured the U.S. in a mini van not to become stadium rockers but to push buttons and make connections. They played in Iceland and recorded there before it occurred to anyone else, and they toured the Working Man's clubs in Northern England in an act of sheer defiance that was beyond any Joe Strummer or John Lydon gesture.
Mark created a sound that was as complex as a Mingus composition yet broken and debased. The jagged rhythms, often recorded with stark blunt beauty, allowed Mark all the space he needed to weave his narratives around them. As a non-musician, he used the studio as an instrument extracting the sounds he needed to hear, his other instrument was his voice. EinSturzende Neubauten needed a pneumatic drill on stage; Mark just had to clear his throat to achieve the same effect.
Mark famously asserted that he could manipulate any combination of musicians to achieve the sound he required but this is perhaps his greatest shortcoming. Nobody wanted to hear Mark and his Granny on bongos. Any sensible Fall fan wanted, at the very least, to hear Steve Hanley on bass and Craig Scanlon on rhythm guitar plus any combination of Burns/Hanley/Wolstencroft on drums. This rhythm section was the engine that drove the Fall Sound for so many great years. Add Brix, Bramah and so many others and you start to appreciate the how much talent and effort went into maintaining this machine.
I moved to New York in the early '90's as the Infotainment Scan tour started and ended in NYC with two fine examples of this finely honed machine in action. By '94 at Tramps with Brix back in the fold, they were strangely defeated. Craig Scanlon left shortly afterwards. By the disappointing tour of '98, the band was on the verge of collapse. At the final show at Brownie's in the East Village, Steve Hanley and Karl Burn quit. I thought I might have witnessed the final Fall show ever. But they were back almost immediately after 9/11, playing as close to the World Trade Center site as was possible. Was this in tribute and salute or was Mark forcing his audience out of their comfort zone and into the unknown? And as an honorary New Yorker, there was that glorious period from '03 to '06 when the Fall almost seemed like a local band as they played here so often. 15 performances in all of which at I was at 8, with the Knitting Factory visited most often.
Mark remained a wild free spirit and lived by his own rules until the very end. Although he could certainly have looked after himself better, he gave himself completely to his art and never comprised his vision for one iota, in short, he was a true artist.
All Hail the Hip Priest.
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