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The Curious Dichotomy Of Mark E. Smith And The Fall

by James Evans
24 July 2011 21 Comments

Before Extricate Mark E. Smith was a powerhouse frontman, all side partings and attitude, but from 1989s Extricate he's become nothing more than a man who wants to sit in the pub...

Compiling two Fall compilations, a la The Beatles’ Red and Blue albums, it isn’t hard to negotiate the split.  Everything The Fall have recorded since 1989 stands in stark contrast to the material released before, with Extricate identifying the great schism.  Sure, there have been other deviations of note – most remarkably when Brix joined The Fall in 1983, allegedly infusing the band with a ‘poppier’ tone – but nothing as seismic as the shift in proceedings ushered in by The Fall’s 13th album proper.  It is also worthy of note that from Extricate through to 1993’s The Infotainment Scan, via Shift-Work and Code: Selfish, The Fall produced what might be reasonably considered their most consistently brilliant run of albums of their entire career (Middle Class Result could also be invoked on a more benevolent day).  This is in itself is pretty unremarkable: music was mutating into something else at the time and a change in personnel (again) provided the impetus for The Fall to radically explore different musical pastures.  But there is something for more divisive going on here, and that can be found in a bend in character of Mr Fall himself; Mark Edward Smith.

Morrissey is still recognisable as the Morrissey who led The Smiths; Shaun Ryder, say, defiantly continues to be the same Shaun Ryder who led the Happy Mondays’ charge; even the morose version of Damon Albarn we have long become accustomed to is, in fact, when pushed, actually not so far removed from that cheeky upstart one sees promulgating on this, that and the other in the excellent band documentary that is Starshaped.

Yet, dare I say it, Mark E Smith’s character seemed to change in 1989 and the persona that can be seen playing to the camera in the videos for Wings and Kicker Conspiracy appeared to vanish – and never seen again.

It is not for me to offer why – although 1989 saw both the break-up of his marriage to Brix and the death of his father, followed by a long-night-of-the-soul type decampment to Edinburgh  – but merely to point out what I perceive to be a fundamental permutation in the persona of Mark E Smith.

Consider the contrast in delivery found on the under-rated LP The Frenz Experiment with that displayed on Extricate.  Observe the absence of any over-dubbed tape recorded intrusions like the one that beats up your ears 34 seconds in on Guest Informant.  Forget that in Athlete Cured you have what Taylor Parkes pointedly identified as Smith’s final fling with narrative.  Ignore the glossier production values – which new producer Craig Leon may or may not have been responsible for – for a moment.  There’s just something about Extricate that feels like The Fall’s wonderful and frightening world has turned something of a corner.

I implore you to follow it up with footage of The Fall playing Bombast at the Womad festival of 1984.  A performance of sublime power, it might just shed light on the phenomena I’m trying to convey in a way that my vain words never could.

For anyone who noticed – and there were many – there appeared to be something of a decline – real or imagined – in Mark E Smith’s constitution in and around this time.  Indeed, he bemoaned as much himself on the lament Bill Is Dead, referring to the ‘crow’s feet’ under his eyes, the price paid for a two days’ bender that may or may not have actually taken place.  To be fair, he referenced the same strain of suffering on 1986’s Living Too Late, but that was never paired with a video that saw Smith emerging from a public lavatory in a resolutely jaded manner.  In truth, it may well be that what we are seeing here is the real Mark E Smith, not quite as aloof as before, more prole than artist, pretence stripped, appearance genuine.  This has probably a lot to do with my perception, rather than any conscious change in tact on Smith’s part, but I remember scouring the record sleeves of Bend Sinister, This Nation’s Saving Grace and the like, and picturing a different sort of outsider; a man not just detached from the whimsies of musical fashion – for the music press always seemed willing to afford him that – but from humanity itself.

Watching The Fall play The Forum back in 1993, arriving on stage upwards of 45 minutes later, spitefully throwing microphones at helpless sound technicians and wearing clobber I couldn’t quite put my finger on, all I saw was a grumpy old man, albeit one that was touched with the occasional flash of genius.  Gone were the arch fashion statements – lank side-partings, workmanlike shirts and bright red socks – to be replaced with the shuffling demeanour of a man who would rather be sitting in the pub, which by all accounts – even the man’s own – was very much true.

None of this has any real bearing on The Fall’s musical produce post Kurious Oranj, for it remains as vital now as it ever has been, but perhaps it is no coincidence that Mark E Smith hasn’t troubled himself with making music for ballets, or writing plays about conspiracies within the Vatican, any time in the last 23 odd years.  Perhaps the appeal of shooting bizarre videos like the one The Fall made for Mr Pharmacist, which demanded now unimaginable acts of japery from all involved, no longer holds.  Because on record Mark E Smith appears neither as funny nor as serious as he once did, and so be it.

The point really is this: watch the video for Eat Y’Self Fitter and consider the incarnation of Smith you see before your eyes – a manic, humorous and, dare I say it, handsome genius.  And then seek out any footage – interviews especially – of the man in action any time during the last 23 years; you can barely reconcile the two.  But maybe that is just what getting old does to you, because there aren’t many operating in Smith’s profession who have had the protracted opportunity to involve themselves in what one might consider such a striking metamorphosis of character.  This isn’t Mark E Smith’s problem: if I want to mourn the figure I perceive he once was, then it’s mine.  I just sometimes wonder if Smith realises how charismatic a front-man he once was.

If you succumb to temptation and check out the video for Eat Y’Self Fitter, I implore you to follow it up with footage of The Fall playing Bombast at the Womad festival of 1984.  A performance of sublime power, it might just shed light on the phenomena I’m trying to convey in a way that my vain words never could.

“All those who mind entitles themselves, and whose main entitle is themselves, shall feel the wrath of my bombast!”

You won’t hear those lyrics sound-tracking ads for small cars.

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Craig Leon 10:50 am, 24-Jul-2011

"Ignore the glossy production values"I guess putting up mics on a live band in the studio in a way that enables you to hear what they're doing is "glossy".....You seem to know very little about the process of making recordings and have a great deal to say about the perceived personality of someone you clearly do not know or understand in the least.

hoppo 2:14 pm, 24-Jul-2011

an article clearly written under the influence of narco-nostalgia by some one who does not understand the Fall, and who has obviously not listened to them lately. For all us die-hards out here, last years ''Your Future, Our Clutter'' has placed the group, once again in the category of of Englands finest rock and roll outfit, this nations saving grace...and sites easily in the top five Fall groupd records shut up fool, stop pontificating and start listening to the mighty Fall...hope this helps

Craig burston 8:32 pm, 24-Jul-2011

Man changes over time shock. (-ah, oblig.).

Fat Forkin Mavis 12:07 am, 25-Jul-2011

"The Fall, always different, always the same." John Peel

Tim Russell 6:26 am, 25-Jul-2011

I've followed The Fall since around 1987 and I have absolutely no idea what you are on about.

Gary Hunter 12:53 pm, 25-Jul-2011

MES continues to produce brilliant, difficult and challenging work. He's changed appearance - big shock - so have I. He's a 50-something year old man and he likes it! Long Live the Mighty Fall.

Leon 3:15 pm, 25-Jul-2011

I don't know. You seem to want to say something quite controversial, but then back down from it. I think there was a change around 1989, when Brix left the band. Perhaps the records have been a bit more patchy since then. Some of them have been as good as anything pre-1989. Smith is 54 now, you know. I hear he likes the odd pint as well.

K. A. Laity 3:16 pm, 25-Jul-2011

Ah yes, poking the snake pit to get a few hits. It worked. @Craig burston: well put! and @hoppo is absolutely right. "Your Future, Our Clutter" show the band and MES in top form. Saw them in Manchester in June: fucking awesome.

Bargeld 3:23 pm, 25-Jul-2011

Too much junk, in all respects.

Plagiarism 3:52 pm, 25-Jul-2011

Whilst I can see where the article is coming from, I think Mark E Smith still has a charismatic aura about him on stage. If anything, I'd suggest he did lose it sometime in the mid-90s, but then in his book he discusses how that was his lowest point in a number of ways. He's since regained his interest and spark, and some of his most recent releases have been some of his best (Fall Heads Roll, Tromatic Reflexxions, YFOC)

piss piss piss moan moan moan 4:41 pm, 25-Jul-2011

Mr. Evans...You don't deserve rock 'n' roll

Matt Bielby 4:56 pm, 25-Jul-2011

I'm just astonished that you think Extricate to Infotainment Scan was their best run, including Code: Selfish - and possibly including Middle Class Revolt. This to me - in its preference over the Grotesque/Hex Enduction Hour/Room To Live/Perverted By Language run - seems to be just an attempt to stir up the pot a little. As someone said above, you seem to have set out to make a big point but then faded. 'Living Too late' mentions crow's feet *four years* before Bill Is Dead - but because there was no associated video of Mark looking 'jaded' in a bathroom, this can be ignored? To me, in that video, Mark looks like I'd expect anyone to look if they were coming out of a toilet and singing a song supposedly about someone's death. Did you expect him to be jumping around the stall, off his face? I do actually agree with you that there seemed to be a shift around 1990. In fact, there are several points in his career when there's obviously been a sea-change. The fact that you carefully list all the reasons why he might have been fed up in 1990, but then say it's not for you to speculate, is simple cowardice and bad writing.

Lopa 8:19 pm, 25-Jul-2011

It's always fashionable with old band leading a long career to say "it's not as good as it used to be; they were the best no they play shit and blahblah..." Most people don't want to realize they're getting old, that's the only reason why they always prefer the first records : they want to remember the time of their 20s. I've listened to all and every records of the Fall so far, and I considere their best album to be The Unutterable, released in 2000. I also consider that nearly all their records are worth listening and the two last records are among the best. My least favourite : "reformation post tlc".

M.E.M. 2:57 am, 26-Jul-2011

yeah he got bitter in the 90s, didn't act as goofy as the early days because the fall were entering new territory.I love the change through the decades though it's just perfect!

James Evans 3:18 pm, 27-Jul-2011

1 - I listen to The Fall religiously and continuously - their Rough Trade stuff mostly. Perverted by Language is my favourite... or is This Nation's Saving Grace? 2 - The Cog Sinister stuff 'may well' be considered their best run because there is no Room to Live' interrupting the flow – but this open to debate. However, Mark E Smith has said himself that he holds these albums in high esteem, bemoaning the ‘look back bores’ who give the Cog stuff short shrift. Also, I am not so keen on Grotesque – I don’t know why, 3 – The Fall are not Rock and Roll. They are beyond such brutal demarcation. 4 – The fact Mark E Smith changed over time is not remarkable, nor have I suggested it is (certainly not in the physical sense). Indeed, I pondered that how radical a change might have actually taken place could simply be a figment of my perception. There WAS a significant shift in 1990, though. Not wanting to speculate on why is neither cowardice nor bad writing; it is out of deference. To suggest how seriously the events of 1990 impacted on Smith would be arrogant of me – I do not know the man, after all. 5 – This article is a bit of fun and some of you really shouldn’t be taking it so seriously. 6 - 8 and 9. Regards, James Evans

Boogaloo 7:50 pm, 28-Jul-2011

He seems to be never anything other than himself, and an interesting self it is too, which is more than we get from most.

caspersozza 11:38 am, 29-Jul-2011

Not so keen on Grotesque? That's just weird. Of course everyone's Fall favouritism is coloured by the era in which they discovered the band but, to these ears, they've never released a better album.

James Evans 1:45 pm, 29-Jul-2011

I discovered The Fall just before the release of The Infotainmnet Scan, although Extricate was the first album I actually had in my possession. Having said that, I do tend to favour 'classic era' Fall, so maybe I should make more of an effort with Grotesque. But that's the thing - effort is not normally required with The Fall. Anybody still struggling with my missive should check this out - it's a far better piece of writing than mine:

marko 11:19 pm, 26-Aug-2011

are you doing what you were doing two years ago? mark e smith,

robin 9:49 am, 10-Oct-2011

I haven't read anything this awful on The fall before. it's one thing to want to court controversy but you need to have a point. This is just mediocre. The run of albums you refer to as a highlight was their nadir, in my opinion - a misguided courtship with a watered down sound to accommodate the major label status that initiated the run. I'm not alone in that opinion. They are a more interesting group now than they were than, having come through some low points in the nineties.

James Evans 3:28 pm, 10-Oct-2011

"...but you need to have a point." Well, I don't have to have anything of the sort. If I feel that The Fall’s Cog Sinister output is as 'consistent' (because that is what I said - I haven’t actually suggested that Code: Selfish, say, is as good as, say, Hex Education Hour) then why should I not say so? Because you are not in concurrence does this make me wrong – is that what you are saying? Feel free to submit your own thoughts to the Sabotage Times any time you like. That way I might actually have a reason to reconsider my position, other than because ‘you’re just not that keen.’

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