The Curious Dichotomy Of Mark E. Smith And The Fall

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...
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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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