To pretend that the clamorous and lengthy discography of The Fall, the fabled post punk band spearheaded by the imperious and now deceased Mark E. Smith, has shaped and defined my musical tastes would be a lie. I cannot claim that the fractious frontman served, as he has to so many others, as a particularly important influence on my musical inclination up until his death, or at least not consciously. Instead, the influence of his now silent raspy Mancunian voice, best heard conjuring up bizarre and uncouth imagery over repetitive guitar riffs, had been a wayward one in my life. Smith existed to me as the man behind such belters as ‘Hit the North’, ‘Totally Wired’ and ‘Hard life in the Country’. He was the notoriously acerbic delinquent with the famously quick temper and tendency towards physical violence. He was the endlessly endorsed and recommended artist’s artist, upheld and written about at length by journalists far trendier and more talented than I. He existed as a spectre; a wraith whose work I never fully indulged, a cultural behemoth I never fully absorbed.
It is for this reason that it seemed weird that after the announcement of his passing on 24th January, I felt a sense of loss usually reserved for artists who have held a more significant sway on my tastes. Even after the death of Prince or Bowie, artists who by the brute force of radio-friendly osmosis I had imbibed almost endlessly, I didn’t feel as bothered as when I heard the news of Smith’s passing. This led me to wondering as to why an artist who had existed only in my periphery had elicited such a peculiarly strong response. Am I so sentimental as to mourn the loss of those I barely knew, especially in the case of an obscurity like Smith?
“He was the pioneer of a band sealed into legend not by the mass act of popular idolisation, but instead by the intense adoration of a few”
An answer, at least in part, emerged a few days later when the comedian Stewart Lee, an apparent Fall mega fan, appeared on Radio 6. Lee commented that whereas everyone had some connection to the deaths of Bowie and Prince, Mark E. Smith remained unique as having a deep and fruitful connection with a minority. He was the pioneer of a band sealed into legend not by the mass act of popular idolisation, but instead by the intense adoration of a few. The Fall was the most famously unknown band of all time - an ever shifting ensemble of musicians bundled together by its leader. They were only loved by those for whom the penny had dropped, those who had, at the least, made the effort to discover them in depth.
The upset I felt at his death has been realised as the knowledge that I would have loved his music while he lived, that, for me, the penny did not drop while he was alive. He was not the wraith I thought he was, a grumbling ghost on the fringes of my tastes, but a staunchly northern poet who domineered a scene with such relentless temerity that I feel ashamed to remark that it is only now that I have begun to explore his work. I have cruelly learned what I was missing. In the past few days, I have revelled and nourished my soul on the cold northern abstraction of his cryptic lyrics. I have hijacked speakers so that I may belt out his Godly tunes for my own indulgence in the presence of gentiles, and even dozed off into violent dreams at the behest of his eclectically angry music. I am sure the commentariat who held Mark E. Smith as a pinnacle of creativity are envious of the freshness with which I now tuck into iconic old albums and performances. I am sure that they too share the selfish glee I now take in getting to know the well curated museum of Mark E. Smith, with its varied and seemingly endless list of quirks.
I lament never seeing him live, as I was urged to do by my annoyingly prescient brother. Instead, I can only take solace in the poetry of an artist I have come to late, an artist I missed before I even knew it, who said things I wish I could have.
“Yell down nights in hysterical breath / Those Northern Lights, so pretty / Those big big big wide streets / Those useless MPs / Savages”
RIP Mark E. Smith.