Mark E. Smith’s Mantras of Disdain


This was an actual account of the operational experience
When he thought at first he was going out
In fact, he was going in for it

When do I quit?
Where do I quit?
I need to know
I can’t leave this bench alone
To be with my darling
When do I quit?

—“Chino” (2010)

He went and did it. At the age of sixty, Mark E. Smith fucked right off. He seemed like Manchester’s Keef, armored against himself, smoking and drinking into the sunset like someone’s nan. But he was an Elvis, working through the pain and leaving his body behind.

Smith seemed older than everyone when the Fall released their first single, “Bingo-Master’s Break-Out!,” in 1978, when he was twenty-one. Maybe aging was like ballads for Smith — something that simply made no sense. Smith was all speed and forward forward forward. He liked rockabilly, remorseless and fast. Pauses were for jazz guys.

Smith delivered non sequiturs like a hanging judge and the band found a small country in repetition. The Fall were unfailingly hard, and their songs were mantras of disdain. They just banged and banged and banged. Before the Eighties were out, Sonic Youth had spent an entire Peel Session on Fall covers and Jonathan Demme had used “Hip Priest” as the soundtrack for a tour of Buffalo Bill’s dungeon. The Fall weren’t even that old and they were elders.

It took time for the legend of Mark E. Smith to reach America. We didn’t know he was closing down pubs and terrorizing everyone he worked with (before firing them). There were just these Fall records, covered with Smith’s handwriting, a tip-off that we’d need clues to find the clues. Being a Fall fan meant accepting help.

Pink press threat!

MAN WITH CHIP: I’m riding third class on a one-class train.
I’m cranked at nought like a wimpey crane.

I’m a pink prole threat.

GENT IN SAFE-HOUSE: Get out the pink press threat file
and Brrrptzzap* the subject. 

— “Prole Art Threat” (1981) (* = scrambled)

Unscrambling the Fall was a daily practice. It felt like the Turin Shroud was being sold at the Gap when a small German press put out a book of Smith’s lyrics in 1985. A Fall lyrics site got its start in 1993 and it became the earliest thing I ever bookmarked. It still works on its own, just as words and artwork, no sound.

If someone didn’t need or love the Fall, they at least knew The First Mark E. Smith Joke, the idea that he appended -ah to any word ending a sentence. It doesn’t matter that he did more than that, because it was a fast way to mark Smith as someone whose voice changed anything near it. Which leads to The Other Mark E. Smith Joke: If it’s your granny on the bongos and Mark, it’s still the Fall. And that one is true, not just because he told it. Any pairing of repetition and Smith’s voice creates Fallness, a complexity wrought from what should not be enough, but is.

The first time I saw the Fall, in 1986, they were all majesty and thunder. It wasn’t even particularly weird — the Fall were going through a period of being almost popular. The next time, at Coney Island High, in 1998, there was nothing left but bluster and Steven Hanley’s bass. A week later, Smith brawled with the band onstage at Brownies and that was it for Hanley and drummer Karl Burns. The last members of the original Fall were gone. When I saw them in Manchester, in 2010, Smith spent more time adjusting his bandmates’ amps than singing. It was comedy and it was still the Fall, but it wasn’t why we cared.

This is not the only way in which Smith was like Prince, a thing he seemed to know. Smith started with musicians that he might have regarded as physical manifestations of what his words could do, but they built the Fall together with Smith in one psychic struggle. Without anyone from the original cohort, Smith was destined to front different kinds of Fall cover bands, some of them close to great. Letting Fall fans join the Fall was a rare lapse for Smith, the killer of sentiment. Even his biggest fan, John Peel, the man who told people to buy every single Fall record, couldn’t get a descriptor warmer than “objective” from Smith after his death. But then, that was part of the mission, to eliminate a spectrum of emotions from consideration.

Smith seemed to feel that the tyranny of emotion dragged music to easily predicted places. There are no happy Fall records and there are no sad Fall records. The Fall are less inducers of feeling than the guarantee of a physical sensation, something cold and medicinal pinched out of a bottle on a stranger’s dresser. The Fall were only the Fall if they were stubborn, and Smith made sure that if the Fall weren’t great, they were still the Fall.

There was glee in his anger, so many moments when Smith would frustrate everyone who wanted to believe the Fall were a religion you could practice. (Against type, Smith loved releasing a dance single when he could.) Smith was creating multiple bodies of work at the same time. The yowl and the spit of the vocals is a living, recorded thing. All the words Smith said or sang or destroyed have their own life, as the things he typed.

It seems unwise for anybody to duplicate whatever string of behaviors became Smith’s life, rising out of ash every morning with a pint glass and a bucket, but everybody should want to complete an assignment the way Smith did, allergic to both praise and nostalgia, convinced there was language left to discover.

A hall full of cards left unfilled
Ended his life with wine and pills
There’s a grave somewhere only partly filled
A sign in a graveyard on a hill reads
Bingo-Master’s Break-out

— “Bingo-Master’s Break-Out” (1978)