/ Lie dream of a Casino soul, Kamera, 1981
It was something of a shock to hear that Mark E. Smith was celebrating his fiftieth birthday earlier this year. Only fifty! He’s been standing at the centre of the tornado that is the Fall for thirty years, has released more albums than everyone else in Manchester put together, and even in a dim light you’d have to say he looks ready for his pension. But there it is – someone I’d always idly imagined to be a generation ahead of me is in fact only a decade or so older.
We have a pretty shrewd idea why Mark bears the signs of age, but to what do we attribute this remarkable creative longevity? A lifelong need to express himself bred from an early age, Mark having graduated more or less straight from school into a band? A particularly strong genetic disposition towards stubbornness? Seeing it as a job, and finding that he would rather work than relax? These possibilities account for the longevity, but not necessarily for the Fall hitting the mark more often than they have missed it. The hiring and firing must be a key element – Mark has rarely allowed the backing group to go stale. He can irritate the hell out of you one year, then delight you the next, but regardless of punch-ups or intra-band domestic bliss, on he goes. Only with recent albums have you had to question whether his verbal dexterity has been shot by the drink – he certainly seems to be a man of fewer words – but as a band-leader he rivals Duke or Miles.
The mass of Mark E.’s output is astonishing by any standards. A six-disc box set is about as far as you can get from a solitary slice of 7 inch vinyl, but gathered together, the twenty-four Peel sessions between 1978 and 2004 give the best possible account of the journey taken by the Fall. Their progress and setbacks are both historically and artistically fascinating. Raw and skewed wiry blasts and rockabilly romps and 95 stretched-out theses nailed to the door of Piccadilly Records. The unlikely but successful blending of Mark and Brix – rancour and glamour – into a unified, glorious noise. Collaborations with dance troupes and cut’n’paste producers. More recently, garage- and krautrock-inspired rebirths.
Like its A side, ‘Fantastic life’ is an early forerunner of The wonderful and frightening… era Fall; there are intriguing spaces where Brix’s sun-kissed garage pop sensibility would later be. The characteristic Mark E. line- and word-ending ‘uh’s are in full effect, Craig Scanlan’s guitar scratches out a skeletal melody, the drums pound, Marc Riley’s organ keeps up a drone throughout, and the song motors (motoriks) along like a vanload of Manc musicians taking the gospel to the badlands down south.
How to settle on one B side from a choice of 40-odd Fall singles? As is seemingly the case with Mark’s subject matter, I picked one at random. ‘Fantastic Life,’ Mark says on the sleeve, ‘relates itself’. Yes, of course, all Fall songs are self-explanatory, and who could be so obtuse as to be unable to work out the meaning of a line like ‘Siberian mushroom Santa was in fact Rasputin’s brother’ either in the context of the song or out of it? For what it’s worth, my guess is that the subject under Smith-style discussion is espionage. Fantastic lies. When some veteran Fall-follower comes to publish the complete lyrics of Mark E. Smith not many years from now, the book will need annotations as copious as those for an edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, such is the breadth of MES’ cultural and linguistic reference.
It’s hard to overestimate just how singular Mark E. Smith seemed in the eighties, even alongside other unusual flora and fauna on the Peel show. Might it have been better if the Fall’s recording career had been brought to an abrupt halt in, say, 1991, or even 1985, before or after This nation’s saving grace? The enigma deepened rather than seen slowly to become almost commonplace? Maybe. For anyone whose whole life is not the Fall, there are after all only so many Fall albums you need. Although I no longer go out of my way to assess Mark E.’s latest work, it’s oddly reassuring to know he’s still out there plugging away, creeping up behind his musicians and interfering with their instruments.
Belated happy fiftieth, Mark. There can be few who have led a more fantastic musical life than you.