Nobody told us that popular culture was going to make us feel old. Nevertheless, as the deaths of childhood heroes occur with increasing frequency, my generation is being alerted to its mortality.
It’s hard to take in Mark E. Smith’s death, coming so soon after the passing of Cyrille Regis. Regis was my main idol when I was 10 and 11 years old and I was completely obsessed with football. I switched allegiances to music when I was 12. Within a year or so The Fall were my favourite band.
All Fall fans have their moment of entry story. Mine takes place during a woodwork lesson at Blackminster Middle School during the spring of 1980. I had smuggled a tape recorder into class. My friend Stuart Freer brought with him a recording of the live album Totale’s Turns, which we some how managed to listen to while our classmates were smoothing edges and drilling holes.
It was the funniest thing we had ever heard. We concentrated on the bizarre pronouncements of Mark E. Smith. The fantastic spoken introduction to the album: ‘The difference between you and us is that we have brains’. Further taunting of the audience: ‘Are you doing what you did two years ago? Yeah? Well don’t make a career out of it’. Taunting of the band: ‘Will you fucking get it together instead of showing off!’. And general piss-taking of popular music norms: ‘This is a groovy number’. Our favourite track was ‘Cary Grant’s Wedding’.
It was an odd way of getting hooked, though. The album is out of tune and poorly recorded. It’s got the most amateurish of all of the Fall’s amateurish sleeves. A scrawled black and white front cover, listing the unglamorous locations of the gigs, and a typed back sleeve, headed ‘Call Yourselves Bloody Professionals?’
Yet I saw them as a pop band, offering a parallel but plausible alternative to the contemporary charts. This feeling was compounded by the brilliant run of records that followed: the singles ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’/ ‘City Hobgoblins’ and ‘Totally Wired’; the album ‘Grotesque (After the Gramme)’; the mini-album ‘Slates’. These rockabilly-driven releases are still my favourites by the band. They have the best lyrics too.
I spoke about these records at the Messing Up the Paintwork conference on the Fall, which took place at the University of Salford in 2008. I argued that Smith placed his music alongside pop: the Fall commented on the charts and they wanted to be in the charts. My thoughts were eventually polished up and published in the book that followed.
The conference was revelatory. Not only were there some great papers about the group, it was clear that Mark E. Smith welcomed the academic attention. He did not make it in person, but he did broadcast a telephone call at the post-conference gig. His former manager, producer and several family members were present. I spent much of the evening talking to his mum. She was absolutely lovely and she revealed a different side to the usual acerbic portrayal of her son. He was devoted to her, sending her postcards from every territory the band visited, as well as giving her money whenever he could afford it. I asked her if she worried about him. Of course she did.
The last Fall song that I listened to before Smith’s death was ’50 Year Old Man’, a latter-day triumph that is as hilarious as Totale’s Turns. Smith made it to 60 but it was clear he was dying. The pictures that emerged of him before Christmas revealed as much. I was checking fan websites over the holiday season, fearing for the worst.
What an incredible legacy, though. The Fall are one of those underground bands who deserve to be overground. Their music – like that of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart – will live on for a long time. It’s been great hearing them on the radio and on the news over the last few days. I was also glad to hear them being played at a children’s party that my daughter was invited to. The kids liked it, I think.
‘Life should be full of strangeness’, Smith sang in ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’, ‘like a rich painting’. He gave us this richness and for that we should be eternally thankful.