Page by Page with The Fall's Mark E. Smith

With the death of Mark E. Smith, The Fall are no more. Britain's longest-running postpunk band burned through 66 members and recorded 31 studio albums over a four-decade span. The defining element was always Smith, who poured torrents of vituperation, fragments of wit, wry observations, and occasional startling insights into a microphone, mesmerizing multiple generations of Fall obsessives.

It's hard to explain The Fall to a newbie because everything said about them is wrong, except when it's not, and there's usually an authoritative source to back up every contradiction. "If it's me and your granny on the bongos, it's The Fall," Smith famously said—yet the band was sustained for 19 of its early years by the muscular basslines of Steve Hanley, for 16 years by the nonconformist guitar of Craig Scanlon, and for 11 continuous years by the versatile drumming of Simon Wolstencroft, not to mention the brilliant drummer Karl Burns, who was in and out of the band a half-dozen times, his multiple firings triggered by behavior even more bizarre than Smith's (which is saying something). Even in Smith's declining years, he was served by a stable crew of heroes that survived for about a decade.

Another contradiction: Though the central vision of The Fall was invariably credited to Smith, it's worth noting that most of the music, excluding lyrics, was written by whoever was in the band at the moment. Members would bring songs to Smith; he would select and finish them, typically co-crediting at least three other contributors per album. The better the band, the better the songwriting. If the songwriting faltered, he goaded the band into coming up with something better, fresher, less predictable. Some of his most biting lyrics were about other members, often written and recorded while they were still in the band using music they provided.

But I'm not going to try explaining the inexplicable because there are other people better suited to the task and some of them have written books. One of them is Dave Simpson, the Guardian critic who spent years tracking down and interviewing former members for The Fallen: Life in and Out of Britain's Most Insane Group (breaking up his marriage in the process). Another Fall contradiction emerges: No matter how brutally hard Smith was on them, nearly all ex-members—most of them fired—have good things to say about their former boss. They describe how his volcanic management style regularly upended tours, record deals, and relationships. His habit of kicking over their mic stands and fiddling with their amp dials onstage infuriated them. His relentless post-gig analysis could be bruising. Yet they insist that Smith's restless rampaging staved off complacency and kept the band evergreen. It's hard to look at the Fall discography and conclude otherwise. Nearly every leap forward was preceded by a bloodletting. Most ex-members say they'd happily rejoin if they had the chance. This may be music history's longest-running example of Stockholm Syndrome.

Yet another Fall contradiction was that its perpetual insanity was marbled with sanity, much of it supplied by longtime member Steve Hanley. His book The Big Midweek: Life Inside the Fall, coauthored with Olivia Piekarski, is the ultimate insider's account of the first (and arguably richer) half of Fall history. Hanley is not only a gifted and tireless bass player—he's also a pretty level-headed guy with an inexhaustible supply of goodwill, the patience of Job, an excellent memory, and a gift for storytelling. The book is loaded with quotes and often reads more like a novel than a memoir. Hanley begins by colorfully describing the mid-'70s music scene in Manchester. He then goes on to document all the comings, goings, hilarious anecdotes, and violent tantrums in vivid detail. He eventually became the band's de facto manager after Smith had alienated several others, only to exit following an epic punch-up at a New York gig, on a scary day that ended with Smith's arrest. The book abruptly ends there. Today Hanley seems to cherish his privacy and tranquility. (The Kindle ebook is a good buy at $4.99.)

The Fall are like the Kurosawa film Rashomon, with every story told in multiple points of view. The dominant, if not entirely reliable, POV is that of Smith himself in Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith, coauthored with Austin Collings. After fortifying myself with the Simpson and Hanley books, I was expecting a deep-dive into a vat of acid, like the unfortunate murder victims disposed of in Breaking Bad. And yes, Smith is fiercely contrarian and unwavering in his vision. But just as striking are his intelligence, humor, and playfulness. Smith loved books and was well read. His own book is such a fun read that I wish he'd lived to write more of them. He may have been The Fall's most glaring liability, yet in the ultimate contradiction, he was also its chief asset. Without him, there would have been no Fall, let alone so many Falls, a single idea unpredictably refracted through a brilliant mind.

A few online resources are essential for Fall fans. The Annotated Fall offers both lyrics and lyrical analysis. A generous store of general information is available at thefall.org, a fan site that functioned for a time as the official site. The new official site is thefall.xyz.

Cracking the Fall discography may be an intimidating prospect. The album that hooked me was This Nation's Saving Grace, the high water mark of Smith's fruitful partnership with his first wife, the glamorous American guitarist and songwriter Brix Smith Start. The best album of the pre-Brix years by popular and critical acclaim is Hex Enduction Hour (warning: harsh language). The post-Brix era kicked off with Extricate, which saw the band exploring new styles in the wake of yet another explosion. Late-period gems include The Unutterable and Fall Heads Roll. The ultimate alternative to the main studio recordings, if you can find it, is The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004, a six-disc compilation of appearances on the BBC.

With a health regimen that made Keith Richards look like Richard Simmons, Mark E. Smith lived hard and died young. When he passed away at 60, he looked closer to 80 thanks to constant drinking, smoking, and amphetamine use (the announced causes of death were lung and kidney cancer). I've spent the weeks since his death with his words ringing in my ears. When I haven't been reading about The Fall, I've been listening to The Fall. Like Smith's devoted fans and discarded intimates, I can't get him out of my head.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, available in both print and Kindle editions.

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