Perverted by Language

Excavate!: The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall edited by tessa norton and bob stanley. NEW YORK: faber & faber. 360 pages. $30.
slang king: m.e.s. on stage 1977–2013 edited by bob nickas, Illustrations BY nikholis planck. copenhagen: at last books. 184 pages. $40.

TROLL, SYLLABIST, BANDLEADER, orator, pest, alcoholic, medium, stenographer, record producer, pedant, speed freak, duppy, redeemer, and glorious irritant, Mark E. Smith was, before anything else, a writer. We know this because of the Fall, a rock band he initiated, destroyed, revived, and maintained between 1976 and his death on January 24, 2018. Though it is tempting to imagine Smith taking a different path and becoming the world’s least biddable radio host, he became himself with and through the Fall.

Mark E. Smith stood before this band, both connected and not, preaching from a psychic journal that disintegrated as quickly as he wrote it. Smith used rock music to distract the audience while he unfurled a scroll of referents that became the gnostic scripture for a small principality. The Fall ended up using what few musical bits survived Smith’s daily scorchings, a pile of hardy bones traceable to punk, country, and sometimes reggae. It was perfect rock ’n’ roll: immediately felt but ultimately incomprehensible.

Two new books (Excavate! and Slang King), one album (Live at St. Helens Technical College 1981), and one magazine (Uncut’s Ultimate Music Guide to the Fall) have been added to the tower of Fall detritus. Even marginal appreciations are useful markers of all the residual Smithness jutting out here and there. No single book, though, will be as confusing and bright as Renegade, Smith’s own 2008 memoir (written with Austin Collings), where he dropped a skeleton key: “I need to read a certain amount of words a day—it doesn’t matter what it is; it can be a newspaper or a book. All I know is that I get very annoyed if I’ve not written or read anything on a particular day.” In an oral history published by Vice, keyboardist and former partner Elena Poulou described him this way: “He wrote every day. You honestly could have made a record a day with Mark. He had the ability to shape any sound or noise into a song with his words.”

Smith, though, talked about his colleagues like a Moscow judge hitting his banishment quota. From Renegade: “Three days in and they’ve got faces like vexed tomatoes, their skins flaking sci-fi style: burnt to fuck. They were an embarrassment; not only to me and the wife and the Fall fans but to their own generation.” It is hard to imagine what administrative body would be able to effectively cancel a man who so relished combat. Many of the stories of Smith involve him landing or receiving punches, and one could easily fill a thick pamphlet with a list of
his donnybrooks.

Smith organized and thwarted a genuinely great band, one with only a few antecedents, some of which were improved on. (He publicly liked only a handful of bands but those that made the cut were mentioned often: Can, the Stooges, Captain Beefheart.) The Fall played vigorous, tart music that never mumbled, even when Smith did. There is not a single dreamy song in their catalogue. Brief guitar figures repeat, hot and awake, with little in the way of dynamic variation, until they stop (or are interrupted by another song, one of Smith’s favorite production moves). A proper Fall song is best understood perhaps not as music but as a kind of street-fair Matterhorn: limited by design and terrifying because of what’s missing, but unmatched in excitement-per-dollar ratio.

It is unlikely the Fall would have worked without the songwriting help of guitarist Craig Scanlon, bassist Steve Hanley, and guitarist Brix Smith Start. Though Smith hated this idea, we would not likely know his writing without their riffs. It was also unlikely that any of these people would last as long in the Fall as they did—to quote late-period band member Steve Trafford, Smith was “a wind-up merchant.” To learn what that means, go to Hanley’s excellent memoir, The Big Midweek, which sheds light on what those wind-ups do over time and how the band members got along well when the boss wasn’t around. The Rise, the Fall, and the Rise, by Smith’s ex-wife and bandmate Brix Smith Start, presents her ex-collaborator as “one of the greatest poets” while also detailing his addictions and casual sadism. And though Smith regularly dropped his bandmates from songwriting credits, he did not begrudge Brix her due for the riff in “Cruiser’s Creek,” a transcendently snide song about an office party.

Excavate! is sort of a yearbook for Fall fans, split between critical essays and bonkers marginalia like Smith’s handwritten notes (recipient sometimes unclear) and press releases written by Roman Totale XVII and other Smith alter egos. Of Renegade, he scrawled the following to his friend Rita Tait in 2008:

Dear Rita: So glad you enjoyed the book, “Rubbish,” by me + ghost writer. Funnily enough, six hours after I saw you I hit him + poured beer over him. I’m not really designed for this literary world. I mean—have you seen the chapter where he invokes the Tarot??? Not my idea! Anyway, he now lives in Cheshire with all the Liverpool/Man Utd stars.

I adore Excavate!, because it is the only Fall book that has the range of a Fall album, and we are two dozen books into the commentary at this point.

Mark E. Smith, Prestwich, UK, September 1984. Michael Pollard
Mark E. Smith, Prestwich, UK, September 1984. Michael Pollard

SO WHY DID SOMEONE who read more than he listened to music (by his own account) end up fronting a rock band, a unit of commercial presentation engineered to impress people he loathed in a world he mocked? Why not just write? My first speculation, which barely covers even two facets of Smith’s acrid gemstone, is that he was a phrase writer who loved rock music. My second, related, idea is that Smith needed to be onstage, even when he acted more like someone from HQ visiting an underperforming branch office. Over the last twenty-odd years of Fall shows, Smith made a point of antagonizing his bandmates during performances, turning their amps up or down during songs, and sometimes simply firing them. I think Smith wanted to talk to the audience that went to live rock shows, and fronting a band is how he established that relationship. Keep that cohort in mind, and it is not a real surprise that Smith ended up reading out the football scores on BBC’s Final Score in 2005.

Just as Dylan started his career imitating the old man he became, Smith entered the world as an escapee, a fugitive in a hospital gown yelling theories at passersby. Paul Wilson’s essay “The Law of Optics,” from Excavate!, helps us to see how Smith learned to live among us. Wilson presents the connections between the Fall and the Working Men’s Clubs of Northern England, downmarket spots that sit somewhere between the American church basement and a VFW, with more beer but a similar sense of rummy safety. Wilson writes that Smith’s early stage presence reflected “that of one committee member in particular: the hectoring master-of-ceremonies known as the ‘concert chairman,’” who was responsible for “maintaining order in the room,” calling bingo games, and making announcements—“last call,” “please move the blue Cortina next to the skip,” and so on. In the ’70s, WMC culture wasn’t just local to Prestwich or Salford or Hull. Between 1974 and 1977, ITV broadcast a national show called The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, which brought “the Club experience into audience homes,” Wilson writes. If I was going to choose one recipe for Smith’s delivery—equal parts disdain, radial honk, and slow-burning fear—it would be Colin Crompton’s Mr. Chairman character, a rail-thin man in a tweed jacket and cap who lifted the last syllable of his phrases like a tail while ringing a fire-alarm bell and admonishing his club members. “If you’re feeling peck-ISH, refreshments are availa-BLE!”

Add Working Men’s Club culture to the well-documented hostile masculinity of the British school system, and you’ve got a solid course in being an absolute prick who can project to the back of the room. So what did Smith decide to project? He sometimes used a verse-chorus construction, but not often. Rhymes? Even fewer. His main mode was to gargle up a phrase, repeat it, and then hock out one of his famous glottal stops: fire-AH. The AH was there to tell you the phrase was over. Smith songs are bundles of these phrases, a bit like worry stones gathered in his hands until a song was full. Maybe he was incanting the phrases for himself and maybe he was just a concert chairman who never took the night off.

Smith also continued the WMC tradition of hand-drawn flyers sprinkled with bits of professional typography, and Excavate! is valuable just on the basis of the Fall-gig flyers it reproduces. Smith is hardly underrated, but he may be undersold as a graphic designer. Smith’s own Letraset and Biro ad for 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour is as good as any of his songs, and speaks to the nonstop nature of his phrase writing. This ad echoes a multiple-choice women’s magazine quiz: “ARE YOU STILL . . . [ ] bowing to ‘Mythical Thingy’? [ ] in need of that ‘one true sentence’? [ ] wondering who is the ‘King Shag Corpse’?” Across the page are handwritten phrases, some of them song titles, some of them ad-copy parodies, some of them true: “UNSUITABLE FOR ROMANTICS,” “chummy lifestyle tips,” “immortal melodies.”

I love Ian Penman’s ESP session (“Smith was first and foremost an archivist of his own itchy collage-mind”) and Owen Hatherley’s riff on Taylorism and Manchester’s industrial heritage, via Marx (the “forcible simultaneous limiting and overstretching of the body’s capabilities is what becomes a feature of the Fall’s records from Dragnet onwards”), but my favorite expansion on Smith’s work is Tessa Norton’s essay about Smith as his own school of education, the vision of a man presenting a syllabus as rock songs (or vice versa). After Norton introduces Black Mountain College as one historical model of what happens when artists reimagine education, she writes that the Fall “created a universe that functions as the truly radical liberal-arts curriculum of the late-twentieth century, . . . a vast, interconnected web of interests spanning music, art, war, politics and geography.” Norton is right to call Smith “a paperback shaman whose teachings you might stumble upon.”

Mark Fisher’s overheated take on Smith’s literary sources starts with some favorable comparisons to Joyce and Eliot that Smith himself would have shat upon from a great height, but does a good job marshaling the bits Smith took from M. R. James’s class tales and H. P. Lovecraft’s horror stories. Smith read popular books blagged from charity shops and libraries with lax return policies. The Smith approach was to maintain the syllabus not often enough acknowledged, the byways of a world full of reading and argument not represented in the trade mags and London gossip sheets. Why do you think he told us to “Leave the capitol!” His tastes ran to fiction and history, with a heavy emphasis on thinkers English and German. The post-WWII Smith mentality seemed to consist of replaying the war from different angles, an act typical of his chaotic politics, mischaracterized any time they were characterized at all. When he asked “Who makes the Nazis?” he sounded genuinely curious.

Uncut’s Ultimate Music Guide to the Fall works simply because aggregating things Mark E. Smith said is a reliable way of making things to publish. The albums roundup is cursory, but the twelve archival interviews with Smith more than justify the overseas postage. Start with the 1988 interview with David Stubbs, originally published in Melody Maker, which pairs well with The Frenz Experiment, one of two (two!) studio albums the Fall released that year. “I like bad reviews as well, I always keep ’em, not just to keep a blacklist. About a year ago I got addicted to bad reviews as an interpretation.” And if you wanted to collapse the imaginary lines between independent rock and dance music, don’t worry—Smith did it thirty-three years ago: “S-Express are fucking brilliant, the same as Bomb the Bass, making records for £800 that don’t sound like they were made for £800. I couldn’t believe it, when the guy in S-Express told me he had all my records and he couldn’t believe it when I told him I had all his records.”

Slang King makes the case for Smith as a nonstop phrase writer or, as editor Bob Nickas puts it, someone engaged onstage in “a form of automatic writing.” Slang King also just works, a bundle of proto-tweets with an unexpectedly narrative arc in a handsome blue and white package. For the first few years of Fall shows, Smith introduced that band as “Northern white crap but we talk back,” an oft-reprinted phrase. In 1979, though, the banter began to sound like the songs. On September 15, 1979, at the Prince of Wales Conference Centre in London, Smith comes across a bit like Mitch Hedberg in full deadpan: “I met some people who weren’t in a group the other day.” In 1980, at University of Birmingham, his offhand bile resembles the recorded variant: “Why don’t you pull down those twelve-foot Robert Plant pictures? Why don’t you ignore this Prince Buster rip-off crap? Why don’t you get your shit together and make it bad!”

As the ’80s began, Smith’s banter started using words (like “pseud”) that ended up in lyrics. July of 1980, in the borough of Blackburn: “Don’t be bereft. Don’t be like a big FM writer. Working Men’s Club, like us. Calculated incompetence. Pseud! G. Bushell, half a line of cocaine, why do you think UFO get good reviews?” In November, in London, the syntax is beginning to curl up nicely: “Yoko Ono stumbles out of the ruins, save your anger for the publishing wolverines, keep it for the K-Tel marines.” I especially like his mood-setting in Hamburg, in May of 1981: “We are the Fall, the swinging pantaloons.” Later, he invites the audience in a bit. “Let’s see you get the reference in this one.”

Our sour patriarch, hand on the fire alarm, doesn’t particularly like being alone. Keeping up the relentless pace of recording and touring (thirty-one studio albums in forty-two years) made sure he was always with others; his girlfriends and wives were, apparently without exception, his bandmates. The interviews never stopped coming, and the stage banter became interchangeable with the material. In August of 1982, he told the people of Melbourne that there are “ten people in the world, the rest are paste. Except for me: I’m half-duck, half-outsider, mate.” The “paste” bit is a modified line from “The Classical,” a song the band played that night. In the Netherlands, the next year, he is absolutely drafting songs between songs: “Taxi driver asks why I’m not at home with my feet well up. Canned veins run amok. Audio and virtual sock. Monochromed photographs, silver backed, of victorious chaps. Housing Association, there were men in grey in the rain. For this the huddled are truly grateful.”

Look at this verse from the 1981 B-side “Fantastic Life,” indistinguishable from a stage rant: “Style’s too easy to buy nowadays / and there’s interference with the mail / and you just can’t get out the words / some people think if they had a job they’d be well / Now! / A fantastic lie!” Later in the song, Smith says, “I just thought I’d tell you / about fantastic life.” As well as feeling like banter, this latter phrase resembles the chorus of the A-side, “Lie Dream of a Casino Soul”: “and I guess this just goes to show / the lie dream of the casino soul.” In 1998, right before Steve Hanley abandoned the stage at Brownies in New York and never played another show with the Fall, Smith turned lyrics back into banter: “And I suppose this just goes to show the lie dream of the shithouse late-’30s cowards who enveloped the wrath . . . envelope of casino soul.” The wind-up merchant never stopped selling, or rewriting, or engaging those around him. Or, as he described his process in “The Mark E. Smith Guide to Writing Guide,” a short spoken-word bit done for radio in 1983, “Day Four: By now, people in the pub should be continually getting on your nerves. Write things about them on backs of beer mats.”

The banter in Slang King is primarily sourced from a website called the Fall gigography, part of a small cluster of websites connected to (or supporting?) This web of glosses is the only real Fall book, unlikely to be bettered by anything on paper. Dial up the magnificent “I Am Damo Suzuki,” from the 1985 album This Nation’s Saving Grace, and you will find out the following (and much else), little of it apparent on the first or tenth listen (to me at least).

· It seems as if the guitar parts, drums, and vocals were spliced together from different takes because they were. In the final mix, these parts all happen at the same time but are not in sync, a move that is still underutilized in rock.

· Damo Suzuki, singer of Can, was once a Jehovah’s Witness.

· The song contains references to Richard Branson’s Virgin Records, Batman, and Shakespeare.

A man who encoded lyrics as much as he wrote them, who cultivated a community of adepts willing to parse him, a figure who feigned a collegiate kind of ill will but always reached back toward his fans—was Mark E. Smith the admin?

Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer living in the East Village.