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Mark Wheat pays tribute to Mark E. Smith and the Fall

Mark E. Smith of The Fall performs at the Hammersmith Palais in London on April 1, 2007. This was the last scheduled concert at the historic West London venue, immortalized by The Clash song 'White Man In Hammersmith Palais'; it closed to make way for a restaurant and office block.
Mark E. Smith of The Fall performs at the Hammersmith Palais in London on April 1, 2007. This was the last scheduled concert at the historic West London venue, immortalized by The Clash song 'White Man In Hammersmith Palais'; it closed to make way for a restaurant and office block.Jim Dyson/Getty Images

by Mark Wheat

October 05, 2015

Update: January 24, 2018: Mark E. Smith, the irreverent lead singer and creative force behind The Fall, has passed away.

Between 1974 and 1983, I religiously listened to John Peel on BBC Radio 1, Monday to Friday, 10 p.m. to midnight. Peel was soaking up London's exploding music scene just at the time when it again became the center of the musical world. London was at the epicenter of the punk explosion, and John Peel's taste-making was very, very important to the whole of the U.K. You might think the country was stacked with DJs of Peel's ilk, but at that time, only the four big BBC stations could be heard across the country, only Radio 1 played "pop" music, and Peel's was the only show that played the early punk stuff. Add to that the fact London didn't then have the big local stations it has now, so John Peel was the voice of that generation.

Sadly, Peel died in 2004, but his legacy remains strong. I've often said and written that John Peel was the one who made me think it would be cool to be a DJ. He's also the one who turned me on to The Fall. Identified in Peel's autobiography as his favorite band, the Fall played more of the famed Peel Sessions (similar to our in-studios at The Current) than any other artist, and he openly praised them on the air. So my standing by the Fall until today and often saying that they are my fave band is in honor of my hero, John Peel. You can blame him if you dislike the Fall, but know that they are a musical tradition — there literally is no other band like them still around. Period.

A musical tradition

Of course, there are literally few bands formed in the late '70s who are still gigging regularly and making albums almost once a year. And of those, very few have many original members left in the lineup, but The Fall are unique in that way, too. They've have scores of band members — no core group lasting too long — and they have been maintained by and metamorphosed around one constant: Mark E. Smith. He is the most quotable old music geezer on the planet … if you can understand his slurred, mad Manchester accent. One of his most famous quotes is that, "it's The Fall if it's me and your granny playing spoons!"

Smith has orchestrated an amazing career throughout the tempestuous times of the music industry. While never having anything close to a hit, he has chartered a very independent course, blowing through deals with minor labels and many major indie labels. I don't think anyone has been more productive in terms of recorded material, and the tapes of The Fall's shows — where they rarely play the same set twice — have become legend. Mark E. Smith has made a grand art project out of being a leader of a band that has a huge rotating cast of instrument players and characters, but without ever seeming to care to strap on a guitar and appearing openly hostile to the idea that the musicians are anywhere near being the artist he is. When I last saw The Fall at the Varsity Theater in May 2006, Smith had just fired the entire band in the middle of America and rehired a young band to back him — I'm still not sure how he teaches them the songs!

(By the way, I will not defend all of Smith's actions; he has been known to harass his band, and he's occasionally become violent with his wives and girlfriends who routinely rotate through the band, too, usually playing keyboards. Actually, during the best era of the band, in the early '80s, Smith married Brix [née Laura Salenger] from Chicago, and she was a killer guitarist who co-wrote some of their best, if more poppy, songs. Brix has just re-formed a version of the band with a few other old members; they're called the Extricated and are a kind of tribute cover band!)

An almost meeting

Before The Current, from 1998 to 2003, I was a regular live DJ at First Avenue. Sometimes we got to spin tunes before the bands came out, and I did that for The Fall. I had never met Mark E. Smith and always said that I didn't want to, and staying up in the DJ booth meant that I wouldn't see him. All the same, I was so nervous, because I knew Smith would pay attention to what was playing right before the band came on, so I brought some of my oldest 45s, including ones that my dad had in his collection -- one in particular was by Conway Twitty, which I saved until right before The Fall went onstage!

About 10 minutes after the band had started playing, a huge guy with rock hair down to his waist came barging in to the DJ booth asking who had played the set to intro the band. I almost didn't reply, but the others there gave it away. The massive guy turned out to be the tour manager; he gave me a huge hug and said that Mark E. had said that they had never gone on after Twitty, and that hearing the track had made his night. What's more, Smith wanted to buy me a drink after the show!!

I mulled it over but decided against it as I really didn't want my hero to have to talk to me; I wanted to preserve that relationship of being a fan of the man. John Peel did the same thing — he instilled that into me through the way he did radio, and it's an approach that I still use today; Peel hardly ever talked to Mark E. Smith despite the number of sessions.

A unique experience

You can find a lot of The Fall online now, but if you wanted to know where to start in getting their albums, I would say This Nation's Saving Grace (1985) or Hex Enduction Hour (1982); both featured their early '80s lineup that often included a two-drummer formation, which I always loved. Apparently they have two drummers again now.

If you should see The Fall live, don't expect them to play any songs you know, but know that you are not alone in that audience. Smith might play just the new album or even newer songs. Or he might make it up as he goes along. Or he will read the lyrics from a scruffy sheaf of papers; he doesn't "sing" in the normal meaning of the word! Don't judge a Fall show in comparison to anything you've seen before or compare them to anyone else, even though they have influenced countless bands over the years by both their sound and independent attitude.

With The Fall, Mark E. Smith has forged a career after being one of the original punk kids who thought "I can do that" in the late '70s — and he's still doing it! Imagine still doing something you did in high school as a hobby at the same level and in the same clubs where you have been doing it for 35 years: ridiculous, really, isn't it?

But open your mind to the idea that when listening to The Fall, you're enjoying a unique experience. It's an experience of which I never tire.

Here are some tracks to get you started in exploring The Fall's sound. "Repetition" from 1978 is an early single that lays out the manifesto that The Fall have adhered to ever since. Great tracks from my favorite albums are track 3, "Hip Priest," from Hex Induction Hour, and track 5, "Spoilt Victorian Child" from This Nation's Saving Grace.

The Fall have always rather strangely recorded a lot of covers. Usually they are early rock obscurities, but maybe the strangest is the Holland Dozier and Holland gem,"There's A Ghost in My House"!

"No Bulbs" and "Hit The North" are perhaps their most accessible singles.

All of these tracks are included on a two-disc best-of from 2004, 50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong.