best known as the lead singer, lyricist and only constant member of the post-punk group The Fall, the late great English singer and songwriter Mark Edward Smith was born 5 March 1957. The family moved to nearby Prestwich when he was six months old, occupying the house they inherited after his grandfather’s death. Smith’s father died suddenly in 1989 of a heart attack. He has said that he didn’t become interested in music until he was about 14, when he discovered Captain Beefheart. He had early memories of The Beatles but remembered thinking that it was all a bit effeminate. He attended Sedgley Park Primary School, and later Stand Grammar School for Boys before quitting aged 16. That year, he left home and moved in with his girlfriend and future Fall keyboardist, Una Baines, later of the Blue Orchids. He subsequently took an evening class in A-level Literature. His first job was in a meat factory, before he became a shipping clerk on Salford docks.
Smith formed The Fall, named after the novel by Albert Camus, with friends Martin Bramah, Una Baines and Tony Friel, after attending a Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in June 1976. After Smith dropped out of college at the age of 19. Originally they were named The Outsiders, after another Camus work. He subsequently gave up his job as a shipping clerk at Salford docks shortly afterward to devote his full energies to the band. The early Fall line-up came of age during the 1970s punk rock movement, although their music underwent numerous stylistic changes, often concurrently with changes in the group’s lineup. The band’s 40 year career can be broken into five broad periods, based on the band’s membership. These include their early late 1970s line-up, the classic Fall period of Hanley and dual drummers, the Brix years of 1984-89, their early 1990s revival, and everything after the on-stage fight in New York, after which Hanley quit and Smith was arrested.
Smith married the American guitarist and Fall member Brix Smith on 19 July 1983, after they met in Los Angeles during the band’s American tour earlier that year. They divorced in 1989, and he remarried twice after this. His second wife was Saffron Prior, who had worked for The Fall’s fan club; their marriage ended in 1995. He married Eleni Poulou, also called Elenor or Elena, in 2001. Poulou joined the band in September 2002 and left in July 2016. Smith and Poulou divorced in 2016, and Smith’s partner at the time of his death was his manager Pamela Vander.
Referring to the Fall’s 60-odd former members, Smith claimed that he had “only” fired around half the number of people he is said to have dismissed, and that some left of their own free will. He would fire musicians for seemingly trivial reasons; he once dismissed a sound engineer for eating a salad, later explaining that “the salad was the last straw”. Founding member Marc Riley was fired for dancing to a Deep Purple song during their Australian tour, although the two had had many arguments beforehand. Smith said that he often changed musicians so that they would not become lazy or complacent. When the influential British DJ and Fall supporter John Peel died in 2004, Smith made a notorious appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight show in which he seemed stunned and incoherent, and which he afterwards put down to a rare incidence of stage fright.
While the Fall never achieved widespread success beyond minor hit singles in the mid and late 1980s, they maintained a loyal cult following throughout their career. The widespread misunderstanding that the Fall was just a bunch of guys lead by MES is disproved by the reliance he had on a number of band members. In particular Steve Hanley is regarded as one of the most talented bassists of his generation, equal to Peter Hook, Andy Rourke or Gary Mounfield. During their 42-year existence, the Fall’s line-up included some 60 musicians who, with Smith, released 32 studio albums and many singles and EPs. His best-known recordings include “Totally Wired” and “Hit the North”.
A long-term heavy drinker, Smith had a difficult and complex personality. He was celebrated for his biting and targeted wit, evident in his acerbic but highly quotable interviews, for which he was much in demand by music journalists throughout his career. He was deeply suspicious of the trappings of fame, and largely avoided socialising with Fall associates. The dark and sardonic aspect of Smith’s personality often seeped into his lyrics, and he especially sought to avoid music industry people, who were the frequent targets of his diatribes. His vocal delivery included a characteristic of ending every line with “-ah” or “-uh”. Smith’s approach to music was unconventional; he did not have a high regard for musicianship, believing that “rock & roll isn’t even music really. It’s a mistreating of instruments to get feelings over”; a tendency that contributed to the Fall’s high turnover of musicians.
Mark E Smith tragically died 24 January 2018. However The Fall are regarded as one of the premier post-punk bands. Smith was notoriously difficult to work with but was revered by fans and critics during his lifetime, and was described as a “strange kind of antimatter national treasure”.