Mark E Smith

The founder of the Fall died on 24 January

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“Always different, always the same,” was how John Peel famously once described The Fall. The same words can also be used when talking about Mark E Smith, the Manchester post-punk band’s iconoclastic frontman, who died on 24 January.

Inspired to form a group after seeing the Sex Pistols at Manchester Free Trade Hall, for over 40 years Smith led The Fall with the same ruthless savagery that characterised his lyrics. Stories are legion of members being casually dismissed after a bloody mid-tour bust-up or, in the case of an unfortunate sound engineer, for ordering a salad.

“If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall,” Smith once said when asked about the 60-plus people he’d fired from the band – often on an alcohol or amphetamine-fuelled whim – or who’d left of their own accord.

Brix Smith Start, Smith’s former wife and guitarist with the Fall from 1983 to 1989, described the singer as ruling the band like a dictatorship and there’s no doubt that Smith could be abusive, violent, infuriating and generally unpleasant to be around, raging against anyone and everyone who dared question his authority.

The outpouring of tributes that have followed Smith’s death show a different side of his complex and contrary character

In 1998, he was charged with assaulting keyboard player Julia Nagle – an incident that Smith later blithely dismissed as little more than shouting at her and extinguishing a cigarette on her shoe. Reports of him attacking journalists, other musicians, fans and audience members stretch back over many decades.

The outpouring of tributes that have followed Smith’s death show a different side of his complex and contrary character, however, with many friends and former associates fondly recalling his acidic sense of humour, biting wit, loyal friendship, uncompromising attitude and tireless work ethic.

To watch The Fall perform live, especially in recent years, you were never quite sure which Mark E Smith you were going to get. Would it be the sneering Salford punk reciting incisive gutter prose over a never-changing blitzkrieg of grinding guitars, bass and drums? Or would it be the rambling incomprehensible drunk sabotaging his own band’s monitors and amplifiers as they dutifully played on?

More often than not, it was the latter, although such self-destructiveness was also a large part of the group’s appeal and what continued to give them their edge in an increasingly sanitised and homogenised music scene.

Over the course of 32 albums and numerous EPs, The Fall’s sound barely changed and while they never enjoyed mainstream success the band’s influence can be heard in the countless groups that they inspired – a list that encompasses everyone from Pavement to The Pixies to modern day Manchester punks Cabbage.

“When I’m dead and gone. My vibrations will live on. In vibes on vinyl through the years. People will dance to my waves,” prophesised Smith on the song Psykick Dance Hall, which opened the band’s 1979 second album Dragnet.

Always different, always the same – there’s never been another rock star like Mark E Smith and there will probably never be another like him again.

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