If Mark E. Smith held the past in contempt, he thought even less of the present. “We’re living in a re-issue world,” he once said, “filching from the past like magpies with a Tardis.”
Nostalgia is a funny thing to consider when thinking about Smith, who died five years ago today. The cantankerous, enigmatic, and prolific lead singer of the Fall, an iconic post-punk group from Prestwich, a former mill town near Manchester, England, Smith was never one for rosy retrospection. “The Fall are about the present,” he wrote in his 2009 autobiography, Renegade, “and that’s it.”
The notoriously confrontational Smith lurked in the shadows of mainstream rock and roll for well over 40 years: a span of time that saw nearly 70 members come and go for the group, with Smith its only constant. As a band leader, he was a tyrant—“the stuff of legend.” According to lore, he unceremoniously fired original Fall guitarist Marc Riley for dancing to “Smoke on the Water” (or was it the Clash?) while on tour in Australia—a fistfight was involved—and dismissed a studio engineer for the unforgivable sin of ordering a salad.
With biting wit and repetitious lyrics, sometimes yelped, snarled or barked, other times cryptically delivered in a demented newscaster’s drawl, Smith cast a spell over countless fans and adoring critics while never achieving mainstream status or popularity. His influence was always cultish and peripheral, on the outside glowering in. In large part this stemmed from his deep-seated North English working-class consciousness, all cigarette butts and beer, which he wore on his sleeve and filtered through a kind of high-modernist prism. In 2016, he was described in the Independent as a “strange kind of antimatter national treasure.” When Smith died two years later at the age of 60, after a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking, Guardian music critic Dave Simpson wrote about The Fall, “They were never quite my favourite band, but were always there or thereabouts, a microcosm of their relationship with the rest of pop.”
In reminiscing about Smith, it’s easy to get caught up in all the hilarious and crazy stories (his fining drummers five pounds for hitting the tom-tom, cold shouldering Kurt Cobain, saying Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore should have his rock license revoked). But the fifth anniversary of Smith’s death also presents an opportunity to begin revisiting his legacy with some historical relief. In many ways, Smith was like a cipher for modern day populism—unchanneled energy that can go either way, right or left, Trump or Sanders, Corbyn or Johnson. And in considering his significance today, in our teetering age of late capitalist chaos, I can’t help but gravitate to his lyrics from the 1990s.
Perhaps my interest is semi-autobiographical, if tinged with an American perspective. I bought my first Fall album in 1998 as a sophomore in high school: Middle Class Revolt, released in ’94, the same year that NAFTA and the Crime Bill were passed, which hollowed out our middle class and exploded the prison population, devastating Black and brown communities.
Like many American children reared in the ‘90s, I had been conditioned to expect the best. The future seemed bright. As Chuck Klosterman writes in his pop culture dissection of that decade, The Nineties,
“It was, in retrospect, a remarkably easy time to be alive. There were still nuclear weapons, but there was not going to be a nuclear war. The internet was coming, but reluctantly, and there was no reason to believe it would be anything but awesome. The United States experienced a prolonged period of economic growth … making it possible to focus on one’s own subsistence as if the rest of society were barely there.”
He adds: “When I write ‘it was a remarkably easy time to be alive’ I only refer to those for whom it was, and for whom it usually is.”
I was led to the Fall by Stephen Malkmus, the lackadaisical lead singer of Pavement, an influential American indie rock band, after reading somewhere that Malkmus revered Smith. (Smith, in turn, later dissed Malkmus and his band, saying, “It’s just The Fall in 1985, isn’t it? They haven’t got an original idea in their heads.”) On first listen I hated Middle Class Revolt and threw the CD behind a couch. A year later while doing spring-cleaning, I rediscovered it and something clicked. Where the lo-fi, Stockton, California-formed Pavement had effortlessly captured a languorous feel that made perfect sense to me at the time—like gliding on a skateboard with the wind blowing through your hair—Smith spoke with a bitter gravity that hinted at a far deeper and more unsettling truth.
I left home for college in 2001, and the Twin Towers fell during my first week at school. Go West, young man gone up in smoke. Over the course of freshman year the Fall’s 1985 release This Nation’s Saving Grace became like a rallying cry for me. In the coming years, I watched in dismay as the world I knew began to crumble, with endless war, social unrest, mass surveillance, economic disaster, and countless political letdowns. At the same time, I began listening to Fall’s relatively forgotten albums from the early and mid-90s, like Extricate, Shift-Work and The Infotainment Scan.
Today, I can clearly see how Smith colored my perception of this period and almost presaged the existential tensions that have accompanied our age of upheaval and loss, two decades in the making, which seem to be culminating with COVID.
Perhaps no album better expressed his decadal insight than 1992’s Code: Selfish, which begins with “The Birmingham School of Business School,” in which church bells clang, ushering in the dawn of an unholy new religion, as murmuring keys evoke the image of stock numbers flickering on a Wall Street ticker.
And my friend, he said I’m full of surprises now
Let me tell you about scientific management
And the theft of its concealment…
…Weave a web so magnificent
Disguise in the art of conceit
Give a very firm handshake
And take the bastards for everything that they rate
In the following track, “Free Range” (which The Annotated Fall calls “one of the finest examples of MES in prophetic mode,” and which, it could be added, is antithetical in spirit and feel to Pavement’s “Range Life”), Smith echoes Nietzsche’s Last Man at the “end of history” as he pinpoints the crystallization of globalized consciousness, and its instantaneous decay:
A Life code: It pays to talk to no one
Proliferating across the earth
Also Sprach Zarathustra…
This is the spring without end
This is the summer of malcontent
This is the winter of your mind
Musically speaking, the Fall may have been out on a limb. Compared to their earlier albums in the 1970s and ‘80s—marked by seminal releases like Dragnet, Perverted by Language and Live at the Witch Trials—the ‘90s were a relative dud. The decade saw the group move away from its signature DIY punk house sound to embrace a more “civilized” production approach, as longtime Fall bassist Steve Hanley once put it (somewhat pejoratively) in his memoir The Big Midweek: a whacky mishmash of muscular bass, catchy guitar, twisted dance beats, unlikely soul and rockabilly covers, and drunken techno stadium rock.
But if we listen to what Smith was saying in this period, it becomes clear that he was providing an uncanny social commentary on a decade that finds itself up for cultural and critical review. There is something quite specific about Smith’s lyrics from this decade in how they turn to a broader social analysis, which quivers with prescient intensity today. As he warned in “Idiot Joy Showland”: “The working class has been shafted. So what the fuck you sneering at?”
Smith was “not part of the rarefied, art school-influenced culture of his post-punk peers,” writes the Manchester-based academic David Wilkinson. The son of a plumber, a voracious reader who worked briefly in a meat factory and then as a clerk on shipping docks before forming the Fall, he evinced a cultural bitterness that seemed to prefigure the working- and middle-class discontent that we see today.
In some basic way, Smith—who was already 33 by the time 1990 rolled around—simply resonated with the cynical ethos for which the decade is remembered, especially in his scorn for plastic corporate culture and all things “posh.” But considering Smith’s working-class roots and attendant cultural consciousness, it could never be said of him, as Chuck Klosterman writes in The Nineties, that “doing nothing on purpose was a valid option” (an ethos he says was characteristic of that decade). The detached sentiment underlying Nirvana’s iconic line “Oh well, whatever, never mind,” held no sway. Smith was far from a slacker or a burnout. As the critic Simpson recalled seeing him play in the ‘80s:
“The wilfully unfashionably outfitted Smith was visibly in charge, like a demented building-site foreman, barking out lyrics like they were orders as his band cowered behind him, hammering out a pulverising, hypnotic racket.”
Smith represented “a particular variant of working class consciousness,” Wilkinson wrote in a 2020 essay, “Mark E. Smith, Brexit Britain and the Aesthetics and Politics of the Working Class Weird”—one with roots in a romanticized longing for a pre-industrial past, and felt by those “experiencing life at the dawn of neoliberalism in Britain and, four decades later, at what may be the protracted and messy end of that era.”
Reached for an interview, Wilkinson further explained “working class weird” as “a strange mixture of the reactionary and the radical combined” alongside “a very healthy opposition to all things ruling class and impositions on ordinary folks.” Indeed, some part of this attitudinal set might be “a hangover from peasant consciousness,” he said, which is “politically complicated and can go in a number of different directions,” but which, unfortunately, the “the far right is doing a really good job of harnessing.”
He added in an email:
“Smith’s politics were indistinct, precisely because of his ‘working class weird’ class formation, I’d say, along with a dose of punk contrarianism. He was certainly not on the left in any straightforward or committed way, though equally not on the right. At various points he expressed support for both right and left wing causes and figures, as well as criticism of both.”
For example, he said, in the ‘70s Smith was attending meetings held by radical leftist groups; by the ‘80s, he was reportedly voting for his local Tory councilor while simultaneously criticizing Margaret Thatcher.
As a lyricist, he was an unreliable narrator, blurring the line between performative reflection and cultural expression. In his essay on Brexit, Wilkinson writes:
“The same ironic formal distance which acts to cast doubt on Smith as working class spokesperson here allows those lyrics to highlight the obscene reality of the bigotry and misanthropy implicitly laid at the door of an ill-defined and racially homogenized working class—and by extension the obscenity and crassness of this ideological alibi on the part of the establishment: ‘The Classical’ contains the lines ‘where are the obligatory n*****s?’… ‘there are twelve people in the world/the rest are paste’ … whilst the narrator of ‘Fortress/Deerpark’ complains ‘I had to go round the gay graduates in the toilets’ (1982).”
In other words, Smith’s use of third person narration enabled him to showcase the reality of resentment and bigotry that existed (in part) within the ranks of his social class, along with the way that elites exploit that stereotype to dismiss “white working class” identity altogether. (Of course, it should go without saying that Smith’s use of such language, which occurred early in his career, is deeply unfortunate and demands its own cultural and historical exegesis, an article that has already been written. Ironically, ‘The Classical’ is the one Fall song that Pavement chose to cover, albeit omitting the N-word.)
Smith’s take on socialism was similarly contorted. The Guardian notes that he “took an interest in politics and, after a spell as a Labour supporter, veered further left and joined the Socialist Workers Party.” But Wilkinson disputes the claim (while adding that the Fall did play Rock Against Racism gigs, which were often organized by the SWP). A cursory search of the words “Mark E. Smith” and “socialism” on Google suggests he was no fan. As he once remarked, “[I] can freak people out, particularly middle class socialists ‘cos I have no truck with their values or education system.”
Consider Smith’s rantings in a 1989 interview with Nick Cave and The Pogue’s Shane MacGowan. “I’m an adult,” he said, ripping into MacGowan, who is Irish.
“I’m working class, me. I come from a generation that fuckin’ created this nation pal. You lot, you just sit around and talk about socialism, you’re the bloody problem. Eighty percent of this country are white trash, working class. How come they don’t vote Labour? ‘Cos the Labour Party [is a] fuckin’ disgrace, that’s why. I’m against socialism on principle. Engels—he was a factory owner in Manchester exploiting 13-year-old girls. … Learn your history, pal, learn your history. I suppose you blame all Ireland’s problems on the British. All the problems of the world are down to Britain. … Don’t tell me about oppression, my parents and grandparents were exploited to the hilt. Sent to wars, they had gangrene in their teeth. My grandfather was at Dunkirk and all you can see is Margaret Thatcher on my face when, actually, she’s on Nick’s face. Isn’t she Nick? Come on, Nick, help me out. Basically, I like to discuss things right down the line and I don’t agree with anybody…”1
The extent to which Smith captured this paradoxical mindset and filtered it through his genius in the 1990s produced something quite special. He had a remarkable sense of intuition for the flash-points in a culture at any time. The 1990s marked the height of neoliberalism, or the so-called unipolar moment, with the explosion of financial capitalism and the dreamy belief that liberal democracy would simply spread out over the world, marking the “end of history”—a collective delusion that Smith exposed in real time through a series of prescient albums.
Over the past twenty years, these ‘90s-era tunes have hit me with evolving personal context. After moving back home to Washington, D.C. and opening a small neighborhood bar, which was thrashed about and nearly destroyed during the pandemic—a demoralizing experience—I was struck by the sentiment expressed in “Service,” a song that epitomizes the musical wackiness of the period, with melancholy dance-hall piano, a snapping beat, and corny keyboard trumpet blasts, which submerge far more poignant, meaningful lyrics.
Why do you have a cloud in your eye?
Got my hat and my corny brown leather jacket
Streets were gray and clean for a change
Must have been the rain…
…Kicked the leaves
Learning about time
Time of the vulperines
Time of the wolverines
They sit rotting, the leaves
Kick the brown branches, it is here
I came home and found I could say the word ‘entrepreneur’
And my problem began
Indeed, in the ‘90s Smith dwelled on the economic pain faced by those living paycheck to paycheck, with little to no occupational identity or control over their time—an exploding social class now known as the “Precariat,” or a portmanteau merging the words precarity with proletariat. In “Everything Hurtz,” he intones, “Come unto me, all ye that labor, you that are heavy laden, cos everything hurts!” In “Shift Work,” he channels the frustration of a strung out worker whose relationship with a 9-5 lover crumbles under the pressure of the rotational grind.
She’s ten to five
But I’m shiftwork
And my woman alive
Lights flash over me
Twenty-four hour bulb
I’m just home for tea
But she’s in work mode…
Shiftwork, you let me down
Gave me a hard heart
You just cracked my mind
You split us apart…
In “A Lot of Wind,” a tense English fiddle gets at that nostalgia for a pre-industrial past, as Smith rips on the vapidity of TV news, and laments how we have become glued to screens.
Desperate for entertainment
So I turn the TV on
There’s people jumping up and down
Then they have the panel on
And they talk a lot of wind
…I turn the tragic lantern on
It’s a program ‘Good Morning’
…I’m real sick and in distress
I got octagonals in my eyelids
From watching all that wind
In “Paranoia Man in Cheap Sh*t Room,” Smith captures the crushing alienation that has accompanied neoliberal technocracy. He presents it through the prism of an anxious white male. The result feels like a portrait of an incel, or a potential mass shooter.
In mid thirties
At the height of paranoia
At the zenith of his powers
By bed, replica shooter
When girls pass, puts his head down in the street…
Male, mid thirties, white, paranoia
Goes down to the dance
Goes down to the dance
Going down fast…
Serial Number 54129…
…And drooped mental inertia
Mid thirties man in the grip of paranoia
Just like I told ya
In “A Past Gone Mad,” Smith relates a decrepit state of affairs, with a gerontocracy babbling on the brink of destruction, and no meaningful response from the young, able, and with-it. Bummer Bond riffs lilt over techno psychotica, as a maniacal laugh track cycles on repeat.
Rid us of old fogeys
Scuttling and swerving over the roads
Kids in pubs.
Dissonance of infotainment
A past gone mad!
…A present gone mad!
Take a look back
Rear-view mirror: it’s all behind you
But it wasn’t all gloom and doom for Smith in the ‘90s, which also showcased some of his sweeter tunes, like “The Mixer” or “I’m Going to Spain,” as well as no small number of out-and-out rockers, which always kept my spirits up. As the pandemic drags on, I continue to listen to the Fall and draw new inspiration from Smith’s lyrics. In “Time Enough at Last,” the fourth track off Code: Selfish, Smith captures the state of my mind today, as the brokenness of modern society has become undeniable:
It’s time I started thinking on my feet
Instead of on my back
Now I got time
Time enough at last
…It’s just stupid thinking ‘bout the past
‘Cos I got time enough at last.
The song evokes a strange sense of nowhere-but-up resolve, and hope for a saner future.