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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

The Fall's Mark E Smith was more than an angry man

Adam Workman reflects on his experience meeting the legendary frontman of the post-punk group

Mark E Smith, lead singer of post-punk band The Fall, has died at the age of 60. EPA
Mark E Smith, lead singer of post-punk band The Fall, has died at the age of 60. EPA

The reputation of Mark E Smith, who died yesterday at the age of 60, preceded him.

The legendary grouchy leader of British post-punk band The Fall was a musician who walked it like he talked it, from fist fights to firing enough band members to fill several football teams.

Of course, there is far more to the story. He was the frontman of a band named after an Albert Camus novel and through more than 30 albums exerted a fittingly tangential influence on an entire generation of musicians.

Members of Oasis, Sonic Youth, Belle & Sebastian, The Charlatans, Garbage and At the Drive-In have all already posted online tributes to Smith; you can also hear faint echoes of The Fall’s absurdist, ranting genius in the likes of Nirvana, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand and numerous Britpop bands.

I only met Smith on two occasions. The first was in the early 2000s, when my former band opened a show for The Fall in the Welsh city of Newport, at the legendary and defunct venue TJ’s (the venue in which, if we believe the local tales, Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love).

I barely recall whether we exchanged so much as a curt “hello”, but what I remember is 600 or so Fall followers spanning generations being rapt by a band already a quarter of a century into their ramshackle career – Smith appeared to forget the set list and repeated at least one song.

The second encounter revealed he was more than a one-dimensional angry man.

It was 2010 and this time around I was interviewing him for a British music magazine at a five-star hotel in west London. Not, it had to be said, the natural habitat of a staunchly left-wing type who grew up in 1960s Manchester.

“Shall we go to the pub?” he asked, before I could offer any questions of my own.

What other option was there? An hour or so later, after I had clicked off my dictaphone, we sat around awaiting his publicists, whom Smith seemed delighted to have shaken off due to our shift in interview venue.

Perhaps because I was a Fall appreciator rather than full-on fan – I own a couple of their records, neither of which I listen to regularly – he almost immediately loosened up. We chatted about everything from his advice on my love life at the time (it was complicated) to his memories of that aforementioned show in Newport. While gregarious and witty, the conversation also had a sense that it could suddenly turn ugly should he take exception to anything said. Thankfully, he didn’t.

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When they did turn up, one of the PR team confessed she was glad I was there and that Smith scared her. For years, there were many stories of his excessive behaviour, but to spend time with the Smith behind the caricature was a pleasure that still ranks among the most rock ‘n’ roll moments of my life.

The Fall were one of those rare bands that seemed to exist outside of any recognisable scene, although during our interview Smith wryly alluded that he was perhaps more aware of contemporary music than he would like to let on, deriding Damon Albarn's electronic pop group Gorillaz and making slightly damning reference to Britpop mainstays Pulp.

Unmanageable, underrated and often uncategorisable, Mark E Smith embodied the spirit of punk more than most of the 1970-era bands.

It is easy to harp on about how they don’t make rock stars like Smith anymore. They will probably never again be anybody quite like him or The Fall – if only because 21st-century labour laws probably restrict such a high turnover of musicians.

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