A fond farewell to Mark E Smith

Mark E Smith on stage at the Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh (Pic: Sandy Young)
Mark E Smith on stage at the Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh (Pic: Sandy Young)

Indulge me, if you will, by taking back a tiny trip through time.

Pretend that it’s around three weeks ago and the sad news of the death of Mark E. Smith is still reverberating. If only he’d timed his sad demise at the age of 60 to coincide with my turn to write this column, this would have been a far more straightforward and timeous affair.

Mark E Smith on stage at the Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh (Pic: Sandy Young)

Mark E Smith on stage at the Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh (Pic: Sandy Young)

Anyway, you might have met the news with a shrug, you may have no idea who he was, nor even heard of his band, The Fall.

I was sat on the sofa when it came up on my phone. Slightly stunned after a minute or two it registered that I had just turned off ex-Fall guitarist Marc Riley’s 6Music radio show.

I put it back on to find Riley playing The Fall song ‘Edinburgh Man’, Smith’s love song to the capital, written after he had lived there for a year or so.

And as an Edinburgh Man myself I had a wee blub.

It was in my late teens that I first became aware of The Fall and to be honest wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. The late Tony Wilson once said: “I like The Fall, but I don’t always like The Fall’s music” which is where I was at first, but with a little patience and perseverance with their albums ‘Shift-Work’ and ‘Code: Selfish’ it clicked. I had “got” them and The Fall have remained a huge favourite of mine ever since.

As a band they were always more hit than miss on record. There are over 30 studio albums recorded with 60-plus members and the quality is admirably high.

The same could never be said for the band’s live shows though, which, especially in the latter part of their near 40-year career. They could be superb or appalling or an infuriating mixture of both. I encountered all three.

I saw them three times. The first was in 1994 on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill as part of the Festival. They did about six or seven songs before Smith began screaming at the keyboard player and left the stage never to return, whilst I swore to myself never to return to a Fall gig.

The website setlist.fm claims 10 songs were played that night, which I dispute (I distinctly remember them playing ‘Free Range’ though, one of my favourites, so I was chuffed with that before it became a farce), nor does it list the Fall gig I went to in 2005, going back on my previous vow.

The album they were touring at the time ‘Fall Heads Roll’ is a career-high and the gig itself was just superb. The Fall duly forgiven, the third and final time I encountered them was at the now non-existent Picture House on Lothian Road in 2011 – and it was a complete and utter disaster.

The gig started off great before Mark disappeared but continued to sing from off-stage. This went on for another three or four songs before he re-appeared for a minute or so then left the stage completely. The band continued gamely for three more songs, before they too left.

Then the band re-appeared, they ran through a terrific version of Mr. Pharmacist before leaving for good. Done and dusted in less than an hour with Mark visible for about 20 minutes.

Man, I was hacked off at the time. Now? It doesn’t really matter, I’m glad I was there and happy and proud that I’ve been lucky enough to call myself a fan of The Fall.