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Mark E. Smith, singular frontman for legendary Manchester post-punk outfit The Fall, died Wednesday. He was 60.
“It is with deep regret that we announce the passing of Mark E. Smith. He passed this morning at home,” Fall manager Pam Van Damned was first quoted as saying via Twitter account @fallnews, a release Billboard has confirmed with the band’s management. “A more detailed statement will follow in the next few days. In the meantime, Pam & Mark’s family request privacy at this sad time.”
Mark Edward Smith was born in Lancashire, England in 1957, and was raised in nearby Prestwich. He formed The Fall in 1976, after being inspired by punk legends Sex Pistols’ famous early gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, and the outfit — which first included guitarist Martin Bramah, bassist Tony Friel and keyboardist Una Baines, but which would shift membership regularly over the years, with Smith the only permanent constant — released the debut EP Bingo-Master’s Break-Out! in 1978.
While The Fall sprung from the punk scene, they quickly differentiated themselves with their relentless, pummeling compositions (on “Repetition,” from Bingo-Master’s, Smith detailed the band’s “three R’s: repetition, repetition, repetition”), and with Smith’s uniquely sneering energy. Hardly a conventional rock frontman, Smith soon became known for his misanthropic prose, his free-associative delivery and his sing-spoken tunelessness, which added up to one of the most unusual and unlikely forms of post-punk magnetism.
With their at times purposefully difficult music, the band never quite broke through to the mainstream — they only scraped the top 40 twice in the U.K., both times with covers (R. Dean Taylor’s “There’s a Ghost in My House” in 1987 and The Kinks’ “Victoria” in 1988), and never touched the Hot 100 in the U.S. However, they accrued an extremely devoted cult of fans that followed the band through its 40-plus years, 30-plus albums and a truly countless number of lineup permutations — one perhaps led by influential BBC DJ John Peel, who championed them relentlessly throughout his career, with the band topping his renowned Festive Fifty year-end countdown three times.
However, Smith’s notorious prickliness and alcohol/amphetamine abuse made him a difficult personality in the industry, to say the least, and led to poisoned relationships with many former bandmates (including ex-wife and one-time Fall-mate Brix Smith Start, and keyboardist and reported girlfriend Julie Nagle, whom he was charged with misdemeanor assault for attacking in 1998) and even with Peel himself, who Smith said of once in the late 1990s, “He’s the fuckin’ worst, he’s worse than Tony Blackburn ever was.” Consequently, a non-atypical response to his death comes from Live Entertainment & PR’s Charlotte Pinnington: “I think Mark E. Smith would be happy to know he was, without doubt, the worst and hardest person I ever worked with. I’ll miss him. RIP.”
The Fall leave a catalog whose breadth and consistency is matched by few of their late-’70s peers, including classic albums like Hex Enduction Hour (1982) and This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985) and underground-iconic singles “Totally Wired,” (1980), “The Man Whose Head Expanded” (1983) and “C.R.E.E.P.” (1984). In the U.S., The Fall may be best known for the droning noise-punk waltz “Hip Priest,” which scored an unlikely moment of mainstream crossover when it was featured in the climactic pursuit scene from the 1991 best picture Oscar winner The Silence of the Lambs.
Their work remained acclaimed well into the 21st century — the band last topped the Festive Fifty with “Theme From Sparta FC #2” in 2004 — and Smith eventually forayed into solo collaborations like Von Südenfed, with Jan St. Werner of Mouse on Mars, and appearances on albums by Gorillaz (“Glitter Freeze” from 2010’s Plastic Beach) and Inspiral Carpets (whose Smith-featuring 1994 hit “I Want You” peaked at No. 18 in the U.K., higher than any hit by The Fall).
While Smith’s personal toxicity leaves his legacy a somewhat complicated one, there is little doubt that his role in the music world is one that will never be replaced.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.
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