The Oral History of Mark E Smith

The Fall's founding member remembered by those who knew him best.

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29 January 2019, 10:21am

On January the 24th of 2018, Mark E Smith passed away from cancer. For 42 of his 60 years, he fronted The Fall – a firestorm of a band that fused post-punk, amphetamine rockabilly, inimitable lyrics, gargling electronics and anything else they decided to throw in along the way. Often considered the epitome of a cult band – venerated by those in the know, but overlooked by the masses – they were notoriously prolific, releasing over 30 studio albums, plus countless EPs, live albums and compilations. The band's headcount was similarly vast, with more than 60 members over the years.

Smith was as unique a lyricist and frontman as he was a person, leaving a reputation as both a visionary capable of creative genius, and a controlling taskmaster prone to verbal and physical violence against those closest to him. Here, those who worked with Smith recall their experiences of collaborating with someone who is as frequently credited as being a genius as he is a madman.

We'll hear from Fall members Martin Bramah, Brix Smith Start, Keiron Melling, Paul Hanley, Julia Adamson, Marcia Schofield, Steve Trafford, Pete Greenway, Elena Poulou, Simon "Ding" Archer, Simon Wolstencroft and Dave Spurr; and collaborators Kay Carroll, Geoff Travis, Ross Orton, Paul Jones, Jonathan Moore, Craig Leon, Andi Toma and Jan St Werner.

INTRODUCTIONS

Martin Bramah (Fall member 1976-79, '89-90): I remember him slapping records on the stereo at his mum and dad's house. "Have you heard The Doors? *Shrug*. Can? *Shrug*. Velvets?" He seemed quite mature, intellectually, so I was surprised to see he'd drawn cartoon scribbles all over his wallpaper. What amazed me was that his parents let him. I think Mark's mother really encouraged his creative imagination, and this was the childlike quality that he managed to carry into adulthood, the ability to live inside a fantasy world of his own making.

Kay Carroll (Fall manager / collaborator 1977-1983): I was on acid when Mark walked in, and I remember him looking like Napoleon.

Keiron Melling (Fall member 2006-2017): I met him at an airport on the way to play a gig for him. I'd been given three days to learn the set by myself.

Paul Hanley (Fall member 1980-84, 86): I was only a month past 16 when I joined. At least three of the songs I’d never even heard until I was on stage playing him for the first time.

Julia Adamson (Fall member 1995-2001): I was a bit scared about meeting him, as I remember beforehand, Dave Bush [Fall member] saying he hated being in the group and that Mark had nearly decapitated him with a cymbal.

Geoff Travis (Rough Trade, The Fall’s record label 1980-83): He gave me a big hug, which was the last thing I was expecting.

Marcia Schofield (Fall member 1986-1990): He was extremely polite, looking quite dapper – very charming and funny. Quite reserved in the way that he was, until he'd got the measure of you. Then, once he knew you – well, you got treated with the same contempt as everyone else.

Steve Trafford: (Fall member 2004-2006): I had to learn the set while sat in the backseat of a car, from a CD. I turned up to play the gig having never met him. After the gig he tried to throttle the promoter. He actually had his hands around his neck. I had that fight or flight feeling – I can either do one or stick it out – and I actually think he did that to test me.

Ross Orton (producer, Your Future, Our Clutter [2010]): He was very ill at the time. He was in a wheelchair and was doing a hell of a lot of tramadol, but supplementing that with drink and amphetamines. I didn't get to meet him for ages. I kept asking if I could see him, and eventually I got a, "Mark will see you now," and was instructed to go to the pub. He had a whiskey and a Holsten Pils, and passed me £20 and said, "Get yourself a drink, cock." I said, "I'm alright Mark, I'm working." He said, "Get yourself a drink, cock." I personally love drink and drugs, but when the time is right... it really affects your hearing. He then gave me another £20 to get some more – "Same again, whiskey and Holsten Pils, and you get the same." This was about 12.30PM and I'd not eaten. We were talking about everything except the album. Then he put his hand in his bag and said, "You want some of that, cock?" and he had speed on his finger.

Paul Jones (Rough Trade A&R / ex-Elastica / founder of Slogan Records): In 1999, Elastica were doing some warm-up shows for Leeds & Reading, playing with The Fall. Nobody could find Mark before stage time, but someone found him in a pub and he walked through the crowd and got on stage. A few days later we were at Reading and there was a knock on the van door, and it's Mark asking to borrow our drummer. Justine [singer of Elastica] was like, "We can't do that, we have to concentrate on playing." I said [to Mark], "What happened to the drummer you had a few days ago?" The story goes that Mark didn't like him, and so they left him at the service station while buying crisps. So they turned up to play Reading with no drummer and not a care in the world. Who does that? This guy called Nick Dewey – who was managing the Chemical Brothers at the time – was there, and he goes, "I'll do it." They played a brilliant set, but I remember the guitarist having blood on his fists and Mark walking on stage with blood on his face.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

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Brix Smith and Mark E Smith in Munich, 1988. Photo: DPA Picture Alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

Brix Smith Start (Fall member 1983-89, 94-96 / Smith's ex-wife): He is a master manipulator of energy – a magician, really. He understood how to use energy. The sackings, the playing with people's amps, it was all about changing the energy to create chaos, and because there would be an energy shift it would cause all of us to work harder and pull together and be at the top of our game, because we were filling a hole. It made us all better musicians, and able to cope with changing circumstances.

Pete Greenway (Fall member 2006-2018): Midway through Glastonbury, Mark asked us to play the Captain Beefheart song "Dropout Boogie", and we'd only ever played that once and it was terrible. He decided then, on live TV, that we had to play it. None of us knew what we were doing. We were playing by the seat of our pants, and you could see that, as a result, it had a bit more vitality to it. That's why Mark operated in the way he did, to make us more exciting and vital.

Jonathan Moore (Coldcut – producer and collaborator): He was the James Brown of punk, the way he whipped his band into shape. He put everybody, including us, under a great deal of pressure, but it's a great way to get good results out of people. I'd rather work with someone who is difficult than too placid. It was the disturbing of the comfort zone.

Elena Poulou (Fall member 2002-2016 / Smith's ex wife): A DIY spirit was important to Mark. He took such a long time over lyrics and then would be like, "Oh, we need an album cover." Three minutes later, one is done – that's why so many look like shit. He wanted it that way. He could have hired an artist, but he was just like, "Let's get it out." So I was like, "Okay, I have this old felt tip pen in the corner and we'll cut something out of the Lidl 'offers of the week' paper." Done. Next.

Simon "Ding" Archer (Fall member 2003-2008 / producer): He didn't like people being comfortable. He would deliberately tell person A about person B, and he'd try to set people against each other and watch it unfold.

Steve Trafford: He would choose two people from the band who didn't get on and take half of each of their songs and glue them together. I'm sure he did it so that you were in PRS wrangles with that person forever. He would also definitely butcher songs if he felt that you were proud of it. And that makes sense, because it wouldn't be a Fall song then, would it?

Elena Poulou: He didn't like being copied. It was important to him that his style was his. He had heroes, though. He took influence from other bands and he didn't hide that – he gave them credit. It meant a lot to him that he met Bo Diddley or had an Iggy Pop autograph on the wall. He never met him, but he cried when Johnny Cash died.

Steve Trafford: A band like Pavement really went to town [on copying the Fall]. Especially that Slanted and Enchanted [1992] album – and the artwork, too. He hated it. He hated people worshipping him.

Simon Wolstencroft (Fall member 1986-1997): Mark was a visual diarist who recorded everything in real time. He would just take things in.

Elena Poulou: He was very tuned into his surroundings. He wrote every day. You honestly could have made a record a day with Mark. He had the ability to shape any sound or noise into a song with his words.

Julia Adamson: The Fall had a chaos element that Mark seemed to encourage for creative reasons. He always wanted the group to be fresh. On occasion, this would resort to berating and bullying rather than encouragement. He would and could instil a fear factor, and this definitely sharpened the group, a bit like a sergeant major.

Kay Carroll: His writing was absolutely motivated by speed. It just came out faster. I don't think he wanted to be present; I think he wanted to go into what he called his dream world and figure it all out.

Jonathan Moore: He was a crazy individual in some people's eyes, but I just thought he was brilliant, the way he took anything conventional and pretty much upturned it. Whatever band he worked with, it always sounded like The Fall, and yet it always sounded different. That is a proper art.

Simon Wolstencroft: He was very proud of his mic technique. He used to say to me, "I've got great mic technique, Simon, like Elvis or Roy Orbison."

IDIOSYNCRASIES

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Smith in London, 2005. Photo: Edd Westmacott / Alamy Stock Photo

Craig Leon(Producer – Extricate [1990], Shift-Work [1991], Code: Selfish [1992]): Mark was called upon to deliver a lecture about his views on creative writing at a posh university. He arrived at the lecture hall, sat down, and then there was nothing but dead silence for minutes. He then leaned over to the mic and said, "James Joyce," opened up a book and started reading, silently, to himself. After a while he closed the book and walked off the stage.

Paul Jones: When they got booked to do Jools Holland, Mark had them write in the contract that no "boogie woogie" piano would be allowed.

Keiron Melling: We were sat in a bar, and he decided he wanted some new shoes and asked Dave [Spurr, Fall member 2006-2017] to go and get him some. Dave asked him what size and Mark had no clue, so he took his shoe off and drew round it on a piece of paper, and just gave that to him to take to the shoe shop.

Simon Wolstencroft: He didn't like people who wore baseball hats, shorts, flares, ponytails or people with laptops. He actually sacked a tour manager for wearing shorts and having a laptop. "Get some proper work done, you cunt," he said.

Ross Orton: I touched his cigarettes once and he went fucking mental at me, it was really scary.

Geoff Travis: He used to come to the Rough Trade offices in London and would be stood outside, looking at his watch to make sure we were arriving on time. He'd always make disparaging comments about how we were all a bunch of hippies.

Julia Adamson: At this gig there was an ice-cream lady, strangely, and Mark wanted one. Soon he seemed bored with the act and proceeded to accidentally stick the ice cream cone in the hair of the people seated in front of us. It was a right mess and they didn't notice. At another concert by Garbage, he was shouting "rubbish" between songs, and when we saw them after, he told Shirley [Manson] – a huge Fall fan – that their show was "like watching paint dry". We did enjoy Primal Scream, though; he thought Manny was a great bass player. He liked Snoop Dogg too.

Simon Wolstencroft: He used to blame me for his epilepsy, saying, "It's Simon, he keeps hitting me."

Pete Greenway: He could empty a pub just by walking into it – and I've seen it happen. He still had that ability, and he was very chuffed about that.

Elena Poulou: When he broke his femur in Newcastle, I would sneak him some booze into the hospital. When he was having treatment in Germany, they give patients alcohol if they want it, so he liked ordering a can of beer in hospital.

Dave Spurr (Fall member 2006-2017): We went to an awards evening with him and there were loads of famous people walking around, and Mark would just be shouting at people. Paul Weller walked past and Mark just looked at him and went [adopts creepy voice] "Weellleeerr", and Paul Weller just put his head down and fucked off.

Paul Hanley: He didn't care about being liked. It must be fairly liberating to genuinely not give a shit what anybody thinks of you.

Paul Jones: I signed them to put out Fall Heads Roll [2005] and I asked Mark, "Are you sure you're not signed?" He was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've got something in America, but the rest of the world is fine." We put out a press release, and two days later the US label he'd mentioned in passing contacted us and said, "You can't do that, we've signed him for the world, including the moon." And it turns out they had actually included that in the contract, and it was signed by Mark.

Steve Trafford: Some trendy French promoters took us for a meal in this swanky restaurant. Mark decided he was going to horrify everyone by being as outrageous as possible. He ordered a steak with no vegetables or anything else, just steak. Then he proceeded to eat it without any cutlery, just eating it with his hands and mouth and tearing chunks off it like a starved wolf, and then spitting it out. You should have seen the looks on their faces. I was in hysterics. He was a wind up merchant.

ON THE ROAD

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The Fall in Munich, 1988. Photo: DPA Picture Alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

Elena Poulou: You're not working down the coal mine, but touring in The Fall can take its toll on you. Mark came up with the term "van disease", from when people could go a bit crazy. He would find it very funny if people couldn't hack it. He was a pro. When we went to America he'd just had an operation on his leg, and his wound was still open and bleeding. He went on stage in a wheelchair when he first had cancer, in 2009. If he can do that, a 25-year-old cannot complain that he didn't get his full eight hours of sleep.

Keiron Melling: The very first gig that I did, I thought everyone would be jolly all the time, like in a usual band. Twenty minutes after getting in the hotel room, the phone rings and Mark was on the other end, like, "You're not on holiday, stop fucking about, everyone get downstairs." I was like: oh, OK, this is a bit more serious than I was expecting.

Paul Hanley: You weren't going on tour to have fun. He wasn't my friend, he was my employer.

Brix Smith Start: He always kept a shit list. And whoever was top of that list would be kicked for the whole tour.

Dave Spurr: There would be hell to pay if the rider wasn't there: 60 Benson and Hedges, a crate of Holsten Pils, two bottles of champagne and a bottle of scotch. I remember Mark having champagne and Opal Fruits for breakfast once, and that being quite a healthy breakfast order.

Paul Jones: He sang a couple of tracks with Elastica, and he was on my side of the stage and he was turning my amp up and down, stomping on my pedals, threatening to throw me a punch.

Steve Trafford: I must have gone through about eight bass amps in that band, blowing all of them. Mark kept messing about with the volumes and turning it off mid-set. One time, he pulled the lead out so I couldn't play at all, but when he walked onstage and the crowd went insane... I've never felt anything like that before.

IN THE STUDIO

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Mark E Smith in Norway, 2016. Photo: Gonzales Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Kay Carroll: Mark knew exactly what he wanted. He liked the band to set up like a live gig, so you'd get feedback, and he'd drive the engineers crazy. Mark evokes stress, but that's what he tried to get in his music. I think that's why people gravitate to The Fall a lot – it’s not just the riffs, it’s the edginess. That was the tension he was trying to create. It always had to be fast with Mark. For Live at the Witch Trials [1979] we booked the studio for two weeks and we did it in two days.

Andi Toma (Mouse on Mars / collaborated with Smith as Von Südenfed): It was one of the fastest productions we ever worked on. He would always do everything in one take. I was very impressed – it was really magic. For his lyrics, he has the ability to suck information out of the air.

Steve Trafford: It was organised chaos; he definitely put people together who didn't get on and were at each other's throats. At times it seemed like, "This is not conducive to being creative," but then, in hindsight, you can see that tension created great things. There was a method, but at the same time I think he liked to torture people. We actually wrote a really good album that never came out, called Cocked.

Pete Greenway: When we were recording and just hitting our stride, he'd take us down the pub or we'd be instructed not to go into the studio, or he'd scrap certain songs or make us do it in a really odd way. It's his way of taking control of the situation. When nobody knows what is happening and Mark is instigating it, then he's in control. Mark thrives in those atmospheres.

Keiron Melling: You wouldn't last five minutes in The Fall if you're precious. It's a good way to work, knowing that anything could get binned at any moment.

Simon Wolstencroft: He would have all the chairs removed in the studio so that nobody could sit down. We'd spend hours recording stuff and perfecting it, and he'd be in the pub all afternoon. Then he’d come in pissed up and speeding his tits off, saying, 'Right, that's shit, start it again. It's too slow, you're all getting fat." He was a very savage editor, but sometimes it really worked.

Brix Smith Start: Mark is a master of editing, and editing is as important as writing.

Martin Bramah: He was an important critic, editor and director. He liked playing with people’s heads, too. He studied all the great manipulators. He loved psychology.

Ross Orton: Due to being in a wheelchair, he was quite immobile because the studio was up a flight of stairs. It was residential and there were rooms across the yard, but it was stone chippings and gravel, so the wheelchair really struggled on it. He'd scribble notes to send to us on bits of torn-off newspapers and the letters housekeeping kept sending him to gain access to clean his room. One day, he got out of his chair and came stumbling up to the live room. I was like, "Mark, be careful," and he was batting me away like a pesky fly. He opened the door and was like, "Woah, woah, woah, woaaaah." The band was in full flow recording, sounding great, really tight. And they all stopped and he was like, "What have I fucking told you about eating? What have I fucking told you lot about having food? It makes you fucking tired, your playing has gone to shit." I said, "Actually Mark, none of them have had a thing to eat, they're all starving." I later said, "They're really good, that band of yours, Mark." He was like, "No they're not, they're fucking rubbish. Tell them to sort it out."

Andi Toma: Speed calmed him down in the studio. Without it he was tense.

Steve Trafford: We were recording Fall Heads Roll in New York, and I had to go out and score for him so we could finish the album. It was like he'd hit a brick wall, so it was, "Let's get him some speed and make it happen," and then he was brilliant. Although, I think we bought meth by mistake once, judging by him foaming at the mouth.

Jonathan Moore: He had this megaphone, which he loved, and he was charging around the studio barking stuff out.

Elena Poulou: He was versatile, too. I remember him recording his vocals in the toilet once when there wasn't a vocal booth.

Simon "Ding" Archer: He had an exceptional ear. He'd come in with multiple versions of multiple songs and would give you time points on songs that he'd memorised where something needed changing. It was uncanny how he could pick out the bits of performances that he liked. He would listen to ideas... he might tell you to shut the fuck up, but he'd listen.

Paul Jones: When mastering Fall Heads Roll, he had all these CDs of different versions of different takes, and it was almost like he was making the album there. The track "Blindness", for instance, he had two versions of it, and if you listen to the bass, it jumps up from one [tone of bass] to the other. He did that there and then. A lot of stuff for that album was put together and came from him in those sessions, as he zipped through his four packs of Holsten Pils.

UPS AND DOWNS

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Smith on stage with The Fall, 2008. Photo: Victor McNulty / Alamy Stock Photo

Simon Wolstencroft: Putting a spanner in the works was a recurring theme with Mark. Just when you thought you might get on Top of the Pops, he'd do something to make the record sound shit. We got thrown off a major label because Mark wouldn't let anyone from the label listen to the demos. He told them to fuck off.

Ross Orton: He was quite paranoid. He was getting really paranoid about [recording software] Pro Tools and saying we were deleting stuff behind his back. "You're fucking changing everything." I was like, "We haven't fucking got anything recorded to change!"

Geoff Travis: The end of our relationship came when we signed The Smiths, I think. He wasn't very happy about their meteoric rise, because he was no longer king of Manchester.

Martin Bramah: He could take things too far. One time we were getting ready to go on stage and he handed me a pint pot full to the brim of piss, and said, "Get rid of that, Martin."

Brix Smith Start: As time went on and substances took their toll, the aftermath of that was high, high levels of paranoia. His winding up antics took a more nasty turn around this time [mid-1990s], like "the spy tapes". He would place a recording Walkman next to the door of someone's hotel room and record their conversations. More often than not, people were bitching about him, but then he would take the tapes and play them on the tour bus the next day.

Kay Carroll: I read some of his stuff and think, 'This is so bloody amazing.' He managed to cram so much in one line. He loved his craft, and I think that's what kept him going, and I think regular people don't get given that gift. For me, the trade-off was he was a fucked-up human being. This intoxicating sense of creativity he gave off allowed him to be an arsehole sometimes.

MISCONCEPTIONS

Marcia Schofield: I think he enjoyed people expecting him to be the Fuhrer and then pulling out his kind side.

Simon Wolstencroft: He was very generous. Always paying good wages, getting the drinks in. I earned more back then than I do now. He even paid for me and my ex-wife to go to Venice in a luxury hotel. Which was brilliant, except I was having withdrawals from heroin so I had to get home. Told her I had a family crisis and flew home early.

Ross Orton: He was always really polite, actually. He would always say please.

Brix Smith Start: Despite the chaos, he knew what he was doing. I mean, he would quote colonel Tom Parker [Elvis' manager] to me.

Marcia Schofield: Most people don't understand how amazing some of the musicians were in The Fall. They played without arrangements or writing things down, and they needed a back catalogue of 30-odd albums in their head at all times.

Jan St Werner (Mouse on Mars / collaborated with Smith as Von Südenfed): We wanted to form a pop band together, and Mark liked this. We thought if we merged our groups together we could become a proper boy band.

Elena Poulou: Mark was really open-minded. He gave himself a lot of freedom to go into different genres via his collaborations. At home, we would make quite electronic and experimental music.

Jonathan Moore: He was very open to new sounds. He accepted the turntable as an instrument, even during a period when the Musicians' Union wouldn't.

Simon "Ding" Archer: There was always this picture of Mark being this angry and dictatorial man, but he was bloody funny.

Keiron Melling: He was the funniest person I've ever met.

Elena Poulou: He was also very sensitive, more so than people realise.

Steve Trafford: I found him a lot more musical than I had been led to believe. Mark always said he never considered himself a musician, and I loved that about him, his defiance in that, and that he created this unique art. But chatting to him, his knowledge of pop music was vast. He turned me onto so much. I think he just didn't like musicians, but he loved music.

REFLECTIONS

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Smith on stage with The Fall in Manchester, 2008. Photo: Gary Mather / Alamy Stock Photo

Julia Adamson: I generally tend to avoid talking about The Fall, and nearly had a panic attack when introduced as a member recently, but the experience is something I'll always treasure. We all pick up experiences and scars along the road of life, and The Fall was a fast rollercoaster. I wish I'd spent more time with him in the later years now.

Dave Spurr: Mark was a warrior. He was the hardest guy I've ever met. He complained if he felt well. If there was clean air somewhere he'd moan about it and say, "It's fucking horrible, this; it's too clean, I feel too healthy." It was such a shock when he passed away, because we just thought he'd get over it. We thought he was invincible.

Keiron Melling: It's been an honour to know him. It was hard watching him struggle towards the end, but it was also totally inspiring to see him get up on stage. He put some real effort in and he did that for the fans. He didn't want to just curl up and go – he wanted to go out with a bang. He was devastated that the last gig we had he couldn't play.

Pete Greenway: He had to keep going and moving forward. He was very positive about his illness all the way through. We all thought he was going to beat it. We just believed that he would.

Paul Hanley: I was in a band with the person I thought was the best lyric writer in the world, my brother and my mates. What more could I ask for? Whatever Mark did, he kept that band going for 40 years. The Fall was more important to him than anything else; more important to him than his own health in many ways. It was his whole life.

Martin Bramah: Being in The Fall is like joining a cult, and he's the leader. He was a remarkable force of nature. I recently found an old notebook with a complete lyric written by Mark that was never used. So in the spirit of completion I decided to make some music for it. The final Smith / Bramah composition: "Addicted to the Day".

Brix Smith Start: When we were playing and everyone was on form, being in The Fall was transcendent.

Marcia Schofield: Working with The Fall was the most fun I’ve ever had.

Simon "Ding" Archer: The biggest thing I miss about Mark is that he was the only person who would come into my studio and challenge me on every level, from opening the door to closing it.

Elena Poulou: He was always about the new record. The now. We didn't play many old hits because it was always about the now. That was something we can really learn from Mark, a sense of living in the moment and avoiding shoulda, woulda, coulda. It's hard to do, to let your mind be truly in the moment. Success to Mark was simply being able to make that next record.

Kay Carroll: He was a very complex character. He was an enigma and I never really got to the bottom of him. He's a one-off, there's nobody like him. As a man he was flawed, but as an artist he we was untouchable.

Steve Trafford: He was impossible to work with at times, and he could be horrible, but he had so much conviction in what he was doing. You have to respect people like that, because they are complete one-offs. You couldn't create Mark. If you were to write a film or a musical and come up with him as a character, it wouldn’t work, you just couldn't invent him.

Elena Poulou: He was not jaded creatively. He had so much more to offer. I can't help but think of the lyrics to "Psykick Dancehall" right now: When I'm dead and gone / My vibrations will live on / In vibes on vinyl through the years / People will dance to my waves.

@DanielDylanWray

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