Coming home from the International Motorbike Show one evening in 1991, my friend sat in the passenger seat of the car said with unrestrained disgust: ‘can we turn this shit off?’
‘This shit’ was The Fall and I think his patience evaporated when he heard the line ‘the chief elf Norman jumped about on all fours.’
I have to confess I had a similar reaction when I first heard Mark E Smith in action. To this day he still hasn’t hit a note. To this day his lyrics confuse and inspire in equal measure. Only recently, a judge in a copyright dispute described Smith’s vocals as difficult to understand. And even when you can make out the vocals you’ve still got a long way to go.
‘I had a monkey for breakfast. I had a skunk for lunch. I am Ibis Hotel Man.’ I don’t know about you, but I’d say he’s had a bad experience in a popular hotel chain. And that’s Smith’s style, to take an idea and twist it, remould it, filter and transcribe it until the idea emerges at the other end unrecognisable.
But Mark E Smith cannot be ignored. There are some, too lazy to make the effort, who think The Fall are rubbish. But in fact, the indisputable fact, is that Smith is up there alongside Mozart and Beethoven in the pantheon of music history. (I heard that; someone muttered you can’t possibly be serious. Well, I am.)
Forget those illiterate muppets who wrote trite little ditties like ‘she loves you yeah yeah yeah.’ The greatest pop song in the English language is Doctor Buck’s Letter. A masterclass in lyrical imagination. Assuming I’ve understood it right, we have an individual tortured by an argument with a friend. To add to his misery he’s received a letter from Dr. Buck regarding some kind of benefit claim. To distract himself the individual reads a magazine article and discovers, in sharp contrast to his own circumstances, what is important to a man called Tonge. (Uk dj Pete Tonge?) Sunglasses, Palm Pilot. . . The song fades out having reached the ‘realm of the essence of Tonge.’
Smith the man has the magnetism of the tyrant. A man once described by Sounds as the ugly face of pop, captured the hand in marriage of Brix Smith. On stage, he’s had more fights than Henry Cooper. The Fall line up changes more often than the speaking clock. Ruthless, tortured, Smith is still able to make the football results sound interesting, as he once proved one Saturday afternoon when the BBC let him loose on the football results. ‘Northampton Town a-four-argh . . . Oldham Athletic-argh . . . one-argh. . . .’
Post-punk Salford urchin turned fuzzy poet with no time for the conventions of the day, Mark E Smith should be on the fourth podium, buried in Westminster Cathedral (dead or alive, both seem to be a fitting celebration), and a permanent feature of the National Curriculum. Every home should have an album by The Fall, possibly Are You Are Missing Winner.
And if you think it’s shit, you’ll be forced to admit it’s brilliant incomparable shit. The likes of which we may never experience again for a thousand generations.