(or, Can You Smell His Sweat?): Mark E Smith, 1957-2018

by Neil Young

Among the bylines I’ve accumulated in my career as a critic, the one of which I’ll always be most proud is the issue of Slovenian film-journal KINO!, published in April 2008. On the cover of the book-sized “magazine” is an alphabetical list of the contributors, concluding with the names SMITH ŠPRAH VAN DAMME YOUNG. The Muscles From Brussels was the subject of an interview; “Young” is me; “Smith” is Mark E—lead singer, main songwriter, gauleiter-in-chief of The Fall, my all-time #1 favourite band—who died in January aged 60.

My article was an 15,000 word book-review of a volume on James Benning, with an extract from The Fall’s 1980 track ‘The Container Drivers’ one of two epigraphs. Smith’s contribution was considerably shorter: a film-related extract from his “autobiography” Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith (Penguin 2008), which I’d brought to the attention of editor Jurij Meden. Himself an ardent Fall/Smithophile, Meden—particularly delighted by a passage in which Smith details his grandfather’s antipathy towards one 1933 classic (“He had a particular grudge against King Kong. He was seriously worried about it, people staring at this big monkey that didn’t even look real.”)—promptly translated the whole section into Slovene.

“There’s a dearth of original scripts,” sighed “Smith” (via his hapless ghost-writer Austin Collings), “that’s why Hollywood has to remake everything. The only one I didn’t mind was The Manchurian Candidate; not as good as the original, but there was something there.”

The subject-matter of this 2004 remake, the far superior original (John Frankenheimer, 1962) and Richard Condon’s original novel is prime Smith lyrical territory: mind-control, paranoia, pitch-black humour, assassination plots, governmental nefariousness. But it seems safe to presume he checked out the remake primarily because its director, Jonathan Demme, was the man responsible for giving The Fall what will likely prove an enduring micro-footnote in cinema history.

Near the climax of Demme’s Oscar-winning smash The Silence of the Lambs, when FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) penetrates the stygian lair of serial killer “Buffalo Bill,” it turns out that the homicidal maniac is listening to “Hip Priest,” a seven-minute epic from The Fall’s 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour. A hypnotically repetitive dirge-drone of sardonic intensity, it’s a great song and is also the very stuff of nightmares; an ideal, left-field choice from a director whose flair for soundtrack pop-picking was a hallmark of his career, and who preceded Smith into the grave by just nine months. Among the many tribute articles written after his death aged 73 in April 2017 was Jason Anderson’s “Hip Priest: The Musical Legacy of Jonathan Demme” for the Dowsers website.

Smith returned the favour in typically idiosyncratic fashion with a line in his 1992 track ‘Married, 2 Kids’ (“I’m married, 2 kids / Have a peculiar goatish smell”) inspired by a line of Hannibal Lecter’s dialogue from the original Silence of the Lambs novel by Thomas Harris (“Can you smell his sweat? That peculiar goatish odor is trans-3-methyl-2 hexenoic acid. Remember it, it’s the smell of schizophrenia.”)

In one of his own final interviews, Smith “spoke about his sadness of the passing of the film director Jonathan Demme, and how proud he was that The Fall featured on the soundtrack of The Silence of the Lambs.” Ten years before, he’d remarked “yeah, that was good,” though with a rueful caveat: “it’s odd with stuff like films and adverts. You don’t get much money for it.”

Perhaps this—as well as the long shadow cast by The Silence of the Lambs—was one reason why so few of The Fall’s myriad recorded tracks (a staggering total of 107 albums during Smith’s lifetime, including compilations et cetera) found their way onto the big screen. It really is a tiny handful, surprisingly so given how many creative types (including, one presumes, filmmakers) around the world are hardcore, card-carrying Fall devotees. I recall a Portuguese documentary about urbanism, circa 2010, in which one of the subjects is seen sketching while listening to ‘Gross Chapel: GB Grenadiers’ (ranks high in my Fall top ten) from 1986’s Bend Sinister, but the title of this (cracking) film frustratingly eludes me.

Music-business satire Svengali (2013), directed by John Hardwick, uses a bit of ‘F-‘oldin’ Money’—The Fall’s 1999 cover-version of Tommy Blake’s 1959 rockabilly classic. And then there’s Ben Wheatley’s baffling misfire of a J G Ballard adaptation High-Rise (2015), set in 1975(-ish), but which ends with a kid tuning his radio into a broadcast from the future as terrifying as anything in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness: the voice of Margaret Thatcher is heard, then the unmistakable keening strings that kick off ‘Industrial Estate’ from The Fall’s debut album Live at the Witch Trials (1979).

Evie Salmon: Towards the end of the film, we see a young boy looking to the air with a home-made radio. We hear Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the House of Commons on 24 November 1976 when she was leader of the opposition. Then we hear The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’, released in 1979, the year Thatcher comes to power as Prime Minister. So what’s this, High Rise as a test bed for Thatcherism? A radio broadcast from the future that breaks into this documentary on urban planning and the problems arising from shared freehold?
James Riley: You’re absolutely right. I think its precisely those carefully chosen details that prevent the film from being ‘just’ a 1970s pastiche. It makes the film somewhat hauntological in its politics. The boy tunes into the near future but seen in 2016 it’s a mournful futurology: we’re invited to lament what this ‘future’ became.

Elsewhere on Live at the Witch Trials is another of the very early Fall classics, ‘Frightened,’ with its lines “I’m better than them, and I think I’m the best / But I’ll appear at midnight, when the films close” (this segment much beloved of leading US film-critic Nick Pinkerton, whose regular [and much-missed], acerbic online column ‘Bombast’ was named after a standout from This Nation’s Saving Grace [1985].) Delivered in character by the narrator/protagonist, it can be read in two ways: is he lying in wait at home, planning to emerge under the cover of darkness, perhaps to ambush or intercept unsuspecting patrons? Or is he himself one of the cinemagoers, skulking in the the nocturnal equivalent of what Franz Ferdinand (themselves no slouches in the Fall-fan stakes) would much later dub “the dark of the matinee”?

Either one of them would fit the outsider persona Smith himself cultivated carefully over the decades, defiantly and uncompromisingly northern and working-class. Though conspicuously well-read and by no means averse to getting involved in ballet (I Am Kurious Oranj; The Fall’s collaboration with the company of maverick ballet eminence Michael Clark features in Charles Atlas’s 1985 documentary Hail the New Puritan) and opera (Hey! Luciani), Smith was very much a man of the people, eschewing—and mercilessly mocking—anything that smacked of metropolitan artsy-fartiness. That said, he did go out of his way to mention “Sight and Sound magazine: Nick James, editor” on what is perhaps the most obscure of all Fall songs, ‘Job Search’ (2004).

His favourite picture was Cy Endfield’s oft-televised Boer-War rip-roarer Zulu (1964), with which he claimed a personal connection via the character of Private Hook played by James Booth, apparently based on one of Smith’s ancestors. The picture about which he (via Collings) most volubly expounds in Renegade is even more gritty, an urban fable whose hardscrabble milieu covers turf familiar from countless Fall-song scenarios:

Nothing touches 
Dead Man’s Shoes though. British film—set in Nottingham [sic]. Not many people have heard of it, because it isn’t your average idea of Britain. It’s not Notting Hill or Hugh Grant, and it’s not even Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. It doesn’t patronize or meander and it’s not afraid to tell a story. I like the way it captures Britain in the summertime, when some people don’t have enough money to go on holiday and they spend most of their time drinking or doing drugs: walling themselves off. There’s a lot of frustration there; it doesn’t help when they’re seeing their bosses and workmates fucking off on another holiday. You can see it in the pubs; men who’ve been out all day in the sun with big red faces that you could fry an egg on, bruised complexions, looking at you…

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In April 1980, the BBC screened a little-known George Peppard detective movie directed by John Guillermin, P.J. (1968)—under the flashier title chosen for its UK release, New Face In Hell. Less than three weeks later, at a Finsbury Park gig on 11th May, we have the first recorded public performance of The Fall’s song of identical moniker. Also now acknowledged in the band’s pantheon, Smith’s ‘New Face In Hell’ is a sharp-edged little fable about a “wireless enthusiast” who stumbles upon governmental nefariousness and pays the ultimate price, a song whose staccato sentences themselves sound decidedly like a film-pitch.

Smith was a magpie of culture high low, and all points in between. He peppered his lyrics with references culled from literature (particularly horror/fantastical/sci-fi; H P Lovecraft was from first to last a colossal influence), television, pop music, sport, current affairs. Time and again, he off-handedly recast the quotidian into a tenebral zone, “full of strangeness, like a rich painting”

Cinema also, of course, played its part: The Fall covered Merseybeat boy-band The Searchers’ 1967 flop ‘Popcorn, Double Feature’ (written by Larry English and Arthur Weiss and originally recorded by Tim Wilde, it wasn’t audibly movie-related beyond the title) and—dropping the comma—eleased it as a single in 1990. A previous 45rpm, ‘Cruisers’ Creek’ (1985), bears—a subtle touch—the BBFC-style classification ‘PG’ alongside the title on its sleeve. The B-side, ‘L.A.’, is somewhat tamer stuff, warranting only a ‘U’—despite lyrics which repeatedly homage Russ Meyer’s 1970 X-rated cult-camp-kitsch classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (“this is my happening… freaks me out!”)

‘Ivanhoes [sic] Two Pence’—a b-side of ‘Masquerade’ (1998) opens with a snatch of audio which many fans presumed came from the hit 1958-9 ITV series Ivanhoe starring Roger Moore. The Annotated Fall website’s enigmatically-named “bzfgt” reckons otherwise, however: “It’s from, I’m confident, an Italian film entitled La spada normanna [Roberto Mauri, 1971], and the dialogue we hear must be the English dubbed version (Ivanhoe, the Norman Swordsman).”

Walt Disney is rather sourly saluted in ‘Disney’s Dream Debased’ (1984), glimpsing a phantasmagorical excursion to one of the animation mogul’s theme-parks:

Saw a mouse, who flapped at my wife
And she told him what…
And she told him what had gone down
Who then did not know the extent of the show
The people had died in the mouth of their ride
… And Dopey and Mickey, Brer and Pluto
Secretly prayed to get out

The dark side of Hollywood is also probed in “Cary Grant’s Wedding” (“All you’re going to Cary Grant’s wedding /A new-wave Hollywood / Where everybody’s good [but not great!]”). But which of Cary Grant’s five weddings (1935, 1942, 1949, 1965, 1981) does Smith have in mind? The song appears on the May 1980 live album Totale’s Turns (It’s Now or Never); “Buster Keaton, he turned up” sings Smith—and the poker-faced silent star, previous owner of one of Grant’s Beverly Hills mansions, died in 1966. References to “hallucigens” [sic] would seem to point towards July 22nd 1965, when Grant tied the knot with Dyan Cannon at Howard Hughes’ Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Their 1968 divorce resulted in colourful accusations involving physical abuse and being “forc e fed” LSD.

Grant’s golden-age contemporary Shirley Temple is namechecked in ‘The Littlest Rebel’ (1990), whose title is taken from the child star’s 1935 smash (based on a 1909 play) co-starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Hard-rocking 1992 single ‘Free Range’ kicks off with the line “in 2001, a life-code”—and the Kubrick connection is cemented when Smith soon after sings “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the title of the Richard Strauss composition sampled at crucial junctures of 2001: A Space Odyssey (with the line “it pays to talk to no-one!” Smith presumably refers to that pivotal scene where murderously malfunctioning super-computer HAL 9000 eavesdrops on a conversation between two astronauts discussing how he can be disconnected.)

Other Fall-cinema connections are more subtle or oblique; the line “the villagers are surrounding the house” (Hard Life in Country) is generally taken as a nod towards Sam Peckinpah’s rural ordeal Straw Dogs (1971). The repeated refrain “we’re coming, we’re coming, Leo!” from ‘Pumpkin Head Xscapes’ (1992)—a propulsive foot-tapper crammed with semi-random fantasy-film imagery—is in fact a direct quotation from Billy Wilder’s hack-journalism excoriation Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951).

From the invaluable Annotated Fall website: a man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a cave near his home while hunting Indian artifacts. Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an unscrupulous reporter who manages to prolong Leo’s stay in the cave in order to milk the story for all its worth. The story proves so compelling that people flock from all over the country, camping near the cave and, incidentally, ensuring that Leo and his wife Lorraine’s cafe and general store does a land office business; Tatum takes up with Lorraine, who assists him in his machinations. At one point in the movie, at the gathering carnival outside the cave-in, a country and western band strikes up a song of support for Leo: “We’re coming, we’re coming, Leo!”

Smith himself, while a consummate punk performer on stage, would never have been mistaken for Kirk Douglas. His own film-appearances were tightly rationed: he played a canteen employee at a nuclear power station in Mark Aerial Waller’s 1998 short The Glow Boys (an experience which directly led to the 1998 Smith-solo track ‘The Caterer,’ named after his character).

And he also had a one-line cameo as “punter,” cheerily greeting the protagonist in Michael Winterbottom’s finest film, the extremely “meta” Manchester music-scene chronicle 24 Hour Party People (2002). Among myriad deleted scenes from that troubled (but ultimately) triumphant project, the most tantalising involved a scene in which protagonist Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) was barracked by Mark E Smith from the stage of a Fall gig. This fictional Smith was played by an individual with zero big-screen acting experience up to that point, namely Sam Riley—imaginative casting, given that Riley is a handsome, dark-haired six-footer, and Smith was… not.

Riley would have to wait a couple of years for his actual cinema debut, via his monumental performance as the tragically ill-fated Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis (1956-80) in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2008). At one point in the Corbijn film, Curtis is helped from the stage after a bout of epilepsy has struck him mid-gig, causingly the concert to be chaotically aborted. As he’s laid on a backstage bench, one of his bandmates tries to console him in gruffly dour Manchester fashion: “It could be worse: at least you’re not the lead singer of the Fall!”

– – –

post script

“The Fall apparently didn’t get the memo that Twilight is a series of books and films that feature sparkly teenagers who live forever, attend school for no reason, and stalk the sh** out of each other. It’s not a horror story featuring terrifying supernatural creatures by anyone’s standard. So when they turned in a song for the film adaptation of Twilight, producers understandably rejected it for being “too scary.”
The group’s frontman Mark E. Smith revealed in a recent interview that producers of the blockbuster teen drama held meetings with The Fall’s reps to apparently get the band to write a song for the soundtrack to one of the early movies in the film franchise. The Fall reportedly turned in a really bizarre track which consisted of a haunting two-note riff with Smith shrieking and grumbling over top. The producers turned the track down.
Smith told Radar Magazine: “Our publisher got this deal with that film Twilight. They said they’d give us $50,000 to come up with a song. So I said, I’ll give them some horror… But they don’t know anything about horror, do they? It might frighten the children. But it is frightening, isn’t it? I‘ve fulfilled my bargain with Satan. There’s no way they’re going to put that in Twilight. But if they were good, they would. It’s horror. Their horror is some young guy wandering through a forest with his eyes glazed. Orson Welles would’ve done it.””