Mark E. Smith, Post-Punk Icon and Lifelong Acolyte of Weird Fiction

My dear unknown friend,

On January 24th, 2018, it was announced that Mark E. Smith, the acerbic singer of post-punk band The Fall, had died. The fact it was announced a few hours previously that legendary anarchist science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin had also died made sense in an odd way. Mark E. Smith had always worn his literary influences on his sleeves. His love for Phillip K. Dick well-known –The Man in the High Castle was his favorite book though he detested the television show of the same name yet more importantly for readers of this site was his lifelong fascination with the world of weird fiction, particularly the works of H. P. Lovecraft, M. R. James, and above all, the writings of Arthur Machen.

2658The Fall was formed after Mark E. Smith saw the The Sex Pistols perform their famous concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1976. In the audience were future members of Joy Division, The Buzzcocks, The Smiths, Magazine and countless others who would go on to launch the first wave of British punk yet from the start Smith’s Northern English upbringing set the band apart. Named after the novel La Chute by Albert Camus and influenced by the bands Can and The Velvet UndergroundThe Fall charted a different course than their contemporaries, quite possibly holding the honor of being the only post-punk band to launch a tour of Northern working men’s clubs in 1980. This was not a mere affectation. Mark E. Smith dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to work as a shipping clerk on the Salford docks while attending A-level classes at night in English. He counted Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, William Burroughs, George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut among his favorite writers in addition to those noted previously. Smith was part of an older English tradition, the working class auto-didactic. As he once said, “There were no groups around that I thought represented people like me or my mates. If I wanted to be anything, it was a voice for those people.”

Smith was known until the end of his life to walk the streets of Northern England, drinking in the same establishments he’d known all his life, talking with and observing the very people he’d known all along. “I’ve figured out why I don’t dress weird. I don’t dress weird ’cause people won’t talk to you when you dress weird. I have this strong suspicion that only people who are very, very straight dress weird.”

The Fall’s video for their cover of R. Dean Taylor’s “There’s A Ghost in My House” was filmed in Mark E. Smith’s regular drinking establishment, The Woodthorpe.

Others picked up on The Fall’s weird, unsettling influence. Jonathan Demme used the song “Hip Priest” off The Fall’s 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour for The Silence of the Lambs and Ben Wheatley used the track “Industrial Estate” from The Fall’s 1979 debut LP Live at the Witch Trials to close out his cinematic adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High Rise.

Influenced by Arthur Machen, Smith said he was, “searching for the right word or phrase that would put a chill up the spine” in his quest to convey his fascination with “the horror of the normal”. As Smith said in a 2007 interview with The Independent;

“I used to be in the Machen society,” exclaims Smith. “Been a fan since I was 16. Fanatical and all. He’s one of the best horror writers ever. MR James is good, but Machen’s fucking brilliant. Wrote the first drug story, “The Novel of the White Powder”. Before Crowley, all of them. Have you read “The Great God Pan”? Terrifying.”

The society’s monthly newsletters included excerpts from Machen’s unpublished diaries, the source of much of his work. “It’s like another world. Goes to all these places, like, ‘this is where the working class hang out, this is where the dandies hang out… I went in this pub, a bloke comes in with a knife in his back’. Like, the real occult’s in the pubs of the East End. In the stinking boats of the Thames, not in Egypt. It’s on your doorstep mate. Strikes a chord with me.”

Mark Fisher devoted a chapter to The Fall in his book The Weird and the Eerie, focusing on the band’s output between 1980 to 1982. Fisher starts the chapter with a lengthy quotation from Patrick Parrinder’s book James Joyce discussing the original meaning of the word grotesque being derived from a type of Roman ornamental design discovered in the fifteenth century during the excavation of Titus’s baths. These new forms consisted of human and animal shapes intermingled with flowers, plants and insect parts that bore no logical kinship to the normal relations decreed by classical art. Even at the time of their creation such whimsies were frowned upon as being in “poor taste” as the Latin writer Vitruvius wrote in his treatise On Architecture, “For how can a reed actually sustain a roof, or a candelabrum the ornament of a gable?” As Fisher points out the grotesque, like the weird, evokes something which is out-of-place. In his study of the grotesque Phillip Thompson argued that the grotesque is often marked by laughter in the presence of that which should not be humorous. As Fisher writes:

“From the point of view of the official bourgeois culture and its categories, a group like The Fall – working class and experimental, popular and modernist – could not and should not exist, and The Fall are remarkable for the way in which they draw out a cultural politics of the weird and the grotesque. The Fall produced what could be called a popular modernist weird, wherein the weird shapes the form as well as the content of the work. The weird tale enters into becoming with the weirdness of modernism – its unfamiliarity, its combination of elements previously held to be incommensurable, its compression, its challenges to standard models of legibility – and with all the difficulties and compulsions of post-punk sound.”

the-fallThe Fall’s 1980 album Grotesque (After the Gramme) contains the song “The N.W.R.A. ” (The North Will Rise Again)  with lines such as “A man with butterflies on his face”, “With ostrich head-dress/Face a mess/covered in feathers/Orange-red with blue-black lines/That draped/down to his chest/Body are a tentacle mess/And light blue plant-heads”. These lines make sense when the Parrinder’s discussion of the word grotesque is held at the forefront of one’s mind. It nearly takes a cryptographer’s patience to unravel Mark E. Smith’s lyrics, teasing meanings from their depths a badge of honor amongst fans. This sense of fascination bears close kinship with the protagonists of Lovecraft’s weird tales.  There is also Smith’s disdain for those who resort to cliché or the “coffee table” aesthetic Smith sneers at in the liner notes of Grotesque (After the Gramme). Yet within the half-told tales that make up the songs which are The Fall’s oeuvre the listener’s imagination is treated with respect, given room to work on its own. Smith’s cryptic lyrics combine with his unrepentant Mancunian accent allowing the listener to grapple with meaning akin to Lovecraft’s attempts to name the unutterable. As Graham Harman writes, “No other writer (Lovecraft) is so perplexed by the gaps between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess.” The song “Impression of J Temperance” with its William S. Burroughs meets H. P. Lovecraft lyrics (“The new born thing hard to describe/Like a rat that’s been trapped inside/A warehouse space near a city tide”) with accompanying post-punk musical accompaniment is a telling example of the effectiveness of Smith’s approach.

This early phase would reach its height with the song “Spectre Vs. Rector”. As a teenager I used to visit a friend of mine who worked weekends at a radio station in Stowe, Vermont. The highlight being any records the station was sent yet would not play on air were  set aside,  free for anyone who wanted them. I used to go through those looking for any that appeared left-field or outre. The album Dragnet on which the song “Spectre Vs Rector” appears definitely fit that bill, Stark black and white spider on its web approaching a butterfly, yet even that did not brace me for the weirdness that is “Spectre Vs Rector”. I remember hearing the opening bass line, the defiantly weird sound of the entire affair, scrambling for the album cover and liner notes as if they were a Rosetta Stone, “recorded in a damp warehouse in MC/R” of course it was. It had to be. Was he saying M. R. James? Yog Sothoth? What was going on here?

For Christmas 2007 Mark E. Smith read Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” for the BBC. While explaining his selection of this particular tale Smith said, “I chose to read this story because it’s very unusual for him; it’s not like his other tales. They are usually about people who live underground, or threats to humanity – which I like as well – but ”The Colour Out Of Space” is quite futuristic. He wrote it in 1927, which is weird.

Right before the publication of his autobiography Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith he said, “My stories are very much like Lovecraft’s actually.” Lovecraft famously disdained the modernist tendencies, preferring to cast his gaze further back to Victorian morals and the likes of Lord Dunsany, yet as Joel Lane writes in his penetrating essay “This Spectacular Darkness”,

“The rationalist consensus of the Enlightenment had gone up in flames. The new capitalist order of ambitious, profiteering businessmen was eroding the traditional class structure; urbanisation was making the landscape unrecognisable. The facade of Victorian morality was shaken by the mocking violence of Jack the Ripper and the brutal show-trial of Oscar Wilde. A generation wandered in a political, spiritual and moral limbo. And then came the First World War.

Is it any surprise that around this time, both serious and popular literature began to employ the occult and the paranormal as key subject matter? Writers were picking up the ideas from a new cultural underground that filled the gap left by the erosion of traditional faith. The new genre of supernatural horror fiction had its roots in Gothic literature, but it evolved as a specific response to the pressures of modernity. Suddenly it was essential to ask new questions about human nature and our place in the world. Horror fiction was both a wake for Christianity and an attempt to generate new myths – or a new kind of imagination – that could deal with new realities.”

While Lovecraft frequently wrote disdainfully of realism it was his use of difference, between the realistic portrayal of his New England settings, his all too human protagonists, and the scientific knowledge of his time against the irruption of forces from outside our normal space-time continuum that set it apart from the fantastic creations of Lord Dunsany and his ilk that gave Lovecraft’s creations their powerful, lasting impact.

In passing it is interesting to note that the “brutal show-trial of Oscar Wilde” which Joel Lane writes of in his essay was the  very same trial that scuttled Arthur Machen’s career the first time in 1895. His close ties to Oscar Wilde and the Decadent movement meant that even though he wrote some of his most powerful and critically acclaimed works in the years immediately following Oscar Wilde’s trial his association with the movement left him tainted by association and unable to find a publisher for such works as Hieroglyphics, The Hill of Dreams, A Fragment of Life, the story “The White People” and the stories which make up the collection Ornaments in Jade. The majority of these works would not be published until many years later.

It is often a shopworn and tired cliché to say in the wake of one’s passing, “there will never be another like him,” yet in the case of Mark E. Smith there is indeed a perilous chance this statement will bear true. In the face of sky-rocketing fees for college tuition the age of England’s working-class auto-didactics attending A-levels at night after putting in a full day’s labor has already achieved mythological status. The availability of spaces with affordable rent wherein creative souls can come together, collaborate and create works of art have been swallowed by a corporate system wherein it is more profitable to let a space sit unoccupied and non-functioning than accept a lowered rent. In this milieu it is not hard to imagine the loss of yet another long-standing English tradition. Since it does not line corporate coffers nor shore the beliefs of a shaky political system there is no incentive to keep this one alive. And so I fear we say goodbye to a man, a belief and a tradition in one fell swoop. Farewell Mr. Smith. You did great work.

This remembrance written by Acep Hale.

3 responses to “Mark E. Smith, Post-Punk Icon and Lifelong Acolyte of Weird Fiction

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