The Fall's Mark E Smith has become a strange, antimatter national treasure

Chris Maume on the curmudgeonly musical genius, 59 today

Chris Maume
Saturday 05 March 2016 01:06 GMT
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Pop music's greatest grump: Mark E Smith
Pop music's greatest grump: Mark E Smith

To be hired by Mark E Smith has never been a guarantee of long-term employment. As founding genius of the mighty Fall he has gone through dozens of musicians over the past four decades. And it's not just band members who have to watch themselves; he once fired a sound man for ordering a salad.

The Fall, formed after Smith saw the Sex Pistols play in his home town of Manchester, have been both immovable object and unstoppable force in popular music, their relentless, driving beat the perfect vehicle for Smith's extraordinary lyrics, part surreal sci-fi, part sardonic observation, delivered with rock's best-loved snarl. Smith himself has become a strange kind of antimatter national treasure.

His face, which looks as if it's spent the past 40 years in a pub snug, seems to be moving through its Johnny Cash phase on its way to WH Auden. He's possibly the best-read rock star – he named his band after a Camus novel, after all – and his occasional interviews reference the likes of HP Lovecraft, MR James, Thomas Hardy, Hunter S Thompson, Philip K Dick and Edgar Allan Poe.

The Fall have released more than 100 albums, if you take in live sets and compilations, and have had more than 60 members during a career rocket-fuelled by creative tension. When the author Dave Simpson tracked down more than 50 of them for his book The Fallen, there were stories of flying chairs, ferocious dressings-down, drummers fined £5 for hitting the tom-tom. But they all admitted that it had made them better musicians. "I like to push people till I get the truth out of them," says Smith.

When John Peel died in 2004, Smith appeared on Newsnight, supposedly to pay tribute to The Fall's most enthusiastic champion. Curmudgeonly even by the standards of pop music's greatest grump, it confirmed Peel's view of the man. "You can never be certain what you're going to get," the DJ warned. "Sometimes it may not be what you want."

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