Jan 292018
mark e smith covers

When it comes to musical taste, there’s a million shortcuts to figuring out which side of the tracks you stand on. Here’s one of the fastest: Do you like The Fall?

If the answer is “no,” you’re in good company. Of course, there’s no definitive way to tell how many people aren’t Fall fans, but statistically speaking, almost nobody likes the band’s clattering, repetitive, willfully out-of-tune, misanthropic, oblique and downright perplexing music.

But if the answer is “yes,” you’re in even better company. The Fall may represent the apex of the cult band, an aggressively obtuse art project spinning out over 40 years and a stunning number of ex-band members, mainly disgruntled ones at that. The only constant was the dark, twisted figure at its center: Mark E. Smith, who died January 24th, at the age of 60.

Incapable of playing a single musical instrument, and arguably more a spoken-word artist than a singer, Smith wrote as if he were viewing the world through a periscope, his barbed lyrics the angry dispatches of a bewilderingly caustic crank. His topics included, most broadly, the vacuousness and moral bankruptcy of contemporary culture, with discursions on war, football, tranquilizers, and nearly anything else. If there was a through line in the lyrical content, it was Smith’s corrosive and skeptical perspective, coupled with an incisive, midnight-black humor which never softened his attack, only honed it.

If the band’s output over some 32 albums was uneven, Mark E. Smith, as both an artist and a performer, demanded you react to him. One might be tempted to describe Smith as a “troubled genius,” but that implies he felt ambivalence about his behavior. So far as anyone can tell, he was perfectly happy to pursue a single-minded misanthropy, fueled by an alarming intake of alcohol, occasionally bolstered by speed and other harder drugs. Nearly impossible to work with, Smith chewed through some 66 band members—including two soon-to-be ex-wives—often instilling his brand of “discipline” through intimidation, bullying, and physical violence.

Far be it for us to present even a thumbnail sketch of the band’s career, let alone their many stylistic phases. But seeing as this is a journal devoted to cover songs, we can present a snapshot of the many – surprisingly many, given how, erhm, uncompromising the band’s own material was – songs the Fall covered.

Perhaps the best-known is their take on the Other Half’s 1966 garage rocker “Mr. Pharmacist.” Though a blip on the radar for its originators, it gave the Fall its first Top 75 chart placement, scraping in to the very bottom slot in 1986.

The mighty Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team penned “There’s a Ghost in My House” with R. Dean Taylor, who recorded it for Motown subsidiary V.I.P., also in 1966. It went nowhere for him, but the Fall’s version peaked at #30 in the UK charts, representing the band’s high-water mark there (as opposed to the “UK Indie” charts, where the band typically placed higher). Last year we named it one of the Best Covers of 1987.

And in 1988, the Fall’s cover of Ray Davies’ magisterial Kinks classic “Victoria” brought them to #35 on the UK charts. They would crack the Top 40 only once more, with “Free Range” off 1992’s Code: Selfish.

The Fall’s taste in covers ranged deeper, but not much further, centering on the twin poles of obscure 60s garage rock and pop on the one hand, and ‘50s rockabilly on the other (including a smoking cover of Gene Vincent’s “Rollin’ Danny” (as “Rollin’ Dany”). Though for sheer weirdness, it’s hard to top the band’s take on Sister Sledge’s “Lost in Music.”

Mark E. Smith demanded much from his audiences, not to mention his bandmates. But he gave an awful lot back, not only in the quality and volume of his material but in his fierce and complete commitment to his art. He demonstrated that whatever the rest of the world thought of it, he knew it was great and worth fighting for.

Statistically speaking, most music fans will not notice or mark his passing, and on some level it’s hard to fault them. The rest of us mourn his morbid, bilious, and keen insights; for better or worse, there will never be another quite like him.

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