‘British rock’s cult hero’ dead at 60
Would you rather be a cult hero or a star? Mark E. Smith definitely knew which he wanted to be. The brilliant, violent singer of The Fall hated the mainstream — and people loved him for it.
He could not sing. He punched his bandmates. He claimed to have turned down record deals with major labels. And yet, somehow, Mark E. Smith remained a key figure in rock for four decades.
The Mancunian singer, who has died aged 60, will forever be known as the frontman of The Fall. Founded in 1976, the band drew on punk and German experimental rock to create a raw, hypnotically repetitive sound, over which Smith sang in his trademark tuneless drawl. His sophisticated, darkly funny lyrics touched on everything from Greek football teams to the occult.
As much as for his music, Smith was known for his spiky personality. A heavy drinker, he often bullied colleagues, sometimes coming to blows with them. He hired and fired over 60 musicians in The Fall’s 40 years, and he was its only constant member. “If it's me and yer granny on bongos,” he once said, “it's The Fall."
Above all, Smith hated commercial music. He would even dismantle the band’s equipment mid-gig to stop them sounding too slick. The Fall never had a hit or played to stadiums. Smith did not bother with social media.
Yet the band picked up a following of intensely loyal fans. John Peel, the hugely influential DJ, called it “the band against which all others are judged”. The BBC’s obituary of Smith was simply headlined “British rock’s cult hero”. Smith embraced this status: he named one album 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong, after Elvis Presley’s 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.
Cult followings tend to gather around musicians with a non-mainstream style, or those who died or gave up while still young. This can come about quite randomly: the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man told the tale of an obscure American folk musician who became a huge hit in South Africa — without his knowledge.
Cult musicians may be influential and critically successful. But as a rule, they do not become rich or famous. Smith condemned people who join a band to “[copy U2] and make money”.
Is he right? Is it better to be a cult hero than a superstar?
Making your Mark
Yes, say some. Cult heroes have a strong style or interesting things to say, and they refuse to compromise on that. They do not face the immense pressure of fame, so they are free to make the music they want. Smith remained funny, unpredictable and true to himself until his death. A real artist cannot ask for more than that.
How pretentious, reply others. Not all superstars have sold out: look at how David Bowie or Beyoncé continued to innovate after finding fame. If anything, huge wealth gives them the security to do what they want, career-wise. And if you are an artist, there can be nothing more gratifying than knowing that millions love your work.
- Would you rather be a cult hero or a superstar?
- Should an obituary highlight the person’s faults as well as their qualities?
- What makes for a successful rock star? Write down five characteristics, then share them with the class.
- Show and tell: introduce a little-known work of art, music or literature to your class.
Some People Say...
“Fame can take interesting men and thrust mediocrity upon them.”David Bowie
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Mark E. Smith is definitely dead. This needs to be emphasised, as his death was falsely reported by the BBC — on Smith’s birthday! — back in March. “Obviously it was the BBC, the idiots,” was his reply. He joined a small club of people who have read reports of their own death, including Beyoncé, Hillary Clinton and the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
- What do we not know?
- Exactly how Smith died. He had been ill for a year: his manager said that his problems were “connected to his throat, mouth/dental and respiratory system”. The band cancelled a string of gigs in 2017, and when Smith did appear onstage, it was in a wheelchair or with his arm in a sling. "The doctors never know what's up with me," he recently said. "As long as I'm OK I'm not bothered. I'm not a vain man."
- The Fall
- The band is named after the novel by French writer Albert Camus La Chute. Smith loved to read — among his favourite writers were Philip K. Dick, George Orwell and Shakespeare.
- Smith founded the band after seeing The Sex Pistols play. Future members of major 80s bands The Smiths and Joy Division were also at the gig.
- In the song “Repetition”, Smith sings, “The three Rs are repetition, repetition, repetition.”
- Coming to blows
- After an epic punch-up onstage at a gig in New York, Smith was briefly jailed. He was then sent back to the UK for rehab.
- John Peel
- The English radio DJ broadcast regularly on the BBC from 1967 to 2004. He discovered countless bands, including The Smiths and The White Stripes.
- David Bowie
- The English glam rocker was known for continuaily reinventing his style. He died in 2016.
- Critics raved about Queen Bey’s 2016 album Lemonade: “It’s unlikely there will be many more albums this year that will unite high art and low in the same way,” gushed The Guardian. It was also the best-selling album of that year.