“I love you all but cannot embrace you all.”
“I would have had an utterly different life without The Fall. It’s hard to know what will replace that.”
The week after New Facts Emerge‘s release, MES was due to appear at an event at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. It was part of an exhibition called Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War. Smith’s contribution was billed as Responding to a Rebel: Mark E. Smith Agent of Chaos. The promotional material for the event (according to thefall.org – the IWMN link is now dead) described it thus:
‘In this exclusive performance, agent of chaos Mark E. Smith will respond to Britain’s original rebel artist Wyndham Lewis. The Fall’s formidable frontman will share his personal response to the work of one of the art world’s most controversial figures whose ideas, opinions, and personality enticed and repelled in equal measure.
Set in the dramatic Daniel Libeskind designed Imperial War Museum North, Mark E. Smith will lead a performance of speeches, poems and ramblings driven by roaring live percussion, vintage cassette players and large-scale projections from IWM’s archive.’
As Paul Hanley described in his 2019 book Have A Bleedin Guess (buy it here at once if you haven’t already), Wyndham Lewis was ‘one of the few artists that Mark consistently cited as an influence’. The IWMN event sounded intriguing, but sadly never happened, cancelled on the day owing to Smith’s health.
The group were also booked to play a five-night residence at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn in September. Demand was such (the Friday/Saturday night dates apparently sold out in ten minutes) that two further performances were added. The Fall were also booked to play at the Cropped Out festival in Louisville, Kentucky.
Once again, however, Smith’s health resulted in cancellations. On 25 August, Pamela Vander (by now acting as the group’s manager) announced that:
‘It is with great regret to announce that Mark E. Smith & The Fall have had to cancel all upcoming U.S shows in New York (Baby’s All Right) & Louisville (Cropped Out Festival) due mostly to terrible timing, reality and a mix of bizarre and rare (true to form) medical issues that Mark is currently being treated for. Unfortunately it would be a gamble on his health to fly anywhere over the next couple of months. Mark’s current problems are connected to his throat, mouth/dental & respiratory system… so throwing all the meds together and continuing with the travel/shows would certainly harm any progress that we have made over the past few weeks.’
The group’s next actual performance was on 20 October at Unity Works in Wakefield. MES performed in a wheelchair, and sang the last third or so of the gig from off-stage. Being confined to a wheelchair did not prevent him from delivering a forceful performance of opener Wolf Kidult Man:
Blindness, however, seems tentative and restrained; it almost feels like the group are not entirely sure of how to deliver the song without MES prowling and amp-fiddling:
There was much discussion about Smith’s appearance on The Fall Online Forum. Erstatz JP provided an evocative description of his performance:
‘It felt a bit like there was a sharp intake of breath. A collective, unspoken sense of shock and perhaps sadness. And a sense of what’s going to happen now, am I going to witness something I’d rather not have seen. And once he’d been positioned, it was straight into Wolf Kidult Man. And it was OK. He had two microphones. The audience now seemed to be holding its breath. Willing him on. It was different, it seemed defiant, perhaps bloody minded.
…for me, I interpreted the choices as deliberate and valedictory. It added to the surreal sense of the night, I can’t have been the only person wondering whether this was the last gig I am going to see. They were sung clearly and confidently. Throughout the evening I felt his body might be letting him down, but in consequence his voice was stronger.’
The general consensus was that MES looked much better than he had at Wakefield, and he apparently managed over 45 minutes on stage before performing the last three songs from the dressing room. On the FOF, Fall gig veteran Philh went so far as to say that – in context – the performance ‘might be regarded as a classic’.
Newcastle 23/10/2017, photo by pranceydog
Philh also commented, ‘god does he want to get out of that chair’. You can see this at 1:01 in the video below: Smith’s glance over at Greenway (who’s been fiddling with the settings on his pedals for the last 15 seconds or so) suggests that MES is itching to work his ‘magic’ on the guitarist’s amp.
Several observers felt that Michael Clapham made little impression. To be fair, however, following the moment described above he does provide some nicely abrasive keyboard oscillations.
The Fall’s final live performance took place on Saturday 4 November 2017 in Glasgow. The gig had been due to take place at Òran Mór (where the group had played the previous year, with Paul Bonney in the lineup for the first of his two appearances). On the 25 August, however, it was announced that demand for tickets had been such that it was to be moved to the larger Queen Margaret Union.
There’s a popular YouTube video (57000 views at the time of writing) that captures Smith’s final entrance, but the one below is longer and of better picture/sound quality. I cannot imagine that anyone who has taken the time to read this blog can fail to be moved by the crowd’s welcome at 1:26.
Peter Ross, reviewing the gig for The Telegraph, described Smith’s entrance:
‘Smith had begun singing the opener, Wolf Kidult Man, from the wings, rising up behind a speaker stack on a wheelchair lift and then wheeled centre-stage to cheers and raised fists. It didn’t feel awkward or pitiable, it felt triumphant, a grand entrance….’
Members of the FOF who were present at the gig were almost unanimous in their praise for the performance. thehippriestess, for example, said:
‘What The Fall did for ther next hour was transcendent. It may even have been the best Fall gig I’ve ever seen. The band were absolutely bang on from start to finish – Melling punded his drums like he was gaining his vengence on the scum who attacked him, Spurr – looking mighty handsome with a bit of hair and a decent beard, pulled himself into a proud stance and began to pummel the strings.
Michael Clapham sent some wild sub bass tones through the PA and brought an organised chaos that seemed at odds with his calm, clean cut, boyishly cute appearance – he looks like someone cast Steve Morris for a Hollywood movie. Greenway scowls as he starts slashing away at Wolf Kidult Man, his demeanor more that of a bodyguard than a guitarist…the sound is a wee bit uneven but it gets sorted quickly.
Then, Smith appears, wheeled into position, hair slicked back, eyes narrowed, target identified. He belts into the song sounding clear and proud. It is dispatched quickly, Smith assuming an almost regal demeanour in his enforced throne.’
Several pointed out that Smith was feeling energised enough to wheel himself around the stage and indulge in some of his customary knob-twiddling. You can see evidence at the beginning of this video.
‘He was a compelling presence, crooning and barking into two microphones, rolling back and forth during the juggernaut groove of Blindness. He never spoke to the sell-out crowd, acknowledged no applause. Even when the music was at its most furious, he maintained a regal blankness, checking his nails.’
Mike Ritchie has videos of several of the songs on YouTube. The setlist – which, for once, the group actually kept to – was:
The encore was Stout Man. Not by anyone’s reckoning one of the group’s greatest moments, and delivered by MES from somewhere off-stage. The video below captures less than a minute of it. All of which seems somehow fitting.
The group were due to play in Portugal a couple of weeks later, but this was cancelled. They were also scheduled to perform in Bristol on 29 November: this was again cancelled, this time moments before showtime. A clearly emotional Dave Spurr announced the news to the crowd; Pete Greenway’s apparent inability to comment (1:50) speaks volumes.
The next day, Pamela Vander announced on Instagram that the 30 November date at London’s KOKO would also not go ahead. She included a message from MES himself. It’s a remarkable thing: 100 or so words that display a tenderness, humility and affection almost totally at odds with virtual everything MES ever uttered over the previous forty years; and yet, it’s still unmistakably him.
‘A Message to All, to All. From Mark E. Smith/The Fall group. As I, like Pr Rupert leave Bristol with my tail between my legs, I wish to give my great apologies to everybody. This idiotic idea to do both shows was purely my idea, against the advice of Pamela and The Fall group, agent & promoter. Hope to replace shows within 4 – 6 weeks. In the interim we have eight new songs ready to go and will try and let you hear a few before Christmas. From head patient to you, the patients. I love you all but cannot embrace you all, Mark E. Smith.’
The ‘cannot embrace you all’ phrase has been attributed to Napoleon, although it’s not entirely clear the exact words he used (see here). It features (at 9:41) in the 1970 film Waterloo. Smith had used the line himself before, back in 2008, quoted on The Quietus:
‘I LOVE YOU ALL, MEIN COMRADES, But I cannot embrace you all-because, in the main, I have pulled out the lap-top lead to use as a handy throttling device for mediaists, activists, groupies and Alan Wise(show not on ever).’
On 24 January 2018, it was announced that Smith had died. His struggle with lung and kidney cancer (first diagnosed in 2009, although he enjoyed several years in the clear after his operation that year) was at an end.
‘At about 1:19:30, Marc says:
<previous record ends>
OK that is Low, and You See Everything live in session for us from 2011. I just got to say that there’s been rumours flying around all evening about Mark E Smith, and we’re just getting to grips with it now. So I’m going to play you a manic Q&A from Glen Matlock and a tune, and we’ll come out the other side of it and see where we are. <sounds choked here> OK, thank you.
The Q&A segment is followed by Pretty Vacant, and then the death of MES is confirmed by Marc at around 1:28:38. Then there’s the news, which ends with the news about MES. Then without further comment straight into an uninterrupted sequence of Fall songs: It’s The New Thing; Oh! Brother; Edinburgh Man.’
The handover between Riley and Gideon Coe is, however (at the time of writing), still available online. It’s a very emotional moment. Riley’s contribution – especially given his history – is particularly dignified and heartfelt.
[I hope you’ll forgive the self-indulgence of this personal perspective, but I figure that I’ve put enough hours in to justify it…]
I was staying in the Parkway Spa Hotel in Cwmbran, South Wales on the evening of the 24th January (I spend a lot of time in hotels as part of my job). After dinner, I looked at my mobile and discovered that I had several missed calls from my wife. Slightly panicked (imagining that it might be some emergency regarding the kids), I rang her back, whereupon I discovered the reason for her calls. Excusing myself from dinner (none of my slightly bemused colleagues had ever even heard of Smith or The Fall), I headed up to my room and put on 6Music, where I heard the Riley-Coe discussion above.
I ordered a bottle of red wine on room service, then drank it listening to Gideon Coe. I must confess that I’ve only ever been an occasional listener to Gideon’s show, but on this night he did an absolutely superb job. A mix of LP/session tracks and songs The Fall covered (The Sonics’ Strychnine; Sir Gibbs’ People Grudgeful) interspersed with messages from Fall fans, it was a superb piece of impromptu broadcasting.
Reactions from the members of The Fall Online Forum are here.
There were, inevitably, hundreds of tributes, ranging from the detailed and analytical to the superficial and perfunctory and including lots of celebrities. There are many, many links on the Fall Online Forum and Fall News.
Stewart Lee’s interview with Mark Radcliffe is one of the best.
‘I will miss the adventure of being a Fall fan and of being part of this community of people… who had this begrudging loyalty to it.
I would have had an utterly different life without The Fall. It’s hard to know what will replace that.’
Smith’s sisters released this statement on the official website:
On Instagram, Pamela Vander posted two particularly poignant and touching photos.
‘I can confirm that Mark was battling lung and kidney cancer, which had already spread beyond any real help… He was happy and excited and we’d found a second home a couple of years back, moved in, set up shop. Total privacy. He loved it there, wrote a lot, walked in the garden, we watched films. He was full of fresh ideas for The Fall, and the lads had his back 100% on everything. And then one terrifying diagnosis turned everything upside down.
After that, Mark said yes to every treatment, every way to stay here, and I can honestly say that he was the toughest but most loving man I’ve ever known, a real warrior. And I am so proud of him for trying so hard, for trying harder and harder even through every set-back. Pure valiance. True to himself. His mind was getting stronger and stronger so even with diagnosis, we remained hopeful that maybe something would work. He was a positive force, and despite the pain, he was always focused on getting up, and getting out. Right til the end.’
‘So thank you, near and far, for being fans of Mark E. Smith. For loving him and believing in him and his sounds and visions. We have lost a genius. Life, the written word and music will never, ever be the same. But we will feel Mark whenever it rains, and whenever the music plays.’
And so, this is where the music stops.
Which is not to take anything away from Imperial Wax or The Extricated or NOHE NOSHE – but Smith’s death brought a halt to the most inscrutable, unpredictable, provoking and infuriating collection of recorded music that ever existed.
I imagine that some might have raised an eyebrow at me leading this post with a quotation from Frank Skinner, who is not exactly held in high regard by many Fall fans. But you can’t argue with this sentiment:
‘I loved him. He was quite simply better than all the rest. I thought he’d live forever. He seemed too belligerent to die. But he has and oh the difference to me.’
The simplicity of the message posted on the official site is perhaps the best place to end:
I did toy with the notion of writing two or three postscript pieces. For example, I considered revisiting the ranking of the albums – a very flawed process, I have to admit, especially when you’re judging the LP you’ve just spent several days listening to non-stop against one you’ve haven’t heard for several months. I have several ideas for this aspect of my Fall writing, but on reflection I think that they might be best suited by being revisited on The Fall In Fives at some point.
It’s more appropriate, I think, to just finish here with some well-deserved thanks for those that have supported and sustained this project. So, heartfelt thanks go to:
- All of the people on Twitter, Facebook and WordPress who have regularly liked and commented on the posts in such a constructive and supportive fashion (even when finding my ratings baffling!) When I started writing about The Fall, my only ambition was that my views might stray into three figures occasionally. The fact that the New Facts Emerge post was viewed 600 times in its first day, and that the Peel Sessions one got over 1500 in a week is just mind-boggling, and I’m very grateful.
- I hope I don’t upset anyone by missing them out, but particular thanks go to regular commenters Dan Lewis, Gareth John, @SeniorTwilightStockReplacer, @SkippyVinyls, @RammyDarkside, @VariousTimes, @JohnCarty1, @keepingitpeel, @GavinCGLaird, @a_v_s_p, @webbyla, @shooter_tommy, @JohnSzolscek, @BatleyBKK, @ChurchOfTheFall, @whiffoself and @kittytripp123. Special thanks to @spinal_bap for reliably pulling out the best quotations from each post, and for offering to make me Professor of The Fall at his university!
- The good folk of the Fall Online Forum, particularly Rainmaster, Aubrey The Cat, Sigma2, Mr Marshall, academichamilton, johncoan and ffbernie.
- Barrie from the Fall Forum, who has met me on several occasions at the City Arms in Cardiff to discuss the blog and The Fall in general – there are few finer ways to spend an evening.
- bzfgt, both for his sterling work on The Annotated Fall, but also his ongoing commitment to sharing kraut/psych-rock albums with me.
- The (ex) members/associates of the group who have been so supportive: Steve Hanley and Simon Wolstencroft for their regular likes/retweets; Ben Pritchard for providing lots of first-hand info; Keiron Melling for valuable details about the later years; Grant Showbiz for similarly valuable info; Paul Hanley for his very kind word about the blog and his excellent book about Hex. Thanks also to Stewart Lee for taking the time to provide a detailed response to one of my queries.
- J. Eric Smith, for getting me started on Twitter, and being a constant source of support, despite the narrow intersection in our musical Venn diagram: Still Noel!
- thehippriestess (aka Caroline McKenzie / @auto_tech_pilot) for her support, wisdom, knowledge, and coping with me remixing the sh*t out of virtually everything she releases.
- My long-suffering wife, who – despite the fact that she considers The Fall to be ‘the worst band ever’ – has stoically put up with me listening to the group on an almost constant basis, rattling on about them all the time, and spending most of my evenings typing away on the subject. She is a truly wonderful woman, and I’m very very lucky to be married to her.
- And I simply cannot thank Dan (aka dannyno / @dannyno_01) enough. Not only has he trawled through every single post, rooting out factual and linguistic errors, often at very short notice, he is also a fine fellow to sit and have several pints with and discuss the finer points of The Fall. I couldn’t have done this without him.
- Finally, I’d like to thank MES and the entire rotating cast of musicians who produced this magnificent, perplexing, challenging and unique body of work. You must get them all. Really: all of them.