A few days ago, I was reminiscing with a friend about The Fall's surreal performance at the Glastonbury Festival in 2015. Smith ambled on stage, started rambing nonsensically to the crowd in a faux-American accent, berated the sound crew ('thanks for turning the sound down, cunt') and had a dubious, large wet stain on the inside leg of his trousers (which was subsequently explained away as being from a champagne altercation with another band in the wings...).
I'd loved The Fall's performance at Glastonbury in 2015 but it was a bewildering experience for anyone that was a casual onlooker. The band may have played with a viscous intensity, but Smith, wearing a ghastly jacket and blue jumper, turned his cryptic lyrics into (even more) incomprehensible noises, occasionally staggered around the stage and made comic noises between songs. Familiar numbers like Theme From Sparta F.C. were virtually unrecognizable.
Like so many times before, Mark E Smith's performance had rendered me speechless. Not because, as some had suggested, he was inebriated, or had 'lost it' but because he'd delivered a show that was intense, a little scary and intimidating, something that looked chaotic but was probably brilliantly prepared. At a festival that had become a place where artists usually restrict themselves to playing their greatest hits, The Fall had offered a window into (to paraphrase one of their album titles), their 'wonderful and frightening world.'
It was ever thus. None of The Fall's thirty odd albums could ever be described as predictable, from their confounding artwork onwards, they didn't even look like 'proper' albums but more like pages ripped out of fanzines. Smith had long ago created a world where the language, surreal poetry and barked, repetitive lyrics were the sole form of communication. As with other lyrical poets, it's nigh on impossible to disentangle their meanings. Smith's songs just drove into you (for me it's Spoilt Victorian Child, British People in Hot Weather and their irreverent version of Jerusalem that I rate highest), and are impossible to shake off.
As with the list of great artists that we lost in 2016, it's hard to comprehend that such a vital presence in the world is no longer there. The tormenting realisation that they were not immortal. Although Smith's uncompromising, belligerent spirit is still there on his many records, he is no longer there to confound and delight festival audiences, wind up the sound crew (not to mention band members, journalists etc.) again.
Mark E Smith: 5 March 1957 - 24 January 2018.
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