Nostalgic Vitriol

Mark E. Smith and the latest group of musicians known as The Fall keep rockin' past the usual expiration date

How many bands born in the crucible that was the 1970s English punk/post-punk rock scene are still playing and making relevant music today? Barring those who indulge in shameless reunions, there's pretty much only The Fall, which formed almost 30 years ago in Manchester.

Part of the reason The Fall has remained a viable, working entity all that time is that it long ago ceased being a democratic band and simply became a collection of side musicians supporting the irascible, sardonic genius of singer-songwriter and perpetually inebriated philosopher Mark E. Smith.

Smith will bring his glass-shards music and verbal vitriol to Tucson to play a gig at Plush Wednesday, May 5. The droning psychedelic Northern California band Low Flying Owls will open the show, marking its third Tucson performance this year.

The Fall was one of the few original and truly creative forces to emerge from that time and place, along with acts such as The Clash, Joy Division, Buzzcocks and Public Image Ltd. It once consisted of a real band, with petty squabbles and shared decision-making and attempts to twine divergent concerns into a unified voice.

During its formative years (the band started in 1976), The Fall played what was described by critics as "ramshacklebilly," an aggressive form of pub rock built from a rickety combination of art-school angles, yowling vocal tirades, a DIY punk spirit and a gravel-spitting guitar sound based on Smith's almost-religious dedication to Link Wray.

Smith's sardonic snarl seemed to communicate ennui and enervation at the same time. His performance style was one of intellectual self-abasement, no doubt a product of the same Catholic upbringing that likely inspired the band's name lo those many years ago.

With the 1983 addition of Smith's then-wife Brix Smith on keyboards, illusion of an all-for-one, one-for-all band began to fade. For all intents and purposes, it became the Mark E. Smith Show, and it worked. You don't see great movies directed by five equal members; likewise, The Fall succeeded beyond the usual band expiration date because it was ruled by a benevolent dictator. Smith maintained the band after his marriage's breakup and runs it to this day, stocking it with a rotating lineup of earnest, uninhibited musicians 20 years his junior. According to The Fall's official Web site, it has featured more than 30 separate lineups.

Regularly has Smith released albums, from the 1979 classic Live at the Witch Trials through '80s collaborations with Brix such as This Nation's Saving Grace, The Frenz Experiment and I Am Curious, Oranj; from semi-forgettable experiments in dance music in the early '90s to the rejuvenated primordial rock fury of 1996's The Light User Syndrome and 1999's The Marshall Suite.

Word has it that the 2000 album The Unutterable is worthy, and the same is said of The Real New Fall LP, released this past October. Even for the hardiest of Fall fans, though, it's tough to keep up with Smith's output, which includes the 1998 solo record The Post Nearly Man, a mostly spoken-word collection of short stories, lyrics, poetry, keyboard and sound effects.

In all, Smith and Co. have recorded more than 25 studio albums, as well as a couple dozen live records and "best-of" compilations.

The Fall's most recent release is probably the two-CD compilation Rebellious Jukebox, one of many so-called retrospective collections. Due to complicated limitations on the rights to Fall songs, it doesn't adequately cover the band's entire career. It has great tunes such as "Hip Priest," "Muzoweri's Daughter," "Who Makes the Nazis?" and the memorable title track, but those are available on other collections.

Rebellious Jukebox, though, is useful for the extra 43-minute DVD that contains a 2002 interview with Smith.

In the digital flesh, Smith comes off as a weary, aging proletariat artist in his typical costume of rumpled dress shirt and pleated pants, sipping from an ever-present pint with pinky finger extended, as if at afternoon tea, igniting a seemingly constant stream of Marlboros and laughing at his own, mostly unintelligible, jokes.

The carved-by-wind facial features hint at the boyish good looks Smith once possessed, the same way we used to be able to see the 1950s beauty of Chet Baker beneath the leathery hide he developed late in life during the '80s. With his shock of reddish-blonde hair, watery blue-green eyes, a mouth like a slash across the neck and a pale complexion ruddied up by too many nights in the pub, Mark E. Smith is the epitome of wasted cool--the post-modern cynic, cast out of paradise, and not simply wiser but wary.

In the DVD interview, Smith mumbles through a thick Mancunian accent, showing very little of the antagonism and irascibility for which he is known. Smith says he never listened to popular music until he was 14 or 15 years old, having grown up in a strict religious family with parents who played military marches on the hi-fi. When he discovered rock 'n' roll, his first purchase was the single "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath.

He says he always has disavowed politics, poetry and chart ambitions, saying the goal of The Fall from the beginning was to be "something like, you know, a good-looking group that played alternative, intelligent music."

He shrugs off comparisons to other seminal punk rock bands. "It was like there was punk, and then there was like new wave. We were just separate from all that. We just went our own way.

"I think that's one good thing about The Fall, is that there's no great influence there. One thing that irritates me about music is you can really tell what they've pinched from. I mean, everybody steals, in music, so I find very much that I have heard this all before."

Smith knows full well that many people who listen to his music in the 21st century do so for purely nostalgic reasons, according to the Rebellious Jukebox interview. Which rather explains how Smith's songs are showing up in TV commercials and on BBC sports broadcasts. Or at least that's his theory.

"All the people who were into that shit in them days became people of power. As you can tell, right? Any program you watch plays Smiths' songs, it's what they liked in the '80s. It's like some fellows can't grow up," he said.

Smith continues to do what he does without heed to what other people think, without knowledge of or care for musical trends, he says.

"If you look at what people say about you, and what people think about you, and what's going on, I think function becomes pointless. I mean, it goes back to ... every three years you get somebody trying to be the Rolling Stones. Every three years, you get somebody trying to be the Beatles. And they feed this sort of generation that haven't heard it before. Or, which is worse, they're listening to the same music their mothers and fathers were listening to, which I find really frightening."

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