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Sacred Cows – Mark E Smith

September 8, 2011

The ten bob Broughton Beefheart, MES has somehow over the past four decades assumed some kind of heroic drunken prole poet status amongst those people he clearly despises most; the middle class literari, the self-appointed culture czars and the fey, southern critocracy. Yet, for all the bile and bitter spat out by Smith, the thing he clearly hates the most, is himself.

The Fall were never a ‘punk’ band. Even when their earliest singles Bingo Master’s Breakout and It’s The New Thing were released back in white heat of 78, The Fall were both pre and post-punk but never truly punk. In truth The Fall were far more about the monolithic rhythms of Kraut and the lyrical abstractions of acid rock which was already feeding into bands such as Talking Heads. That they transplanted the free association surrealism of San Fran to Salford didn’t make it any less pretentious or elitist.

MES declared himself a ‘prole art threat’ but he was never really a prole and less of a threat to the estbalishment than he thought. Smith was the son of a shop owner and briefly worked on the dock….as a clerk. Hardly a member of the Ordsall underclass yet his obvious love of literature and the weirder end of avant-garde rock seems to have instilled in him a hatred not only for those who looked down on him from within the music and media industries but also the very working class folk he stood apart from. Nowadays MES likes to boast about his ‘pals’ who do mundane, every-day jobs or sign on and blag but in Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul he sneers…

‘Meanwhile in the sticks
Proles wretch, dance in cardboard pants
And I guess that goes to show
The lie dream of a casino soul scene’

As someone who loved northern soul and other forms of prole dance theatre, this attitude was typical of those displayed by ‘rock fans’ who ofcourse had a superior understanding of the world and all its manifest hypocrisies and ‘lies’ – the simple, dum-dumb beat of northern soul, the primal essence of ‘dance’ music was alien to these people primarily because they were unable to dance themselves and so dismissed the visceral thrill of the hips and the feet as inferior to that of the men whose heads expanded with grooovy mind drugs. Punk, even the Fall’s more cerebral version of it, was supposed to be anti-intellectual yet The Fall’s music wasn’t aimed at the working class who gathered to dance in ‘the sticks’ and even the big cities like Manchester, where northern soul sprang from a prole disaffection with hippie excesses. No, MES provoked middle class music journalists by adopting some ludicrous James Joyce meets Jack Duckworth alter-ego at once misanthropic yet misunderstood.

There are some great MESsianic streams of consciousness and I believe Grotesque is perhaps the band’s best LP both musically and lyrically with the likes of Impression of J. Temperance and C&CS Mithering, both displaying the surreal comic wit and sinister surrealism of MES at his best. John Peel’s oft repeated quote that his favourite band were ‘always different, always the same’ didn’t do him any favours when Smith was asked to provide some epitaph for the dj who’d most supported his band on live TV. In amongst all the incestuous hagiographies for Peel it was refreshing to see someone not paying the ‘great man’ the respect the BBC and others felt he deserved but the pissed up, sad figure of a human being that Smith cut that night reminded me of other supposed drunken/druggy mavericks like Shane McGowan and Shaun Ryder. The joke is always on them no matter how much they think it’s on others.

The Fall have been in a steady decline ever since that early blast of northern disgust in the late 70s and early 80s. They tried going ‘pop’ with Brix and they’ve tried going ‘experimental’ on some of their later albums. Yet, the always deluded Smith makes all kinds of unsupportable claims for his band’s influence not only on music but also laughably, fashion. In his Armani jumper phase, Smith still looked like Paul Calf and his early ‘anti-fashion’ dress sense wasn’t really a reaction a gainst punk orthodoxy but the out of date shmutter of someone who worked as a clerk in Salford docks in 1978.

Smith wants it both ways; to be accepted as just a normal fellar in the pub and also as an intellectual collossus. He seems to thrive on being thoroughly unpleasant and nasty to almost everyone he meets and this, he thinks, makes people fearful of him yet really all this makes him is a cunt. The Fall long ago lapsed into self-parody with song titles such as Senior Twilight Stock Replacer and a revolving door of musicians who must bow to the abuse meted out by their CEO, foreman, shop steward and pursor.

Smith’s ego is also easily flattered with all manner of side-projects and guest appearances which may appeal to his vanity but seldom bears decent musical fruit. The Von Sudenfed collaboration has maybe allowed Smith to move away from the robotic rock into more electronic areas (Das Boot and Tuarig for example) and at heart maybe Smith has become a victim of peoples’ expectations of him, as much as his own actions. Mark E Smith isn’t growing old gracefully but then again , he’s been an old man for a long time now. Maybe it’s time he gave up titting about in the music industry and got himself a real job before he retires.

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6 Comments
  1. Denis Joe permalink

    This is one of the best pieces of (pop) music journalism I’ve read. There is a tendancy for those who are just making organised noise in the area of popular culture, to take themselves serious. I think that there is that sense of elitism in many of the scences that john carey wrote about in his book ‘The Intellectuals And The Masses’, when he spoke of the Modernists, like TS Elliot, Yeats and DH Lawrence who wrote in order not to be understood my the masses. Whilst it doesn’t always reflect on the quality of their work, it does show them up as a bunch of shits, which is partly the reason why I think that the True Modernists were those known as ‘The War Poets’.

    Post-war pop culture has always had that sort of middle-class fridgity to it and even groups who hailed from ‘working-class’ backgrounds were no less averse to such pretentions.

    I liked the Fall and I still put them on as background noise. I was swayed along with the punk movement because it was a burst of youthful energy. But it was also a middle class dominated scene which had contempt for disco music and portrayed working class youth as racsist retards (much like the Islington/guardianista set do today): a view that was only reinforced by the Rock Against Racism/Anti Nazi League movent that grew out of punk.

    I never was quite sure wether the dulusions of grandeur that youth movements projected was a good thing or a bad thing. I guess that many of us reach a point where we do grow out of the delusions we had in our youth. Or am I just “talkin’ ’bout my generation”?

  2. punk was middle class as er, radio 4 and er, olives and that’s a scientific fact.

  3. Re: the point you were trying to make about Mark E Smith deriding Northern Soul movement, he clearly liked the tunes (covering Ghost In My House) and I remember him visiting the Thunderdome when house music was all the go.

    It’s a fair point you mentioning he was more shop steward than shop floor though, he’s seemingly always treated his band members as underlings.

    When all’s said and done the man’s a piss can and a misanthrope. I wouldn’t expect much from him in the way of consistency.

    • MES has been in a state of intellectual and physical decline for 30 years but haven’t we all? cheers for the comment ‘reem’

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  1. Sacred Cows – Mark E Smith « Swine Magazine | Today Headlines
  2. Sacred Cows – Mark E Smith « Swine Magazine | Today Headlines

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