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‘Northern white crap that talks back’: The Fall’s Mark E Smith spoke for weird Manchester

Mark E Smith, the only constant member of post-punk band The Fall, has died aged 60 after a year of ill health. Smith co-founded The Fall in Prestwich, north Manchester in 1976 amid the initial stirrings of British punk. Though the band soon evolved beyond punk’s musical template, its DIY outsider spirit remained central to Smith’s ethos.

Reading through the mass of writing on The Fall, it quickly becomes clear what an enigma Smith presented to those who hoped to pin him down. There is no disputing his unique voice. But Smith was no mystery. So much of his seemingly otherworldly vision was born of the Northern working-class culture that produced him.

Consider the pantheon of Mancunian music legends. Very few these days still frequent the local pubs they’ve always haunted. Fewer still live where they grew up or walk around the city observing goings-on with their belongings in a supermarket carrier bag – as Smith did right up until the end. The video to the Fall’s 1987 cover of R. Dean Taylor’s There’s A Ghost In My House is set in Smith’s regular watering hole The Woodthorpe, for example.

It’s unlikely, too, that any other cult band has ever embarked on a tour of Northern working men’s clubs, as The Fall did in 1980. According to its sleeve notes, live LP Totale’s Turns was “recorded in front of an 80s disco weekend mating audience”.

This apparent jibe is good-natured, it should be said. One of Smith’s most important legacies was his determination to speak for his kind. Though educated at Stand Grammar School, Smith was not part of the rarefied, art school-influenced culture of his post-punk peers. Instead he embodied a much older tradition of the working-class autodidact – voraciously and eclectically well read in everything from spy thrillers to existentialist philosophy. As he once claimed:

There were no groups around that I thought represented people like me or my mates. If I wanted to be anything, it was a voice for those people … The Fall had to appeal to someone who was into cheap soul as much as someone who liked [the] avant-garde. I even wanted the Gary Glitter fans.

Yet Smith never opted for a “tell it like it is” kitchen sink realism. Fall co-founder Martin Bramah described the band’s songs as “Coronation Street on acid”.

Hit the North

The Manchester that emerges is a far cry from the glossy, dynamic marketing version that has dominated since the 1990s. It’s grimy, seedy and supernatural, populated by city hobgoblins, psychics living above hairdressing salons on the Bury New Road and slimy creatures in dockland warehouses. Somehow, though, it’s uncannily familiar.

Influenced by the “weird fiction” of HP Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, Smith was fascinated by what he called “the horror of the normal” – that threshold between the mundane and the magical. His genius was his ability to pull this off without ever seeming pretentious. Smith’s words were laced with a twisted humour that did not undermine their sharply observed force or their dreamlike qualities.

Read more: Year zero for British punk was 1976 – but there had long been anarchy in the USA

In The North Will Rise Again, a regional rebellion culminates in a razed Arndale Centre and marauding crowds “with bees on sticks”. Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson establishes a secret base in Edinburgh from which to direct proceedings. Meanwhile Smith’s amphetamine fuelled alter-ego Roman Totale lurks underground, his body “a tentacle mess”.

Working-class hero

Even these kinds of freakish fantasies have their roots in the world from which Smith came. My friend, the writer Steve Hanson, once told me his Lancashire high school classroom was “full of little Mark E Smiths” evolving their own bizarre slang and tall tales. This collective propensity to daydream and experiment with language has a long working-class history. It’s an implicit challenge to the pressure of speaking “properly” and settling into the drudgery of your expected role.

Nor does it conclude in childhood. Instead it becomes the preserve of pub fantasists and workplace folklore, as Smith so brilliantly captures on Fantastic Life, in which a 54-year-old dustbin man claims to have participated in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Smith once wryly called The Fall “music for those who don’t want it” – but over time the band’s generally positive critical standing came to be mirrored in an ever-growing and dedicated fan following. This sustained them making music until Smith’s passing. Their career saw the band try everything once with little regard for prevailing fashions – secure in the knowledge that “50,000 Fall fans can’t be wrong”, as their 2004 hits compilation declared in a cheeky allusion to Elvis.

It seems Smith succeeded more than he sometimes acknowledged in giving a voice to his peers, capturing a part of Manchester and the North that goes beyond the usual clichés.

As he presciently observed on 1979’s Psykick Dance Hall:

When I am dead and gone
my vibrations will live on
in vibes on vinyl through the years
people will dance to my waves.

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