“There’s a Ghost in My House”
DEAN BALLINGER recalls the eccentric musical career and curiously fortean obsessions of the late Mark E Smith
The singular worldview, uncompromising personality, and prodigious work ethic of Mancunian singer Mark E Smith, who died on 24 January aged 60, was responsible for establishing his band The Fall as a cultural institution within the UK music scene. Smith’s creatively chaotic leadership sustained The Fall through an eccentric 40-year career marked by 66 line-up changes, 31 albums, and an international following for their distinctive garage and krautrock infused post-punk.
Although Smith’s predominant persona was that of a Northern working-class provocateur making withering observations on the state of the nation from the confines of his local pub, there were notable fortean dimensions to his life and work. His highly distinctive lyrics, which read like cryptic shards of a sui generis Mancunian modernism, often reflected his love of weird fiction by authors well-known for their fortean sensibilities. These included the horror stories of HP Lovecraft, MR James, and Arthur Machen. All three writers’ thematic focus on (in Smith’s words) “the mundane everyday as a backdrop for great terror” inspired many Fall songs: notable examples include ‘Spectre vs Rector’ from 1979’s Dragnet, a tale of demonic possession in Hampshire with a ‘chorus’ that directly namechecks MR James alongside Lovecraftian incantations such as ‘yog sothoth’ and references to Roger Corman’s 1960s Poe adaptations; and ‘Last Commands of Xyralothep Via MES’ from the 2003 album The Real New Fall LP, in which Smith portrays himself as a medium channelling sardonic admonitions from the Beyond (“Avoid respectable television and respectable newspapers/ They have neither the talent of art/Or the instinctive snout of the media”).
Philip K Dick’s paranoid sci-fi, with its themes of psychic and temporal dislocation, similarly appealed to fellow speedfreak Smith, spawning songs like the 1983 single ‘Wings’, about a man caught up in ‘time locks’ that cast him adrift across alternate timelines. Smith must also be one of the few songwriters to cite fortean favourite Colin Wilson. ‘Deer Park’, from 1982’s aptly titled Hex Enduction Hour, gives a shout-out to Wilson’s first ‘new existentialist’ novel: “Have you been to the English Deer Park?/ It’s a large type artist ranch/This is where C Wilson wrote Ritual in the Dark/ Have you been to the English Deer Park?” Smith’s fortean tastes in literature were complemented by claims that he possessed psychic abilities. In his mordantly hilarious 2008 autobiography Renegade, he describes moonlighting as a Tarot reader to help fund the band in its lean early years. By his own estimation, Smith possessed such innate talent as a cartomancer – “when people did a Tarot with me they’d walk away with their life changed” – that he had to quit the trade after a year or two because clients were becoming too dependent on his readings.
His divinatory powers were, thereafter, presumably diverted into his song-writing. Several Smith associates, particularly his ex-wife Brix (a key member of the band in its mid-80s heyday), have attested to the precognitive dimensions of his lyrics. For instance, in late 1986 The Fall released the Bend Sinister album, featuring a song entitled ‘Terry Waite Sez’, about the titular Anglican envoy who acted as a Middle East hostage negotiator. The focus on Waite would have been taken as a typical piece of Smithian satire were it not for the fact that Waite was himself kidnapped and held hostage shortly after the album’s release, leading to speculation that the song was a coded prediction of one of the major news stories of 1987. Similar conjecture surrounded the song ‘Powder Keg’ from the 1996 album The Light User Syndrome. Lyrics such as “I had a dream/Bruised and coloured/It’s going to hurt me/ Manchester city centre” struck many listeners as prescient of the IRA bombing of central Manchester that occurred on 15 of June that year, five days after the album was released. The ‘psychic rock band’ angle was too good for tabloids such as the Sun and the Daily Star to ignore, resulting in Smith officially responding to their investigations with the rejoinder “Well, I’m a fucking psychic, fuck off”.
These hacks were fortunate to escape ‘the curse of The Fall’ that Smith allegedly cast upon errant scribes. In the 2008 book The
Fallen, a quixotic attempt to track down all of the Fall’s then exmembers, music journalist Dave Simpson relates Brix’s account of a reporter who was hexed and injured two days later when the phone booth he was in was hit by a car. Simpson surmises that he has been similarly jinxed when he outlines the litany of personal misfortunes – a car accident, food poisoning, and the break-up of his long-term relationship – that occurred at the conclusion of his investigations.
A knotty and mercurial character, Smith can be remembered as a musical ‘outsider’ whose creativity operated in those liminal zones of culture where forteana also lurks. Realm of dusk…