Mark E. Smith, the cantankerous longtime leader of the raw British post-punk band the Fall, died Wednesday at his home, according to the band’s website. A cause of death has not been revealed, but Smith had been suffering for health issues for some time and had cancelled a 2017 U.S. tour.
The band’s manager said at the time that his medical issues were “connected to his throat mouth/dental & respiratory system.” He performed last year in a wheelchair in the U.K.
Raised in Prestwich, near Manchester, England, he moved in with Una Baines at the age of 16 and went on to form the Fall with her. The band’s debut EP “Bingo-Master’s Break Out!” was released in 1978 at the height of the original British punk explosion, but The Fall were utterly unique, owing more to oddball rockers like Captain Beefheart and 1970s “Krautrock” acts like Can than the punk prototypes like the Stooges or New York Dolls. At the center of it all for the past 40-odd years was Smith, whose surreal wordplay and deadpan style of talk-rap-singing was instantly identifiable and much imitated, both seriously and not. The Fall’s tense, often-abrasive sound was a key influence on numerous bands including Sonic Youth (which covered several of their songs), Pavement and LCD Soundsystem.
Filmmaker Edgar Wright was also a big fan.
The band moved through many different phases, hewing to a relatively conventional post-punk sound on their early albums into a more drum-heavy, driving sound in the early ’80s via albums like “Grotesque (After the Gramme)” and the singles “Totally Wired” and “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man.'” The sound became more angular and abstract over the next couple of years until the surprising arrival of Los Angeles-reared singer/guitarist Brix Smith, who became Mark E. Smith’s wife and brought an almost surreally melodic element to the band’s sound in the mid and late 1980s.
The couple separated in 1989 but The Fall soldiered on throughout the next three decades, including a three-album stint on the major label Phonogram and several on the U.S. indie Matador. In total, the group released more than 30 studio albums, with the most recent being 2017’s “New Facts Emerge.”
Smith was a notoriously cantankerous personality and the Fall went through dozens of members during their long career. In 1998 Smith fired the entire band onstage in New York during a shambolic appearance that ended with drummer Karl Burns pushing Smith offstage; Smith was later arrested and charged with assaulting keyboardist Julia Nagle. In 2006 The Guardian published an article wherein writer Dave Simpson tracked down each former member.
Smith also made a cameo in Michael Winterbottom’s movie “24-Hour Party People” about the Manchester music scene, and wrote the music for the ballet “I Am Curious, Orange,” in 1988.
His autobiography “Renegade: The Gospel According to Mark E. Smith,” was published in 2008. The group were also the subject of a 2005 BBC documentary, “The Fall: The Wonderful and Frightening World of Mark E Smith.”