Mark E. Smith, the founder and lead singer of the Manchester postpunk band the Fall has died at the age of 60. No cause of death was immediately given, but the band had been forced to cancel shows—including what would have been their first U.S. dates in over a decade—last year, owing to Smith’s poor health.
Over their more than 40-year history, the Fall released more than 30 albums, as well as innumerable singles, compilations, and retrospectives. The band’s lineup changed dozens of times—according to the Guardian, there were 66 members in all, with half of them lasting less than a year—but Smith’s instantly recognizable voice, a nasal near-monotone that was closer to speaking than singing, tied them all together.
As the Fall’s perpetually shifting lineup indicates, Smith was famously difficult, and sometimes worse. When I saw the band in Philadelphia in 1998, Smith systematically drove his fellow band members off stage one by one, messing with their equipment and getting in their faces until only his then-girlfriend, keyboardist Julia Nagle, was left. A few days later, he was charged with assaulting her in a New York hotel. But both Smith and the band seemed to have stabilized in the last decade, leading up to last year’s New Facts Emerge.
The band’s sound shifted of necessity over the years, but its core remained the principle established in one of their earliest songs, “Repetition”: laying down a simple, sometimes crude riff over which Smith could intone his oracular lyrics. To quote the legendary British DJ John Peel, who was their biggest booster, “They are always different; they are always the same.” The period from 1984 to 1989 when Smith shared singing duties with his then-wife, Brix—collected on the aptly titled 45 84 89 A Sides—was the closest they ever came to mainstream recognition, which, considering that it also included an album that served as the soundtrack to an Icelandic ballet, was not that close. After getting swept up in the alternative-rock boom in the 1990s, they drifted further and further away from the center, but their albums remained surprisingly consistent, and as the tributes coming in on social media prove, their influence was vast.