For years I was certain that the Fall’s 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour was in fact called: Hex Education Hour – perhaps referring to some BBC instructional program for budding witches. An ex had ripped the record onto CD for me and delivered it in a sort of comprehensive British post punk bundle, which contained discs by Gang of Four, New Order, and the Smiths. I would like to blame my misreading of Hex Enduction Hour on the illegible sharpie scrawled across my copy. Unfortunately, I can’t find the CD anywhere. Maybe it was improperly labeled The Hex Education Hour, or maybe the correct name was printed in two-inch block letters and I was simply trying to extract a real word from “Enduction.”
It took almost a decade to realize that I’d been saying the title wrong the whole time, and it was the Fall’s fearless leader Mark E. Smith who corrected me. In a late night YouTube hole I chanced across an interview with Smith and then Fall member Marc Riley circa 1982, right around the release of Hex Enduction Hour. The interviewer – offensively tan next to Smith’s blanched skin – was curious: “Why the title and what does it mean?” “It’s a word I made up,” Smith said. “It’s like an induction into the Fall.”
In one deadpan sentence, Mark E. Smith had righted my error and summed up what Hex Education Enduction Hour had meant to me. It was without a doubt my induction into the Fall. It was also one of those records that changed my perception of music as I knew it. I had never heard anything like the Fall before, and yet it was immediately clear how many bands had Xeroxed their style. The opening seconds of“The Classical” felt revolutionary – the hand drums, the cowbell, the fuzzed-out bass, and of course, the legendary Mark E. Smith, screeching and slighting throughout. There’s no shortage of rage in the history of punk music, but when Smith barked, “Hey there fuck face! Hey there fuck face!” it cut more deeply – and with a serrated knife, to boot. I played that song endlessly, especially while walking, just to marvel at the banshee squeal Smith mustered while shouting, “Too much romantic here/I destroy romantics, actors/Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!” From those jarring first bars of “The Classical,” I was on board.
Smith embodied a rare role within the post-punk arsenal. He was an agent of rage but also a poet. He possessed a wonderfully dark sense of humor, but was volatile and hard to get on with. The only constant member of the Fall, Smith went through roughly 66 bandmates in 40 years, as he was prone to firing musicians – provided they didn’t quit first.
On Wednesday morning, Smith passed away at age 60, after years of failing health. The news circulated in my office while I was at lunch, and I was reminded of how much the world can change in the time it takes to eat a sandwich. Without hesitation, I sought solace in two people: Robert Sietsema, and Marc Riley. Sietsema is the senior critic at Eater NY, and his tenure as a New Yorker, journalist, photographer, and bassist in the skronk band Mofungo allowed him to brush up against some of the city’s most interesting characters in the past few decades. One of them happened to be Mark E. Smith.
“In the early 80s, the Fall was one of the most influential bands on the burgeoning New York punk music scene, and would visit to play at small clubs or even medium size clubs two or three times a year,” Sietsema told me over e-mail. “They would always shack up at the Iroquois Hotel near Times Square. I was working sporadically for the New York Rocker at the time, and got an assignment from editor Andy Schwartz to cover the band, which most of the staff didn’t quite understand or know what to do with.”
Sietsema went on to describe an after-show encounter he had with Smith, during which he invited the Fall to swing by his place before their next gig. “Mark willingly agreed,” he said, “and so I set out a buffet featuring cheese and luncheon meat at my tenement apartment on 14th Street between B and C. At the appointed hour, the buzzer rang, but when I buzzed the visitors in and went to the door, it turned out to be just him. He’d neglected to invite the band. I eventually realized that it was by design, that there was a great gulf between him and his musicians.”
This gulf was evident in the Fall’s rotating cast of members. One of these members – the aforementioned Marc Riley – became an important part of my musical education before I realized that he co-wrote and performed on Hex Enduction Hour. Riley was a member of the Fall from 1979 to 1983, but was kicked out of the band for “dancing to ‘Smoke on the Water,’” as Smith famously put it. In classic Mark E. Smith form, the Fall later released a burn track titled, “Hey Marc Riley,” to the tune of “Hey Bo Diddley.”
Marc Riley has since become a DJ for BBC6 Music, a station I treat like a holy text. It was a bizarre twist of irony that Riley was the BBC6 broadcaster to announce Smith’s death on Wednesday, as the news was confirmed smack in the middle of Riley’s afternoon show. “I’ve just got to say that there’s been rumors flying around all evening about Mark E. Smith, and we’re just getting to grips with it now,” he said while Smith’s passing was not quite confirmed. He played a Sex Pistols song while awaiting the word.
“Sadly,” Riley continued after the last guitar strum of “Pretty Vacant,” “the confirmation seems to have come through that Mark E. Smith has passed away.” Riley went on to play an extended set of Fall songs, including “It’s the New Thing” and “Totally Wired.” He also played “Tropical Hot Dog Night” by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, noting that Smith had turned him on to Beefheart. “I remember vividly going around to Mark’s flat in Prestwich,” he recalled, “and he’d just bought that album and he played it for me – I didn’t know anything about Beefheart really at that point in time, and I fell in love with it as I did lots of other bands that he introduced me to… ” I found it funny that Smith was largely responsible for shaping Riley’s musical tastes, and that now Riley does the same for thousands of listeners as a DJ – a profession Smith has openly mocked.
When speaking to BBC6 colleague Gideon Coe about Smith’s death, Riley offered fond words despite his history with the Fall: “It is strange… I’ve not spoken to Mark for a long time, and of course after I got kicked out of the band it was a pretty unsavory time… but I have to say that I met Mark E. Smith when I was 16… The Fall were my favorite band when I joined, and they were still my favorite band when I got kicked out.”
Mark E. Smith possessed so much charisma, that despite the abuse (whether aural, verbal, or physical), his talent as a songwriter and poet were irrefutable and mesmerizing. His ability to create, not only so much work, but so much great work still baffles most critics. His ability to stay menacing into his final years was a damn near miracle.
It is so rare for music to retain its radical nature over the years. I’ve heard Ramones songs in airports and watched CBGB morph into a John Varvatos store. The revolts of prior generations get fluffed into nostalgia eventually. But the Fall never lost their knack for sonic assault. Tonight I am blaring “The Classical” from my bedroom speakers at maximum volume, and it still feels aggressive and mischievous. I wonder if I’m interrupting a Netflix binge session or dinner party next door. Part of me hopes that I am, and that an angry neighbor will rap on my door any minute to request that I turn it down. And maybe, in the spirit of Mark E. Smith, I’d just sneer and shout, “Hey there fuck face! Hey there fuck face!” I’d like to think that would make the fallen frontman smirk, wherever he is.