MARK E SMITH:
“THE MAN WHO’S
Mark E Smith (5 March 1957-24 January 2018)
I can’t recall exactly when I first interviewed The Fall.
But this is the full text of the encounter, and judging
by references to album titles it must have been around the
middle of 1987. Yet the issues dealt with here – the problems
of being a ‘Career Punk’, an ‘Establishment Outsider’
remain as valid today. I saw the Fall most recently at a Festival
in August 2000. Mark E Smith had collaborated on some
tracks with Elastica. Elastica play the same Festival. Same tent.
Same day. But they don’t guest with Fall. And he doesn’t
appear with them. Instead, he prowls the stage in a kind
of unpredictable edginess, vanishing behind the amps for
long stretches of the set as the riffs continue, then – to the
consternation of the drummer, he becomes preoccupied with
dismantling the drum-kit, the annoyed Stage Crew hastily
re-assembling it as he wanders off to seek new toys.
The Fall may have added years and albums to their history,
but they are still not fully assimilated into the mainstream.
As ‘Career Outsiders’ they’ve succeeded better than most...
ANDREW DARLINGTON interviews THE FALL
(1) HEX INTRODUCTION HERE...
False-colour photos from the dark side of Uranus (pronounced Your-Anus or Yura-nus). A switch-back of black rings no unlensed eyes have yet seen, a dance of ten new unpaced black moons in lost frigid orbits, beautiful and complex... but what the hell FOR? For whose benefit? If those moons, those rings, didn’t exist would it REALLY upset some vast eternal cosmic plan? The system runs in total impersonal isolation, according to its own illogics and for the apparent benefit of no-one.
A Wonderful and Frightening World... like the Fall. Ring-systems of black vinyl noise across some ten albums, a spatchcock of LP’s with tracks not so much posed or even composed - more decomposed. A more extensive back-catalogue than that racked up by either Velvet Underground or the Doors. But a band hermetically sealed off in its own space-time continuum run on its own devious motives. As real, and as irrelevant as Uranus.
The Fall are something of an enigma, and one worth probing.
‘Shall we go for a drink, and do the interview there?’ leers Mr Hip Priest, ‘I’ve always enjoyed the idea of a Yorkshireman buying me drinks!’ I’m working out the logistics of cross-town traffic between here – the Leeds Poly, and the local hostelry most conducive to civilised discourse over a cassette machine, and decide on the close shot – ‘The Cobourg’. We go down a cascade of ferrocrete stairs and out into that vinyl-black night. People recognise the hunched-up guy by my side – ‘Hello Mark E’ they yell matily (that’s ‘MARK E’ pronounced ‘Markey’, as in Ramones), and he replies to each and every one of them in an affable and equally matey way. And so – across the flesh-pale argon-lit tarmac to ‘The Cobourg’. They used to have live Trad Jazz here (the Ed O’Donnel Band) before they lowered the ceiling. Poet Jeff Nuttall – who wrote the excellent ‘Bomb Culture’, was oft to be found sprawled semi-sober over these very beer-pumps. And I was once savaged by an alsatian dog just there, I bear the scars to this day...
A pint of ‘Stones Bitter’ for Mr Fall slouched in behind the black intricately wrought-iron lacings of the table set in the scuffed mock-Victorian decor. A theatrically quick grin, artificially cheerful, and ‘well, Andy, what do you want to ask me...?’ You’ve prob’bly read a lot of Fall interviews, right? and you therefore know they conform to a set pattern. Writers set up a topic which Mark E then demolishes with scornful contra-think wit, before setting up the next target. It’s a mutually supportive game that reinforces the roles of the awkward sod bugger-all dour Mancunian, versus the scribe’s post-Watergate journalistic delusions of probe/ controversy/ significant-statements and the like. This interview is not like that. I don’t want knee-jerk blanket-negativity. That’s been done to death and then screwed some more. This probe wants to orbit Mark E’s enthusiasms. Find out what excites his interest. The positivism side of it all.
Did you ever see Gene Vincent in the Jayne Mansfield/ Tom Ewell movie ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (20th Century Fox, 1958)? Enthusiasm – Mark E Smith? This one near scores on the Richter scale. ‘Good film that, in’it? Ridiculous script (Frank Tashlin take a bow). It’s all innuendoes, the script – it’s all double entendres. And you know the guy who made it was a Marxist? He was a Marxist, right? And that was the last film he made – ‘cos he was subsequently banned. Senator McCarthy got him right after that film (Tashlin again!).’ And in that film Gene Vincent & The Bluecaps perform “Bee-Bop A-Lula” upstairs in the ‘Beaux Arts Rehearsal Rooms’ ($5 an hour) – and it completely epitomises the vital brat-energy spirit of what Rock is supposed to be. ‘Yeah, it’s brilliant.’ Then he adds more conspiratorially, ‘apparently – you know in that film-clip they’ve got those pictures of Beethoven and that, on the wall? Well – apparently in the out-takes, when he hits the climax of “Be-Bop A-Lula” THEY ALL FELL OFF, ‘cos the band was playing too loud! All the pictures in the room fell off, but they didn’t put it in the film. Sounds great that. You know where they go DANG-DANG-DANG-DANGDANG-KRRRRRANG!!!! – all the pictures of Beethoven on the wall go ‘PWOO PWOOO’ – all smashed! They never used that take. Bit silly that, won’it?’
Perhaps we’ll see it on one of the TV out-take shows – ‘It’ll Be Alright On The Night No. 126’? Mark E don’t seem impressed by my attempted humour. ‘I very much doubt it,’ delivered with withering scorn.
(2) PHOTOS FROM THE FALL-GUISE
The Fall: a Wonderful and Frightening World...?
In the battle for the hearts, minds, and wallets of the Indie consumer, the Fall are old stagers. In his twenty-plus years of radio babble DJ John Peel has consistently championed just three names – The Undertones, Captain Beefheart... and the Fall. The Fall are the only band to record a full ten studio sessions for his programme. Yet Peel himself confesses confusion. While describing them as ‘my favourite band since the Undertones ceased trading’ he goes on to add that ‘my enduring admiration for their unwholesome racket is not something that can be sensibly analysed’ (‘Observer’ 24th August 1986). And still into Tens – the Fall capped their decade’s career with an integral slot on Factory’s G-MEX ‘Tenth Summer’ gee-up celebration of Manchester’s glorious musical heritage. And isn’t ‘Bend Sinister’ (September 1986) their tenth (or, if you count the ‘Slates’ (April 1981) twelve-inch EP – eleventh) album? That’s a l-o-n-g time. What exactly IS the Fall?
‘It’s Punk’ chirps Brix (aka Mrs Smith) pre-gig by way of definition, emphasising her assertion by stubbing her cig into the plush maroon Students Union upholstery she’s decorously draped over. I point out what she’s doing – is that the last residue of Punk disrespect? She smiles delightfully, ‘using the back of the chair as an ash-tray?’, and drowns it out in a gush of naughty sniggers so delightful it near-derails my investigative train of thought. Billy Idol comes to mind – he was Punk too, wasn’t he? I was watching a Billy Idol interview on TV... ‘I saw that’ burbles Brix. ‘Oh – he’s ADORABLE!’ In a Gary Glitter sort of way? He’s very stylised Punk. He’s exaggerated Punk into Showbiz. ‘Yeh, exactly. But in America THAT’S what Punk is, to them, you see?’
And isn’t it true that Rod Stewart used to play the Fall’s 1980 single “Totally Wired” over the p.a. prior to a gig – as warm-up? ‘I didn’t hear about that. That’s REALLY...’ Brix is probably totally mystified – BAMBOOZLED yet, by my line of enquiry by now. So into the punchline, don’t you think the punter on the street would see Billy Idol and Rod Stewart in a similar light. Both of them in the same category, both of them big Rock Stars removed from reality by their celebrity? ‘I don’t think so because, see – Rod Stewart is like Old School Rock ‘n’ Roll, do you know what I mean? Like Led Zeppelin, like those kind of – MEN, you know what I’m saying? That strut and prance, right? But Billy Idol is like – young, Punk, New Generation, the New Kids coming up, you know what I mean? So it’s sort of very different. I mean – I don’t think they’d see them the same. But they are both Big Business, Big Money – I see what you’re saying there. But to a kid, he’d think Billy Idol was cool, and Rod Stewart was for his M-a-a-a-r-m, y’know?’
But my point is that the Fall are now into their tenth (or eleventh if you count...) album, and that same kid on the street is going to look at the Fall and think – WOW!!!, eleven albums, that’s really something to achieve. ‘It is’ agrees Brix, ‘mmmmmm.’ So the Fall must now have something of that kind of ‘Star’ mystique. Not quite Rod Stewart, or even Billy Idol, but that same kind of logic applies. You’re a career musician because the Fall have been an established part of the scene for ten years. So how do YOU think that kid on the street would look at the Fall? She sits back carefully. ‘It’s like a contradiction, really. The only reason we’ve released so many albums is that we’ve got a lot of songs. We’re prolific. And the fact that we DO sell them. So we can – like, keep going. But we’ve only been going the same amount of time as Siouxsie & The Banshees or whatever...!’
Craig Scanlon (lead guitar) shrugs as I shift attention in his direction. ‘I don’t know. I missed the first section of your l-o-n-g question...!’ And the whole intricately constructed thesis falls apart in three-way waves of laughter. Conversation collapsing like a ton of brix (sic!).
‘I don’t know,’ he resumes. ‘I mean, I can’t judge anymore what the audience see and hear, ‘cos we’re on stage. It doesn’t matter. If they like us that’s great. ‘Cos each person’s got a different idea about what the Fall is – including the people in the band! Basically I don’t try to analyse it or do a MORI poll thing on it...’
(3) MORE PSYCHE-SPIEL
FROM THE WORD-SMITH
‘This is a cool group. Here are your Wedding pictures, they are black...’
Mr Smith – how do you feel about being asked banal questions?
Stephen Hanley (bass) was born in Dublin in 1959 – just two years after Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” was in the Top Twenty for the first time. He joins Fall twenty years later, following a stint with a gospel/ religious outfit called Staff Nine.
John S Woolstencroft replaces drummer Karl Burns in August 1986 in time to play on the garage-acid “Mr Pharmacist” single which scores the Fall’s highest Top Forty placing. Meanwhile, Burns was last reported to be in Geneva rehearsing with Iggy (‘Wild One’) Osterberg.
Simon Rogers (bass/ DX7) is also a recent Fall additive. Classically trained, he was scoring a Mark E piece called ‘The Classical’ for Michael Clarke’s Ballet Ramba, and was subsequently requisitioned into the Fall full-time.
There’s also Craig and Brix in the current line-up, while ex-Fall Mike Leigh was last heard doing cabaret, and Mark (‘Creepers’) Riley is now scripting ‘Harry The Head’ for IPC’s pervy juve-zine ‘Oink’.
Then there’s Mark E Smith from Prestwich, ‘a name which inspires dread and respect’ (a self-blurb from Channel 4’s Teletext)... the only member left from the Fall’s 1977 inception.
So the Fall is not static. But as a band of ten years standing (and Fall-ing), is it still GOING anywhere? Is there a conscious progression? Are the Fall evolving in any particular direction? ‘I think so, yeah’ admits Mark E grudgingly. ‘A lot of people think it’s just the same old stuff all over again’ – staring me out, challenging me to argue. So – well, a ‘Melody Maker’ review DID say that album-wise you’ve re-recorded Captain Beefheart’s ‘Safe As Milk’ ten times over! ‘Yeah – right. That’s rubbish,’ mouthed around a sneer. ‘But I thought it was quite funny really. It’s all horse-shit, in’it?’
A long pause. ‘But I find that an AMAZING viewpoint. I think everything’s very very different. Different people. Different attitudes. Every time. In fact – I think that’s what a lot of people DON’T like about it! They try and pretend that they don’t like the fact that we’re just the same – when it’s the fact that we DO actually change that they don’t like. They always want you to come up with an album that sounds like the one before, so they can classify you. It’s always been the case. I mean – the easiest thing you can do – like, the best thing for us to do would have been to make ‘Bend Sinister’ another album like ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ (September 1985) – we’d clean up. I’ve always known this. People think you’re stupid. They talk to you like you’ve not quite cracked it, they talk to you like... (the repetition of the phrase is delivered with all the derisive vehemence of his stage-diatribes)... they say ‘why don’t you stick to this ?’, and you go ‘well – you know, don’t you think that’s REALLY TEEEEEDIOUS...????’’
How do you define what is good Fall and what is bad Fall? ‘Er – there’s a lot of our early stuff that I don’t really like... if I listen to it. But I don’t knock it, y’know.’
I always thought ‘Hex Enduction Hour’, the fifth album – from March 1982, was quintessential Fall, eleven tracks, one hour’s playing time, cuts like “Iceland” and “Hip Priest”. ‘Exactly. I mean – ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ went down very well.’ And there’s quite a contrast between that – and ‘Room To Live’, which followed it, in September of the same year, featuring the consciously art-house “Papal Visit”, the twinned guitars of Scanlon and Riley stand-outing on “Marquis Cha Cha” and “Detective Instinct”. ‘Right. It’s deliberate. If we’d done ‘Hex Enduction Hour II’ – even though ‘Room To Live’ was very heavy and noisy – if we’d followed that up with something really similar, people would really love you, ‘cos they’re getting used to you. Which is not the point. I mean, once you’re doing something you should do it for the fun of it. You should do it for the CREATIVITY of it. You shouldn’t – like, go round repeating what you’ve done. That’s why the Fall lasts a long time.’
Do you consider that you’re working inside the Rock tradition? ‘No. I’m just saying there’s a lot more things here than people give us credit for. The trouble with Rock music is that it’s too easy for a lot of idiots to play it.’ A pause. ‘But that’s also its greatest beauty.’ But don’t you think there’s any cross-over in attitude between what you’re saying about the value of spontaneity, and the way that Gene Vincent worked? ‘I don’t think so. No. I just think that the way he worked is great.’ No continuity in that use of pure noise? ‘I don’t know. I just like the fact that there’s NO LYRIC SHEETS with Gene Vincent for sure. It’s all like ‘WIRR WIRR WIRR!! – WHAT WHAT WHAT!! – UH-HUH UH UH-HUH!!!’ You know what I mean? I like it... with the Fall we can get very literal a lot of the time.’
(4) PERVERTED BY LANGUAGE
Uranus is 18.181843 astronomical units from Earth, and has a surface temperature of 57 kelvin. With its stubbornly inverted poles and oceans of methane gasses, the system runs in total impersonal isolation, according to its own illogics, and for the apparent benefit of no-one.
A Wonderful and Frightening World... like the Fall.
Brix: ‘I would hate for the Fall to be like the Damned. That’s my worst fear. To just evolve into a ‘Rock’ band and not have anything really unique about us, or stop the experimentation – that is my WORST fear. That will never happen.’
Craig: ‘That’d be just like doing the cabaret circuit, doing that. We NEED to play. We do get rusty if we don’t play. It helps us a lot.’
Brix: ‘We need to play to EAT! To play to live, you know? – that’s what keeps us vital. Within ourselves we HAVE to do it.’
The Fall tend to engender fierce extremes of reaction, from uncritical devotion to vociferous revulsion. Me? I’ve always found them consistently ‘interesting’. That’s the kind of smug word people use as a patronising put-down, but in the case of the Fall it’s used fairly accurately. They are a band who suggest and imply all manner of intriguing possibilities while masking it all in what looks to be webs of deliberate obfuscation. Can it be that it’s all just prick-teasing? Perhaps the blurry definition is an essential part of the Fall’s Working Class Prole-Art conception? It is ideologically uncool – as well as flash, to wear your culture too conspicuously. Hints and nudges are all that’s necessary. Audience suss will do the rest. But then – catalysed by Brix’s more Pop-attack orientation (‘I never met a girl who was so HUBBLY-BUBBLY!!!!’), ‘Bend Sinister’ is not only their most invigoratingly direct and accessible album, but also their most commercially successful seller to date. I like it a lot. It provides evidence that – even after ten years, the Fall ARE still evolving.
But do you see a point where the Fall will exhaust the permutations of their style? A long silence. ‘Bend Sinister’ is your eleventh album...? ‘Yeh – so what? I don’t see anything wrong with that! It’s just that... a-w-w-w-w-w-w... I always take it day by day. I always have. I don’t look more that three months into the future. I never ‘ave. There’s endless possibilities with lyrics. There’s endless possibilities with music. You can go on forever really. The danger is that you don’t become ridiculous, or start taking yourself seriously ‘n’ stuff!’
Another thoughtful pause, then ‘is that it then Andy? Is that it now? You finished then?’
No. Not really. The Fall are still something of an enigma, but they remain one worth probing. But I guess it will do to be going on with.
Until the next time...
Published in a slightly revised form in my book:
‘I WAS ELVIS PRESLEY’S BASTARD LOVE-CHILD’
(Headpress/ Critical Vision - UK - December 2001)