Wednesday 21 February 2018

Interview: MARK E SMITH talks about 'HEY! LUCIANI'


Mark E Smith of the Fall has written a play 
about the mysterious death of Pope Paul I. 
Andrew Darlington finds out more 

‘Hey Luciani, Pop Stars in your cell, 
Hey Luciani, a Polish son of Hell…’ 

The record and the Play of the single “Hey! Luciani” (December 1986), according to the sub-title, concerns ‘the life and codex’ of Albino Luciani. The story, in other words, of Pope John Paul I who, you may or may not recall, died in 1978 under mysterious, and – some say, sinister circumstances, just thirty-three days into his Papalcy. You DO remember, don’t you? It’s H-E-A-V-Y subject matter, provoked by the heavily investigative tome ‘In God’s Name’ (Bantam Books, 1984) perpetrated by arch conspiracy-theorist David Yallop. Mark E Smith, the thinking head of Fall, magicked the tract into a play that received its London premier at the ‘Riverside Studios’ through the fag-end of 1986 to a plethora of baffled brain-numbed reviews. Trevor Stewart plays the title role, Leigh Bowery, Lucy Burge, and ‘The Comic Strip’s Lanah Pellay do dance-ons, while the Fall collective mill around dragged up as priests, Mafioso, terrorists, and – occasionally, post-tonalist musicians. A strange time was had by all.

Mark E Smith. Is this man deep?

Andrew Darlington: Is the name ‘Fall’ used in the Catholic sense of the ‘fall from grace’? Is that a deliberate reference?

Mark E Smith: Well, that’s the idea of the name, yes. But there’s loads of connotations you can pick.

AD: Religious connotations? You once did a ‘B’-side called “Papal Visit”.

MES: All sorts on connotations. There’s loads of things it means. If you go to America the name Fall means fuck-all (F-all?). All it means is bloody autumn. So everybody thinks you’re called the fucking Autumns! So sometimes you lose out, y’know. Or in Germany, the Fall means, like, making an idiot out of yourself. You know that? It means you walk down the street, and you can’t bloody walk – in German, like Prat-fall. So you’re Das Fall, and it means like, you come a cropper…

Mark E Smith. Is this man deep? I’m just looking for clues.

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‘You should always read these things slowly, 
on the look-out for clues or give-aways’ 
(Martin Amis in ‘Money’, Penguin paperback) 

Before voyaging out tonight I’m watching ‘TV Wipe-Out’, a Double-Vision video compilation with extensive live footage of Fall at the ‘Venue’, blurry figures in streaky darkness. ‘Good evening, we are the Fall, and these are the words of expectation/ these are the words of success, expectation/ every now and then I would like to do something like this…’ Fast-cut spool forward to Mark E Smith sat on a floral-print couch. He toys abstractly with a cigarette, stub-stub-stubbing at the ash-tray resting precariously on the couch-arm. There’s a stereo speaker cabinet behind his head, level with his left ear. His left leg arches up over his right knee. He’s saying ‘…’cos I, in my sort of… dreamlike world,’ uncrosses his legs, stub-stubs his cigarette absently, ‘…I sort of see myself as a writer, and the Fall is a very good vehicle… and it’s the only vehicle for me to do it…’

Now we’re sitting face-to-face in the ‘Cobourg’, a low-rent Leeds hostelry. His hair’s hacked back from the video mop-top, such hair as remains is as multi-directional and styleless as a Fall guitar solo. He seems more relaxed too, so I probe him about the ‘I see myself as a writer’ spiel. Could this be a lead-in to “Hey! Luciani”? A laconic sneer. ‘I don’t think you should actually take that Double-Vision thing very seriously. I mean, the interview part is more a FARCE y’know? I’m basically just trying to get the blokes out me ‘ouse (house) really.’ He intercepts and censors my laughter – ‘no, genuinely. I’d had enough of them, you know. They were really slow! DEAD slow!!’

So you DON’T see yourself as a writer, in that case?

‘I do. And I don’t, y’know?’

Well, no, not really – I don’t know, so tell me. Is this the classic awkward-bugger Mark E face-out or what? ‘When I’m not working I think of myself as a writer. THAT’S what I DO. But you can’t like… eat from writing, can you? As I’m sure you know. You haven’t got a regular job then?’ He’s turned it around so that he’s interviewing me. ‘Do you write for anybody else? Like who?’ His interest seems to upturn as I tell him, and confess the occasional soft-core fiction-sale to ‘Knave’ and ‘Mayfair’. ‘OH! YOUR OWN STUFF – SMASHING. That’s good then in’it. Yeah, sure man, get in there y’know. I read ‘Mayfair’ once, I think I’ve seen your name – that’s a REALLY weird magazine isn’t it – ‘she touched my penis and then she…’. Do you review records and all that? Wow – what…?’

Yes, but it’s supposed to be ME interviewing YOU! ‘For sure, yeah,’ he slumps back into the scuffed leather upholstery, losing interest, like he’d prefer to duck outta the regular Q/A routine and just chat about the economics of freelance writing. But I persevere. Prior to ‘Luciani’ there’s other evidence of a literary bent. For example, there’s a page of absurdist ‘hoaly lunatic’ Mark E original tract in ‘New Musical Express’ submitted under his poet persona Zabadak Goolze and his alter ego Roman Totale XVIII. For completists there’s a newly-published twenty-one text verse compilation – ‘The Fall Lyrics’, setting out in messy transcript the full jaggedy acid-spiked word-scramble, the complete verbal terrorism of Fall-songs mangled through a dodgy print-job (from ‘Lough Press’ Bertin as a mere twenty pre-Euro Deutchmarks, from Der D Luff, Arndstrasse 39, W Berlin 61, 1000 Germany). So there’s a continuity of prose as prose, as well as poem as lyrics. And now there’s a play, supposedly written on a series of beer-mats and delivered to the director in a shoe-box…

Hence, according to the evidence, Mark E Smith IS a writer who writes in a number of different forms? ‘Yeah, I do. I’ve got… I’m big on diaries. I fill in loads of them. I write all the time – like, if I see a bit of paper, I’ll write on it. I enjoy it. It gets a lot out of my system. And I write stories as well. I’ve got a few books of them at home. I don’t… y’know, it’s not worth the effort to keep it up. But we can flog ‘em off when I’m fifty or something! When I’m feeling a bit more mature, mature enough to sort of put it all into context, y’know what I mean? Turn it into a book.’

Do extracts from these diaries become lyrics every now and then? ‘Yes, a bit.’

And are there any writers you particularly admire? ‘A few, yeah.’

Wyndham Lewis (‘he was a funny old stick’) gets a Mark E thumbs-up in a ‘Melody Maker’ Fall-file (27 September 1986), as does the mesmerising SF-writer Philip K Dick (‘I got a Dick book the other day called ‘The Man Whose Teeth Were All The Same Size’ (the actual title is ‘The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike’, 1984), and I couldn’t believe it. It sounds like one of our song titles’). And ‘…erm, I like Martin Amis. KINGSLEY Amis was really bad I always thought – but his son MARTIN Amis is really good. Great books.’ A modern, abrasive style, I prompt – ‘Dead Babies’ (1975), ‘Success’ (1978), the black comedy sex and class of ‘Other People’ (1981). ‘He gets very pseudo in his journalism’ Mark E qualifies, ‘but his books are great.’

I can see the headline now, POP STAR READS BOOK: SENSATION! Or even POP STAR WRITES PLAY: SENSATION! Mark E Smith makes for a very STRANGE Pop Star. But then again – ‘Hey! Luciani: The Life And Codex Of John Paul I’ is a very strange play. Those seeking enlightenment on the whodunit complexities of Papal intrigue – the sinister involvement of the Masonic P2 Lodge, cliques of reactionary Cardinals opposed to John Paul’s liberalist tendencies, Vatican bankers found hanging beneath a Thames bridge… and their role in the Pope’s death, aren’t going to come away any wiser. The four-act ninety-minute Play works on the same obscurantist principle that governs Fall lyrics. Just that, in their naked Play-form the encoded loony-tuneism becomes that much more apparent.

‘Mmm-mmm. That’s part of the fun. I don’t like things on a plate, I think that’s revolting.’

Yet, although Mark E says – if grudgingly, that he thinks of himself as a ‘writer’, the song-lyrics, cryptic and impressionistic to begin with, are often mixed so far back on record that they’re practically inaudible. ‘I think everybody’s making records just for a mental age of three, y’know?’ He takes a contemplative slurp at his pint of Tetley’s Bitter. ‘They can’t work at things. They can’t constantly listen to things, they haven’t got the attention span for it, and they can’t deny it even. I think that’s very wrong. There’s a lot of things I don’t really want people to know I’m saying. A lot of things on Fall records. Sometimes it’s just the vowel sounds that are important.’ He laughs wheezily – ‘you make me sound like a bloody Professor, y’know that? I’d better shut up…!’

But sometimes the lyrics that DO surface through the mix require translation, there are few clues or give-aways, like ‘hey Mark, you’re messing up the paintwork’...? (“Paint Work” on ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’, 1985).

‘Yes. They strike home a lot more if they’re garbled. I mean, it makes sense – it’s so OBVIOUS!’

Um, perhaps subliminally? Perhaps as absurdism through repetition?

‘I mean – what’s the whole point of having Rock music?’ he demands. ‘If you want everything clean you might as well listen to Classical Music, right? ‘Cos they do it a lot better. If you listen to Classical Music all the time, it’s very nice – it’s all very well recorded and you can hear what the person’s saying. Whereas the whole idea of Rock ‘n’ Roll is to turn that thing around. To make it into, like, a different sort of…er… art. A bit more drastic!’

Lookabar lookabar lookabar lookabar Ooooo-Weeee! Point taken.

The spin-off “Hey! Luciani” single, co-written with Fall-guys Stephen Hanley and Brix Smith, forms the third part of the group’s triple-tier ‘The ‘Domesday Pay-Off’ Triad-Plus’ (1987, US only), and – like the band’s most recent album, ‘Bend Sinister’ (1986), finds the Fall at its most UP, a mere heartbeat away from the mainstream charts. Probably Mark E’s deliberate obfuscations work better within the unique structureless structure of the Fall song than they do stripped and pegged out on stage as drama. But when his devious strategies work – as they do during the ‘Bend Sinister’ excerpts infiltrated into the Play – they do so ferociously well.

On the Double-Vision video, live from the ‘Venue’ Mark E is on stage, running off at the mouth over a Velvet Underground backbeat, ‘if we go on like this…’ he slurs, ‘we’re gonna end up like King Crimson, Echo And The Bunnymen, Wah Heat…’, which sounds an unlikely enough future for such a unique institution as Fall, but still sounds more likely than him ever becoming a Brecht/ Weill or a Lloyd-Webber. Which is prob’bly just as well.

This man is deep. Rock is a better place for his inputs.

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LAST SECTION RELATIVE TO THIS PERIOD: BRITISH MUSIC – A REAPRAIS, by Professor Bruce I Shepton: By the late eighties little could be done to salvage the English-based music system; a bleak future lay ahead subsistent mainly on recycled Dylanisms, courtesy of gentlemen whos main point was ‘Because of my handsomeness, you never took me seriously as an intellectual – for that, you and audience suffer.’ (Mark E Smith, ‘New Musical Express’ 21 December 1985).


1986 – “Hey! Luciani” c/w “Entitled” (December 1986, Beggars Banquet), A-side collected onto 2004 compilation ’50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong’

1986 – “Dktr Faustus” on the ‘Bend Sinister’ album

1986 – “Living Too Late”, single, issued on some formats of ‘Bend Sinister’

1987 - ‘The ‘Domesday Pay-Off’ Triad-Plus’ (Big Time 6039-1-B) US edition of ‘Bend Sinister’ with altered track-list also including singles “Mr Pharmacist” and “There’s A Ghost In My House”

1987 – “Mark’ll Sink Us”, “Haf Found Bormann” and “Sleep Debt Snatches” as ‘B’-sides of single “There’s A Ghost In My Mouse”, collected onto compilation ‘458489 B-sides’ 1990

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