BEHIND THE FALL GUISE
Andrew Darlington in conversation with
Mark E Smith, Craig Scanlon and Brix Smith of THE FALL,
unedited at length, with repetitions and false starts intact…
Is it Fall: as in verb – to fall (did he FALL or was he pushed? I’m not FALLing for this crock of crapola no more! FALLing in and out of love).
Or is it Fall: as in noun – The Fall. Fall from grace, vis. theology.
Does it matter?
‘…of course, you don’t actually REVIEW the Fall. You hover in the shadow of the aura and attempt to catch some of the sparks’ said ‘Melody Maker’ (6 March 1982).
These are sparks…
‘The longest-running Manchester Punk group, the Fall, refined their demented Rockabilly while singer Mark E Smith told his shaggy dog stories with a delivery that was part-Ranter, part stand-up Comedian’ begins Jon Savage (‘Observer’, 27 July 1986). Mark E takes up the tale, and continues to writer Barry McIlheny, dating it all from the pivotal first-ever Manchester Sex Pistols gig ten years earlier, ‘there were so few of us there that Malcolm McLaren said ‘hello’ to each of us as we went in. I remember seeing the Buzzcocks and thinking, bloody hell, I could do better than that. It’s a cliché now, but that honestly was the attitude at the time – anyone can do it. Up until I saw the Pistols doing stuff like “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and other garage songs, the idea of us playing in public was pure fantasy. Then suddenly we find ourselves second on the bill to people like the Drones! We were just happy to be playing… I look back on it all now with interest and find it funny that we’re still seen as the remnants of the great Manchester Punk scene when, in actual fact, we were always apart from most of them, and they had spiky hair while I was going about in my pullover and cords’ (in ‘Melody Maker’, 12 July 1986).
These are also sparks…
MARK E SMITH (lead vocals): An influence on me? Yeah, I was well into it. I still am. But only ‘cos it was badly recorded, with bad bad songs and cheap guitars.
AD: Your 1981 single “Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul” references that scene too. (‘I’m a bit jagged right now, in a tongue-tired, wired state, cause Sunday morning dancing, I had an awake dream…’)
MES: Well, obviously.
AD: Fall’s origins lie in Manchester’s Punk scene where it was Buzzcocks, Penetration, Magazine, and Slaughter And The Dogs who grabbed most of the kudos. But it’s been Fall who’ve proved to be the longest runners. Mark’s the only constant figure in the line-up, but Craig goes back almost to the origins of the band too.
CRAIG SCANLON (lead/acoustic guitar): Pretty much, yes. I wasn’t in Fall from the VERY beginning. The band started in 1977 – I joined in 1979, but I’d been watching, more or less, since they started. Fall were never neglected, but they attracted a kind of elite audience. An audience who KNEW who the good acts were.
CS: No, there was no affinity with those bands. We were pretty aloof really. I got that impression even when I was just watching them from the audience. Fall were a kind of ALOOF band. We never got into that back-slapping kind of thing with the Buzzcocks.
AD: If you felt no regional affinity, did you feel affinity for other Indie bands operating in similar vaguely experimental musical zones? Cabaret Voltaire for example, who were also well into Northern Soul in their early days.
MES: You wouldn’t think so would yer? The Disco rubbish they turn out now! But I remember seeing Cabaret Voltaire – right? – in 1982, and it was like the best live show I’D EVER FUCKIN’ SEEN. It was INTIMIDATING, loud, and a real experiment on its own. That was before Chris (Watson) left y’know. He used to play keyboards with ‘em. He had a really good attitude to keyboards and tapes. His idea was – like, to make the keyboards not sound like anything on the Earth. He’s a really nice lad, Chris, works for Tyne Tees TV now. I think they miss him a lot, y’know.
AD: There was a great freedom of ideas and a sense of limitless possibilities back then. While one of the supposed socio-political aims of the Punk thing was to destroy the barriers between artist and audience. Did Fall share that idealism?
AD: The Damned are a good example of a band evolving out of Punk attitudes into a mainstream Pop-Rock Band.
CS: Yeah. People say they broke down barriers. That they’re really close to their audience. But I’ve seen them. I’ve seen Dave Vanian at Clubs and he’s got a bodyguard and crowds of people there with him. He lives that more than anyone. Billy Idol too, he does that, doesn’t he? He knows he’s doing it, and enjoys doing it.
AD: Doesn’t a ten-year career-structure make that inevitable? The sheer fact that Fall’s been trading as a band for a decade and has an extensive back-catalogue of albums means that, like it or not, you’re now just as much a part of the current Establishment as Cabaret Voltaire – or the Damned.
BRIX SMITH (guitar/ vocals): NO – I would HATE to be like the Damned! They have enough money now that they don’t HAVE to do it. Probably. I’m not saying they’re rolling in money, but WE certainly aren’t in that position. That’s the difference, within us the real urge and need to play is still there. That’s what’ll keep us going.
AD: To what extent does Mark set the tone for the band? There’ve been many personnel changes but the sound’s remained remarkably consistent.
CS: The sound’s changed quite a lot, but it’s all from the one area. We all know what the Fall is, there is a common link. It’s just a good collection of people, a simple thing, although we don’t necessarily write consciously for ‘The Fall’.
CS: (l-o-n-g silence) I know. There’s no answer to that. There ARE little sections of people who… (sniff)…
BS: His days were numbered. Towards the end, Marc Riley’s days were numbered.
AD: The first post-Riley gig you played was here in Leeds (‘this little club in Leeds with about a hundred people (who) booed and everything’ Mark told ‘Soundmaker’, (16 April 1983)). Was that ‘The Warehouse’?
CS: The first one we did WAS ‘The Warehouse’ Club, yes.
BS: What was that like, Craig? Fun? Did YOU see it, Andy?
CS: It was good. It was really hard work, but really good.
AD: Are you pissed off with journalists asking questions about Marc Riley?
BS: It’s alright.
CS: No. We’re still talking about him.
AD: Do you have a favourite Fall album?
CS: Erm – I don’t. I mean, I only ever play whatever’s the latest one. It’s only historians who look back. The albums all stand up on their own thingy, y’know, but I’ve done it and I don’t really… know.
BS: I enjoyed that last one, and ‘Slates’ (a ten-inch EP from April 1981) for me personally. Everyone has a different one – there’s plenty to choose from!
MES: Yes, sometimes. Not all the time. It’ll be about half ‘n’ half. Half of our stuff is very very worked on. But I like that ‘accidental’ aspect, I like that, yes. It’s not good to go into the studio with songs that you know backwards, y’know? – and just get ‘em down. I don’t want to do that because I just don’t want to be stale. I don’t want to go on tour and practice a load of songs and then go in the studio and just recreate them. You end up not even feeling what you’re singing.
CS: Yeah, well – the writer’ll obviously have some vague idea of what’s going to happen. But there is a common link that we all share, some kind of telepathic link. We all think as one at one point, y’know.
BS: I think that comes across live too. I think we’re a real sort of ‘supernatural’ band. Sort of, like in a magical way. In a sort of DARK way. Not like – (giggle) – the DEVIL or anything, but you know what I mean? There’s something really binding us together that you can’t see…
CS: We all play mistakes at the same time – in a line. (General laughter)
AD: Many bands now use the studio itself as a compositional tool, but Fall seem to be the antithesis of the Fairlight/ Trevor Horn syndrome. I get the impression that Fall are more a ‘live’ band, and in the studio you prefer to work in as close to a ‘live’ situation as possible.
CS: The LP ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ (October 1985) used the studio more in the sense that it was giving us ideas, getting a very simple song and making, like, an epic treatment for it.
AD: I find the eerie surrealistic track “Paintwork” the most intriguing title from that album (‘sometimes they say, Hey Mark, you’re spoiling all the paintwork’).
MES: (Bored) Really.
AD: I like the dislocation between its sections, layered like a painting, the tempo changes and splicing are not typical of regular Fall construction.
MES: Mmmm – huh. Yes, there’s a lot of savage edits.
BS: Yeah, in a sense it did ‘evolve’ in that way. Well – Craig wrote it, then half of it was recorded in Simon’s studio, in his house (Simon Rogers: Bass/ DX7). But then we couldn’t recreate that sound in the studio properly with all the other instruments. So we just used part of the original tape, and then we put part of the recreation of it, and then… I don’t really know what happened! There’s, like, the weather on there or something, HaHaHa!
CS: That’s what I meant about the studio thing. It was basically a very simple song, something pretty crude to work with, but giving it the studio effects turned it into a very dreamy kind of thing. It’s a bit more ethereal.
AD: Was the technical side of that down to producer John Leckie?
MES: No – I did all that. Me and Simon did it all. We made it so it was dead sloppy, like. Well no – actually it isn’t SLOPPY, it’s GOOD. It’s strange the way we… I mean, we recorded it at three different times. But it’s all basically cassette stuff, you know. That sort of thing. There’s only like two bits of it that’s actually done in a studio. We were putting, like, cassettes of the same track over different versions of the same thing so they would clash, and things. I really enjoyed doing that one, I thought it was great. I’m DEAD phased that people like it, y’know? ‘Cos a lot of people have said that to me; that they think that’s the best track – which I’m DEAD pleased with. The way we record is very uncompromising, and you always suffer a lot if you work… like we always work. And YOU’D BE A-M-A-Z-E-D AT THE PREJUDICE YOU E-N-C-O-U-N-T-E-R! Even though the songs ‘ave been brilliant you always get them saying ‘it’s a brilliant song ‘cept it was recorded in a garage’. Like they’re trying to insinuate you’re sloppy or summat. When in fact I went out of my way to GET that sound. It’s the sound that we wanted. I ALWAYS wanted that sound, y’know? I didn’t want any smooth shit. I’m glad people like “Paintwork” – ‘cos that’s the way it should be done.
AD: Do you have tapes of failed Fall experiments?
MES: No, not really. My experiments never fail. No, I’m just saying, y’know… there’s a lot of groups who have an odd attitude to experimentation. They think that they’ll put brilliant improvisation on their record, so they just do it and it comes out like dosh. Like Public Image or something like that. You know what I’m saying? They think their every utterance is brilliant art. We’re very conscious of getting away from that. We can’t PLAN anything really. You can’t PLAN improvisation, which is what a lot of people TRY to do. You know what I mean?
AD: There’s a mystique to Fall that’s perhaps largely due to the – often inaudible, lyrics. There’s a lot suggested…
BS: Yeah, right, Mmmmm.
CS: Yes. It’s very difficult to explain it. But we DON’T insult your intelligence.
AD: How do you decide what is good Fall and what is bad Fall?
BS: It’s just a personal opinion. It’s just what we like, what’s right for us. I think most people who really like the Fall, like everything. People that really dislike it, hate it all.
AD: So how do you decide what goes onto the album and what stays on the shelf?
MES: It’s just what I like, what we like. What I and, say – what to the producer sounds good. What he picks that sounds good.
MES: John Leckie’s VERY important. Yes. He has everything so LOUD. He used to work with Phil Spector, so he’s got a very good attitude… my sort of attitude. He has everything sort of SEMI-perfect, he wants it BIG, but he doesn’t want it smooth. I’m inclined to think the Fall miss out a bit on that. We never captured the big sound ALONG WITH the garage cheapness, like. I always thought that element of it was the best bit.
CS: John’s helpful to us. He’ll tell us if it’s bad.
BS: He doesn’t try to change the music though. He just gives suggestions. Tells us what he thinks, but we don’t always act on his suggestions. But he does tell us if we played it bad. He makes out he’s a perfectionist, and so if we play a little riff or something wrong, we just stay in there for three, four or five hours until it’s right. He’s the greatest. He’s really good.
CS: He’s more over the top than us really. So we just curb his excesses, ‘cos he’s full of ideas, sounds and that. He doesn’t try to take over though, he’s much too peaceful. He just meshes in with us, and lets us go, you know?
AD: Although traces of Rockabilly have been detectable in Fall records since the very beginning, the first cover version you did was the Gene Vincent song “Rollin’ Danny” as a 1985 single (adapting Gene’s opening riff with old Motown hit “Needle In The Haystack” by the Velvettes).
CS: Gene Vincent, he’s good. I’ve quite a few of his LP’s.
BS: Mark loves him. Mark chose that song.
MES: We only did that track as a… hobby, you know? I never thought it’d be a single. It wasn’t until it was mixed that I sorta thought it should be a single. We just did it to keep the voltage going. We weren’t even thinking of recording it. We went down there to record something like “Cruiser’s Creek” or “Couldn’t Get Ahead”, and just did that as well. It’s a song that’s very hard to do actually, come to think of it. We had to do all the backing vocals, and they’re REALLY intricate, y’know? ‘BOOP-BOOP-BOOP’ – really complicated. And the guitar solos on the original, they’re just like avant garde jazz! Pretty damn good.
BS: Do you? I was four years old, HaHaHa!
CS: How old was YOU, Andy?
BS: SHUDDUP Craig! But yeah – that wasn’t the Fall (HaHaHa). That’s completely different. Let’s not talk about Adult Net. No, that’s a completely different subject. We should talk about the Fall now. So go on, Andy, ask me more questions about the Fall.
AD: You’ve praised the ‘bad songs and cheap guitars’ of Northern Soul, and cited ‘garage-band cheapness’ as a desired sound quality. So is musicianship an important part of what Fall do?
BS: The thing that really KILLS me, the thing that really infuriates me, is that people say we can’t play our instruments. And that is COMPLETELY…
AD: I wasn’t inferring that.
BS: No, I’m not saying you are. I’m saying this myth is completely a myth. I mean, we may not play like orthodox perfectly classically – you know, like THEORY trained musicians, but we can play. And we can play anything we like. We can play with ANY band. And if we wanted to learn classical, we could do it. And Simon – he’s a professor of music (keyboard-player Simon Rogers entered the London Royal College Of Music in 1976, and became an associate ARCM after winning their 1980 guitar prize). So there you go – HaHaHa. But, um – anyways, I think what we do is just STRIP it down and just play what we feel.
CS: What we find is that Musician’s Musicians, in the real sense of the word, couldn’t really think of the stuff we write. Because, for them, the imagination’s been stifled.
AD: There was a review in ‘Melody Maker’ of ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ – your tenth album, saying you’d just remade Captain Beefheart’s classic LP ‘Safe As Milk’ ten times.
BS: That’s full of shit. We saw the ‘Melody Maker’ that week. Oh god – that guy just hates the Fall. I mean, if you hate the Fall you hate it. If you hate something you just don’t like it. What’s the point of reviewing something you don’t like and you know you’re going to hate?
CS: People who have an idea in their mind about something just won’t listen. They’ll just review the album by one or two tracks, or by reading other people’s reviews and interviews. That guy said we should shoot ourselves!
AD: I thought what he wrote was rather harsh, but he obviously saw the Fall as a band who hadn’t achieved any real progression. Do you see there being progression yourself?
CS: Yes. Of course.
AD: But don’t you ever see Fall reaching a point where there’s no clear direction left forward?
BS: Oh no. ‘Cos each album… I mean, some people say everything of ours sounds the same, but it is NOT. Not to me. No, I think we just keep on changing. Like, on ‘Perverted By Language’ (December 1983, the first to feature Brix contributions) the song-structures were much tighter and more verse-chorus verse-chorus, a beginning and an end. While ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ went back to being a lot looser, a lot more – not really experimental, but it just evolved itself without having to be put into an… um… structure.
AD: We began by talking of the ‘career structure’ which took Damned from Punk’s idealism into becoming a mainstream Pop-Rock Band. And Cabaret Voltaire, you describe their current output as ‘Disco Rubbish’, yet their initial experiments in tape-splicing were really innovatory.
MES: They’re clever lads, yeah.
AD: But once they’d exhausted all the possibilities and permutations of that style they evolved to where they are now. They had to go somewhere, and they matured pretty convincingly.
MES: N-a-a-a-h. It’s a bit Art School. It’s very Sheffield in’it, let’s face it? Y’know, not to knob ‘em. The Cab’s will never admit to themselves that basically they never really got over the Human League becoming Pop Stars. They’ve always been, like, sort of trying to do that, and lying to everybody that they want to be Independent. THAT’S the honest brutal truth. I like Richard (Kirk) a lot. I think he’s a REALLY nice lad. But that’s always been the problem for me, with them. They can’t seem to make their minds up whether they want to be Experimentalists or, er, Pop Stars. You shouldn’t really have to think about something as basic as that, it’s a waste of time even bothering about it. But they’re real uptight about the fact that they shared a studio with the Human League. I mean – who are the fucking Human League? I mean, they’re a good Pop group. But the Cab’s had more promise. But they blew it ‘cos they wanna be… once any group goes to Virgin Records, man, they’re fucked! S’right. A sure sign of death. Always has been.
AD: But won’t there come a time when Fall exhaust the possible permutations of their style? Do you have any conscious goals left to achieve?
CS: Girls – or goals?
AD: Do you feel that Fall albums are evolving towards something?
CS: No. Not really.
BS: We consciously try and make our albums better than the last one. Or different, or whatever. But we don’t set out deliberately to…
CS: Not as far as making a ‘grand statement’ is concerned. ‘Cos we’re always doing that. We’re doing it every day. Every time we play we’re making a grand statement. But there’s no sort of long-term military goal. We try our hardest, which is important, ‘cos there’s so much dross around. It keeps you on the ball. All these bad things are just unhelpful.
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