Andy Gill, "The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Smith"
NME, January 10, 1981, pp. 10-11
1: MARK E. VERSUS WINSTON
"IT'S TYPICAL of the 'rock' sort of thing today. I want to be didactic, I want to be opinionated, I don't think because we're having a fucking hard time everybody should stop having opinions and start getting into good-time stuff. I think people in hard times need brain stimulation more than anytime."
Right! Mark Smith's commenting on the way certain music journalists have turned against The Fall's staunchly anti-escapist stance because the vagaries of fashion at present dictate that "having a good time till the bomb drops" or "looking good when the bomb drops", or suchlike nonsense, is the de rigeur pose to pursue.
History will always be re-written, of course, but that's no reason to accept the revised version, especially when it's as self-evidently lame and defeatist as the current one. Besides, an unpopular opinion in populist times is always good for a laugh, as the Firesign Theatre pointed out. Which reminds me -- few people see the humour in The Fall, just the face-value sneer that hides the smile...
Fall "fans", in general, aren't clones of the band, as is much the case with many bands, especially in an age when bands brag about "selling a whole concept" to a record company instead of just a record. There are no Fall clones simply because there's nothing really there to clone, nothing to pin down.
"Bands smaller than us," admits Smith, the latter-day Man Without Qualities, "have got these sort of clone people walking about." His attitude is so scathingly set against those kind of practices, there's little chance of such pathetic idolatries building up.
"We've started getting people who'll stand by us. I've talked to loads of people who come to see us who just don't like any other groups, which is great. I mean, they haven't got FALL written over their chests and everything, but they say, 'Oh, I like you, and I like a bit of reggae and a bit of ...' "
There's a very large number -- some people are surprised at just how large a number-- of disaffected music-loving folk who just aren't bothered about "looking good" or buying the latest clothes, no matter what the economic climate's like and what the music barons and their hand-maiden press dictate, and who find little to connect with in more transparent musical/stylistic practices. For many of them, The Fall are still the only honest group around, the only ones who don't condescend, who don't try and manipulate them.
But I digress. What of dancing until the bomb drops?
"Fuckin' crap. Bullshit. I mean, the whole scene's gone back seven years, 'cos some people are out of work. We've always been poor -- hasn't made any difference to us. 'Y'know, it's what really shits me up. I mean, like, Teardrop Explodes -- escapist fuckin' rubbish! I'm not knockin' it, I never have; I've always loved that type of stuff. But, y'know, when you start gettin' knocked for trying' to fuckin' say somethin'..."
What's surprising about Mark E. Smith, on first meeting him, is how little he conforms to the "difficult bastard" image beloved of Fall-commentators. He's actually a regular kind of bloke, as friendly and forthcoming as any I've met in this line of work; it's just that his refusal to tolerate bullshit, both onstage and off, and his general determination to drag at least a certain proportion of his audience up by their lapels, shaking them and shouting "Wake UP!" until they do has got him numbered as the stroppiest sod this side of Johnny Rotten. A&R men are apparently frightened of him, and disinclined to sign bands who cite The Fall among their influences/ interests. Funny, eh?
Mind you, it's not exactly an image he's fought shy of. Quite the opposite: the self-proclaimed "white crap that talks back" obviously takes a certain delight in getting up peoples' noses. And why not? Some noses I know are badly in need of irritants - a good sneeze would clear away a lot of crap.
"We're having a bit of a difficult time," says Smith, "'cos people are coming along and sort of liking us, as opposed to the last two years, where it's just been getting up everybody's backs. Gotta change your tune..."
But given their reputation -- a sort of professional thorn in the flesh -- do The Fall expect, or even went, to reach a wider number of people?
"... which we can do; I mean, we have sort of broken that myth down, we are doing it, eventually. We're getting more and more of your average rock audience -- it's getting quite heavy in a way - and we've got to start on them as well."
"Voyeurs!" sums up guitarist Marc Riley with sardonic succinctness.
"But I mean, you've got to watch it," continues Smith, "or you're just preaching to the converted all the time. There's no way I'm gonna go on now and just fuckin' barrack 'em, 'cos you're getting 500 people in a hall and they've all come to see you. It's no use just saying 'Fuck it' like we used to be able to."
But are there any people who don't deserve a barracking?
"It's hard to say," says Riley. "They're just part of the situation, aren't they? Like at Doncaster (one of the places where the live 'Totale's Turns' was recorded), it was a really horrible place, with sort of really bad vibes goin' about. Dead cold. That's why it's hard to define a good audience, unless you can actually say you're getting good feedback off them - 'cos even if they go loopy, they might not be into it; they might just be goin' out for a drink.
So would a "good" audience be mainly pro-fall or anti-fall?
"That's what I'm saying -- it's hard to define, y'know? It's probably just people with an open mind. I think we are getting a lot more voyeurs just coming to see if Mark'll start on somebody, or if we'll get hit, or something..."
"I'm a firm believer in the 80% subsidising the 20%," says Smith.
2: TOTALE WEIRD
I'M NOT going to try and persuade you that The Fall are the salvation of rock'n'roll - whatever that implies -- or that Mark E. Smith's the most charismatic figurehead since the Marie Celeste, because they aren't and he isn't, and that kind of stuff doesn't matter a damn anyway.
In fact, until this year, the only pieces of Fall music I could honestly confess to liking were 'It's The New Thing' and 'Repetition', wryly acidic comments on the programming of desire performed with appealing shabbiness.
The first record that stung me into realising how good The Fall could be was 'Fiery Jack', a spiky but steamlined slice of '80s urban rockabilly which knocks spots off the retrogressive, style-orientated offerings of such as The Polecats. Since then, I've come to regard 'Totate's Turns' as the best -- and most honest -- live album of 1980, its superficially shoddy exterior hiding a heart of hardened self-respect which more than makes up for any shortcomings in the area of recording.
Part of the appeal of 'Fiery Jack', for me, was in its personal connotations: the song seemed, from where I stood, to deal with a character whose capacity to "think think think" was destroyed by his predilection to "drink drink drink", itself the result of ...something more personal. This may be an incorrect interpretation of the song as Smith intended it, but it makes more sense on a personal level, which is what counts here and now.
Smith's readily aware of the benefits of interpretation as opposed to mere assimilation, active listener participation (which doesn't mean jumping on stage and bouncing around to satisfy your ego) being one of The Fall's most oft-avowed intentions. Hence the somewhat puzzling introduction of semi-parodic missives and comments from the fictional 'Roman Totale XVIII' and his 'son', Joe, on the covers and accompanying handouts of recent Fall product. Deliberately vague and half-formed, they allow plenty of room for projection and interpretation, besides serving as a kind of self-criticism. As Smith admits, "I've also got to have things to stimulate me, to keep me going -- even if they're in-jokes. It's the only way -- you can only be your own judge."
Hence also Smith's increasing tendencies towards storytelling in his songs, addressing things obliquely or allegorically rather than directly. Take, for instance, 'The North Will Rise Again' from the new 'Grotesque' album, a song widely misconstrued as just another provincialist rant:
"I mean, everybody knows about the split between the north and the south in England, but 'The North Will Rise Again' isn't a political statement, it's a story, like a science-fiction story. The way I wrote it was from a few dreams I had after playing the north a lot - it's about what would happen if there was a revolution. It's purely fantasy, science-fiction stuff.
"But of course, everybody's gonna go 'Huh? The North? Here we go again -- Smith talking about flat caps', and all that cliched rubbish. Actually, the message in it is that if the north did rise again, they would fuck it up. Not that they ever rose before... It's just like a sort of document of a revolution that could happen - like somebody writing a book about what would have happened if the Nazis had invaded Britain. It's the same concept as that. Not a lot of people have gleaned that, probably because it's the last track on the LP.
"I was very disappointed with the reviews we got, well, they don't really affect me, but - 'The North Will Rise Again' was, like, the fuckin' centrepiece of the album, for me. I really worked on that. And I thought people would take it a bit more..."
He leaves the sentence hanging, but the implication is clear: a bit more carefully, a bit less on face-value. Try a littte harder!
3: HOME OF THE BRAVE
A MAJOR theme running through several of the tracks on the new album is the concept of "grotesque peasants". Those not familiar with the concept have probably led very sheltered lives; for them: "The 'grotesque peasants' thing was like an offshoot of 'New Puritan'. It's trying to say what England is like now -- I think I was getting pretty obsessed with the English class system, especially after going to America. You're fed all this shit about murder in America, and the high sort of vicious capitalism they have there, but the workers there are better off than our workers are. I mean, England is just so full of hypocrisy -- go round liberating the slaves, and all this, and then treat the northern people, the working population, like fucking scum, y'know -- they always have. And recruiting armies and sending them over to other countries to terrorise the people -- I mean, they're real brutes!
"Like, we went to New York -- and I know it's violent, and that Lennon was shot dead there, end that -- but it was fucking safer than Manchester or anywhere in Yorkshire's ever been at half eleven! When the pubs shut in Manchester and Yorkshire, it's fuckin' deadly."
"But in New York, you know where the violence is, and you can keep away from it. There's lights on every street corner, and you can walk down well-lit streets. If you go down back alleys, you know what you're letting yourself in for... but in England, there's this undercurrent of violence -- it's like that in London as well, y'know."
So I've noticed. More so, in fact.
"And England has always operated on that basis. The Irish thing's the same -- sending English people over there to terrorise the Irish, 'who're a dead easy-going sort of people..."
But surely, a lot of people condemn themselves to being 'grotesque peasants', especially in-the north? (cf: All Creatures Great And Small and lovable Lowry stereotypes).
"Yeah, right. I used to have this thing about 'Northern White Crap', which is much the same thing. Cos I mean, I'm northern, we're all northern as well, and I don't like the way northern people degrade themselves; 'cos it's not even a poverty factor, y'know? I've been places where there's worse poverty -- the Mexican people aren't like that, and they live on rice, y'know? And it's the same with the bands -- northern people are so media-hurt that they think something's got to come from somewhere else to be good. It's a northern thing. Like The Beatles; you go to Liverpool, and everybody clams up when you mention The Beatles, 'cos they fuckin' hate 'em. They're fuckin' jealous !"
4: LAND OF THE FREE
THE FALL, as mentioned above, have recently been to America, where they played to mixed receptions. This struck me as rather surprising. The Fall seem so English, in a way -- almost an institution -- it's difficult to imagine Americans getting to grips with them. "I thought it was great" opines Smith. "I mean, I think The Fall stand more chance over there -- we were getting really good support. And we nearly sell as much in America as we do over here, and we get loads of mail.
"Y'see, the thing about America is that their scene's so crappy that they do see something pretty different it filters through the crap."
"I've got trust in Americans," he continues. "Everybody sort of goes 'Ehhh?' when you say that, but I think that apart from New York, they're fuckin' great. They're classless, really. They treat their music really differently from the way we do -- it's like the pictures there, like going to see a movie. They eat, and everything, while you're on; they're sat there, and you're goin' wild, y'know ?"
"We played a gig with Iggy Pop while we were there," says Riley. "It was like a big Talk Of The Town, or something -- all these couples sat round tables, drinking wine, and just a couple of people stood there at the front, looking at you. Really weird! Like a cabaret, really..."
"Iggy was on after us," adds Smith, "And he was doing the whole stuff, the cut bit and everything, and there were all these check shirts, coked out of their heads, with tans... at the back of the club was this big window, you could see a bit of the beach, with palm trees on it...
"I think all the groups come back from there and..." he diverges, leaving the sentence hanging again. "But they go over there and act like fuckin' heavy metal groups."
"They all treat it like a hard slog, as well, says Riley. 'They don't even enjoy what they're doing. They go over there, and they say, 'Oh, well, I'm not bothered about breaking America', y'know, but when they get back and people say to them 'What d'you think of it?', they say, 'Oh, it's hard work, y'know. Didn't really like it. Be back over there again soon'."
'Well, it's Like anything in America," says Smith. "It's just that we were lucky, because we had some pretty hard financial troubles while we were over there. Everything sort of fell to bits, so we had to sort of get to the roots of the LA scene; which we did, and it was good. This is, like, a year ago. We've been to Holland since, and that was horrible -- the greatest argument against Crass I've ever seen. Crass are really big over there."
"Anarchy signs everywhere you go," says Riley.
"Smashin' glasses and that," says Smith, "and fuckin' coppers sweepin' it up after them!"
"They're tolerated, as well" -- Riley again -- "I mean, they don't mind all these punks riding around on bikes, with their anarchy signs, just messin' about -- they'll tolerate it all the time, just like the hippies. They treat 'em both the same, put 'em all in these little sort of communes..."
Where they can 'take care' of them?
"Yeah, they got it all sussed out," agrees Smith. "That is one non-advantage about Britain. The British Government is like a huge swindle you don't get anywhere else in the world, the only government that actually swindles people out of money and doesn't actually give them anything back for it. Whereas all the other governments of the world sort of do give people support, and so forth." (Oh yeah, of course, like Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, USSR, Switzerland, South Africa, Ghana etc. -- Ed).
5: AN UNPOPULAR OPINION IN POPULIST TIMES
"I DUNNO... when I heard it, I was dead shocked the first thing I thought was it would have happened in Liverpool...but... I don't know, I sometimes think things like 'Maybe he had it coming to him', y'know. Like, life is like that -- if you sort of lead a whole generation of people on to do something like leave home, freak out, and become revolutionaries, and then you turn round and say, 'WeIl, I've just met this women, Yoko, who's fuckin' great' -- she is, like, I think that -- but she broke his balls. It's not a sexist thing to say, y'know. .. (Ha ha -- Ed) but it's like everything came back on him. He released an album about how great it was to be straight, and there's hundreds of people -- well, there must be millions of people whose lives he affected.
"I mean, he even got through to me -- I mean, like 'Working Class Hero'... I don't think of myself as one, but I think that from his situation, it's so fuckin' good that he actually gleaned that from one song. I think that's one of the few good things he did, y'know, where he actually says, like, 'I was screwed for what I did'. That's why he became an American citizen. I think.
"But you can't do that. Life is very cruel like that: you can't lead people on for ten years, and just turn round and say 'I'm a father now'."
"It's like Lydon, in a way," interjects Riley.
"Yeah, it's tough for them, but it's like I was saying about the things we slag off in the music biz: You've got to take responsibilities. We actually pay for things like... we did a track years ago called 'Music Scene', and that's one of the reasons we're on an independent, 'cos A&R men don"t come and see us. They over-react. It's the same with the NME, in a way -- anybody from the NME we're not gonna rip their guts out, but people do get the impression that The Fall will just, like, attack, verbally or physically, anybody from the establishment.
"We just do it through lyrics. So people steer clear of you; but it's a thing you have to say, you can't go round saying... which is where Lennon and Rotten fell down, y'know. They were fuckin' geniuses, the pair of'em, but I mean..."
"They lay their soul on the line, but they take all that responsibility," Riley sums up.
Are you listening, Adam?