Gavin Martin, "Revolting Soul"
New Musical Express, August 30, 1986, pp. 10-12
Welcome back Mr Contrary Bastard. Who else but the demonic MARK E SMITH would complete a mass anti-everything grumble with "Give me the Queen anyday"! GAVIN MARTIN caught up with Hoalingen's hero, Brix, THE FALL (and their new album), somewhere in Holland.
MARK E SMITH, weaned on Lenny Bruce's speed-fuelled monologues, the self-confessed big shot original rapper, picks a subject and he's off. Drugs seem a good place to start.
"I don't think heroin is any good, it's crap, a horrible drug. But I've got to say it - if someone wants to smoke themselves to death or drink themselves to death with whisky. Jump out of windows or whatever then it's their basic right. I always thought that was what Britain was all about. It sounds like a nutty anarchist idea but a lot of it is down to education and a lot of it I don't really care about. Anyone who gets into heroin must be pretty weird anyway.
"Have you ever seen anyone on it? They sweat and snuffle like little piglets. Imagine paying money to be like that, you'll find out what it's like when you're 90 anyway."
While the national draconian drug backlash finds favour with pop culture's stuffed shirts, The Fall release 'Mr Pharmacist' - a cover of Texan garage punks The Other Half's '60s speed anthem - as their new single. A sort of American 'Here Comes the Nice'. It's blessed with a careering, euphoric rush and all the subtlety of a scorched sinus.
"I've always really liked bands like that the sort that just make one good single and then disappear. It's better than all this tedious three hour hippy shit like Grateful Dead that seems to be coming back into vogue."
But hardly likely to get much airplay.
"If you worried about things like that you'd probably never release a single. I mean, if The Kinks released 'I Really Got You' tomorrow I doubt it would get played. Unless they remixed it of course. Actually it's an anti-drug song,' smirks Smith.
Nothing of the sort, of course. It's The Fall on a fun run awayday, still sticking in the craw, underlining pomposity and hypocrisy in Brit-pop; pricking the prevailing mood of compassion and concern.
"It was obvious with Boy George. Every interview he me did he'd makea point of denying drug use. Now it's going to be My Struggle Against Evil, some dickhead spoiling it for everybody else. I don't mean him any harm but he's had all the good stuff, hasn't he? They always get it.
"But I don't understand how he can be held responable for influencing his fans. I like Elvis Presley's records, some of them anyway, but it doesn't mean I'm going to eat five hamburgers a day.
"The British love it, a man down on his luck trying to get back up. But it enrages me - his whole career has been based on slagging everybody else who took drugs. It's just like Pete Townshend. I spit at the TV when he's on. How dare he tell teenagers I've had all the good things in life - wine, champagne, beer, any drug you like - but they're all bad for you? In other words, what he's saying is I've used them to the point where they don't work anymore and the only way I can get my fun now is by moralising about it. I find it revolting."
FROM THE train window rural Holland is a tangle of idyllic lifesize toytowns, windmills, waterways, playhouses and genial folk on bicycles. In a meadow deep in the heart of the flatlands, decked out for the day with the trappings of a village fete The Fall are playing the annual Sneekwave Festival. The glorious sunshine and laidback ambience is an incongruous setting for The Fall's brand of pummelling intensity, ruthlessly addictive razor riffs and Smith's demonic incantations.
"It's a bit sleepy here, always is," Smith says later. "They're spoilt in a way, it's not their fault they just see too many groups.
An enjoyable Fall performance, packed with a brace of now familiar songs from the forthcoming album presently titled 'Bend Sinister', but it still lacks that confrontational tension that makes the group really special.
"Halfway through I could feel the band going along with the groove and the audience. That's fatal, I always try to steer clear of that area where you start seeing what little tricks can be dug up to take the audience higher. You get to the stage where the group is enjoying it more than the audience.
"Being onstage shouldn't be a pleasure, it should be like your craft. I don't consider it performing at all, performers are like other people to me. It's the same with writing too. There should always be a fear involved of what you're doing, a fear that maybe you shouldn't be them at all."
He doesn't do much onstage. There's no projection, no smiles or emotion etched across those sunken cheek and jowls, barely a flicker from his graveyard eyes. At times it seems he's summoned up a sound from his cohorts that is taking a terrible toll on his soul, other times the lyrics find flight in the whirlwind and he looks dead natural, - relaxed almost - it's the struggle that makes him the focus, makes him so fascinating to watch.
Smith dreamed this band up ten years ago and now he's their only surviving member. The great, loyal Karl Burns left early this year amid rumours of debilitating personal problems and a growing, violent antagonism between him and Smith. Other members may come and go but it's Mark who has the final say. His vision of cultural revolution, wresting rock from the hands of Southern English media stylists and transplanting it in a Northern wasteland where spirit and class conflict became constants may have developed dramatically in recent recordings, but his own reputation as an uppity, contrary bastard has remained.
Whatever he may say, there's a part of Smith that still relishes this reputation. He stalks the backstage area, a long stringy figure in black leather coat, permanently slouched, beer bottle in hand. The heads turn as he passes.
"People are quite surprised when they find out I'm a halfway decent sort of bloke and I do always try to be nice to anyone I come across, but sometimes you end up being taken advantage of. That's why I wrote that new song, 'MES In Shoulder Pads': when someone comes down on me I'II react by coming down twice as hard."
Nonetheless, a garrulous easy going urban dweller with a wife and mortgage, Smith has mellowed. At Sneekwave he meets and befriends Three Johns' Jon Langford, for a long time the recipient of his wrathful bombast. A major reason for his new, conciliatory attitude is 23-year-old wife of three years and Fall guitarist Brix Elise Smith. Not since the departure of Kay Carroll, former manager and girlfriend, has anyone been allowed so much input into The Fall.
The product of a well-to-do American family, Brix's parents separated while she was still at school and she subsequently moved from Los Angeles to Chicago. Many consider she's only in the group because she's married to his nibs and provides a public profile previously denied The Fall.
But apart from her own independent outfit The Adult Net and a recent offer to supply a soundtreck for Taxes Chainsaw Massacre 2, Brix has also written the music for 'Riddler' and 'US 80s And 90s', two standouts on the new album. Back in Los Angeles one of her closest friends was Sue Hoffs, now lead singer with The Bangles, and Brix has a peculiarly American drive to make The Fall similiarly recognized. On the way back to the hotel, crammed into a white transit van while an electric storm raged all around, I asked Mark how many copies the group's last LP sold.
"40,000? 100,000? Who knows! I never bother asking to tell you the truth."
Back at the hotel Brix corners me in the lobby.
"I don't want to sell 40,000 records, I want to sell a million. Mark isn't really bothered about this but I want to get to all those people who aren't hearing the records. It doesn't really mean anything unless you get a gold disc."
I say it's good she's there, pushing for it.
"Yes, but what can I do about it?"
What indeed? For all their resilience and continuing excellence The Fall seemed to have reached a level of acceptance it's difficult to imagine them rising above. One of my favourite lines in a Fall song is "There is no culture is my brag". Typically dual-edged, it could mean that the prevailing pop culture is so impoverished as to be irrelevant or that the notion of culture as a series of systematic marketing strategies is wholly fatuous. Smith's career has been dedicated to his own notion of culture, of cool - a legacy of enduring indolence and withering depictions of British life and class matched only by Madness. But it's unlikely his insular language and abrasive world he's created will ever court the favour of the mainstream.
The Fall cover their tracks quickly, at times have got more complex, the literal mindedness and dogma of their peers has been rejected. The feisty rumble and angular approach of old has grown into a clenched mire of sound, trapping you deeper than ever in Smith's universe; a fine policy for Britain's most consistently imaginative and inventive rock band, now exploring the virtues of implosion as well as explosion, intimacy as well as animation.
Some complain that there's no direct meaning in Fall songs, but they miss the point. In this world, moods are conjured up then split asunder; the words, often just noises to get the line hashes across don't represent one sacrosanct viewpoint but a variety of characters and opinions. The beer addled ogre of 'The Classical', the apathetic suburbanite of 'Living Too Late' or the shaman behind 'What You Need'...
Continuing the towering success of 'The Wonderful And Frightening World' and 'This Nation's Saving Grace', 'Bend Sinister' casts The Fall sound even further to provide remedies for jaded ears - 'The Riddler' is a brooding folk chant delivered from the depths of delirium, 'MES in Shoulder Pads' is organ-pepped, jokily self-deprecating Europop and 'US '80s and '90s' is my personal favourite - a futuristic rap trap with a vision of past, present and future repression in The Land Of The Free applied and accepted by "codes of silence".
Praise should also go to The Fall members who amassed the voluminous soundscapes, "the well-produced bedroom sound" as Smith calls it. Young drummer John Woolstencroft, bassist Stephen Hanley, guitar FX man Craig Scanlon and Simon Rogers, whose battery of synth/computer and classical training also earns him money scoring soundtracks at the BBC and, hopefully, soon in feature films. It's said Mark treats them dictatorially.
"Only a bit, it's not like some Kevin Rowland type loony. They can do what they like, I only get on their backs when they start shouting at roadies or behaving like bloody rock-stars. They do it for pure love, really; it's quite touching in a way. I think they get a lot more out of it than me; when I come offstage it's a big weight off my shoulders."
Yet he's still the one who gets all the acclaim.
"I think they should get more notice, but that's not really up to me. You get people who try to interview the rest of the band and they deliberately say nowt because they know they're being patronised."
IN THE MOST penetrating analysis of the Smith muse I've yet read, Mark Sinker (writing in The Wire) revealed how ingestion of hallucinogens and the sighting of ghosts in adolescence were decisive factors in shaping Smith's grotesque Fall country. A frightening time?
"No I was interested to think and read about ghosts so I wasn't scared. Mind you, if I saw one now I'd freak out. The same with acid: I liked to go places, do things with it but now I couldn't handle it. It was a funny time in my life but it was good to have, a shame to lose it in a way. But even now I can feel an atmosphere when I go into a place. Like in Berlin, man, you know something horrible happened there, there's so many bad stories just hanging in the air.
"But I think the occult is a morbid fascination. That's what got me out of it all. In Manchester I used to know a lot of psychics, Kay (Carroll, former manager and girlfriend) was psychic. It's a funny thing a lot of psychics never have any money and they always have bad luck. They're like vessels on the world, it travels through them but doesn't stick with them.
Religion is usually embraced by those who can't come to terms with such experiences, but the new song 'Terry Waits Sez' - where the continent-hopping emissary is said to be doing his good deeds because he can't cope "with the pressure of his own life" - suggests Smith was not one of those.
"No way, my dad hated if vicars came to the door. He'd slam it in their face before they could say a word. My Grandad is even worse, he's obssessively anti-church, wants to burn them all to the ground. S'funny with old fella's, either they must have been really screwed up by it or they know more about it then we do. I guess they must have had it hard in them days, must have had to do what the church said in a lot of things."
Aren't you impressed by the clergy speaking out on social issues then?
"You must be joking. The English church is the most ridiculous thing in the world, it's hilarious. I think being a vicar must be such a good job, a real easy job to have. What I can't understand is why the C of E had the Pope in their church when he came over. Why did they bother splitting up in the first place? What I don't like about it all is that they seem to be trying to get people back into church. I mistrust it all, people think they have got to say something. It's a big disease of our time, pressure groups. They cause a lot of trouble."
So they should just sit back and let the powers that be get on with it?
"No, I'm not talking about things like South Africa. People think because some loony writes into the paper that's what a lot of people think, when in fact 99 out of 100 people never form groups. People are told to have opinions on things they'd never have thought about in a million years, be it anti-smoking or anti-cheese. Some people have nothing better to do than interfere with the freedoms in other people's lives. I think it's dead evil, it's not a matter of left or right, it's just dead wrong."
MR AND MRS Smith spend Christmas with Brix's parents in America. When they're not watching endless re-runs of The Twilight Zone, it affords Mark a chance to examine the upper echelons of US high society. When he first visited the States five years ago he reckoned it was a much more open society than Britain, a notion he's since discarded.
"I always say to US immigration when they won't give us our visas, do you think we'd want to live in this dump? I sincerely mean that - even if I was a millionaire I wouldn't live there. If you've no money there you're a shit; at least in Britain they pretend to your face you're OK. I find the callousness horrible."
But surely it's getting the same in Britain?
"Yeah, it's the same sort of soulessness. Part of that is British people believing what they're told, like the Dutch give you shit for being violent and aggressive. Today I was just waiting for someone to mention South Africa, and I would have said it's your fucking problem, mate. The ruling party are all Dutch."
But the English descendants are hardly any different.
"They were in Rhodesia, they gave it back to them. S'alright there now, it works well. You'd never get that in South Africa because it's the Dutch, the Boers."
The original Orangemen?
"That's right. It makes me laugh. If Britain did the right thing - sent an army in to depose the government - all these bastards would go, 'Fucking aggressive warmongers'.
"That's what's great about Britain, people are really guilty about South Africa - which is really healthy. At least people are thinking about it whereas here people don't even think about it. But I don't know about sanctions. Sanctions is the business mind's magic word and I don't think they'd give a shit about it. They're so fuckin' bluff, they're goading Britain onto sanctions, so I doubt they'd make any difference.
"What you want is a task force there; that's what the UN should be for. It's like Hitler, they should've stopped him but they didn't. The UN is a con anyway, we're paying money so that they can put British working class people out of work."
Just like the Common Market?
"Yeah, what a con that was. I voted yes on that. Do you remember? They put it across that only an extreme nutcase would even consider voting no. So even I was persuaded."
IN LAST year's Christmas issue of NME, Smith exposed his flair as a sub-culture critic (an underlying theme in many Fall songs) in a prose piece. He admits to having found it "bloody hard" to write.
"I used to write a lot of prose on and off. When we were doing 'Hex' I was doing stories all the time and the songs were like the bits left over. I thought this is crazy, you're taking yourself too seriously, like Norman Mailer but writing for no actual gain.
"I always worry about Nick (Cave), he thinks I'm being sarcastic. I say you should write a book but don't put all that stuff in it because it's rubbish. Writing a book must be dead hard, you don't get any feedback for two years and when you do it might be bad. You never have any judgement on it, most of the people who bring out books are bloody charlatans anyway, it's disgraceful.
"My approach to writing has definitely changed. I used to get into the serious thing of loads of words, couldn't get enough into a song. You end up dead pretentious.
"That's what I like about 'Riddler', it's dead slow and there's not a lot said in it but it sort of stops people in their tracks. I always remember we used to shout 'Riddler' when we were kids in Salford, but I can't remember what for, it's still a sort of mystery."
A folk tale of a different kind supplied the background for another new song, 'Doctor Faustus', a duet betwixt he and Brix.
"I don't really like working with other voices but 'Faustus' is 0K because the mix is fucked up - the backing vocals are at the level the lead vocals should be. It works because it sounds like hell straining to break through.
"People go to me, 'Is that Faustus by Goethe or Faustus by Mann?', but I read it in a fairytale book. Somebody gave me a copy of this Goethe book and the drawings of Faustus are the spitting image of me. But I couldn't cope with the book, too hard. Not that I'm a simple fellow or anything but you have to give those things a lot of time.
In his songs Smith is a writer with a rapper's quick-witted spontaneity, a rapper with a writer's breadth and alacrity. Does he see similarities between electro rap and The Fall?
"I like the way it's totally non musical. I don't like Run DMC at all, I like the poppy stuff like Whodini and the jokey stuff like The Get Fresh Crew. Objectively, it's like some of The Fall stuff, the way these guys have the arrogance to believe that people will be interested in these long raps about what socks they put on. It's dead humorous and bitter - I like that. But I think it's getting like reggae and rock'n'roll did in their early days, most of the best stuff has come and gone."
Once it gets co-opted into adverts, the danger signs alight.
"Adverts have gone to new heights of disgustingness, I think they're a good deal of what's responsible for ruining youth. I hate it, hate the cultural implications of it. All these smart people are going into it and they treat it like art. You see one for training shoes and there's bleedin' Wagner in the background, more money spent on it than the rest of the TV schedule.
"I'm not against it altogether but you can see a lot of young people feel really useless and it's because of the adverts. You must remember when we was kids adverts didn't even touch on youth whereas teenagers today feel totally inadequate. They need L10 a week just to start looking cool. And it's usually rubbish, dead tatty.
"All the really talented guys who in other times would be making films are going in there and being really smug. Frankie typified that for me, false smartness, using the media, all that situationist garbage about getting into the system. All the symbolism and secret jokes.
"It affects everything, it ruins pubs. I mean I object to this thing that says bitter drinkers are moronic thugs. So you go to a pub now and you get all these working-class lads fitting into some adman's image of what working class yobs should be like."
So there's no product you'd like to endorse or be sponsored by?
"Oh certainly, not Swatch watches or anything like that, even lager is getting a little hackneyed now. Personally I'd like to do something with cigarettes. That would get up a few noses."
LIKE EVERYONE else Smith is sick and tired of the 10-years-since-punk palaver.
"The whole thing's bizarre, at least six of them have been a real struggle for us, like a bad accident you just want to forget, pure fucking sorrow really. People ask me how we recorded such and such and I can't even remember writing the fucker."
But despite a parallel development to all the others from the class of '76 and a reluctance to relive past glories, the tag of Prole Art Threat still follows him around.
"I hate that image of me hating everything that's middle class. I can go on about it all day, mind you, but it's horrible when people are frightened of you because of it. Really they're just other people with their own set of problems. I remember reading an interview with a group who said everybody who went to Eton should be shot. Fuckin hell I thought - I don't envy anybody who had to go to Eton, that's punishment enough, surely.
"But it is amazing when you do college gigs and you get some 19 year old social secretary talking to you like a school teacher. Suddenly everything just boils up - I remember getting one little twat and dangling him out the window. I couldn't believe anyone would still dare talk to people after that.
"A lot of that is a class thing, people telling others what's good for them. I hate it when they're thick as well, there's nothing worse than a thick posh person.
"People go on about Europe and how great it is and they say get rid of the monarchy. But when you have the middle class in charge you've got the germs for a real evil society. People forget that the SS weren't skinhead thugs, they were doctors and lawyers, guys with a grudge. Give me the Queen anyday."
A disgusting waste of money.
"I agree but it affects your whole outlook. What do you want, to have her on a bicycle eating chips like they do in France, punishing her with half the dole rate."
Fair enough, day's work wouldn't harm the royal family.
"I'm not fucking crying for them but when you're rich you can't work for a living. It's not their fault, they've just been brought up a certain way.
"I always thought what the working classes did in rock was very interesting, I sound like a bleeding Marxist, but I thought it was weird that even bands that were good always pretended to be Yanks and sing about Cadillacs when British life is just as interesting.
"That's one of the good things about the last 10 years in music, even The Clash were good for that; people forget how weird that was when they mentioned London in a song back then. But you have to go on from that or else you end up writing 'Panic'."
Did you consciously set out to write about the working class in rock?
"Well I didn't know anything else, you don't know what you've never had. Like most people in this country I was brought up to believe you're in the best off, freest, greatest society in the world. Did you get that in Northern Ireland?"
Well, you're given high expectations.
"I don't think they'd do that now, even here, the way the country's split, total hatred between the North and South. I mean even 10 years ago Sheffield, Liverpool and Birmingham were like bustling cities.
"But the old people still believe it, that's why Live Aid was so popular. Me grandma's there on L10 a week and she's going, Oh those poor African people. She's got great sympathy for everyone else. Which is quite beautiful in a way, poor people in Britain are the most passionate people in the world.
"Like in that programme Granada did showing the different stages
of life for schoolkids from the '60s. The working class kids were so concerned
for the well-off ones, worried about the pressure they were under. They
didn't envy them at all. Scousers are like that too, your real Scouser that's
been there a few generations, real gentle people, like Harry Cross except
nice. They go on about justice, like one of our fans who went up to G/Mex
to see us. He's going 'Ten years to celebrate, celebrating all these crappy
bands making it, they should be crying. Ten years to produce these horrible
groups, it's terrible'. He was really concerned for us and he'd practically
walked from Liverpool to see the show. We're going, it's alright mate. It's
not that bad."