The Stud Brothers, "Perverted By Language"
MELODY MAKER, October 4, 1986, pp. 10-11, 46.
"THE wonderful and frightening world of the Fall" or 'The misunderstanding of the Prole Art Threat".
MARK was admitted to a psychiatric ward when he was 18. He'd been flown home from the mental hospital in Santiago, Chile. He was deep in thought and lost to the world for much of the time, frowning and preoccupied with the imaginary voices he could hear. He said they were the voices of two people, unknown to him, discussing him in a running commentary, predicting all his movements with uncanny accuracy. He was certain there was a Communist conspiracy to brainwash him by intricate, remotely-controlled means but he could not say how. He saw strange and extremely important meanings in simple actions around him. When one of us shook his hand he said: "I see, that's it then." He appeared to be puzzling out the dire meanings of the sounds of cars passing and the shapes of clouds in the sky.
One day, he lay in bed in a peculiar position, partially curled up but looking very awkward and uncomfortable.
Eventually he told us that he lay that way because he was a "PRAWN". We asked him to explain further and he replied that political machinations were directed against him in which he was but a ''PAWN" ... with an R in it for RUSSIA.
It's a sad story, he was a friend of ours, but it's not sad enough to stop you laughing. It might be an allegorical explanation for The Fall, or at least part of their wonderful and frightening world. It's certainly the sort of story Mark E Smith likes -- it's true, paranoic, linguistically perverse, tragic, comic, brutal and all-too-human.
Those who enjoy such stories have an ear and an eye for the absurd, the striking and the real and a perspective that's thoughtful enough to render them immune to the obvious pain but allows them to laugh at the twisted logic. The world is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel.
Mark E Smith is a thinker, it was immediately obvious. Sitting before a low, mug-stained coffee-table in Kentish Town, we were only half-aware of "News At One". Smith sat glued to the screen watching Norman Fowler summon the battered remains of his courage to explain his pensions policy, how the Government plans "to surmount the problem of the elderly".
"The problem of the elderly," beamed Smith, "What a great phrase." Mark Smith is a nice man who loves nasty ideas, a pervert.
"I'll put a line like that in a song, an outrageous line, sometimes you get things that mean absolutely nothing but just sound great... like 'ghoulish tinkering is not science."
Mark E Smith is fascinated by the virtually subliminal slips in communication that he constantly observes around him, normally tripping itself up. His own perversity of opinion allows him the luxury to listen to, watch and record others' unconscious disorders of language and thinking. He takes what is already out of context (the mad) and finds for it a new home (madder still). This cryptic cynicism and voyeurism is the root of The Fall's language, the reason why they can be both brilliant and appalling.
When Smith's keyhole vision becomes too personal, the language becomes an almost formless jumble, a word salad that could justifiably be described as meaningless if we choose to see meaning as the direct imparting of a general truth.
The Fall's excellence, though, comes from disturbing clarity rather than obliterating it, meaning it changes to become less sharp. And in the shadows, the lyrics begin to take on an abstract quality that lies far beyond normal discourse yet draws upon it completely. For The Fall, normality and the significance of different words are telescoped together to form unique and idiosyncratic creations that are understood only fully by Smith if indeed they are understood even by him. He is, to say the least, vague about his writing.
"I don't know what I'm writing about, I'm just writing. That's all I can say about it really."
To explain the inexplicable is a fruitless not to say impossible task, but to explain why something is inexplicable is more worthwhile. Like Buddhism and Anarchism it's impossible to say what The Fall are, but it's easy to say what they're not. They're not The Clash or Cure, soap-box ranters or black rappers. They're not The Cramps or The Bangles, Nazis or Communists. Of course they are all of these things, but never all at once, or maybe always all at once. We're not so arrogant as to attempt to explain.
Their efforts at neologisms, amendments of syntax, queer information, the splitting of words, even syllables and the equivalent operation they apply live to their whole non-verbal language of expression and gesture act as a smoke screen behind which to hide and mock those around them. Smith's lyrics have no certain designs upon us. Unlike others of his generation who saw themselves as either prophets or politicians, he has not and has never had any palpable desire to ram his hands down our trousers. Unlike Siouxsie, Weller, Lydon and Morrissey, Smith is so far out on a limb he is beyond parody.
His writing is great because it's messageless and unobtrusive but it still gets to you. The collage of cuttings, phrases and words surprises and shocks, not by the singularity of the message, but by its disparate and conflicting excess. You have to be confused to be in love with The Fall and it helps to be English. The Fall strike us as a wording of our own confusion.
Those who are bored and worried but not disturbed by Smith's obnoxious, contentious and often deliberately obtruse statements misunderstand The Fall. Those who are disturbed by Smith's willingness to contradict statements earlier made with adamance also misunderstand The Fall. Smith is no guiding light, he has no crusade. He uses and strengthens his intellect by adamantly making his mind up about nothing. He is the quite unconscious thoroughfare for all thoughts and that's what makes him perverse. Words are Smith's research, his reference, his job and his entertainment. Words are Smith's most powerful drug.
"Perverted By Language" or "The White Crap Talks Back"...
Can an interview with Mark Smith help to explain anything? After all, he is, by reputation an outspoken bastard, and able to lead us up the garden path.
Does it serve any purpose whatsoever?
Smith sucked purposefully on his cigarette.
"Well, I enjoy them-- I enjoy talking to people in general, you don't really talk to people in general, it's very rare."
But surely he must find some of his more bigoted or hilariously reactionary rantings posthumously embarassing
"Oh yeah, all the time, I cringe with it. I never read it, I read snatches of it like I read everything else. It's good press so it's positive. Basically musicians have got nothing to say and music, if it's any good, you shouldn't have to write about it at all."
We reddened slightly. We had plans afoot to write a long, profoundly investigative piece on The Fall's abstractions. It all seemed so pointless now. If Smith is unable or unwilling to explain his own music, he has a book's worth of opinion on other people's. The very mention of The Housemartins sent him into an animated, almost euphoric frenzy.
"That album title was the most ridiculous thing, what was it, "London 0 Hull 4'? They are grotesquely ugly people though. They're like people you don't wanna meet ... ever. But just their whole attitude stinks, all their Fred Perry shirts, you know. It's all condescending to me. And Hull, Hull is a horrible place."
Hull is a horrible place and, yes, The Housemartins are as ugly as sin and it's difficult to see their stance as anything but patronising. But, in spite of all that, don't they have some kind of ill-conceived benificence? They do indisputedly play benefits.
Smith stubbed out his cigarette and looked hurt. His expression suggested he considered benefits to be nauseating. Our discussion then moved rapidly on to the extreme ugliness of everyone who choses to play benefits. The more we talked the less it looked like coincidence -- there was Howard Jones, Lloyd Cole, Big Country, Jim Kerr, Tom Robinson. It was endless, there had to be some conspiracy. "Billy Bragg," one of us shouted with enthusiasm, he plays benefits!"
"Only for large expenses. Blackleg Bragg as we know him, he's got Pink Floyd's ex-manager," said Smith with some satisfaction.
But there were still The Redskins. They may be ugly but at least they have some musical aptitude.
"The Redskins rip all their music off the bleeding Fall, they even admit that. Anyone in their late twenties who dresses up like a skinhead is a fucking retard as for as I'm concerned. To be a skinhead, you've got to be under 15 for a start, you grow out of being a skinhead by the age of 15 if you've got any guts. But The Redskins, they're alright. They rip all their music off us. Ask him, he'll tell you. I feel a bit sorry for them, 29-year-old guys dressed up as 14 -year-olds. It's a bit sad," Mark observed, laughing ferociously. The world's comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel .
"Bend Sinister" or "The Threat To Prole Art"...
"I THINK it's great, being on the dole. All my sisters are on the dole. I say 'Yeah, great, get into it mon.' My ambition was to be on the dole when I left school. But I think the dole rate in Britain is horribly low ... unless you've got nine fucking horrible kids. You should get L35 whereas a guy who's got fucking eight kids who's totally irresponsible, like he can't even use a Durex, gets L200 a week. The guy's a dick, you know, he should be punished for that. He should be given L25 and the others should get L100 ... in my eyes. I mean, what is the whole system for? To support people who can't get work. I think it's a great system. I always think the whole idea of civilisation is to get everybody on the dole, surely. I mean, everybody's going 'Give us work'. I think 'Why the fuck do they want work?' They only want work because they can't live on the dole."
Often he seems to speak one moment before he thinks. The Sun Says, Mark Smith Says, but not quite. Is it spontaneous, unthinking, gut-reaction vitriol or maybe throwing out the trash for clarity of vision. Sweeping the desk clean, kicking against the pricks, he may have changed but he's always been this way. Several weeks ago, Channel 4, in their infinite liberal wisdom, decided to reinflict the better forgotten punk rock on the viewing public. Was that really the way they were?
"They had XTC on for 10 minutes, it was terrible. And Elvis Costello's first appearance, you know, big deal. And Nick Lowe and all this, it brought back all this horror show, and what it was like in them days, it was really horrible. You know, people get nostalgic about it, it's fucking horrible. Tom Robinson, oh my God, it was a nightmare."
It's only refreshing feature was a younger, skinnier, spottier Mark Smith insulting Tony Wilson in a slightly higher Mancunian monotone.
"We were always dead into it, we were gonna kill all these groups that sounded like Genesis, which is interesting because it's all coming back. I mean, I went to this gig the other day and it was like being in a pub in 1973. The same old shit, they had flares, cowboy boots (this sounds like The Fields Of The Nephilim) and I was fucking heaving, I felt this panic, this sort of heaving vomiting coming on. I thought I'd never see this stuff again and they're back. These bastards are always gonna live, like cockroaches they never die."
If Mark Smith wasn't so arrogantly secure in his own splendid isolation, it would be tempting to believe that his contempt for his past supposed allies and his contemporaries is born out of bitterness -- after all, a great many of them have sold and are likely to sell far more records than he. But to think such things is to misunderstand The Fall, the reason for and the odd consequence of their limited appeal is their peculiar perspective. Not everyone loves a pervert and you have to be confused to love The Fall.
Mark E Smith has never craved Fall-mania, but isn't there at least a desire to cause a little hysteria ... neurotically speaking.
"It depends what you have to do, you know. If you have to bring out records with acoustic guitars and fucking lousy production, I don't wanna be big. And a chorus you repeat 9,000 times, I don't think it's very interesting."
Brix has said she wants you to be as big as The Bangles ...
"No. She just said we ought to sell a million records ... which, of course, we should."
Doesn't he worry that, in these times of increasing drabness, people might settle for safe mediocrity rather than the wonderful and frightening world of The Fall?
"I worry about declining popularity now and again but that doesn't really happen because our audience gets bigger as we go along."
It's a dull and naive question prompting an all-too-obvious answer but couldn't Mark Smith .... "Make a commercial record and get in the Top 4 ... yeah alright and we'll change the world. Fuck off, it doesn't matter. We're talking about a rock market which is basically undereducated. It's a very low-grade market."
If he weren't laughing so much you might think he considered it sad. "It's a fucking tragedy but, I mean, I'm not gonna go moping around like Simply Red did for years saying, 'we're so fucking good and we're not Number One in America,' you know what I mean? I mean, fuck off man. To me, if 500,000 people wanna watch AC/DC that's cool because I think AC/DC are cool. And if only 1,000 people wanna watch The Fall I think that's cool too."
Mark E Smith finished his coffee, slid back into his armchair and swept his long arms and bony white hands through the air and across his chest like some emaciated, rhetorical peacock turning into a sparrow or a junked out conductor calling an end to the proceedings.
If he had ever met our friend Mark his understanding would not have prevented his laughter. They may have made friends, they may not. It's impossible to tell if they are kindred spirits but it's certain they would have recognised each other. Mark E Smith would have straightened him out or creased him up.
Bent Sinister -- what a great phrase.