Mick Middles, "The North Will Rise"
Underground, November 1987, pp. 22-23
April 1977. Seventy badly dressed Mancunians wearily drag their Newcastle Brown bottles towards the crumbling wooden appendage which, through a heavily intoxicated vision, might pass for a stage. We are in a smelly shack known for obvious reasons as the The Squat Club. As it is situated arrogantly adjacent to Manchester's plush and pretentious Contract Theatre, the Squat Club seems to be the perfect place for punks to gather.
Four males and one female lift themselves from the crowd and assembly on the stage. They look, with the exception of the female, like a Tarmac gang. Even in this slovenly environment, the band's dress sense seems stunningly drab. The music they begin to produce completes the scene. A clumsy rock base is topped by a tinkly and wildly out of tune keyboard. But there's something about that singer... something exquisitely menacing.
"THE PSYCHIATRISTS MUST BE KILLED" he spits, with charismatic menace. Instantly I forgive him for wearing the most horrendous pink silk shirt known to man. At the front of the crowd, three fanzine editors duck as the singer's mic stand swings dangerously close to their heads. It is probably at this point that they decide to interview the band called The Fall.
Four months later, Fall manager Kay Carroll yelps with delight as the song, called Psycho Mafia, spits forth from the tiny Dansette on the mantelpiece. The surrounding flat is a vision of downmarket Bohemia. Sixties underground posters hug the walls, cigarette ends spill form the ashtrays and beer cans congregate by the feet of Mark E. Smith. He smiles with a faint whiff of cynicism as John Peel's voice replaces his own embittered drawl. John Peel has just played his first Fall record. Nobody realises the significance of the occasion.
As we are in 1977, we must realise that the music press of the day, whilst being full of spirit and fire, is also full of rather embarrassing naivete. Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, in search of a figurehead for their battle against the National Front, stumble across a bunch of antagonistic proles called The Fall at the Marquee. Impressed by the band's spirit, by their working class appearance and by their undiluted 'northerness,' the deadly duo invite Smith and Carroll down to the NME offices. The idea is to attach the tag, "The band who stand against the NF" to the Fall's shoulders, placing the band on the cover of the said organ. The idea is despicable. Furious at being seen as pawns in the NME's patronising little game, Smith and Carroll erupt and huge argument is followed by Burchill running tearfully out of the office. Parsons, meanwhile, assures the offended pair that his intentions are honourable, that the scam is more than a mere ego trip. With timing that is, at best, unfortunate, Nick Kent pops his head round the door. "Tony," he states in excitable tones, "Are you coming" We are all having our pictures taken."
This isn't the first time The Fall refuse the chance of an NME cover story as a matter of principle. Needless to say, the band Parsons and Burchill regarded as the great working class hope, fails to receive a single mention in their diatribe of the times, The Boy Looked at Johnny.'
Ten years later, Mark E. Smith sits smugly in the Prestwich house he shares with this wife, Brix. He scans The Fall's discography with pride before handing me this impressive list. Substance indeed. My mind flashes back across the memories provided by the astonishing 20 singles and 12 albums. Remember the Buzzcocks pastiche, It's the New Thing? The totally dry Totally Wired which dented the top ten in New Zealand, or the hilarious football hymn, Kicker Conspiracy? No band has ever captured the absurdity of ordinary working class life as effectively as The Fall. Mark E. Smith has consistently used the surrealism of his own back yard to colour his bizarre aural poetry.
Significantly, Mark and Brix's house is situated less than 100 yards from Smith's former primary school. He clearly still loves the area and literally dreads the day when his fame may elevate him, no doubt kicking and screaming, from his beloved ordinariness. Still, with the chart activity of their cover of R. Dean Taylor's There's a Ghost in My House earlier this year, Smith was flirting with this possibility.
"The hit record did make things easier for us," he states philosophically. "Since then it's been better for us when we play. It is weird round here. The people are dead proud of the Fall. They are genuinely pleased for us which surprised me because, just prior to Ghost, I was dreading it. We do get kids standing outside the house, which I've always had to some extent but now it's nine or ten year-olds which I don't really like."
There have been other breakthroughs this year. I for one, never thought I'd see The Fall play Reading or, even worse, supporting the godawful U2.
"Reading was ... well, I wouldn't like to be in that scene. It was really depressing to see 20,000 Quo fans all aged about 35 and all pissed out of their heads. There were about 3,000 people at the front to see us and 20,000 behind them throwing stuff. As far as U2 is concerned, I didn't want to play it. We actually played to do them a favour as the previous band dropped out, but the press attacked us for playing for the money. To feel the hatred from the U2 fans was great. I know U2 are all religious and we must have seemed like a bunch of Satanists to that crowd. They bombarded us but we didn't care, we could handle it. Incidentally, the Mission flopped after us, as they did at Reading ... ha! Well, the idea was to play those big gigs and then stop playing until January."
However, in the midst of this gigless period -- their first for nine years -- The Fall have released a single. Called, rather aptly, Hit the North, it sees the band in a fiery hip hop mood. With a nod towards the scene that has replaced the northern soul phenomenon, Hit the North aims to take Smith's subversive genius back onto the northern dancefloors. It's a noticeably attractive record; is it, I wonder, a play for a second hit? Smith shrugs before admitting, " Yeah, maybe. I don't see why not, there's nothing better up there."
Which is hardly the point, but never mind. There is another project at hand, a new record label which should see Smith delving into his extensive back catalogue.
"The label will be called Cog Sinister Records Limited. The first release, on November 28, will be a compilation of Fall stuff from the Rough Trade period. I don't wish to exploit this, it's simply a way of letting people get hold of old Fall stuff. I have all the old Fall tapes stored upstairs and all the publishing rights. This stems back to the days when I used to rip contracts up. I just didn't believe in them which, I'm telling you, was insanity at the time. But now it's proved worth it. It was worth starving the band for."
Believe me, The Fall have endured their fair share of lean periods. Happily, although hardly encumbered by wealth, Mark and Brix are languishing in hard earned mild comforts. Brix slides home from an Adult Net practice session in her BMW as, get this, two leather filofaxes sit conspicuously on the table.
Brix exudes ambition. A single minded, competitive and highly talented lady, she literally shakes with frustration at a minor setback. Apparently the present members of her spin-off band The Adult Net (amazingly, Mike Joyce, Andy Rourke and Craig Gannon) have displayed a reluctance to go on tour with the unit. The conversation begins to drift towards the sordid demise of Joyce and Rourke's former house of employment, the Smiths. Not wishing to hear the gruesome details I drag Mark E. Smith out and away in the general direction of the local off licence. Outside in the street a gang of repulsive 13 year olds search for ways of causing pointless trouble. Mark E. Smith looks on with an uncharacteristic wistful air.
"I used to be just like them, causing trouble in the streets. I used to think it was really good."
He is openly proud of these kids and their unpretentious local suss. Unlike certain other Mancunian stars, Smith has not evolved into a paranoiac tragedy. He has more sense than that. He is quite uniquely, unchanged.