Dave Haslam, "The Fall"
Debris (#16), 1988, pp. 22-23
[Thanks to Philip Johnson for posting this article]
Mark E. Smith took me to a Joseph Holts pub on a hill, and we talked there till we got interrupted by some Masons-like meeting. At his house he chided me for revealing his age in DEBRIS 14, but I blundered on, searching for his views on black pudding, hit records, perversity, The Fall on 'The Roxy', girls in bands and hip-hop. He looked much the same as he did on our tele, only bigger and in colour.
'Hit The North' started out as a tune written by Brix Smith and Simon Rogers ("the most South London guy you could ever meet," says Mark). It just sounded strong as an instrumental, a kind of 'Peter Gunn', but Mark took to writing couplets and shouting the 'Hit The North' slogan.
I tried to compare the use of a slogan with Morrissey's "Shoplifters of the world unite!" Smith thought differently: "No, I thought that was very Sex Pistols; it was deliberately and heavy-handedly controversial, whereas 'Hit The North' has a dual meaning; punish it, or go there. When we did the video in Blackpool we were in a Yates' Wine Lodge and all these rugby teams were going 'Hit the North? What's that mean then?' And this girl behind the bar was great; she said 'In America they say "Let's hit L.A.," and they just mean "Let's go there.".' Eventually all the old dears joined in and everyone was having a big rap about what it meant.
"My basic attitude is that I'd rather live here than in the South and it always has been. I don't really care where anybody lives, though, and I think this North/South divide is nonsense. I don't envy anyone who lives in Reading, Swindon, or Northampton; they're horrible new towns and the people are spiritually dead down there."
But grab this for an extreme Cologne/Prestwich preconception: "I was out shopping for a present for a relation. Cologne is incredible; everybody seems stinking rich and the streets are packed with BMWs and everywhere you get strapping bronzed kids. And there are all these antique shops the size of Woolworths with complete lounges in them. I ended up in this Czarist shop full of original Russian icons. I went looking for the cheapest thing in the shop basically, and they had all these paintings of Russian Orthodox Saints and all this Czarist stuff. Anyway, I bought this little thing, and the woman behind the counter asked me where I was from. When I told her, she said "I'm so sorry... I'm so sorry, it's so sad for the Manchester people; it was all so vibrant and now they're all out of work and they've got no food." She was genuinely concerned. She seemed to think I was from some mud hut in the most tragic place on earth."
The intrepid Smiths often find themselves on business in London town: "We go there a lot, but I can still get more real work done here at home. In London you've done a good day's work if you've done two things. There's so much traffic and so much travelling you can't get anything done. If I go and see the record company for an hour, it takes me all day to get across London and back.
When I go to London I get dirty and smelly and harassed and depressed. "Yeah, when I go I end up pissed out of my head all the time. I can't stand it."
But The Fall have always done well in London: "The London audience for The Fall has always been totally behind us. Manchester has often been our worst audience; we've had more in Glasgow. It's only recently that we've picked up again here."
God, if I've got to convince you of The Fall's greatness, you shouldn't be reading DEBRIS. They've made a mistake or two, but show me a desert island where I could play these discs and I'll swim there: 'Bingo Master's Break-Out', 'Lay Of The Land', 'Put Away', 'Fiery Jack', 'L.A.', 'How I Wrote Elastic Man', 'No Bulbs', 'Hip Priest', 'Spoilt Victorian Child', 'Australians In Europe', 'Fit And Working Again', 'Wings', 'The Man Whose Head Expanded', 'Mess Of My', 'U.S. 80s-90s', 'Haf Found Bormann', 'Lie-Dream Of A Casino Soul', 'Smile', 'Living Too Late'... I remember Peel saying that his highlight of 1980 was the bit in 'Container Drivers' where two-thirds of the way through there's a massive extra-banging drum roll. In turn, I'll take the set I saw them play at Fagins with two drummers in 1981 as my favourite Fall moment.
There are more great tunes to come; 'My Friends You Can Count On The Fingers Of One Hand' and 'Bremen' for two. The next LP is due out in February and there's another hit single on it: "Yeah, the follow-up to 'Hit The North' is on it. It's another cover version and it's a secret so I won't tell you what it is. There's nothing on the LP like 'Hit The North'. There's one greasy rock 'n' roll song with acoustic guitars, snapping fingers, and the lads imitating Dion and the Belmonts. The whole LP is very gutsy, there aren't really any choruses on it, and there are a couple of seven-minute tunes."
The Fall seem to have no trouble selling singles these days. Has Smith always wanted to write songs that are commercially successful? "I've always thought our singles were dead commercial and I wouldn't have released them otherwise. They've always been topical, a bit different from our album stuff, and something a little wacky. I thought 'Totally Wired' was a Top 5 cert! Of course, nobody else did, but you have to be a bit determined and psycho like that. 'Marquis Cha-Cha' sold nothing, but I was dead proud of it; I thought it was what a single should be about." Fall singles, though, are desperately UNLIKE singles by any other band, especially any band likely to make the Top 100. For one thing, they tend to be brilliant records. You can still feel the earth move when The Fall get on tele. The Fall in the charts is still an oddity, isn't it? "Of course it is, and that's the charm of it."
Is it still as enjoyable as it was? "More, yes."
But don't you feel a tiny bit uncomfortable in the belly of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman world, and all that gross uniformity in the charts? Don't you feel like Jonah in the whale?
"No, I don't think that their music will last. Their audience will soon grow out of them. I don't hate Pepsi & Shirlie. I say good luck to them, because they're not going to have much more of a shot. The kids down at the recording of 'The Roxy' had never heard of The Fall before, but they genuinely liked us. You could really tell that, that we gave them something. And that's great."
But Mark's not a big fan of 'The Roxy': "I had to find out what channel it was on. I'd never considered watching it before. When 'Top Of The Pops' comes on I walk out, and it was the same with 'The Roxy'; it just makes me feel sick. It's a weird scene, all that kind of thing."
I feel totally cut-off from it all. I don't know anyone who buys those chart records. For me, those programmes are like watching Italian films without subtitles; I just can't understand them...
"For sure, but you can't stop and get worried about being on it. We're taking a bit of a risk being on a programme like that because you get all these NME-type readers who think The Fall on 'The Roxy' is the worst thing that has ever happened."
'Hit The North' is a very Fall song. It's unmistakable, it's witty, it's powerful and it's hard for me to understand why you get those letters in the music papers saying that The Fall have sold out; is it just because they want a band to repeat a formula time-by-time, year-by-year?... Nine years later, do we want a collection of thirteen different versions of 'Bingo Master's Break-Out'? Mark?
"If I write a song and it reminds me of something else I usually rip it up. I throw it away because it doesn't excite me and I realise I'm listening to one of my old songs in the back of my head. A lot of groups keep playing the same song. REM for instance; I can't tell one of their songs from another."
So when people complain that The Fall have changed, they don't, presumably, appreciate that that's the point; "You can't win with some people. I've been through this for so long, it just doesn't bother me now. When 'Dragnet' came out, even I had people writing to me complaining that I'd sold out because it didn't sound like 'Live At The Witch Trials'. I usually find that if you just do what you feel like it's usually for the best. At times in the studio people say 'Fall fans are going to have a fit when they hear this!'"
And you say "Good"? "No, I don't say 'Good', but I don't change it."
So are you telling me that there's an element of perversity in the way you work? "You know me, Dave, so you'll have to make your own mind up about that. There is a bit, but I'm not going to let it get in my way. I'm not going to rub off a good sax sound and put a normal Fall routing-rhythm-guitar work on it. I think that would be a dull thing to do.
"When 'Bend Sinister' was reviewed in SOUNDS some berk wrote that 'some of it's great, but some of it sounds like the dreaded hip-hop'. I just couldn't believe it. Dicks! I firmly believe that rap music is the most literate music we've got at the moment. Not just more literate than Phil Collins or something or even those so-called independent groups; what are they singing about? Love? And how depressed they are? Whereas those black acts are more like what I've been trying to do for years, and yet [for] some reason some people think that's trash, and some ponces playing acoustic guitars are lauded.
"I agree that some of the rap lyrics are sexist about some things, and that's bad, but the spirit of what they're actually doing is something that's been missing for decades. Rap is a lot closer to the spirit of 50s rock 'n' roll than anything else. It's certainly talking about things that are happening in reality and not hiding somewhere.
"Obviously, though, I wouldn't want The Fall to be any kind of a rap group because my style is totally different and we're a good rock group. I wouldn't want to force it like the Age Of Chance. I wish them all the best, but it doesn't work. They went from trying to copy The Fall, to copying rap. They take things wholesale, probably because they've got nothing to say for themselves."
I wondered about survival. Is it survival of the fittest, the wettest, the strongest-willed, or the most persistent...? I wondered why it is that Smith has continued with a group, whereas Robert Lloyd, for instance - who started out working in a similar vein to Smith in The Prefects, then The Nightingales, and now The New Four Seasons - never seems to have had any kind of consistent or resilient following. He's always had to run away every few years to get away from something or other.
"I've always been a big fan of Robert's and I've always loved his writing but he's always been like that; he won't crack down to it. I had to make the decision after two or three years of this band that we either had to work or we had to get out.
"In a way, it was good that we were slagged off more than people like him because it's made me harder. The more people went against me, the stronger I've become. My basic position has stayed the same, that I want the group to have a decent wage and for us to do what we want.
"And plenty of people have come round to us, I think. People have written off rap every few months, but it's doing better now than ever. In 1980 we were out-of-date punk rockers and I just knew [we] weren't. It's what makes me laugh, thinking of all those people who say that nothing we're doing now is as good as 'Grotesque'. When 'Grotesque' came out, the same people slagged it off and told everyone that it was Blue Rondo who were 'in'!"
In 1986 Mark Smith produced a play, in 1988 he's going to be running a record label - Cog Sinister (distributed by Rough Trade) - since 1977 he's been in The Fall. This man drinking here; is he a Renaissance man, or a Northern folk hero? is he going to end up a novelist or a record company exec? "I don't know and I'm not particularly bothered."
Brix came in, worried about her age, and I tried to reassure her that age is not a problem. Later, Mark agreed; "I was watching 'Neighbours' yesterday and Clive said 'Who'd be sixteen again?' And I knew what he meant; it's horrible being a kid. You're upset all the time. It does get a lot better as you get older."
It's clear that Brix, and then Marcia, have re-invigorated the band; "I find it easier to work with women than with men in the group. The women have got better suss, they're good; they don't get pissed and they don't take drugs, whereas we've had problems with men like that. The lads in the band now are great, and that's why they're still in there, because you can really depend on them. It's a pleasure to work with people who aren't any problem, who haven't got any hang-ups and shit. It's so rare to get a guitarist who's capable of going to a shop and getting a loaf of bread. Most of them can't; most of them are too much into the Keith Richard shit to know what the fuck is going on. Obviously Brix is nothing like that, and she's a better guitarist than most of them."
He'd told me that the usual Tyne-Tees TV trick was pulled on 'The Roxy', with the cameras pointing up the girls' skirts and so on. I wondered if he found it hard to take, that kind of attention focused on his wife. "Yes, but Brix doesn't need any protection from me."
I've seen you attack members of the audience, though... "Me?"
Yes. "Well, I've always been capable of that, yeah. At the Free Trade Hall last year we had some trouble with kids getting on the stage. I'll have nothing to do with people like that. I wouldn't do it if they were on the stage. And what reaction do they expect? I've seen guys on stage who've not done anything when the girl singer has been spat on or something and I just wonder, have they no dignity?"
There was another time (it's all coming out now, isn't it readers?) at the Poly old building in '80 or '81 when you went after somebody who was chucking beer glasses at you, wasn't there? "Yes, and what am I supposed to do? I'm not frightened of people like that. People went on about how that Mark Smith is mad, going out and attacking members of the audience, but I wasn't going to just stand there. Would you? That sort of thing doesn't happen much at all now, but we used to get it in the old days because we didn't have chains on and all that shit. People who did that, who threw the stuff, aren't tough; they're just fucked-up. I've got no respect for people like that."
We'd talked before the tape came on and after the tape finished. He told me about the Butthole Surfers and their dirty underpants.
And we had a long discussion on the decline of the British black pudding. When once it was something worth a trek for, these days it comes processed, sliced, wrapped and tasting like a burger. I don't eat them because I'm a veggie, and he doesn't eat them because you can't get a good one anymore; "Even up towards Bury you can't get one. You'd think there'd be factories for them, giving all the unemployed people work. Brix doesn't like them anyway; I cooked one for her when she first came over which she was chewing on until I told her it was made of dried blood. She spat it out."
The day after I met Mark it was Brix's birthday. This time I'll keep
her age secret, not wishing to feel the wrath of Smith's bombast a second
time. I gave them some copies of 'Head Over Ears' and Mark walked me to
the bus on his way to the shop to get cigarettes. And then we parted; my
favourite rock superstar was off home.