David Stubbs, "The Indelible Prinz"
MELODY MAKER, November 12, 1988, pp. 8-9
"I'LL TELL YOU SOMETHING THAT REALLY annoys me," announces Mark E. Smith, in the manner of one unaccustomed to making such utterances. It's late, and he's picking off pet hates with the triumphant efficiency of Monty despatching the Hun. "That fucking milk advert with fucking Bob Geldof in it. I mean, what's the point of advertising milk? We've all got to drink it, unless you're some sort of diet freak. It's like advertising music! 'Music! Listen to it. Music is good for you!'"
He's picking them off like scabs. U2: "I do hate them. It's embarrassing to talk about it, really, but I do find them obscene.
The American Civil War: "That was supposed to be the war to free the blacks. But I tell you, in the South, at least the blacks and whites were on the same level and there was integration. Up in Boston, you had bastards like Kennedy, who was descended from Lincoln and all those shits who kept the blacks right under their thumb. That's where they really suffered, not in the South."
Even Viz comic. "Cancelled my subscription last week. It's all farts and rude words now, nothing like as inventive as when it started out. You know that bloke on the tee-shirt, the 'GnatWest Bank? He's the brother of a bloke that used to be in the band. I told him, he should get on to 'em, sue 'em. So they settled eventually by sending him a hundred tee-shirts and a life-time's subscription to Viz! Brilliant, eh? You've got to watch them Geordies, you know. Tight as fuck.
Mark E. Smith also, as it were, presents his compliments to Big Black, Chairman Mao, The Dream Academy, Sonic Youth, Julian Cope, and the Yorkshire Miners. I had originally toyed with the idea, instead of interviewing Mark E. Smith, of simply placing a can of vegetarian dog food in front of him and recording the ensuing 90-minute rant, intervening only to turn over the tape. But what's surprising about Mark E. Smith is that, scabrous as his invective looks in print, he actually delivers it in tones of affable bemusement, a wry smile even playing about his lips as he makes a particularly contentious remark, as if half-aware that this is his stock-in-trade. I expected to be showered with spittle and splinters from chips on his shoulders. But instead he persuades me with everything he says. What do I know ? Perhaps he's right. So he rubs people up the wrong way. So what ? They probably started it. Mark E. Smith, I'm persuaded, is maligned only by idiots.
BESIDES, he's a Northerner, and we Northerners know a thing or two. We know twice as much as Southerners, because they never come up here to Manchester, or Leeds, whereas, of course, we have to go down South -- like I did. Even so, my spurious affinity for Mark E's canny subtlety takes the manifestation of a flattening of my vowels, a coarsening of my spoken tones. I find myself saying things like, "I'm a post-post modernist, me!" or, "I'll have a large tequila and orange, me!". Mark indulges this flush of superiority on my part, with the patience of a saint. Why are we best, eh?
"It's that Leeds is an industrialised city, Manchester is, London isn't. I feel sorry for tourists when they come to London and look at the Beefeaters and think they're seeing England, I really do. Mind you, I still get shit in the mail from Yorkshire and Geordieland, like 'The North fights back!' and you play it, and it's shit," says Mark. Winningly!
Of course, The Fall have long since abandoned these themes, since piss-takes like "The North Will Rise Again". But they still seem to derive their lump-in-the-pillow energy from something surreal, incorrigible, arcane, that must have been abstracted from the North, though the themes are different.
And now it's "I Am Kurious, Oranj", soundtrack to the ballet with Michael Clark featured in Edinburgh earlier this year and premiered in Amsterdam. Musically, The Fall are hard again, brilliantly impenetrable and fresh as a new pair of lungs. Brix has found a voluptuous, consolidating role on guitar, Marcia Schofield throws in random keyboard contributions, as rough and appropriately inappropriate as Pere Ubu's. "Big New Prinz" is already lodged in my head like shrapnel. The "Overture" is really quite pretty, in a Byrds/Blue Oyster Cult manner, with Mark E. Smith scrunched up and hep-hepping like a deformed demon. On "Dog Is Life/Jerusalem", he rants in broken curses about our dumb chums, as if trying to scrape the shit off his shoe on the edge of the kerb, as he hops along, hopping mad. "Jerusalem" is an ironical inflation of This England of Heinz Beans, inside rights and poop scoops. "Win Fall C.D. 2080" is all crushed, citrus exoticism, with Mark providing the pip, and "Van Plague" is a model of white reggae dragged out from under the stairs. As usual, The Fall take things, uglify them and then, by insistence, beautify them.
YOU make the link up with the ballet troupe seem wonderfully appropriate by remaining oblivious to them on stage, not attempting fusion. This is chalk shoved against cheese, it works because it shouldn't work and because you don't work to make it work. It's more juxtaposing then posing.
"Yeah, well I wanted to keep that separation there. Some of these dance critics said we overshadowed the dancers because we were too loud, which I thought was horrible. Precisely what I didn't want it to be is like one of those David Bowie/David Byrne type choreographed ventures."
Part of "Oranj" involves a six-man wall of dancers, hands placed protectively on crotches, with Mark as referee doubtless insisting on 10 yards. "The football bit was good, actually. Them pics on the sleeve are taken in Holland and the Dutch extras we had were 10 times better than the London ones, they could actually play soccer. Michael knows less about soccer than anyone else I've ever met. Hence a good deal of patient explanation of the the meaning of the offside trap when he started goal-hanging on stage?
"I was supposed to be the referee in this bit and I said, I'll book somebody during 'Yes, O Yes' to create a bit of time on stage. So Michael had one of the dancers to trip up another of them and he said to the bloke that had fallen down, 'Right, now Mark's going to come up and book you.' So I said, 'Ang on, I'm not gonna book the person that's just been fouled', and he said, 'Oh, is that what happens?' He didn't have a clue! He also wanted to link up the whole orange thing with Celtic and Rangers which was quite brave of him. I suppose, but perhaps a bit foolhardy."
SINCE "When Saturday Comes", and soccer fanzines, there's been a blossoming of football consciousness that's very similar to the kind of consciousness one applies to post-punk, or whatever. What place has it got in your head, Mark?
"I like to be two years ahead, I thought I'd said all of it with 'Kicker'. I find football very boring, actually. I think football's a microcosm of the English system, it's like they say in 'When Saturday Comes', if our national team had been anywhere else in the world, they'd have been run into the sea by now, but you've still got people telling us, telling the Press to lay off Bobby Robson! It's incredible! I know blokes who used to be Old Trafford regulars who are giving away their season tickets, they begrudge them the wages. And yeah, a couple of them used to be worth it, but it's the fact that they can't even put away chances from a couple of yards, this England team. I could finish off some of them, and I stopped playing football when I was 14, after I broke a guy's leg.
Why William Of Orange? Is it just anti-IRA devil's advocacy? Or the same sort of curiosity for the arcane, where you dredge up opinions on subjects that other people simply never think about?
"Yeah, it is arcane and I am curious. To Scottish people and Dutch people, this is all very important. But history does get rewritten and important things are simply written out. There's a big gap in English history about the Orange period. It's like, another period you never hear about is Cromwell because, well, he did too good, didn't he? Even so, doing it in Edinburgh could have been a bit strong. He wanted to play IRA and UDA songs during the interval. I had to write the songs dead quick, like, so it's basically my idea of Protestants, and how people look at them. It's just the stimulus of doing it, making you think. If we'd sat down for three months with all the text books it would have turned out like fucking 'East Enders'."
But it's like everything else you say it's so completely off the agenda, so completely untainted by the prevailing prejudices and preoccupations of the day. Is that what attracts you?
"I'll talk about anything, me. It's all relevant. It wasn't me that stepped over that line, in my estimation, talking about things like world peace or whatever that they don't understand. It's like Paul Weller, he has no real grasp of world affairs so how dare he make records about politics and all that when he doesn't even know what happened 10 minutes ago. I mean, for Paul Weller, history started when the Mods started, so what does he know?"
You don't get that so much, now. Even people like Billy Bragg are getting pissed off with that kind of interview because they're the only ones left doing it. Even Billy Bragg is getting self-conscious and discouraged about it...
"Yeah, but they brought it on themselves. I mean, I like That Petrol Emotion and that, I really do, but I don't want to hear their half-arsed views on Ireland which they got from some politico in Camden Town. When I want to read politics, I buy New Statesman, it's as simple as that.
YOU never seem that anxious to be understood, and nobody ever seems to be that anxious to try to understand or interpret you. People just seem to fall in with the rustle and the trundle of the sound, or simply despair.
"We get the complaint about not understanding lyrics in Britain and America alone. We never get it on the Continent."
Well, they don't understand anything, do they? They're foreign!
"Yeah, but it's only since the late Seventies that there's this demand that everything should be crystal clear, it's never been that big a deal to me. One guy said that I sang the way I did because if anybody ever found out what I was really on about, it'd reveal all these disgusting secrets about myself.
"I remember at school, there'd be these paintings, with just a brown blob and a green blob and this sixth former said it was about the economy, the death of Jesus and the Third World, and, he'd obviously been thinking about all that before he started. I did something in art in the fourth year and sixth form kids would say, 'What does that mean?' and I'd say, 'Nowt.' And it'd be, 'How dare you do things like that?', and I'd say, 'Well, it looks better than your f'ing brown blob.' Turn of the century, all this started. No one had this attitude before 1900.
Did you develop your private language as on adolescent, something you never let out of your system?
"When I was at school, like, the teachers couldn't understand a word I said -- but that was because of my accent. And they used to laugh at me, and stand me up in front of the class and made me read something and made out that was exactly how not to speak. But I come top of the class two fucking years in English." People always seem to have it in for you, take pot shots at you, not necessarily because you've rubbed them up the wrong way personally, but to define themselves against you maybe, to out-Mark E. Smith you.
"Yeah, yeah, not so much in interviews they don't, but outside they do. I don't mind it. I wouldn't say I like it. I see some parodies of me that make me laugh. I like bad reviews as well, I always keep 'em, not just to keep a blacklist. About a year ago I got addicted to bad reviews as an interpretation."
But a lot of it's more personal, than critical. Youngbloods attempting to be surlier-than-thou, like it used to be with Lydon.
"I get that a lot, and I hate it. I mean, I get people come backstage, and I say, how you doing, and they come on all cool, like. I mean, they're so cool that they struggled to get all the way backstage after the gig! It's pathetic, really... a lot of it's to do with the way you look, and I don't mind, after a while, because it's a defence mechanism, it gives you your privacy and it keeps people wary of you. Because I can be a bastard, and I will say something. Like anybody comes and walks down my street and says 'Mark E. Smith', in that sarky way, I'll say, 'So what? Move out of this fucking street right now!.' Or I'll get people come up, whisper to me, You're fucking shit, you!' and run off. I think a lot of it's to do with this English idea of the artist as cut off from society which I think is bullshit. It's one of the things Morrissey still cultivates and it's about 100 years out of date. Britain's got to wake up to this soon."
YOU talk quite a lot about this nation, Britain, the regions, as if you have a total vision of things in those terms. Are you "concerned" about "Britain", in a way that most of us aren't any more?
"Well, I have to be, because I live here. But I'm no patriot, never have been. Still, we're the only country in the world that does have this thing about hating our own country. You never hear an American band launching into a rabid attack on the country, its President and all its citizens, unless it's some art school band. But even this attitude's out-dated now, this shame thing, because it's to do with when we had an Empire and we were supposed to be guilty. Well, we've lost the fucking empire now, so what does that matter? I don't mean that in a Tory, 'Too many knockers of Britain' way, of course .. ."
"See the Labour Party will never get back in because they mither on and pick at stupid fuckin' things that nobody basically cares about. And that's how they give this government power. It's like somebody said in an article last week, if the Labour Party swotted up on the facts of inflation they could grind this government right down in Parliament. But they don't, they fucking don't, you know. All they need do is buy a Home Office facts book, but they don't do their fucking research, man! That's all the Tories do. And they distort the facts. But the Labour Party don't come back at them and say, 'you're wrong, because they haven't looked up the facts. So they're not fit to govern.'
Because everyone secretly believes that nothing can really be done about dislodging Thatcherism, it sometimes seems like the "opposition" has degenerated into a vast form of intellectual recreation where "diversity of ideas" merely means lack of cohesiveness.
"Theoretically, the Labour Party should never have been out of power in this country. Should they not? Sixty per cent of the population. But they'd come round, ask me dad if they could count on his support and he'd say, 'When are you going to fix the hole in my roof?' Still, politics isn't that serious, that's what I like about it. That's why rock stars can talk about it here. Any other country, they'd be murdered by the Red Brigade, or whoever, for that shit.
Are you really protesting against anything? All that spittle ...
"I think once you point something out you're dead, aren't you? You're hidebound to it."
What's happening in pop music?
"S-Express are fucking brilliant, the same as Bomb The Bass, making records for L800 that don't sound like they were made for L800. I couldn't believe it, when the guy in S-Express told me he had all my records and he couldn't believe it when I told him I had all his records."
THE FALL are a dead arty group, I dare to surmise, hitting their instruments as opposed to playing them, pushing together sounds in a very objective very avant-garde manner.
"Yeah, I'm definitely into the avant-garde. I like Schoenberg. Stockhausen, too. Do you like them? Yeah. But I've always hated it when groups use it like a code. I think Eno's a lot to blame for that, although what he did was very good. I find I know less and less about instruments all the time. I have an ear that's not a muso's ear, that means I don't hear music like other members of the band. And that accounts for the high turnover of members in this band."
Do you run a tight ship? Are you really like Paul McCartney and Wings, a hiring and firing tyrant?
"Believe it or not, it's usually them that decide to go ... not me, them. But... I dunno, people seem to turn a bit funny when they get close to rock music, they sort of lose their senses. I'll have mates of mine who are normally totally solid and I'll ask'em to help us out for a day as roadies, and they go fucking delirious."
I was thinking about things like not allowing band members to be on the dole while they were in The Fall.
"I just think it's daft... I don't like all these groups that are YTS sponsored, or Enterprise Allowance ... it smacks of Government sponsorship."
I always get the impression that at some point in your life you must have been on your own for a protracted period of time to account for the way you are.
"Ha, ha! Well, I come from a big family, so .. ."
A lot of time upstairs?
Where did you get your values from? Did your social conscience dawn upon you while watching a documentary about whales when you were 15, or watching "Panorama"?
What, like seeing Kennedy shot and crying?"
"I always give a cheer when I see that. Values? Yeah, just all sorts-- not one thing, I just read loads after I left school. I learnt more after I left school. It's amazing how much you want to read a book when you're out of the education system. That's one bad thing, forcing people to read 'Jane Eyre' and irrelevant shit like that.
"I read a lot of history -- Edgar Allen Poe... Phillip K Dick, Raymond Chandler...there are certain things that are lust indelible ... when I hear The Groundhogs or Black Sabbath it still really turns me on."
INDELIBLE! Yes, that's what The Fall are. Indelible, never to be washed out, indigestible, the gristle on the side of the plate. Some groups started out from further left afield and have been flushed right through the system. The Fall have always been that far away. And they always will be. Mark E. Smith will always, always be with us. And so will we ...