Stuart Marconie, "The History Man Whose Head Expanded"
New Musical Express, Sept. 17 1988, pp. 48-49, 54.
I Am Curious, Orange is about the invasion of Britain, Bad King Billy, religious bigotry, Acid House and Big Macs! It is also a ballet! And it works... Stuart Maconie talks to maestro Mark E Smith about The Fall's role in the first speed-punk historical dance explosion while Paulo Hewitt profiles lord at the dance Michael Clark.
The Edinburgh fringe. Cantankerous cabbies hurling venomous insults at painted street thespians. ('Away, ya bleedin poof!') Genteel bohemian Debs from Richmond drunkenly harangued by grizzled barflies full to the gills with Heavy. And, of course, KULTURE. (Cue McInerny style New Journalism.)
You are sitting in a vast imposing Edwardian theatre. Every plush velvet seat has a bum on it. Beside you Kevin 'Mushy Peas' Cummins has dropped off. Onstage something totally wired is taking place. The enfant terrible of contemporary dance is jacking his body into a fever of elegant athleticism. Dwarfed by a two-storey backdrop of the House of Commons, The Fall (for it is they) stand impassive in the eye of the hurricane.
Brix is atop a grotesque outsize Big Mac, guitar slung thigh-high in a black parody of the 'rock chick'. The song is 'Bremen Nacht', a gorgeous authoritarian noise trashing everything in its path. In the aisle in front of me sit two mature blue rinsed lady patrons of the arts. Their eyes have glazed over, their fingers are jammed in their ears. This is the weird and frightening world of modern ballet.
"Can't dance, can't sing/ Cursed for ever is William Of Orange."
Cue Children's Brittanica:
"James II, who succeeded his brother Charles in 1685 did everything he could to make England a Catholic country. However the people did not worry unduly about this because James was not a young man and his daughter Mary, who would succeed him, was a staunch Protestant and was married to the Dutch leader William Of Orange, also a firm Protestant. Worries began, however, when James' second wife gave birth to a son who would be brought up a Catholic and eventually succeed James as king. In 1688, therefore, James was forced to flee from England and William and his wife, Mary, invited to take the English throne".
"History is bunk," said Henry Ford. Mark E Smith would not agree and neither would I. History is the way you talk, the beer you drink, the factories you work in and the team you support. In the streets where I grew up there were kids whose parents wouldn't let them wear anything coloured orange. I didn't know who 'King Billy' was, but I knew his name was dirt.
In the back bar of an Edinburgh pub I enquire of Mark Smith whether he has heard the story that James II was off his chump. He smiles patiently at me. History may be bunk but it can still get your head caved in.
As you might expect from something hatched by Mark Smith and Michael Clark (Baa Baa Black Sheeps!) I Am Curious, Orange is willful, mischievous and disrespectful to any number of sacred cows. Art, religion, contemporary life. All are simultaneously celebrated and debunked.
The dancing is full of vigour and spleen, the music (as ever) bitter, alien, mocking. If the idea of a 'Rock Ballet' turns your stomach (as it certainly should), if it conjures up rancid images of Rick Wakeman and Andrew Lloyd Webber then think again. There is nary a whiff of pretension or smugness. Ribald, accessible and vibrant with a hint of menace. Buy a ticket now. Better still ... storm Saddlers Wells!
The ballet itself is a wry celebration of the life and times of William Of Orange. Three hundred years ago, almost to the month, William took charge of England in a bloodless invasion, enjoying sizeable popular support.
I Am Curious, Orange does not take a strictly narrative or chronological approach. Instead it presents us with several discrete tableaux loosely hung around the historical theme. (Mark Smith himself admits that the links with history become progressively more tenuous in the second half.)
As the title (a pun on the Scandinavian hippy porn I Am Curious, Yellow) suggests, po-faced historians may be shocked. There's a choreographed Celtic/Rangers match, a wicked piss-take of the Acid House scene and the aforesaid Big Mac. Its six nights at the Edinburgh Festival sold out completely and was, as they say, rapturously received.
The night I saw it the audience were a fascinating mish-mash of well-bred culture vultures, solid Edinburgians and down-at-heel young Fall fans. And Royalists. The ballet begins with a rendition of the National Anthem.
In the aisles at least two members of the audience stood proudly to attention and were obviously miffed that others did not follow suit. What they didn't know was that for the first section of the show, the music alternates between the English and Dutch national anthems. If the prospect of airhead royalists frustratedly bobbing up and down sounds good to you, be there.
"I went to buy one of those little tape recorders the other day. So the guy in the shop shows me one but it was one of those that takes those micro-cassettes, y'know. So I said, 'That's no good to me, mate, 'cos if I'm travelling about I'm not going to be able to get hold of those little cassettes'. 'What do you mean?!' he says, dead adamant like, 'EVERY shop sells these, every shop!' So I said 'All right, I'll take it ... and you'd better give us ten of those tapes'. He says 'I haven't got any!' HA HA HA!"
The morning after the night before, in a dressing room in the bowels of the Kings Theatre, Mark Smith, hip priest, iconoclast, is chewing the fat. Having grown up with The Fall, it's impossible not to have a bundle of preconceptions about the man himself. What those pre-conceptions were is my business, but watching them go up in smoke made for an entertaining day.
"Bit grim in here, shall we go for a pint, or what?"
From the labour clubs of Salford to the rarefied dimes of the Edinburgh Festival, The Fall are undeniably one of the most important pop groups of the last ten years. From 'Bingo Masters Breakout' to ballet, however, seems faintly bizarre.
"Well, it's something that Clark's wanted to do for about a year. He has used stuff of ours in the past but dancing to tapes of The Fall. I was never too happy about that and it got us a lot of hassle from the MU. So this is a much better idea."
And why William Of Orange, Old Billy Of The Boyne, Paisley's pin-up?
"Well, I'd written a play about a pope so I'd thought I'd do something about the other lot. Ha! Nah, you see the Dutch were putting up money for the project so I said to Mike 'let's do something about William Of Orange then.' It's the tercentenary and all that and obviously it's a pretty major thing in Holland. Like they've had these festivities going on for six months over there.
But is King Billy a pet thing with you. Is there any political point to be made?
"Nah, not particularly. To tell you the truth, until I got into doing this it was a period that I knew sod all about. I'm pretty well up on the period before and after but, apart from the obvious stuff, I didn't know much about William Of Orange. So I guessed a lot of it, like. And it was weird 'cos a lot of it turned out to be true.
"Like he couldn't stand music apparently. Typical Dutch. Ha! When he came to court he got rid of all James' musicians. I didn't know this but I'd already written the thing about 'Can't dance, can't sing/Cursed forever is William Of Orange'.
So he isn't a personal hero of yours?
"No, but he was organised, he knew what he was doing. The fellow before him had been pretty disorganised. They had the right idea then. If the king was crap they got rid of him.
"Like nowadays, Charles for instance--he seems like a nice enough bloke but he wouldn't get to be king if I had anything to do with it. And Edward VIII, he'd been a crap king during the war.
"So you've got to admire William for knowing what he was doing. Plus I just think the idea is hilarious. This Dutch bloke walking into one of the greatest countries in the world and just taking it over."
For 11 years now The Fall have played havoc with convention, perverted the language of pop and generally mystified onlookers. They have been described as "analogous to a Steadman cartoon or a Lenny Bruce joke; sardonic jottings in the margins of mainstream life." It's an excellent description and I should know. I wrote it. But with the play Hey Luciani and now with Orange, is it possible that Mark Smith, doyen of pop sedition, is more interested in artistic concerns beyond the vinyl circus?
"Nah, I wouldn't want to make any big case for that. It's just a nice change. At the beginning of the year we played a lot of gigs, probably too many. So it's good to do something different. Like it's such an advantage playing in the same place every night. But I don't want to make any big deal out of it.
"I've talked to other bands and they say 'Oh, you're doing this ballet with Michael Clark. Great. We're working with an experimental dance troupe' and you think 'Oh aye'. What they really mean is they aren't flogging enough bloody records".
Presumably The Fall have come as something of a surprise to all those posh theatre folk?
"Oh yeah, but you just have to win them round. They're alright. To be honest half of them are more bloody sloppy and inefficient than 'rock people'. I'd love to see a film of the audience reaction too. Like apparently some of them have said 'Oh the dancing is wonderful but the music's a nightmare!' Ha ha!"
But you could be tempted to indulge in more 'theme' projects?
"Oh, definitely. I've had this idea for a series for ages. A bit like The Prisoner, about all these people under mind control. I've got about nine drafts of that somewhere! But there isn't another historical period that I'm particularly interested in offhand.
"I have to remember that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for history. When we did Hey Luciani in London some of your colleagues were apparently saying 'It was just like being at school'. I thought what's wrong with that; it's about time you learned something.
The 90 minutes of I Am Curious, Orange (45 minutes each way!) have already had some critics perplexed, "it doesn't make sense" being one oft-heard remark. Smith claims this is "water off a duck's back". Certainly anyone expecting a blow by blow, Children's Brittanica version of the events of 1688 is in for a bewildering hour and a half.
In the first half Clark and The Fall re-write history with a wayward blow torch. Aspects like the accession become manic, glittering set pieces groaning with detached humour. Elsewhere, Smith wrestles with the challenge of writing lyrics in the vernacular of the 17th century.
Later comes various striking interludes: the football match (Celtic V Rangers as seen by Cecil Beaton), the Acid House segment that opens Act Two (this year's fashion dalliance given a swift but almost loving kick in the tackle), and of course the finale, as Crackerjack used to say, a feverish excursion into new folk myth; MacDonalds, The House Of Commons, 'Rock Music'.
Okay, it leaves logic a long way behind but that isn't the point. Instead the images pile up almost randomly to create an ambience rather than a plot. Beginning, middle and end junkies would be better advised to stick to Enid Blyton.
"It is definitely a result of the way it was put together. Like it was constructed basically by correspondence. I wrote stuff while we were on tour, in dressing rooms, stuff like that. Then we'd send it to Michael from wherever we were, Chicago or whatever and he'd work out the dance parts. It's only been quite recently that we've got together and tried it all out.
"The running order is Mike's area by and large because that's important for the dancers. Like we couldn't have started with 'Bremen Nacht' for instance 'cos the dancers would have just been knackered straight away and wouldn't have been able to do the rest!
"I admit that the theme starts to fade a bit in the second half. Like there's a song 'Cab It Up' in there which was originally intended to be about William Of Orange living it up after he'd got to London. But it's turned into a song about Michael Clark and his mates, full of gross insults. They haven't realised that yet. Ha ha!"
How do you get on with the first post-punk ballet dancer?
"Michael's great. I like him. The thing is that a lot of what you might call theatre people are flappers, you need to hold their bloody hands all the time. They can't improvise or anything. But Michael will, he's not scared to muck about and take chances.
"Take the Acid House piss-take in the second half. He just put that together this week. And I like Leigh Bowery, he's great. Gets a lot of unfair stick. He's wasted in clothes actually. He could be the Charlie Drake of the 1990s!"
With the pub (and us) filling up nicely the conversation turns to all the usual stuff. The Broederbond, Fall imitators, Gerry Sadowitz. It occurs to me that we've been here for an hour and got through several pints with not a trace of a cross word. Why do people have you figured as an abrasive, Mancunian Sod?
"Because I suppose I can freak people out, particularly middle class socialists 'cos I have no truck with their values or education system. Like Red Wedge came to talk to me the other day giving me all this 'why are you anti-socialist?' and 'are you a fascist Satanist?'" It's just that I don't play their game. I like to be a kind of Devil's Advocate. Funnily enough though, I talked to The Morning Star who you would think would have it in for me and they were sound. Apparently they're into The Fall.
Having written a play and collaborated in a ballet, there will be those who see you as punk rock antichrist turned art dilettante. Does it not occur to you to abandon something as infantile as pop music and do something else? Write books, for instance.
"It's true that rock is f--ing years behind a tot of other so-called art forms. Like people have said 'rock music about William Of Orange?' F--ing weird if you ask me.' It's bollocks. Theatre and film have been doing this kind of stuff since the '50s. I've no desire to write a book. Although I might bloody have to if these brat-pack Americans carry on. It's garbage.
"Mclnerny, the Suzanne Vega of Literature. And it's like Private Eye said, Mclnerny has inspired a whole bloody style of new journalism beloved of The Face and NME. 'You walk across the room. You sit opposite Cliff Richard. He throws a punch at you. Ha!"
You leave the pub to go and have your picture taken with Michael Clark. Hours later you finally shake off 'Scoop' Maconie of the NME. Soon you will take your new ballet to Sadlers Wells to perplex more culture vultures. You are the human fly in the ointment, the History Man whose head expanded. You are Mark E Smith and I claim my ten pounds.