Simon Dudfield, "The Man In The High Castle"
NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS, October 17, 1988 (correct date?)
Once you've taken Chem-z you're delivered over. At least that's how dogmatic, devout, fanatical Anne Hamthorne would phrase it. Like sin, Barney Mayerson thought, it's the condition of Slavery. Like THE FALL. And the temptation is similar.' The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch'-Philip K. Dick.
The journalist sits impatiently by the phone; in three minutes it will be two o'clock and K will dial a Manchester number, and speak to a weird-looking and deviant-sounding, affluent, smug and often offensive married man who recently entered his thirties.
K checks his watch; in two minutes he will interview Mark E. Smith. A man responsible for creating the ultimate English band of all time.......The Fall, transforming, transporting and timeless. But Smith does not like journalists, or rather he enjoys provoking, flaunting his superiority, and them crushing them.
K, now, sits nervously by the telephone, biting away the nails from his fingers. K reassures himself, in his last-chance minute, that the ten years Smith has spent in the music industry has taken its toll. Recent interviews have become less embroiled and embittered than in the past. Maybe... just maybe the sickly machine has tethered him to a farmyard post and milked him until his tits ran dry. From now onwards K and countless others would carry on squeezing and fondling, kneeding and working, treasuring every precious drop even after the milk ceased to flow in quantity.
"I admit I've probably become middle-class."
Your losing touch with your roots then?
"No, not at all, I still live a street from where I was born. I think it's a pretentious thing to think about, to be conscious of it is bollocks!"
But maybe not.
Hello is Mark Smith there?
"Yes, who are you?"
K feels hideously small; answers and asks Smith if he would like to start.
Are you a satanist and a fascist?
"Yes I am."
Burning Catholics in the backyard?
"I wouldn't say so, no. I'd have to burn out my band for a start."
Neither K nor Smith are taking each other at all seriously.
Let's stop this.
"It's not a game y'know. Some things I actually believe in when I say them... some things I don't."
So you are a satanistic fascist?
"You could say that."
K and Smith both erupt into laughter.
A few days later Smith will tell a different story to the NME, but K doesn't realise that yet. When he does he decides this episode says more about Mark E. Smith than anything he can think of.
"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 come to me the other day giving me all this 'why ore you anti-socialist?' and 'are you a fascist satanist?'. "It's just I don't play their game. I like to be a kind of devil's advocate to."
The journalist, now, sits comfortably by the telephone. Succeeding in making Smith laugh, K begins to enjoy the interview. Smith after all is a man of words, a storyteller. A ten year old incident is fastidiously stored inside Smith's razor-sharp mind.
"We went down to see 'em, it was the first time I'd ever been to London. We went in and Tony and Julie were sniffing coke on the table and lying there necking y'know. We got talking and I could see very clearly that they were going to use this band, y'know, chew'em up, spit'em out. We were also turning down a lot of record companies at the time because of the way they wanted to push us. It was all about we had this song 'Hey Fascist', y'know. They were talking about bricking people over the head, things like that... so much garbage. I thought Parsons was alright, but Burchill was a hysterical women. She was going on about the working class, and I was trying to catch her out, saying what about these National Front skinheads that are working class. She's going... 'You fucking liberal... you fucking liberal.' It was crazy, we just got on the coach and went home."
Typical Smith, refusing the obvious, while nearly all others would have grabbed at the chance. Refusing the offer made by Parsons and Burchill to appear on the front cover of the NME under the headline of 'The band that stands against the National Front.' It's this, that attracts K to Smith, this repulsion of being confined to any one viewpoint on any particular subject. This refusal to have any die-hard opinions. But, and this is a very big but, it's also what deters K from taking Smith seriously, the almost psychologically deranged, belligerent refusal to wholly believe in anything. To put it bluntly, his negativity.
"I mean did you see the Minister of Sport? That's the most hilarious thing I've seen in my life. Probably knows less about soccer than me or you. You could see it in his face. I mean if you've been training three fucking generations to go over to fight, I don't know what all the fuss is if this generation goes over and fights. My fucking grandad did, his fucking great-grandad did, my fucking dad did, it's probably in the genes."
Why weren't you fighting in West Germany then?
"Cos I'm not fucking stupid."
But this negativity, when channelled into his music, has made for the Fall who, and perhaps this is the reason, have never once released a bland album, fuelled by rage and contempt, the Fall's records are always compelling, and often, far less than they are credited with, funny, in Smith's own dry way.
How often is your humour mis-interpreted?
"A lot of the time, yeh. I mean things come out very dry don't they? Like I remember one time I did a Melody Maker thing for Ethiopia. You read that and think... Oh my Christ. Also a lot of things I just say and I don't know why I say them, a lot like the way I write. Y'know you can't account for people's intelligence. "
The journalist realises that, if this is the way Smith writes, then all his conscious and subconscious mind, all his thoughts, must be right there on vinyl. A very embarrassing situation to be in. Perhaps this is why you'll never find a full lyric sheet on any Fall album. And although Smith may venomously deny it, you can never quite make out all the words
Is it cowardice, scared of close scrutiny?
"I think that's interesting. I just don't want people listening to the music and reading the lyrics at the same time. I think that stops you listening to it, I don't know why. It's just that everytime I bought a L.P, if I got the lyrics with it, I couldn't help reading the lyrics before I played the record. Y'know it sort of prejudices you before you listen to it, it's like going to look at a picture and people telling you how politically relevant it is, before you go look at it."
Are the lyrics always personal?
"No, I try, especially lately, to get a bit more objective in my work. One drawback of the Fall stuff, up top about a year ago, was my writing was losing its objectivity, so a lot of my songs were about my personal things or personal surreal things. Where I've always tried to sing a song from somebody else's viewpoint, I think that's interesting and a challenge to do."
Mark E. Smith as a rock 'n' roll anti-hero will last forever because he has intense faith in himself, as a writer and as an artist. The reason he has achieved so much with the Fall, is that he relies very little on the attention of others. He always has, and always will, do exactly what he pleases, when he pleases, purely to suit himself. It always pays off because he completely believes it will.
After the interview the journalist decides that Smith's success is based purely on this unnerving belief in his own talent. Belief is the key word. Whatever he does or says, he believes is right, no-one can tell him any different. But what K finds worrying about Smith is how much he cares about anything but the quality of each particular performance.