David Stubbs, "Breaking Down The Walls Of Art Ache"

RAM (stands for Rock Australia Magazine?), January 25, 1989, p. 18


"I'll tell you something that really annoys me," announces Mark E. Smith, in the manner of one unaccustomed to making such utterances. "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 suffered, not in the South."

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.

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 Beanz, 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 or, stage, not attempting 'fusion'. This 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, hand placed protectively on crotches, with Mark as referee doubtless insisting on ten yards.

"The football bit was good, actually. Them pics on the sleeve are taken in Holland and the Dutch extras we had were ten 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 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 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 going to book the person that's just been fouled', and he said, 'Oh, is that what happens?' He didn't have a clue!"

What place has soccer 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, 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! It's incredible! I know blokes who used to be 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 16, 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. 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. We 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 EastEnders."

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'II 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 ten minutes ago. I mean, for Paul Weller, history started when the Mods started, so what does he know?"

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 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."

It's only since the late 70s that there's this demand that everything should be crystal clear, it's never been that big a deal to me.

"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 brown blob'. Turn of the century, all this started. No one had this attitude before 1900."

Did you develop your private language as an 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 came top of the class two fucking years in English."

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. 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. 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'1I have mates of mine who are normally totally solid and 1'II ask 'em to help us out for a day as readies, and they go fucking delirious."

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 something ?

"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 Jayne 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 just indelible...when l 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, indigestable, 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.