Richard Cook, "The Big E"
SOUNDS, June 10, 1989, pp. 22-23.
ANOTHER YEAR, another Fall album. But 'Seminal Live' marks the end of a Fall era as Mark E Smith prepares for a fresh chapter.
The Fall move to a major label, at last with their new contract for Phonogram. The album about to leave the blocks is Smith's ragbag farewell to Beggars Banquet and, like many, it's a valediction -- part celebration, part clear-up. Smith looks worn out.
"Always the same, like. I work three weeks without stopping and then just collapse."
But he is in vigorous spirits. With 'Seminal Live' out of the way, he's already done half an album of music for Phonogram. Growth and development come next. The group's scabrous reputation, as a maggot in the rosy apple of the business, is almost a thing of the past. After all, The Fall get hits: they've stuck it out for a dozen years. 'Seminal Live' is a battered stamp album, a jumble of Fall postmarks from all territories. One side collects sundry studio clutter; the other is live racket.
Hearing them do 'Pay Your Rates' is nostalgic -- you can be nostalgic about anything, even The Fall -- but the way they assault the song makes you sit up. When Smith, Craig Scanlon and Steven Hanley hit their stride, you realise how The Fall have made themselves invincible.
Along with such embattled 'hits' as 'Victoria' and 'Cruiser's Creek,' Mark reserves space for his most oblique musings in 'Squid Law' and 'Mollusc In Tyrol'. Freely formed, anti-historical, his lines are grubbed out of literature, newspapers, TV babble, anywhere. Smithy would probably love immortality. His gentle, ancient face crinkles with delight when he mentions that there's an upcoming Smith-Fall biography written by one Brian Edge.
"It's all, like, Smith up against all the odds. Which is true, isn't it? A bit like reading The Bible."
But The Fall mythology is elusive, an ever-changing swirl, ideas eddying in and out of focus as time and circumstances change. He has chronicled the times without paying much attention to what's topical. That might be why so little Fall material has lost its power and relevance. They are a political band who obliterate the rhetoric of a group such as The Style Council.
Smith leaves Thatcher and Gorbachev out, in favour of his own cast of characters. 'Dead Beat Descendant', the opening salve on 'Seminal Live', is the latest offspring.
How have The Fall changed of late? The newer members, Brix Smith, Marcia Schofield and Simon Wolstonecroft, have been drilled by the group's particular discipline: like the Magic Band, The Fall are a sort of un-learning experience. You have to start over and scratch your way into this language. Still, it's more a skillful sound than before, and the way they played on 'I Am Kurious Oranj' is as close as they've ever come to conventional rock performance.
But Smith seems to find a trip mechanism every time the group reaches a routine excellence. 'Seminal Live' restores most of their bloody edges.
Mark always has a lot on his mind, and he's always busy. After a dozen years of Falldom, though, it's still a pleasure to talk to a man who speaks more sense than the rest of the Top 50 put together. So let's let him talk.
NOT LIKE The Fall, being on a label for four and a half years, is it? Pushing it a bit. I think everybody gets too familiar, y'know. I couldn't afford it, to be quite honest. I've got a six-man group. Beggars are alright for money, but not quite enough.
"The singles we were bringing out -- it was like, we were getting into the Guinness Book Of Records for singles going in at number 30 or something and then going straight out again. There are groups that spend six months trying to get that far. We were just flogging ourselves to death and not seeing anything for it.
"Last year we played like three times a week. I don't mind it, but...Y'know, 'Seminal Live' - we could've called it 'Half Dead'. Do you like 'Mollusc'? Thought you'd like that one. A bit atonal, like. Did that one in my front room.
"Yeah, I still like playing live. We just did Germany and a few others. Manchester. Later we're going to Brazil. I'm not into going abroad too much this year, but Brazil appeals to me. I like the writers they've got there. Very different attitude to the rest of South America.
"I met this South American lad who sends me crates of books from there, and it's all unreadable -- Carlos Castaneda and stuff, can't get into it at all.
"But the Brazilian stuff is brilliant, all their short story writers. Lots of hard-boiled one-liners and really brutal stuff. Totally different from guys sitting in deserts and all that shit.
"We're very popular there, too. 'Mr Pharmacist' was voted best foreign record or something! It's funny. In France and Italy we're nothing. In Spain lots of bands are big, but we're fuggin' nothing.
"The Eastern Bloc's getting a bit trendy now, isn't it? I talked to World Domination Enterprises and they've been to Russia three times! Politically, I think going to Czechoslovakia is as bad as going to South Africa, I don't care what anybody says.
"I like the time touring gives you. You get a day to drive between gigs or something, and you can use the time for writing or reading and nobody can get at you. The rest of it, I hate. I hate airports. I get pestered for interviews. The French say to you, Why are you such shit? The East Germans ask what percentage you get off from this, and why you're so working class and oppressed!
"I actually met Damo Suzuki last year in Bonn, y'know. He's so cool! He works for a Japanese computer firm. Doesn't believe in recording music any more, only live stuff, but he gave me this tape that was great. No, you wouldn't have thought he was still alive, would you?
"Yeah, we've had a lot of offers from other companies. We always did. We must have had about 25 offers from Arista. They must have been interested for the last ten years without doing anything. Then they send some 17-year-old brat down who says, Oh, send me a tape! And I think, Will I fuck send you a tape!
"A lot of these people wouldn't get jobs as window cleaners now. And that's an insult to window cleaners. They know fuckin' nowt, don't they:, But the A&R people at Phonogram are brilliant. Really on the ball. I thought they were very astute to take up Brix -- that's just been sitting there for years, hasn't it?"
WHAT'LL BE different'? Well, I'll get my cab fare paid for a start. They'll give us a bit more time. They said, Just do what you do with The Fall.
"I had this song that I wanted to do that's like Gershwin, y'know, a bit avant garde with the oboes and shit. I said to them, Well, the only person I know who can produce this is Craig Leon, who did Brix's stuff, and they said, OK, yeah.
"Then they said, What about doing some more stuff with Adrian Sherwood? So it's good. What's great is they're being enthusiastic about it. Most record companies, they just send you a tape with all the different producers who are cheap.
"Or it's like my manager, who comes to me and says, I've got a really good idea. I go, What? He says, Bob Ezrin. I say, Yes John, yes John. Well, he thought it was a bright idea. Would've been, ten years ago.
"There's still this trio of me, Craig and Steve that's still the basis of it. Drums and that affects the timings and makes it a bit tighter and stuff. For this thing with oboes I got this girl who used to play the oboe at school, and who's now playing with Martin Bramah in an experimental film band.
"It's better than getting one of those old codgers out of the pub. Last time I did that, getting a saxophonist in for 'Bremen Nacht', he nearly died. The riff was too fast for him. 'Hit The North' was the same. We had to machine it in the end.
"But I've worked my arse off to keep the lads on a retainer for the last six years. People say, If you're having financial problems, why don't you lend Steve out? Lend Steve out?! He is the fuggin' Fall! All those Manchester bands playing with each other, it's disgusting. Maybe jazzbos can get away with it. "I've just done this thing with Coldcut and I had to go to the lads and say, Look, it's totally different. I often get calls. Why don't you come and do an Acid House record with us? But there's no communication when you do that. You're in for half an hour and that's it.
"We were just at the studio where Donovan's doing his album, and the personnel is like the Rock Hall Of Fame. How much does each one get in, though ?
"You get new people in the band and they're fresh. I'm not embarrassed to explain my music to them. I'd never have liked to work with the kind of people Brix works with.
"They're nice lads, but...whatever you say about good musicians, there's something about them, y'know, that's just. .. I might say, I want this one to go, like, duh-duh-duh-duh. And they'll go, like -- Eh ?"
"MY BIG advantage is I've still got the layman's ear, y'know. I have no problems at all. Phonogram have got good people in the production area, very sympathetic
"I really enjoyed working with Coldcut. They don't use DXs or anything -- it's old synths, Woolworth's things that went out ten years ago, two decks and a computer. That's it. They're not sampling Led Zep and all that shit. It's something unique.
"We're not going out much this year. We'll space it out a bit more. Another thing with Phonogram is they can't believe how quick we are.
"I wanted to get cracking straight away after finishing the stuff for Beggars -- what's the point of laying the band off while they're hot? They'll only get grouchy and come hassling round for more work and more money. Then we can have a proper rest. "So we did six tracks in three weeks. They went -- What?! It must be shit! But they love it. When you get on big labels, you tend to spend months and months on vocals and stuff. Some people think that's good, but I don't.
"The old stuff still keeps coming back, yeah. The stuff on Step Forward (The Fall's first label), they just press it up every time we have a new record out. "You see a few more 'Dragnet's come out. I always buy one and the quality of the pressing just seems to get worse. It's a long time ago. Things from '78 seem a lot longer ago than stuff from 1980, to me. The '80s seem to be pretty standard. I own all the Rough Trade stuff, anyway.
"No, I've never planned very far ahead. Phonogram, y'know, I haven't even been in to see them yet. I've met the A&R guys, that's all. I suppose The Fall attitude was getting a bit, like, Oh, fugg it, we're alright, we can carry on as we are. To me, it's a luxury if we can sit down for a week. Not that I have yet!"
When he does have time, Smith is as likely to be in Edinburgh now as Manchester. After The Fall performed at the Festival there last year with dancer Michael Clark, he decided to stake out a retreat for himself, and he has a tiny lair somewhere in the city. Most of his house is full of tapes, he says, a history of The Fall on thousands of spools. Not that he spends much time listening to them.
Fishing around in the bookcase next to his chair, he pulls a copy of A George Steiner Reader off the shelf.
"He's good. Can I borrow this?"