Steven Wells, "Andycapped From Birth"
NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS, August 25, 1990
Ladeez 'n gennamen ... take your seats for the main event ... In the blue corner; THE FALL's language-meister, world statesman, philosopher, wind-up merchant (and motormouth) MARK E SMITH. In the red; NMEs action man, tea-boy, truth-seeker, Witchfinder General (and turbotongue), STEVEN WELLS. No biting, gouging or accusations of Southern softiness ... may the best man whine ...
Mark E Smith--the Saddam Hussein of rock, the bastard's bastard - is back and barking mad with The Big Bopper's 'White Lightning'.
The semi-pissed up grubby stunted gob-shite flat cap Manc ferret runt sits next to me in the taxi and Ridleys about the Krauts.
"And one minute these two German hippies are going like hey man great dope, man -- and then they turn to me ... He grabs my T-shirt, sticks his mad staring face into mine and screams : "DO YOU REALISE THAT WITH OUR TECHNOLOGY AND OUR ECONOMIC STRENGTH WE NOW POSSESS THE POWER TO DOMINATE THE ENTIRE VORLD. .. Hey, yeah man, great dope...
Having that demented fizzog rammed into and spitting TB infected phlegm right down your gasping throat is not a wholly wonderful and spiritual experience. A certain record company employee still shakes, sweats, chugs Valium and chainsmokes narcotics as he tells of: THE NIGHT I SLEPT WITH MARK E SMITH!
"I woke up and there he was. His face on the pillow next to mine and I shouted - GET OUT OF MY BED YOU HORRIBLE BASTARD! - and he just opened one eye and said - 'Urgh! Have you got any vodka?'"
Mark E Smith bounds into the lobby. I introduce him to photographer, Harry. "We've met before, actually," says Harry. "Oh aye, cocker, when was that, like?" says Mark pleasantly, except I made the "cocker" up for the purposes of patronising regional colour. "It was backstage," says Harry. "I just popped me head round the corner and you said GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY FUCKING DRESSING ROOM!"
WE LIKE Mark because Mark is sharp and because his band have kept the flag flying for white trash music that is impolite and jagged and not... quite... right...through all the bitter years of conformist poodlefakery and indie incompetence.
Of all the bands that emerged from punk's arty-awkward squad -- Scritti Politti, Prag Vec, The Gang Of Four, The Pop Group etc -- only The Fall -- the proles-- have survived to make music that still seethes and bubbles and surprises. But at what price? Mark E Smith has armoured himself with contempt-- contempt for the crappy, plastic world he was born into, for the failings of his own class, chip-on-the shoulder derision for the middle classes.
"It's like these middle class American art bands -- 'Oh yeah, I loved The Fall's early albums but you've sold out now!' -- bastards! It's like a hobby to them, they know that if things go wrong then Daddy is going to bail them out. Everybody gels the same in my bloody outfit! I get paid the same as the roadie-- it's not like some bloody group and you see them in the paper lecturing about bloody politics and I know for a bloody fact that when the band get paid the fucking lead singer takes the fucking money and puts it in his own fucking bank account!"
Despite The Fall's twisting, turning and startling 12-year musical evolution, Mark E Smith remains a cross between Harry Cross, Albert Tatlock and the skinny kid in the playground with the grazed knees and knuckles. He is a semi-housetrained polecat whose peculiar and basically reactionary worldview has remained stubbornly unchanged by the lessons of the last decade and a bit-- like Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone, The Coal Strike, The Falklands, Duran Duran, Thatcher and SAW never happened. Mark has reinvented himself as Mark E Smith, the working class lad with two chip shops on each shoulder who is convinced of his brilliance, wisdom and uniqueness despite (or because of) his background in an education system that told him he was shit and prepared him for the role of under-achieving epsilon.
"I can remember me grand-dad telling me about Dunkirk. He was one of them Lancashire lads who almost starved to death during the depression. Their rifles didn't work, they were just bloody kids screaming for their mothers. I mean he bayonetted three Germans. He had to kill this big fucker with his hands and he was only about this big y'know? It was like family legend -- he had these SS daggers and an Iron Cross. He used to say it was a fucking disgrace, you know. A total cock up. A total fuck up."
Mark E Smith is arrogant and unchanging -- possible prerequisites for white trash touched by genius who intend to remain sane, angry and potent. If there is a basic subtext to The Fall it is BACK OFF! DON'T TOUCH ME! DON'T GET TOO CLOSE! and LEAVE ME ALONE! And that's a heavy price to pay.
Give Mark a microphone and a middle class journalist and he's like a sociopathic super-ferret armed with a cleaver, a fistful of fish-hooks and a signed copy of Norman Tebbit's History Of The Kings And Queens of England. And look at him go! Wreaking havoc in the squawking, squitting chicken-house of liberal prejudice. He comes our with the most outrageous statements. pissing, shitting, gobbing on and then setting fire to liberal lefty sacred cows before buttfucking the smoking cadavers with a broken-glass studded strap-on chainsaw dildo and bragging about it to his mates.
Remember the great NME debate between Shane Pogue, Nick Batcave and the Manc Mouth? Total massacre!
"I had to carry him into the toilet. I said - 'come on Shane,' you know, blood coming out of his nose and that. .."
This small, thinly limbed man- child actually managed to argue one of our greatest lyric writers into some sort of weird, semicatatonic trance!
"In Japan they were handing round photocopied translations of that article and this Japanese feller was saying -- Once Nick Cave was The Prince of Darkness! Not any more! You are the new Prince of Darkness!"
How does he get away with it? Well for a start he laughs at your jokes and he calls you "Steven" and he is utterly lovable and cuddly when he wants to be. And, like Ronald Reagan, he is capable of spewing forth the most diabolical crap ... but at the time you are too hypnotised by his homely alright-mateyness to notice. Honest!
I'll just rewind the tape here where he's talking about the Gulf crisis. ..
"I mean it's the equivalent of Mongolia invading Chelsea innit?"
But before your gob-battered brain can reach the sensible conclusion of -- Hang on a minute! No it isn't!-- he's already moved on. ..
"I mean it's not funny having raving bands of bloody savages with machine guns. Y'see, what most people don't seem to realise is that the Arabs are in their crusader phase, they're in their 12th Century and people can't fucking grasp that it doesn't matter what's right or wrong as long as it's somebody having a go at America and the whites, y'know what I mean?"
And the sheer audacity and sweep of this cockernee cabdriver rant is so startling that the ever-so-slightly dodgy use of the words "whites" and "savages" doesn't register until much later. So Mark E Smith gets away with it again -- same as he has done for years.
"I knew you'd come round to this!" he says. "You just come on to me like I'm a backup to the bloody establishment! You're a crazy fucker you!"
This outburst is delivered after Mark has given us the lowdown on the Strangeways riot.
"I mean, you've got multiple rapists in there and they're being treated like bloody heroes by these bloody 'Manchester' groups who are born and bred in bloody Cheshire. My Mam and my bloody sister live three fucking minutes walk from the prison and you've got all these Cheshire lads trying to act yobbish by saying how great it is!"
But -- I bleat -- what about an inhumane and overcrowded prison system? What about violence against prisoners from the screws, what about all the innocent people in prison -- The Maguire seven, the Birmingham six and Winston Silcott? What about all the people rotting on remand? (You know, all that caring, liberal, sensible stuff.)
"It doesn't mean that, like, people should be free to roam the streets. I mean it's alright if you're a famous 'Manchester' pop group and you live in bloody Cheshire. And as he talks Mark's frail frame fills out, his hair recedes, he grows a sandy moustache and I am suddenly staring straight into the ruddy and scowling face of Home Secretary Nosher Powell. NOSH! NOSH! NOSH! You know how Mark would sort out the Iraqis and the Kuwaitis? He'd say -- You, give him his country back! And you -- Smarten yourself up!
"It's like with that Boo Yaa lot who go on about how they used to go around doing murder and all that and it's like it's OK now because we've stopped doing it."
WHAT? And you figure that Mark can't really handle the concept of people changing. Or is it all just a game? Is Mark merely having fun once again treading on the NMEs pink and dainty liberal toes?
"Actually I think the NME's quite a sexist newspaper ..." AAAAAAGH! MARK E SMITH lN "RIGHT ON!" STATEMENT SHOCK! What? Mark E Smith the New Man?
"Haha! Definitely not!" Do you like women? (I'm thinking of the bitterness of 'Sing! Harpy' and 'Hilary').
"Yeah, well I get on the nerves of a lot of them, y'know, I argue with feminists a little bit, y'know. Women journalists don't like me either. I dunno, I seem to tap something in them that outrages them, I don't know why. I hardly ever do interviews with women y'know and when I do I never enjoy them, y'know, they're either trying to shag you or wind you up, y'know ..." Sorry? They try and shag you?
"Abroad. not in Britain. And if you don't go for it they get pretty ...y'know." Excuse me! They try and shag you ?
"Oh yeah! Especially in America. If you don't go for it you read the article and it's -- he's a bitter and frustrated civil servant type... the same old stuff about The Fall -- it's a racket and he doesn't dress well -- and all this and their idea of dresses well is Then Jerico you know what I mean?"
Are you surprised that women find you sexually attractive?
"Women don't really go for physical attraction -- it's what you're like..."
You mean they want to shag you because you're The Fall?
"That's what I don't like, y'know You feel cheap. It's very hard because a lot of them are raving fans, y'know? They expect you to be summat you're not ..."
Like what ?
"Sort of moody ... Yeah, well, I am but not in a professional capacity ... One of the most serious things was like when my dad died -- I fucking hated that. I blame James (Brown) a bit for that. It was a great review and that but you know if you go to Australia every review is a rewrite of the NME and you pick up a paper in New Zealand and it's like -- Mark Smith, 15 years in The Fall, his wife left him and his dad died last year.
"I mean fucking what, I did this talk show right and it's all 'Alright how are ya, sit down here. The Fall have got a new single out this week and we have got Mark Smith with us. You father died last year didn't he?' and I go like this."
Mark pulls his fist back as if to punch me in the face.
"And the cameraman grabs me from behind and he says 'Mark, I don't blame yer! I don't blame yer!' - and he does 'Ooh! Ah! I'd better rephrase that!' - and I said - What the fuck has that got to do with a new single coming out this fucking week, man?!"
You have been a naughty boy though, you've messed with the press loads, 13 years-worth of lies and wind-ups. What about the time you phoned up Danny Kelly to tell him that me and David Quantick were homosexual lovers?
"There's three of you now, isn't there? Didn't Roger Morton join yer?"
Do you feel comfortable around male homosexuals?
"Oh very much, yer!"
Do you ever worry about actually turning into Mark E Smith ... forever?
"I know what you're saying, urm, not really because I am like that. I don't get hassled in the street because there's always that element of fear..."
FEAR! MARK reckons that it's this fear of the reputation he has for a being a stroppy, obnoxious bastard that has kept the vultures at bay, that has enabled The Fall to avoid the trap of ending up as just "four blokes with guitars."
There's something peculiarly Manc about his arrogance -- he shares with Peter Hook the ability to express an outrageous opinion (we weren't wrong to refuse to explain our choice of the Nazi name Joy Division because in the mid to late 70 there was no threat from the National Front).
To have it completely and utterly refuted by sound facts and logic, total bollocks, The National Front was on the rise, displacing the Liberals as the 3rd biggest party in Britain, and still he's convinced he's won the argument.
There is no love lost between Mark E and Tony W. -- or maybe there exists a grudging rivalry between two of pop's most competent con men.
"I'm on Round Table right, and the bloke says I've just had a phone call from Tony Wilson, who said that if it hadn't been for The Fall there would have been no Happy Mondays -- I thought, Fuck Me! He's got nothing better to do than sit by the phone listening to Round Table."
<anecdote lost cos of photocopy quality - something about baggy kids from Wales begging for E's on the streets of Manc.>
So the Happy Mondays are the Mommas and the Poppas?
"Ahahaha! Yes Ahahaha! No they're more like 10cc. I mean if you look at Manchester groups through the ages they're all the same really ... apart from The Fall. They're always singing about sex aren't they? Even Joy Division were romantic. And there's this sharpness of style. I mean I always remember being shocked when I started the group and going to other cities and seeing how scruffy people were even though they had twice as much money as us ..."
Mark, when I first saw you in Leeds you were wearing a huge purple pear-drop collared frilly shirt, massive flares and a pair of platform boots.
"It were second hand shop weren't it! It was all I could afford. right? It was better than all that ripped Union Jack T-shirt stuff! I mean, I always used to think we looked pretty sharp, y'know? I mean people like The Face used to say, y'know, we're not having The Fall in because they've got no identifiable dress sense and you have a look in The Face and it's all these fucking idiots in cocktail lounges and all that middle class sorta shit...."
Have you paid your Poll Tax yet. Mark?
"What? Well I can tell you a really funny story actually ahahahahah! One of these lads I know was out of his head when the heat started and he came round -- he's a good mate of mine and he says we're going to a party and all this and I said alright and I'm changing my shirt and he pulls me down on the couch 'HAVE YOU PAID YOUR POLL TAX YET?' I got him off and pulled him down and got him like this in the face..."
Mark mimes elbowing someone in the face ...got his arm behind his back and threw him out in the street. Don't you ever come round my fucking house again! Next thing I know he kicks the fucking door down -- so I fucking grab him and he says 'HAVE YOU PAID YOUR POLL TAX YET?' I said I might have done, the same as my rates. When are we going out like?"
Mark hints that maybe he's a psychic modern Nostradamus ("Bombs Over Baghdad", "Terry Waite Sez") but he doesn't want to talk about it. Because he's afraid that will kill his talent dead. Maybe he'll do ECT, or give himself to God and emerge as a rational loving human being that didn't make you want to puke?
As we walk back to the taxi Mark tells me about his cats and about the woman who has just moved in door who's got these three dogs.
"I'm thinking of forming a dog squad!" he says, his finger trigger twitching.
But there'll be no canine carnage in Salford, not whilst Mark E Smith can get revenge on the entire, shitty, plastic world through his music ...