Andrew Collins, "Funky, Cold, Modern-ah"
New Musical Express, January 25, 1990, pp. 24-26
"I welcome 1990 with open arms!"
Thus speaks miserable old Mark E Smith, without a trace of irony in his voice. Well, as they say, pride comes after a fall, and 1989 was the worst year of Mark E Smith's entire life. It was also a markedly lean period for his band, The Fall. Brix Smith left them both, highlighting the curiously intertwined nature of man and group.
But, this was not the first time in The Fall's 12-year history that Mark had seen the back of a band member. Karl Burns, Una Baines, Marc Riley, Yvonne Pawlett, Martin Bramah, Mike Leigh, Paul Hanley, Simon Rogers - these are all names indelibly chipped into The Fall's 'Best We Forget' memorial - but none of them packed the tabloidesque soap opera punch of Mrs Smith's departure. (After all, she was a solo star in her own right with popular beat group The Adult Net...) It was tempting to view The Fall as something of a dead duck in '89, with the split from Beggars Banquet spawning the contractual obligation; 'Seminal Live', a half-hearted kiss-off with only three new songs on it. Its sneery title and apologetic 'L3.99' sticker lent the whole show a somewhat seedy air, and at the end of the year even John Peel's faithful listeners could only find one Fall song with which to furnish their Festive 50 ('Dead Beat Descendant' - a knee-jerk Number 38).
1989 also saw the death of Mark's dad, barely a twitch from his own Cog Sinister label, and his one noteworthy foray into print via his pantomine role in the NME's 'Unholy Trinity' play-off against fellow bastions, MacGowan and Cave. In comparison, Morrissey's was a vintage year.
From the outside, at least, 1989 was inglorious and messy; a chapter in dire need of a rewrite. So what better way to launch the new year than, smashed across its bows, a thoroughly exciting new single ('Telephone Thing') produced by the hippest hitmakers this side of SAW (Coldcut) on a brand new major label (Phonogram), and with an album to follow - knowingly entitled 'Extricate'. Yes, oh yes - it's disentangling time!
MARK SMITH and I meet up at London's arts centre, the South Bank. From the outside, at least, it's nothing to brag about - a vast, character-free architectural casualty which ironically contains more round-the-clock culture than any other riverbank I know.
"It's a shock to the system actually," mutters Mark, as we head for the sanity of the National Film Theatre bar, driven from the Festival Hall bar by the lunchtime Nigel Kennedy set. "I've never been here before. It looks like fucking Hulme!"
Ugly, stained concrete is the South Bank's visual 'theme'. Unlike The Fall, it has aged very, very badly indeed. On the whole, I'd rather be in Manchester, but then, perhaps The Fall's home patch has become just too fashionable for the moment; too many associations there.
"With this Manchester thing going on - as from January 1 we're from Salford! We're not from Manchester anymore."
You don't have anything against London then?
"No. I like the indigenous Londoners. I think their tolerance is amazing. Where are you from?"
"Oh, that's even bleedin' worse! Our road crew are always from Northampton. I always feel deeply sorry for people from Northampton. I like the soccer club as well - great. They actually won the other day, didn't they? They beat someone. I remember when I was about 20, I'd been a vegetarian for two years and this gig we did in Northampton was so chaotic I just went into a Wimpy bar and ate five burgers! Got really high on it. Hur hur hur. I always remember Northampton for that. It was like taking a line of methedrine. Great strip, Northampton, as well."
The best thing about coming from Northampton is that you don't get mapped up in any of this inflated, jingoistic patriotism.
"Well, it's all nonsense. The Fall have always been apart from any of that anyway. There was a Manchester scene in '78, a Manchester scene in 1981, and it doesn't concern us."
The Fall aren't usually branded a Manchester Band.
"For sure, yeah. S'good. I'm glad we're sort of overlooked in that way. To me it's been going on for about two years anyway. I think once it got into the media that's the problem."
Could you be talking about the NME Manc special by any chance?
"Yeah - well that's your problem! I thought it was ridiculous. But it's not just the NME. The Manchester Evening News has been doing a series, like, 'Manchester - Centre Of Pop' for months. But I live on the other side of town - I'm cool!"
FADS AND movements come and go, but The Fall remain one of life's great constants - for many, a guiding light, even a comfort - which might strike a non-subscriber as pretty odd, so coarse and unfriendly is the noise they make. It's more than just difficult, it is wrong, ill-fitting, obtuse and alienating. Not only that, their singer can't, and doesn't, sing, it all sounds the same, and you never get lyric sheets with their records. It's nothing so glib as not being able to pidgeonhole The Fall - every band in the world claims to elude classification. It's just that they refuse to bow down and become a known quantity. It is their defiant, beautiful eccentricity that keeps even the most ardent observer guessing, and the band's membership constantly ticking over. Such is the depth and insatiability of Smith's vision, every time The Fall loses a limb, another one grows in its place.
The surprise return of guitarist Martin Bramah is another sign that Mark E Smith's nucleus will continue to pulsate well into the '90s, steadily replenishing itself. Martin was a founder member of The Fall, who left at the other end of the last decade to form The Blue Orchids. He was all set to give up being in bands last year when he met up with Mark again, filled in for Brix, and is once again a permanent member.
"He has to be indoctrinated into the discipline of The Fall," warns Mark, sinisterly. Martin missed the train down today, and he still hasn't arrived. His days are obviously numbered.
"Nobody's got a secure job in The Fall. I never think I've done anything right. When I write, I try and perfect it, but I'm never proud of anything I've done, in a way. It sounds bollocks but that's the way I look at it. I still think I'm sloppy; I still think the band could be better. I've thought that for about nine years now. I don't like musicians and that's basically the way I am.
So in order to see the Fall equation through, you have to put up with certain aspects of it?
"Yeah, for sure. But that's the fun of it. It's like, masochistic in a way."
'Extricate' is an immediate Fall LP; cosmetically impressive, even on first spin, it grabs your lapels and itches your feet. Inevitably, as you gently open your ears to its host of subtexts, you'll find the specifics equally as satisfying. Mark's suffering was obviously worth it.
Three different producers - Coldcut, Adrian Sherwood and Craig Leon - but it is Coldcut's 'Telephone Thing' which really rings the changes for The Fall. The fact that it is boldly dance- oriented shouldn't really surprise anyone who's been following the story so far, but the collaborative aspect bodes well for The Fall's, er, autumn years to come. (Just as doing Kinks and Beatles covers presented The Fall as a band whose brief expanded, the year before last.)
Originally a tune given to fellow Northerner Lisa Stansfield; 'Telephone Thing' has now turned to solid Fall's gold, with its real-instrument treatment and characteristic E Smith bombast where Lisa's husky soul vocal once simmered atop state of-the-art computerware. Despite the temptation to regard this high-profile Coldcut marriage as a sexy career move, the first-class Fall song it has blossomed into stoutly defies such snide criticism. Indeed, Mark thinks he's done Coldcut a favour!
"Their 'Telephone Thing' was a misjustice to the tune. That single was a flop and it was rubbish. You see, they compose all their shit on machines, so I got the band to learn it, played naturally. So it's very different indeed."
"I hear that telephone thing/ Listening in."
'I just think it's topical - like all Fall singles. I think it's good to have a go at things like that - British Rail and British Telecom. It's a natural gripe. One time, I was using the phone a lot and I dialled a number and I could hear people munching sandwiches and talking about my last phone call. I actually rang up the operator and said 'Lookl I'm trying to dial a fucking number here and I can't get through because people are talking about my phone callsl Have you got a bleedin' license to do this?'
"Being staff, they get fed up, so what they do is tap into lines that they think are gonna be interesting. It doesn't bother me, I've got nothing to fucking hide! But I said 'Well, is it tapped or not? I can't fucking get through because of your bloody lot!' And she slammed the phone down on me!"
They're just doing their job, Mark.
"Of course they are. Great people."
And what about this very interesting line: "How dare you assume I want to Parlez-vous with you / Gretchen Franklin?"
Gretchen Franklin?! The woman who plays Ethel on Eastenders?
Mark buries his head under the table in what appears to be shame. He groans.
"I know! I know! I thought I'd made up that name. Coldcut and Craig Leon were going to me 'That's a great name to make up, Gretchen Franklin', it just came out of nowhere. And then I was watching Eastenders and ... it was terrible! Maybe she'll be flattered, you usually find people are flattered. I don't even watch fucking Eastenders. I hate it! It must've just lodged there somewhere, out of the blue. It's subliminal - I've nothing against her - I can't even remember what she looks like now.
She wears a tea cosy and carries a pug.
"OH NO! It's not the woman with the dog is it? It's not!"
Perhaps this just goes to prove, kids, that Mark E Smith lyrics don't always bear close examination. Mind you, trite, accidental and piss-taking as they may occasionally be, they're never dull. I could sit here all afternoon asking Mark what 'Gross Chapel' means, and what 'Couldn't Get Ahead' means, but I assume it must become a very tiresome question for the most oblique lyricist in Pop.
"It doesn't actually. I wish people would ask me more. I like the wide gap between that sort of study of it and just taking it basically as what it is. What I don't like is the middle ground like you get on TS Eliot, where it's, like, the end of that line rhymes with the first word of the next. That's bollocks. That's English Lit and it's crap. It's either study it or don't! You get my drift?"
Does Mark E Smith deliberately sit down at the typewriter to write?
"It's all scribble. I don't sit down to write anymore. I used to about five years ago. Not any more. To be quite honest with you, about November I think I had a writer's block, because I hadn't written for about a month or two. There were too many other things - like business things, shit like that, family things, money things - so I stopped writing and I was getting really worried about it. But it just comes to you.
"We're on telly in a week or two and they said 'Write down the lyrics of 'Telephone Thing' - and I'm, like, 'Fuck! I can't do it. I just got a pieces of paper out and wrote 'I hear you telephone thing/ Listening in / TIMES SIX' you know what I mean! It's a real drag to me. When I started out I used to type them all out and put them in registered envelopes for copyright and shit. Once you do that, you've quantified it and you make it unmoveable, which I don't like."
Have you ever tried your hand at painting?
"I used to draw a bit. I'm no good as a painter. I think painting's a hard thing, I can't get the hang of it at all."
So words are your sole outlet?
"I don't think of it as that. My attitude to life is to live. It's more important to be a man than an artist. I don't believe in the artist syndrome - I never have. I think I tap people's stimulus by saying what I think. I think I've got a talent for that."
But your views and observations - however spot on - do not take a recognisable form. It's not as accessible as if, say, you wrote a newspaper column.
"No, it's not meant to be."
So do you deliberately set out to cloak the meaning of your words?
"No, I wish my stuff could be clearer. The only thing I try to keep standard is a lot of info, a lot of stimulus. Whether it fucking communicates or not I don't give a fuck."
It should be noted here that at the beginning of this passage we were listening to Mark E Smith - in the middle of it he transformed into his alter ego, Ranting Bastard. If this character was ever a myth, time has made him flesh.
"I don't actually give a shit if people can hear it or not. People write to me and go cheeky things like, 'I'm a big fan of you (and you go, 'great great great'), I've got all your records ('yeah!'), and can I have the lyrics to these songs', and they list 15 songs! For me that would take about three weeks! It would! So I write back and say 'Look, I haven't got the fucking time, pal'. And then they write back and say 'I've destroyed all of your records!' Hahahahaha. 'You cunt. You don't love your fans'.
But you do love your fans.
"Yeah, I do, they're great. I get down on my knees about once a month and thank the Lord for our hardcore. These guys in Wakefield, miners and that, they've all grown up with wives and kids, and they've been with us since '78. They don't buy records anymore but they're still into The Fall. It means a lot to me. They read things in the NME like that thing I did with MacGowan and Cave and they write postcards saying 'Reel 'em in, Cock - The Lads in the Wakefield Pit'. It just makes your fucking day when you're depressed. It's not as if we get a lot of recognition. We don't particularty want it; I don't get any hassle and I like it that way - but it'd be nice if the lads were treated a bit more Pop Starry.
Are you ready for the converts that 'Telephone Thing' may bring?
"Well 'Victoria' was bought by young kids who'd never even heard of the bleedin' Fall. This is what I want. They thought it was genuinely good. People who don't like The Fall like some of the new stuff - they like 'Bill Is Dead' and shit. Is that a good or a bad thing? Hahahahahah."
It's good if people can't name that band in one.
"No it's not good. We'll have to rectify the situation. Hahahah. The next one'll be great. Hahaha. The next one'll be totally alienating!"
Would you agree that 'Hit The North' has been your least alienating single so far?
"Yeah, well funnily enough that alienated all The Fall fans - well, the fucking diehards, the last vestiges of the indie fucking idiots. Got rid of them! So I was glad of that. Just as 'Slates' got rid of the students. That's the way it goes."
An evolution process, survival of the ...
"No! Not survival of the fittest! The Manc-est! Survival of the Mancs!"
MARK SMITH, social visionary, tortured (piss) artist, hip (hop) priest end dictator, is one of life's great survivors. He is firmly at the centre of his wonderful and frightening world; those around him simply revolve. He often describes the rest of The Fall as "my lads" (Marcia Schofield, come on down!) - more of a father-figure than a tyrannical autocrat.
"Alright, Si? Alright, Martin? Alright, Luv?" The man constantly checks on the rest of our party's welfare - but from the safe distance of a separate table. Everyone knows their place.
He is still a top class petty rant merchant tout - it's tempting, as the pints sink in, just to fire subjects at Mark like a sideshow and enjoy his reflex backlash. Roll up! Roll up! Ten pence a rant! But there's more to Mark than his opinion on whales ("Bollocks! They'll all be dead in a year"), House Of Love ("Hilarious! A and E Minor!") or even the drummer out of Wet Wet Wet, his new labelmates ("The worst fucking drummer I have even seen in my lifel He is so fucking shit!"). Let's get down to the nitty gritty - age.
How old are you, Mark?
"Dead old. They're always printing my age in the NME. I'm getting to dislike it - a lot. I'm 31. And did anything 'happen' when you turned 30?
"Supposedly it's the best time of your life. Apparently, all authors write their best novels between 30 and 35. If you father a child at 34 it's gonna be a genius! I know I look a damn sight better now than I did at 22. 1 used to look a piece of shit, I used to look about 51! I'm that sort of person. I account it to my high meat diet and high alcohol consumption. Keeps you young. Liquids. Very important.
"The thing about The Fall is, we're always in touch. We used to get this from a lot of Manchester bands - 'The Fall are old hat' - but in fact, the average age of my band is younger than The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses. People forget that we started off as teenagers. The Smiths are older than us. Not that it fucking matters."
It annoys me when Tony Wilson - and I've told him about this - says Mark E Smith is old hat and the Happy Mondays are the greatest. I like the Happy Mondays but Tony Wilson is the poor man's Richard Branson if you ask me. And he's a lot older than we are! If you're gonna bring it up, I'm right there.
"The new Rolling Stones LP is fucking rubbish, unbearable. As will be The Who LP - just because they want to buy another river in Surrey. It's bad news 'cos it's closing down on other people. What I write about these twats is that they knock fucking Max Bygraves - who's a total sham - and they're doing the same thing. Max Bygraves was never in the army and he does all these war songs, best time of your life - the guy's a fucking phoney! And they're turning into the same shit!
"I didn't like that last Lou Reed LP - as loathe as I am to say it. Worst thing he's ever done. It was poor. The lyrics were too topical. Gonna date in five years. That 'New York' thing is Biz. It's like The Jesus And Mary Chain or something. It's Biz."
Aside from 'Telephone Thing', the track on 'Extricate' which stands out like a well finger among sore thumbs is 'Bill Is Dead', a heart-rending, smooth-coated, even cute ballad with the "finest time of my life " refrain. The comparison to Lou Reed has already been bandied about. To me, it's more like The Cocteau Twins.
"The song came out really quickly. Craig (Scanlon) wrote the tune. The 'finest time' shit is just a chorus really, if you get my drift." But the honest, unaffected, almost naked vocal style suggests some sort of real, personal depth. Is it tough to sing those words now?
"I can't sing that chorus so well. The chorus is very difficult. 'Bill Is Dead' is dead. I'm fed up. I would personally like the LP and single to come out this week and get it over with. I'm bursting with lyrics. I feel frustrated."
EPILOGUE: MARK the democrat has been continually suggesting I talk to Martin and Simon (Wolstencroft, drummer). A new year's resolution, perhaps, to break his monopoly? Forced Glasnost? Per E Stroika ? Whatever - it shows him up as either a very cruel scout leader or a big, fat hypocrite as when the conversation turns to a recent NME live review by Alastair McKay, Mark proceeds to mock Martin and Marcia for doing an interview without him.
"What's it like? I haven't seen it. So it was Martin and Marcia oh no! Embarrasso! I've got to see this! Marty and Marcia - oh yeah - DISASTER for the public image! Hahaha. Get me a copy quick Hahahaha. Hu-mil-i-a-tion! NME Backlist- Number One - the Scotch guy!
"Have you had enough yet?
How much more do you bleedin' want?"
He snatches my secret notebook and starts reading aloud from it: "'Crows feet. Being over 30. Finest times in my life. Actually we should rip this page out and put it on the back of the next record!
"More like Cocteau Twins? You cheeky swine!"