Ian Gittins, "Funfair For The Common Man"
Melody Maker, March 3, 1990, pp. 14-15
IN A CHEAP INDIAN RESTAURANT IN LONDON'S BRICK LANE Mark Smith's eyes begin to glint. His bony figure leans forward and stiffens. From deep in his random, eager mind, he's just come up with another target to tear into. He's defending a few chips on the shoulder.
"I had to quit the flat in Edinburgh this week. It were pretty painful for me. I was nearly in tears and I went to this pub round the corner carrying all these plastic bags full of me clothes and stuff, and the fuckin' green-welly brigade were there, English, all about 19. They were shouting at the top of their voices and abusing the barman and they were totolly non-chippable, y'know no chips at all. As I went out I said to the barman, 'I apologise for my fellow countrymen' and he just fuckin' laughed and said, 'Don't worry, man!' But they just had no self-awareness, no idea of how they looked, how to fuckin' deport themselves. He leans back to savour the full malice of the next statement. "So some people must be brought up with no chips on their shoulders, and that makes them worse because then they just don't know that they're total DICK-HEADS!"
"EXTRICATE," the latest and nth Fall LP, is speckled with gleams of casual brilliance. It's The Fall polished now to a hard, gleaming, serrated edged, an uncompromising shine. Once again, things are never less than they seem. Smith's elliptic, oblique dream logic is as tilted as ever, as adeptly skewiff; he's still seeing the world through a prism sideways. Of all the recent Fall LP's, I've probably the least genuine idea what he's on about with this one. Maybe so has he.
The best Fall songs have always been an abtruse tantalising addictive puzzle, a jigsaw with the last piece safely hidden. This time round, the secrets are safe as ever. "Extricate" is more minimal, more raw than recent outings, Brix's soothing sunshine guitar now faded to the point where the Fall are back as if she never existed, never bundled into their cheery turmoil. Some call the The Fall dour; I've never been more aware of a cocky, confident sense of humour. Not that "Extricate" is trivial, mind. The Fall's sombre struggles still sound weighty. No band can sound as malicious as this crew when Smith has a cob on. But when, on the creamy "Bill Is Dead", he shuts the guitars up to flatly croon, "This is the greatest time of my life," you can even believe it. He sounds credible; all layers of obfuscation are banished for a second. The man who'd sooner die than be direct, looks us straight in the eye.
Yet this is a novelty. Otherwise it's still The Fall, with all their convolutions, imperious yibberish, slanted insight, violent meanderings and clever urgency. After The Fall, as John Wilde said, everyone else is missing the point. "Extricate" sees Smith still relishing his own sarky provocative wisdom and setting it to his uneven signature tune.
Of course, by now they're a critical embarrassment. It grates to have the whiny niggly unglamourous Fall still around and kicking. By rights, their hour has come and gone. But "Extricate" nullifies any charge of self parody. When I hear it, I don't hear redundant artrock, I hear cleverly marshalled chaos, dextrous disorder, a music so tight, it bursts at the seams. I hear skilled artists mounting new peaks and lumping at Smith's commanding barks. I hear messy mavericks who aren't lying down to die.
In short, I hear The Fall.
MARK E Smith is talking about his Press.
"No, I can't be objective about it. I've seen in reviews this LP is us back to form, and shit like that. The Q review was nonsense. It said tracks 1, 3, 5, 7, 8 and 9 aren't usual Fall, so it's back to the old thing again! The guy must be seriously mentally ill. Y'know? He's saying it's still the same old Fall except for eight tracks out of the fuckin' 10!
Do you laugh at critics tying themselves in knots over The Fall?
"It does seem to bollock 'em up. I like it actually. I always think it's a good sign. It does make me laugh. They get in quandries, get in serious depths and contradict each other, so we must be doing something right. I can laugh my head off. I'm thinking "Who let this guy out of the house?"
Do you think we shouldn't get serious about music?
"Well, I take my music dead seriously. "It's like a religion to me, I'm very serious about it. So I throw myself into that most of the time. I do listen to a lot of music but when somebody asks me what I think of the new fuckin' Stone Roses EP or the Lloyd Cole LP, I just go blank." The Fall are very funny, this time round. There's a lot of humour.
"Some people say that yeah. It keeps me going. I think a lot of people know what I'm on about really. If I can stimulate people that's all that matters. People say I'm the most cynical person ever, see, but I've got a good sense of humour. I can't fuckin prove it now but I am funny. I can reduce people to stitches if I want..."
HAVE you always had views, been as opinionated as you are?
"What surprises me in life is how little people have to say. The way I was brought up in Salford, people were always very forthright with their opinions. I remember when we first started The Fall, everyone I knew had something to say. Too much to say. Now, I dunno, people seem reluctant to say 'owt and 'owt. I go out with a lot of people and say, 'Oh, these biscuits are shit, the veggies are taking over again just for something to say and every goes "Hahahahaha' and looks at me! It reminds me of those books about Nazi Germany, where people are afraid to say things. I dunno maybe. I've been in the wrong circles! White trash. I've always had to tell people to shut up, shut their fuckin' gobs cos I dan t wanna know their opinion anymore.
Have you been happy lately?
"Yeah, I am cos this probably won't read very well but I've been fuckin' nerve-wracked the last 12 months. Personally, and in The Fall. I'm just glad the LP's come out, so I won't be in debt anymore for six months. And people like it and shit, so I'm quite pleased really cos I was getting pretty nervous about it. It's not the money thing for me. I just have doubts.
Can you tell how good an LP is?
"I feel a lot better this week now people like it. I like everything I do. I'm sure you like all you do. But December for instance, I didn't know anything that was going on with The Fall. I always live like that, I never plan The Fall ahead, see, but I have got 6 people to keep. I have to stand by me art. I've done that before and fallen on my fuckin' arse. I like everything we do, I'll stand by it, but it's different times nowadays, it's a wierd atmosphere. It's like you said about people not having any opinions. Like they're not allowed to.
Does what people think keep you awake at night?
"No man. If you stick to what you believe in. I think you're always alright, I can fuckin' live on a quid a week, me, and I have done. But sometimes I meet people and they're just gobshites really. I look at some l9-year-old-kid and think when I was their age I didn't have a penny and they're moaning they might lose their PR job or summat, or they've gotta pay their car insurance! I mean, what a fuckin' tragedy, y'know!
"When I was 19 my ambition was to be on the dole and not to get a job. My ambition was to get a flat on the dole and take drugs and avoid work at all costs! I still haven't got a car. People of 35 have cars as far as I'm concerned. And here's these 19-year-old kids going, 'Oh dear, I haven't got a car!' Fuckin' hell!"
He's off on an epic rant. I'm not about to stop him.
"My mom works in a post office and she tells me about these fuckin' people, all about 55, who are retiring and cashing in their insurance policies. She calls 'em the Greedies. Then they walk round telling people how to fuckin' live! There's no fuckin' employment for the kids ond these blokes walk round being f'in' twats, with their pensions know what I mean? They sit on their bleedin' horrible retired arses saying nobody wants a job. Well, why aren't they working, that's what I want to know ?"
There's a snort of derisive laughter.
"All credit to me mom, she says she never gets any trouble from illiterate Irishmen cashing their Giros or kids on the dole. It's always people 'bout 55 or 60 cashing in all these policies and shit. Don believe all this fuckin' pensioner shit about how fuckin hard up they are, it's fuckin' bollocks. They're fuckin crabby little swine, I'll tell you. They've got fuckin' gold rings all over their hands, and they're asking for fuckin' butter coupons cos they were brought up in a tight fuckin' economy. They'd never throw away a bit of milk they're just grabbing all the fuckin' time, then they go on about unemployment and that! They're not putting any money back in, I tell you.
Has something put you in a bad mood today, Mark?
"Well, you can't get on the fuckin' trains now for all the fuckin' twats, all the fuckin' pensioners going out for days out in fuckin' London. Or some stupid mother who's been encourage to get on the train with her fuckin' 8 kids which is what I had to put up with today! That really got me annoyed, screaming fuckin kids!"
IS there any angst still lurking in Mark E Smith or The Fall?
"That's what The Fall's all about, innit?"
Maybe not. This record sounds pretty happy to me.
He considers this one.
"I just think being on the ball is important really."
The Fall have never written a good love song, are they about to?
"I've always been pretty tight on that. This new LP's a bit revelatory, maybe; well, I don't think so but people say it is. But what I think my role in The Fall has always been whether people fuckin' buy it or not, is to fuckin' observe people and fuckin' comment on 'em. It might sound fuckin' simplistic but surely that should be the role of all lyric writers, and there's fuckin' none doing it. That's why Chuck Berry is good and Lloyd Cole is not. He never got on a fuckin' train, know what I mean?"
If you do comment, though, it's always obscure and muffled. The Fall never deliver A Message unambiguously, like U2.
His response is knee-jerk and wonderfully gratuitous.
"U2 are simple though, aren't they? I mean, I've said it before and I'll say it again, they're definitely simple. My window-cleaner's more to say than that cunt, let's face it."
Have you every felt apart, alienated? Smith switches back into overdrive.
"No. The artist, the fuckin' old bourgeois concept of the artist is dead: The white English middle class haven't grasped this, and it's important that they do. Cos I get on trains and buses, or I walk to the pub, and I get people saying, 'What are you doing here? Why aren't you in a night club? And I say, I'll go where I fuckin' like! I don't want to be in a nightclub I want a pint so piss off, all right! Sod off! It's important creatively cos most of these people who write about the world never even walk down the street. I mean, Johnny Marr! Fuckin' hell!
"I've always believed in talking to people. But with Brix it was getting - it contributed to our split, cos she believed all that shit myth about not going out. You shouldn't walk out and talk to people in the street. It seemed like showbiz fuck'n' crap to me!"
Well she is Californian.
"Yeah, he counters, "but Brix was very easy-going. British people are the worst actually. English rock people always think they shouldn't talk to people at bus-stops or to their next-door neighbour cos they're so weird and cool, and they're thinking all about fuckin' homosexualify and the fuckin' middle classes right? Well, I've always believed it to be far more important to be a man than to be an artist. I still do."
Do you feel insightful or are you the man in the street?
"I don't feel like the man in the street. But I know what he's thinking, and I want to monitor what he's thinking. It might not come across in the songs; it does a bit I think. But I want to monitor it. It baffles me, but I don't want to fuckin' ignore it. There's a big difference. A lot of my mates are insulted that people in groups tell them how to live, that U2 tell them how to live what political stance to take, what they're doing wrong, that they should worship Jesus everyday - it doesn't mean much to a fuckin' bus conductor, know what I mean? It might mean a lot to a student between 18 and 21 who's going to leave. It won't mean much to him when he's 23.
Have The Fall got a right to tell anybody anything?
We've got a right to stimulate people which is what all those fuckin' twats should be doing!" MARK E Smith tells me that the only thing he hates about seeing interviews with himself printed is that they always make him look like he swears like a madman. Unfortunately he does in fact swear like a surly docker, which, incidentally is exactly what he was when he first school. It's the only job he's ever done besides The Fall.
"Before I come down today y'know," he says, "I've listened to half a side of the new LP, cos I'd finally got a new cassette from the record company and I enjoyed it. I was excited by the bit where I couldn't tell how I'd written it. Do you ever look back at older stuff and think, "What was I on about?"
"I know what I'm on about. I just don't know how I came about writing what I'm on about. I know exactly what's going on. But it's just - GUTS, y'know I know what I'm saying, I know what it means and I remember singing it and everything, it's not like I'm mentally ill or owt! It's just where the roots of that creation came from ... sometimes, I can't quite spot it. That's the way I like to hear it.
Have you always had this extraordinary confidence?
"The last two or three years I've been so tired of taking shit off people that I've become very forward," he says flexing his fingers. "I never used to be. I was so sick of the band being shat on, getting walked over. I've always believed you ought to embrace everybody embrace your enemies but what's the [point?] y'know ? When I was 19, I wouldn't talk to anybody. Anybody who talked to me would get a whack in the face.
Are you paranoid Mark?
"Maybe a bit, yeah. I do stand up for myself. And I get to the point where I don't give a fuck."
You've never been insecure?
"Shy yeah I still am. We had an album launch party last week, and it was dead embarrassing. You had loads of forced conversations!"
"NO, I'm pretty lucky really, cos the way my image is is good. People don't mither me because they think I'll fuckin' snap their head which I do if they're fuckin' tossers!"
It's useful to intimidate people, I guess.
"Well people appreciate it if I speak to them civilly, y'know."
IS Mark Smith lazy? The spindly man in the curry house shakes his head wildly.
"No, I need to take it easy, I work too hard. Do I waste me spare time? No, not at all! I make good use of it. I drink, read and write. I'm a bit of a fuck'n' readoholic, I spose. I read anything, me. Only thing I don't read is newspapers. I dunno why. I mistrust them. The Daily Mail is full of shit, but at least they spell the words correct and at least they got sentences with more than three words. But it's funny, sometimes you pick it up ond YOU think it's the same one you bought a month before. You could probably trade it in for the same one and nobody would notice.
"I enjoy the free newspapers. I can remember when we did Mr Pharmacist, and I was really stuck for a fuckin' cover it had to tie in the next day. Then this fuckin' paper came through the door and it had 'FORMER MAYOR IN ZOMBIE DRUG CASE' the old mayor of Salford had been hypnotising patients and shit! Arid I thought, 'Yeah - a cover!'"
SMITH'S where he enjoys being now - down in the mess and pathos of evervday life, with words being hopelessly abused. It's just where his sense of the absurd can run free and find lyrical gems for The Fall. It seems the Manchester freesheets are a fertile hunting ground for students of comedy. "Yeah there was another one of this barber round our way with a customer and it said 'FIRST IN LAST OUT'. It turned out that this fuckin' old bloke, the barber, the last guy who's hair he'd cut before he shut down had also been his first ever customer. And there was this old guy's face with reams of fat and it looked like he was about to get his throat cut by this nutter leering behind him. It was a real horror story. That's what I love really. Then there was this old bloke who was waiting for a prescription by post and if he didn't get it inside three days he'd die! And it got lost in the Post Office ...
THE Fall seem invincible now. Does anything frighten Mark E Smith?
"Loads. It depends what the balance of your body is at the time. If you'd talked to me this time last week, I felt fuckin' shit. I get this fuckin' illness about once every two months, it's really appalling. The doctor said it's like fuckin' executive stress. He said, 'You've got MES'. And I said, 'I've not got MES, I am M.E.S.!'"
He throws his head back for a hearty, silent cackle.
"No it's true this. I go delirious for eight hours every two months. I puke me ring and I can't get out of bed and I'm in a state of anxiousness. I've been to a specialist and there's nowt wrong with me. I thought I was going mental, but it's just extreme tension. I just get frightened of going out the bedroom and every time I lie down it's like being in a helicopter. I only get it every two months. Otherwise, I'm a lot healthier than I was five years ago. I eat well and sleep well.
"Fear is relative to how much you're earning and what kind of threat you're under. When I was a teenager I was shit scared all the time y'know. Getting beaten up, stuff like that. I got to the point where I couldn't fuckin' stand it anymore. That's why I'm a writer, I think, all that catharsis. I'm 31 now and I feel a lot better. I've become a lot more fearless since I realised how much fuckin' energy I was putting into being nervous."
DOES The Fall stretch into the future forever now?
"I've had my diversions in the last couple of years, with plays and ballets and shit. This year it's nice to get back to the straight and narrow, get back to just being in a fuckin' group again! I stretched myself a bit too far, I think. But I enjoyed it. I can imagine this time next year', mind I'll be restless again. I've got a lot of plots in me head for things to do. I can't stand just being a group for more than a year-and-a-half.
So is your song right? Are these the best days of Mark Smith's life?
"I distinctly remember this time last year I felt totally shit, you know. Shit really shit. Probably the worst ever. And that was when I wrote that, actually. So you can never tell. When you're going through a shit time, any bit of joy you can grab seems like the best thing you can do."