Andrew Harrison, "Strife In A Northern Town"

SELECT, date?? (late 1990?)


Sometimes seen as the elder statesman of the Manchester scene, MARK E SMITH has lost none of the toughness that made THE FALL one of the country's most important bands. With the current single, he's now searching for a hard metal sparseness to their music...

Never mind the Hacienda court wrangle and its supposedly disastrous potential consequences for Manchester PLC. The City Of Perpetual Indulgence is really in trouble if somebody firebombs number 23 New Mount Street.

Among other sad losses, it'd be goodbye to James and Inspiral Carpets (both of whom have offices in the building), farewell to Big Banana and Dosh clothes, and so long to the city's legal dance radio station Sunset FM.

Today, however, new tenants are moving in. Of all people, Cog Sinister -- the business arm and control centre of the uncanny phenomenon known as The Fall have elected to take offices in the heart of the New Manc Dream.

In a pub round the corner sits Mark E Smith, a fly in everybody's ointment at one time or another during the past decade. More recently he's been appointed unofficial and certainly unwilling chief pundit on the subject of the brave new Manchester that hath such wonders in it.

Well, at any rate, he seems unwilling. But that's one reason why even the people who hate Mark love him. Once he gets going, he just will not let it lie.

"No one seriously sees us as part of this New Manchester thing which is dead played out by now anyway," he drawls with heavy sarcasm in a voice that doesn't differ much from the one on the records, the one that spawns a thousand poor quality impersonations.

"We're in the middle of things, though. We're credited for what happens here by a lot of people, but we don't reap the rewards of it. And to a lot of other people we're held responsible for it, like it's our fault, heh heh heh!" He shakes his head in mock horror.

"That's why I like to keep it at arm's distance, y'know what I mean?"

He puts down his lager and leans forward, clearly getting into the mood that makes reporters prick up their ears. Two pints later, we've had the tale of how Mark left a gently chiding message on Tony Wilson's answerphone after the Factory boss had unwisely told a paper that Mark E Smith was over.

"Next thing is, i'm down the Dry bar (Factory's upmarket alehouse in the middle of town which I fuckin' hate but Si, the drummer, dragged us down there and Wilson appears going, You're fookin' dead! You're fookin' dead you are! My wife's very sensitive, you've upset her.

"I'd left him this message saying, Look, if you've got anything to say about me, say it to me face, know what I mean? So he did, ha ha! Can't really take the feller seriously though, can you? To everyone in the Granada area, he's just the guy that reads the news."

We've had Mark on indie bands and their remixes.

"The Soup Dragons? The Beloved? Ha ha ha! Two years ago they wanted to be Aztec Camera, now they're fuckin' dancing about. I've got no respect for all these new bands that just want to be Happy Mondays. It's like, have you no shame man ?"

We've had Mark exacting revenge on those long-gone purveyors of committed socialist pop from the early '80s.

"Terrible, wasn't it? There were warehouses full of the stuff. And it was patronising, I mean, I was brought up dirt poor, and I always found it pretty offensive to be told how to live by some guy who'd gone straight from school into a major record contract."

And now we have Mark on the hypocrisy of the Biz. "What I don't like about the music scene, about things like the Manchester business, is that they all make out they know what's going on when they really don't.

"If you say to me, Flowered Up, I'll ask, What are they like, are they any fuckin' good? I won't go, Oh yeah (nodding sagely). I'm not going to let on I know them when I don't."

They're a sort of sub-Stone Roses outfit, Mark.

"Yeah? Bloody hell!" He's incredulous. "I can't imagine a sub Roses band. They've been everything, The Stone Roses have goths, Bruce Springsteen...they're fuckin' hilarious. "But sub-Roses? Fuckin' hell."

At the turn of the year, it looked like 1990 was going to be very good indeed to The Fall. 1989 had been one disaster after another Mark's marriage to Fall writer/ guitarist Brix collapsed, she left the band to pursue her interests with The Adult Net and Nigel Kennedy, and The Fall left Beggar's Banquet with a largely useless half-live album ('Seminal Live') and a wealth of bad feeling.

But the new decade saw The Fall deliver 'Extricate', their sharpest, most concise album in donkey's years, under a new deal which puts out Cog Sinister through Phonogram.

'Telephone Thing', their collaboration with celebrated leftfield dance technicians Coldcut, caught everyone on the hop, made more than a dent in the charts and was bloody ace too. The consensus was, yes, The Fall were back on the case, back to their inexorable best.

Since then things have not gone smoothly. They've toured Australia, Japan and New Zealand, and Mark hated it.

He's also re-introduced one of the key elements -- besides literary terrorism, astonishing live performances and skew-whiff sleevenotes -- that made The Fall something unique in the British pop firmament: sacking people.

Early in August, much to the surprise of many Fall fans who thought that the band had at last something resembling a stable lineup, Smith fired keyboards player Marcia Schofield and guitarist Martin Bramah.

The statuesque Schofield, who injected an alien note of sophistication into the band's live shows and was the object of many a pubescent Fall fan's mucky fantasies, had been in The Fall since 'Bend Sinister' in 1986.

Bramah was an even older hand, a Fall founder member who left them in 1979 to form the Blue Orchids. He was on the verge of quitting music altogether when Smith drafted him back in last year as a replacement for Brix.

The reason for dishing out all these P45s? Believe it or not...musical differences.

"Martin was always a fill-in, really," Smith says dismissively, "and Marcia is a brilliant keyboards player, great image and all that. But I wanted to change the sound, make it even more sparse than it is already. I think the two of them were really out of sync with us, so I sent 'em home.

"But we've done that six-piece thing now," he smiles. "It's very de rigueur at the moment, samplers and everything, but we've already done it. I want to get back to a more fuckin' metal, fuckin' sparse sound."

You don't get much more fuckin metal, much more fuckin' sparse than The Fall's current single, 'White Lightning,' another addition to the band's portfolio of idiosyncratic covers.

Smith and the band take a moonshine-drinkin' song recorded variously by the Big Bopper and George Jones and give it a severe beating, clubbing the poor thing mercilessly until there's nothing left of it but two chords and an almighty rattle of noise. So is this a return to The Fall's roots as the original custodians of dodgy northern rockabilly?

"Very much so," Smith grins. "There's always been that white trash element in The Fall. OK, like, dance music is out now but in the end this is what the white northern thing is about. "What you've got to remember about The Fall is that I've always tried a bit of crap on the singles. If you're gonna do a single, you should do something topical, something catchy. LPs I look at like fuckin' four-act plays, y'know what I mean cock? But singles, they can be gone in three weeks."

Mark likes his ale and he likes pubs -- not so much in the Shane MacGowan kamikaze Jack Daniels-sodden road to oblivion mode, but more in the sense that the boozer seems like his natural environment. Sometimes it takes a little something to remind you that the guy on the stool opposite writes songs with titles like 'Gut Of The Quantifier,' 'Mollusc In Tyrol' and 'Mere Pseud Mag Ed'.

In this case the little something is Mark's cigarette box, 20 B&H with a single word written in capitals on the top: BOMBAST.

This is not Mark's preferred mood of interview, but a reminder to sort out the Fall song of the same name.

Nevertheless he has a reputation for not suffering anyone, never mind fools, gladly.

"Well, yeah, but you must remember that The Fall is the bane of my life as well as the best thing in it. I've always said that it's pretty important we should hang around, and I suppose I do disregard criticism. It's a failing in myself, like, I do recognise that.

"With group members I'm pretty didactic, I'm serious to the point of ruthlessness. I will send somebody home from Australia if I have to.

"You see, musicians are strange people to me, cock. They're absorbed in their own craft, d'y'know what I mean? And I've spent a lot of time with the band, with Craig (Scanlon), Steve (Hanley) and Si (Wolstencroft), making sure that it's what I want it to be.

"More often than not, though, we'll just record their stuff as it is. Some people in the band have become pissed off that they're seen as yes-men, but that's not the way that it is. The guys who've stayed with me realise that in fact The Fall is a very free environment. And it works for us.

"I mean, I don't want to be too arty-farty about it but the guitar is an infinite instrument, know what I mean? Why can't you have a dance beat produced by Adrian Sherwood, with a really fuckin horrible guitar over the top and have it recorded well too? I can't see why not."

Me neither.